Blind Imitation

What do we do when we learn by imitation? What does it mean when the imitation crosses “racial” lines? I’m working on the history of music, and looking here at the career of Eddie Lang, who was perhaps the single most recorded person in the 1920s. I want to eventually compare Lang to John Powell, a Virginia composer who became a hard-core eugenicist. [1. I earlier posted these ideas online and asked for votes. Powell/Lang won by two votes. A colleague has just proposed we team-teach a course on “national and international in popular music.” So I’m going to start with Powell vs Lang, so maybe I’ll actually know something when we start teaching.]

I’m really not sure what I want to get at–I want to know about race, culture and music making, and how the practice of music relates to larger social norms about race. Most musicians go through a learning phase where they obsessively imitate someone else. They may eventually develop a distinct individual voice, or they might never stop copying the model that first inspired them.  Often this imitation crosses racial lines: in the process, does it undermine or reinforce them?

Eddie Lang, born Salvatore Massaro, was himself racially ambiguous in the 1920s: in 1924, under the Johnson Reed Act, Americans imposed strict quotas on the immigration of Italians and other “undesirables.”[2. This is a link to Wikepedia. I know some historians are mortified by the use of Wikipedia, but as the late Roy Rosenzweig pointed out, it’s an an extremely accurate and useful  source for many things–at least as usual as the typical survey text. See Rosenzweig, Roy, Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past. The Journal of American History 93.1 (2006): 8 Nov. 2010] You can have “multiculturalism” and still have segregation and bigotry: celebrations of “black culture” often involve the most egregious stereotypes.[3. See  Roger Hewitt, “Black Through White: Hoagy Carmichael and the cultural reproduction of racism,” in Popular Music (1983), 3: 33-50]

Eddie navigated racial and ethnic categories in ways that both preserved and undermined them. He made “race records” both anonymously and under the vaguely African American sounding name “Blind Willie Dunn.” He recorded with Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong when integrated bands were forbidden. But he profited from a musical industry which diced music into racial categories and which reserved the best paying jobs for white men. I want to understand how “race” operated in the early twentieth century culture business, and how that set the agenda for the way it operates today.

Eddie Lang was keenly aware of and invested in race–he had to be  to make a living. Born in South Philadelphia in 1902, he supposedly got the name  “Eddie Lang” from a local basketball player on the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team (the “Spahs,” part of a professional league that would eventually become the NBA). But I’ve been so far unable to find a player named “Eddie Lang” for the Spahs or anyone else.

1910 census, showing the Massaro family

As a musician making pop records, Lang had to negotiate the tradition of the minstrel show.

In the 1830s, white Americans began performing in blackface, thinly disguised as grotesque caricatures of various African American “types.” They would play banjos and tambourines, tell jokes and sing songs. The minstrel show quickly became the most popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. Virtually all well-known Stephen Foster songs were written for blackface: Dixie, which rebel soldiers marched off to their deaths singing, was written by a Yankee for the minstrel show. You just can’t make this stuff up.

Minstrel shows are a perfect example of what Ralph Ellison long ago observed about the US: that in popular culture, a deeply racist impulse mixed with a strong “creolizing” impulse, contempt and desire and attraction mingled.  The minstrel wants to be the thing he imitates; has to in fact carefully  study and emulate the object of his contempt. It’s too simple to see only racial bigotry in the minstrel show.

By the 1890s, black men also performed in blackface; forced both to enact degrading stereotypes and perhaps to subvert and mock them, like, say, Dave Chapelle. The image on the left is Bert Williams, one of the most popular performers of the early twentieth century, a dark skinned man in greasepaint. Minstrel shows mark a point where many possibilities collide.

Obviously the minstrel show was white people putting black people down. But that’s not all it was. One standard interpretation of “blacking up” says that it helped make ethnic immigrants into white Americans. If a white man wears blackface, the grease paint calls attention to the white skin beneath. It makes an Irishman or a Jew more white, not more black: for the audience, the message is “not black equals white.”

We see this overtly in the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolson escapes the limitations of his traditional Jewish father and becomes American by singing “jazz” in blackface. Jolson’s real life Jewish mother might have come from Georgia in Russia: on stage he sang in blackface about his imaginary “mammy” in the other Georgia, the one south of Dixie.

