Previous essays in this series

I, II , III, IV, V

 ‘Cultural appropriation’ supposedly constitutes some kind of theft from a person or a culture. The idea has caused enormous trouble in the Pagan community, as well as among many others. Its advocates claim this is an effective way to oppose Western power’s long oppression of others. Exploring these charges inspired this series of little essays on how society and the social sciences look different when we recognize life and spirit permeate the world. I argued it was a misdiagnosis of the malady and a failure at remedying it.

When I first wrote and spoke on this subject, some critics claimed I supposedly believed White men could legitimately take anyone’s practices they wished.  Their bizarre response then led me to explore the importance of ideological trance, or possession by a meme.I brought these threads together in this series.

I have argued cultures are a mental ecosystem involving at least people and memes. (They are more than that, but that suffices here.) Each participant influences and is influenced by the network of relations within which it acts. The results are often unpredictable and surprising, because no one owns or controls cultures.

Here’s an example from music.

Hound Dogs, Appropriation, and Memes

Elvis Presley’s hit, “Hound Dog”  is a commonly cited example of ‘cultural appropriation.’  As the story goes, Big Mama Thornton, a Southern Black Blues singer, first sang it  four years before Elvis. It was a modest success (I prefer her version).  Blues, the story goes, was a product of Black culture, as was rock ‘n roll, having direct roots in the blues.  Rock ‘n roll did not make it big in America until Elvis sang Hound Dog. Until then, this music was largely ignored outside of African American circles. Some now say Elvis ‘stole’ or ‘appropriated’ what was an unacknowledged element of Black culture.

The blues, and rock n’ roll which grew from it, have vital roots in African music. There would be no blues, no jazz, and no rock ‘n roll without Black culture as it developed in New Orleans. Slaves were allowed to perform their music at Congo Square in New Orleans, because French Catholic slavery was less totalitarian in its impact on its victims than the Protestant equivalent.  Our nation’s defining cultural contributions to the world’s musical heritage owe their existence to Africa.

All this is true, but there is more to the story.

Imran Rahman-jones writes the blues have two parents.  The first is African music and the second is European folk music.  Blues’ harmonic structure is European, not African. Its “12-bar progression comes from European chords. European instrumentation was also adopted:  the guitar in its classical form, comes from Europe. And no instrument is more strongly associated with one particular genre than the harmonica,” which originated in Vienna.

Rahman-jones observes, given the power of segregation when the blues arose, it was “quite remarkable that the mix in cultures happened at all.” Perhaps because their common love of music mattered more than race, many musicians frequently ignored or circumvented racial divides. From the beginning, many were White musicians, although more were Black.

Far from ‘stealing’ Black music, Presley was explicit about his enormous debt to Fats Domino. For example, at a 1969 press conference in Las Vegas, as Craig Philo recounts the incident, “When a reporter referred to Elvis as the ‘King of Rock ’n’ Roll’ . . .  he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, ‘one of my influences from way back.” Philo added “He often paid homage to Fats recognizing no one could sing those songs like he did.”

In turn, Domino was a fan of Presley: “Boy, he could sing. He could sing spirituals, country and western, everything he sang I liked.” This mutual admiration between two greats is what we would expect within a musical subculture where all involved were using and exploring common musical memes they loved.

Distinguishing between musicians racially, that led to today’s charges of ‘cultural appropriation,’ came from commercial recording, not from musicians. Record companies categorized Black musicians as playing blues or race music, and Whites as playing country or hillbilly music. Rahman-jones writes “The music was so similar that even the record labels got it wrong sometimes,” confusing the artists and their race.

The musical cultural ecosystem resists any simplistic reduction into racial or cultural categories.  Rahman-jones ends his article by pointing out Hound Dog, first played by Big Mama Thornton, was written for her by two 19 year old American Jewish kids, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.  They were asked to write for Thornton by Johnny Otis, who admired Thornton’s talent.    Otis was an important figure in early rock ‘n roll, and was White. In his career he often played with African American musicians. In his book In Search of American Jewish Culture, Stephen Whitfield regards "Hound Dog" as marking “the success of race-mixing in music a year before the desegregation of public schools was mandated"(p. 162)

The language of cultural appropriation cannot begin to grasp this complexity, but viewing culture as the intertwining of people and memes easily can.

An alternative take

A successful artistic creation becomes a meme, and then develops on its own. Artists inspire one another and many build on one another’s work. Brihana Joy Grey writes music “is inherently appropriative.” In fact, it “thrives on creative allusions, sampling, and embellishing the groundwork laid by earlier artists.”

This view in no way marginalizes or obscures genuine oppression. Grey cuts to the chase:

the life stories of early 20th century black musicians are stories of poverty and exploitation by a predatory music industry that lifted their sounds and left them with nothing. The trouble isn’t that Elvis sang the songs but that he did so in a viciously racist economic landscape that didn’t reward black cultural innovation with black economic success. Using cultural “ownership” doesn’t help us here—after all, “Hound Dog” was written by white songwriters, albeit specifically for Thornton, who added her own improvisations. But it’s still obvious we’re dealing with a racially unequal music industry.

