Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More Ghosts

Anyone who hung in for my last ghosts post might find something of interest here. I hope so. An excerpt from a little thing I'm working on called Monsters, Marx and Music--

“I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise.”
--James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”

Near the end of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator has an epiphany hearing his little brother play piano in a jazz club. What comes next does as much as any writing I know to capture the power and promise of music, and that passage starts with a line that troubles me, in part, because I fear it.

Baldwin’s narrator states, “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.” What Baldwin is really talking about is the difference in the way a musician hears music and the way the audience hears it. While he admits that we sometimes make personal connections to what we hear, he insists that the musician hears something more, a “roar rising from the void” that he is channeling into something others can, potentially, hear. The depth and breadth of the magic taking place in that act of making music is precisely what we miss.

To some extent, music works its magic whether or not it is heard in this way. Music has an absolute power that enriches our lives, and that power does not depend on any formal understanding. In fact, one of music’s greatest characteristics is its ability to leap past barriers of education, literacy and class bias to unite fans from diverse backgrounds. As a music writer myself, I take some comfort in that because much music criticism serves only to reinforce barriers. While music criticism tends to assume a patronizing and even contemptuous attitude toward the very working class people that created music the critics say they love, the music continues to speak most forcefully for itself.

But that’s our society. The prejudice of critics simply reflects (maybe magnifies) larger social prejudices against this or that form of culture, all of it steeped in ignorance. Although these prejudices seem to be eroding, it is still commonplace for rock fans to hate country music and rap; many country fans don’t like most rock and rap, and most rap fans couldn’t care less about rock and country. Rock critics have tended to celebrate forms of rock viewed as “alternative” while disdaining that which is “popular,” unless it either has some kind of credentials stemming from its one time underground popularity among the college rock audience (U2 and REM come to mind) or unless it has some sort of undeniable “classic” imprint (as with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones). Among “classic rock” fans, celebrated music is almost always made by white artists, the majority male, with the notable exceptions of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana or maybe even Otis Redding, who stand as icons of an era when the rigid social lines that increasingly defined the rock era were still in flux.

Since rock and roll was born from a coming together of cultures in conflict, the irony of these divisions boggles the mind. From about 1954 until the late 60s, the era of the Civil Rights Movement, rock and roll was born and nurtured out of an extraordinary process of cultural miscegenation. Even dating back to the 1930s, white and black fans in the North and South listened to hillbilly and race records, and the teen culture that emerged after World War II embraced the synthesis of these sounds.

Elvis became the first king of rock and roll because of his unique way with the country, blues, gospel and pop styles that fueled his imagination as a poor kid growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. The Beatles became the new rock royalty in the 1960s doing covers of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Carl Perkins, Buck Owens, Barrett Strong and the Marvelettes. And the Rolling Stones would be the most famous of a long line of British groups—from the Yardbirds, to the Animals and Led Zeppelin—who built their sound adding heaps of feedback, attitude and studio technology on songs and ideas from old blues records.

As evidenced by the synthesis in music today by artists as divergent as OutKast, Kid Rock, the Dave Matthews Band and Ozomatli, the sound that rises from the void continuously seeks to converge. But our society’s entrenched, mostly subjective, social divisions strain to keep it divided—just consider the all too familiar dividing line in music stores between the “Pop/Rock” section and the “R&B/Rap” section. After a decade of R&B and Rap dominating Contemporary Hits Radio, it’s hard to imagine how such Jim Crow lines can persist. Still, my heart warms when I get out of my car in a rural parking lot and hear Rage Against the Machine or Ludacris thumping from the car speakers of some white kid with a crew cut. At least in terms of cultural segregation, these kids seem all right (particularly next to the apartheid generation I came out of).

But the divisions persist, and serious fans of music tend to disdain the melting pot of the Top 40 in favor of extremely narrow radio formats that feature almost all rap and R&B, or almost all screaming white guys with very loud guitars, or almost all white women with gentler arrangements or my favorite oxymoron of all, “college rock.” And, for my own part, I’ll never forget a series of blows in the 1980s that made me wonder how a kid who had first been turned on by War, Stevie Wonder, and cultural magpies like the Beatles ever found himself with a record collection that featured almost exclusively white guys with guitars making remarkably similar kinds of records.

Central to what happens that breaks music down into so many warring sects has to do with this very gap that Baldwin addresses in “Sonny’s Blues.” For most people, the source of the music they love remains mysterious. For many, the music they don’t understand seems threatening. Even for the most passionate fans, the truth of music’s history gets obscured by the many destructive myths that surround and define the story.

