(The man of the hour)
So we’ve just witnessed Charles Ramsey’s transformation from, in short order, anonymous dishwasher to TV-news hero to Auto-Tuned internet meme. It’s been both fun and discomfiting. Fun because the guy’s a natural raconteur (even to the 911 operator: “Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eatin’ my little food, right?”) and discomfiting because A) his fame has come via the revelation of a horrific scene of captivity; and B) because the attention he’s commanded has run the gamut from admiration to ridicule.
Like Sweet Brown (“Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That”), Antoine Dodson (“Bed Intruder”), and Michelle Clark (“Kabooya”), Ramsey is a lower-income African-American whose camera time came as a result of tragedy. (Brown’s apartment complex caught on fire, Dodson’s sister survived a rape attempt, and Clark’s community was ravaged by a violent hailstorm.) If the people who leave comments on YouTube are anything to go by, a lot of viewers regard these individuals purely as figures of fun: found objects repurposed in the service of a new digital minstrelsy. And that’s reprehensible.
But YouTube commenters don’t necessarily represent the greater part of YouTube viewers—a lot of the former are ignorant kids and unevolved doofuses—and I think there’s a more charitable and uplifting way to look at the fascination with Ramsey et al. These endlessly replayed local-news clips are, in a way, like the field recordings made by the father-and-son folklorists and ethnomusicologists John Lomax and Alan Lomax in neglected pockets of America during the Depression years and beyond. These mini-monologues appeal because they capture authentic, idiomatic, unmediated American voices that are more alive to us than the glib, slick patter that usually comes through the speakers of our TVs and laptops.
In his book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus coined the term “the old, weird America” to describe the Delta and backwoods milieux where the Lomaxes’ finds sang their songs, and where the archivist Harry Smith’s favorite balladeers and bluesmen came from. The inference was that America is no longer weird—that its old variety of strange ethnic, regional, and racial subcultures was snuffed out by suburbanization, prosperity, and cultural homogeneity.
But Charles Ramsey reminds us that the weirdness is still with us. It’s just been updated and accelerated. Whereas, in the old days, sixty-two years would pass between when John Lomax recorded Vera Hall of Alabama singing “Trouble So Hard” a cappella and when Moby sampled Hall for his song “Natural Blues” (from the album Play, the soundtrack to many a bourgeois dinner party in the early Aughts), now all it takes is a day for some clever white twerps to transmute a field recording into a thumpin’ hit.
Yes, there’s an uncomfortable sense of patronization that goes with all this—the celebration and embrace of heretofore marginalized black individuals for their “realness.” But in Charles Ramsey’s case, at least, the net result is positive. When we as a nation are able to find a silver lining to that otherwise unspeakable crime story in Cleveland, that’s a dead giveaway that we’re responding, first and foremost, to Ramsey’s humanity, not to how funny he is.