Jes’ Grew

The phrase “jes’ grew” became a common shorthand way of referring to something whose origins are not easily reduced to human intentions and actions, but more the result of an organic, natural, complex process.

For instance, someone who feels the city of Toronto as it exists today evolved more due to diverse events, interests, natural phenomena, accidents, and outside pressures than as the result of premeditated city planning, might say that “Toronto, like Topsy, jes’ grew.”

The origins of this once common phrase are an interesting case of cultural appropriation in their own right. When African Americans were still slaves, the white author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel was intended to awaken white people to the inhumanity of slavery and to cultivate their sympathy with black people. It was the second best-selling book in the United States in the 19th century (after the Bible!) and is considered to have had a hand in bringing about the Civil War. (Nevertheless, despite its good intentions, the novel is rife with stereotypical portrayals of black people such as were common at the time, and is thus an example of Cultural Appropriation itself.)

One of the most popular characters in the book is the little black girl Topsy, who is a disarmingly unsophisticated “force of nature.” At one point a proper white woman is asking Topsy what she thinks of God, and Topsy doesn’t really have any views on the subject. The woman is shocked and pushes Topsy, asking her who she thinks made her if she doesn’t accept that there is a God, and Topsy responds that she “expects [she] jes’ grew” (actually her phrasing is slightly different in the book, but this is the phrase that became popular).

Topsy is an engaging character and did much to encourage white sympathy for black slaves, but she is still the imaginary creation of a white person, representing a stereotypical black personality, while blacks themselves had no control over their representation in mainstream culture. This is one of the things that makes cultural appropriation so disturbing, the way in which it goes against the politics of self-representation.

In this class, “jes’ grew” is a shorthand for a form of cultural production more characteristic of folk culture, where creative work is collaborative and derivative. Examples of this include the Blues, early hip hop, and even open source software.

Blues starts out in the later 1800s as an organic folk creation of African Americans. Songs have their origins in the cotton fields and taverns, though church music also plays an important role. Amateur musicians trade lyrics, music, and ideas around freely. No one is wholly responsible for any particular song. No one owns any song or can claim sole authorship of it. At first, nothing is published or recorded. Music is transmitted in performance alone. Each performance is a re-creation.

In Blues, and – at least initially – later in Jazz, authorship and ownership of cultural creations are not clear-cut or considered that important. Every performance is unique; almost nothing is published or recorded; songs are not “fixed” in an original or authorized version. What you do with the material is what’s important; not who created the original or who “owns” it. Nobody owns it.

In the 1920s, the African American writer James Weldon Johnson underscores this view of the Blues songs (which he somewhat inaccurately calls “ragtime”) in his preface to an early anthology of African American verse, The Book of Negro Poetry (1922):

The earliest Ragtime [blues and jazz] songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew.” Some of these earliest songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. […]

Later there came along a number of colored men who were able to transcribe the old songs and write original ones. […] I remember that we appropriated about the last one of the old “jes’ grew” songs. It was a song which had been sung for years all through the South. The words were unprintable, but the tune was irresistible, and belonged to nobody.

Johnson here charts the transformation from collaborative creation to intellectual property that occurred with the rise of sound recording and the white appropriation of the styles and actual songs created by African Americans. In the 20th century, authorship and ownership become central not so much because of ego or giving credit where credit is due, but because of money.

In examining the early history of hip hop, I tried to show the ways in which it too “jes’ grew” in a non-contentious, collaborative, anonymous way – an “urban folk music” – and then how quickly it then became monetized and its appropriations became the focus of legal contention.