Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around ‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me
But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
From 1970 to 1973, Motown, whose mainstream records were mostly apolitical, operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and radical Black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.
The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):
In July 1967, Detroit underwent five days of brutal unrest following the police raid of an after-hours club. Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing rioting.
While the unrest was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
In 1968, civic leaders initiated a summer program to repair the city’s reputation, called “Detroit is Happening.” Motown artist Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded a song for the City of Detroit, “I Care About Detroit”:
And Detroit Tigers left-fielder Willie Horton recorded a spoken-word jam over the Supremes’ song “It’s Happening,” to advertise the summer program.
A brief history of the rise and fall of the auto industry in Detroit.
Large swathes of Detroit, abandoned for years, have been reclaimed by nature, which has led to an urban agriculture movement.
Meeropol wrote the text after seeing this iconic image of a lynching which took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.
Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Billie Holiday in 1959, the year of her death:
2. Which was sampled by Kanye West:
3. John Legend:
4. Jill Scott:
5. India Arie:
6. Operatic mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and guitarist Tyron Cooper:
7. Late guitarist Jeff Buckley:
8. Katey Sagal as Gemma in the series Sons of Anarchy:
9. Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson with the trio known as Harriet Tubman:
10. Annie Lennox with a string orchestra. She faced pushback for not mentioning the song’s topic of lynching when she did publicity interviews for the album on which it appeared.
Do these cover versions work? Why or why not?
Do you think a white artist should sing this song?
Ralph Ellison, above, writes in Invisible Man, his 1952 novel about race in America:
Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my [apartment], and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue ”— all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument [the trumpet] into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music . . . Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.
“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?” is a song by pianist and composer Fats Waller, with lyrics by Andy Razaf; it was originally written for the score of Hot Chocolates, a 1929 Broadway musical with an all-black cast. The original context for the song is a plot line about colorism, in which a dark-skinned woman loses her love interest to a lighter-skinned woman.
Louis Armstrong made his Broadway debut in the show’s pit orchestra, and recorded the song for Okeh Records later that year.
Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead Pains in my head, feel like old Ned What did I do to be so black and blue?
No joys for me, no company Even the mouse ran from my house All my life through I’ve been so black and blue
I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case Cause I can’t hide what is on my face I’m so forlorn. Life’s just a thorn My heart is torn. Why was I born? What did I do to be so black and blue?
I’m hurt inside, but that don’t help my case Cause I can’t hide what is on my face How will it end? Ain’t got a friend My only sin is in my skin What did I do to be so black and blue? Tell me, what did I do to be so black and blue?
In his book Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination, Erich Nunn writes:
The song’s lyrics proclaim the superficiality of visible racial difference, proposing an understanding of race as skin-deep. While calling attention to the arbitrary significance of skin color in the verses, however, the song [also] ironically points to a normative . . . whiteness . . . “Black and Blue” balances the relative frivolity of the Broadway show tune genre with social satire and critique.
Do you agree that Louis Armstrong meant to present the song as ironic social commentary?
While on a European tour in 1965, Armstrong watched news footage of the beating of civil rights protesters in Selma. Although he hadn’t performed the song in many years, in a concert in East Berlin a few weeks later, he
As African American theorists, writers, artists and musicians – from Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century to Mendi + Keith Obadike in the present moment – have been reminding us for quite some time, the perceived inaudibility of whiteness does not mean that it has no sonic markers, that it is not heard loud and clear. . . . [Nevertheless] there is nothing essentially biologically “white” or “male” about the cadences of cop voice, and both [race and gender] are heard and sounded through ethnic and class identities.
We’ve talked about what it means to “sound black.” What does it mean to “sound white”?
As you listen to the music Stoever analyzes in her essay, do you hear what she calls “those aspirant ‘t’s and rounded, hyper-pronounced ‘r’s” when the rappers switch personas to voice the white cops?
Stoever compares the “cop voice” enacted by rappers with ventriloquism. Can we think of it as a racially-reversed, power-inverse form of minstrelsy — a kind of subversive minstrelsy performed by the disempowered?
