Culture on Culture (Dorothy Donegan)

Our artifacts tell what happened and what other possibilities there might have been.

Watch the video linked below then read the article.

Dorothy Donegan, the pianist in the above clip, had all the makings of a star. She was compelling to watch, had loads of personality, and a fiery unique talent that could dwarf other performers otherwise thought to be great in their own right. For proof of this watch the accompanying video and notice the way her piano styling makes the other Pianist, Gene Rogers, sound like he’s playing with his hands soaked in glue, sticky and slow.

Granted comparing Donnegan and Rogers is apples to oranges, he’s got the blues down pat and uses it to competently anchor Jazz and Boogie Woogie elements. But Donnegan has everything all at once, Classical, Swing, Ragtime, Blues all intermixing with fizzy crackling ease and no single one weighing heavy as an anchor.

Her humor and elegance soaks every bar and stanza and when she pounds the floor with her high heeled shoes, turning the platform into a second instrument, she absolutely commands the space. She could stand at that moment and say anything and I’d believe it. She’s a star, flat out.

So why have we never heard of her? She had exposure. The above segment is taken from a widely released Hollywood film. People saw it. But if they went to their record store they’d likely have found no Donnegan recordings. Life soldiers on and other things catch the ear and she’s had no build up or press. The memory grows stale and a potential star becomes a strange side story.

Donnegan, a brash and self-possessed black woman with talent and confidence, got no buy-in from the established star making institutions. They had their say and their say was, “No.”

Not that you couldn’t be some combination of those things and still make it. You just couldn’t be all of them at once. Take Cab Calloway for example. He’s the band leader featured in the clip. He was a frenetic in your face black man playing aggressive swing music. His wild hair and free bodily motions were exactly the sort of thing that might enflame the ire of paranoid moralists and all manner of closeted and un-closeted racists. He has a strange but compelling sexuality tied entirely to his music and the personal distinctiveness of his presentation. But by shading it with manic humor and by being a man in a man’s world he got in where someone like Dorothy Donegan could not. Not to suggest he had an easy time of it. But he’s still famous to this day.

There are a lot of cultural fears confronted and [briefly] surrendered to in this clip. The central position of a black woman of prodigious talent overshadowing the men. The music growing and over spilling its bounds, being broadcast in Times Square. The flash mobs of otherwise respectable [white] citizens driven into a frenzy by the undeniable rhythms from the black band taking center stage. This sequence must have read like terrifying science fiction to racist prudes everywhere.

But along with describing in elaborate detail some elemental American cultural fears (un-regulated mixing). It also highlights some clear cultural desires. It’s a compelling sequence because it speaks to what we want, what we wanted then and what we want now: Freedom from fear. It’s exhilarating to watch people cast off self consciousness and racial consciousness and just get lost in the moment. They stopped well short of having any white people dancing with black, that was a freedom too far for 1945, even for acknowledged fantasy. But we are still left with the fears and desires placed in stark contrast.

Which leads to a question. What if that great big mess of fear and desire that’s all stirred into ecstatic music and dance in this video clip had shaken out differently in history?

-The fear of a strong black female star who owns her image and material could have given way to the desire to hear more of Dorothy Donegan.

-The fear of racial influence could have given way even in 1945 to the elemental desire to embrace the cool, the emancipated, the free.

It’s an easy thing to say, but hard to imagine, since that’s not actually what happened. Yet the currents were there, pulling in these contrasting directions. You can see it in this little slice from an otherwise negligible Hollywood trifle from 75 years ago.

Cab Calloway was a force of nature. Dorothy Donegan was an absolute treasure. And people wanted it all to be true. Otherwise they wouldn’t have fought so hard to deny it.

Amateur Everything: slow learner, low earner, long thinker, kind of addicted to going unnoticed.

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