At the beginning of his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh explains how this singles-based history of rock challenges many such myths dominant in rock criticism. One such myth holds that the period between Buddy Holly’s plane crash and the arrival of the Beatles was some sort of period of stasis for music, ignoring the significance of what Marsh calls the “doo-wop revival” as well as the emergence of girl groups, Motown, Chicago and Memphis soul, Roy Orbison and James Brown. Marsh also argues against the stereotypes “that rock and roll music is essentially youth-oriented, and most of all, that the message of the music is (to borrow a slogan off the radio), all rebellion, all the time.” The book also helps Marsh explore the prominence of women ignored in most histories and the lie behind the notion “of female performers as nothing but so many producer’s puppets.”

Add to this list the commonplace notions that great music isn’t popular or shouldn’t be [someone please notify Chopin, James Brown and Smokey Robinson], and the notion that great artists must be self-contained songwriters and performers [take that straight to Elvis] or the many racist assumptions about the sophistication of “white” music compared to “black” music, or the idea that “white” and “black” music are even truly separate entities, and you have begun to describe the mess that hides the forest from the trees.

The essence of what I think gets obscured are the deep cultural roots of the rock era. Rock and roll music crystallized out of musical currents that extend backwards hundreds of years—to folksongs, work songs, spirituals and field hollers with roots in both the British Isles and West Africa. The vitality of this music is the spirit of those who have struggled hardest to survive in a country that has not often acknowledged their rights or even their humanity. The rock and roll revolution infused the mainstream of American music with the pain, the anger and the indomitable spirit of the coal mines, the cotton fields, the textile mills and the rural church. In potentially the happiest of ghost story scenarios, the new American superpower of the 1950s was immediately haunted by a blossoming popular culture that gave voice to America’s long denied underclass and insisted on a future that acknowledged the sins of the past.

As with the ghost story, the interchange between the past and the present manifested itself in ambiguous ways that still managed to reveal truth. Sam Phillips certainly had both selfish and idealized reasons for wanting to find a white singer who sang like a black man, but when he found Elvis, he also discovered a man who could help America come to terms with the gulf between its classes, white and black. By secularizing gospel music, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and so many others began to make explicit connections between everyday struggles and eternal questions. Buddy Holly no doubt robbed Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” of its racial significance when he covered it, but he said something else about the universality of Berry’s music—as did the Beach Boys and the Beatles later. By interweaving 17th century murder ballads, Delta blues, and rock, and internalizing Woody Guthrie enough to align himself with the Civil Rights Movement, Bob Dylan fostered a political consciousness that helped inspire, among other things, the Beatles’ rapid evolution from unassuming rock and roll band to self-reflective cultural explorers.

But at the risk of oversimplifying things, it helps to look at the essence of the spirits that gave birth to rock and roll and continue to rudder the best of its kin. That essence is what Woody Guthrie called his “voice” (meaning society’s unheard voice) in a 1940s poem of the same name, a quality found missing from “the stages, screens, radios, records, juke boxes/In magazines . . . newspapers, seldom in courtrooms/And more seldom when students and policemen study the faces/Behind the voices.” It’s what Dave Marsh described in a 1983 column dedicated to Florence Thompson, the “Migrant Mother,” made famous by Dorothea Lange’s so-named dust bowl portrait.

Marsh writes:
“I’ve always felt that one of the secret strengths of rock and roll was that it provided a voice and a face for the forgotten and disenfranchised. In a way, Florence Thompson’s serves for all the others. At least in its beginnings, rock was one of the few ways that poor people, country people, black people and Southerners had of making themselves visible in a country whose media increasingly depict it as solely urban, affluent, white and northern.”

And when we talk about the ghosts of America’s past haunting America to do right, we're talking about this voice, a voice that shaped itself over centuries in the hills of Appalachia with folk songs of unrequited loves, tragedies and triumphs transported from the old world. And it’s a voice that’s mettle was tested and galvanized in America’s cotton fields for over three hundred years through the back breaking toil of men, women and children not even considered fully human as they provided the free labor that built the South and fueled the shipbuilding and Industrial revolution that eventually made the North its sovereign leader.

It’s hard to find a founder of country, rhythm and blues (or their baby rock and roll), white or black, who does not have some experience with sharecropping, the even more feudal continuation of the economic injustice founded by slavery. And almost every one of those founders points not only back to the healing powers of church on Sunday morning as an influence on his or her music, but they also point back to the cotton fields themselves.

