Popular Music as Pragmatism: Notes on Cornel West, Clyde Woods, and Listening to Intellectual History
by Kurt Newman
This post was spurred on by a colleague’s request for some recommendations of songs to play for students in a twentieth century US history class. I hastily assembled an archive about 437 Youtube clips, and sent her the links.
Then I began to feel guilty. Many of the examples I had sent were not self-explanatory. Perhaps I had not done my friend a favor at all. So I offered to write up some annotations, and that became the germinal idea for this post.
Rather than proceed with such a pedagogical guide—which I might try to assemble over the summer, giving it the time and care it deserves––I am instead going to focus here on one particular question occasioned by this exchange and attempt to provide an answer.
The question is this: is there anything that the discipline of intellectual history, specifically, brings to the table when thinking about how to incorporate popular music into a class on the twentieth century? My answer is yes, there certainly is. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the methods and emphases of intellectual history are the best way to understand, and thus to teach, what was at work and at stake in the extraordinarily important practices that emerged around non-elite music in the twentieth century.
To support this claim, I am offering an organizing thesis: popular music is a form of pragmatism. I would argue, in fact, that it is the preeminent form of twentieth-century pragmatist thought. But the defense of that claim must wait for another time. Here, I simply want to argue that if one takes what one knows about pragmatism as a US intellectual tradition, and opens one’s ears to American popular music as a form of it, one immediately begins to discern the particular functionality and effectivity of forms like blues, bebop, bluegrass, and hip-hop.
In this short essay, I will attend briefly to the profound contributions of Cornel West and Clyde Woods vis-à-vis, respectively, the pragmatist tradition and the epistemological consequences of the blues. It is via a synthesis of West and Woods, along with George Lipsitz, Tricia Rose, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Robin D.G. Kelley, John Szwed, George Lewis, and James Livingston, that I came to think of popular music as a species of pragmatism. I know that this is a heterodox claim; I am not asking, nor expecting, that readers will want to come all the way with me. But I think that should the arguments presented here be taken seriously, they will prove useful.
Cornel West and Pragmatism
Written amid the resurgence in pragmatist thought in the US (most visible in the careers of Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam), Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989) situates itself as an immanent critique of American neo-pragmatism from the position of a hybrid African American radical/liberation theological Christian/Marxist sensibility. “The distinctive appeal of American pragmatism in our postmodern moment,” West writes, “is its unashamedly moral emphasis and its unequivocally ameliorative impulse.” In a moment of “pervasive cynicisms, nihilisms, terrorisms, and possible extermination, there is a longing for norms and values that can make a difference.” The return to pragmatism, for West, represents not just a grasping for a form of thought appropriate to the incipient emergency—it is also a return to a domestic heritage, a wager that the antidote to the poison may be found in the source of the bite.
West is not concerned, in The American Evasion of Philosophy, with making the case for African American music as a form of pragmatism. But it is in this work, I think, that West adumbrates his later theorization of blues as “the elegant coping with catastrophe that yields a grace and dignity so that the spirit of resistance is never completely snuffed out”—the positioning, that is, of the blues as a kind of radical pragmatism. It is the arguments of The American Evasion of Philosophy that prepare West to commend the arrival of hip-hop in the late 1970s, with its feverish work of retroaction upon the history of recorded music, as the arrival of a demotic pragmatism: a continuum, “a continuous flow between one generation and another,” a simultaneous looking backwards and forward.
Pragmatism’s common denominator, West writes, is a “future-oriented instrumentalism that tries to deploy thought as a weapon to enable more effective action.” On these terms, there is no reason why music should not be as amenable to pragmatist impulses as philosophical mediation. The “basic impulse” of pragmatism is a “plebeian radicalism” fuelling an “antipatrician rebelliousness for the moral aim of enriching individuals and expanding democracy.” This rebelliousness, however, continuously encounters limits erected by history itself: “an ethnocentrism and a patriotism cognizant of the exclusion of people of color, certain immigrants, and women yet fearful of the subversive demands these excluded peoples might make and enact.” There are no guarantees, then, that pragmatist thought will yield the kind of politics we want. In the absence of a certain kind of collective desire, pragmatism’s formal innovations will not save us. Pragmatism is not, as it is so often characterized, a cult of American know-how, and it is not another name for gradualist reform and reveries of participatory cooperation rooted in screen memories of old New England. It is a “future-oriented instrumentalism” premised on the belief that we might be happier in the future than we were in the past, that we might chose desire over security, and that our cynicism is premature because “the half has never been told.”
