The Autobiography of Mark Twain, recently released, contains a reminiscence, dictated by the author, of a mass public meeting on the night of January 22, 1906, held as a fundraiser on behalf of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute on the occasion of its silver anniversary. According to old Mark’s figures, 3,000 people filled the hall, while 2,000 more stood outside on West 57th Street in inclement winter weather, hoping to find a way in. The occupants of the boxes made up a roster that appeared to include all the famosi, celebri, ricchi, illuminati, and glitterati of the late Gilded Age—and others. It would be difficult to say whether this was a “liberal” gathering. More than anything, it was a gathering of society people, loosely defined. Joseph A. Choate chaired the meeting. Booker Washington spoke, and so did Mr. Clemens, who delivered one of his humorous lectures, part of it denouncing tax dodgers. Mr. Choate began his address by noting that “the illiteracy of the negroes in the South has been wiped away more than half since the war. How has it been accomplished? Out of the means of the Southern States. They have done nobly.” Choate proceeded to claim that “The maintenance of the integrity of the races, which, with the approval of both races, has formed the basis of Southern civilization,” offers Negroes opportunities in education and the professions, of which they have been quick to avail themselves. Washington himself had this to say:
No two groups of people can live side by side where one is in ignorance and poverty without its condition affecting the other. The black man must be lifted or the white man will be injured in his moral and spiritual life. The degradation of the one will mean the degradation of the other.
The history of race relations in the United States over the subsequent 105 years invites a response marred by cynicism to Twain’s account of the Carnegie Hall event in all but the most idealistic reader. Liberals will reflect that the United States has failed in her promise and her duty toward the black race, conservatives that blacks since Booker Washington’s time have been irresponsible in failing to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded them by white society. Both sides would show themselves lacking in humanity should they somehow miss the frank nobility of spirit of Choate’s, Washington’s, and Twain’s public meeting. Booker Washington’s imagined society, in which white Americans would help black Americans integrate themselves to American civilization and black citizens would strive to accept what was incontestably the higher, and not just the dominant, culture as their own, was not so visionary, so downright unrealistic, as it appears today. Many factors and circumstances operating and arising since then have contributed to thwarting Washington’s “dream” (as his vulgar and less dignified successor, Martin Luther King, Jr., would have styled it). Of these, the most important were the mass culture that immediately replaced first the old popular culture and in time the high culture, in America after World War I, and the system of mass communications that transmitted it everywhere.
There is always a danger, in any composite society, that the lower culture will seduce and degrade the higher. The tendency is a natural and universal one, as the weak human character is tempted to find its lowest common denominator, and water seeks the lowest level. The civilized minority is always conscious of the fact that civilization is a thin and fragile crust barely containing the boiling lava beneath; and its attempts to seal up that crust by insisting on customs and manners through an appeal to religion and the exercise of the moral intellect are always derided and resented by the subversive barbarian majority opposing it. This was always the chief threat to enlightened plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for solving the race problem in America, but it was never an insurmountable one so long as the old American cultural, religious, and political establishment held its ground and insisted on maintaining—actually, imposing—its standard on the rest of society. The postwar era, beginning with the early 1920’s, fatally weakened that establishment, while infusing its enemies with a spirit of ironic skepticism that shortly devolved into nihilism and with a demonic strength that permitted it to extend its influence everywhere. Inevitably, nihilism offered a fatal opening downward toward the primitive, almost innocently savage culture that Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute had worked so hard to civilize, train up, and integrate with the developed culture lying athwart it. That opening, of course, was provided by black music, considered today the greatest glory of black American culture and the greatest contribution it has succeeded in making to American civilization.
At issue here is not the technical competence of black music and musicians, nor its relative sophistication, nor the beauty of that music, nor its power to move the listener, nor whether some or any of it qualifies as art. The question has instead to do with what that music represents in human terms, and with the cultural and moral influence it has exerted in the last century on people of every race, color, creed, and ethnicity, everywhere. It concerns the affinity it has with the mass culture that has so easily appropriated black music, made it both the gold standard and the lowest denominator of popular culture, and the electronic communications system that has spread that culture everywhere around the world.
