Louis Armstrong Back in the Day

Louis Armstrong Back in the Day
With His Signature White Handkerchief and Smile

Black and Blues--The Music

The significance of the blues aesthetic for those who are not professionally conversant in musical notation or the academic discipline of music or jazz history.

Saturday, October 13

Raymond Myles: One of My All Time Favorites

Years and years ago when I was asking to write liner notes for Aretha Franklin's Early Years, he also asked me to write about an album by Raymond Myles, gospel singer.  It's an album I still have and have always treasured.  Somehow the writing never took place and this person faded from my life. But I was thrilled to find just recently a vimeo video about Myle's life and song, the Gospel Genius of New Orleans.  Myles have everything I have grown to expect from New Orleans music--the great outfits, the wonderful hair, the absolute African-nesque abandonment into and out of the music.  I am taking this clip from NewBlackMan (in Exile), which is a blog Mark Anthony Neal's indispensible blog, including comments from the notorious poet and music commentator Kalamu.


Thursday, February 16

Leela James: My Neo-Soul R&B Hero (or Heroine) and Other Heroes: Nina Simone, Etc.

This Leela James is bad as in very very good.

 Whitney Houston's death has me really thinking about this thing called Neo-Soul.  I never really cared that much about Houston's material.  I always felt like she never got to sing the right stuff despite the brilliance of the voice, a voice which just got richer and richer as she got older and more troubled.  But I also understand why people couldn't hear that.

Recently had the opportunity to view two documentaries about Nina Simone (one on Netflix and another independent) a few times, as well as a documentary on HBO on Mavis Staples, and briefly a documentary about Roberta Flack. Since I always loved Nina Simone, when she died in 2003 and the Columbia Jazz Station did a memorial in which they played her music non-stop for several days, I taped it all on cassettes and then played them on my Walkman for years, in fact until I switched to an IPod. 

At the time, the opportunity to purchase Nina Simone's music was in disarray or maybe it was just what was beginning to happen to the music industry in the transition through these various technologies to our current moment of internet streaming. 

At that time, Simone's copyrights still were not clear I am guessing. As she said in the 70s at Montreux: "I made 35 albums and they bootlegged 70! Everybody got a piece of me.".(See What Happened Ms. Simone?)

At the time I had several Simone albums that I had played forever and taped--Nuff Said, Baltimore. I remember I found Baltimore albums in the Yale Bookstore in 1980 in New Haven for $2 a piece. I was so thrilled by it I bought all they had and gave them as gifts. Albums were phasing out and at the time Simone was way out, not respected musically by all sorts of jazz fans (but these were always men and I never let that phase me) and I was wondering where she was because she had been an unforgettable aspect of my childhood. Summertime was the first song I ever learned to sing that wasn't a hymn as I recall. The second had to be I Love You Porgy, Simone's hit of 1959.  I kept up with her as best I could.

The challenge was to track this music down on the cds that were available when I wanted to upgrade to cds. The memorial broadcast in 2002 gave me my first real chance to update my collection, to figure out her repertoire and to understand how many substantially different versions there were recorded and the ones I wanted to collect. I had done something similar when building my collection of Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn, and Dinah Washington, three particular favorites. Once I really got into R&B and Gospel, I had done the same thing with Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson because the market was so devious and repetitive. That is to say you could buy three "albums" or cds and find that they all had the same songs, or almost entirely the same songs. It was a racket of some sort. Who knows who it benefited but I couldn't afford to buy the same album three times. And what seemed to go with it was the general perception by people who ordinarily could be counted upon to have an expert opinion of music that the person in question was largely overrated. As soon as they said that about any woman singer, especially somebody who's music had provided the soundtrack to my childhood (such as Mahalia Jackson), I began investigating what happened and when because most people don't listen to a lot of anybody's music, especially somebody they don't like. In addition, there are many artists who can only be properly enjoyed in person. I would say this is still true, for instance of Toshi Reagon and Meshell Negedecello. Not that there aren't albums. Just that the live performances are stll a lot richer and this has to do with, I guess, production money.

Anyhow part of this is learning what the career of the artist has actually been like, the record companies they recorded with and how they treated them, especially if they were also political. In almost every case, there are long hiatuses in which there is no recording taking place--for various reasons: either they are being blackballed by the industry, or they are fighting over royalties, or there are health issues. Most of the time I am rarely satisfied with the answers. But one thing that is going on, which is usually frankly admitted in the accounts is that somebody in the record industry is trying to turn the singer into a successful pop artist, by which I take this to mean they are trying to get that mainstream audience that likes very bland music and lots of it. In the process, they be making it difficult for you to find and hear the unique artist in which people such as myself are interested. 

