We’ve had Alvin Hall’s interesting and original treatment of Black musical history on the BBC and now we have another attempt to rewrite it and turn everything any Black person ever did or said in history into an act of resistance against the white ‘Massa’…..
In this programme we hear about the music of Cab Calloway and his ‘Hepster’s Dictionary’ the roots of which, we are told, are the slave slang of the plantations invented as a code to befuddle and undermine the authority of the white ‘Massa’.
The language and Cab Calloway’s jive talk was ‘racial politics’, Calloway was a cultural warrior battling aggressive eurocentricism….white culture in other words.
Or so we are told by the BBC whose interpretation of Calloway’s intentions is somewhat self-serving.
Desperate to make us realise the suffering of the Black American they tell us that the word ‘Pounder’ used as a description of a police officer, was because the police used to ‘pound’ on Blacks…nothing to do with them being ‘pavement pounders’ out ‘pounding the beat’. There’s one they missed…cops on the ‘beat’. Must have a deeper significance. Similarly we are told that ‘Bebop’ was actually a reference to the sound truncheons made on Black heads as they were set upon by white ‘pounders’.
bebop, also called bop, the first kind of modern jazz, which split jazz into two opposing camps in the last half of the 1940s. The word is an onomatopoeic rendering of a staccato two-tone phrase distinctive in this type of music.
Did the slaves create a secret language to enable them to resist white oppression? Or did the language develop its own unique shape in the same way that any language does when a group of people are essentially isolated from other groups and develop their own language…its just a fact of life not a conspiracy, not a revolution.
The BBC is talking crap…..or racially motivated, politically charged, emotive language designed to create a particular misperception of history to suit Black activists intent on stirring up racial grievances.
Each generation has their own slang and lingo, a language that defines them. Each generation also has a purveyor of cool who creates a language that only the initiated understand. During the 1950s and 60s, Frank Sinatra created a personal lingo that influenced a generation of swanky and swaggering men.
But before Sinatra, there was Cab Calloway.
In addition to writing and performing great swing music, Calloway created an entirely new lingo. He never took his hepster slang too seriously; it was all about having fun and being unique. Soon lots of people wanted to speak just like Cab. To help facilitate this, Calloway produced a Hepster Dictionary in 1940 that accompanied Cab Calloway sheet music.
So rather than being a political statement the Hepster chat and dictionary was in fact all about having fun and being different….and helping people to understand his music and life….so being different but not that different.
What the BBC and its Black activist presenters don’t tell us is this:
In 1930s New York, no cat was more of a “hepster” than Cab Calloway. The son of a lawyer father and a church-organist mother, Calloway met Louis Armstrong while at Chicago’s Crane College. There he learned to scat-sing so well that he left school to relocate his well-trained tenor voice, and his band, to an extended engagement at Harlem’s Cotton Club. He soon hit the dance halls and stages of the wider world, barely stopping to breathe until the 20th century was almost over. Along the way, he took it all in: the sights, the sounds, and the fine points of the language of the streets, eventually publishing the first-ever dictionary of African-American slang, The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: The Language of Jive, in 1938.
But there was another “hep” language floating around 1930s New York: Yiddish.
Yiddish laced the speech of Irving Mills, a man of Odessa Jewish stock who became Calloway’s manager. The language of meshugas, dzhlubs, and mamzers resonated more than a little with Calloway. In partnership with Mills, he soon found ingenious ways to infuse his act with retooled Yiddish folksongs, hilarious, if ironic, parodies of Jewish black-face performance, and mock cantorial melismas that incorporated his own unique brand of pidgin Hebrew, morphing into jazz-jive jargon at the drop of a white Panama hat.
It all started with “Minnie the Moocher,” a tune he co-wrote with Mills in 1931, and which became his first major hit, the first number-one song by an African-American performer, and his theme song for the rest of his career.
So Calloway’s most famous song, his big break, had some Jewish influences. Guess they were slaves too once. It all works.
The BBC must love that.
Still, as long as you’ve got the message that Blacks have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of their white oppressors, the BBC’s job is done.