Blowin’ in the Wind: A Folk-Music Revolt

On the frontier of every art form guerilla bands of prophets and crackpots are nourishing the orthodoxies and fashions of tomorrow.

A decade ago the frontier outlaws were men like Miles Davis, Paul Goodman, and Norman Mailer. Bereft of followers, holed up in private Sierra Maestras, they scrounged for economic survival. Today every branch of culture has its own tribe of far-out revolutionaries, pushing imagination to new limits of possibility. There are William Burroughs, Jack Gelber, Lenny Bruce, LeRoi Jones, John Coltrane, and Jonas Mekas. And they are no longer struggling merely for survival: they represent the organized revolt of one generation against the limitations of the preceding one.

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Folk music is one of the battlegrounds where the hegemony of the established canons and values is being challenged by a creative cadre of insurgents, all city intellectuals and almost all in their early or mid 20s, who write and sing topical songs characterized by radicalism, wit, immediacy, and poetry.

Their leader up to until now has been the mumbling, ragamuffin genius Bob Dylan, as much the symbol of this generation as James Dean was of his. Dean was a rebel without a cause, but Dylan has been the rebel of a dozen causes.

Then there’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, who writes of her fellow Indians and their brutalization; or Phil Ochs, one of whose songs was inspired by a Louis Aragon poem; Gil Turner, the ideologue of the topical movement; Tom Paxton, who wrote his most famous song between sets in that cavernous crucible, the Gaslight; Len Chandler, who has a M.A. from Columbia but who is broke because, instead of staying in the coffee house circuit, he spent last summer working free for SNCC; Billy Edd Wheeler, chronicler in song of the stricken coal country; and at least a dozen more who carry the seed of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

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The songs they write are not just traditional protests against war, poverty, and injustice, though even on those themes they are less mawkish and more corrosive than many of the songs of the ’30’s. Some of the songs are intensely personal statements like Buffy Sainte-Marie’s hypnotic warning against codeine addiction. Others glow with sardonic wit like Paxton’s “Daily News.” Others muse on the meaning of tragedy like Och’s “The Thresher” or Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Still others take a try at levels of meaning and Brechtian overtone, like Chandler’s “Roll, Turn, Spin.” Others come out of the jails and churches of the South, given shape by both white and Negro song writers, like “Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around” and “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” And finally, there are songs like Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” a surrealist, post-Bomb view of the world, with such images as “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” and “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.”

Most afficionados mark the birth of the topical song movement with the publication in February, 1962 in New York of the magazine Broadside (though the seeds of the movement go far back into the ’50s), put together by Pete Seeger, the selfless patron of the movement, Sis Cunningham, its chronicler, and Gil Turner, its talent scout. The first issue contained five songs, including “Talking John Birch Blues” by a 20-year-old named Bob Dylan. Fifty-five issues and 500 songs later, Broadside is the mimeographed bible of the topical song apostles and their disciples, stretching from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.

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And after those three years the new-wave song writers are on the verge of dominating folk music. While threadbare tunes like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” are now the property of the most commercial folk-singers and the most imaginative rock ‘n’ rollers, the repertoire of the most popular folk-singers — Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, or Peter, Paul, and Mary — is based on topical songs that a decade ago would have been blacklisted by every record company and radio station in the land. Even nightclub performers like Lena Horne and Bobby Darin have begun to incorporate topical songs into their acts.

In spite or their growing popu­larity and influence, though, the topical writers haven’t escaped some criticism along the line. Much of it comes from within their ranks, from established folk-singers who feel that all of them write too fast and lack the willingness to polish their songs. Here and there around the folk circuit there are also occasional mumblings that some topical writers are opportunist‚ that they only hopped on the political song bandwagon because they saw it was heading for success. Whatever private opinion might be, though, the songwriters are getting unprecedented attention. Says New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton, “There have always been periods of stepped-up activity in topical song writing during periods of American crisis. In this case it’s so pronounced you can’t really understand what college-age Americans are thinking today without paying a good deal of attention to it. It’s the cultural-philosophical expression from a whole new generation — an expression that should be studied and respected alongside the writings in literary quarterlies or beside slogans on picket signs.”

Next to Bob Dylan, whose work more and more is turning toward the mystical and symbolist, the most gifted of these writers — or certainly the most prolific — seems to be 23-year-old Phil Ochs, who fled journalism school at Ohio State in 1961 when he realized few papers would print his views undiluted.