KRS-One, “Sound of da Police” (1993):
Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (2003):
Main Source, “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” (1991):
Public Enemy: “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):
Rebel Diaz, “Calma” (2009):
Prince Paul/Everlast, “The Men in Blue” (1999):
N.W.A., “F*** tha Police” (1988):
J Dilla, “F*** the Police” (1999):
Mos Def, “Mr. N*gga” (1999):
Jasiri X, “Crooked Cops” (2013):
G-Unit, “Ahhh Sh*t” (2014):
The Game, “Don’t Shoot” (2014):
Sammus, “Three Fifths” (2015):
Poet Claudia Rankine reading from her collection of poems Citizen: An American Lyric, a meditation on race in America.
2. Jennifer Stoever’s playlist of black women artists singing/rapping about police violence:
3. Eric Garner’s siblings, “I Can’t Breathe” (2016):
Content/Trigger Warning: Racist language in original sources.
Soul was a stream of rhythm and blues that engaged overtly with social issues. Where 1950s and early 1960s R&B was primarily dance music, in the mid-60s, certain artists began marrying the R&B musical sensibility to lyrics that dealt with pressing political topics. In the Civil Rights Movement, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC, pronounced “snick”), which was formed in 1960 to address voting rights issues in the Deep South, began to reject what they saw as the incrementalist approach of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and to embrace the “by any means necessary” philosophy of leaders like Malcolm X. New Yorker, Howard graduate, and emerging black nationalist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), who had grown up hearing Malcom X preach on street corners in the Bronx, took over the leadership of SNCC in 1966 from John Lewis (the Civil Rights hero who had marched alongside Dr. King in Selma in 1965, been brutally beaten by the police, and before his death in 2020 was a long-serving Congressman from Georgia), and began to steer its mission towards Black Power and separatism. The white members of SNCC were deplatformed and drifted away, and, as Nicholas Lemann notes,
As former SNCC field secretary Julius Lester wryly put it:
If SNCC had said Negro Power or Colored Power, white folks would’ve continued sleeping easy every night. But BLACK POWER! Black! . . . All the whites wanted to know was if Black Power was antiwhite and if it meant killing white folks. The nation was hysterical. [Vice President] Hubert Humphreyscreamed, ” . . . We must reject calls for racism . . . whether they come from a throat that is white or one that is black.” He could “reject” all he wanted, but if you reject a woman, that still doesn’t keep the bitch from killing you.
Soul music was a repertoire that combined the rhythms and the dense, tight instrumentals of R&B with the cultural aspirations of the Black Power movement. In 1969, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to Soul chart.
As we’ve discussed in class and on this blog, soul takes its musical inspiration from the Black church, using gospel music techniques like call-and-response structure and melismatic singing (stretching one syllable of a word over many notes to give textual emphasis). Soul pioneers like Ray Charles and James Brown at first restricted their songs to the usual topics of love and desire. You can hear Ray Charles’s marriage of gospel-influenced piano phrasing with a boogie-woogie vamp in the left hand.
And you can hear the melismatic vocal style of James Brown (the “Human Package of Dynamite”) set against a staccato horn section and the interjections of a solo electric guitar played in a high register, which would become hallmarks of funk just a few years later in the early 1970s. Notice also that the audience and the backup dancers are integrated.
James Brown soon turned to songwriting that was overtly political.
Bands like the Temptations and the Chi-Lites joined the vocal harmonies of male R&B groups to socially-engaged lyrical content.
The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion”:
The Chi-Lites, “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People”:
The Staple Singers fused gospel choral style, the fast-paced bass lines and jangling guitars of funk, and passionate pleas for black self-respect and communal love:
The Staple Singers, “This Old Town”:
Another Staple Singers song, “The Ghetto,” sung by contemporary blues-folk artist Ruthie Foster:
Some popular Motown artists, too, began to record “message” songs. Here, the Supremes mash up their trademark soft, breathy vocal style with the driving bass line and polyrhythms of early funk, against a stylized, Sesame Street-like “ghetto” backdrop. Note their bare feet and natural hair, a far cry from their earlier glamorous look.
Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City”:
Marlena Shaw, “Woman of the Ghetto”:
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (remixed with topical video in 2019):
The Vietnam War also became a flashpoint for soul. It was the first “integrated war” in US history, with Blacks and whites serving together in the same units. In reality, however, Blacks and poor whites bore a disproportionate burden of Vietnam service; college men, mostly white, were able to get deferments, or join the Army Reserves, to avoid being drafted and sent into combat. It was also alleged that Black soldiers got sent on the most dangerous missions.
In 1965, SNCC issued a statement urging that blacks should not
The Black Panther Party encouraged and supported protests among American G.I.s. They were supported, in turn, by the radical white group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who organized an action in Chicago in 1969 called “Days of Rage.” The Days of Rage, which took place from October 8-11, involved various acts of vandalism, sabotage, and attempts to provoke the police into a confrontation. SDS and its subgroup, Weatherman, hoped to recruit youth from community colleges and high schools to the cause of anti-imperialism, on the basis that students were de facto members of the working class because they did not, in Marxist terms, “own the means of production.” In reality, only a few hundred people showed up; 250 were arrested. The SDS slogan was “Bring the [Vietnam] War Home.”
Veterans throwing their medals at the Capitol in a protest in 1971:
Edwin Starr, “War”:
Richie Havens, medley of “Freedom” and the old spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” at Woodstock:
The ethos of struggle found its way into mainstream culture. The 1970s television show “Good Times” took place in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, and one of the show’s child characters was a young activist.
And Elaine Brown (above), the first woman to lead the Black Panther Party, was also an accomplished singer who recorded anthems in the service of the cause.
Not all calls for Black Power, however, endorsed violent means. The Shahid Quintet, in a spoken-word jam against a cool-sounding jazz background, probably recorded in 1968 or 1969 in Chicago, caution revolutionaries that burning and mayhem are “no way to have a Black revolt”:
Burning and looting and cries of Black Power . . . Brother, try and think like a wise man, how much Black power can you hold in a can [i.e., of gasoline to start a fire]?
Instead, Richard Shabazz and Earl Shabazz, about whom little is known, urge revolutionaries to come to God and his messenger — specifically, to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad.
The cover of drummer Max Roach’s 1961 album We Insist! was an explicit reference to the Greensboro protests. We Insist! drew analogies between social and political freedom, and the aesthetic freedom of Roach’s music.
The Max Roach Quintet performing “Driva Man,” one of the numbers on We Insist!, about the abuses of slavery. Note Abbey Lincoln’s Afrocentric dress and natural hair style, signs of resistance in the early 1960s. She starts out by quoting Cole Porter’s song “Love for Sale,” from the 1930 Broadway show “The New Yorkers.”
Before her collaboration with Max Roach, Lincoln had been a nightclub “girl singer” in New York and Hollywood, marketed as much for her looks as for her musicianship.
Just two years earlier, in 1958, Roach had played on tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’s album Freedom Suite. The music on Freedom Suite does not explicitly reflect the struggle for civil rights; its “freedom” is total liberation from musical conventions of harmony, melody, and time. Nevertheless, as Rollins noted in the liner notes for the album:
America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.
Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp’s 1965 album Fire Music included numbers that linked jazz overtly to political consciousness, such as the spoken-word-plus-free-jazz tribute to Malcom X, “Malcom, Malcom, semper [i.e. always] Malcolm.”
Some black radicals, however, completely rejected the idea that music could be revolutionary. In his poem “Hipping the Hip,” Ramón Durem wrote:
Blues — is a tear bop — a fear Of reality. There’s no place to hide in a horn
Durem also makes a musical reference to the Mau Mau uprising — the armed revolt in the 1950s that drove the British out of Kenya and led to that nation’s independence, suggesting that Kenyan tribal music is more revolutionary than jazz:
Mau Mau only got a five-tone scale but when it comes to Freedom, Jim — they wail!
