Writer Hari Kunzru speaks about his new novel, White Tears, a timely reflection on race, class and cultural appropriation in the US
In Hari Kunzru’s new novel, White Tears (2017), two young music obsessives living in New York City, Carter and Seth, produce a fake 1920s blues recording and claim it to be an authentic, long-lost treasure from the past. There begins a terrifying ghost story involving possession and revenge, a timely reflection on race, class and cultural appropriation in the US. frieze co-editor Dan Fox spoke to Kunzru about creative authenticity, haunted technologies and the obscure history of collecting blues records.
Dan Fox What got you started on White Tears?
Hari Kunzru Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) was the first thing I heard that was beyond the normal range of what I knew about US blues. I remember falling in love with the sweetness of Mississippi John Hurt’s voice and some of the Appalachian musicians such as Dock Boggs and Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
When I was writing my novel Gods Without Men (2011) I was listening to more and more pre-war US music and was getting increasingly interested in Smith’s mystical interests, in what connected his magic practice to his practice of collecting old 78 RPM records. There’s an amazing picture of Smith when he was very young doing field recordings near the Indian Reservations where he grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He’s 16, wearing headphones and surrounded by guys in traditional dress singing into his recording equipment. Eventually I started listening more widely and then I was in trouble! But I have minimal status in any serious conversation about collecting blues records, because I don’t even collect 78s.
DF During research for White Tears, did you find yourself scouring internet message boards, making contact with real life equivalents of JumpJim, the paranoid collector whom your protagonists meet online in the novel?
HK There is this guy called John Heneghan who lives on the Lower East Side and whose profile I read in the New York Times. I got in touch with him, and he wrote back to say it was against his interests as a collector to spread this information any more widely and that, respectfully, he had no interest in talking to me! So I contacted a guy called Christopher King and joined a road trip, along with the music writers Sasha Frere Jones and Amanda Petrusich, who were going down to Virginia to spend a weekend with him. His day job is remastering old music for various reissue labels and he’s a hardcore collector, but he likes to share it. So we sat and drank whiskey in his listening room and I got to handle and listen to things I never thought I’d see – Charley Patton’s High Water Everywhere , for instance, or Tommy Johnson records. The prices on these records have gone through the roof. Collectors grumble about the musician Jack White partly because he turned quite a few well-heeled indie rockers onto collecting this stuff. There’s now a lot of records that are more than $10,000 USD. It’s not possible to put together a pre-war blues collection even if you have the money, because the people who have them usually aren't interested in selling. A common and easy to get hold of record would be one where a few dozen copies exist, but many of the really good ones exist in one or two copies.
DF Where does the history of collecting blues records begin?
HK There’s an ur-story about blues collecting which involves a very reclusive 1940s collector called James McKune, whom I’ve based a lot of the Chester Bly character on in White Tears. He lived in a YMCA in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and had this theory that you could only have 400 records in your canon because you couldn't deal with any more than that. Every time he got a new record he thought was worthy of inclusion he’d have to get rid of another one. He was part of a jazz collecting scene. There was a New Orleans jazz collecting scene that began in the 1930s and it was really elite – Princeton versus Yale. You could apparently tell whether someone was a Yale man or a Princeton man if they preferred Bix Biederbecke or Jelly Roll Morton. McKune started listening to blues records when nobody else cared about them. He could tell from the catalogue numbers on 78s that recordings must exist in between the ones that he knew, so he put adverts in collectors magazines for records with specific numbers.
McKune gathered a bunch of young collectors around him, who called themselves the Blues Mafia. They were all New York guys, very much like the gang that attends the listening sessions in White Tears. Some of them, in the early ‘50s and early civil rights era, started going down south and knocking door-to-door asking for old 78s, and they found incredible stuff. People still do it occasionally now but there’s nothing left.
DF When was the high point of recording for these blues records?
HK The vast majority of this stuff was recorded between 1925 and ’34. In 1925 electrical recording was invented, which meant that the musicians didn’t have to yell into a horn anymore. Before 1925 any vocal you hear tends to be kind of strained because the person is bellowing into a horn. Once they had a microphone they could record guitar and non-strained vocals. The equipment became slightly more portable, and it was possible to drive a car down from New York to a hotel somewhere and set it up as a studio. All these guys got recorded from 1925 or ’26 through to the middle of the 1930s when the Great Depression made the bottom completely drop out of the market and most of the record labels went out of business. When World War II came, the material they pressed the 78s with, shellac, was needed for war use so there’s pretty much no record production, other than a few really big stars such as Bing Crosby, until after WWII.
