Veracity and influence of meme: African Americans and making difficult work look easy

In Ken Burns’ documentary on boxing champion Jack Johnson, writer Stanley Crouch asserts (and I’m quoting from memory) that the experience of being black in America was partly defined by ‘making something difficult look easy’.

I didn’t think much about this until reading a history of blues music which made the same assertion. The context was the dance known as the cakewalk. (‘Cakewalk’, of course, has become slang for ‘easy’).

Throughout American history, prejudice and legal disenfranchisement often required black people to excel at something to even be considered marginally competent. It’s not hard to see how that could lead to this meme.

The example of Jack Johnson’s pursuit of the heavyweight championship comes to mind: in the interest of being considered for subsequent bouts, Johnson often had to hide how good he was. (Which is sort of the opposite – making it look harder than it was).

I’m just wondering if sociologists have looked at the veracity of this meme, and its influence on African American art forms. (My main interest here is in early blues guitar). All thoughts welcomed though.

Apologies if I haven’t done a good job expressing this nebulous, arcane question: I have very little knowledge of sociology, just a layperson’s interest in this subject.

I have to confess that the basic cakewalk dance doesn’t look particularly difficult compared to other dance moves. Maybe a professional dancer can weigh in.

You’ll have to post examples of early blues music that you think is difficult to play (but sounds simple). I tend to listen to the slower blues rifts and it’s not dexterity that makes the music but the timing. The Blues, like any other genre has a wide variety of styles so it’s hard to say there is a collective impression that it’s easier to play than it looks. I listen to a lot of live blues musicians and the fast rifts look hard to play and the slow ones don’t.

I got stuck in a high school English class once where the teacher defined “style” in literature as “the ability to do something and make it seem easy.” (Surprisingly, only two of us rolled our eyes.) She wasn’t referring to any one group.

So maybe this meme is not about just African-Americans, but a general idea of what makes any given artist noteworthy.

“Yes the music we play is simple. Simple don’t mean easy.” Country musician Johnny Cash, circa 1960.

Almost all people that are really good at something make it look easy. Professionals make something look easy while an amature makes the same task, if he can perform it at all, look hard.

I don’t think race, sex, religion or political affiliation has anything to do with it.

Exactly. For me its artists. I have several friends in art school and to me what they do seems like witchcraft. I can spend a good long time trying to draw something and it might come out somewhat resembling it. Them? They take a pencil and in a few moments there is something on the paper and it looks exactly like the thing they were picturing. I am amazed every time.

You might move this over to Cafe Society and ask the mods to update the OP’s with “Blues Guitar” in it. Lots of knowledgeable Dopers there…

Well, what about Robert Johnson? He was considered an okay player, studied with - who? Son House? - for a little bit and kinda went to the woodshed to work on his technique. When he started playing out again, he was portrayed as having “sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads” in order to acquire that talent.

See Wiki entry here. Scroll down to Early Life and Devil Legend…

Can’t he just’ve practiced a lot?

In all art forms, there often seems to be a divide between things that create emotions and ‘sound good’, and things that show off skills. I know a guitar player whose motto is: “Play to express, not to impress”.

Many examples of the latter will sound easier than they are. It’s the subtle nuances that make them work. A person learning to play early acoustic blues guitar will encounter many examples of sitting down to learn a song that sounds simple, only to find that it’s very hard to mimic.

I was going to suggest Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” as a good example of a song that’s much harder to pull off than its simple structure makes it seem.

Another example that I can’t find a recording of is “Green River Blues” by Charley Patton (a major influence on all Delta musicians of Robert Johnson’s era). Patton’s guitar imitates the sound of a flowing river, and sounds very simple, but it takes a LONG time to get it to sound halfway decent.

As far as how much of this is a part of the experience of blacks in America during the Jim Crow era, I don’t know. Hard to say.

I agree this thread has started to focus on blues guitar pretty sharply. Mods, move as you wish.

Of course what you say is so - Less is More and what is simple is often the most complex - but I am not sure how you are looking to track that with your meme. for instance, Peter Green of the original Fleetwood Mac is an incredibly economical player - kind of the ultimate less is more. Just go to youTube and look for a recording of “The Supernatural” (or The Super-Natural) and you won’t wonder where Carlos Santana got his style. And what Peter Green does is very hard - pulling that kind of sustain out of a note on an guitar and giving it the nuance he does - well, there is a reason he’s Peter Green (a legend to Brit Blues fans and guitar geeks like me…). But he’s a Brit Blues white (Jewish) guy, not an old Country Blues African-American…so I am not sure how you want to tie your concepts together…

So yeah, old Country Blues players played a simple-sounding music that was far more complex than it initially sounded in a number of ways - counter-point finger-picking, use of syncopation, sophistication of lyrics etc. - even while usually sticking to a basic song structure…

How come you are looking into this? Just curious or part of a project…?

I don’t think you can consider this statement as apart from social class.

Country music in those days was something you learned by doing, not something you went to school to study, and it tended to be the province of, in Ry Cooder’s words, marginal white men.

That said, I appreciate the idea that things look easy when done by pros.

Wow, that reminds me of a conversation I was having about gathering up the music of my youth (I was missing Fleetwood Mac).

So what is so complicated about SRV - Riviera Paradise that seems to strike terror in cover bands?

I’ve never heard of this. The expression, yes. Linked to African Americans, no. Working twice as hard to get half as much recognition or praise, yes (both for racial minorities and women in certain occupations).

It’s called the NBA.

You mean ? :slight_smile:

No project, WordMan, I’m just always trying to delve into old time guitar music. And I’m always interested in the history behind things.

Well - lemme ask you this: have you *liked *many cover bands’ versions of RP?? I assume the answer is No. :wink:

My first reaction to your post? Oh jeeez - Riviera Paradise is like, oh, Pachelbel’s Canon in D minor: in the hands of a master, it is uplifting, inspiring art. In the hands of *anyone *else - which means about 95% or more of what is out there - it is schmaltzy crap. SRV got it right.

It is just very, very hard to swing that slowly and patiently stay in the pocket of the rhythm with tasteful licks - amateurs like me get restless, jump ahead of the beat, and follow that to SchmaltzLand.

Cool - I still think you should reach out to the mods, move this to CS, and edit the OP to have Blues Guitar in the title - you’ll get more of what you are looking for…

I’ve never talked a band into playing it. I know some musicians that can play Hendrix live as well has he played in the studio but nobody will touch RP.

That makes sense. I’ve heard people try and play Michael Hedges songs which is a guaranteed train wreck. I’m not sure which songs were done this way, but I know he retuned his guitar to match something closer to a piano. when he strummed it without holding any chords it had a weird sound.

Hendrix laid down a groove so big and thick anybody could follow it. Some of his slower tunes like the lead in **Castles Made of Sand **are closer in nuance to Riviera Paradise - I am sure Hendrix has many examples of the slower stuff but I just can’t bring to the front of my brain right now…

I’d always thought that the carnival game which borrowed the name of the dance was responsible for cakewalk becoming a synonym for easy. The carnival game requires no skill other than the ability to walk and is essentially just a raffle, while the dance actually requires, you know, dancing. Huh. I’d had no idea.