Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Michelle Shocked: Arkansas Traveler [Mercury, 1992]
Personally, I'm sorry she chickened out of doing the cover in blackface, because it would have added yet another fucked-up twist to her impossibly confused attempt to sort out American music's racial debts. After all, her confusion is no more impossible than anybody else's, just further out there, and at least the opacity of her pontifications on minstrelsy illustrates how deep the mysteries run. As someone who knows a fair amount about minstrelsy, I'd point out that most of its tunes were written by whites, albeit whites who aped and/or stole from blacks, or anyway (speaking of confusion), claimed to--after 1860, 'twas oft complained that newer minstrels weren't faux-darkie enough. And as someone who'd like to know more, I wish Shocked had said damn the copyright lawyers and detailed the sources of all her new songs, which--except for the gnomic "Arkansas Traveler" on the up side and the preachy "Strawberry Jam" on the down--are at their best when they seem influenced but not imitated. "Prodigal Daughter" out of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" is a coup--hooray. But is there a sense in which the equally praiseworthy "Come a Long Way" is also a rewrite? Or did those notes just float in from the ether? B+