DF Who were these records originally being marketed to?
HK Paramount, the big label, was actually a furniture company based in Wisconsin and their business model was one of the reasons that a lot of these guys got recorded. Paramount wanted to sell phonographs so they had salesmen going door-to-door around the country, and part of the pitch was that they would also supply the music that you want to listen to. They set up a record label in order to produce whatever songs would sell furniture – they weren’t that bothered with what they put out, and it had nothing to do with New York’s tastemakers. Up in the hills you had fiddle music, and down in Mississippi it’d be blues music or whatever. It meant that for a few years there were rather weird marginal characters getting onto record. For instance, there’s a Texan gospel singer with a really gentle voice called Washington Philips who had bolted together two small hand zithers and called his instrument the Manzarene. He played beautiful ballads. That said, there was also plenty of commercial music recorded on the same labels, such as female blues vocals with big band arrangements – all much more conventionally structured and polished.
DF As a British writer looking at US blues collecting, do you see any parallels with the folk music collectors in Britain such as Cecil Sharp? There are big differences in the social contexts, but also unexpected similarities.
HK I was certainly interested in the English ballad tradition – the sort of music that Bert Jansch and Pentangle were mining in the 1970s from Cecil Sharp’s song collections.
And that is weirdly useful knowledge when you realise there is some blues lyric that is clearly travelled across the ocean from England in some form, and been melded with something from West Africa. This is fascinating to me because the fetishisation of authenticity and origin is so much what all this blues collecting is about. It’s so much to do with the taste of these 1940s and ‘50s collectors, which was partly informed by a leftist politics. They wanted a heroic black primitive, the authentic voice of the working man, perhaps to bolt onto some civil rights related politics. Or if you’re the folklorist Alan Lomax you fetishize authenticity because you want to find songs from as far back as possible. I’ve heard recordings where you can hear him ask ‘where did you learn that song?’ after the person has finished playing and the person knows to say ‘I was taught that’, yet you know, because there was a record two years previously, that they’ve just heard it on a 78.
The classic model of blues musician is that person who came straight off the fields, put down his plough, and picked up his guitar; pure, untrammelled earth music. But many of these guys were sophisticated entertainers who played in different contexts. They’d play blues in a juke at night, then gospel at a church picnic the next day and the following night parties that were predominantly white. Robert Johnson and musicians like him could play polkas and jigs– they weren't limited to a 'black' repertoire and had a sense of themselves as performers. Not all of them though – Mississippi John Hurt went back to sharecropping after he finished recording and didn’t surface again until the folk revival people found him and he had a career playing to white audiences. Son House they found in Rochester drinking himself to death, and then the revivalists brought him out. There’s ugly stuff about how Lomax brought Leadbelly up to New York to perform, and made him dress up in prison uniform when he wanted to wear a tux and sing ballads.
DF Did you draw some of the narrative ideas in White Tears directly from any blues songs?
HK The more I become accustomed to listening to blues the more I realised that it comprises a corpus of poetry that dates well back before recorded sound. A lot of it is continuous with work songs and has a lot of scary social resonances. For instance, lines about how to get paid by your crazy white boss who might beat you if you anger him. There’s specific songs about a couple of late 19th century figures who became proverbial, or who blended together in strange ways. There’s Joe Turner, for example, a shop keeper who, during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, gave out food for free and people were grateful to him. Yet there’s also someone called Joe Turney; his brother was the governor of Tennessee and Joe was the guy who transported prisoners from one place to another to work in labour camps, bound together on a long chain. There’s a whole body of songs about somebody, usually a woman, coming to ask where their man is, and being told that Joe Turney’s come and gone.
DF Is Turney where the evil figure of Captain Jack originates in your book? The ancestor of a wealthy family that has made all its money from the prison business?
HK There’s a body of folk songs about the Lowrence brothers who had work camps in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. There were at least five (possibly seven) brothers, all clearly violent men and the conditions in these camps were terrible. That made me start thinking that that there’s a kind of knowledge or history from below that exists in the song material. I wanted to show how people here in the north of the US see themselves totally disconnected from the social systems of the south, as if there’s such a thing as ‘a southern problem’, and we’re all just supercool Greenpoint hipsters who are not implicated in any of that stuff. I wanted to show that there’s a plenty strong enough connection; people have put together capital in all sorts of nefarious ways over the decades, and that financial muscle often gets converted by the children of such people, who come to New York, turn it into cultural capital, and the darker origin of it falls away.