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Today Ochs’ “agnostic Marxism,” sweetened by simple, often lyric melodies, is reaching more people than all the bloodless prose of all his classmates who stayed to master the inverted pyramid, a skill designed to dry up all creative juices.

Ochs is now in the position of a ballplayer who hit .285 his rookie year, or a dramatist who has written an impressive one-act play: everyone is predicting he is on he verge of a major breakthrough, that his meager $3000 earnings of 1963 will be 10 times that in 1965.

Lunch with a mutual friend and an hour interview illuminated only Ochs’ most obvious characteristics: his clear headed-ness, his candor, his wit, his left-wing politics. His pilgrimage to his current plateau parallels that of most of his contemporaries: at first, a wall of rejection from the established folk-singers upon his arrival in the Village in the autumn of 1961; then meeting Dylan and Turner and the coalescing of a faction around Broadside; “passing the basket” in the Third Side Cafe for six months; the first put-downs by major record companies; dates at the Gaslight Cafe and concerts; finally, cutting an album for Elektra Records and now editing the tapes for his second one to be released in February — “a militant, no bull shit record.”

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“I’m not a conventional folk-singer,” says Ochs when asked to define his talent. “I just use folk music to comment on the issues. My stuff is more an editorial than a song. I learned to play the guitar after I wrote a few songs.

“What we’re trying to do,” he explained, “is to give life to something that has been static for 20 years. We have had to overcome the bad reputation of those silly pop ditties of the ’50s. The major record companies are afraid of our material because it is so strong. They can’t believe a topical song can have any pertinence two weeks after it’s written.”

Then Ochs, the old journalism student, smiled and said: “Yes, pertinence, that’s the key word about us — put it in the article.”

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As the topical song writers grew from a fraction to a move­ment, their fans, many of them teenagers, began to invest them with a halo of heroism that bothers Ochs.

“There’s nothing noble about what I’m doing. I’m writing to make money. I write about Cuba and Mississippi out of an inner need for expression, not to change the world. The roots of my songs are psychological, not political.”

But because of his material, his life style, his friends, and his politics, Ochs has become an integral part of the Village Left, appearing at its parties, rallies, and in its magazines. Neverthe­less, he sees his political role as unromantically as he sees every­thing else, and subservient to his song writing.

One of the 130 songs he has written is called “A Knock on the Door,” a comment on the universality of totalitarianism. One of the verses recalls the Stalinist knock on the door.

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“Sure, some of my friends got upset at that verse and at a lot of others I’ve written. But they got over it. I know the dangers of letting politics dominate art, and I keep the two apart as much as I can … For example, I’m always getting asked to sing at this rally or that rally. I know I’m being used in the most callous way. But most of the time I go anyway, partly because it is good for my career, and partly because I see part of my job as a fund-raiser for SNCC.

”Another example is the new­est song I wrote, last week, about Mississippi letting those 19 men go free. It’s a hate song. It says Mississippi should get the hell out or the union. My friends in the Movement say I shouldn’t write a song like that but it rep­resents the hate I feel for Mississippi so I am going to add it to my new record, even though the tapes are already edited.”

Ochs’ rational view even ex­tends to his own talent. “I can tell I’m just beginning to write decent stuff,” he says. “I can feel the images and symbols coming more easily. And as I reach new levels, I can begin to fathom what Dylan’s songs are all about. What he does naturally, I still have to work at. But I’m getting there. I’m beginning to read poets like Brecht.”

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I asked him if he had read the Popularist poet Vachel Lindsay. He replied he had not, but asked me to write his name down and promised to buy some of his verse.

It is perhaps Ochs’ honesty and maverick spirit that are his biggest assets. The sense of outrage that fuels his pen is unencumbered by dogma. He knows how a party line can poison the wellsprings of creativity. So he goes on writing about the labor movement’s stains of racism, America’s folly in Vietnam, and songs like “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” and “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” the title of his new album. But he can also write a love song to America called “The Power and the Glory,” that con­cludes:

”Here is a land full of power and glory/ Beauty that words cannot recall/ Oh, her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom/ Her glory shall rest on us all/

“Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor/ Only as free as a padlocked prison door/ Only as strong as our love for this land/ Only as tall as we stand.” ■

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Of Time & Tom Wolfe

The Society Scene

Everybody knows all about Tom Wolfe.