By this logic, performing blues helped Eddie Lang escape the Italian ghetto and become American. But “blacking up,” in 1920, had multiple meanings. Al Jolson performed in blackface but was a strong proponent of integration on Broadway. He re-imagined the pathos of the African American experience as a kind of universal longing, and thought he was thereby doing black Americans a favor. If “Blind Willie Dunn” was a blackface mask for Eddie Lang, “Eddie Lang” was  itself a kind of “whiteface” for Salvatore Massaro: the name on a label hid Salvatore’s ethnic background.

But not entirely. In the clip below you can hear the voices of Lang, the singer Ruth Etting; her husband, gangster Moe “the gimp” Snyder, and the composer Victor Young. They chat about Bing Crosby, and about Lang’s experience appearing in a movie. Etting asks Lang “got your makeup?” and Lang replies that he didn’t wear any, while Young quips “he’s dark enough as it is.”

Studio Chatter, 1932

We have to wonder if Lang’s “darkness” in that quip refers to skin color, or to ethnicity, or to his forays into African American music?

Musicians who worked with Lang spoke in glowing terms. Lonnie Johnson was a fine  and versatile guitarist who because of his skin color could only record blues or “race” music: in effect, Johnson had to play in a kind of  “blackface”  his entire career. He did a series of duets with Lang and recalled:

He was the nicest man I ever worked with. Eddie and I got together many a time at the old Okeh studios in New York, and we made many sides together with just two guitars….Eddie was a fine man. He never argued. He didn’t tell me what to do. He would ask me. Then, if everything was ok, we’d sit down and get to jiving. He could play guitar better than anyone I know….the sides I made with Eddie were my greatest experience.[3. Quoted in Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talking to Ya: the story of jazz as told by the men who made it (NY 1966) p. 271-272]

Here’s an excerpt from a recording the two men made in 1929, knowingly titled Two Tone Stomp.

Lang and Lonnie Johnson, Two Tone Stomp

Lang begins it, then Johnson comes in playing a twelve string guitar. Most accounts of Lang describe him as Johnson did: a good natured, easy going, respectful man, an extremely sensitive and effective accompanist, open minded and tolerant, which is what he sounds like here.

When he dubbed himself “Blind Willie Dunn,” and recorded tunes called Two Tone Stomp, Blue Blood Blues, or Jet Black Blues, he was clearly not being “blind” to race: quite the opposite: he was figuratively in blackface. In fact, the “Blind Willie Dunn” name appears to have fooled few people. Shortly after Lang died the English critic Spike Hughes recommended the duet recordings as “further explanation of the Italo-Negro act.” Did he mean “collaborations between Italian and “negro” musicians?”  Did he see this as genre? Or was Lang himself an “Italo-Negro?”

The name “Blind Willie Dunn” also suggests the audience, blind to who actually plays on a recording, listening blind to a record. “Race Records” came with labels that said “this music is by and for black people.” But as Lang’s career shows, the label blinded listeners to the ethnic or racial makeup of the actual musicians.[1. Mike Peters’ “” lists a few examples, the straight blues tunes Lang recorded, uncredited or as “Blind Willie Dunn,” with Victoria Spivey, “King” Oliver, Bessie Smith and others.] Calling himself “Blind” acknowledged the long list of blind blues musicians. But it also suggested both race blindness on Lang’s part and the audience’s inability to tell race from recordings. [4. Among this long list, Lang might have heard records by  Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Boy Fuller. It is certainly possible that Lang did not come up with the name–that someone at Okeh simply dreamed it up and wrote it in. Either way, the point is the same.]

It’s probably worth considering how recording took place in Lang’s day. In the early twenties, the musicians gathered around a large horn, which picked up the sound of their playing and as they played, incised vibrations into a wax platter.

Columbia Recording Studio, early 1920s. Notice the careful positioning of instruments to balance recording levels

The musicians balanced their sound by listening live: in some cases, for solos, they would step or lean forward, O Brother Where Art Thou style.  (The scene from O Brother Where Art Thou linked to underscores the role of blindness in listening. The engineer who records and releases the song is blind and does not know the band is racially mixed. The whole premise of that film is that the public likes music and does not care about race when it listens to music: it’s blind to race.) By the end of Lang’s life, recording took place via microphones, but typically only one or perhaps two. His recording with Johnson would have involved the two men just a few feet apart, listening closely to each other, caught in a spontaneous moment of interplay as equals.

