Unpacking the Absurd Logic of Cultural Appropriation—and What It Will Cost Us

It is not stealing or looting to take things that inspire you in one culture and adapt and change them to further your own expression.

The Band performs with Bob Dylan in 1974. (Left to right: Rick Danko (bass), Robbie Robertson (guitar), Bob Dylan (guitar), Levon Helm(drums)) Wikipedia

In late August, 1968, a successful, young Canadian songwriter named Robbie Robertson would sit down to engage in one of the most preposterous acts of cultural appropriation in music history. His subject matter was a particularly painful moment in American history, told from the perspective of a group that had experienced merciless violence at the hands of the U.S federal government, expressed in the form of a rock and roll song. At the time Robertson knew so little about the group he was singing about—it wasn’t his culture, after all—that he would have to visit his local library to read up on them before he started writing.

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Yet somehow, his song worked. Like so many acts of cultural appropriation from the past a lack of familiarity or a genuine connection to the traditions involved was hardly an obstacle to commercial or critical success. The song was an enormous hit that has spanned the decades, even covers of it would go on to chart as high as #3 on the Billboard charts. And the only thing more stunning than its success is that nobody seems to mind or be bothered by the fact that the songwriter was writing about a cause that wasn’t his own, that he was quite literally taking up someone else’s banner.

While this might seem like a strange way to describe and contextualize the generally beloved song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, using today’s increasingly militant standards of cultural appropriation, it’s absolutely true.

Cultural appropriation, properly defined, is the exploitation or co-opting of a culture to which one has no rightful heritage. What does that look like in practice? Depending on who you talk to, it’s Katy Perry wearing a kimono in her performance at the American Music Awards. It’s Elvis popularizing black music and becoming obscenely rich in the process. According to one angry student in San Francisco, it can be growing your hair into dreadlocks. Just this year, a massive controversy in the art world reared up over whether a white painter could show a painting about the death of Emmett Till.

The question then is: Who does Robbie Robertson think he is, trying to speak about the plight of the poor tenant farmers of Dixie?

Consider: He’s not American. He’s not from the South. His song is not about a “winner” of history either. He is taking up the voice of the poor white Southerner, used as cannon fodder in a war most of them never wanted; he’s singing about a part of the country decimated by Sherman’s troops, a world that Drew Gilpin Faust would call the “Republic of Suffering.” Worse still, according to later copyright disputes, a contributors to the song (who was Southern) believes he was not fully credited for what he brought to the project.

Robertson admits much of this too. He would even say that he chose these themes of his songs precisely because he thought they would sound good coming out of the voice of Levon Helm, the token American and Southerner in The Band. He would say, about another one of his songs about the South, that he had simply traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line as a kid and began looting the place for themes and personalities and ideas to use in his pursuit of rock stardom. As Robertson said to American Songwriter about a visit to Tennessee,

“While I was there, I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things … in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that’s what was there. I just felt a strong passion toward the discovery of going there, and it opened my eyes, and all my senses were overwhelmed by the feeling of that place. When I sat down to write songs, that’s all I could think of…”

Again, to argue that we should be upset about the appropriation of Southern culture—a slave owning culture—might seem absurd, but we’ve already begun to take the outrage over appropriation so far that posing this question now seems almost overdue. Why shouldn’t American Southerners have just as good a case as any to protest “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?” Students at Oberlin have boycotted the dorm cafeteria over its decision to serve sushi (appropriated from Japan), students at the University of Ottawa can get a yoga class cancelled (appropriated from India) and a burrito cart in Portland was shut down because they got recipe ideas and cooking tips on a trip to Mexico. Just a few months ago in Canada, where Roberston is from, an editor dared to suggest that art inspired by or capturing a culture other than one’s own deserved a special prize, and his peers basically tried to drive him from his profession. A fellow editor who tweeted approvingly of his idea actually was!

So why aren’t American southerners protesting to have “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” banned from the radio? To demand that the Grammy’s revoke The Band’s lifetime achievement award?

Because Robertson’s humanizing, somehow apolitical portrait of loss and pain and confusion at the collapse of the Confederacy in the final days of the Civil War is an astounding artistic achievement. So too is the final live performance that was perfectly captured and frozen in time by Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz.

To think that today’s increasingly strict and aggressive standards of cultural appropriation—if applied fairly—would prevent the song from being written? That by these rules of heritage the only thing Robertson should be allowed to write about is the perspective of an indigenous Canadian? I shudder at the thought.

Thankfully, none of this has happened. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is currently safe and widely considered to be one of the greatest songs in the history of American music. As it should be.

The problem with policing political correctness issues like cultural appropriation is not that it protects people. We should all seek to be polite, respectful and understanding, particularly of groups that are different than us and that have been treated unfairly in the past. The instincts behind it are good. The problem with political correctness is that by mandating this protection—by using social pressure and even shaming to enforce codes about what is OK and not OK—it becomes fundamentally oppressive. That in trying to prevent some poorly thought out theme in a Katy Perry video, you trample the seeds of some brilliant, risky artistic expression by someone else. And you deprive people of the opportunity to learn about new cultures and contribute to a free exchange between them.

The idea that a novelist would write a book about the love story between an illiterate concentration camp guard and the 15 year old boy she had an affair with (sorry, raping) is offensive beyond words. That the writer was a white German male probably makes it worse. Yet somehow The Reader works. It’s brilliant and moving and does what all great art is supposed to do: it makes us think about what it means to be a human being. Which is the point: You never know what’s going to work or who will be able to make something work until it happens.