Once there was THE Tom Wolfe, and suddenly there was the other TOM WOLFE.

Everybody was reading Esquire and the Herald Tribune’s magazine, New York, to see what Tom Wolfe was up to. People who didn’t really care about custom-built sports cars or stock car racers had to hear what Tom Wolfe was saying about them … one never merely reads Tom Wolfe’s descriptions, one hears, smells, touches them.

Addison and Steele pointed out a long time ago that readers have a gentle foible, they like to know what authors look like. Look like? Today’s readers demand and have acquired the right to know, possess, devour, destroy writers. Everybody wanted to know where Tom Wolfe had sprung from, this brilliantly talented, seemingly ubiquitous, altogether mysteriously third-person journalist. They found out, at least superficially, because Tom Wolfe may shake down just to be the hometown favorite, but when the home-town is New York City, he becomes the most superficially-newsweekly-written-about man of the hour, minute, issue. He came from Virginia. He was not related to the other Wolfe. He got his PhD in American Social and Intellectual History from Yale. He spent a few obscure years as a newspaper reporter in Washington and Latin America. He wrote “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” for Esquire, and all hell broke loose. There he was — The Man, the hottest property in town.

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Everybody saw his picture and knew that he looks like an Oscar Wildean concept of Huckleberry Finn, that he wears custom-tailored kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamline clothes — yellow suits, white silk-tweed suits, and one glorious mother of an orange suit. Everybody doesn’t know that somewhere in the West 40s is a tie-store owner who doesn’t care what or how Tom Wolfe writes, but appreciates him because he comes in once in a while to pick out something from the Second World War stock. “Er, Tom, when you … that is … what do you … you must … I mean, when you have to run out to pick up a cigar or something … ” “No, I don’t own any casual clothes.”

Everybody knows that Tom Wolfe gave Form to Meaningful Trivia. Somewhere there was a girl whose name was being mentioned in all the gossip and society columns, a girl with no talent, a girl who existed only to be mentioned, and everybody, every other writer in the city, knew she was there, but Tom Wolfe gave Shape and Meaning to Baby Jane (referred to in the Times as Mrs. Leonard) Holzer. He described her as “gorgeous in the most outrageous way,” with hair rising up from her head in a “huge hairy corona, a huge tan mane.” Now the dailies run tacky ads for cheap stores featuring sketches of tall androgynous girls in tight slacks with hair rising up from their head in a huge hairy corona. That’s Baby Jane … and Tom Wolfe’s put her There.

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Writing just a few pieces in which he used pure newspaperman-description enhanced by stylistic brilliance, Tom Wolfe made a viable thing out of a sensibility crushed to death later when Susan Sontag sat on it. But Tom Wolfe could do more than describe a here-today-gone-tomorrow. Tom Wolfe could put on his Utterly Outrageous Uptown Clothes and walk into the lower East Side, and instead of being beaten up as an outside dandy (Wolfe’s a big, sturdy man in excellent condition, with mean-looking hands that could kill you), walked out with a great story.

And then came the rumors. A war. Tom Wolfe, heavens forbid, was writing an article about the New Yorker. Holy hell. What nerve. That ballsy bastard, did nothing frighten him? The prospect didn’t make the New Yorker happy. Matter of fact, they got kind of menopause-irritable about it. Hysterical’s the precise word. The New Yorker sent an undercover girl to the Trib to pick up back issues of Wolfe’s articles. Back at the Institution, Lillian Ross was rolling out her old cannon. They’d blow that boy to smithereens. Voila. The opening shot at Fort Sumter. Lillian Ross had PARODIED Tom Wolfe, and if that didn’t stop those damned kids over at the Tribune, nothing would. Tom enjoyed the parody very much (he’s enjoyed at least 11 by now). Everybody didn’t know that though. People on the streets were holding their breath. Would Tom Wolfe send over his typewriter wrapped in a white flag? Would he apologize for his youthful foolishness? Nope. Word got around. Tom Wolfe had just sent his manuscript down to the printer. Nothing would stop the Trib and Tom now except maybe if the New Yorker rounded up all the back issues of their magazine from cocktail tables all over Westchester and dropped them on top of the Trib building, reducing it to an ashtray.

Was there nothing that the Trib and Tom Wolfe wouldn’t do? Instead of being quiet about the Big Offensive, they advertised it. Ran full-page ads tweaking the New Yorker. Telling the New Yorker exactly what the New Yorker was saying about the Trib.