With black women artists, sometimes they can just simply disappear, even as they are no doubt our most successful and prominent artists. There is this excitement right now around Nina Simone, just as there continues to be around Billie Holiday. While this is a mixed blessing indeed, where are the books and the documentaries and the stage shows about Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, so many others.  And then we get the crazy comparisons. Any artist of the 60s has to be compared to Aretha Franklin. Not like Aretha Franklin is some kind of password. Well nobody is or ever was like Aretha Franklin

I don't know why people don't understand that R&B is about deep trouble in the soul.  And that it has never been about perfect voices, perfect pitches or what white folks think or can figure out.  Not that I don't just love white folks and their music from rock to country to gospel and so forth. It just suddenly began to come together for me one day when I was 60.

Of the great soul sounds Al Green, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, god knows who else: I was a child.  I danced to this music.  I loved this music.  I need it still for my soul and I loved to dance on the dance floor, in my house, in the shower, in the street, Sometimes I would dance and sing all day in the street and not worry too much about whether people thought I was crazy.

But when I was a young woman I thought R&B was essential but I didn't think it was the important music.  The important music was Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Etta James.  There were hundreds of the most most superb instrumentalists, blues, jazz and gospel vocalists and a familiarity with this repertoire was why I got up in the morning.  Of course, visual art was equally important to me but I was less successful in sharing this with other black folks. 

For years I tried to teach blues gospel jazz vocals at CCNY, the young people had their own versions, largely a form of hiphop.Then came Neo-Soul and I finally got it. It was pointless to teach them the old stuff until I could teach in a real quality educational institution rather than the CUNY system, which is very serious about music (great program with its own wood paneled library carved into the walls of Sheppard Hall) but not music for other than music students, not for students of the humanities, which is where I am situatedBut that is a grave mistake because music, especially Neo-Soul and all that came before is essential to our knowledge of our legacy.  

Michele Wallace

Saturday, December 11

Relevance of the Blues as Performance to the Purpose of This Class

This is not a music class and yet our primary reference point is to a musical tradition, in particular the blues traditions impact on musical performance as a central tradition in African American culture.  Indeed, this tradition of performance has had such a huge impact on the formation of African American culture that one needs some familiarity with this tradition in order to understand any aspect of African American cultural and social achievement.

Why would this be the case?  Since African American history takes us back to slavery in short order, we must look to the restrictions placed on the cultural life of the slaves in order to understand the peculiarities of African American cultural expression to this day.  Early in the 19th century, African American slaves were forbidden drums since its power to communicate with the slave and between slaves was quickly discerned.  Nonetheless, the essential percussive qualities of African music were taken up by all the other instruments used as well as through dance and song—work songs, spirituals to begin with and after slavery graduating to the blues and gospel.  Spoken word performances, particularly epitomized by the early sermons, also extended these percussive qualities.  One might say that the communicative powers of the talking drum were taken up by every aspect of African American culture.

African Americans were also forbidden religious instruction until the ecstatic religions (Baptist and Methodist) made it possible to convert the slaves without written instruction or reading since reading and writing were also forbidden.  A great deal of emphasis was placed upon preventing communication between blacks on most subjects.  And yet the percussive tradition, which was a communication tradition was incorporated at every level. 

Granted it wasn’t equally possible to communicate on all subjects equally.  Many have argued that folk art that was for purposes of social protest.  However, it seems more likely as Albert Murray suggests, that folk expression concerned itself primarily with issues of survival.

Master’s of American Music----Documentary Description/Outline
Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music

Robert PalmerDockery Farms, early 19 hundreds a lot of important black blues players lived there including

Charley Patton who recorded a lot of music, only one picture surviving but he’s the first Delta Blues Man we can put a name to:
Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters
Blind Lemon JeffersonBlack Snake MoanEast Texas

Albert Murray—the most distinctive thing about blues music (idiom) including jazz or any aspect of it is its emphasis on percussive statement, from its idiomatic source.  African derived disposition to use all instruments as if they were extensions of an African talking drum.  So the music is incantatory and percussive

Bukka White--
Son HouseThe Death Letter Blues, The Pony Blues
Big Blue Broonzy

W.C. Handy
First time he heard the blues was in Tutwiler, Miss.
Singing “When the Southern crossed the Dog,” totally knocked sideways
Father of the Blues Industry
Closer to Ragtime—3 or 4 different strands more like a march rather than a folk song
Made it available, put it in the public domain by analysing what was happening:

The Memphis Blues
Beale Street Blues

Musical Performances:
Tommy Johnson

New Orleans
Tradition of European music interwoven with the African percussive tradition
King Oliver
Buddy Bolden—several bands

Barrelhouse Piano Blues—all the piano blues that was developed in the lumber camps from East Texas to Louisiana up through Mississippi (developed in Kansas City and Chicago)
Albert Ammons
Meade Lux
Jelly Roll Morton

Little Brother Montgomery
Roosevelt Sykes

We’re talking about art, and therefore artificial and as such it has its own context.  We’re concerned with the blues being presented in a performative contexts.  Another set of conventions and traditions.  The tradition of the performing artist.  Style.

Bessie Smith—doing WC Handy’s St. Louis Blues (1929)
Hall Johnson Choir
Directed by Dudley Murphy

Ma Rainey—August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Boll Weevil Blues
Ethel Waters
Mamie Smith
Race Records  in the 20s made blues commercially available, although usually watered down.