A modern recording studio typically segregates musicians from each other,  in isolation rooms or behind baffles. Musicians may simply come in, record their specific parts, and never see the other musicians, who overdub their parts later. So it’s worth underscoring that in Lang’s day, recording was a dynamic group process, intensely so, with a great deal of intimacy and integration compared to modern recording.

Lang played on a famous session with Louis Armstrong. Knockin a Jug, known for Armstrong’s joyous trumpet, preserves one of the earliest integrated bands in recorded history. Ricky Riccardi describes the session beautifully. Supposedly, they recorded around a jug of whiskey which they all shared. Lang so admired Armstrong that according to the Chicago Defender, he and the Dorsey brothers threw a banquet in Armstrong’s honor, giving Louis a wrist watch engraved “to Louis Armstrong, the world’s greatest cornetist, from the musicians of New York.”[1. Dave Peyton, “The Musical Bunch,” in Chicago Defender July 1928 p. 7. See also Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (NY 2009) p. 140]

But genuine admiration for Armstrong didn’t change the facts of economic segregation. The New York City branch of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802, was virtually unique in being integrated (the AFM  overall strongly resisted integration into the 1950s). But even in New York, integration did not mean equality. Benny Carter recalled of the 1930s: “we felt the difference strongly. The ‘downtown’ white world was largely unavailable to us. It not only offered better pay for our sort of work but provided opportunities in shows…the difference was especially noticeable in radio, which was becoming increasingly important.”[1. Paul Douglas Lopes, The rise of a jazz art world (Cambridge 2002) p. 121]  Lang inhabited a bohemian world with other ethnic white musicians: he could be paid for passing as black: black musicians had no similar opportunities to pass for white.[1. See Patrick Burke, “Oasis of Swing: The Onyx Club, Jazz, and White Masculinity in the Early 1930s,” in American Music Vol. 24, No. 3 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 320-346]

And Lang played in other disguises than “Blind Willie Dunn:” he was one of the “Georgia Crackers” (including the Dorsey brothers and Gene Krupa) backing the white blackface singer Emmett Miller, who often began his songs with cornball jokes spoken in “black” dialect. (You can see film of Emmett Miller’s act here. It’s deeply repellent.) I assume for Eddie it was a gig: they paid him, he was a professional; he played his best and went home. But it’s hard to reconcile his playing on this:

Emmett Miller and His Georgia Crackers, Lovesick Blues

with what Lonnie Johnson wrote, or  Lang’s sensitive and effective playing behind Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong:

Bessie Smith, I’m Wild About that Thing

Music critic Nick Tosches  sees,Miller, obsessively and improbably, as the key figure at the birth of blues, country, and rock and roll. Hank Williams, for example, would later have a hit with Lovesick Blues: he clearly borrowed a great deal from Miller, but without the overt racial masquerade: Hank Williams rendered it present but invisible.

Hank Williams, Lovesick Blues

Tosches is contemptuous of academics who study minstrelsy because, he argues, show business itself is always about and has always been about disguise, imitation, hokum and “schtick.” The pleasures of show business are the pleasures of masquerade and pretend and other than normal life. Shoehorning the minstrel show into modern debates about race and racial equality misses the whole context of musicians needing to make a living, and audiences being in on the joke. And of course, Tosches argues, there was racism in American popular music. How could it be otherwise? A good part of the charge popular music has carried, since the minstrel show, is the “charge” of racial transgression. Hank Williams’ version was a hit because it bore the ghost of appropriated blackness: Salvatore Massaro’s double masquerade and Emmett Miller’s creepy minstrelism.[1. Tosches has his own tedious and irritating schtick, the need to establish himself as a “rock and roll wild man.” It gets tiresome and starts to look to obviously like a pose.]

Tosches is obviously partly right about this: show business isn’t a neat world of  fixed categories. Musicians mostly take the gigs that pay, and most have a keen sense of the difference between art and necessity and the relative costs of walking that line. At the same time, we ought to understand why minstrelsy was popular, and also have better grasp of the relationship between popular culture and racial attitudes, of what “minstrel acts” like Eddie Lang’s do: what that practice of music making, which demands imitation, cooperation, and appropriation, does to culture.

