The triumph of Africa in America

In Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, he spends a great deal of time talking about the fife and drum music of the northern Mississippi hill country, a genre I was completely unfamiliar with. He makes a big deal about how “African” the music is, but his prose alone didn’t quite convince me. (How does one describe completely unheard music, anyway?) I took a look on YouTube found several fascinating clips.

I was instantly enchanted with the unique sound — jazzy flutes and polyrhythms. It reminded me of something, too, but not something I knew in American music. I racked my brain and decided I had heard something like this when I was briefly in Chad in 2006. I looked through my old files and found the following.

I got chills as I watched my 10 year-old videos and realized that this was, in essence, the same music. I compared the audio again and again and found that the drums were all but synced, the phrasing of the woodwind was almost identical, and the vocals at the end of the phrase were quite similar as well. These two groups could easily jam together, with few adjustments.

It’s common to hear music in Latin America and the Caribbean, from Haiti to Colombia to Brazil, that has pretty obvious African antecedents. Although we all know that African music had a huge influence on American music, the links are not always quite as easy to hear. (And sure, Fela Kuti and James Brown may have some similarities, but they were listening to each other.) This is different. I don’t think Mississippian fife and drum players and Chadian flute and drum groups have had any recent interaction, yet they play, in these recordings at least, almost as if they know each other.

Slavery in America was singularly extreme in its repression of cultural heritage. Drums were banned almost everywhere. Ancestral languages were lost. The hinterlands were isolated and the control of the slave state probably more total than in other countries. Yet, through all of that and more, these black Mississippians kept their musical heritage alive. In the notes of their music we hear the voices of West or Central African ancestors who brought a specific musical skill with them and transmitted it to their children, and they to theirs.

Maybe they didn’t think of that transmission of music as a heroic act. Maybe they didn’t consider it “African” — a word that in many contexts was almost a slur for so long in America.  Definitely, it would have been hard for those musical stewards to guess that something called the internet would one day make their sounds so widely available. But they kept the flame of this musical tradition going because it was good and they recognized its power.

I can’t help but feel that those fife and drum players are heroes. Their performance is the telling of a history whose record was forbidden. It’s a triumph of human spirit through generations of unthinkable suffering. It is music as resistance. They kept a flame alive that had gallons of water thrown on it. They didn’t just endure: they overcame.

Bonus video: a short documentary, produced by Lomax, shows more context for the Mississippi music.

Roots music break: “Spike Driver Blues”

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me

Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I’m gone,
Won’t you tell him I’m gone
Won’t you tell him I’m gone

So go the “Spike Driver Blues” as sung by blues legend Mississippi John Hurt. It’s a song that captivates me because, like so much great folk music, its simple vignette has a constellation of stories packed between its lines, a wealth of history, and not a little wisdom. It’s a song of quiet rebellion. Have a listen.

Or (for those who can’t be bothered with Spotify)

Most Americans know the story of John Henry, the legendary African American railroad worker who was strong enough to defeat a machine, but died in the process. There are countless folk ballads, poems, and children’s books celebrating his life. Most narratives celebrate his strength, and tell the story as the tragedy of the triumph of machine over the working man, who is nevertheless an enduring hero.

Hurt’s description of events takes us in another direction. Here we seem to be hearing the account of John Henry’s death from the perspective of a partner on his spike-driving team. He sees the great man fall, his hammer “all painted in red” (his blood?), left beside the road. Does John Henry ask the narrator to take the beloved hammer to the captain as he’s dying? Maybe — but it also sounds as if the narrator is asking a third person to take his hammer to the captain, because the narrator, still standing, is leaving.

The somber lyrics and melody don’t dramatically valorize John Henry, as other songs about the steel-drivin’ man do. Instead, they explain the narrator’s decision to walk out on a deadly job.

In other words, the narrator is a quitter. What’s so rebellious about that? The notion that leaving work is valiant runs counter to the American ideals of industriousness and bootstrap pulling. We make movies about pioneers and virtuous gunfighters and heroic sheriffs. We don’t tell so many stories about people who just said No. Besides, people chose to work those jobs. John Henry is a post-slavery character who personified the pride in labor — paid labor — that was finally available to the majority of African Americans after the Civil War. Right?

Well, not quite, actually. In his 1993 book, The Land Where the Blues Was Born, Alan Lomax compellingly describes the social setting and historical context that gave rise to music like Hurt’s. After the Civil War, the Delta (where Hurt lived most of his life — he was born in 1892) was a frontier of sorts, a sprawling swampland wrestled into fertile farm country by thousands upon thousands of freed slaves and their descendants who had nowhere to run and no other way to live. Making the soggy Mississippi flood plain inhabitable meant the massive moving of earth to build and maintain hundreds of miles of levees, and it took the running of steamboats, the building of networks of railroads that reached from the cotton fields to the towns and cities, and ultimately the highway system.

lomax

The vast majority of this enormous enterprise, which took decades and created billions of dollars of wealth for rich farmers, was the work of black laborers. They were “free” — to a degree. Many chose the arduous, dangerous jobs as the only alternative to sharecropping, which was essentially indentured labor. Some were on the run from white landowners who claimed they were owed work or money. Others found a measure of dignity in the life of a rambler with a bit of money in his pocket. Still others were pressed into work, something Lomax says was particularly common in the lawless levee camps, where everyone carried a pistol and a walk by the river meant a good chance of being kidnapped and forced into bone-crushing work in hellish conditions. Those who perished from exhaustion were sometimes simply thrown in the dirt and made part of the levee.

And then there were the chain gangs, a Southern institution for many decades. The prisoners, who lacked liberty just as much as their enslaved forebearers did, were often in jail for long terms because of trumped up charges or cursed luck in a land where oppression made life a minefield of catch-22s. (Accounts of chain gang life that Lomax collected are harrowing and nightmarish in ways that recall Eli Wiesel’s Night). Some historians’ view is that the real-life John Henry, if there was one, was actually a prisoner, too.

In light of this, when Hurt sings about leaving, we must understand that he’s not talking about going home to drink coffee while he scans the newspaper for other job openings. He’s singing about escape. Even more, he’s singing about refusing to accept personal injury for another man’s project, cloaked though it may be in the mythology of heroism, industry, and advancement. Hurt’s narrator is a muted cynic — a quitter, sure, but a quitter of a game whose rules are impossibly rigged. As Lomax writes, “[Prison] officials and underlings were filled with a zeal for work that might well be called Southern Protestant Colonial; they had a passion for forcing others to labor hard in the hot fields and woods, and were enraged if there was shirking…. [They] humiliated, bullied, beat, often tortured, and sometimes murdered their charges.” The levee bosses were only a little better. Goldbricking was protest. Escape was war.

Knowing what we do of the obstacles Hurt’s narrator will likely face down the line — prison, death, or at the least, constant struggle — there’s nothing easy about the road he’s chosen. Just maybe, though, he’ll find a way — down the river, out west, or up north in some distant city.

Whatever the case, he’ll make sure that hammer won’t kill him too. Not by choice, at least. In the circumstances, the strength of the act of leaving is a victory worth writing a song about.

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.