DF White Tears is also about class, isn’t it? There are the class differences that function as a source of antagonism between the novel’s white characters, Seth Carter, and Leonie. And there are the many ways in which the novel reflects how class obviously intersects with race. The book also reflects spookily on gentrification in New York; you turn the city into a ghostly place by making different time periods being simultaneously present, sometimes in the same scene.
HK I love the idea that if you turn up in the same place on different days you might find yourself in a different era. Late on in the book, when Seth is in the full throes of his possession, the time period changes sentence by sentence, or even within sentences. My feeling about ghostliness and the characters being haunted is that it’s about repressed things from the past coming up into the present, but obviously it’s about the inability to move on into the future. I like the idea that these are young guys going forward in their lives until, at some point, they get stuck, and time gets backed-up. The more involved you’re getting with the past, as they are with their blues obsession, the more it invades the present.
When the book gets into the minstrel section – and that’s a tradition that’s earlier than the blues – I’m also undercutting this narrative of authenticity and the blues to show that when you look for the pure nugget of realness you simply find yet more layers of reference and performance. In his book Where Dead Voices Gather  – which is about Emmett Miller, a Georgia minstrel singer – Nick Tosches points out that by the time you get to minstrel performances of the 1920s and ‘30s that occasionally turn up on film, you’re seeing white people imitating black people imitating white people. There are always more layers.
DF Even sound technology is haunted in White Tears. Seth and Carter’s binaural field recordings and studio become a portal through which the avenging angel of the 1920s bluesman Charlie Shaw enters their lives. Did belief in such things as electronic voice phenomena [EVP], whereby people thought they could hear the voices of the dead in recordings, first come up in the 1920s and ‘30s?
HK The standard narrative that social historians follow is that everyone’s sons died in World War I, which sparks a spiritualist trend in the 1920s and ‘30s – people wanting to participate in seances in order to contact their dead relatives. As soon as there’s a recording medium there’s the idea that ghosts communicate through that medium. People didn’t understand that various atmospheric phenomena could produce ghostly voices on your radio dial. I don’t know when the high point of EVP was; I think it was more associated with the medium of tape and it’s now gone, because it was such an artefact of analogue recording technologies.
One thing I discovered whilst researching White Tears is that the standard song for testing audio compression Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom Diner’  …
DF … wasn’t that the first mp3 ever made?
HK … Exactly. ‘Tom’s Diner’ was what they were working with. A PhD student named Ryan McGuire made a track called ‘Ghost in the MP3’  which includes all the frequencies that were discarded from the mp3 during compression. It’s an extraordinary artefact to me – a digital ghost.
DF Compression is a good metaphor for your book – squeezing out that which is inconvenient, be it people or histories.
HK Yes, or that which is culturally too high or too low. I got quite interested in what I thought might be present day connections to the old blues music I was listening to, because the blues genre is now such a hollowed out, beer advert form – a quick way of signifying American authenticity. No one can sing ‘Woke up this morning, got down on my knees’ anymore!
I got into things to do with distance, loss, or rhythmic looseness. There’s a Chicago footwork producer called DJ Elmoe, whose music makes me think of weird unsettled rhythm of Charley Patton and various other blues singers who aren’t sticking to strict postwar rhythm.
They’re much looser, they slip in and out. I was also listening to avant-garde pieces such as William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops , and Steve Reich’s tape works Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain [both 1965] – the way the voice just dissolves into tone.
DF There are a lot of ghost stories in your books. In My Revolutions  you have the character of an ageing 1960s radical whose past starts to catch up with him, and you populate Gods without Men with people fleeing to the desert to escape the spectres of their pasts, be it a failed music career or a UFO cult. Do you consider yourself a ghost story writer?
HK That’s funny, because I think of myself as a thorough-going materialist, an atheist. But I’m very interested in where reason breaks down, what the limits of reality and knowledge are. I’m always fascinated by people who genuinely organise their heads around mystical or religious ideas. Because it’s not mine, I’m interested in it.
Hari Kunzru is a writer living in New York, USA. His novel White Tears (2017) is published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Main image: Alan Lomax playing back a recording made of Raphael Hurtault in La Plaine, Dominica, June 25, 1962. Courtesy: the Association for Cultural Equity; photograph: Antoinette Marchand