Roots Music Break: The Midnight Special

One of my favorite Creedence songs has long been “Midnight Special.”

It always captivated me with lyrics that hint at a bigger story. Who is Miss Rosie? Why is her dude locked up? Who is “The Man” who gets mad when you complain about not having pork up in your pan?

I considered it a poetic critique of American life on the margins with some implied narrative that was a little fuzzy around the edges — much like “Proud Mary,” which CCR’s John Fogerty wrote — and didn’t investigate it further. Indeed, why would you need to when you’re too busy banging the dashboard to the beat on the back roads of Northern California?

Then, I discovered this:

That’s famous Louisiana blues man and sometimes jailbird Lead Belly singing with the Golden Gate Quartet, c. 1940.

This version of the song gave me goosebumps. There are additional lyrics that provide tantalizing details about the story. There are new, named characters: Sheriff Rocko (?), Eddie Boone, and “Jumpin little Judy.”

Well jumpin’ little Judy, she was a mighty fine girl
Well Judy brought jumpin’ to this whole round world
Well she brought it in the mornin’, just a while before day
She brought me the news, that my wife was dead
That started me to grievin’, then hollerin’ and a-cryin’
Then I had to give the worry about a been a long time

Putting the lyrics aside for a moment, the immediate conclusion one draws from listening to this rich, earlier version is that CCR, in an all too familiar pattern, took a song from an older African American writer, and brought it to a mass audience (and probably cashed in).

But it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. As Wikipedia explains, when Alan Lomax first recorded Lead Belly singing the song in 1934 during a stint in Louisiana’s Angola Prison (read its harrowing history), he also assumed Lead Belly was the author. A clue to the contrary lies in the lyrics of the song, which even in Lead Belly’s version tell a sketchy story at best.

Lead Belly wasn’t the author either — though he certainly deserves a huge amount of credit for his moving rendition. “Midnight Special” was a prison song — a folk tune whose lyrics were likely the product of years of circulation in the prisons of the South. There are many other versions besides Lead Belly’s and CCR’s, and not just covers but other prison versions. You can listen to at least one on the Library of Congress website: Burruss Johnson’s “De Funiac Blues,” recorded at the Florida State Penitentiary in 1939.

One of the details of the lyrics to Lead Belly’s version whose meaning we can almost nail down is that the song’s title and refrain likely refer to a train that ran by a prison in Texas, and shone its lights through the windows onto prisoners. That light symbolized escape, either as a route away from the prison, or a route out of this life.

The lyrics are a fragmentary story for a reason — they are fragments, of the lives of many long-suffering Southern men from the early part of the 20th century, assembled in a song that displays them like a kaleidoscope.

Knowing all this, the song feels like a bit of alternative history, arising from the masses of those who didn’t have the ability to write a more formal version. Maybe my original interpretation wasn’t so far off after all.

Russell Brand is a mediocre spokesman for some important ideas


Of course I enjoyed watching this interview of Russell Brand, which Gawker says may spark a revolution.

Brand is right about a lot of things. He’s articulate and cutting and Paxman gets what he deserves. The questions aren’t very good, and Brand’s shtick is perfectly tuned to Paxman’s condescension. So it’s satisfying to see him practically jumping out of his chair and bringing the heat. And it’s satisfying to see him disrupt the staid and practiced drama of this kind of an interview.

But that being said, I’m really not that impressed. Brand is a celebrity calling for change in vague terms. I agree with many of his positions. Global and national inequality are huge issues. We are indeed destroying the environment at a horrifying pace. The political systems in the US and UK have deep, deep problems. Part of the solution involves looking inward. Good for Brand for pointing all this out, and using his celebrity to do so. But there are people working day and night to advance these same ideas in much more practical and specific ways. It might seem like they’re losing the battle, but can you imagine how much worse things would be if these people were not engaged? We might have a Koch brother as president. (Instead they’re just funding the opposition.)

