Mike Mellor: One thing I love about this series is that not only do we get to jump back and forth across a century of recorded music, but we also get to put contemporaneous things together that were/are artificially segregated.
Last week we talked about songs from the American Folk Revival which, from my perspective, is a direct product of Post-War American class and race politics. The genre represented the unionized American Left in the lead-up to World War II and rather quickly aligned itself with the African American Civil Rights Movement (AACRM), which only makes sense since the community was based on song hounds and ethnomusicologists who had been doing their field research in the Black communities of the South for decades. Of course such allegiances made them natural targets for the henchmen of McCarthyism and ruined many of their lives, but it turns out to have worked wonders for their legacies because once the Second Red Scare died down these musicians became icons for left-leaning Baby Boomers. This is all fantastic but what always gnaws at me is that almost all of the household names that sprung from the movement were white. Woody Guthrie? Burl Ives? Pete Seeger? Peter, Paul and Mary? All white. It's true that Harry Belafonte also became a household name, but it was for fucking "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)".
The theme this week is blues songs of social consciousness, a genre that to me seems inextricably tied to the Folk Revival even if you aren't going to see a PBS special or a Time Life Collection infomercial about it. A lot of the names you see bandied about in talk of the Folk Revival made songs like this, pointing out the injustices in their lives and communities:
Brendan Hogan: That's an interesting point, and one that I think is still a thorn in the side of folks who like things organized in terms of black and white, or in this case blues and folk. The notion that blues music is folk music, in that it can share the same interest in social consciousness and substance, is foreign to some music fans. Many times I have heard people say, "Oh, blues music is fine so long as it's kept in bars," as opposed to listening rooms and other folk venues. That's horseshit. It's ignorant, insulting, and frankly, representative of the type of racism that still exists in this country, swept-under-the-rug and ignored. That kind of attitude in the music world leaves musicians in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't straightjacket, artistically. And it's not unique to today.
Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown, and White" is a great example of a true folk song of substance sung by a man who was a blues star of the "race records" era. What he was saying in that song managed to piss off everybody, which is a daring feat. Polite, bourgeois, white audiences just discovering Broonzy didn't appreciate their usually good-humored songster in overalls highlighting their complicity in societal racial inequity, and black audiences didn't like being spoken to in the terms Broonzy uses in the song ("If you're black, hey brother; get back, get back, get back").
Of course, what they all missed, and what their universal dislike of the song highlighted, is Broonzy's ability to tell the truth in song. If that's not the mark of a good folk song I don't know what is. And if you're upsetting everyone, as opposed to only one group, it means you're saying the right things.
I feel like blues musicians today encounter the same problems. That's why so many of them are still in bars.
Mike: Did anyone else catch that kind of flack?
Brendan: I can't think of any other blues musicians who caught the kind of flack Broonzy caught. Maybe it's because, in the case of "Black, Brown, and White", his message was so direct and unapologetic, but I also think it's at least in part due to the fact that he was successful in crossing over. White audiences wanted him to be a genuine country boy, while the black audiences who were more familiar with his R&B music probably didn't appreciate his catering to whites.
It's a different scenario with someone like Josh White. He became prominent with the Café Society crowd pretty early on, so he was preaching to the choir, so to speak, when singing this:
Mike: Of course. Café Society is where the "Harlem Renaissance" and the "Folk Revival" met. I put them in scare quotes because they are thought of as entirely separate movements, even though they happened in the same city, one immediately after the other with certain young folks of the former being elders of the latter.
This goes back to what you said about structural racism. The very notion of segregation is to appeal to the perceived advantages of living in a vacuum—as if it lends a sense of righteous purity—when biology, society and art have forever been thriving in intercommunication and dying in isolation. Art is communicable Darwinism; a great expression from one is adopted by another and adapted to other circumstances, then adopted by another and adapted to different circumstances, ad infinitum. If the same concept applies to both our genetic structures and our social structures it must be at the core of who we are. Art, in its openness and communicative abilities, must express not a nostalgia for what was good from the past, but recreate that timeless good for the immediate moment over and over again.
Dr. King knew that, and that is what makes him the transcendent figure of the AACRM, which of course is the thread holding all of this conversation together. He understood that the socio-historic fight in which he was engaged was one of conservatism v. timelessness, and that timelessness always wins in the end. And it wasn't only the white establishment that was conservative; the Nation of Islam was pretty conservative, too. After all, a theology of black supremacy is just as racist as a society of white supremacy.
There's a Mavis Staples song about Martin and the larger movement that I think captures this sense of timelessness:
Brendan: That's well said. Art, and particularly music, is in a position to affect change in the world in a way that other forms of human communication aren't. Maybe it's because of the broad appeal of music, or the way it can literally move you, but there is something about a message couched in the form of a song that is going to have a deeper impact than just words alone. Which is why it's interesting that folks like Staples, J.B. Lenoir, John Lee Hooker, and countless others from the most segregated corners of society have used their influence as musicians to affect positive change. In the face of systemic oppression, forced poverty and unspeakable violence, how easy it would be to say we're coming after you instead of We'll never turn back?
Champion Jack Dupree is another one. He grew up an orphan at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. As a young man he was a successful prizefighter, then a cook in the Navy and a POW during World War II. After the war, he recorded quite a bit in the US, but wound up moving to Europe for the reasons so many jazz and blues musicians did during the '60s, where he lived out the rest of his life. This was one of the last songs he recorded:
Mike: The simplicity of both of those songs is tremendous. It's amazing, when given eyes to bear witness and a voice to speak the truth, how plain things can be so powerful.
That's an excellent point, by the way, about how protest songs never resorted to violence or revenge. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote about the lack of revenge fantasies in African American history. His basic argument is that the We're coming after you impulse was not nearly as strong as the Leave us the fuck alone impulse. Since he's probably more knowledgeable about this than both of us combined, let's let him have the final word on this one.
Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Myth of Harriet Tubman, 1/3/2013:
I recently finished Kate Larsen's excellent biography of Harriet Tubman--Bound For The Promised Land. Tubman, like any mythical figure has had her exploits elevated beyond actual events. But even in Larsen's historical telling she emerges as a super-heroic figure. It's true she didn't shepherd 200 slaves out of Maryland. The number was more like 70--which is to say, given the logistics, a lot.
At any rate, I've done a lot of thinking on the place of myth in African-American history. Django aside, we don't really have many avenging angels. Reviewing the primary documents of the time, I don't even detect much taste for mass vengeance. There's often a taste for particular vengeance on particular people, but more than anything there's a strong desire to be left the fuck alone. Actions, like absconding with oneself, are usually set in motion by the threat of sale and the disruption of family ties. At first I was surprised by the lack of race hatred. But when I thought about it, it makes sense.
Race hatred among whites was not irrational devolution. On the contrary it served an actual political purpose--defining the borders of citizenship, manhood and the broadest aristocracy ever created. Race hatred among blacks is just vengeance. It doesn't really go anywhere. It doesn't offer access to anything you didn't have before. Even if you look at the actual ideology of black nationalists what you will find more than "Kill Whitey" is "Leave us the fuck alone." Whereas integrationists wanted to be left alone here as Americans, separatists wanted to be left alone elsewhere. But both wanted to left alone.
Dark Was the Night airs on WUMB Saturdays from 8pm-midnight.
Listen online or at:
91.9 FM Boston, Worcester, Falmouth
91.7 FM Newburyport, Stow, Marshfield
1170 AM Orleans