We’re in Cape Cod, on our way to a large tent on an abandoned airstrip in the middle of nowhere—which, as a rule, is where abandoned airstrips are to be found. The tent has a name, but at the moment, I don’t know it. Upon arriving, we find the thing is pregnable not only at its official entrances and exits, but also at the numerous joints of its aluminum poles, where rainwater trickles through gaps and folds to form near-invisible ponds on certain folding chairs; these wait to be sopped, sooner or later, by unsuspecting patrons of the arts.
The folding chairs—not all of them are wet—wait in rows beneath a sort of wing or annex of the main tent. There’s not much light; it looks a bit like a nave. Positioned more centrally is a bank of wooden bleachers, and these face a low stage. The stage is populated with the same assortment of wires, jacks, pedals, amps, drums, speakers, and cables that has appeared, without fail, at every musical performance I’ve ever attended; to my untrained eye, the apparatus of music-making are as interchangeable as the vaguely loaf-shaped Josephs and Wise Men who, every December of my childhood, would show up in plastic Nativity scenes on my neighbors’ front lawns. That was back in my home town. I’d pass them, the glowing dioramas, morning after frozen morning as I delivered frozen newspapers. Their faint heat caused the snow to recede in tiny increments, as though it were slinking away from some supernatural malignance. Indeed, the Wise Men’s faces were nothing if not unnerving.
I’m not sure whether all the equipment on the stage is functional. Some of it might be there for decoration. To project an air of authenticity. To convince the people in the bleachers that they bought their tickets to see something, not just sit in a dank tent off some side-road of Route 6. They’re supposed to be on vacation. This is Cape Cod, after all. And not only Cape Cod, but North Truro. Where the magic happens. So maybe the equipment is all for show: what kind of performer doesn’t pile the stage with black boxes?
But that doesn’t matter. I don’t know what “authenticity” is, exactly, but I do know—at least, I’d bet money—that Shemekia Copeland doesn’t lie awake worrying about it. When she arrives onstage all spangled, bangled, high-heeled, bright, and otherwise splendid, one’s questions of essences, appearances, and the strange nature of performance disappear.
The Queen of the Blues is here, and she’s about to sing.
The Queen comes from Harlem, my new home. I’ve been around a matter of weeks. I buy my groceries at Fairway, on the bank of the Hudson, just across from the West Harlem Piers. There’s construction underway beneath the overpass: patches of asphalt torn up to reveal cobbled bricks. I’ll be carrying a box of Honeycomb and a jar of pasta sauce when I pass below the first causeway, the one that’s meant for cars. Towering arches, girders, and I-beams. Looming, rusted, echoey with plinks and tinks when it rains. Straight ahead is the car wash that has a beautiful mosaic made of quarter-sized sequins perched on hooks. After that, there’s the gas station where an endless series of yellow cabs criss-crosses the sidewalk. I can walk by them, towards Morningside Park, or take a right up the hill and peer into the fancy gold-plated atriums of the buildings on Riverside, across from the General Grant memorial.
Either way, I’ll go straight past the Cotton Club. Not the one where Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington once played; that was up on 142nd and Lenox, or so I’ve read. This incarnation has a humbler marquee. No neon, just black nylon. It’s a squat building made more squat by the causeway to the west and the raised tracks of the 1 train to the east.
The storied club at 142nd closed in 1940. I don’t know how closely the modern version is related. But I’m told that Johnny Lee Copeland, the Texas blues-guitar great, performed there. Copeland
recognized [his daughter Shemekia’s] talent early on. He always encouraged her to sing at home, and even brought her on stage to sing at Harlem’s famed [new] Cotton Club when she was just eight. At the time, Shemekia’s embarrassment outweighed her desire to sing. But when she was fifteen and her father’s health began to fail, her outlook changed. “It was like a switch went off in my head, and I wanted to sing,” she says. “It became a want and a need. I had to do it.”
Sitting in that leaky tent, watching Shemekia make her entrance through some shadowed flap in the far corner, I don’t know any of this. I’m only here because K suggested it. K is a jazz musician who spent a long decade in New York City and now lives in Cairo, Egypt. He can be relied on for crucial music-scene updates. For example: on June 12, 2011, at the Chicago Blues Festival, Copeland received Koko Taylor’s crown from the hands of Taylor’s own daughter, thus ratifying her royal title.
