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.


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.

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.

The void at the center of the anti-Islam video crisis

The irony of the uproar connected to the now infamous anti-Islam video is this: almost everyone who has involved themselves in it has voluntarily taken on a role as grotesque, poorly scripted, vacuous, and disconnected from reality as the absurd characters in the cheap YouTube clip that is nominally at the heart of the crisis.

The video itself is the kind of sordid but forgettable drivel that gunks up plenty of corners of the Internet, and would be utterly inconsequential in another context. Having forced myself to watch the clips — they are certainly hateful but also less than mediocre, far less — it’s plain that the real story is not the video, but how it has been promoted by rabble-rousers like TV presenter Sheikh Khalad Abdalla (who has been called a sort of Egyptian Glenn Beck), and those like his dependable foil, Islam-hating Florida Pastor Terry Jones. John Hudson of The Atlantic Wire explains this well here, and also makes the excellent point that the mystery of the day — the identity of the real producer of the clip — is a sideshow barely related to the uproar.

And yet the main question murmured around American water coolers today seems to be, “Why are they so angry about a movie?” The answer has little to do with the clip itself, or with belief. What we’re likely seeing is the savvy manipulation of public sentiment, under the guise of religious dignity, mostly for domestic political gain in the countries where there are demonstrations or worse. It’s too early to ponder the particular details of how this is happening — and commentators everywhere are venturing opinions at the risk of contradictory revelations in the next days and weeks — but in broad strokes, it is clear that these originated as political actions, not spontaneous faith-based responses.

There is lots of raw anger toward the U.S. in the Middle East still, despite what your tour guide at the Statue of Liberty told you about America being the inspiration for the Arab Spring. It may have something to do with, say, 10 years of a bloody war on terror that has fractured societies and occupied countries and … well, a lot of other things besides a 15-minute video with mind-bogglingly crappy production value. That anger is an amorphous commodity that is available for use at the hands of skillful populists.

Thus, the out-of-control flag-burner is one role that people have taken on in the crisis, and the amateur provocateurs who made the movie are undoubtedly thrilled and surprised at the impact of their handiwork. (They may or may not realize that they are essentially in league with their supposed nemeses — other extremists who would also like to move us all irrevocably toward a worldwide war on religious lines.) 

But other responses have been equally one-dimensional. If you’re an American, a perusal of your Facebook feed will show that at least a few of your acquaintances are freshly astonished with the “barbarity” of Islam. Others condemn the filmmakers as the real cause of the violence. Still others respond that, however bad the video is, what’s really on the line is our free speech. Shouting matches erupt; accusations are thrown; positions become more polarized.

While the movie is undoubtedly condemnation-worthy, and also protected in the United States by the First Amendment, all of this gives the producers(s) far too much credit. The abject inferiority of their project is apparent to anyone remotely familiar with contemporary media. This is how, one must guess, they wanted us to react.

It’s all a bit sad. People everywhere are retreating into caricatures of themselves and fulfilling each other’s worst stereotypes. In doing so, the protesters, their denouncers, their apologists, and most especially those who would cast this as a clash of religious values, have become poor players acting out a script written by idiots.

As such, we’d all do well to take the whole conflagration with a bit of skepticism, and recognize the real political aims — both domestic and international — of those who are fanning the flames. 

Because if everyone buys into this tale’s sound and fury, things could get a lot uglier still.

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.

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.