“American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestable mulatto . . .Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people in the United States resemble nobody else in the world as they resemble each other” – Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans.
It was hard finding the Top Hat, buried deep in strip-mall Huntsville; a small postage stamp sized bar attached to a larger bar where third-rate heavy metal bands on national tour stop, tour buses emblazoned with fanged demons, busty blond maidens writhing like snakes, and ax-wielding Mad Max style warriors. Although umbilically connected, the Top Hat draws a mostly older, white working-class crowd, a world apart from the mullet-wearing head-bangers next door.
Going inside the Top Hat was like taking a trip in time back thirty years. Or, even longer. Intimate bordello-red light bathed the bar except for the pool table area where overhead lighting straight out of “Dragnet” dangled. You almost expected Jack Webb to drop down from the drop-down ceiling and start interrogating. People sat and chatted in muted yellow, orange and red plush leatherette bucket chairs. On one wall draped an American flag; on another, a Veterans of Foreign wars banner with a skull clenching bullets. Everyone smoked gloriously (probably in willful defiance of local law), stubbing out butts in large bright orange ceramic 70s era ashtrays with black abstract art squiggly lines. It’s fair to say this was deep, deep Trump country, although sorry to disappoint those expecting stereotypes, I saw no horns, cloven hooves or MAGA hats. Like the people inside, the Top Hat was warm, inviting and non-pretentious, a throw-back to different times and different ways.
I immediately felt at home. The Top Hat reminded me of similar hole-in-the-wall bars in Baltimore I frequented that are now mostly gone; victims of the crack epidemic in the 1990s, where the pow-pow boys stuck up the local sit-down bars so much the owners gladly sold out to Koreans, who promptly converted them into plexi-glass enclosed carry-outs and then television screens got bigger and more stations got pumped in by cable and soon it was a sign of status that you didn’t leave your house at all to socialize with others, but instead stayed at home by yourself glued to a screen. What few bars survived were then often decimated by hipster invasions, with their pre-fabricated, pseudo-Bohemias dragged in tow. As a result, huge swaths of Baltimore streets lay empty and desolate after dark except for the flickering of TV sets behind barred and grated windows and the endless wail of police sirens. Karl Kautsky once rightly called the corner bar the fortress of the working class; it was probably the one thing he got right.
We were here, however, not for the atmosphere, but for the karaoke. Already, Charlotte, a bubbly, pencil-thin white woman in her mid-fifties, heavily made-up with long blond hair dyed Dolly Parton, was unpacking equipment on stage. Charlotte is very popular in the Huntsville karaoke scene and travels as far away as Decatur, forty miles away, to MC with her fan base faithfully following her from bar to bar. Now, it’s easy to dismiss karaoke as some sort of down-market kitsch not worth taking seriously. But I see it differently. Despite often constrained, burdened lives and dead-end jobs, when people get up and sing, they pour their hearts out, expressing in the emotions of lyrics what they can’t always express in real life. Singing karaoke, the drabness and pressures of everyday life evaporates. It’s a democratic art form, where everyone is appreciated for having the guts to get up on stage, do what they do, and in return get generous treatment. There’s no rat-race, “You’re Fired!” competition, or a Simon Cowell sneering in the wings waiting to put you down.
Soon the contest began, because in the karaoke scene, there’s always a contest going on, with winners coming together in a couple months for a final sing-off dangling a $100 dollar prize. This karaoke night at the Top Hat was just the first in a series that would stretch to mid-Fall. The younger men, wearing cowboy hats, construction boots and long hair, sung to form and very well at that, choosing country-rock and light metal covers.
But it was the older men and the women that surprised more. One obese man, probably in his 70s, took to the stage and instead of singing old-style country as I anticipated, belted out Motown, including Smokey Robinson in a perfect falsetto. Later, he did brilliant and credible covers of Nat King Cole and “Mack The Knife.” The women too sung out of expectation, choosing 80s rock and soul and very little country. Even the one Black contestant (who won by the way, despite being an outsider) sung George Michael and Kenny Rogers. Although we were a small inter-racial group of non-regulars in an insider scene, at no time did anyone make us feel unwelcome. People came over and introduced themselves, making small talk in the genuine way that Southerners do best. I looked for subtle cues of distancing, but detected none. This was for real, not a façade.
The most memorable moment took place at the very end. A regular on the karaoke scene named Rachael got in front of the mike and told how her marriage of 29 years had just broken up and she explained how she wanted to sing a song that was helping her survive. It was not a song on a karaoke background tape so she would have to sing accapella. And, she explained, though she wasn’t Jewish, it was a Jewish hymn so she was going to sing it in Hebrew. And then she suddenly broke out in a hauntingly beautiful and mournful hymn that went on for over 15 minutes. People stared at her transfixed, a pin could have dropped; I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Then stage lights suddenly came on and Charlotte began packing her console while taped Brittney Spears and Lady Gaga played in the background. The night was over and soon, people would file out into the waiting arms of Alabama’s drenching second-skin humidity.
While the upper middle-class worries about identity and cultural purity, working-class people break down barriers and mash it all up, spontaneously, unselfconsciously and not because of some multicultural edict from above. Three cheers, always, for cultural appropriation in this most mongrel nation.