None of this would be a big issue were it not for Brand’s exceptionally lazy and dangerous attitude about voting. There is absolutely no justification for this. It is a position I can only imagine someone holding if (a) they are so ensconced in privilege that they do not recognize how enormous their privilege is or (b) they are so at the margins of society that they’ve decided to check out completely. Brand is certainly the former, notwithstanding his working class background. Either way, not voting has zero validity as a political strategy. It’s true that our democratic systems have been disgustingly abused and rigged, but if you think, for example, that there is no difference between G.W. Bush and Obama, you must be very rich and comfortable indeed. Our system is not dysfunctional enough to boycott elections. If you think it is, you haven’t seen a dysfunctional system.

Oddly, voting is one of those things with a value that may be hard to appreciate until you don’t have it. Living in and visiting places where people are truly unable to vote or even express their opinions gives one a special appreciation for the privilege of these small but meaningful powers.  If you are in a country that has outright vote rigging, I can see the purpose of election boycotting. Brand is not in that position, and he’s lying to himself and everyone if he says so. It’s painful to hear him suggest that he is. People have laid down their lives again and again, in the United States and elsewhere, to obtain suffrage. It disrespects their legacies to shrug your shoulders and suggest that none of us should vote. Yeah, millionaire celebrity Russel Brand, of course you don’t think it matters. But don’t promote your ballot box passivity as a viable strategy for life. People in far more vulnerable positions than you will be the ones who suffer.

One thing I can’t abide is people who don’t acknowledge their privilege, or people who have privilege and refuse to try their best to use it for good. If you can vote in one of the most powerful countries in the world, do so! (But don’t stop there, either.)

PS I will say that that was one of the greatest smirks I’ve ever seen at the beginning of the interview.

Appreciating the photography of Edward S. Curtis

This week, the website of the Atlantic published 34 photos by Edward S. Curtis, the tireless documenter of American Indians who did the bulk of his most famous work at the beginning of the 20th century. Whatever else these images may be, they are stunning. Have a look.

The gallery got me thinking. In anthropology — the discipline in which I majored and which I took quite seriously in my undergraduate studies — Curtis is, like many of the first Americans who tried to document rather than annihilate Native culture, a contentious figure. You can get a sense of the controversy on Wikipedia, but the gist of it is this:  Curtis’s stage-managed, idealized photos disguised the abysmal material conditions of many Indians at the time, and did damage to the spirit as well, promoting the suffocating, one-dimensional trope of the Noble Savage.

There really is no legitimate  refutation of these criticisms. They are accurate. They also probably describe how the photographs were consumed at the time they were published. One imagines a Euroamerican in an Edwardian parlor thumbing through the glossy prints from The North American Indian with a kind of false respect, looking out a window where children play Savages beneath a tree, and where acres of rich, verdant, utterly stolen land stretch in every direction. Such a dishonest empathy for vanquished peoples on the part of their tormenters can seem almost like the final insult after centuries of holocaust. Now that we have done the dirty deed of your subjugation, we will soothe our own souls with a distant and abstract appreciation for the idea of your existence — on our terms, and twisted to our satisfaction.

And yet, I find the photos not only beautiful, but also precious. The faces in them do not lie, and with the proper eye we can read lives in their lines and creases. Not just tears as non-Indian audiences usually presume Indians of this and most eras were shedding, but also love, laughter, wisdom, anger, and all the normal experiences and emotions of humanness that owe nothing to race, state, tribe, tradition, fixed culture, or any of the other deceitful notions cooked up by expanding empires in the modern era.

Take, for instance, this image of Sitting Owl.

In this man’s eyes I see a sense of humor, and also a gaze that is considering the photographer — and somehow, even the viewer deep in the future — with all the scrutiny and interest the camera is directing at him. I also see someone who knows how to play his cards close to his chest, and who can be hard when necessary. When we are reminded that the costume is likely at least partly contrived for the photo, that Curtis probably asked for a particular expression, and that a small pox epidemic reduced the Hidatsa people to just 500 individuals two generations before this image was made, then we begin to imagine the life of Sitting Owl in great detail, and we begin to see this face as being composed of stories, personality, creativity, and the brilliant vitality of a kindred human mind.