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Not Deep Enough

The Big Sunday came. Everybody read the first installment of the two-part series. Oh dear, it didn’t quite make it. All the people who have been waiting 10, 20 years to see the Job Done On The New Yorker That It Deserves were almost in tears. Oh God, they had expected Something Big and it didn’t come off. He hadn’t gone quite deep enough. He hadn’t spent quite enough time on it. His style, so marvelously suited for sounds, sights, smells, textures, for Living Things, wasn’t quite appropriate. There was no sound to get across except a quiet FLOP, no smell except DECAY. He had encountered the age-old problem, possibly incapable of solution, of making a dull subject interesting.

But it didn’t really matter. The attacks against him were delicious. The entire New Yorker stable and their outside apologists came on like bulls. He had smoked out J.D. Salinger. J.D. Salinger sent down word that he was not happy with Tom Wolfe. Nat Hentoff said he would no longer write for New York. There! let the Herald Tribune’s New York live with that. Muriel Spark said that she was a “professional” observer of people, and when she looked at Tom Wolfe she was irritated. Ved Medha said that Walter Lippmann was kind of upset too. Vicious, he was vicious, everyone said. Scurrilous, unclean, un-American, a thoroughly bad boy. Christ, all the poor bastard had done was to write a sometimes-brilliant (the white socks part was without peer in incisiveness), sometimes-inadequate piece that didn’t come off. Some people said he was a Nihilist, no values at all; others said he was a Chinese Red, taking orders straight from Peking; a few thought he might be working for the CIA; one Baptist minister must have stood up somewhere in the South the next Sunday and said that Tom Wolfe was a good Christian who took orders only from God.

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Hottest Property

Everybody knows Tom Wolfe is still the hottest property in town. They also know that someone will come up and bump him off. But if they have any brains at all, they should also realize that Tom Wolfe is 34 years old, extremely talented, and capable of development. Horses don’t die after they win their first big race.

Meanwhile, Farrar, Straus and Giroux is holding a publication party for Tom Wolfe on June 29 to celebrate a collection called The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline BabyIt’s being held at the Gallery of Modern Art, and everybody expects something to Happen.

Nothing will.

The party itself will be nice, pleasant, well-mannered, reflecting the decency, graciousness, and Victorian good taste of the guest of honor.

Every daily and newsmag columnist will go back to the office and write a report on the party in Tom Wolfe’s style, because writers enjoy writing like Tom. It’s young and it’s free and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Everybody will feel comfortable again, because they’ll think that once more they know all about Tom Wolfe.

What’s not true. What everybody does not know is that Tom Wolfe once pitched semi-pro ball in Roanoke, and his best pitch was a … but no, I won’t tell you. I’ve already scooped every columnist in town.


James Brown: Knocking ‘em Dead in Bed-Stuy

An hour and a half before show time they queue up in front of the Brevoort. The posters are stuck up everywhere, in the bars, the luncheonettes, even in the Shabazz Restaurant. Two weeks ago the Apollo, then a weekend in Akron, Ohio, and now four-a-day for two days in Brooklyn. This is the show, this is the kid, the man of the hour, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Mr. “Night Train”… James Brown and the James Brown Show. Now, tonight, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The lines are long because the kids don’t leave. They come for the first show at 2 p.m. and sit on through, fortified by popcorn and pop, waiting to love James Brown again, waiting for him to love them, waiting for him to do it again, do it to the mike, do it to them.

The cops are out, with their beat-up wooden horses, black and white cops coralling the black folk behind the barricades while the white manager, all business, counts the line and counts his house and says, “Twenty-five more, I can let in 25 more.” This is high finance, man. The white manager at the Apollo wrote James Brown a letter saying thank you for breaking all previous records, and this manager is counting the receipts, at $3 a head, thinking maybe he’ll be writing James Brown a letter, too. Ben Bart, the old pro, white manager of James Brown, is watching those receipts, too. Forty-five people on the show payroll, his cut, and a liveried chauffeur divided into a guaranteed $15,000 for two days comes to what?

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Last Show

Saturday night, midnight, the last show. The crowd is good-natured, waiting to get in. Young men and women, all spiffed up, on dates. The married couples, sedate and satisfied, this evening at least. The boys without dates in shades and caps. The girls in big hair-dos and pants. And all those ladies still with the juice in them and without husbands … in pairs, in threes.

