McWhorter’s second NYT column: better, but still no cigar

August 22, 2021 • 12:15 pm

John McWhorter, on top of everything else he does, has agreed to write two substantial essays a week for the New York Times. I discussed the first one recently, and found it wanting. It was about the origins of the term “woke,” and while it was worth reading and surely instructive, it was simply too long. And that is the problem with this week’s column, too, which is about the tortuous history of a black opera that fell into the hands of white lyricists and musicians.

McWhorter, who writes very well, surely deserves a column in the NYT, and not just as a palliative for the paper’s toxic wokeness, but because he has thoughtful things to say. But, as I feared, writing two longish pieces per week for the paper simply can’t be done well on top of all the other columns, video podcasting, and book writing he does, not to mention his regular academic duties at Columbia.  It’s simply too much. I have my fingers crossed, but I fear that for McWhorter, something’s gotta give.

His “newsletter” at the NYT is accessible only to those who subscribe to the paper, and you won’t be able to see it even as part of the five-free-articles deal they have (or whatever the number is now). But if you do subscribe, you can see the article by clicking on the screenshot:


The answer to McWhorter’s question is “yes”, but he doesn’t think black people will necessary like the opera (it has music written by white men, and uses a lot of black jargon), which in its present incarnation McWhorter loves. Let’s briefly go through the gyrations of this piece:

a. Black writer Arna Bontemps wrote a novel called God Sends Sunday in 1931. Its subject was the love between a black jockey and a beautiful woman. It’s not seen as his best work.

b. In collaboration with Harlem Renaissance authors Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, the book was made into a play, as many popular novels were at the time. The play was called “St. Louis Woman” and it fizzled.

c. The authors decided to gussy up the play with music, and called in the great musical writers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white men. But the musical version fizzled as well, though, as McWhorter said, the music is sublime, and “When I first heard this recording at 24, if I had hairs on the back of my neck they would have been standing up.”

d. In the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer turned “St. Louis Woman” into a piece called “Blues Opera.” According to McWhorter, this was a really good work:

Anyone could hear that this music deserved another chance, and in the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer transformed “St. Louis Woman” into “Blues Opera.” And I mean “transformed” — we’re talking recitatives, leitmotifs, ensembles and even a murder: opera. There are times when you’d almost think you were at Strauss’ “Salome,” the scoring is so rich; there is even an atonal tango, for goodness’ sake. And a sword dance.

Yet all of this is written in the musical language of the blues and jazz. The motifs are ever morphing, as if improvised — Arlen was good at this, writing pop songs like “Right as the Rain,” that feel organic and accessible and yet never repeat a phrase. Black-born music served up with a busy classical orchestra? You first think of “Porgy and Bess.” But this is different: Blacker, frankly. With “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward grafted Black idioms onto the idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Arlen and Mercer let the Blackness flow purely — my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.

e. Sadly, “Blues Opera” didn’t come off, and was actually shown only in Europe.

f. Now, the opera has been partly reworked by John Mauceri and Michael Gildin, and it still is in statu nascendi. As McWhorter says, “when do we get to see it?”.

Well, we don’t know. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)

McWhorter finishes by discussing previous attempts by white writers to create black plays, like “Porgy and Bess” (they should also mention “Showboat”). He argues that “Porgy and Bess” does not deserve damnation for being written by whites, as the music is great. His point is that we shouldn’t demand that “black art” be created only by black artists, just as white art shouldn’t be created only by white artists:

“Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones” have both had their days in the sun recently, and as the world opens back up, producers, directors, and performers are likely to be on the hunt for other shows that speak to the Black experience. And to be sure, there are operas written by Black people that are also deserving: I recommend H. Lawrence Freeman’s “Voodoo,” William Grant Still and Langston Hughes’s “Troubled Island,” and Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X (yes, in 1986!).

But there’s also “Blues Opera” waiting for us. It deserves — nay, needs — a good look and listen. To experience it as merely something “white” is to deny the roiling essence of what America has been — and is.

As far as McWhorter’s essay goes, it’s okay, well written and fairly absorbing, but perhaps not of general interest. It’s too long and a bit discursive. I hope McWhorter finds his groove in his biweekly essays, but I think that he’ll have to let some other stuff go if that’s to happen.

By the way, the page where you’re supposed to sign up to get access to his column at the NYT doesn’t seem to show his column. It should be under “newsletters,” so I don’t now what’s going on.

To end: a great song from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, written by George Gershwin “with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.” (Gershwin, by the way, died at only 38 of a brain tumor. Imagine the music that we would have if he’d lived!)


16 thoughts on “McWhorter’s second NYT column: better, but still no cigar

  1. Most likely, the NYTimes launched its newsletters to compete with Substack.

    The problem is that many current and past Times subscribers turned to Substack specifically to avoid the “Woke” parameters of the NYTimes. And it’s doubtful that its newsroom will ever permit the kind of open discussions you have on Substack and elsewhere.

    Speaking of opera, Are readers aware that the Metropolitan premiers in a few weeks an opera based on the memoirs of NYTimes columnist Charles M. Blow?

