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.

Music break: Your Sunday Night Oldies Show

First in a new series. I can’t promise I’ve got a voice as smooth as Big Daddy Victor Zaragosa — who shepherded many a San Francisco night to conclusion on the radio in my younger days — but I think I can select them just about as well as your standard lovesick Sunday night call-in. Here are some classics to start you off. Whether you have a nice ride to work on or just a window and a beer, turn it up!

On a Sunday Afternoon by A Lighter Shade of Brown

Night Owl by Tony Allen

NB: You gotta read Tony Allen’s bio. 

Samba Pa Ti by Carlos Santana

I’m sort of obsessed with this song by my fellow Bernal Heights original Carlos Santana. When I listen to it I see the view from Bernal Hill, the light through clouds on the Church Street steeples, pepper trees scattering their leaves all over Folsom Street, music festivals and street fairs and jam sessions, I smell herb smoke drifting through a day trying to decide whether it’s going to be foggy or not, burritos, I hear the neighbor’s Chevy Malibu engine revving, bad little kids shouting at each other on Moultrie Street,  and the rain falling through the leaves of avocado trees.

From Five Miles from Frisco

Slow Jam by Vieux Farka Toure

OK, so you probably won’t hear this song on KMEL’s dedication lines tonight, but I think it’s a logical follow-up to Santana — and conveniently named for Anglophone fans of the son of The Greatest Guitarist of All Time, Ali Farka Toure.

Intelligent boycotts

boycott usa

Photo by Karen Eliot, click for more details.

A recent article I stumbled on today in the Financial Times describes the controversy surrounding Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African musicians on his wildly popular 1986 album Graceland. It contains this priceless quote from musical legend Hugh Masekela, who played on Simon’s tour:

“Some of the most vocal journalists [who criticised Simon] were white South Africans who were living the most privileged lives,” he said. “I had a lot of run-ins with them. I told them to shut the f*** up. You know, one of the first people Nelson Mandela invited to South Africa was Paul Simon. I purposely joined [Simon] because I knew he wasn’t a crook and he wasn’t out to rip off anybody.”

I find the quote and the article instructive as they relate to current debates about certain international boycotts that have drawn comparisons to the successful one against S.A., which helped end Apartheid. Cultural boycotts of countries should be selective to be effective. The wrong kinds of isolation can facilitate a reactionary environment. And it’s generally the privileged that can afford to take the most uncompromising positions, which isn’t always useful.

Agree? Or am I just biased because I spent my childhood summers on blacktop desert highways with the windows down bumping “people say she’s crazy she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes” … ?

Much more good stuff on this subject over at Africa Is a Country.

[Edit: fixed ridiculous typo.]

Music break (sort of): Ravid Kahalani

There’s a standard speech I give when people ask me about the Middle East, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have shied away from writing on the subject in this blog for some time — it often seems that all the arguments have already been made, and every discussion devolves into a screaming match that brings out the worst of the blogosphere, which is tiresome.

But today, in light of the news and a recent musical discovery, I gently put forth the crux of my standard speech, which is: From a cultural perspective, it doesn’t have to be this way. The division between Arab and Jew is an inorganic one. The precolonial Middle East and eastern Mediterranean were dazzlingly diverse. Major cities contained the three “religions of the book” in equal parts, and among these were many sects. But identities had as much to do with the city one called home — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Istanbul, Salonica, Jerusalem — as they did one’s religion. (I have written about this more here.)

And yet, the mainstream media constantly tells us or implies that the “Arab-Jewish” conflict is an age-old one. Not only is this inaccurate — it is a 20th century phenomenon — it’s a confusion of terms: Arab and Jewish are not exclusive categories. They are used to describe ethnicity and, in the case of the latter, ethnicity and/or religion that may overlap with many different ethnicities. One may take issue with the use of the terms in one way or another, but the thing is, we continue to have evidence that one may be both Arab and Jewish.

Take Israeli-Yemeni singer Ravid Kahalani, whose music I just found out about.

“Most of the people are like, are you Arab or Jew?” Kahalani says. “I am Arab, I am Jew.”

There. You. Go. (The link is from a February podcast on Kahalani by The World’s Marco Werman — I can never seem to beat him to an international music discovery.)

I could write a whole essay about what I like about Kahalani’s music, which a friend introduced me to a couple of days ago. There’s the lovely pentatonic scale; the combination of oud and darbakeh (Arabic drum); the evidence in his voice of his background as a synagogue cantor; that rolling trance-like feel to his rhythms that reminds me of Ali Farka Touré and makes me picture the desert. His album is called Yemen Blues.

Anyway. To bring my speech back to current events. I woke today to images of unarmed marchers setting out from Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank, attempting to to cross the border into Israel. Troops of the latter opened fire, killing at least a dozen and injuring scores.  Many of the protestors were reportedly Palestinian refugees — there are nearly 5 million of them in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

In my standard speech, I make my point about identity because I think, however one evaluates incidents such as these, it is important to remember that they are a result of political grievances that have their roots in the events of the last 100 years. (Specifically, many of those Palestinian refugees continue to carry the keys to the homes their families were kicked out of 63 years ago when Europeans escaping persecution wanted a place to live.) Age-old religious animosity does not really factor in.

I certainly do not have Kahalani’s permission to entangle his music in this argument, but as I sit back and listen to him sing “Um min al Yaman” (Arabic for Mother is from Yemen), I can’t help thinking — and hoping — that alive out there still, is another vision for the Middle East.

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.

Yikes.

Photo credit: Franco Folini.