John Jeremiah Sullivan Inspires Culture Axiom

John Jeremiah Sullivan’s article, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” in The New York Times Magazine on the little-known but allegedly important blues singers Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas impressed me in ways Sullivan did not intend.

All my life, I’ve been interested in the how and why rather than the what. Why are we so focused on beauty in women? Why are we so focused on race, and how can we get to a time when it shouldn’t matter? Why does it seem political decisions focus on the trivial and can it be shifted to the essential? That kind of stuff.

last-kind-wordsThe article is about two women who, in 1930, were brought up from Texas to a small town in Wisconsin to record at least six songs for Paramount. Then they went back to Texas to live the rest of their lives. They weren’t into making music as a “career.” They never recorded anything else. It was a part of their lives for awhile, and then they were done with it.

Mack McCormick by Leslye Davis / The New York Times

Mack McCormick

That was fine with them, but not for obsessive blues fans like Sullivan. He visits another obsessive researcher with mental problems, Mack McCormick, who spent decades compulsively gathering information, and is now spending the rest of his life hoarding his finds, occasionally letting bits and pieces slip out (unless it was “stolen” by one former assistant who Sullivan befriends).

It’s a great story, but Sullivan’s asides inspired an untested axiom that I’ll call the Peschel Culture Principle:

“Culture consists of facts and the assumptions between the facts”

It’s no Peter Principle, but here’s what I mean, taking two statements from Sullivan’s article:

A 1910 census taker finds her [Elvee Thomas] an inmate in the Harris County Jail. For a serious crime? If you were black in Houston in 1910, it was not hard to get arrested for doing nothing. She was working as a dishwasher, the census says. Any records related to the arrest or any trial that took place are gone.

Let’s pair it with this statement about Elvee’s singing partner on those records, Geeshie Wiley. A year after they cut those songs in Wisconsin, Wiley stabbed her husband to death:

Six months of work to learn more about the murder came to nothing. There wasn’t a scrap of paper. The inquest records are lost. I communicated with a lawyer in East Texas who’d worked on similar cases, murders of husbands by wives, not this long ago but 50 years ago. He said that very often, the police were so indifferent to the reason a particular black male had been killed, they would happily accept a self-defense theory, if one were put forward. Easier night. Let ’em stab each other.

Two gaps between the facts with one assumption to fill them. In one, Sullivan uses racism to explain why police took the trouble to arrest a woman and put her in jail for a year. In the other, racism explains why police didn’t take the trouble to arrest a woman and jail her for a crime far worse than whatever it was Wiley did or didn’t do. That seems contradictory.

Now, I’m not going to argue that racism doesn’t exist. The point is, we don’t know what happened. Neither does John Jeremiah Sullivan, but he chooses racism to fill the gap like spackle.

He could have assumed otherwise. He could have assumed that Elvee deserved to be arrested. He could have assumed that the police decided that Geeshie’s husband had it coming. Maybe, if Geeshie had been a white woman, that would have been the default explanation, a la “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago.”

History is not a seamless web of facts. Making assumptions is built into the process, and they can only be as accurate as the person making it. But when the assumptions come from an ideological bias, it skews how you understand the story.

For example:

It was a slapdash and profit-driven documentary project that in some respects dwarfed what the most ambitious and well intentioned ethnomusicologists could hope to achieve (deformed in all sorts of ways by capitalism, but we take what we can get).

Nice of you to say that.

A moment’s thought should lead to the conclusion that someone has to pay for driving around the south collecting shards of music that, before that, would survive solely by transmission from musician to musician.

In other words, complaining about capitalism in this context is like complaining about breathing air, but it fills in the gap.

So a story about music contains little pokes that reveals the writer’s biases. It doesn’t mean much here, but once you see the structure, it might make a difference in other articles that are dedicated to reinforcing one’s political beliefs. And that gets in the way of the purpose of history, which should be to tell the truth.