Inside, there’s a lot of show. The Apollo formula. Give ’em a bad old movie, a couple of old cartoons, it doesn’t matter what. The movie screen is half-obscured by the big band anyway. The movie heroine smiles, and her mouth is filled by the raised kettle drum on stage. The crowd moves around, greeting friends, getting more buttered popcorn.

At last, the screen goes dark. Red and blue spotlights slowly circle and cross. The drums roll, the audience hushes. Five brownskin gals, the tall, light one in the center Chinese maybe, come wriggling and writhing on stage, in cute little bare, two-piece, sequined, tasseled outfits, weaving, undulating, backs to the audience, twitching their asses, slithery sliding, pulling at their bikini bottoms, pulsating their long-stockinged stems. The girls carry orange-painted suitcases, marked J.B. This is the James Brown traveling show, doing the New York black subway circuit.

An emcee on a makeshift stand announces the acts. The amplification is bad, the lights dim. Everything is red-blue-brown and cozy. A male singer comes on, belts a little, does a desultory pelvic grind, and for his finale, grabs the mike and pitches headlong into the pit. A moment of oooos, and he is lifted, limp, back on stage for his danceaway exit. “Dear, is that James Brown?” asks a woman. “Naaaaw,” comes the anguished answer.

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Scampers Away

The brownskin gals do some more slithering, in between acts and during the acts. The audio gets worse. The spotlight operator in the balcony, white — cigar in his mouth, charges the gals and manages to miss most of the exits and entrances. There is Miss Ella Mae, 275 pounds of shaking momma, in furbelows and frills, singing “All of me, why not take all of me,” and the tall, lanky comic in coveralls doing the cornpone a bit, scampering away from Ella Mae’s outstretched arms. There is the straight girl singer with the powerhouse voice, the Imitation Supremes, the hoary black vaude dialogue done on countless stages countless times (“Judge yer Honor, how come you let that gal go free when she was walkin’ stark naked through town?” — “Madam D.A., she tole me she been married 10 years and had 10 children so I figured she ain’t never had time to git dressed.”)

And then it is time. The music swells. The girls, now in white bikinis, move to new positions, high, high above the stage on shaky platforms. The emcee’s voice comes through clouded, a throwaway … “Needs no introduction … ‘Hullabaloo,’ ‘Shindig’ … you’ve all heard his records … JAMES BROWN.”

And there he is. The Star. Moving down stage, fast, grabbing the mike, singing, all in one gesture. Moving his feet in neat, cocoa-butter suede boots. Slim, dark, diminutive … mop of curly black hair … smart gray suit. That’s James Brown? He’s — little. The voice is ordinary, the lyrics indistinguishable, the beat uninspired. Three young men, part of his act, in lighter gray suits, not as sharp, are moving, too. Everyone on stage is moving, James Brown faster than anyone, but stationary, in front of the mike. This is the kid the whole show is built around? A slight … short … boy … with a big head of hair and a slim-line gray suit wit a custom-tailored jacket that he flips ever so coolly now and then to reveal — a flash of salmon-flowered lining. That’s all there is to James Brown?

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Body Releases

Suddenly he dips. His body, like a puppet on a string, releases. The legs slide out — incredible. James Brown can dance! The body gyrates. The arms gyrate. The arms churn. The hips swivel. The feet in the cocoa-butter boots slide together, as if on ice. (From Augusta, Georgia, he was going to be a bantam-weight boxer.) The crowd cheers. James Brown is warming up. Without a stop he goes into a routine with the boys. Fancy dancing, high strut, puttin’ on the ritz, brushing off the slim gray suit, a little brush, a little whisk (James Brown’s daddy used to be a hoofer). A breakaway into the new song, “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag” — the one they’re pushing, the one they hope will make the top of the charts. (When James Brown toured the South this summer, he sang this song in Mississippi, and the Poor People’s Corporation of Natchez made him up a special white leather tote bag, with his initials, J.B., in gold, and they say he carries it with him wherever he goes.)