Louis Armstrong==The West End Blues
Duke Ellington--Koko

Note: The Women asked me about the women.  I mentioned Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor and Tina Turner as people who have footage that could be easily included here except that this is easily one of those films that regards the blues as something that is largely about the men and a few very special women (i.e. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey).  It is hard to fit all this stuff in, and then four women are all somewhat latter.  Still hot though!

Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired the Civil Rights Movement Revisited

Still working on this but thought we might like to have something with some of the names etcetera on it, just in case you don't know anything about these people or this music or the events being described because it would help if you did.  I can see now that this is very much the perspective (or at least very useful in putting this section together with the history) of the Vernacular Section in the Norton Anthology of AFrican American Literature.  And of course the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2nd Edition) is the only one that remains out there in print because it has the bucks (editors Henry Louis Gates,Jr. and Nellie McKay) to cover most especially the rights for the speeches and the music to go with the literature.  This book comes with two audio cds of both spoken word and music together with a large section on "vernacular culture" edited by Robert O'Meally.  It's not perfect but it is very very good for what is required here. 

I am using this massive book both in my Advanced Survey of African American Literature next semester at the City College of New York (mwallace@ccny.cuny.edu 212-60-6367), Department of English both in my Advance Survey of African American Literature and in my intro level course Blues People and Afro-American Culture Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3:30 to 4:15 and 5 to 6:15 respectively. Both courses will now begin with the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence and make stops in the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow Era, Civil Rights and Black Cultural Nationalism/Black Powerbecause these days you can't afford to leave anything to the imagination. 

Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement
Time Life 2009 
With all its deficits this doc is currently essential viewing in my analysis.

The Staples Singers, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Five Blind Boys, James Brown, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Hugh Masekela, Aretha Franklin, Public Enemy, Chuck D

First Music: Mahalia Jackson--"I'm On My Way"  

Jackson was an extremely important person in the Civil Rights Movement and To Martin Luther King Jr.   Her "Soon I Will Be Done" (which she delivers in the penultimate moment in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life) is included in the Norton anthology and on the cd.  She had always wanted to be a minister herself and comes completely out of the tradition in which a solo gospel singer especially is actually also preaching a sermon and pursuing a ministry.  Jackson on her own functioned much like a travelling minister (she liked to get paid in cash, put the money and her bra and drive herself to and from gigs in her Cadillac)  Her heir apparent who doesn't rate inclusion in such a film as this is her heir apparent and contemporary who wasn't nearly as famous but who won the MacArthur Marion Williams and died in relative poverty and obscurity. So the diva-dom that she inaugurated lasted precisely one generation, and yet she stirs up so much resentment for her many unwise recording and business decisions.  Water both under and over the bridge I think..

 It is my view that the true importance of such women to the Civil Rights Movement has been buried and this film, which primarily celebrates the Movement from the perspective of the men--doesn't do much to change that. 

The thing you have to remember is that nothing at all can be done with the music without copyright permissions and money.  Also, since many of the people are still alive and/or their estates are still active, only very precise kinds of observations are welcome about their participation and their lives.   

In this film, you are not going to find out what happened to Sam Cooke, or what happened to the Impressions, or what happened to Otis Redding, or what happened to Marvin Gaye.  

The one thing it does do is that it finally sets us right about the importance of the women who sang at the March on Washington in 1963 (even though no woman got to speak it seems a lotta women sang!) and the importance of that March in general to what would follow, although there were perhaps "three minutes" of it included on the floor at "For All The World To See"  at the ICP and I am not sure how much total footage of it there is here, it is always being used for different things.  

Also increasingly clear to me that it was important whether you regarded events from the North or the South.  Another thing about the March in 1963: heavily supported by the Unions, in particular the United Auto Worker's Union (my stepfather's union as it happens.  Mom has a funny story about her and Dad driving a friend to the bus station to go to the march, somebody from his job, and everybody laughing at him all the way there because they were Malcolm X afficionados and considered King's message misguided). 

What I remember was that we watched it all day long.  I know there's a lot of film and more importantly that it survives.  Apparently somebody rigorously controls the rights to see most of it--and sells it to the highest bidder: not sure whether it is CBS or the King hierarchy or some combination.  Feels like the auction block all over again to me.  That's my history. 

I'd like to see that March again.  All of it. Just a thought but I know it is not commercially available in any form.  But I just want to say that this would be comparable to a situation in which you couldn't get dvds or video of Shoah or the Nuremberg Trials or the trial of  Adolph Eichmann in Israel in the early 60s.  This March was absolutely a crucial turning point.  I was nine years old at the time. 

Narrators discussants:
Lou Gossett--Jerry Butler, Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight, Andrew Young (former United States Ambassador and central figure in MLK's immediate circle.