To be a pragmatist, West insists, is to take on a “deep intellectual vocation” in a moment of crisis. It is to be an “organic intellectual” who revels in ideas, and relates those ideals to action “by means of creating, constituting, or consolidating constituencies for moral aims and political purposes.” And it is to “grapple with the problem of evil,” improvising upon and continuously amending an “American theodicy.”
For those looking for intellectual supports for an argument that American popular music is a site of pragmatist conceptual innovation, The American Evasion of Philosophy provides endless material. To think with West about pragmatism’s organic intellectuals in relation to a Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Lester Young, Hank Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Morbid Angel, or DJ Screw is to wrench one’s head out of the sociological trap that encourages us to see cultural producers as, at best, victims who “respond” to or “reflect” historical traumas without really knowing what they are doing. It is to acknowledge that to do the work of such musicians is always also to call a new community into being.
It is to recognize that, as “pragmatists,” musicians such as these (and thousands of others, and the millions who listen to them) arrive via what Alain Badiou calls an “event”—an unpredictable irruption within a certain repetitive cultural equilibrium that seems impossible when it first announces itself, and then is retroactively resituated as historically necessary and inevitable. Nobody asked for the artists listed above to emerge, as they did, in all their eccentricity and noisiness. Many asked them to go away, tried to have their cabaret cards revoked, subjected them to McCarthyite harassment, tried them for obscenity, suggested they were destroying the minds of youths or suiciding their communities, compared them to barnyard animals or stole their innovations, smoothed out the edges, and made a lot of money. These facts are not disputable. They provide also, an additional warrant for regarding musicians such as these as pragmatists, as, with greater or lesser success, their response to official censure or ascriptions of dangerous motives was to keep going, keep pushing, to see where things would go.
History’s production schedule, prior to the arrival of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Lester Young, Hank Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Morbid Angel, or DJ Screw was filled up with light waltzes and novelty songs, patriotic and sentimental crooners and Broadway cast recordings, boy bands and chewing-gum jingles. I do not mean to denigrate these forms—condescension is always ugly. For those who love the music that Clive Davis wants us to hear, I have no doubt that the aesthetic experience is meaningful. My point is not primarily about taste—it is about the conditions under which genuine novelty is produced within the interstices of the capitalist culture industries. To make sense of that question, we need to recall what it is that the recording industry, left to its own devices and cognizant of certain ideological imperatives vis-à-vis the suppression of radical plebeian desires, would bring to market (and, in part because of the triumph of a certain explosion of corporate self-confidence during the Clinton and Bush years, this is what it has brought to market, which might explain why the recording industry looks to be on the verge of dying, as it has appeared many times before: notably, the late 1970s, the late 1950s, and the late 1920s). These artists, as pragmatists, did not arrive “on time”—they were not supposed to arrive at all.
Clyde Woods and “The Blues Tradition of Explanation”
Moving from Cornel West to Clyde Woods requires a moment’s pause: Woods, a brilliant scholar of cultural geography and African American history and associate professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, passed away in 2011 at the age of 54. I did not know Woods well, but I learned a great deal from him in our brief conversations and from his students. His passing is unspeakably tragic.
Woods’s legacy, in writings on the blues tradition and later on New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will no doubt only continue to grow increasingly profound. It is the former that connects most immediately with the thread I following here: in his book Development Arrested, Woods provides a theorization of the “blues epistemology” that provides the crucial supports for the notion of American popular music as pragmatism.
The blues epistemology is a longstanding African American tradition of explaining reality and change. This form of explanation finds its origins in the processes of African American cultural reconstruction within, and resistance to, the antebellum plantation regime. It crystallized during Reconstruction and its subsequent violent overthrow. After two hundred years of censorship and ten short years of open communication, the resurrected plantation bloc thoroughly demonized all autonomous forms of thought and action for another century. The blues became the channel through which the Reconstruction generation grasped reality in the midst of disbelief, critiqued the plantation regime, and organized against it.