James Brown singing a love song. Yeah. The audience is with him now. He’s going to do it soon, “Love you, I wanna love you,” he pleads. Ooohyeah, you can love me, baby. “Love you,” he pleads, and then with a shiver — with one tremulous movement — he lifts up the microphone — and throws himself down on top of it … The audience gasps. The women. The kids. The undulating white bikini brownskin babies. James Brown is pleading to let him love. Talking to the head of the microphone. Kneeling. Wailing. “I want to love you.” Sobbing. Pushing the unresponsive microphone. Begging. Shaking. — He can’t go on. One of the male dancers goes over and talks to him gently. Then lifts him up. He continues his song. — But it’s too much for him! He shivers, throws the microphone down again! “Love you.” They’re getting worried. They raise him up. They prop him up on both sides. They dance a little. More incredible sliding. Then James Brown wants to — “Shake. I want to shake your hand.” The audience surges forward. “Let me shake your hand,” he chants, and the hands are already there, outstretched. Teenage hands, middle-aged women’s hands, men’s hands, reaching up toward the stage. The ushers form a human chain, trying to hold the crowd back. On stage, his boys try to hold James Brown. He breaks loose! They grab him! They take a hold of his arms! He reaches toward the hands! With a dancer holding onto him from each side. James Brown’s arms are thrust toward the clasping hands. From one end of the stage to the other, his men push his arms toward the crowd and pull them back.

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James Brown back at the microphone, still in one piece, singing about making love again, “All night long, two o’clock, three o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock,” getting worked up again. The dancers calm him, hold him by the jacket. But — he’s — got — to — do — it. He wrenches out of the jacket — flash of salmon flowers — and does it to the mike again! Down on the floor, kneeling, pushing, berating the head of the mike. The crowd is hysterical, pressing forward. From the rear of the orchestra, from the balcony. A revival! A holy, holy, orgiastic Gospel finish. They bring a black cape and cover him gently. They pick him up and guide him into the wings — but no, they can’t hold him! He stamps his feet — and shivers — and throws off the black cape — and runs back to the prostrate mike. “Love me.” Another cape. A white one, is passed up and put around him. They almost have him off now, folks — but he trembles, breaks free — kneeling, murmurs inaudibly to the microphone. They straighten him up and put on a red cape. He is exhausted. They guide his faltering steps. But James Brown still doesn’t want to go. Not yet. The crowd, the people, the love. He must give something more … his clothing! He rips off his tie and throws it into the pit. He starts to rip — bodily they carry him from the stage. What a finish! Nothing like it since Jackie Wilson used to lie down stage front and kiss all the ladies, one at a time. The mantle has fallen on James Brown. The apotheosis of the ethnic thing. Four-a-day on the black subway circuit. The short, skinny kid with the big head. Dynamite. James Brown. ■

Equality From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

From Liberty in Miss. To Justice in D.C.

The Gap Between

LIBERTY, MISSISSIPPI — In the mythology of the Movement, Amite County is synonymous with the Ninth Circle of Hell.

It was to this impoverished, re­mote area of southwest Missis­sippi, on the border of Louisiana, that Bob Parris (Bob Moses) came in August of 1961 to at­tempt SNCC’s first voter regis­tration campaign. Beaten twice and jailed three times, Parris left for Jackson four months later.

It was in Amite County that Herbert Lee, a 52-year-old father of nine, was shot to death on September 25, 1961, by a member of the Mississippi state legisla­ture, E. H. Hurst. Lee had been one of the few local Negroes to attend Farris’s voter-registration school.

It was in Amite County that Louis Allen, a witness to Lee’s slaying, was shotgunned to death in his home on January 31, 1964, after he had made contact with the Justice Department. Amite County Sheriff Daniel Jones, six-­foot-five, is the son of Brian Jones, who reportedly leads the Klan in the area.

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It was Amite County that, be­cause of its history of lawless­ness, saw not a single volunteer during the 1964 summer project. It was Amite County that, until six months ago, had only one registered Negro voter, despite the fact that Negroes make up a majority of the county’s population. It is Amite County that today remains totally segregated, and has never experienced a civil-­rights picket line or a direct-ac­tion demonstration.

Amite County is rural, red-­clay country outside the flow of history — but not just in terms of civil rights. It has missed the in­dustrial revolution as well. Amite is only 80 miles south of Miss­issippi’s capital, Jackson. Its county seat is called — for some reason buried in history — Liber­ty, population 650.

Great numbers of teen-aged Negroes escape to Baton Rouge and Chicago each year because of the unyielding poverty of the county. Experts estimate that the out-migration from Mississ­ippi, in general, has been four Negroes in ten.

Many Negroes in primitive Amite own their own farms, which makes them less vulnerable to economic reprisal by whites than their urban brothers.

