So Black and Blue

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 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.

The lyrics:

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

revived “Black and Blue,” but with a crucial lyric change. He sang, “I’m right inside, but that don’t help my case/’cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” The song concludes, “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” Armstrong had turned “Black and Blue” into a song of racial protest, one that he would continue to play for the rest of his life.

Watch that performance here, and notice that Armstrong very pointedly changes the lyric at 3:27.

How does this change alter the meaning of the song in its entirety? Does the change of one word change the song’s entire message?

Affrilachia

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A chart of the major themes of country music.

Country music may seem like the whitest of music genres, and has even been called “The White Man’s Blues.” Songs like Merle Haggard’s “I’m a White Boy” certainly advance that narrative.

But is that narrative reliable?

It’s true that some of the major themes of country music have traditionally been closed to black musicians. “Driving on the open road,” for instance, has historically been, and still can be, downright dangerous for black Americans.

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But the other themes are pretty universal. Yes, including trucks.

And certainly failed relationships.

What is not widely known is that country music has been integrated since its earliest days. Although early recording labels divided their catalogs into “hillbilly” and “race” records, the recording sessions were often integrated. In fact, the so-called “Father of Country,” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), recorded with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.

One of the great Appalachian fiddlers of the twentieth century was Kentucky-born Bill Livers, a black man. You can hear his astonishing playing here.

bill livers string ensemble

As multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens notes, the  assumptions that (1) all country music begins in Appalachia, and (2) there were no black people in Appalachia, are patently false.

In fact, Giddens recently formed the group Our Native Daughters, whose core members are four banjo-picking black women who are experts in traditional American folk music. Read more here and listen to their song “Quasheba, Quasheba” here.

The facts are that Appalachia is not a racially homogeneous region, and that American blacks also have deep ties to the rural histories and landscapes of the American south, and to the roots of traditional American folk music.

Affrilachia (a poem by Frank X Walker, who coined the term)

thoroughbred racing
and hee haw
are burdensome images
for Kentucky sons
venturing beyond the mason-dixon

anywhere in Appalachia
is about as far
as you could get
from our house
in the projects
yet
a mutual appreciation
for fresh greens
and cornbread
an almost heroic notion
of family
and porches
makes us kinfolk
somehow
but having never ridden
bareback
or sidesaddle
and being inexperienced
at cutting
hanging
or chewing tobacco
yet still feeling
complete and proud to say
that some of the bluegrass
is black
enough to know
that being ‘colored‚ and all
is generally lost
somewhere between
the dukes of hazard
and the beverly hillbillies

but
if you think
makin‚’shine from corn
is as hard as Kentucky coal
imagine being
an Affrilachian
poet

Map Of Appalachian Mountains map of appalachia my blog 400 X 390 pixels

(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)

More genre-bending from Valerie June.

Go Down, Moses

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The first published version of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” in 1862, attributed its authorship to “The Contrabands” — escaped slaves who joined the Union Army — who probably sang it as a rallying cry, rather than as a hymn.

Harriet Tubman (nicknamed “Moses” for having led hundreds of slaves to freedom) is supposed to have used “Go Down, Moses” as coded instructions for planned plantation breakouts, but music historian Dena J. Epstein calls this into question, noting:

“Go Down, Moses” was not a safe song to sing in the South, with its refrain of “Let my people go.”

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One of the earliest known recordings of the song, performed by a vocal quartet from the Tuskegee Institute in 1914, can be heard at the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox Project website.

The song was made popular by the great African-American bass Paul Robeson, in an art song arrangement probably by Harry T. Burleigh.

” Go Down, Moses” was used in the 1941 movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” in a scene where the protagonist has found himself on a prisoners’ chain gang during the Great Depression. The scene has many layers of meaning, resonance, and irony, as the story of the Hebrew slaves in Egyptian bondage is sung by a black congregation — the near descendants of enslaved people themselves — for a group of prisoners in chains.

In the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle,” the young Sidney Poitier leads a group of high school students in a rendition.

(Does this remind you of your high school?)

In the 1950s, “Go Down, Moses,” became popular as a jazz standard. In this 1958 recording, Louis Armstrong uses elements of both gospel and jazz.

Another twist:

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It has also long been sung at American seders during the Jewish holiday of Passover. A black convert to Judaism writes:

The first time I heard a live rendition of “Go Down, Moses” was at the first Passover Seder I ever attended. Somewhere around the third cup of wine, a room full of Jews sang the classic negro spiritual in lively fashion, followed almost immediately by “O Freedom,” another classic negro spiritual.

A recording from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the 1950s is affecting on a whole other level.