How was Eddie Lang different from Emmett Miller? Lang did not parody: he took his imitation seriously, he listened, he had empathy. Miller’s music came from blackface performance, from wearing the paint: his act demanded the visual. And Lang started from a different place. A dark skinned immigrant, ambiguously white, he didn’t mock, he accompanied.

Popular music appears as a vessel of integration only because it comes to us in segregated forms: the acts of apparent transgression are enabled by the structures they transgress. Hank Williams borrowed entire phrases from Emmet Miller, who himself presented them as an imitations of black people: modern listeners will hear Williams’ song as “country” mostly because of the steel guitar, which itself is borrowed directly from Hawaiian music, as improbable as that may seem. So you can read Williams’ record–pitched at ordinary white folks–as a sign of “colonial appropriation,” the double appropriation of African American and Hawaiian forms. Or you can read it as Ralph Ellison might, as a sign of the invisibility forced on black Americans. Or you can read it as a sign of how musical practice leads to “creolization.”

There are no uncontaminated positions here: in a racialized social and political context, all cultural products are made up out of that racism. Williams’ record, like Lang’s career, restates forms of white supremacy. But Eddie Lang’s work also suggest how musical practice, both in the sense of the struggle to learn though imitation, and in the sense of making cooperative music, undermines a social structure committed to racism. Eddie Lang helped Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey and Louis Armstrong make a living: he helped Lonnie Johnson play what he regarded as the best work of his career. He did it by a combination of careful imitation and contextual graciousness, minstrelsy in empathy.

In one of his recordings with the Georgia Crackers, Miller responds to Lang’s playing by saying “doggone Eddie, you is killing me.” And that’s in fact right–the kind of imitative creolization Lang practiced would help kill off the kind of grotesque minstrel parody Miller thrived on.

Emmett Miller, Take Your Tomorrows

So I end with praise for imitative craft, for the discipline of practice that create knowledge, practice of listening, and for blind imitation.

Update: I woke up at 2:30 am this morning and realized I’d grossly contradicted myself. I can’t argue against Nazi re-enactors blindly imitating their ideal and still praise an idea of “blind imitation.” There is some thing to the “blindness” issue and to the “not-seeing” of the musician s you hear on a record. But I haven’t figured out what it is yet.

I’ve started an open Zotero database on Eddie Lang. But there isn’t really much research to do–he died at 31 years old in 1933. A professional musician and  very thorough music historian, Mike Peters, has collected and is publishing nearly all the available primary sources on Lang at he plans to post more in December. Peter’s site includes many more examples of Lang’s playing. [1. Peters played professionally with Lang’s childhood friend and musical partner Joe Venuti. He co-wrote the very thorough and well-researched liner notes  to a box set of Lang/Venuti recordings issued by Mosaic Records (#213 Classic Columbia And OKeh Joe Venuti And Eddie Lang Sessions).] There’s  a biography of Lang in Italian: Eddie Lang: Stringin’ the Blues, by Adriano Mazzoletti. I have a copy but have not read it. About half of it is discography. Much of the rest consists of interviews with Lang’s descendants. I really need to read it but I don’t read Italian.


  • Please consider removing the phrase “John­son had to play in a kind of ‘black­face’ his entire career.” Really not okay. Beyond the pale, as it were.

    Also, you left out Jelly Mouth Williams:

  • Wow – great piece, Mike. You have a lot of strands coming together here in a productive way. I wonder about a couple of things. I’m pretty skeptical of the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou utopianism – I think you are right to suggest that the listening audience often can’t accurately assess the race of the performers. But I think that’s different from being “blind to race.” As you suggest elsewhere in the piece, what minstrelsy reveals is the pleasure that people take in transgressing racial lines in all kinds of ways. I think the audience for “race records” was “hearing” race, even if they could be tricked. In terms of the production of music, I think you’re right to suggest the intimacy that black and white musicians were able to establish with each other, although I think there are plenty of examples that push in the opposite direction. But friendship doesn’t obliterate race either: I always think of Elvis’s line about Jackie Wilson: “Boy, that colored boy can sing!” Admiration and careful racial distinction in one toss-off phrase.
    One other thought, and here I’m out on a limb. You focus on these 2 moments of racial transgression: Lang as Blind Willie Dunn and Lang in Emmet Miller’s Minstrel band. But what about the bulk of Lang’s output – the Venuti stuff, etc., Massaro playing as Lang? What I wonder is: does our knowledge about the African American roots of jazz make us simply assume that the music “read” as black? I agree with your take on Lang’s blues performance, but that performance is constructed in contrast with his jazz performance – which takes place, in part, in Paul Whiteman’s white band. What I’m trying to suggest is that jazz in the 20s wasn’t necessarily black music. I’m not sure Lang is pulling an Al Jolson here. When he’s playing with Whiteman or Venuti, he’s not blacking up, is he? Or maybe, it’s better to phrase this as a question: in what way is that performance referring to race?

