One of your first reading assignments, “Race and the Embodiment of Culture” by John Szwed, was published in the journal Ethnicity in 1975. Szwed makes reference to many music and dance forms, as well as visual imagery, across times, places, and cultures. This post is a compendium of the forms he mentions.
Szwed believes the folk dance forms of the following cultures demonstrate a high degree of “synchronization and organization.”
On the other hand, the folk dance forms of the following cultures have a lesser degree of synchronization and organization.
Videos of minstrelsy (both in and out of blackface) by the artists Szwed cites (we will be studying minstrelsy in depth in a couple of weeks):
Amos N’ Andy:
Some nineteenth-century racist cartoons of Irish immigrants, which Szwed mentions in his article:
3. At the close of his essay, Szwed says:
now find ourselves becoming famished and desperate students of the discredited
and displaced in a pastoral of ludicrous dimensions.
What is a “pastoral,” and what does Szwed mean when he says that “we now find ourselves” in one? Give a musical example that reflects the ways that you believe mainstream America is “famished and desperate” for authenticity in culture.
Respond to the following questions in a comment on this blog post, using your first name only.
1. Amos and Andy were black comedy artists. Why do you think John Szwed includes them in his list of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy?
2. What does Szwed mean when he calls Mick Jagger a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface”?
3. On p. 30 of his article, Szwed says:
The irony of the situation is obvious: the low-status [racial/cultural] group, cut off from the sources of power and production in the larger society, is at the same time less alienated from its own cultural productions [than is the high-status group]. The twist is that the elite of society is free to draw on the lower group’s cultural pool. Were there ever more massive examples of the conversion of community life and culture into commodity than those in which black folk life has been turned into national culture in the US?
What he’s referring to here, in general, is the appropriation and consumption of black music — the “lower [socio-economic] group’s cultural pool” — by the “elite of society,” i.e. those who enjoy economic and cultural privilege. Szwed sees the irony of black music — a unique expression of a particular culture — going corporate/mainstream. The process of the commodification of black music has been going on ever since black music began to be recognized as a distinct style and genre in the nineteenth century, as we will see later.
Give an example of the process of conversion Szwed describes — of black American music or culture into national American music or culture — from your own lifetime. Name a specific song/artist/genre.
The video for Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” alludes to that time and place.
And Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is in some ways an attempt to recreate it.
Do you believe that it’s possible to re-create a moment of unprecedented community engagement like Black Woodstock?
“White” Woodstock, in the meantime, was perhaps the last gasp of optimism of the 1960s counterculture. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had both been assassinated the previous year. Five hundred thousand U.S. troops were in Vietnam. Nixon was in the White House and had begun secretly bombing Cambodia.
Just a few months later, another massive music festival would try — and fail catastrophically — to carry on the spirit of Woodstock.
At the Altamont Speedway in northern California, the Hell’s Angels were contracted to provide security for $500 worth of beer (more than $3000 worth in today’s money). As the crowd got restless and the Angels got drunk, they began beating concertgoers with pool cues and motorcycle chains, and kicked and stabbed an eighteen-year-old black audience member, Meredith Hunter, to death during the Rolling Stones’ set.
As rock critic Greil Marcus, who was at the festival, succinctly put it:
The murder was caught live on camera and included in the documentary Gimme Shelter as the Stones performed “Under My Thumb” (warning: this footage contains the actual murder of Meredith Hunter — watch at your own risk).
As gospel singer Merry Clayton famously sang on the studio version of “Gimme Shelter”: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”
In 1972, singer-songwriter Randy Newman wrote an ironic song from the perspective of an eighteenth-century slave merchant trying to convince a little boy on the west coast of Africa to “sail away” with him to Charleston, South Carolina — the American center of the transatlantic slave trade.
In America you get food to eat Won’t have to run through the jungle And scuff up your feet You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day It’s great to be an American
Ain’t no lion or tiger, ain’t no mamba snake Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake Everybody is as happy as a man can be Climb aboard, little wog,* sail away with me
*Old-fashioned British racist term for people of African origin.