K cannot explain what Copeland’s doing in the coastal hinterlands of North Truro. And honestly, why question it? Simply accept that the people of the Payomet Performing Arts Center are geniuses and deserve our praise.
This tent we’re in, the one on the abandoned airstrip, isn’t some hip meeting-place for twenty-somethings. It doesn’t feel like a secret club; there’s no verge-of-riot energy in the air. In fact, there’s at least one elderly woman clutching a chihuahua to her chest. The chihuahua looks even more startled than is normal for the breed. Maybe on account of its surroundings, or maybe because it’s been decked in a small green shawl. One hardly dares guess.
What I mean to say is that the crowd doesn’t seem given to great displays of enthusiasm, fervor, or motility.
Yet when Copeland sings, she lights a fire. Whistling, clapping, Amen-ing, hooting, hollering, stamping, stomping, shouting; hands upraised; heads thrown back; at least one elderly woman on her feet and dancing with her nonplussed chihuahua cradled in her elbow. I myself have never been given to great displays of enthusiasm or fervor, and I find that though I’m one of the youngest people in the crowd, I’m also one of the quietest and least exciting.
A person doesn’t get to be Queen of the Blues unless she has this ability: to turn an atomized crowd of beachgoing tourists into a mob that howls with one voice. Its voice is much more than the sum of its parts; it cannot be located in the man who did a bad job of tucking his pink shirt into his chinos; or the woman who broke a heel on the steps of the bleachers before the band appeared; or the cousins whose hands are bright, bright red from applauding; or the young man nodding his head and wondering what it would be like to have rhythm.
There are certain hitches. The new rhythm guitarist, playing his first show with the band, suffers some sort of electrical short-out with his instrument. Shemekia banters with the crowd as he fiddles with wires, toggles, and gauges—attempting, presumably, to identify which of the many mediators between his fingers and the amplifier is causing that horrid scratching sound. He has white hair and a matching goatee; he pulls eyeglasses from his breast pocket to inspect some leads. Eventually, the banter ends and the show goes on without him. He crouches and tinkers, not a single motion hidden or even inconspicuous, while the rest of the band proceeds. At one point, Shemekia refers to him as “the master of disaster.”
This answers my question about the equipment’s “authenticity.” All it took was something breaking. When the head flies from the hammer, the carpenter sees it for the first time. And the observer, a pedestrian or passing driver, sees the carpenter for the first time: not merely as the most dynamic element of the construction site—homologous with Tyvek lining and pallets stacked with sand—but as a person at a job. A worker with a complicated set of skills. Someone who knows how rafters and roof-beams are raised, and who came by that knowledge through effort, effort, and more effort.
If things would break more often, would we be a little more attuned to their blunt object-hood? Would we be a little more attentive? It’s astounding that things hold together as well as they do. Such complex acts of translation are required to, for instance, render the guitarist’s kinesthetic expertise as amplified chords: steel strings, copper wires, and plastic molding must negotiate flawlessly, note after note. Besides these tangible pieces, there are more abstract, more venerable actors in play, like Ohm’s Law, imaginary numbers, and the bass and treble clefs. Ohm published his work on resistance in 1827, Scipione del Ferro unlocked the key to imaginary numbers in the 15th century, and the two clefs have been around since before 1,000 A.D.
An amp is a fairly unassuming black box, but it is well and anciently connected. Even in a leaky tent in the middle of nowhere, it can pinch time in such a way as to put secretive Italian mathematicians in league with blues royalty. Just as, when putting up curtains in my new Harlem apartment,
I may use an electric drill, but I also use a hammer. The former is thirty-five years old, the latter hundreds of thousands . . . Some of my genes are 500 million years old, others 3 million, others 100,000 years, and my habits range in age from a few days to several thousand years. As Peguy Clio said, and as Michel Serres repeats, “we are exchangers and brewers of time.” (Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern)
Mounting curtain-brackets on either side of the kitchen window is a humble accomplishment that fills me with pride. I am not what you’d call handy. In fact, it took me quite some time to figure out how wall anchors worked. Without pre-packaged hardware, instantaneous internet instructions, and the availability of cheap tools, I would be useless around the house. All the more so if any of my tools or hardware should fail to function as expected (e.g., I went through about ten wall anchors for four screws).