Billie Holiday Strange Fruit, Writer Abel Meerepol NY Teacher 1939

Hezekiah Washington Freedom Rider
Ruby Dee seems quite crucial in the making of this and in the telling of this story, one of the dozen or so people who seems to be speaking in their own contemporary voices.  Footage shot maybe 2007 or thereabout.  
Onze Horne

Big Bill Broonzy substituted at the last minute for Robert Johnson who had just died at the historic Spiritual to Swing concert atCarnegie hall in 1946, part of the story of the specific alchemy of gospel, r&b, jazz and the blues, which produced the blues cultures that shaped the 60s.

Louis Saton phd tells the story about black gospel radio in Memphis in the 40s:First there was this gospel show in MemphisWDAI (nothing black on the radio then) and Memphis was 40% black and there was a lot of music but the music on the radio was Rosemary Clooney and Pat Boone and such, total white bread. The show became an entirely black station. 
Rodney King
Isaac Hayes

Rufus Thomas 50,000 watts due south going right into the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
Radio was more crucial than television because there wasn't much television yet, especially down there. 

Reaching ten percent of the black population of the United States, all desperate for black music on the airwaves.

Stations spread  to Birmingham, Atlanta and across the country.  I grew up listening to such stations.  As a matter of fact, aren't they still there?

Golden Gate Quartet Gospel music messages of a thinly veiled political nature
Paul Robeson
Paul Breines Civil rights activist
Freedom rides 1960s
The Blind Boys of Alabama

Catherine Brooks, Freedom Rider

The Harmonizing Four  "I shall not be moved"
In a demonstration at a theatre in 1960 in Nashville a man threatened to put a cigarette out in her face.  She was a girl but he saw no fear.  In her heart was the song "I shall not be moved."

JAmes farmer, President of CORE
initiated freedom rides of the 1960s, extremely violent.  

The Impressions--People Get Ready

Booker T. and the MG's 
Berneice Johnson Reagon and Pete Seeger part of the translation of gospel to protest.  Stax Records made r&b with movement messages: Otis Redding did A Change Is Gonna Come, written by Sam Cooke who never had a chance to hear it in release.  Isaac Hayes.

Harry Belafonte--one of the first performers to get heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement (don't know why there is a hierarchy and would like to see the timeline--surely he did more but he wasn't the only one.  How about Odetta and he just couldn't be earlier than Nina Simone.)  Belafonte recorded Civil Rights Protest songs. Whatever he was doing Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela were right there. Where else was Makeba going to be?  After she did that first tour with Belafonte (1960?), she couldn't even go home to South Africa.  Her passport was cancelled.  Suspicious of the first and the most and all of that.

 Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan--The Times They Are A Changing. 

The Staple Singers were in the early group of the Civi Rights Movement (early or later than Belafonte?) Not sure.

Really my impression was that once things got rolling everybody who could get there was there (so far as the music if not on the actual marches.  The marches were dangerous!)  

Some people got black listed because of it as the Civil Rights Movement began to focus on the Anti-Vietnam War under King's leadership and the insistance of many others.  I don't understand why black folk don't get the credit they deserve for participating in the Anti-War Movement.  All of the violent demonstrations I attended in the 60s were against the Vietnam War but Cointelpro and J Edgar Hoover still seem in effect somehow, which I guess they can't much talk about if they want to get the rights to use anything.  Time Life and all that. 

Andrew Young says the reason Communism didn't catch on in the South was because they didn't sing.  Although that isn't what Ralph Ellison says in Invisible Man.  It is a fictional rendering but I had the impression that he was complaining of the Communist appropriation of the folk and the spiritual singing.  Strange statement actually after the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon, and a whole other bunch of stuff having to do with the activity around the blues in the 60s.  Actually, I guess this documentary doesn't deal at all with the circulation of blues and gospel singers via the Newport Jazz Festival and the Wein's involvement in that but there is a large box set, which may include all of that as well. 
ChucK D--had hip parents and grew up in the South.
James Meridith attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge
 Montgomery, Allabama
Dr Bernard Lafayette--Civil Rights Activist

Berneice Johnson Reagon--Civil Rights Singer, Composer, Mother of Sweet Honey and The Rock

Nina Simone--Mississippi Goddamn in 1964 commemorating the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the bombing of the Church in Birmingham when 4 little girls were killed. Always loved this song, never knew the specifics.  By 1963 Simone was as hot as fire.  Indeed I can recall my mother's adoration of her from 1959 with the hit I Loves You Porgy, and then standing outside of the theatre in Provincetown waiting for her to arrive. 

Aretha Franklin's "Respect" was a Protest Song in the light of events.

Martin Luther King killed at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in 1968, which destroyed the peaceful inclinations of the Civil Rights Movement.  It became Black Power Movement and a movement full of angry and sad people (I guess you can check out Night Watches Us for more info on that).

Wonderful story about a night of riots in Boston after King's death when James Brown did a concert on television for the city and suggested that everybody go home.  I think the shorter list would be which black entertainers were not involved in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Anyway I guess the point of the documentary is to help illustrate some of the songs and the relationship of the songs to historical events.  It's helpful for that.  