B.B. King recalls a story as ancient as slavery itself:
“No matter where you went, walking behind the plow or picking cotton, you’d be hearing beautiful voices, singing about the sun high in the sky or the gathering storm clouds or the long, hard day or how good the food would taste once work was done. Seems like the songs were made up by the heart, nothing written or rehearsed, music meant to take the ache out of our backs and the burden off our brains.”

Similarly, the woman whose success led Atlantic records to call itself, for a time, “The House that Ruth Built,” Ruth Brown writes:

“Outside of church my musical diet in North Carolina consisted of spontaneous whoopin’, shoutin’ and hollerin’ in the fields. Great uncle Scott would usually be the one to start, just when we were flagging, then Willie would join in, providing little sketches of the blues as they plowed up and down the rows with their single blades. There was as much plain hummin’ as there was singin’, and they had instruments, like jew’s harps, simple comb and paper and penny-whistle flutes that didn’t even cost a penny, they were nothing but lengths of sugar cane with holes punched through. The blues don’t have to come from anywhere but the heart and soul of man, they don’t require fancy orchestration, and they sure didn’t get any from us as the sounds traveled from field to field, apart maybe from the counterpoint fellow toilers contributed. I remember Willie’s stammer magically disappearing as he sang anything that came to mind. One minute it was:
I miss my baby
Wonder do my baby miss me?
The next he’d be singin’ about his ole mule:
Come on Bessie, walk a little fast,
Got to git up to the house,
I’se gittin’ huuuuuunnggry!

“Many times it made no sense; Scott and Willie were simply entertaining themselves, along with the rest of us, in that blazing hot sun. But the music they made was soaking in just as surely as the sweat was pouring out.”

We see the magic of the human spirit in these memories—a spirit that survived the brutality of the Middle Passage and the systematic attempt to eradicate a people’s identity, humanity and familial bonds. The isolated slave working the field, sun-baked and suffering unimaginable aches and pains, simply had to keep going, and to do this, he or she would sing to themselves and inspire others. Bobbie Ann Mason describes the sounds this way, “sung to make unbearable work bearable . . . gut-pulling primal screams [were] crafted into beautiful cadences and rhythms.”

Other voices would answer and inspire. And in this way, both individual and the group would work together to survive another day. And over the course of those days, the stamina bolstered, the play that emerged and the sense of community that gave hope all nurtured what A Change is Gonna Come author Craig Werner eloquently defines (with more than a nod to Ralph Ellison) as the blues, jazz and gospel impulses in today’s American music.

One of the ghosts of slavery is the powerful spirit that imbues our greatest music. It’s the spirit of the SNCC Freedom Singers and Mahalia Jackson, and it’s the music that prompted white America to hear a call for rioting in Martha and the Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street.” Racist maniacs have their insights, and the rabid calls of groups like the record burning Alabama White Citizens Council correctly feared a very real threat to the world they knew, a new world where whites and blacks would be united in the call and response of the modern day version of the field holler.

Tellingly, in the documentary, “The Ultimate Song” [see www.rockamole.com] the organizers of today’s burgeoning Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign--a movement that’s led by and for the poor, families thrown out of the workforce and off of the welfare rolls-- celebrate the way music fuels their marches to protest U.S. violations of the United Nation’s 1947 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The spirit that has survived slavery and the worst grievances of a dog-eat-dog economic system continues to push for a world where men and women can live together with equality, peace and dignity.

Restless spirits still walk the earth, and those who answer their call make up an enormous family tree. The geneology that links a family of 17th Century murder ballads speaking for executed women who murdered their husbands, for instance, and a contemporary country song like the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” would be enormously difficult to trace explicitly. But when the Dixie Chicks used images of the Civil Rights Movement and record burning in their 2002 World Tour, they acknowledged their connection to this vast continuum.

It doesn't cheapen things to note this either--in an increasingly automated society where people do sedentary jobs with short breaks for fast food and obesity has become one of the leading killers of America’s working class, the dance music that fuels work out routines is largely defined by not only the propulsive rhythmic intensity rooted in rock and roll but also the sounds of voices that shout and wail in a dizzying dance with the lightning paced beats. After all, house rhythms have their roots in the underground working class cultures of Detroit, Chicago and Brixton, England, as well as the Ragamuffin style born in the economic disparity of Jamaica.

As processed and packaged as it may be, our most powerful popular music stems from a centuries long struggle for survival. Through music, the ghosts of that history nurture us and give us strength. They freely offer a kind of atonement. As grateful beneficiaries of that gift, it’s up to us to seek a reckoning for that long line of spirits that moves us, and a new vision of possibility for the future. After all, it’s in our interest.

As Baldwin also wrote only a few of the most beautiful lines in American prose later, “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”

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