“Ideas have consequences,” said Richard Weaver. So does music. It is possible that black American music is a representation of some musical Platonic ideal, whether its creators and consumers have ever considered the possibility or not. What is objectively and empirically certain is that this particular kind of music (I mean, of course, these particular kinds, for the genre is multifarious) is at bottom the musical expression of primitive (or basic) human urges unrestrained and unrefined, expression that is simultaneously an impulsion to action, equally uncontrolled and unrefined. This is why black American music has always appealed to the modern spirit of nihilism, “authenticity,” and personal gratification, to the point of making it its totem, its point of moral and aesthetic reference, and the medium in which it moves and has its being.
Black American music, before its mass commercialization, was at once innocent and knowing, primitive and sophisticated in a limited sort of way. It had no agenda beyond artistic integrity and invention, the pleasure derived by performer and listener alike, simple conviviality, and emotional escape, first from the onerous condition of slavery, later from the social inequalities and constraints of freedom in a white man’s world. It did not intend to subvert anything, though commercial success was of course welcome. But the white devotees of jazz, in America and in Europe, knew exactly what they were doing, and why. They were in rebellion; and they saw how jazz and the blues could be directed to revolutionary ends. The angry young men and women in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village in the interwar period saw it, and so did the habitués of the Parisian and German cabarets in the 20’s and 30’s. In the name of revolution they enjoyed—and exploited—the new black music for all it was worth.
And the social revolution succeeded, basically, through music—a musical revolution both in form and in effect. The racial component, as well as the moral, social, and political components, were always there, always recognized, always implicit, often explicit. White people (and later black ones) saw black music as the means to achieving a multicultural state of nature of the sort imagined by Rousseau that coexisted, however improbably, with the Marxist state.
So far as I know, the members of the Frankfurt School had no personal interest in jazz, blues, or any other form of the black man’s dishonestly appropriated and progressively commercialized—and politicized—music. But nobody did more to advance Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions” of the West by the encouragement of the revolutionary, barbaric, often simply decadent modes of thought, feeling, and behavior inspired by the new music of the Western masses than they did. Among the institutions marked for destruction were the churches, the family, marriage, the university, parliamentary politics, and many other previously valued and respected relics of the Old Order. The revolution proceeded apace until World War II, sat out the war period more or less, and came creeping back under cover of the supposedly conservative 50’s, which in fact were already experiencing and evincing the effects of the revolutionary poison, among them Elvis Presley. It exploded upon Western countries about the middle of the next decade, and since then the revolution has triumphed in every society, every ethnic and racial group, every social class, and at every level of intellectual activity. The result is that Western peoples since the 60’s have inhabited a post-Christian, postmoral, irreverent, irrational, irresponsible, destructive and self-destructive, self-indulgent, vulgar, stupid, hedonist, juvenile, and progressively infantile world, as the left gave way to the New Left, and the New Left to the multicultural movement.
Thus, the revolution destroyed the Old America to which Booker Washington, his Tuskegee Institute, and his white friends and allies wished to assimilate black Americans of the early 20th century. In doing so, it destroyed the old black American culture of Washington and his friends that sought to assimilate with the old white America, many of whose best elements wished to help that assimilation along. The vision that animated Carnegie Hall on that January night in 1906 was not defeated by Southern segregationists, nor by states’ rights advocates—nor was it borne forward and fulfilled by the civil-rights movement. Finally, it was not defeated, as might reasonably have been expected at the time, by a process of natural subversion of the higher culture by a lower one. It was wrecked by the deliberate exploitation of the primitive culture by revolutionary members of the civilized one for the purpose of undermining and bringing down the Western Christian world they despised, employing the most simple, and simply efficient, tool available to them at the time—a primitive, popular art form of the early 20th century, whose demonic properties were suspected by many of their contemporaries, but recognized most completely by themselves.