There's more from Bob Marley to Hugh Maskela in South Africa, etc. and so forth. There's Aaron Neville. There seems to be no present website (which I just don't understand.  What the heck happened here?  How does this info circulate.  This is the hook up!).  

At the very end, it becomes a celebration of Obama's election so we're not celebrating that anymore apparently.  It seems the push to get Obama in was part of the genesis of this project, with his election seen as the culmination of this struggle for "civil rights," which continues somehow.  Except that we don't have even names for all the phases we've been through.  The movie does substantially deal with Black Power and what came after Civil Rights but it grows weaker as it proceeds, and it becomes more and more a series of Concert excepts--with the impression that the Civil Rights Movement  (or the music coming out of it) goes global (or corporate).  The issue of what became of the anger that exploded upon King's death really gets sidestepped--not that I blame them.  It would not help record sales of any kind but at some point we are going to have to find some way to talk about it, if so that we can tell the stories to the children. It reminds me very much of what happened with Reconstruction, which we generally know very little about also. 

Monday, November 8

Blues Masters: The Essential History of the Blues

Illustrated Son House Discography


The film you saw last time was called Blues Masters: The Essential History of the Blues.  It featured a variety of original performances by key blues performers although the narrative context of the film has never been satisfying to me.  

There is this problem with documentaries about African American music and culture generally that they tend to tell the story of African American history from slavery to the present and then to overlay film clips and photography, such as they have access to, in a manner as to suggest the direct relationship of one to the other.  In this case, as is often true, the historical narrative is vague, spotty and inaccurate.  And then the clips and photographs are generated not by the circumstances described but rather by the limited archive of surviving media. 

 Sound recordings of the blues don't begin until the early 1920s so none of the recorded music used in this film corresponds to the early history.  Even though the narrator says that the blues begun sometime slightly after slavery, this is a hypothesis popular with many camps but totally impossible to document by any means, least of all by recordings.  Recordings begun in the early 20th Century and the industry didn't get around to making race records and therefore recording the blues until the 1920s.  The first blues recording was Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues" August 10th 1920 on Okey Records.  It was widely advertised in the black community and in the first month it sold 75,000 copies at a dollar each.

In addition to which, as background music this film inclines toward using footage and recordings of Son House, for reasons that aren't entirely clear apart from the fact that perhaps the best recordings and film footage in existence of what we know to be an "early" country blues man are of Son House.  He was charismatic, fascinating and he presents the perfect picture of the tragic yet seductive blues man.  That he continued to be a regular working man and never made a living as a blues singers makes him all the more palatable for one kind of legend of the blues.

The first song is "The Walking Blues" by Son House, one of his earliest recordings cut in the 1920s.  Yet the images are of slavery, including some sketches based upon the photographs of one of the last slave ships to be captured illegally transporting slaves before the Civil War.  The background on slavery and racial oppression leads right into a clip of Son House singing "The Levee Camp" Blues probably in the 1960s on an empty stage.  These dvds were released to the public in 80s when I first purchased them and heard of and saw Son House for the first time. Rather I had heard of Son House, but didn't know him from any other blues singer.  

The images subsequently used are extremely random and miscellaneous designed, I believe, to emphasize the material basis of House's practice and yet what strikes me is how elegant, slender and brilliant this man in his mid-60s I would guess looks.  

The film suggests the usual belief that "country blues" appeared and was widespread from about 1900 with no mention of jazz, gospel or spirituals or minstrelsy.  

The next clip is a rare color film of Lead Belly singing "Pick a Bale of Cotton" perhaps in conjunction with other film about Lead Belly.  Lead Belly was discovered in the 1930s by the anthropologist John Lomax while he was imprisoned on a chain gang in Mississippi.  He was subsequeuntly released by special dispensation, went North to D.C. with Lomax and proceeded to have an important career as a a folk singer and blues singer.  

There is a short clip of an early cakewalk scene by black dancers probably around 1900, French made I suspect, and an Edison film where a black woman in the West Indies is washing a black baby.  For reasons that aren't entirely clear the film diverts to the story of Booker  T. Washington and George Washington Carver.  Followed by a famous shot of a lynching, three black men hanging from trees by the neck.

The next clip is of Bessie Smith performing "St. Louis Blues" in a short film directed by Dudley Murphy in 1929 at the beginning of the sound period in U.S. cinema.  This is the only film we have of Bessie Smith who continues to be one of the best known and best loved blues singers ever. The arrangement of St. Louis Blues (by WC Handy) is that of the Hall Johnson Choir which sings the background in this version.  Disturbingly, Bessie Smith is obviously getting drunker and drunker as she cries over losing her man.  

In the context of role models, Jack Johnson the first black heavy weight boxing champ, is mentioned and we see a short clip of him in the ring (circa 1908).  There is reference to blacks who fought in WWI and the difficulty of dealing with segregated troops.  Black troops were sent abroad first in order to prevent a "race riot."  There is some footage of the 369th Harlem Regiment, including their victorious march down Fifth Avenue when they returned to New York. 