I can affect the wall, as illustrated by my curtains, but in order to do so, I must put in some work. Not only the obvious work of drilling pilot holes, but also the work of walking to East Harlem to buy a drill at Target, walking down Broadway to buy a hammer at the hardware store, and so on and so forth, all about the city and beyond. The drill, once bought, needs to work properly if it’s going to be a real ally rather than a piece of junk taking up precious space. The same goes for the hammer, the anchors, and the screws. They did not appear pre-forged from some alternate dimension of time and space, like DIY Excaliburs; rather, they are themselves the product of labor, of particular conveyor belts, robotic arms, union members, diesel trucks, and credit-based transactions.
I cannot exert any meaningful control over the processes that generated drill and hammer and led to their being mine. I can only make myself part of the network of relations in which they were already embedded when they came to me; having insinuated myself, I proceed to make my own demands on them. Because the drill was manufactured well, I can use it to accomplish what I want. If it had not been manufactured well, then I could still relate to it, but it would not exactly be an ally. To achieve my goals and bend objects to my will, I am dependent on infinite layers of skillful effort having been made behind the scenes.
Isn’t this how the world works? The blues guitar carried through the amp no less than my blue curtains hung over the kitchen window? “Everything is a mediator,” writes Graham Harman,
demanding its share of reality as we pass through it toward our goal. Every medium must be negotiated, just as air and water strike back at the vehicles that traverse them. Since every actant is only itself, and always a totally concrete event, it is impossible to derive one thing instantly from another without the needed labour. In other words, the link between actors always requires translation. (Prince of Networks 18)
Here, Harman is describing not his own philosophy, but the philosophy of Bruno Latour, as found in Latour’s Irreductions. Harman is Latour’s chief champion in the world of metaphysics, mainly because Latour does away with the stale, bloodless fundaments of Kant’s Copernican revolution. He does not accept that human consciousness is a portcullis open to some metaphysics and not others. Rather, he puts humans on a plane with all other objects, and argues that everything—human and non-human, abstract and concrete, fantastical and mundane—is defined by the relations it enters into. Not by who knows it, but by what uses it, and what, in turn, it uses.
For Latour and Harman both, a true metaphysics must be able to describe the relation between steel guitar string, copper cable, and Ohm’s Law as thoroughly, intricately, and exhaustively as it describes the relation between guitarist and guitar. The second relation, the one between guitarist and guitar, contains a human subject. The first contains nothing but “inanimate” objects and abstract equations. Yet they are equally the responsibility of philosophy. They are the philosopher’s to explain, or to fail to explain.
Latour rises to this challenge (indeed, he poses the challenge) by arguing that all objects—including humans and imaginary entities like Care Bears—are defined by their relations, as just mentioned. They are real to whatever extent they affect other things, or are linked to other things. The sum of their relations describes them utterly. There is no remainder, no kernel or essence of the object left over once its relations have been tallied and tabulated. Know the relations and know the object in its full reality: elegant in principle, like Euler’s Identity.
Harman departs from him here. Like Latour, Harman rejects the idea that human access to the world is the bedrock of philosophical inquiry; unlike Latour, he does not locate reality in relation. Although we know that objects relate to one another, we also—according to Harman—know that they withdraw from one another. No collection of relations, no matter how dense, dedicated, deft, or devious, can access an object in its entirety. Some stratum or animus remains unregistered, even after we have entered all the object’s relations into our philosophical ledger.
That goes for atoms bonding and pool balls colliding as much as for bonds and collisions between human beings. Many other philosophies, such as British Empiricism and post-Kantian Idealism, place humans on lofty thrones and imagine them peering down at the rest of the pathetically unexalted world. But in Harman’s view, humans must shuffle around amongst the drek and treasure of the everyday, every day, with everything else.
