Here, Brown rehearses the chorus and dancers of Porgy. Are the movements expressive of blood memory?
Do you think blood memory is a real phenomenon? or is Brown using the term as a metaphor for something else? What?
If blood memory is a real phenomenon, to what extent does it govern the choices we make and the actions we take? Are our “blood memories” mutable? Can they be changed? Or are they permanent and inexorable, something to which we must submit?
Brown suggests that blood memory is dormant in all people of African heritage, and can help them to access traditional ways of movement. Are there other blood memories particular to other groups of people? Give an example.
Is soprano Latonia Moore drawing on blood memory here, in her performance of Serena’s Act I aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy?
What about here, singing “Un bel dì,” Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria from Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese woman)?
The Gershwins’ estate stipulates that only singers of African heritage can perform the Porgy and Bess, but that hasn’t stopped the melanin-challenged from singing excerpts for years:
The opera begins with the aria “Summertime,” the most covered piece of music of all time. Here it is sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz.
These charges complicate the notion of “blood memory.” Could there be a kind of American “blood memory,” the product and the basis of our mixed cultural origins as a nation — a memory that made it possible for a Russian-Jewish immigrant and a white Southern aristocrat to write a great American opera on one aspect of the black experience?
Read more about the historic controversies surrounding the opera here:
The folk/bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens hosts a Metropolitan Opera podcast called “Aria Code,” designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Here, she looks at Porgy and Bess from multiple perspectives, including roots both in minstrelsy and Charleston’s Gullah Geechee culture.
Video of a symposium on the opera at the University of Michigan, including a diversity of viewpoints.
One of your first two 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 and cultures. This post is a compendium of the 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:
Amos N’ Andy:
Some nineteenth-century racist cartoons of Irish immigrants, which Szwed mentions in his article:
In your journal, write answers to the following questions. Make sure you write in complete sentences, using your best prose!
1. On p. 27, Szwed talks about the first generation of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy to be recorded and filmed – Al Jolson, Amos and Andy, et al. He then mentions Mick Jagger as a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface.” What do you think he means by this?
2. On p. 30, 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 does he mean?
Give a musical example of this process of conversion — of black American culture into national American culture — from your own lifetime.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
You may know that the Yankees have #cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only #cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium.
The reason is that in 1931, Smith recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which includes these lyrics:
Someone had to pick the cotton, Someone had to plant the corn, Someone had to slave and be able to sing, That’s why darkies were born; Someone had to laugh at trouble, Though he was tired and worn, Had to be contented with any old thing, That’s why darkies were born; Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and Sing when you’re blue, Sing, sing, that’s what you taught All the white folks to do; Someone had to fight the Devil, Shout about Gabriel’s Horn, Someone had to stoke the train That would bring God’s children to green pastures, That’s why darkies were born.
Though they’re not what you would call great literature, the lyrics of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” are fascinating, and worth unpacking.
First of all, they express a kind of ironic fatalism — “Someone HAD TO slave” — which can be read both as an acceptance of slavery as an institution, and also as a kind of meta-musical justification for it, because “someone” also “HAD TO . . . be able to sing.” According to the lyrics, slavery, and the music that it generated, make up a sort of self-fulfilling binary system.
Secondly, the statement that “someone had to” do these things implies that the logic and necessity of slavery are so obvious that they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. Even the most fire-eating of pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work to justify their position.
And finally, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?
Here the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggests the “Magical Negro” trope: the longstanding theme in American literature and film that blacks (and people of color more broadly) are salvific, i.e., both capable of, and necessary, to the spiritual redemption of whites. “Someone had to stoke the train/That would bring God’s children to green pastures” is a reference to the many appearances of metaphorical trains, “bound for glory” — in other words, for heaven — in gospel music.
Of course, in the antebellum South, pro-slavery whites accepted and advanced the idea that “someone had to” be enslaved. But they believed slavery was necessary for their economic and social institutions, not for their spiritual redemption. Pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South often framed their support for the owning of other people in terms of the duty to “civilize” and protect the slaves, who, they claimed, were so childlike as to be unable to live free.
Is it possible, therefore, that Lew Brown’s lyrics actually invert pro-slavery arguments?
The “meta-musical” aspect of the song is in the fact that it is ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s specifically about the folk music sung by American slaves. What’s more, the lyrics emphasize that the music sung by slaves is the vehicle for whites’ salvation: “Darkies were born,” it’s implied, because whites needed their souls to be saved. Is this an indictment of slavery? Is it an acceptance of it? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slaveryitself was necessary for whites’ redemption?
Is this an example of “love and theft”?
The great Paul Robeson also recorded the song in 1931.