The song was covered by several prominent black artists, including Ray Charles:
Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:
As well as some white artists, like Linda Ronstadt:
The Punch Brothers — in a nice touch, performing live in Charleston:
Do you think the sense of irony is present in each of these performances?
Do you hear more or less of it in the black or white performances?
What do you think each of these artists intended to convey?
What about this performance? Bobby Darin changes “little wog” to “little one.” How do you think this choice affects the meaning of the song?
It’s interesting, too, that Darin is the only one of the white artists who uses “blackvoice.”
The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1985, no doubt as much for the utopian vision of universal brotherhood presented in the text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller as for its rousing tune:
Joy, beautiful spark of God, Daughter of Elysium, We enter, fire-drunk, Heavenly, your holy sanctuary. Your magics bind again What custom has strictly parted. All men become brothers Where your tender wing lingers.
Nevertheless, at the opening of the EU Parliament in July 2019, the Brexit contingent from Great Britain turned their backs when it was played:
Brexiteer Nigel Farage defended the actions of his bloc against charges of “un-English” behavior. Do you think his justification is convincing? Why or why not?
Perhaps when he hears “Ode to Joy,” Farage is really hearing this version, sung by English comedian Rowan Atkinson.
This was hardly the first time Beethoven’s music has been harnessed in the cause of politics. In 1989, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a massive performance of the Ninth with musicians from both East and West Germany; the chorus changed the word “Freude” — Joy — to “Freiheit” — Freedom.
Hitler was a great fan of the Ninth Symphony; here is the great and controversial German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler leading the end of the Ninth Symphony in a stunning performance celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 1942 (starting at 1:59, following remarks by Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Third Reich):
What in this music would have appealed, do you think, to Nazi ideology?
It was also adapted by the brutal British colonial governor, Ian Smith, as the national anthem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has also been invested with meaning in other, less-political realms. Alex, the sociopathic antihero of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, has a particular fondness for Beethoven, whom he calls “the lovely Ludwig van.” In his 1971 film adaptation of the novel, Stanley Kubrick uses the Ninth Symphony as a soundtrack for the “ultraviolence” committed by Alex and his crew (WARNING: disturbing imagery):
The piece is also associated with the on-screen appearances of bad guy Hans Gruber (played by the late, lamented Alan Rickman) in Die Hard:
In 2000, the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of Mathausen, an Austrian concentration camp where more than 100,000 Jews, gays, and Communists were put to death during World War II. The concert caused some controversy, because it was performed by the great Vienna Philharmonic, which had dismissed all its Jewish musicians in 1938; by the end of the war, half of the orchestra’s players were members of the Nazi party. The organizers, however, believed that the Ninth paid tribute to the musicians who had been victims of the Nazi regime. As one of them explained:
We wished to think of those members of the [Vienna] Philharmonic who were victims of the Nazis . . . They were our predecessors, royal and imperial court musicians, highly decorated professors and teachers at the academy, highly respected artists who were humiliated, driven to death or murdered. We want to pay our respects to them by performing a work that they often performed under the leading conductors of their times.
What is it about Beethoven’s work that makes it so appealing to proponents of such diverse viewpoints?
Put another way: What does Beethoven’s music mean?
Do you think that this meaning is intrinsic to the piece itself, or is it extrinsic, something with which various individuals and movements have chosen to invest it? What use would you use this music for?
In 2015, acclaimed children’s book author Emily Jenkins and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. The book, named a “Best Illustrated Children’s Book” by the New York Times, was described by the publisher as:
While Blackall defended her work, the author, Emily Jenkins apologized for her insensitivity and pledged to donate the fee she earned for writing it to We Need Diverse Books. her share of the profits from the book to organizations working for diversity. Her apology, though, was itself treated with suspicion. As members of a group discussion on the blog Reading While White, written by a group of white teachers and librarians concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books, said,
What do you think? Do you think A Fine Dessert should have been published? Do you think the illustrations should have been modified? Do you think the enslaved family should have been included? Do you agree with illustrator Sophie Blackall’s defense? Do you agree with author Emily Jenkins’s apology? If you were hired to write a book about the way an object (in this case, a recipe) or a cultural artifact (music, for instance) was passed down through generations across cultures, how would you do it?