This means that although objects are partially withdrawn from one another, they do not fade into “noumena,” for their withdrawal is not contingent on the human conditions of perception. Harman’s philosophy is capable of cropping humans from the picture without cropping anything else. Wipe out all human life, and objects will still relate to one another and never entirely know one another. Fire will continue to burn cotton, and as it does, it will continue to be true that the fire
does not exhaust the reality of cotton by burning it, [any more than] rain use[s] up the glass that it moistens. An object might be measured or registered by its relations, but can never be fully defined by them. (Prince of Networks 143)
Things are conceived, created, articulated, and disseminated with the help of their relations, and via the effort required to forge those relations. Even so, they remain more than those relations. They exceed them, and though they cannot be known at all without relating to other things, there is a part of them that will always be solitary, suspended in a web of connections but touched by none of them.
Again, one of the indispensable features of this metaphysics is that it can chirp along quite happily in a hypothetical, human-less scenario. Still, I believe we can use it to talk about what it’s like to be human and what it takes to make art. Harman’s work informed my review of Julia V. Hendrickson’s splendid new book of poetry, Grow No Moss (recently featured as a Critic’s Pick by Time Out Chicago), which is the product of intricate collaborations between artists, machines, nonprofit organizations, and government entities, yet conveys a profoundly individual voice—a voice that speaks to the solitary even as the book itself speaks to the well-related. Hendrickson spent countless hours building the network of friends, colleagues, and other resources necessary to bring Grow no Moss to fruition; she also spent countless hours alone with words, refining her poetic powers.
In response to that review, K—who knew about Shemekia Copeland’s accession to the throne of blues—wrote,
This is something musicians deal with, too—at least they should. They spend thousands of hours alone in practice rooms, honing technique and seeking a voice that’s theirs. But when they come out, they have to play with others and find a way to maintain their voice while making it work with the overall group. Some become “sidemen,” the ultimate workaday players who can take on whatever voice the band and gig require. Others maintain their voice so strongly that they can only play with sidemen and dominate. But if it’s really going to be a musical conversation you need several fluent and interesting players who can both speak and listen, and do so in a way that works for whatever tune (or conversation) is present in the moment. It’s a rare thing, and in my experience it either takes years of playing together as a band or just magically happens all at once, like meeting a new friend and having a great conversation deep into the night.
Here we have an excellent analogy for Harman’s metaphysics—though perhaps analogy is the wrong word, since K’s comment is mostly observation and recollection. Thus, not an analogy, but a recognition. The musician’s voice emerges through effort; in one sense, the effort is solitary. But anyone who’s mastered or attempted to master an instrument knows the practice room is a lively meeting-place, where long-dead legends, dusty theoreticians, exacting instructors, skeptical parents, and admired friends all mill about incessantly, exerting their influences (whether welcome or unwelcome) on every note. Even the most meditative practice session is shaped by the masters of the discipline, the masters who came before and the masters who taught the practicer how to hold a saxophone or drumstick.
Just look at the biographies of Copeland’s band members. Lead guitarist Arthur Nielson, for example, was
born and raised in New York City, [and] taught himself to play guitar on an electric Teisco Del Rey at age fifteen. After purchasing a Harmony acoustic, he honed his folk repertoire and finger-picking skills. Then, one night, he heard Albert King. Arthur got goosebumps from his head to his toes, and has been hooked on the blues ever since. Arthur developed his dynamic guitar style by playing along with every blues record that he could find.
Ask, “Who were your heroes?” Ask, “Who’d you learn from?” The answers will tell you what a musician’s all about—if you know enough to understand them. Arthur developed his style by playing along with blues records, and one imagines he did this mostly by himself. But it would absurd to think his style appeared in a vacuum. He made himself part of a conversation, and his style became his contribution.
“Style” and “voice” are poor, abstract ways of talking about something that is powerfully, even physically present when one’s in the room (or tent) with it. After hearing him play, I have little doubt that
in the eighties and through the nineties, Arthur’s phone was always ringing, as his guitar work was in much demand. Not only was he playing the blues, but rock & roll, rockabilly, and country too. In fact, at one point, he was gigging in seven bands, including Oxford Blues, Kid Java, Felix and The Havanas and The Guitar Guys from Hell. Some memorable moments were working with guitar great Otis Rush, as well as Ronnie Spector, Benny Mardones and The Commitments . . . [He has shared] the stage with many of his influences, most notably B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, and Albert King, who upon hearing Arthur said, “That boy sure can play!”