My editor has said to me before, “It’s not what a book is”—who made it, what its intentions are—“it’s what a book does.” And “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” does something. It captures something so completely, creates such a vivid illusion that it comes to many people as a surprise who made it. It does what Robertson set out to do.

If “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” had failed to do that, if it has been trite or unfeeling, we wouldn’t need to line up to accuse them of cultural appropriation, by the way. We already have plenty of language to describe bad or mediocre art. For that reason, it is interesting to listen to Joan Baez’s chart topping cover of the song which, as it happens, misses completely the sorrow and the pain of the song, singing it like it’s some fun church choir romp (it also gets the lyrics wrong). And has, as a result, mostly faded from memory while the original song remains popular.

My guess is that we give Robertson and The Band a pass because deep down we know that cultural appropriation—when done right, when done wellis actually called art. And when we are not too busy looking for outrage points on the internet to look at the art itself, we know that it is actually something quite powerful and important. As Ralph Gleason would write in Rolling Stone about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1969, it’s almost unreal how good the song is—it is better at capturing the personal cost of the fall of that flawed, broken cause than any history book or primary source.

“Nothing I have read,” he said, “brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does….It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today.”

Yet if Robertson had done this for the slave experience, is there any chance that we would have—in any era—let him get away with it? Cultural appropriation is not an accusation you should be able to selectively apply. Does the fact that Robertson was writing about a group that social justice warriors or the politically correct care much about mean he gets a free pass? Cultural appropriation is either exploitative and bad or it’s not.

Lionel Shriver in her controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in defense of cultural appropriation would argue that this is precisely what art is designed to do, what it is supposed to do. Referring to sombreros as a particularly distasteful example of appropriation, she said, “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”

She is picking a deliberately provocative example, but she’s not wrong. That is what art is for. To explore ourselves and other people.

The writer Roxane Gay recently complained about HBO’s new series (a show that’s not even out yet and is already being accused of appropriation) which imagines a world in which slavery wasn’t abolished after the Civil War by pointing out all the other alternative histories the writers could have chosen. Why not an alternative history about Native Americans or if Mexicans won the Mexican-American was, she asks? (I would ask where her outrage is about The Man in the High Castle which imagines a world where the Japanese and Germans won WWII.) But that’s the point—the artists chose this one. And we should encourage everyone else to tackle whatever they want to as well, nor should we let backgrounds limit who decides to try.

And of this argument that cultural appropriation drowns out local or more deserving voices: How many better qualified bands were there to write about the fall of the South in 1968? Lynyrd Skynyrd was around and going strong. How many talented historians and orators had tried to explain where and what the Lost Cause had come from? All came up painfully short. It was an outsider who had managed to do it, it was a guy who went to the library for a few hours and put it to music that he had been working on for nearly a year and magic was created. He was able to see it more simply, more humanely than those who had spent their lives in the complexity of the trees and lost sight of the forest.

It is not stealing or looting to take things that inspire you in one culture and adapt and change them to further your own expression. It’s a right. It’s the essence of art. And it’s a right to be extended both ways.

Elvis should be able to turn black music into rock and roll, just as Rick Ross should be able to transcend his career as a correctional officer to take up any image he likes as a rapper, just as Idris Elba should be and could be a badass James Bond, just as Lin-Manuel Miranda is rightly lauded for doing whatever he wants with Alexander Hamilton and just as Stephen L. Carter’s novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln was rightly given glowing praise. The Band should be able to, as Canadians, dig their feet into the mud at Muscle Shoals and find inspiration there, just like hip-hop’s greatest beat makers should feel free to borrow from Steely Dan (as Kanye did) or The Doors (as Jay Z did) and remake any song that they obtain legal permission to sample (that was Puffy’s only mistake with “Every Breath You Take”—not that it was cultural appropriation).

It’s from this that we create beautiful things, that 1+1=3, and that we learn and are exposed to new perspectives. And if this is occasionally done in poor taste or obscenely profitable, well, that’s what we have income tax for. (Elvis, for what it’s worth, paid a tax rate as high as 94% for most of his glory days. One hopes that the profits from Joan Baez’s terrible cover of Dixie went straight to Uncle Sam.)

A music critic would say of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that,

“It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth—not the whole truth, but his truth—and the little autobiography closes the gap between us.”

That’s what cultural appropriation is uniquely suited to do. And that’s what we need lots more of. For all issues. Every cause and every community deserves something as good as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,”—deserves lots of them. Because it’s a wonderful way to close gaps and create empathy, even for people you might not otherwise feel it for (a la people who fought for the South). It’s how we generate understanding and a new, better, shared culture.

If someone can capture the pain of the inner city and communicate it to the world in a way that changes people, if someone can articulate the subtle stabs of systemic oppression or violation, if someone can communicate the hopelessness of aging middle America, if someone can teach us what it feels like to be an outsider or how trauma stays with a person, who the hell cares who the person saying it is?

If they can do it, as the Canadian writer Hal Niedzviecki I mentioned earlier got himself in trouble for suggesting—if they can accomplish this impossible but important task of closing even the smallest of gaps via appropriation—we shouldn’t question their credentials, we should give them a prize.

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Ego is the Enemy. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.

He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life. 

Also by Ryan Holiday:

Unpacking the Absurd Logic of Cultural Appropriation—and What It Will Cost Us