It’s in viewing these images with a sense of context that I think they have value. It makes me thankful that Curtis took them, and even more so that their subjects agreed to avail themselves. It also makes me sad to think of the deeply corrupt social circumstances in which the pictures were taken.

If I could design an exhibit for these images, they would not just be accompanied by a short caption, or a placard with a bit of information on when and where they were taken, or even a pamphlet with a few essays. They would be mounted on big walls with text surrounding them, spiraling out from the edges and filling the gallery. Biographies, memories, screaming criticisms, quiet poetry — it would all need to be there.

Then, maybe we could say that enough time has passed that we can appreciate this photography, as we try to understand the often hideous history that surrounds it.

My op-ed from the weekend on the globalization of protest

It was published last weekend, but I was too busy to post it! Here’s “The Global Imagination of Protest,” by me and Anya Schiffrin, my co-editor for From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring. Take a look:

NEW YORK – When graffiti appeared last spring on a wall near Tunisia’s interior ministry reading “Thank you, Facebook,” it was not just praise for a social-media company that had facilitated the country’s uprising. It was also a celebration of the sense of shared experience that defined the Tunisian revolution – and the many other historic protests and revolutions that erupted in 2011.

As we discovered collecting essays for our new book From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, one of the defining characteristics of the new age of protest is the dovetailing of the desire and the ability to connect – across neighborhoods, cities, countries, and even continents. In every contributor’s country, a new awareness of shared destinies and of a global community permeated protest movements. Social-media technology was one tool that advanced it; but so was a reconceptualization of the meaning of public space, and the view that a plurality of ideas is superior to dogma – that the act of collaboration is as important as the outcome. Read more.

It’s here! From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring

Yesterday, May 1 was the official publication date for the volume I edited with Anya SchiffrinFrom Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring (also available on Kindle). I’m very excited about this collection of first-person accounts from protesters around the world — Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Greece, Spain, the UK, Chile, the United States. What I like about this book is that each protester speaks for her- or himself. Sure, the editors clearly think there’s some common thread to these disparate movements, but we haven’t forced a narrative where it doesn’t exist, and each essay stands alone as a little gem. It has a foreword by Jeffrey Sachs and an introduction by Joseph E. Stiglitz. (Full disclosure: I would very much like you to buy this book.)

It’s hard to say what comes next for the season of protest. Last night, I moderated a panel at Columbia about the humanitarian response to the Arab Spring. Beforehand, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook what I should ask the panelists. One comment, posted from the Middle East, that stood out in my mind:  “Ask them also if they know of anyone in the Arab world who calls it the ‘spring.’ I’d say there were very different interpretations of what’s happening right now, and maybe the term ‘spring’ needs to be changed. So far, I don’t see any blossoms.” I don’t share that person’s apparent pessimism — at least deeply — but it’s true that things are not going very well for a number of countries where there have been uprisings, revolutions, etc. Syria, where as many as 13,000 people have died in the last 16 months, is probably the most worrisome example. But the panelists last night, from the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch also presented a daunting list of serious humanitarian and rights concerns that are plaguing the region, from basics like food and water access, to eroding security and the breakdown of the rule of law. Not to mention the continuing, and worsening in some cases, economic slump.

Nevertheless, it also seems clear to me that the global spring, whatever becomes of it, continues to have the potential to be the beginning of a new era of civic engagement. People everywhere will not soon forget the core lessons of Tunisia and Tahrir: that mass action can affect change, and that people will demand change for the sake of dignity. At Union Square in NYC yesterday, as thousands of people kicked off the spring protest season with the latest iteration of the Occupy spirit, I saw that the energy and purpose of this season are very much alive.

America’s 99% are rich by global standards. So what?

Photo: Paul Stein, used with a Creative Commons license. Click photo for info.

I’ll admit that it has crossed my mind: there is a small flaw in the “we are the 99%” slogan adopted by Occupy Wall Street. By global standards, most of us Americans are actually the Richie Riches of the world, even those of us living paycheck to paycheck — or unemployment check to unemployment check.

