Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Eefin and Hambone, Or, What Is Culture?

February 12, 2013Print This Post         

Hee Haw, CBS-TV, June 15, 1969 – September 19, 1992

by Justin E. H. Smith

I mentioned recently that whenever I come back to the US (I’m writing from Chicago), I enjoy immersing myself in this country’s rich cultural history. This, for example:

My friends imagined that I was joking, that I was being my usual haughty, hi-culture, Europhile self. How can I get the message across? No matter how often I attempt to explain this, no one believes me: I am essentially a lo-culture kind of guy. Or, rather, I deny the legitimacy of the distinction. I do not believe that there is anything more earnest in Ernstkultur than in Unterhaltung. I believe, quite the contrary, that culture bubbles up from the depths, and that its genius is equally distributed across all places and times. And I have no patience, either, for these incessant reminders that Brahms incorporated Slavonic folk dances into his music, or that Copland was influenced by jazz; to those who bring this up I can only reply: don’t waste my time, then, but give me Slavonic folk dances, and give me jazz.

What gives the appearance of some monopoly on genius to the sort of cultural output that is housed in museums and Lincoln Plaza and so on is just this: that brainless one-percenters are spending huge amounts of money to put their names on these monuments, and the brainless bourgeoisie makes pilgrimages to them, spending medium sums of money to have a brush with cultural objects that supposedly edify by their simple proximity. The illusion that genius is stored up in sites of high culture is sustained by capital and by the laziness and gullibility of culture’s consumers: all the season-ticket holders, all the dupes of the museums’ advertising departments, for their part driven ever further, under the compulsion of capital, to make the Ottoman sultan’s throne, or medieval armor, or Greco-Bactrian statuary, look like so many things to buy– passing them off as a special class of objects, museum objects, that you can buy in a way just by going and standing in front of them.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to Eefin and Hambone. I remarked to a friend (who, again, thought I was joking), that what we are witnessing here (and in general are always witnessing on Hee Haw, the show that perhaps more than any other shaped my earliest thoughts about what culture is and how it works) is a performance of musical virtuosity that unites feigned cretinism with real genius (i.e., not the kind that’s only sustained by capital). This is also the marriage of two distinct musical traditions, with affinities to forms we find, among other places, in Arctic Canada, Haiti, and West Africa. ‘Eefing’ is an Appalachian tradition of rhythmic vocal grunts and plosions (of making various noises that sound like ‘eef’), which some people have identified as a sort of Appalachian ancestor of beatboxing. Here, as so often, the chicken-or-egg debate about American cultural forms (where either the chicken or the egg is Euro-American culture, and the other is African-American) is unnecessarily repeated: eefing and beatboxing are two different and perhaps historically interwoven traditions of using the body as a rhythm instrument. In its performance, eefing comes across less like beatboxing than like Inuit vocal games, to my mind. Hambone, in turn, is an originally West African tradition, sometimes called ‘Juba’, which is well-attested throughout the Caribbean and the southern US, and is, like eefing, a percussive use of the body, though it is rather closer to drumming. Here, it is clear that we are looking at a musical form that is in the first instance African-American, or, perhaps better, African-diasporic. That it crosses over so easily and perfectly into the totally white world of Hee Haw shows, yet again, on what a narcissism of minor differences racial boundaries in the US are sustained.

What is particularly engaging about Eefin and Hambone (as opposed to eefing and hambone), is that there’s a certain queerness to them, and I mean this word in both its old-fashioned and its newfangled senses: they are represented as doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, and doing it, as of necessity, together. They are repeatedly caught by the enforcers of hillbilly normativity, and are chased away with a gruff kick in the pants. But it’s clear that they are in the end accepted in the community, and that they’ll be up to it again soon enough. But what is it that they’re up to, exactly? They’re doing something rhythmic, doing it together, with their bodies, something that is ecstatic and grotesque, that is constantly under threat of prohibition, and that they seem, in virtue of their peculiar shared nature, unable not to do. This gets to the heart of the genius of music, as far as I’m concerned.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website

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