Next clip is Mamie Smith performing "Lord, Lord, Lord" in one of her black cast films made in the 1930s.  

Again the film jumps back to the end of the War in 1919 and the Chicago riot with accompanying silent footage of the riot and the inpoverished accomodations of blacks in Chicago.  Some footage of a KKK meeting.  Next we get a clip of a historic production from Show Boat on stage (1929) with Tess Gardella (who also played Aunt Jemima) appearing in blackface.

Another clip June Richmond "Hey Lordy MaMa" music short, by this time rhythm and blues, 1947.  She also sang with Louis Jordan and Andy Kirk.

Then there is a clip of Josephine Baker performing on stage in Paris in bananas singing against the background of Son House again.  Signs of poverty and segregation and mention of the Depression.  People eating soup out of a can and on soup lines.  

Al Capone and the St. Valentines Massacre 1931.  Back and forth in history. 

Saturday, July 24

A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

"A Change is Gonna Come" was a 1964 single for Sam Cooke, written and recorded first in 1963 and released under the RCA Victor label shortly after his death in 1964.  This song became unofficially a Civil Rights protest song recorded again and again by master singer, usually male, master singer--Al Green, Bobby Womack, Luther Vandross, Terence Trent Darby.  On the version included in the packet for the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, it is sung by Aretha Franklin to her own piano accompaniment in 1967.  According to Wikipedia, Cooke was moved by Bob Dylan's "Blowin in the Wind" in 1963, which was also a song about racism.  After speaking with sit=in demonstrators in Durham North Carolina following a concert, Cooke returned to his tour bus and wrote the first draft. Cooke's 18 month old son, Vincent, had also died by an accidental drowning in June of that year.  In the same year when Cooke and the band had tried to register at a "whites only" motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, they were arrrested for disturbing the peace.

Friday, May 14

A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

The young and stylish Aretha.  Nobody like her ever.

"A Change is Gonna Come" was a 1964 single written and first recorded in 1963 and released by RCA Victor shortly after Cooke's death in 1964.  The song came to be emblematic of the sixties Civil Rights Movement with its inflections of protest, utopian aspirations for freedom and soulfulness, as well as its blues and gospel blend. Recently learned how to sing this and accompany myself on the piano, albeit in a very rudimentary way. My piano voice teacher Jana Jillo and her husband guitarist Tony say that it feels like a lament, which also seems right. So many different kinds of ancestral sadness.

They say Cooke was moved to write it by two incidents.  The first was the death of his 18 month old son Vincent who was accidentally drowned in June of that year.  The second incident was when Cooke and his band were arrested for disturbing the peace for trying to register at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The change that he predicted was presumably relates to the loosening of racial segregation and hatred, which he would not live to see. Meanwhile everything continues to circle back as well as I am now in the South of France at the age of 66, 57 years after my first visit, and the French don't look anywhere nearly as happy to see me as they were in 1961when I was 9 and they were flabbergasted by international headlines concerning Civil Rights violence.

Aretha Franklin did a crucial recording of this song as well, accompanied on piano by herself,  mourning the premature death of her dear friend and musical mentor.  Otis Redding, whose death occured prematurely as well, also did an important recording of the song in 1965.

Tuesday, November 24

Thelononius Monk


From the beginning of his musical life, Thelonius had always epitomized the Janus-faced musician, looking simultaneously to the future and the past. He had assiduously promoted the modern while taking pride in his ability to sound like James P. Johnson. But these recordings are deliberately and urgently nostalgic [referring to Thelonius Monk in San Francisco CD OJC 2531-231-2).] They return us to an older day, to the generation that believed the old musicals, found comfort in radio, and sang the blues without electricity. True, when Monk plays unaccompanied, there is always a nostalgic turn. Stride is inevitable, as is his exploration of old standards. But this album felt a little more prescient, if not prophetic. A revolution in music had been declared, and Monk was staking out a position.
published by The Free Press 2009
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read for its close working relationship to the recordings and composing of Thelonius Monk, one of the musical masters of the 20th century.

Monday, August 3

Black Feminism and Hip Hop

I wrote this article for the Times back in 1990.  It was one of my important educational steps, a teachable moment they are calling it now.

I believe it was the last of my forays into cultural reporting for The New York Times.  The editor then of my part of the Arts & Leisure section kept getting disgusted with me because I kept mispelling all these idiosyncratic spellings of groups.  Unfortunately, the reigning expert, Tricia Rose, did not much care for what I had to say either.  Here I was trying to get a mention of her into the article and trying to spell the name right when I could have used the quote unattributed, and there she was mad as a snake because I had cited (like a good black feminist should) her as saying, "Rap is Locker room with a beat."