This has been the source of some criticism of the Occupy movement in the last few weeks. Some have even claimed that America’s 99% is the world’s 1%. Take, for instance, this reddit-style poster linked on The Daily Beast. Suzy Khimm of The Washington Post has tracked down some number-crunchers who showed that, accounting for purchasing power, the idea that the bottom 99% of Americans make up the world’s top 1% is not quite right, but that even the poorest Americans do occupy a privileged income decile vis-à-vis the world.

It’s an interesting and important observation. Global inequality is a serious issue, ultimately far more important to humanity than domestic American inequality. But to the extent that it’s being cited to implicitly discredit the protesters, it stinks like hamburger meat left unrefrigerated beneath a Zucotti Park tarp for a week.

For one, “we are the 99%” is a slogan for a domestic political movement, so it really shouldn’t be held to this global standard. It is a fact that the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of the country’s wealth and the top 1% of income-earners take in more than 20% of the income. Those are horrendous figures (and are, in a sense, made more horrendous by the global picture — a tiny percentage of Americans control a vast amount of global wealth). Pointing out that OWS protesters would be big balling out of control if they moved to a developing country is not very useful — they live here.  It’s akin to criticizing a movement to stop air pollution in LA because Ulan Bator and Peshawar are X times worse. Does that mean Angelenos are spoiled for wanting clear air? Clearly not.

Another important point is that income, even adjusted for purchasing power, is not the sole or even most important indicator of well-being. This discussion has been gathering steam lately, as more economists point out the inadequacy of GDP (analytically similar to income) as a holistic data point. Bhutan has famously pioneered a different measure with its Gross National Happiness.

A more detailed comparison of the average American’s well-being to the world will have to wait for when I have way more time on my hands. But let me explore this anecdotally. I’ve been to a grim locale or two in my day — places that recently emerged from civil war, and some of the poorest countries in the world. But in the contest for grimness, the depressed corners of America are right up there with the shantytowns of developing countries. If you’re a poor American with a service job, you might be able to buy a used car, which is an unimaginable luxury for much of the world. That is little consolation when you live in, say, an American housing project where the threat of violence is ever near, unemployment is rampant, education options unsatisfactory, and — perhaps most importantly — the possibility of upward mobility is very small. This may be an extreme example, but I think it illustrates that subjective factors matter, as do indicators other than income.

Then there is the matter of the burden of poverty in a rich country, which is not a new subject. W.E.B. Dubois put it so succinctly in The Souls of Black Folk that I don’t think I need to elaborate: “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

So the 99% slogan works as a domestic statistic, and it also works as a shorthand for the experience of most Americans, who may be in the world’s top deciles of income earners, but are not necessarily among its happiest — whether you consider happiness as a nebulous term or as a collection of a bigger basket of statistics.

I don’t think most people pointing out the flaw — from a global perspective — in the 99% slogan are doing so to discredit the Occupy protesters as a bunch of whiners. But I can see the observation being marshaled for that argument. And that would be a shame, not only for the domestic movement, but for the push for greater global equality. Whatever you think of Americans, the 99% or the 1%, those protesting for greater equality here are almost surely the most likely to participate in a similar international agenda.

HT Dayo Olopade, without whose tweets and posts today I would have been unaware that this discussion had evolved so much, or read the WaPo post linked above.

Pamela Geller’s subway ad (not pictured here)

Today, Gothamist highlighted the ad Pamela Geller most recently wants to put on New York subways. It’s not the kind of thing I want to post on my blog, but have a look here to know just what we’re talking about. And, as Gothamist also invites you to do, please compare it to the “pro-Palestinian” ad that a few people were so enraged about appearing, also, on the subway.

Maybe it would actually be a good thing if Geller’s thing went up and appeared next to this. We’d finally a get a crystal clear picture of two points of view on the intractable conflict–and not in the way she hoped for.

Sufferin’ in the land: relevant weekend jam

Taking you back here with a Jimmy Cliff tune that is oh-so-relevant considering the recent census revelations about American income gaps — at an all-time high. From the AP report:

WASHINGTON — The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its widest amount on record as young adults and children in particular struggled to stay afloat in the recession.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.


Photo credit: Franco Folini.