Mau Mau songs sung at a monument for Kenyan rebel leader Dedan Kimathi:
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did not originate free jazz, but it may seem that way to a few observers because some free jazz did appeal to some musicians who were motivated in part by the civil rights movement. These musicians also adopted approaches and sound qualities associated with some free jazz. Consequently a few styles within free jazz were perceived by some journalists (LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky, for instance) and some musicians (Archie Shepp, for instance) as sounding sufficiently angry to provide a new mode of expressing anger over social injustice. So even though civil unrest did not spawn free jazz, these individuals apparently felt that some of the music provided a good soundtrack for it.
It may be helpful also to keep in mind that some avant-garde musicians, including Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp, were not only outspoken and active in the civil rights movement but also were angry by their temperaments. Their remarks and their sounds appealed to angry journalists LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Frank Kofsky who adopted the musicians’ stance for their own political causes. At the same time, however, we need to remain aware that Mingus and Shepp were not necessarily improvising free of preset chord changes or meter in their protest pieces. Despite following spontaneously shifting tone centers during improvisations in one performance, his 1960 recording of “What Love,” which is not a protest piece, the music of Mingus in general cannot be accurately categorized with free jazz, though often it is accurately classified with avant-garde jazz of the era [emphasis in original.]
At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Baez, of Scottish and Mexican ancestry, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and had become a folk-music sensation while still in her teens.
As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”
In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:
Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”
And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also referenced the song in a famous speech. As his biographer Robert Caro tells the story, Johnson was in his limo on the way to the Capitol on March 15 to give a planned speech in support of civil rights, when his car came upon a phalanx of protestors outside the White House gate, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Just a week earlier, police in Selma, Alabama, had beaten, tear-gassed, and shot protesters — including children — marching to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for blacks.
Johnson hastily re-wrote his speech, ending it with the words: “And we shall overcome.”
Dr. King watched the speech on television at a friend’s house in Selma, surrounded by his aides, including John Lewis, who would later become a long-serving congressman.
“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:
The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:
The hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” (which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):
and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”
The song in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.
Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:
Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:
What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome,” and teaching his version to black civil rights activists?
What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could a white-Latinx singer credibly do this today? Should they?
And it gets more complicated: a recent lawsuit alleges that “We Shall Overcome” was pirated from a similar song, “If My Jesus Wills,” composed by Louise Shropshire, a friend of Dr. King. Read the allegations and watch video here.
In those days the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would not allow anyone to go on a demonstration if that person so much as confessed that he would entertain a thought about hitting a white person [back] who had struck him. You had to put your body in the struggle and that meant . . . entering the church and listening to prayers, short sermons on your courage and the cause you were fighting for, singing freedom songs — “Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me Round” . . . and, always at the end, “We Shall Overcome” with arms crossed, holding the hands of the person next to you and swaying gently from side to side, We Shall Overcome Someday, someday but not today because you knew as you walked out of the church, two abreast, and started marching toward town, that no matter how many times you sang about not letting anybody turn you around, rednecks and po’ white trash from four counties and some from across the state line were waiting with guns, tire chains, baseball bats, rocks, sticks, clubs, and bottles, waiting as you turned the corner singing about This Little Light of Mine and how you were going to let it shine as that cop’s billy club went upside your head shine shine shining as you fell to the pavement . . . singing I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail ‘Cause I want my Freedom.
Indeed, young, increasingly radicalized SNCC activists had accompanied Dr. King on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. The marchers camped in the fields at night, and, when Stokely Carmichael, the new head of SNCC (he had followed later long-serving congressman John Lewis in his leadership role), heard “We Shall Overcome” being sung around the campfire, he and his SNCC colleagues drowned it out with their version: “We Shall Overrun.”
“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.
For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Read the facsimile of Dr. King’s suggestions for black riders of the newly-integrated Montgomery, Alabama buses in 1956:
In addition to being a writer and activist, Julius Lester was also a folksinger, who collaborated with Pete Seeger on an instruction manual for the 12-string guitar.
Recently, in Portland, Oregon, the white parishioners of St. Francis Catholic Church sang “We Shall Overcome” to protest liturgial changes made by their more traditional African pastor.
What do you think of this use of “We Shall Overcome”? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it ironic?