She didn't say that, she complained, would never say such a thing.  Certainly she had never meant to appear in the New York Times saying such a thing.  Maybe she said something more like, "some people think rap is Locker room with a beat."  Hell, I guess I said it then cause god knows I believe it.  And now that I think of it, I think it rocks (the statement and the locker room).

This is already 20 years ago (how could that possibly be?),  this article "Black Women and Rap" I think it is called.  But it was my last venture into the hallowed precincts of the Arts & Leisure section at The New York Times, albeit the piece does get reprinted all the time in obscure places, as Rose accurately predicted when she lamented the comment attributed to her.

Music criticism keeps changing and I never knew much about it in the first place.  What I didn't realize is that critical cultural judgments of this kind can't be called back ever. Hell nothing I have ever written has responded to the recall and renunciation notice because most readers don't keep up.  For some people, they will be struggling through BLACK MACHO AND THE MYTH OF THE SUPERWOMAN when I am cold in the ground.  Hell, it's a hard book to understand.  I don't understand it, what made me write it, where all that sassy backtalk came from.

In my youth I was a shy, introverted girl.  But then I started writing and every time I put pen to paper, Frankenstein rears her ugly head with her mouth wide open talking trash.  I don't really know where it comes from or who it is.  Of course, no one will ever believe this but writing is really a lot like being possessed, having witches ride your body while you're sleeping.

All I can say is that.  Nothing has a longer shelf life that stuff written in the New York Times.  The paper of  record just doesn't let anything go, particularly if it should happen to piss a few people off, particularly if it happens to piss off some uptight rigid black folk (yes, I said it!)

 Not that I am displeased with the article.  I think the times have borne out my argument and my thesis about hiphop and rap, about it having this little sexism problem?  And that giving more play to women rappers would be the right answer to that.  Still popular culture criticism is a tricky, useless business indeed.  Most people who would put credence in such a proclamation know so little about the music industry and the role of hiphop within it that there hardly seems a point to saying what I said to who I said it to.  It leads to nothing I think but I don't know.  In any case, for those of you who remain frustrated by the lack of criticism of hiphop by women, this piece is for you.  The New York Times will keep it in print forever I should imagine. 

Very proud that I wrote about women in hiphop at this point, that it is documented and that all these ladies have turned out to be such dazzling people in their own right: Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Salt n Pepa, all the ladies.  

But what has this got to do with the blues?  The usual: dealing with the writing of this article and its outcome gave me the blues.  Yeah.  

Sunday, May 17

Blues People Ph.D. Class

This was a wonderful class in the end with inspiration to spare although we ended getting more and more inclined to the musical rather than the literary.  I just want to thank Tim, Patrick, Fabienne, Adam, Karen, Chris, Tsedale, Jason, Jeremy and Rachel for a wonderful semester.  

Chris did a blog on Bert Williams included here and Tim did one on Nina Simone, which follows.  

Adam did something, which I would like to post on this blog, which is so stunningly wonderful that I have to think more how to describe it.  It includes a technical discussion of the blues along with illustrations on cd: Fred McDowell, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson, Charlies Mingus, Abbey Lincoln and Oscar Brown Jr., Mary Lou Williams and so on and on with reference to Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka's Blues People and other writings on Jazz.   

Patrick has promised me something soon on Sister Rosetta Charke. 

Karen has promised work on Paul Robeson and Tsedale on Photographs of lynching.  Jason did a thrilling presentation on orisha dancing comparatively in Cuba and Brazil, and has promised to compose a blog we can post on the topic.  

Fabienne is unique in this class in having chosen to submit as her final work a personal scrapbook, which actually is only completed by the stories that Fabienne has to tell about her life and her journey.  Adam says I said in class that I said I wanted to have an individual relationship with each of the students.  As such, he wrote his paper in the form of a letter to me.  I am deeply moved.  And thanks.

Thursday, April 23

Nina-Simone in Her Prime

Originally uploaded by gypsyman

This is to announce a new blog composed by Tim Johnson from my Blues People class, very well done with lots of interesting materials gathered together, including a concert Nina Simone did in Mount Morris Park in the 70s, which is included on utube in its entirety. Lots of interesting archival materials from the Schomburg included as well.


Nina Simone's Blues

This is to announce a new blog composed by Tim Johnson from my Blues People class, very well done with lots of interesting materials gathered together, including a concert Nina Simone did in Mount Morris Park in the 70s, which is included on utube in its entirety.  Lots of interesting archival materials from the Schomburg included as well.

Wednesday, April 15

Black Music Site

Portia K. Maultsby who is the author of the research on the Carnegie Hall site is also co-editor of a really crucial new collection on African American Music. It is composed of many chapters dealing succinctly and clearly with the various genre of African American music, their historical background, and the various debates commentators and historians have been engaged in ever since African Americans have been in this continent.

The book is African American Music: An Introduction edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, Routledge 2006.  

The chapters are short, precise and composed with questions and projects in a manner that would suggest that it is intended to be either a college or even a high school text. Nonetheless, despite its introductory layout, the information contained herein would be useful to even the most advanced of generalists in the humanities or the social scientists.

