Toasts, Signifyin(g), and the Roots of Rap

Shine surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

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 Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time on the road 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.

You can read Get Your Ass in the Water online in its entirety here.

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 gambler Stackolee, 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:

The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973; 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:

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.

The lyrics

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.

Yo mama’s so fat, she jumped in the air and got stuck.

Of course, as children become adolescents, the taunts become raunchier:

Yo mama like cake, everybody get a piece.

Yo Mama so dirty I called her up for phone sex and she gave me an ear infection.

Etc.

The dozens morphs/migrates into rap battles.

For a comprehensive library of information on toasts, black folklore, rap, and urban culture, check out this site.

Captain Jack

The figure of Captain Jack appears early on in White Tears, in a song lyric that Carter is shown singing to himself on p. 29. Carter later mixes the song with the one that Seth recorded by chance in Washington Square Park, gives it an artificially gritty, vintage sound, and releases the result online as “Graveyard Blues,” which he claims was recorded in 1928 on a record label he calls Key & Gate by Charlie Shaw (“Just a name I made up,” he explains).

Carter’s reference to Captain Jack is from Son House’s “County Farm Blues” (1941):

Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong
Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong
Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong
They’ll sure put you down on the country farm

Put you down under a man they call “Captain Jack”
Put you under a man called “Captain Jack”
Put you under a man they call “Captain Jack”
He sure write his name up and down your back

Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade
Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade
Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade
Wish to God that you hadn’t never been made

On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad
On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad
On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad
Just wonderin’ about how much time they had

The County Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Parchman Farm, a notoriously brutal, segregated prison, where black inmates

were essentially slaves again . . . They worked long hours for no pay, were poorly fed, and slept in tents at work sites doing dangerous jobs like dynamiting tunnels for railroad companies and clearing malarial-filled swamps for construction. Convicts, sometimes including children under age 10, were whipped and beaten, underfed, and rarely given medical treatment. [David] Oshinksy [author of “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice”] writes that between 9 and 16 percent of convicts died yearly in the 1880s.

Bluesman Bukka White (1906?-1977) also did time at Parchman for assault. Folklorist John Lomax met and recorded him there. In 1940, White released “Parchman Farm Blues.”

Judge gimme me life this morn’in
Down on Parchman Farm
Judge gimme me life this morn’in
Down on Parchman Farm
I wouldn’t hate it so bad
But I left my wife in mournin’

Four years, goodbye wife
Oh you have done gone
Ooh, goodbye wife
Oh you have done gone
But I hope someday
You will hear my lonesome song, yeah

Oh you, listen you men
I don’t mean no harm
Oh-oh listen you men
I don’t mean no harm
If you wanna do good
You better stay off old Parchman Farm, yeah

We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
Just at the settin’ of the sun
That’s when da work is done, yeah

Ooh, I’m down on old Parchman Farm
I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah
I’m down on the old Parchman Farm
But I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah
But I hope someday I will overcome.

Son House (1902-1988) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Rochester, New York during the Great Migration, where he gave up music, working as a porter on the New York Central Railroad. House was “rediscovered” in the 1960s by a group of young white record collectors (not unlike, perhaps, JumpJim and Chester Bly a decade earlier) who had searched for him fruitlessly for years in Mississippi.

Though he spent most of his life in upstate New York, House sang, in the song “Clarksdale Moan”: “Clarksdale, Mississippi always gon’ be my home.” The song also contains the lines, “Every day in the week, I go down to Midtown Drugs/Get me a bottle of snuff and a bottle of Alcorub.” Alcorub was rubbing, or isopropyl, alcohol, “alcohol of last resort for desperate alcoholics” during Prohibition (see also “Roll and Tumble”).

House had done a stint in Parchman for allegedly killing a man in a bar brawl in self-defense; he alludes to his sentence in “Mississipi County Farm Blues,” where Captain Jack is a symbol of the brutal prison wardens. After his release, he was advised to leave Clarksdale. He went to Lula, Mississippi, sixteen miles north, where he met Charley Patton. House would later perform with Patton, and traveled with him to Grafton, Wisconsin in 1930 to record at the Paramount music studios.

Clarksdale is now home to two yearly blues festivals, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Fest and the Juke Joint Festival.

However, as the sociologist B. Brian Foster has noted local backs usually don’t attend them, because “that’s for the white folks.”

Charley Patton also referred to Parchman in his song “Hammer Blues”:

They got me in shackles wearing my ball and chain
And they got me ready for that Parchman train

Kunzru has Chester Bly play this recording on p. 182 of White Tears.

Who was “Captain Jack”?