How does Paul Robeson’s version of the song differ from Kate Smith’s? Does Robeson’s singing express irony? Does it express what John Lomax called “self-pity”? Does it express pride? Does it express rebellion?
Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.” . . . How can we explain this? At the time, Robeson was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. He had strong communist sympathies, which he did not keep hidden, that were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race. . .
[Nevertheless, according to music historian Will Friedwald,] “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley could relate to — casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world” . . .
Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like — they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”
The sentiment is also present in a 1947 children’s book by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward, North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro.
I came to the New World empty-handed, A despised thing, to be used and broken, Yet I brought immeasurable gifts . . . I brought to the New World the gift of communion. I was the Negro who by many a lonely campfire Learned to “steal away to Jesus” on wings of song. . . Out of loneliness, need, and anguish Was born the Spiritual, A ladder of beauty leading straight to God.
Do you think Hildegarde Hoyt Swift is echoing the sentiments of Lew Brown?
A similarly racist song of the early 1930s, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” by white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mack Gordon, also sentimentalizes southern plantation life, applying the tropes of happy, carefree, music-loving “darkies” to sophisticated black urbanites in Harlem, with such lyrics as:
Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs, Rhythm in their feet and in their lips and in their eyes. Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies? Underneath the Harlem moon.
There’s no fields of cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo; They don’t live in cabins like old folks used to do: Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue, Underneath the Harlem moon.
In a short 1933 film called Rufus Jones for President, the actress and singer Ethel Waters gives an updated version to an assembly of black U.S. senators. (Listen for the lines about drinking gin and puffing “reefers.”) Waters makes some sly references to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” with the lines “that’s why we shvartses [Yiddish for blacks] were born,” and “that’s how house rent parties were born.”
Here’s Rhiannon Giddens singing it:
What does Rhiannon Giddens do differently from Ethel Waters? How does she play with the meaning of the song? Is she signifying? Is Ethel Waters?
Nevertheless, on his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, Marsalis raps.
You got to speak the language the people Are speakin’ Specially when you see the havoc it’s wreakin’ Even the rap game started out critiquin’ Now it’s all about killing and freakin’ All you ’60s radicals and world beaters Righteous revolutionaries and Camus readers Liberal students and equal rights pleaders What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders Where y’all at? (That’s what I’m talkin’ about) Where y’all at? (Where y’all at?) Where y’all at? Where y’all at? (Lord have mercy) Don’t turn up your nose It’s us that’s stinkin’ And it all can’t be blamed on the party Of Lincoln The left and the right got the country sinkin’ Knocked the scales from Justice hand and Set her eyes a-blinkin’ All you patriots, compatriots, and true Blue believers Brilliant thinkers and overachievers All you “when I was young We were so naïve’ers Y’all started like Eldridge [Cleaver] and now You’re like Beaver Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? We supposed to symbolize freedom and pride But we got scared after King and the Kennedys died We take corruption and graft in stride Sittin’ around like owls talkin’ ’bout “WHO? Who lied?” All you po’ folks victims of rich folks game All you rich folks gettin’ ripped off in the Same name All you gossips cacklin’ “It’s a dirty shame” And whistle blowers cryin’ ’bout who’s to blameWhere y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at?Well, it ain’t about black and it ain’t about The white They’ll get together to make your pocket light. When you just keep on payin’ do your jaws Get tight? Taxes, that’s your real inalienable right All you afro-wearers and barbershop experts Cultists, sectarians, political disconcerts Big baggy pants wearers with the long White T-shirts The good man that counter what the Bad man asserts Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? After 9/11 the whole world Was ready to love us Now everybody can’t wait to rub us We runnin’ all over the world with a blunderbuss And the Constitution all but forgot in the fuss All you feminists and mothers, fathers And brothers I guess you’d pimp your daughters if you Had your druthers All you “It’s not me” it’s always others You watch the crimes, you close your shutters Folks watchin’ Fox and CNN News Seekin’ a cure for the Red, White, and Blues Well, it won’t matter which side you choose If we end up payin’ international dues All you “In my day it used to be” frauds All you “So what”s and “Leave it to the Lawd”s All you “I’ll just deal with whatever cards” All you extend adolescent American Bards Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at?
He explains: “It’s rapping, but it ain’t hip-hop.”
What do you think?
It’s worth noting also
What about this famous song from 1970 by Gil Scott-Heron, known as the “Godfather of Rap”? Is it rap if it lacks flow, scansion, or rhymes?
How do you define rap?
How would you describe the difference between rap and hip hop?
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
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.
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:
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.
Watch the 1966 documentary Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, made by folksinger Pete Seeger along with his wife Toshi and son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson.
Addendum: a feminist take on the John Henry legend: the hero in this version is his wife, Polly Ann.
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?