I’m going to guess that Nielson wasn’t in demand because he was predictable, or because he was indistinguishable from New York’s sea of other guitarists. He was in demand because he not only knew his part, but knew how to infuse it with his original style.
In other words, there was something about Nielson’s way of playing the guitar that remained distinctly his, even as he adapted to different crowds, different bands, and different genres on different nights. This something, this voice, emerged from conversations with blues records, but was not reducible to those records, any more than it was reducible to any particular group or particular performance. It might work in relation to one band on a given night, but that band would not exhaust its possibilities; nor would the next night’s band, nor the night’s after that.
What of Copeland, then? Surely she is one of those artists who, as K says, “can only play with sidemen and dominate?” She is, she is. It would seem she is. Even in a cross-disciplinary and—awful word—multicultural age, we do not call anyone a “queen” because she makes a good backup or understudy. And it is tempting to imagine that dominance is coterminous with accessibility: if Shemekia Copeland is who she is, night in and night out, then we must be seeing her utterly and completely, with nothing left over or held back. To dominate others is to reveal oneself.
That can’t be true, though. It’s too Hegelian for Harman and too German for the blues, and it certainly doesn’t describe what it’s like to see Copeland sing. Might we say, instead, that Copeland’s ability to dominate a band, a stage, and a rainy night rests on a certain withdrawing quality of the blues itself? I have difficulty grasping this. Not only because I’m unschooled in music generally, but because I’m white and middle class, which, according to many a famous artist, are not qualities that lend themselves to understanding what the blues is all about, deep down.
I have read that “in all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged.” James Baldwin says so in The Fire Next Time (41), and since he goes on to note the “fatuous” relationship of “most white Americans” to the blues, I quote him with a certain amount of trepidation. The truth is, I simply cannot think of a better way to describe Copeland’s performance; I tried, but “tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged” strikes me as perfect. In the leaky tent in the middle of nowhere on the edge of Cape Cod, she steps precariously from the stage to the gravel floor, and proceeds to do a half-strutting, half-tottering circuit of the audience, touching hands, posing for pictures, and graciously begging pardon when she bumps too hard against someone’s knee. All the while, she is singing, repeating one line over and over against the beat of bass and drum, belting it out at eight-count intervals. No microphone. The bare minimum accompaniment. Standing in the crowd, instead of before it.
In this moment, it is hard to imagine that Copeland’s dominance as a performer is due to her great accessibility. On the contrary, she is so powerful—I believe—because she manages to convey a certain idea: that while the blues may be life, life is not the blues. Life is sadder and more ecstatic and more desperate. The blues tends to follow the shivering blow, and attempts, resignedly, to prepare for the next. “I think it was Big Bill Broonzy,” writes Baldwin,
who used to sing “I Feel So Good,” a really joyful song about a man who is on his way to the railroad station to meet his girl. She’s coming home. It is the singer’s incredibly moving exuberance that makes one realize how leaden the time must have been while she was gone. There is no guarantee that she will stay this time, either, as the singer clearly knows, and, in fact, she has not yet actually arrived. (The Fire Next Time 42)
The blues is vicarious. I only hear it and wonder at it, and am occasionally stunned by it. I cannot say how much of what Copeland sings is autobiographical; or, in some cases, how much of what she sings was autobiographical for the unknown person who wrote it decades ago. I cannot speak to the shape or substance of the sadness, or the triumph, that courses through her songs. (And courses through her voice, as well.) I do not know these things, and it is these things I do not know that make it real.
For me, this is what is means to be in the presence of the Queen of the Blues: to hear a voice that is powerful and intimate, yes. But to be moved by something that’s not intimate at all. Something distant, something that, though present in her voice, goes beyond it, deeper, to a place where there is no rollicking and not a single hallalujah. Whatever connections she forges in that great, white, unintentionally porous tent depend on a nucleus that cannot take solace in connection. Part of me is reluctant to say anything about it, but I believe it consists in the knowledge that the Queen will need to sing the blues another night, and another night again, for the longest time to come.