  • Yeah, O Brother Where Art thou makes the utopian case and it’s silly, but I think they were interested, as film makers, in sound as a “blind” medium.

    That’s a great point about Lang playing as Lang. He had a instruction book out as Eddie Lang: he was pretty celebrated in music circles. And you are probably right that jazz wasn’t necessarily “coded” black for a lot of people, in the same way that for a lot of people, rock and roll wasn’t “coded” black, it was Elvis and Buddy Holly and then the Beatles. The black origins were there, but “invisible” to most white listeners.

  • Maybe this issue of invisibility – which you raise in the piece already – is the key. As Elijah Wald points out, it’s really hard to put the folklorist gaze aside (the Lomaxes, but also John Hammond) and hear this music as ordinary consumers might have. Elvis sounds black, I’m willing to believe, in 1954, but he probably doesn’t by 1956, right? Then, what? Do Americans just forget about black roots until the British rockers remind us – the Stones and Clapton, but also Ringo Starr asking where Lightnin’ Hopkins is.

    OK, sorry for free associating. I’ll stop now.

  • […] aporetic on Eddie Lang, minstrelsy, and appropriation versus support by white musicians in black genres. (via Gavin […]

  • […] to coun­try music. I’ve posted on this before: here’s a 1928 record­ing of Lovesick Blues by “Emmet Miller and his Geor­gia Crack­ers.” Miller was a black­face per­former famous for his “trick voice” and black­face […]

  • Joseph Ciolino wrote:

    Just came upon your interesting essay. As a student of minstrelsy and of American popular music of pre-WWI vintage I find much of what you say fascinating and I have learned much from you.

    But would I really be writing just to heap praise?

    Sadly, so many only write when something doesn’t sit well with us. (we should all take more time to communicate our admiration and thanks).

    That said, I must take serious exception to the following:

    “. . . that in pop­u­lar cul­ture, a deeply racist impulse mixed with a strong “cre­oliz­ing” impulse, con­tempt and desire and attrac­tion min­gled.”

    It is difficult to understand just how a statement like this can be made. Where is the evidence for contempt? Or that minstresly was “deeply” racist? These are concepts that are ENTIRELY driven by our own vision of what blackface means, how we react to it as people of the post Jim Crow era. We find it repulsive and offensive. There is, then, no other way of explaining it, other than pointing to an ugly, hateful side of those who employed it.

    This is far too simplistic and well, just wrong. Besides having no evidence for it, the evidence for the OPPOSITE is abundant.

    But this is not the forum for a dissertation. Let me only say that for the white man in the North the SOUTHERN black man was something of a myth, or at least, an “exotic,” which, I think, made it easier for black comedians to don the burnt cork, or later for Italian actors to play the immigrant stereotype, the Jew, the Irish, etc, etc. . . They were “familiar,” yet exotic. They were very, very attractive, but because it is in a humorous setting, then, well, we must say, “Harumph!” in very self-righteous, superior tones, and dismiss it as “racist.”


    The first Minstrel “band,” the Virginia Minstrels, had the genius to present what it perceived as music of the Southern black and “blacked up” to enhance the experience. Imitation? Yes. Racist? Only that race is involved. Is everything where race is involved, “racist,” and therefore worthy of derision??? Of course not! Particularly if it occurred over a century ago. Reading typical minstrel scripts, which still exist, are offensive to us, (perhaps, but not always) and are just funny.

    A sense of humor is what has been lost since the “revolution” of “relevance,” and “social awareness,” of the 1960’s. We’ve never recovered it, and it prevents us from standing in judgement of those who came before. One need only look at the tragedy of what was done to Tim Moore, the great and brilliant comedic actor with years of stage experience, of the “Amos n’ Andy” TV series, to observe the cruel damage of truly bigoted thinking.

    Thank you!!!

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