Gray’s indictment is of a racist culture combined with capitalism, an indictment with which I completely agree. While Gray has also written there is some value in the idea of cultural appropriation, it fits poorly with the rest of her analysis.  Referring to the claim Presley ‘appropriated’ Hound Dog, she wrote “But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating ‘black’ music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle – the civil rights movement – to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.” The real problem is not cultural appropriation, but racism and a social structure that profits from it. More recently she has written “it is class, not race, that is the best basis on which to form the foundation of a progressive coalition.”

Cultural Complexity in New Mexico

Many years ago I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, and witnessed the burning of the Zozobra at the start of its Fiesta.  Tens of thousands of people were there as well.  It was a powerful event, and seemed like a holdover of some primordial ritual. But it was nothing of the sort.

Las Fiestas de Santa Fe began in 1712, to celebrate the Spanish retaking the city from Pueblo tribes who had occupied the city since the successful Pueblo Revolt 12 years earlier. The 2018 celebration will be the 306th.

The Zozobra was not part of it until 1924, and first happened in a local backyard. The Zozobra, was created by artist Will Shuster in 1924, to poke fun at the then somber, 300-year-old celebration commemorating reconquering the city.  Shuster and his friends decided to create a counter-event, inspired by the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico, where an effigy of Judas is led around the village on a donkey, and ultimately set alight. Their effort proved popular, and in 1926 the Fiesta councilors, proving they had a sense of humor, asked Shuster to bring Zozobra to the public.

A Southwestern Wickerman?

The Zozobra is a giant 50 foot high animated wood and cloth effigy, one of the world's largest functioning marionettes. Zozobra is created and is reborn annually, embodying people’s bad deeds throughout the previous year. In actions many of us will recognize, Ray Sandoval said “We’ve had people stuff their divorce papers, mortgages, old love letters, even their hospital gowns into Zozobra.” He added “Symbolically, the Zozobra festival represents the people of Santa Fe coming together to chase away their feelings of gloom and doom.”

Zozobra has ‘accepted’ the city’s invitation to join the Fiesta, ‘hoping’ to invade the heart of town, and destroy all hope and happiness. While the townsfolk gather, Zozobra casts a spell over Santa Fe’s children to come to him, driving hope and happiness from their minds ––they become “Gloomies,” child dancers resembling little ghosts. His army of Gloomies is to wreak havoc in his service. But before they can succeed, torch-bearing townspeople arrive to challenge them. The sight of light returns the Gloomies to reality and they scatter from the light of the torches.

Howling in fury and waving his arms, Zozobra manages to chase the torchbearers away, but the crowd then begins crying “Burn him!” calling forth the Fire Spirit. Zozobra waves its arms and growls threateningly as the Fire Spirit Dancer, approaches with flaming torches, bringing his doom. The Fire Spirit igntes Zozobra into a towering blaze of fire.

Here are three Youtube vids that give you a sense of what this event is like. It is quite spectacular.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0koBYIqioc  +

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTE2CYpzE8c

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=62&v=cXpIcrJRrQA   +

Something Deep is Happening

“It felt like a renewal ritual,” says David Gold, who has attended almost every burning of Zozobra for 35 years. “And there was a power to it – the power of that group consciousness.”

The Zozobra tradition is one example of a ritualistic purging of woe extending back to ancient times. In Leviticus, God instructs Aaron to release a goat to carry away the sins of the people of Israel after “confessing over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel . . . and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” Something similar seems to have been frequent elsewhere in the ancient Middle East.  Instead of banishing an animal the ancient Greeks and Romans cast out a human being. And many of us have participated in rituals of burning written descriptions of what we wish to dispose of or leave behind.

But the Zozobra’s origins were in a bar in 1923.  Shuster and a few close artist friends had gone to Santa Fe’s La Fonda hotel, to eat and get drunk. Despite the good food and drink, many were morose. Frustrated, Shuster invited his friends to write down what was bothering them. When the bartender stepped away, Shuster lit the notes on fire on the bar, whereupon the bartender came back and kicked them out.

The following year, Shuster traveled to Mexico and attended the Holy Week celebrations where Yaqui Indians burned an effigy of Judas. According to a history of the Zozobra, Shuster came back, and put those two ideas together.  

If one cares about ‘cultural appropriation,’ there was plenty here to object to. If one cares about the origins of a celebration rather than how it evolved, again, there is plenty to complain about. But if one realizes cultures are ecosystems, networks of people, memes, and thought forms, Santa Fe’s Zozobra celebration is fascinating example, and arguably the biggest Pagan or magickal ritual in America today- even though hardly anyone sees it as either.

Ideas have a life of their own. “Pagan” now stands for what is closest to the heart of many of us: our way of relating to the sacred. Long ago, no one we would identify as Pagan would have called themselves such. For “Heathens,” the story is the same.  Robert Heinlein never imagined “grok” would become a key term in the Church of All Worlds. For hundreds of years no one using the term imagined “Witch” would become an important and increasingly respected religious label.

A culture consists of people and living memes reciprocally shaping the ideational ecosystem in which they participate. The language of possession and ownership gets it completely wrong.

_____

The picture of the burning Zozobra is from the Albuquerque Journal.