“Captain” is a loaded word in African-American history. The first “captains” with whom Africans had to contend were the actual captains of slave ships. In the early 19th-century poem “The Sorrows of Yamba,” John Riland wrote of the widespread practice of “dancing the slaves” during the Middle Passage in order to force them to exercise:

At the savage Captain’s beck
Now like brutes they make us prance;
Smack the cat
[i.e., whip] about the deck,
And in scorn they bid us dance.

Plantation overseers were later called “Captain.” After Emancipation, white work gang leaders took their place. As the best-known version of the John Henry ballad tells it:

John Henry said to the Captain [of his work gang]
“A man ain’t nothing but a man, 
But before I let your steam drill beat me down, 
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord, 
    I’d die with a hammer in my hand.” 

It is worth noting that there are “rebel” versions of the John Henry ballad as well — versions in which the text is not sanitized to suggest that John Henry is battling a machine rather than an entire system of oppression. James P. Hauser has documented many examples, including one that includes this verse:

John Henry went to the captain’s house,
The captain was sleeping sound.
He says, “Wake up, captain, wake up now,
You ought to be dead and in the ground.”

Blues singer Sippie Wallace recorded “Section Hand Blues” in 1925, thought to be the first recording by an African American to make reference to John Henry, in which she sang:

If my captain ask for me
Tell him Abe Lincoln done set us free.
Ain’t no hammer on this road
Gonna kill poor me.
This ole hammer killed John Henry,
But this hammer ain’t gonna kill me. 

Leadbelly also recorded a song that might be considered a “rebel version” of the John Henry ballad, “Take This Hammer.”

By the time the Southern prison system was well-established in the 1920s, the “Captain” was the prison warden.

The white collector Lawrence Gellert transcribed and recorded black chain gang songs in the rural south in the 1920s and 1930s, publishing them in two anthologies, Negro Songs of Protest and Me and My Captain. His transcriptions of some of the lyrics appeared in the Communist weekly the New Masses in the 1903s. Read an example here:

Gellert’s recordings were later released on LP. An example:

We’ve talked about how sampling prison songs can change the meaning of the original text/song. How do you think covering these songs, as an earlier generation of black concert singers like Harry Belafonte did, might change their meaning?

Belafonte singing one of the songs collected and published by Lawrence Gellert in Me and My Captain, “Look Over Yonder”:

And the famous song “Old Man River,” from the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, is a kind of sanitized version of a prison/work song. Here is the scene from the 1936 film of the show, sung by the great Paul Robeson and an anonymous chorus of black riverboat stevedores.

Authenticity (part IV: Black Metal)

zeal

Read “The Unexpected Rise of Zeal and Ardor’s Spiritual Black Metal Blues.” and listen to the embedded audio.

Listen to the song “Row, Row,” from his album Devil is Fine:

Listen to Furry Lewis’s “Furry’s Blues”:

The lyrics:

I believe I’ll buy me a graveyard of my own
Believe I’ll buy me a graveyard of my own
I’m gonna kill everybody that have done me wrong

If you wanna go to Nashville, mens, ain’t got no fare
Wanna go to Nashville, mens, ain’t got no fare
Cut your good girl’s throat and the judge will send you there

I’m gonna get my pistol, forty rounds of ball
Get my pistol, forty rounds of ball
I’m gonna shoot my woman just to see her fall

I’d rather hear the screws on my coffin sound
I’d rather hear the screws on my coffin sound
Then to hear my good girl says, “I’m jumpin’ down”

Get my pencil and paper, I’m gonna sit right down
Get my pencil and paper, I’m gonna sit right down
I’m gonna write me a letter back to Youngstown

This ain’t my home, I ain’t got no right to stay
This ain’t my home, I ain’t got no right to stay
This ain’t my home, must be my stoppin’ place

When I left my home, you would not let me be
When I left my home, you would not let me be
Wouldn’t rest content until I come to Tennessee

Listen to this:

What forms of African-American music does Zeal & Ardor draw upon? What forms of white music?

Is this appropriation? Is it borrowing? Is it a cross-cultural encounter?

More Call and Response

The musical forms brought to the Americas by slaves from west Africa were generally functional: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances.

You can hear the antiphonal quality in this work song of the Mbuti people (Congo).

A Hausa call-and-response:

Maasai schoolgirls in Kenya.

In the 1964 film Zulu, about the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand (present-day South Africa), the use of antiphonal music in war is highlighted. The Zulus use music to prepare for war, to intimidate the enemy, to wage war, and, in the end, in a moving scene, to salute the victors.

What do you think the purpose of call-and-response form is in religious music?

Call and response in the spiritual “Job, Job.”

Another version:

Call and response in a work camp song.

Call and response in a prison work song.

In August Wilson’s 1987 play The Piano Lesson, a character speaks of his stint in Parchman and sings a work song.

August Wilson was inspired to write his play, set in 1936, by this painting, “The Piano Lesson,” by Romare Bearden (1911-1988).

You can read the complete play here.