I have put a copy of A Fine Dessert on reserve in the library.
Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.
Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife, Artie, and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.
Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,
derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .
When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”
“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.
I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.
Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?
Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:
Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres.
The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.
The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:
Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:
In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:
Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:
Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:
The Grateful Dead:
Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:
British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:
The lyrics for Nick Cave’s version are here. As you can see, Cave takes the tale out of the African-American context and places it in the genre of the generic murder ballad. Do you think it works?
Rudy Ray Moore’s toast, “Stack-a-Lee”:
Why do you think the legend of Stagolee has had such an enduring appeal to both black and white artists?
Bobby Seale described “the Stagolees of today” (in 1968) as “politically unaware brothers in the street.” What did he mean?
Has the myth of Stagolee and what he stood for carried over into rap music? Give an example of a song and an artist.
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? Can you find more covers of the song?
In 2018, in response to pushback against her longtime claims of Native American ancestry (including from President Trump, who refers to her mockingly as “Pocahontas”), Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had her DNA tested, and made the results public. The test indicated that Warren had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.
However, according to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), this does not make Elizabeth Warren an Indian:
What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?
In 1892, famed Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to America at the invitation of the wealthy arts patroness Jeannette Thurber (above) — who, by the way, was born not far from here, in Delhi, New York — to lead the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was hoped that he would train young American composers to develop a national style of music. Soon after he arrived, Dvořák told the New YorkHerald newspaper:
In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.
In another unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes at the conservatory. Among his students were violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh.
“A Negro Sermon,” an art song by Cook.
“Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” an art song by Burleigh.
Harry T. Burleigh’s song “The Young Warrior,” a setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, was translated into Italian and sung by the Italian army as they marched into battle During World War I.
Mother, shed no mournful tears,
But gird me on my sword;
And give no utterance to thy fears,
But bless me with thy word.
The lines are drawn! The fight is on!
A cause is to be won!
Mother, look not so white and wan;
Give Godspeed to thy son.
Now let thine eyes my way pursue
Where’er my footsteps fare;
And when they lead beyond thy view,
Send after me a prayer.
But pray not to defend from harm,
Nor danger to dispel;
Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm
I fight the battle well.
Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep
My heart and purpose strong,
My sword unsullied and ready to leap
Unsheathed against the wrong.
While Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in in E minor, “From the New World” (written in New York City in 1893) was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual, migrating from the concert hall to public (and private) spaces less formally rigid.
Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take note of, and advantage of, “Negro melodies.” In the early years of the twentieth century, white American and European composers came out with pieces with such titles as “Negro Folk Symphony” (William Dawson), “Rapsodie nègre” (French composer Francis Poulenc), and “Negro Suite” (Danish composer Thorvald Otterstrom).
The question one might ask about these composers and their work is one that will come up for us again and again in this class: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship with African-Americans? or in a spirit of opportunism, even of exploitation?
One of the strangest and most egregious examples of a white composer writing in the black style is John Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre.”
John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. In 1931, he founded a short-lived but influential Appalachian music festival in Virginia called the White Top Festival. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (standing, fourth from right) visited the festival in 1933.
John Powell was also an avowed white supremacist, and helped to draft Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, also known as the “one-drop rule.” This law legally classified anyone who had any amount of African ancestry (even “one drop”) as black, and hence subject to segregation under Jim Crow.
In spite of the fact that Powell had drawn upon African-American folk music themes in his “Rhapsodie Nègre,” he sought to promote the idea that American folk music derived exclusively from “Anglo-Saxon” sources, an idea that was disputed even in his own time. The White Top Festival was a public attempt to showcase this controversial idea: in other words, he harnessed folk music in the service of his social-political agenda.
