Three Minutes of Darkness

Theo Tait

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru
    Hamish Hamilton, 271 pp, £14.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 27295 4

In 1903, W.C. Handy, the self-proclaimed ‘father of the blues’, was touring Mississippi with his band, the Colored Knights of Pythias, when he fell asleep at a railway station in Tutwiler, just south of Clarksdale, waiting for a long-delayed train. As he recorded in his autobiography, he woke with a start to hear the blues for the first time:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar next to me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.

‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’

The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

Musical historians have seen Handy’s rambling guitarist as the archetypal Delta bluesman, a precursor to Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson: vagrants, rounders, always on the move – pursued, as Handy put it, by ‘suffering and hard luck’, conceiving their music ‘in aching hearts’.

Hari Kunzru’s new novel is, among other things, a fictional meditation on the figure of the bluesman, on the complex allure of the prewar recordings that later musicians and enthusiasts came to see as the fountainhead of modern popular music: ‘lone guitarists playing strange abstract figures, scraping the strings with knives and bottlenecks and singing in cracked, elemental voices about trouble and loss’. One character describes these musicians, many of them little more than a name on a record, as ‘ghosts at the edges of American consciousness’; Kunzru’s book, which starts as a satire about the search for authenticity, develops into a ghost story about white visions of black music.

White Tears begins in New York in the recent past, and spirals back to the South, first in the late 1950s, then finally thirty years before that. Thematically, it culminates in the forced labour of the Mississippi levee camps of the 1920s, but it starts off in the lap of white privilege. Seth and Carter run a music studio in present-day Brooklyn, with a thriving practice in making new bands sound old. They are ‘artisans of analogue’: ‘Add surface noise, a hint of needles ploughing through static, throw the whole thing back in time.' Big British bands thank them for making their ‘generic three-chord songs’ sound ‘like Skip James’. In a flashback, Seth and Carter make friends at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. They were an odd couple: Seth was an introverted ‘weird kid’ who dressed like a ‘homeless computer scientist’, while Carter ‘was cool. Blond dreadlocks, intricate tattoos, a trust fund he didn’t hesitate to use to further the cause of maximum good times.’ But they shared a deep bond: an ‘obsessive commitment to music’ and to audio technology.

Carter, whose apparently limitless family money and self-confidence power the enterprise, ‘listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if “white people” were the name of an army or a gang, some organisation to which he didn’t belong.’ The quest for authenticity drives him slowly back into the past: dismissing digital music as mere ‘ones and zeroes’, he dives back through early hip hop and dub, to 1960s soul, then to doo-wop bands and early electric blues, until eventually he ends up ‘as far back in audio time as you could go’, with a stack of original 78 rpm records of 1920s and 1930s country blues artists. So the novel’s inciting incident seems like something that Carter has ‘summoned’ from the past.

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