  2. It might be worth noting that Arlen composed Blues in the Night, often identified as the greatest blues song of all time, and sung to perfection by the supreme blues vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. All this further underscores McWhorter’s point about the relationship between composer’s ethnicities and the style of the music they write. Would anyone have dared tell the great EF to her face that she should not have performed Arlen’s song because it was composed by a White man writing in a Black style??

  3. “… my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.”

    Someone needs a lighter hand on the Old Bay. 🙂

  4. “It should be under “newsletters,” so I don’t now what’s going on.”

    I was confused by this, too. I think that once you are signed up for a column it doesn’t show on those lists anymore. At least that was my experience.

  5. “But Black English is fiercely complex in its ways just as the standard is. Characters like the ones in “Blues Opera” speak more, not less, English than Tucker Carlson.”

    Hope the sting of that backhand stays with the host of Fox News’s White Power Hour for a while.

      1. There’s a backstory to that backhand. When McWhorter first came to the fore as a linguistics expert regarding the Ebonics controversy, he came out against what the Oakland school district was attempting to do as inimical to the long-term educational and employment prospects of its black students. But he was adamant that Black English was a legitimate dialect, with a grammar and vocabulary as rich and varied (if not even more so) as the French policed by Académie Française or the English spoken by the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr.

        Tucker Carlson, on the other hand, in his typically obtuse, smart-ass manner, disparaged Black English as merely English spoken by people who didn’t know how to conjugate verbs.

  6. “Not for nothing did Ethel Waters call [Harold] Arlen ‘the blackest white man I ever knew’ …”

    Then again, Ms. Waters didn’t live to meet Detroit’s White Boy Rick. 🙂

  7. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)

    Probably worth noting that McWhorter made his debut as a public intellectual during the controversy a couple decades ago over teaching “Ebonics” in Oakland public schools — an era he revisited in his 2017 book Talking Black, Talking Black: the Truth About America’s Lingua Franca.

  8. Anecdotal evidence suggests that “Porgy and Bess” is far more popular among African Europeans than African Americans. It is also the single most popular and widely performed American opera in Europe! (Not sure what the most popular American operas in America are, but I would guess it is either John Adams’ “Nixon in China” or Mark Adamo’s “Little Women”.)

    The Broadway adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” done in 2011 which cut most of the music had a revised script by an African American woman and greatly deepened and expanded the character of Bess while losing a lot of Gershwin’s wonderful music. However, the publicity for the show drew almost no attention to either of these facts. I enjoyed the show, notwithstanding Stephen Sondheim’s denunciation of it as a horrible travesty.

  9. I enjoyed the essay, hadn’t heard of the play. I suppose it’s too long, but that’s true of almost every post these days as we try to keep up with the overwhelming amount of worthwhile things to read every day. With due respect, Dr. Coyne, it is occasionally the case with some of your posts. I do not mean to offend.

  10. If we are really discussing whether a person can write about people different than they are, or characters who are experiencing things that the author has not, the answer is a fairly unambiguous yes.
    I think the premise is that having a bit of African heritage gives you a unique understanding of the experiences of all others with a similar heritage. Beyond that, the experience of Blackness is so unique that no person without at least one Black parent can possibly understand it. In fact, it offensive for such a person to even try.
    This conveys to other favored groups, but specifically excludes others.
    One example I have noticed is that some Asian Americans claim particular ownership over portrayals of Asian characters. They do not need to have ever been to Asia, or even have ancestors from the particular country the portrayal is set in. I don’t hear much from actual Asians, but mostly the hyphenated kind.
    Lets say we go to the Santa Fe Opera next summer, and see a performance about, just to pick a subject out of the air, singing cowboys having adventures on one of the great late century cattle drives. In my hypothetical opera, some of the cowboys are Black, which would reasonably reflect the reality of the time. I think those characters would be more believable if the author of the work had done cowboy-type activities, rather than living their whole life in some dystopian urban hellscape, where aggressive giant rats are the closest one comes to seeing the deer and the antelope roaming.
    Just being a Black author does not seem to give any advantage, as our 19th century cowboys might share skin complexion with our urban author, but little else.

    There are a few very talented people who can bring any character to life for the audience. Making the character feel correct for their particular time, place, and occupation is a matter of research.

  11. I’m hoping McWhorter will use his excellent brain to write about things OTHER than race.
    But I hoped my hometown NY Times wouldn’t become The Woke Journal also.

  12. Oh, just appreciation of thoughtful column, plus intelligent comments, to get my week going, Monday 5am starbux. I love so many things—internet, Coyne, McWhorter, Ella…thank you world

  13. I always thought that “Woke” had some reference to the failure of the proletariat to rise up in revolution as predicted by Marx, with the reason given being that they had been lulled to sleep and made to believe that a system that was against their best interests was really the only logical one. The neo-Marxists theorized that the masses need to have their consciousness raised. They needed to wake up and see that they should not accept a system that was created by the bourgeoisie to benefit themselves.

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