Can you think of other historical examples of the co-opting of culture in the service of politics?
Powell was by no means an outlier in his attempts to whitewash the African roots of traditional American music. Around the same time that he was giving lectures on the “Anglo-Saxon” derivation of Appalachian music, Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford), a virulent racist and anti-Semite, was spearheading a square dance revival, in the hopes of counteracting the pernicious influence of jazz. What Ford neglected, probably out of ignorance, was the fact that square dancing, like Appalachian music, has deep roots in African-American culture.
(Howard University students square dancing in 1949.)
When we think of American folk music, especially fiddle-and-banjo music from the region of Appalachia, we tend to think of it as white people’s music, as in this famous scene from the 1972 film Deliverance.
She is an artist of color who plays and records what she describes as “black non-black music” for mainly white audiences . . . a concert for the prisoners at Sing Sing . . . was the first time she’d played for a majority-black crowd . . . Giddens [says], “. .. I would like to see more people from my . . . community at the shows and in the know” . . . The prospect of gaining a wider, and blacker, audience is, one imagines, always an option for Giddens . . . But she has been unwilling to compromise her quest . . . to remind people that the music she plays is black music.
Black music like this:
And like this:
And all of this:
Rhiannon Giddens is not the only young black musician to focus on the traditions of American folk music.
Here is the multi-instrumentalist native of Los Angeles, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, who plays both country blues and Appalachian music, and even sometimes performs in the dress of a black Southern field hand.
Valerie June draws on Appalachian, bluegrass, and blues traditions in her music:
The New York City-based old-time string band The Ebony Hillbillies:
Toronto-born Kaia Kater:
As we think about and explore ideas of authenticity in American music, we would do well to remember that the DNA of American music in all of its genres has a great deal more than one drop of African ancestry.
Appendix A: Read this article and watch this brief video documentary about the residents of an Appalachian town who identify as black, although they appear white.
JumpJim, the old record collector in White Tears, describes his mentor Chester Bly’s passion for collecting old blues 78s on page 136 of the novel:
By any standards, I was a serious collector, but he seemed to have nothing else, no need [for anything else] . . . He was just a vehicle for his obsession, what the Haitians call a cheval, a mount for the spirits to ride.
The cheval, or, in Haitian Kreyol, chwal, is a person possessed, or “ridden,” by a spirit (lwa) summoned in a Vodou ceremony. Vodou, while derived from West African religion, is a distinctly Haitian practice:
Read more about Vodou ceremony — of which music is an integral part — and watch video here.
While in the Vodou religion, only Haitians can be “ridden” as chwals by the spirits (lwas), Kunzru seems to be suggesting that this kind of possession is more than metaphorical. What do you think?
Dr. Teresa Reed describes a similar practice in the black Pentecostal church of her childhood in Gary, Indiana, one of the northern industrial cities to which rural southern blacks moved en masse during the Great Migration:
There were many labels for this particular brand of the Lord’s work. The solitary dancer might be described as “getting the Holy Ghost,” “doing the holy dance,” “shouting,” “being filled,” “catching the Spirit,” “being purged,” or simply as someone “getting a blessing.” Whatever the descriptor, the phenomenon was familiar to all members of this religious culture. And it was understood that music –not just any music, but certain music — could facilitate such manifestations. . . [But]the parishioners at my urban, black-American church had no awareness of the many parallels between our Spirit-driven modes of worship and those common to our Afro-Caribbean counterparts.
Read Dr. Reed’s article, “Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music,” here.
In her article “Unenslaveable Rapture: Afrxfuturism and Diasporic Vertigo in Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” Valorie D. Thomas posits Beyoncé’s visual album in the context of Yoruba religion. In the video for “Denial,” for instance, Beyoncé jumps from a skyscraper and dives into the water, reemerging as a figure of Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha (deity) who rules the waters and fertility. Read Thomas’s article here.
