I guess my first misstep was trying to play and sing like Louis Armstrong. Hearing him perform was love at first sound and no matter how often I heard him I wanted to hear more. I suspect my second misstep was organizing a Dixieland band and appearing in public. This enabled listeners to record my performances and, if called upon, to testify against me.
I hadn’t heard of Charles Caleb Colton, the nineteenth century English writer and cleric. However, I’d often heard his most enduring quotation, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Although not my favourite literary passage, it aptly described how I related to my idol. No one was more sincere than I in striving to imitate Armstrong’s trumpet choruses and vocals.
I even embraced modifications of Colton’s quotation by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, of whom I had heard more than enough. Although neither played trumpet, both were good at blowing their own horn.
Wilde extended the quote to “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Shaw lengthened it to “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the sincerest form of learning.” Like the original, the revisions aptly described my situation. Compared to Louis, I was mediocre at best and had a lot to learn.
But that didn’t deter me from flaunting my musical disabilities in Saskatoon, my hometown, and by sitting in with like-minded performers in their hometowns, from Charlottetown to Victoria. The highlight, though, was a 1981 pilgrimage to New Orleans, the legendary birthplace of jazz, where I gave thanks before a statue of Louis in a park named after him and sat in with two bands on Bourbon Street.
Without my noticing it, evidence for the prosecution was mounting. I openly indulged in Southern delights, from gumbo, raw oysters and praline liqueur to paddlewheel steamers, Mardi Gras and Flannery O’Connor. Gone with the Windbecame a favourite movie and, though unsuccessful, I lobbied Universal Studios to produce a DVD of Dixie.
Universal’s intransigence was a major disappointment, which I lamented in a published essay, no doubt contributing to the case against me. The movie celebrates the life of Daniel Decatur Emmett, who allegedly composed Dixie, also called I wish I was in Dixie. It became the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
Although not a war buff, I visited battle sites on the way to New Orleans. Later, I purchased a Confederate flag. I didn’t want to fly it. I just wanted to have it as a souvenir of my Southern exposure.
I suppose even music duffers like me attract admirers. Still, I was surprised when a stranger called by to interview me. He said he had been following my musical career for some time and was an avid collector of information about me.
“I’m flattered,” I said. “You realize, of course, that I’m as much an amateur as a professional. I perform mainly for the love of it.”
“And do you mock Louis Armstrong for the love of it?” he asked. “Mocking blacks is an expression of white supremacy.”
“I don’t mock him,” I replied, taken aback by the charge. “I try to imitate him. My efforts are an admission of black supremacy in jazz. Nearly all my favourite musicians and vocalists are black, from Duke Ellington to Lena Horne.”
“And do you imitate her?”
“Not since my voice changed.”
“I should hope not,” he said. “You don’t want to add sexism to racism.”
Before I could object, he stated that making fun of black dialects is racist and illegal.
“I’ve never heard of that,” I said.
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
“Besides,” I protested, “to imitate is not the same as to make fun of. Even if it were, are you saying that it’s wrong to mimic a Brooklyn dialect, an Irish brogue or a French accent? Actors and comedians do it all the time. They don’t spare any language variants from upper English to low German.”
“I’ve never heard of low German.”
“Ignorance of the low is no excuse.”
“You probably like Dixie, the movie,” he said, “because you loveDixie, the song. Not only does it ridicule how blacks spoke, it suggests nostalgia for plantation life and slavery.”
“On the contrary,” I said. “I like the movie because of the music, the dancing and the humour, not to mention the singing of Bing Crosby.”
When he insisted that I take care of my Confederate flag, I thought I was getting through to him. But only until he added that destroying evidence is a serious offense. With an ominous “You’ll be hearing from us,” he left.
If I have to defend myself before a rights commission, I’ll appeal to blacks who fly the Confederate flag. It seems to me that their alleged cognitive dissonance is only apparent. In reality, they are applying a version of the principle of double effect. One effect, expressing love of the South, they intend. Another, giving offence, they deplore. To realize the one, they tolerate the other, as they believe the intended good isproportionate to the unintended evil.
It seems like ethics 101.