Insisting upon the blues as a spatial discourse and “self-referential explanatory tradition among working-class African Americans” generative of an alternative vision of “development,” Woods finds in the writings of Richard Wright, B.B. King, and Willie Dixon a full-fledged epistemology—a way of knowing, seeing, and thinking about the past and future—within the tradition of the blues (so often dismissed as a cult of fatalism or treated ethnographically as an archive of primitive expressivity).
Within this conceptual matrix, a quote from Willie Dixon’s autobiography, I Am The Blues serves as a kind of manifesto for re-positioning the blues as a “social philosophy”:
“All the blues songs actually related back to Africa or some African heritage things… By knowing about yesterday, how things came along and are still advancing, it can give you a greater idea of what the future could be. This is why the blues represents the past, the present, and the future… They’ve got blues books out there that tell a little about everybody—his name and what songs he sang—but they don’t have none of the actual blues experience involved… Ninety-nine percent of the people that wrote stories about the blues gave people phony ideas and this gave the blues a bad reputation. They had people believing the blues was a low-down type of music and underestimating the blues one hundred percent. The majority of people have been taught to stay away from the blues, because the world didn’t actually want you to understand what the blues want… All of this is unwritten facts about the blues because the blues have been documented but not written—documented in the minds of various men with these various songs since the first black man set foot on the American shore… My old man would explain it all so we accepted his philosophy more than we did anybody else’s because it made sense.”
Woods knits Dixon’s argument for the blues as a certain kind of embodied time and historical consciousness—as well as a vernacular philosophy that continually evades the notations of would-be contextualizers—to Richard Wright, who saw Mississippi’s poor as having access to a uniquely “wide social vision and a deep social consciousness,” who “display a greater freedom and initiative in pushing their claims upon civilization” than any other class in society.
For Woods, the key to understanding the blues as epistemology is to foreground the degree to which its emergence was shaped by duress: from constant conflict with a plantation bloc, African Americans from the South forged an evolving “complex of social explanation and social action”—a “highly developed tradition of social interpretation.”
This “blues epistemology” hinges upon “the constant reestablishment of collective sensibility in the face of constant attacks by the plantation bloc and its allies, and in the face also of a daily community life that is often chaotic and deadly.” Within a regime that rested upon the prior classification of African Americans as non-human, and vigorously censored all aesthetic activity that refuted the absurdities of theories of unevenly distributed humanity, Woods writes, “the first question faced by an African American musical, literary, religious, and political performer/investigator is how can an individual express the thoughts of the audience authentically when authentic thoughts and actions are routinely and violently condemned.” Woods quotes a particularly moving passage from a 1937 Richard Wright essay on the blues:
“It was, however, in a folklore molded out of rigorous and inhuman conditions of life that the Negro achieved his most indigenous and complete expression. Blues, spirituals, and folk tales recounted from mouth to mouth; the whispered words of a black mother to her black daughter on the ways of men, the confidential wisdom of a black father to his black son; the swapping of sex experiences on street corners from boy to boy in the deepest vernacular; work songs sung under the blazing suns—all these formed the channels through which racial wisdom flowed.”
The “blues epistemology” figures as a pragmatism, then, as it emerges from negotiation of a violent, dangerous, and ever-shifting terrain. It is a vision of past and future around the notions of ancestry and prophecy, not heritage and forecasting. It is a philosophical project appropriate for subjectivities shaped by constant movement and migration. Thus, to look only at lyrics, or lyrical content, is to miss the meaning of blues music as epistemology: it is to fail to register the actualization of the blues as a simultaneous interaction between language, music, and movement. And it is only by attending to this dynamic character of blues as a philosophical practice that we can link Woods back to West—to recall that pragmatism is a “future-oriented instrumentalism,” and that in the blues we can discern a version of such a project that is not the doomed fantasy of a Saint Simon, Fourier, or Robert Owen (however much we might try to retrieve from such historical possibilities). It is to take seriously that in the face of unfathomable trauma, people might work, every day, to construct a vision of a non-oppressive society. “The blues,” Woods writes, “are the cry of a new society being born.”
Which is also to say, a new society being thought. And thus intellectual history may hold one key—in the classroom and as we seek to understand, what, in George Lipsitz’s words, “falls to culture”—to finally teaching ourselves to listen.