A collection of some of the musical examples referred to by Peter van der Merwe in your reading.
As you listen, think about the similarities in these musics from across cultures. What makes them blues or blues-like?
Charley Patton, “Tom Rushen Blues”.
You’ll be reading more about Charley Patton later. For the moment, pay attention not only to what van der Merwe calls his “shake” on the third scale degree, but also on his technique of doubling the vocal line with the guitar.
2. Bessie Smith, “Poor Man’s Blues”:
3. Traditional Mossi music from Burkina Faso, west Africa. Pay attention to the long, unmetered, chant-like vocal lines.
4. “Goin’ Home,” recorded by the Lomaxes at Parchman Farm, a notorious segregated prison in Mississippi. Note the chant-like, repetitive vocal line and the reverse-dotted rhythm.
4. “Show Pity, Lord,” a Protestant hymn by 18th-century English composer Isaac Watts. Why does van der Merwe include this example?
6. “Gwineter Harness in de Mornin’ Soon,” another song John Lomax collected from Dink on the banks of the Brazos River in Texas.
7. “Dance in the Place Congo” by 20th-century composer Henry Gilbert: it’s in 5/4 and is meant to evoke the dancing on Sunday in Congo Square, New Orleans, prior to Emancipation.
8. “The Maid Freed From the Gallows,” a traditional English ballad.
Led Zeppelin’s version of this ballad, “Gallows Pole”:
The D.C.-based arts organization Black Girls Handgames Project is dedicated to remixing and repurposing classic (pre-electronics) children’s games, many of which originated in communities of color. Cofounder OnRae LaTeal explains:
The children’s handgame “Miss Mary Mack,” for instance, played here by the great folksinger Ella Jenkins (with some assistance from . . . Barney), dates back to the 1800s.
In the book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, Kyra D. Gaunt suggests:
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, and Stagolee has become a romanticized outlaw in the great American tradition of Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde.
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? Who are the Stagolees of the 21st century?
Has the romanticized-outlaw image of Stagolee carried over into rap music? Give an example of a song and an artist.
Content warning: explicit language and situations.
Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The white Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time riding the rails as an itinerant laborer, wrote in the 1930s:
Tramps and hoboes are the last of the ballad makers. Not in the Tennessee Hills, or among the Sea Island Negroes, or in any other such [isolated] community is there a more vigorous balladry than that which has been flourishing for the past fifty years in America’s peripatetic underworld . . . To relieve the tedium of dreary waits in jungle camps [i.e. work camps for migratory laborers] and long spells of incarceration in country jails . . . many extemporaneous epics, as well as the hobo classics, are sung or recited.
Milburn traces “extemporaneous rhyming,” known in today’s parlance as freestyling, to eighteenth-century England, where reciting rhymed verse made up on the spot was a popular form of parlor entertainment.
A form of folk poetry that developed in the black community simultaneously with hobo balladry is toasting. Toasting is a genre of orally-transmitted narrative recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:
Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.
In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.
As clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (above) put it, in an eloquent description of signifying:
Deny the Negro the culture of the land? O.K. He’ll brew his own culture — on the street corner. Lock him out from the seats of higher learning? He pays it no nevermind — he’ll dream up his own professional double-talk, from the professions that are open to him, the professions of musician, entertainer, maid, butler, tap-dancer. . . .
The hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language. Where many ofays [whites] will hold forth pompously, like they had The Word, the Negro mimics them sarcastically. As a final subtle touch, his language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay’s gift of gab and gibberish.
There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the murderous gambler Stagolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.
It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind April the four was a hell of a time. When the news reached a seaport town that the great Titanic was a-sinking down. Now up popped Shine, from the decks below and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know. there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.” But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told, and go back down in that deep black hold.” Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine, But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine. There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.” So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.
The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:
The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:
Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975 (warning: explicit language and situations and nudity):
In 2019, Eddie Murphy starred in a biopic on Netflix about Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite is My Name.
The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973, with his group The Last Poets. The album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.
Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:
The Last Poets’ West Coast counterparts, the Watts Prophets, were equally influential:
The poet Nikki Giovanni (above), like the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, recorded a spoken-word album in 1971, Truth Is On Its Way, which featured her reciting her poetry over a musical backgrounds that represented a variety of African-American music genres. Giovanni recites “Ego Tripping” over a background of handclaps and African percussion, and “The Great Pax Whitie” features a gospel choir, the New York Community Choir.
Listen to 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. How does she draw on the Black oral tradition?
Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.
The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:
Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):
And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.
You know your daddy and he’s a faggot And your mother’s a whore He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . . He said, your granny, she’s a dyke And your other brother, he’s a faggot And your little sister Loo She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot
are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:
–Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”
– Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.
If you’ve seen the film 12 Years A Slave, you may remember that Solomon Northup (shown in a sketch above), whose memoir was the basis for the movie, was a musician. Northup wrote of his life as a free black violinist in New York State:
In the film, he’s shown playing at such dances, and he later strikes a bargain with two unscrupulous promoters to go on tour to Washington, D.C., which is where his troubles begin.
In his memoir, Northup also describes playing violin for a Christmas party in Louisiana after he’s been enslaved — an occasion at which the slaves were permitted to take off their masters and perform their own exaggerated versions of European high-society dances [this kind of parody would evolve into the Cakewalk]. Afterwards, the slaves
This patting is also known as patting juba, or just juba. It derives from sub-Saharan African music; the word “juba” means “to pat or keep rhythm” in the Bantu language. The patting of one’s own body as an instrument was an adaptation made by the slaves when drums were banned in the American colonies. And why were drums banned? You all remember this, from the 1964 film Zulu: chanting as preparation for war.
On Sunday, September 9, 1739, twenty Congolese slaves (mislabeled by contemporary historians as “Angolan”) gathered on the banks of the Stono River near Charleston (in this period, Sunday was a day off for slaves). They commandeered a guns-and-ammo shop, killed the owners, armed themselves, and headed south, chanting and playing drums as “a call to arms, a preparation for battle.” As a 1740 account of the uprising described it:
By the end of the day, the rebels numbered over a hundred, dozens of whites were dead, and the leaders of the Stono Rebellion would soon be executed.
After the rebellion was put down, the colonies enacted punitive measures against blacks, including the death penalty for any slave who learned to read. Slaves were no longer allowed to congregate, earn money, or grow their own food — and drums were banned. Juba was in some ways a response to the drum ban: the body became a rhythmic instrument.
Juba is usually performed just with the voice and the body. The drummer Sule Greg Wilson says:
Juba was sung and percussed to throw off and discharge the negativity of the institution of chattel slavery. Thus, we find in Juba a vital, sacred act—not to be confused with the good-time community activity of Hambone. Though both use body percussion, they are–functionally–very different.
As Sweet Honey in the Rock say, “You don’t just sing juba, you have to do juba. . . the word is African, but doing juba was made up by our people when we had to express how hard and unfair it was to be slaves . . . maybe some evil person can destroy your drums, but can anyone stop a true drummer from drumming? . . use your body . . . become a drum.”
A children’s call-and-response version which does not shy away from the injustice of slavery.
When juba is done as a social or community activity, it’s often called hambone. Here, Danny “Slapjazz” Barber demonstrates and discusses its origins in the Stono Rebellion:
You can see how juba/hambone mutates over time into other forms. The first black dancer to perform onstage for white audiences in the United States was known as Master Juba (his real name was William Henry Lane). Charles Dickens saw Master Juba dance in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood on a trip to America. Dickens described this even in his 1842 book American Notes:
What will we please to call for? A dance? It shall be done directly, sir: “a regular breakdown.” The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding . . . marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.