Addendum: a scene from the opera Freedom Ride by my friend, Dan Shore. Read more about the opera here.
In 1959, African-American composer Ed Bland made the influential short semi-documentary film The Cry of Jazz, which explains jazz for the newbie, and situates the music in the history of black life in America. Bland used the music of avant-garde Afrofuturist composer and pianist Sun Ra as the soundtrack.
1959 was also the year that saw some of the most innovative music to date in the genre.
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.
Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.
Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.
Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.
Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”
Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:
Trigger/content warning: disturbing video imagery, offensive language.
When I was working on my doctorate and teaching a writing class for music majors, I wanted to assign my students a passage from the great jazz bass player, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus’s 1971 memoir, Beneath the Underdog. The fiftieth anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High was coming up, and I wanted to talk about Mingus’s famous tune “Fables of Faubus,” from his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. “Fables of Faubus” is an anti-tribute to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who had sent the state National Guard to Little Rock to prevent nine black students from entering the school (Louis Armstrong had called Faubus, in the press, an “uneducated plow boy”).
“Fables of Faubus” begins with a snide, insinuating riff, a sonic reference to Faubus’s destructive bigotry, which nevertheless manages to portray him as weak and ineffective, a cartoon villain. Mingus had written lyrics for the song, but his record label, Columbia, would not let him include them on the recording, so the tune was first recorded as an instrumental number. A year later, however, Mingus re-released the song, with lyrics, on a smaller label as “Original Faubus Fables.”
Note the mocking, satirical call-and-response between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond, and the wild, swirling trumpet and saxophone solos (Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy, respectively) in between verses, creating an eerie and malignant atmosphere.
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us Oh, Lord, no more swastikas Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us!
[Chorus] Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie Governor Faubus! Why is he so sick and ridiculous? He won’t permit integrated schools Then he’s a fool!
Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists! Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan)
[Chorus] Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond Bilbo, Thomas, Faubus, Russel, Rockefeller, Byrd, Eisenhower Why are they so sick and ridiculous? Two, four, six, eight: They brainwash and teach you hate
In my writing class, it was hard to find an appropriate passage from Beneath the Underdog to read in class. The book, though it’s written with tremendous energy, is almost indescribably obscene. It’s full of exaggerations and outright lies about Mingus’s sex life, such as his claim that he pimped his wives and girlfriends. As one critic writes:
The book is . . . written in faux-difficult stream of consciousness – many chapters consist of only dialogue between Mingus and musicians, Mingus and pimps, Mingus and psychiatrists or Mingus and women. Who are almost constantly referred to as “bitches.” And ALL (except his stepmother, who he extensively verbally abuses) fuck him.
And this is the reason why the book is awful. Mingus can write BEAUTIFULLY about jazz: about the energy, the freneticism of live performance, about the thrill of composition, the joy of musical development, the excitement of learning, creativity, a shared language of artistic expression… But his autobiography is not about jazz. His musical career seems almost incidental, referred to occasionally . . . The reader learns nothing interesting or new about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie whoever, other than the fact that they KNEW CHARLES MINGUS. Because this is not a book about jazz. This is a book about the continual, priapic, misogynistic and possibly fictional sex life of the author.
In fact, the only passage in Beneath the Underdog where Mingus bothers to give his music serious mention is near the end of the book, in a scene where he’s just been released from Bellevue and is playing a club date. Mingus uses the foil of a British interviewer coming over to his table between sets, while he’s flirting with the woman who will become his third or fourth wife, to expound for a page or so on his musical philosophy:
“Do excuse me, Mr. Mingus, I can see you’re awfully busy, but may I ask a question or two for my paper? For instance, what do you feel about jazz?”
“Man, just listen, it’s all there.”
“. . . They’d like to know what you think in England, just a few words?”
“Well . . . I can tell you how I feel tonight anyway. Up to now, I don’t think nobody has given nothing important since Bird [Charlie Parker] died except his contemporaries who were overlooked at the time — [Thelonius] Monk, Max [Roach], [Sonny] Rollins, Bud [Powell], others, maybe even me. Bird was playing then what they’re calling avant-garde today — putting major sevenths with minor sevenths, playing a fourth away from the key . . . All this free-form business isn’t new . . . I was doing it and Duke [Ellington] before me and Jelly Roll [Morton] before that. . .