You may already know this famous gospel song, first performed in 1967. It is credited with creating the contemporary gospel genre:
In 1969, gospel singer Dorothy Combs taught it to white folk and rock singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and performed it with them at the Big Sur Music Festival. Is its effect on the mostly-white audience similar to its effect on black worshippers?
The Arkansas-born Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was one of the first Pentecostal gospel artists to cross over into pop music. Her churchgoing fans were scandalized by her forays into secular music, but her passionate, shouting singing style and her use of distortion on the electric guitar were hugely influential on both black and white artists, and came to be known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll.
Other artists crossed over in the other direction, like the Reverend Al Green, who went from this:
The great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was herself a preacher’s daughter, and started her career as a young girl singing gospel. One of the unique features of her artistry was the way, as critic Albert Goldman suggested in 1968, she could make sex sound like salvation. Listen, for instance, to the gospel piano intro and the shouts of “Hallelujah” in the song “Son of a Preacher Man.”
What elements do soul and gospel share? What about rock and gospel?
Do you think that the audiences at rock festivals in the 1970s were experiencing a similar sensation of being ridden by the Spirit? How does music play a part in these experiences?
What about Kanye’s Sunday Service? Are the worshippers feeling it?
More on Kanye and gospel here:
What about the “Beyoncé Mass”?
You can browse the first published gospel songbook, the 1921 Gospel Pearls, here. The publisher, the National Baptist Convention, was a major African-American denomination.
The only known photograph of Delta bluesman Charley Patton.
Hari Kunzru based his portrait of mid-twentieth-century collectors of early blues recordings on a loosely-knit real-life group of blues enthusiasts — made up almost entirely white men — who called themselves the “Blues Mafia.” The character of Chester Bly in particular was inspired by the legendary record collector James McKune, described by John Jeremiah Sullivan as:
McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. . . . For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture.
. . . I’m not sure what McKune was looking for, exactly. Maybe the same thing we all look for in music: some flawlessly articulated truth. But I know for sure when he found it.
. . . In January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s [record shop on W. 47th Street] and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg [the shop’s owner] and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As [blues scholar Marybeth] Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”
Charley Patton was a Mississippi-born guitarist of mixed ancestry, allegedly the son of a former slave. What do you think it was in his voice and guitar-playing that galvanized Jim McKune?
Jim McKune’s real-life blues epiphany is echoed in JumpJim’s story in White Tears about hearing Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” for the first time:
That sound, my God. Like it had come out of the earth.
JumpJim begins to search for rare blues recordings:
But the sound I craved wasn’t easy to come by. Patton, Son House, Wille McTell, Robert Johnson, Willie Johnson, Skip James, John Hurt . . . the names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about [the musicians]. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.
. . . I’ve not seen a second copy of this, Chester would say, pulling out yet another incredible record another forgotten performance by a lost genius.
“Laid down last night just trying to take my rest My mind got to rambling like wild geese in the west”
(This lyrical excerpt is from “I Know You Rider,” also called “Woman Blues.” John and Alan Lomax transcribed this traditional song on their southern journey and published it in their 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs, attributing it to “an eighteen-year-old black girl, in prison for murder,” they had heard singing it in the south. It has been covered by countless artists — mainly white folksingers — and was a staple of the Grateful Dead’s live shows.)
The lyrics of one of the six songs, “Skinny Leg Blues”:
I‘m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed I’m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed Aaaaaaah and I ain’t built for speed I’ve got everything that a little bitty mama needs
I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs Aaaaaah, keep up these noble thighs I’ve got somethin’ underneath them that works like a boar hog’s eye
But when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind And when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind You see me comin’, pull down your window blind So your next door neighbor sure can hear you whine
I’m gonna cut your throat, baby, Gonna look down in your face. I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard Be your resting place.
Are the blueswomen Geeshee Wiley and Elvie (L.V.) Thomas suggesting the murderous outcome of a love gone wrong? Or are they describing sadistic, gratuitous violence? Are they talking about the logical results of “not knowing right from wrong”? Or maybe the logical results of a social system that erodes morality itself?