On identity beyond ethnicity (and other boundaries), cont’d: Tom Piazza on music, empathy, and the limits of “authenticity”

In an NPR interview, Tom Piazza discusses his collection of essays Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. He points out that country music singer Jimmy Rodgers “crossed a lot of lines that, I think, at that time in our culture in the 1920s, were probably generally seen as being … less porous than he thought they were. He took it on himself to pick freely from the traditions not just of Anglo-American balladry, railroad songs, Western songs, but also from African-American blues, and he did it very convincingly.”

And he discusses Bob Dylan, who of course is a musical and cultural chameleon who didn’t (and doesn’t) have “a whole lot of respect for other people’s ideas of where the boundaries were supposed to come down.”

But Piazza puts it best when he reads an excerpt from an essay considering whether Gillian Welch — NY-born, LA-raised, with early forays into goth and psychedelic surf — can perform old-time country “authentically,” and whether it matters*:

It seems to me that it takes an extreme poverty of imagination to propose, implicitly or explicitly, that people can write only about their personal experience (or, worse, about the experiences peculiar to their ethnic/gender/regional/national group). It takes poverty of imagination, and hostility to the idea of the free human spirit. Any hope one might have left for a society like ours depends on the constant assertion of the possibility of that kind of empathy. Of course, as an artist, the further from your personal experience you try to reach, the more effort, intuition, honesty, humility, and/or luck it takes. The further you reach, the easier it is to do something that doesn’t work, doesn’t ring true. But the question is whether it works, whether it rings true, not whether you have an inherited visa to enter that territory.

Listen to the whole thing here. More thoughts on identity beyond boundaries here.

*Update: I’ve replaced my original transcript of the edited interview with the actual passage from the book, which I’ve since bought and enjoyed.


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