There was once a word used — swing. Swing went to one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. But I use the term ‘rotary perception.’ If you get a mental picture of the beat existing with a circle you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome . . . That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat — each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space . . . the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed . . . the pulse is inside you . . . It’s called strolling.”
The interviewer goes on to ask Mingus whether he thinks Englishmen can play jazz. Mingus responds:
If you’re talking about technique, musicianship, I guess the British can be as good as anybody else. But what do they need to play jazz for? It’s the American Negro’s tradition, it’s his music. White people don’t have a right to play it, it’s colored folk music. . . white society has its own traditions, let ’em leave ours to us. You had your Shakespeare and Marx and Freud and Einstein and Jesus Christ and Guy Lombardo but we came up with jazz, and don’t forget it, and all the pop music in the world today is from that primary cause.
In 1966, the filmmaker Thomas Reichmann followed Mingus and his five-year-old daughter through their daily lives as they were about to be evicted from their New York apartment. The film, Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, intersperses Mingus’s free-form soliloquizing with the scenes of the stress of his domestic situation and shots of live performance.
Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968 from BPows on Vimeo.
Was Mingus a victim of his own genius? Or of the internalization of racism? Did jazz devour its young?
The image Mingus chose for the record cover of Mingus Ah Um is a painting by Japanese-American artist S. Neil Fujita, who, like Mingus, was both a victim and survivor of racism as an internee during World War II. I like to think of his painting as expressive of Mingus’s ideas about rotary perception.
During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the weekend poems, first published in 1909 by the early-twentieth-century African-American poet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:
’Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
With all good things but dying.”
The world’s ago, and we’re agog
To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
However slight the winning.
What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric
Can match one of potatoes.
Ye orators of point and pith,
Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
Ere it is forced to feed you.
A little gold won’t mar our grace,
A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place
When money clinks its story.
In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.
Jay-Z has said, “Generational wealth, that’s the key.” Generational wealth refers to the assets passed down from grandparents to parents to children. It’s by now well-known that there’s a huge gap in generational wealth between blacks and whites in America, largely due to redlining, a phenomenon that followed on the heels of the Great Migration. Redlining was the practice of banks and homeowners’ insurance companies of denying mortgages to blacks who wanted to buy a house. The term comes the color-coded city maps devised by urban planners, with the redlined communities considered high-risk for loan default (mainly because blacks and immigrants lived in them).
“Undesign the Redline” is a recent traveling interactive exhibit that invites participants to explore policy alternatives to redlining. View the exhibit brochure/toolkit here:
Do you agree that generational wealth is the key to full participation in American society? What if you don’t have access to it?
Jay-Z and Beyonce have both used their wealth in the service of causes they believe in. Jay-Z, for instance, helped get Meek Mill released from prison, and Beyoncé has donated to HBCUs. However,
When Jay-Z asks, “What’s better than one billionaire?” Twitter responds: “No billionaires.”
Do you agree?
Who was right, Booker T. or W.E.B.? Neither? Both? Have things changed in the past century? Have they gotten better? Have they gotten worse?
It’s worth nothing that John Lomax admired Booker T. Washington, calling him “wise, tolerant, a gifted orator, a great leader of his people.” It’s likely that Lomax saw the separatism advocated by Washington as an asset when it came to preserving black folk music (and, as you know, Lomax held to some old racist ideologies).
Jay Z, the consummate free-market hustler, [maintains a] hustler image [that] appears to represent a counter-hegemonic force, operating beyond the law and dominant norms . . . [but which instead reinforces them] . . . When Jay Z spends a career branding himself as a hustler defined exclusively through economic interest—as he put it in 2005, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man”—any sense that he may be positioning himself outside traditional notions of economic production becomes questionable. His nonstop, 24-hour devotion to self-corporatization makes him a true capitalist, the ideal bootstrapper . . . and an important illustration of [the] point that rap narratives can simultaneously criticize and serve mainstream interests.