- Carolina ShoutJames P. Johnson and the Performance of Temporality*
Matter is not spread out in space and indifferent to time; it does not remain totally constant and totally inert in a uniform duration. Nor indeed does it live there like something that wears away and is displaced. It is not just sensitive to rhythms but it exists, in the fullest sense of the term, on the level of rhythm.—Gaston Bachelard
The dances they did at the Jungles Casino were wild and comical—the more pose and the more breaks the better. These Charleston people and the other southerners had just come to New York. They were country people and they felt homesick. When they got tired of twosteps and schottisches (which they danced with a lot of spieling), they'd yell: "Let's go back home!"… or "Now put us in the alley!" I did my "Mule Walk" or "Gut Stomp" for these country dances. Breakdown music was the best for such sets, the more solid and groovy the better. They'd dance, hollering and screaming until they were cooked. The dances ran from fifteen to thirty minutes, but they kept up all night until their shoes wore out—most of them after a heavy's day's work on the docks.—James P. Johnson
In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis makes a powerful argument for the sharp intellectual relevance of Harlem Renaissance music. For her, musicians like Bessie Smith were engaged in a profound restructuring of the intellectual and cultural assumptions subtending existing social formations. Davis asks us to hear the blues forays of the African American musical tradition as performances capable of cutting across and cutting up the sterile dichotomies that restrict the development of alternative social and subjective formations. She writes that the performances of figures like Bessie Smith have the power to "construct seemingly antagonistic relationships as noncontradictory oppositions" (xv).
One of Bessie Smith's most inventive and compelling accompanists is also one of the most underheard contributors to the intellectual and musical creativity of the Harlem Renaissance.1 James P. Johnson's work as accompanist, solo performer, recording artist, and animator of rent parties partakes of the same ability to reshape cultural forms and intellectual assumptions as the work of Bessie Smith. In his instrumental music, and [End Page 841] particularly in his 1921 recording of "Carolina Shout," Johnson improvises through the "seemingly antagonistic relationships" between the past and the present, the mind and the body. In its handling of rhythm and repetition, "Carolina Shout" gives us a performative philosophy of time and history based on the strong imbrication of these oppositions. Against dominant conceptions of linear temporality like progress, sublimation, and uplift, "Carolina Shout" constructs a powerfully seductive version of a non-transcendent, repetitive temporality.
James Baldwin writes that jazz is an attempt to checkmate "the European conception of the world," and it is my intention here to read the performative imperatives of "Carolina Shout" as strategic moves aimed at checkmating Euro-American conceptions of time and the self (87). Recent works by Alexander Weheliye, Marc Singer, and Ian Baucom all push for a rethinking of the relationship between time and race; this essay argues for Johnson's "Carolina Shout" as a crucial resource in this ongoing attempt to theorize alternative constructions of racialized temporality.2
James P. Johnson is an intriguing figure in the history of jazz and in the history of the intellectual scene in interwar New York. He is perhaps best known as the composer of the "Charleston" (although a tiny percentage of those who can identify the Charleston can identify Johnson), the strains of which have become a clichéd figure for a shallowly understood "Jazz Age,"3 but his musical accomplishments are remarkably diverse, including as they do important works in both jazz and classical fields, as well as in musicals and even opera, and in ensembles ranging in size from solo piano to soloist with symphony. Johnson's productivity can be seen in the partial catalog of his works that he made in a 1930 letter to James Weldon Johnson asking for help in securing a Guggenheim fellowship: "I have in...