It begins with a diagramattic breakdown of the Evolution of African American Music into three main categories: African American sacred traditions, African American secular traditions and African American secular traditions instrumental from the 1600s when African Americans were first brought to these shores through the 1990s. While Maltsby, an ethnomusicologist does a lion's share of the writing, there are also chapters by Daphne Duval Harrison on women in the blues, Lawrence Levine on "African American music as Resistance antebellum Period," Bernice Johnson Reagon on the "Civil Rights Movement" and "Post-Civil Rights Period" by Mark Anthony Neal.

There is besides a huge glossary, bibliography, discography and videography.


Tuesday, April 14

Abdullah Ibrahim: A Brother with Perfect Timing

A number of years ago I stumbled across a dvd documentary called Abdullah Ibrahim: A Brother with Perfect Timing (1987).  Want to add into here as well that in Robin Kelley's biography of Thelonius Monk we learn that Adullah Ibrahim was enormously inspired by Thelonius Monk and fashioned himself the South African Monk, somebody who full understood and utilized Monk's unique approach to chords and stride rhythm on the piano.  They met and liked each other much and Ibrahim continued to be his emissary.  Ibrahim still lives and still performs. 

It is difficult to remember a time when I was not aware that there were many South Africans who had made New York their home, and that South Africans were prolific musicians who had contributed meaningfully to the development of world music.  They were the first Africans that I met socially in New York and I had many enjoyable times with them.  

When I was a child, Mariam Makeba was a favorite of my family, j ust as Hugh Masekela would become a personal favorite of mine. Not sure when this started although I was further impressed by the fact that Masekela's talents often were utilized in the musical scores and performances of the occasional South African musicals we had the pleasure of attending from time to time in New York during that long dark period when apartheid still reined in South Africa.  

Apparently, Abdullah Ibrahim, pianist and composer, was a brilliant jazz musician who was part of this South African diaspora.  Aside from his providing a cogent illustration of the close relationship and kinship ties between African American jazz and South African jazz and music, he is also, himself, descendant of the Khoi people, a South African minority that were for a long time known only as the so-called "Hottentot."  His people who were indigenous to the part of South Africa the British first conquered were subject to wholesale slaughter.  Their skulls I am told still reside in the British Museum and the so called Venus Hottentot, Sartje Baartman, who was perhaps coerced into renting herself out as a human exhibit in France and English in the early 19th century is also descended from them.  

Often I think it is simply assumed by African American who have some interest in this topic that the Venus Hottentot was a black African just like all the other Africans and that the inhabitants of Africa were a racially homogenous peoples.  Not too surprisingly given the space and the diversity of Africa, everyone in Africa is not exactly like everybody else.  

In the South African case, these Khoi people who have since become a distinct minority, nearly extinct, were apparently quite different from the larger more homogenous and perhaps more exogamous and migrating groups of African blacks.  

If you look at the drawings that exist of the Venus Hottentot, aside from her large buttocks which provided her appeal for European audiences we are told, she has a kind of yellowish brown color and a face shape and hair that become identifiable upon closer visual examination with this subgroup of the Khoi. When you look at Abdullah, you see someone who has a face that is related to Sartje's face.  He talks in this film about how his ancestors were exhibited in museums and how difficult it was to be descendant from the Khoi as a child.  

Another thing I love about this film as well is that he talks about the difficulty of being a jazz musician in a black context in South Africa (the same I think in African American culture too), that it is not a profession his parents welcomed, and how the vocation of the musician is misunderstood when it is placed primarily under the rubric of entertainment.  Jazz musicians in particular are better understood as healers than as entertainers.  

Nixau from The Gods Must Be Crazy, 1980,

Related to my discovery of Adullah Ibrahim's film, which also gave me the courage to jump out on a limb and really embrace the notion of Blues People as an overarching approach to African American culture was another dvd I got from Netflix, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which was first released years ago and which profiles a group of the Khoi in an exploitative and comedic setting.  On this dvd, the film is paired with a documentary about the young man who starred in the original version.  The story is much like the situation for the Inuit male who played Nanook in Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty 1922), except that in this case the film was not intended in any manner to be a serious anthropological documentary at any level.  Nonetheless, the follow-up story about the young man who was catapulted briefly into international fame via the success of the original film qualifies as a very serious and enlightening treatment of the problems that have plagued the Khoi.  Here again is another look at the history and the development of Sartje Baartman's people.  

These films together help me to understand how diverse African peoples, and moreover what a thrilling intervention the blues has been in drawing our histories together in the Americas.
Will show some of A Brother With Perfect Timing and the documentary on The Gods Must Be Crazy in  class on the Tuesday we return to our Graduate Seminar.

Ibrahim has a website and contact information at http://www.abdullahibrahim.com/start.html

Apparently this film was made vhs and transferred to dvd in 1995.  It is available via Amazon for less than $20.  I recommend that everybody get this one.  It is beautiful.