This independence, however, probably accounts, at least in part, for the extraordinary record of physical violence in the county.

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Marginal Farms

Most of the Negro farms are marginal enterprises. Attendance at the all-Negro Central High School during November dropped to 50 per cent because so many children were needed to chop cane and pick cotton on the farms. There is only one brick Negro home in the whole county and that one was financed by an FHA loan. More than 90 per cent of the Negro homes have no in­door toilet. Fewer than one in five have telephones. Almost all depend on wells, dug by hand, for water. Food must be pur­chased in Liberty, where Negroes can still be beaten up at random in the street, sometimes by other Negroes paid to do the deed. No white man has ever gone on trial in Amite County for violence against a Negro.

A week in Amite is a bruising experience. Negroes lie to civil­-rights workers and invent ail­ments rather than face the reg­istrar in Liberty. A meeting in a wooden shack called a church approaches Gandhian “agape” with the singing of hymns and preachments of love thy enemy. A 60-year-old farmer tells how his cousin was castrated in 1962 and asks whether there is “any place on earth where colored folks are treated meaner than in Amite County.”

The Movement in Amite, aborted in 1961 by the killing of Lee and the repeated jailing of Parris, was resurrected 11 months ago. At that time, 22-year-old Marshall Gans, a rabbi’s son from California, came to live on the farm of E. W. Step­toe. At the point he began can­vassing the community there was only one registered Negro in the whole county. The man, notorious in the area for being an Uncle Tom, was actually escorted to the courthouse by E. H. Hurst, the man responsible for Lee’s death.

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On Staff

Steptoe, 56, with a face tramp­led by time, is a legendary fig­ure in the county. He first tried to register in 1953. In 1954 he founded a local chapter of NAACP, but saw its first meet­ing broken up by the Klan and the county sheriff with a gun. In 1964 Steptoe was the only Negro in the county willing to shelter white volunteers. Now he is on the SNCC staff.

There have been no flashy Freedom Days in Amite. No dra­matic marches on the  courthouse. No inspirational rallies with big names. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer have never set foot in this isolated community. There have just been long hot days dur­ing which a couple of  SNCC workers and a couple of local Negroes walked the gravel roads talking with terrified, barely literate Negroes.

In June of this year Carol Ro­goff of Brooklyn and Hazel Lee of Panola County, Mississippi, joined Gans and Steptoe in the tedious, repetitive drudgery of organizing. Finally, on June 14, 1965, 22 Negroes went to the courthouse and were registered.

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High Point

By November several hundred Negroes had their names put down on the registry books, but that was the high point. The rest are still frightened, and only fed­eral registrars can induce them to risk the fate of Herbert Lee.

Fear and Love. These are the polarities on which the embry­onic movement in Amite rests. In most other parts of Missis­sippi the civil-rights movement is in disarray. Activists who have been in the state for a year or more are burned out.

On the other hand, the govern­ment’s million-dollar Headstart program is siphoning off young militants who might otherwise have become the Movement’s second generation. The newly formed, integrated, and moderate Mississippi Democratic Council is challenging the radical prophets of the Mississippi Free­dom Democratic Party for the tiny Negro vote. Many of the best SNCC organizers have moved on to Alabama’s black-­belt counties.

Mississippi is no longer a bloody frontier. Bureaucracy is making the rigors of saintliness obsolete.

Amite County is even a generation behind cities like Jackson and Greenville. Eleven years af­ter the Supreme Court decision, not a single Negro in the county attends an integrated school. Seventeen months after the sign­ing of the 1964 civil rights act, not a single public accommoda­tion is desegregated. Three months after signing of the 1965 voting-rights bill, no federal regis­trar has yet appeared in Amite County (Goldwater took 93 per cent of the vote in 1964).

[related_posts post_id_1=”722721″ /]

Special Dignity

The Movement in Amite is in an earlier period than anywhere else in the country. It is pure and religious, uncontaminated by organizational in-fighting and hy­per-militancy. It is just two soli­tary organizers and a handful of local Negroes. The constituency is farmers, who have the special dignity of people who work a meager soil.

But there is also deeply rooted fear and submissiveness.

Five murders of Negroes, including Lee and Allen, since 1961 remain unsolved and unin­vestigated. A few months ago, for the first time in history, a local Negro dared to file a charge against a white who beat him up on the street in Liberty. The charge was thrown out of court.

“Negroes feel,” said Carol Rogoff, “that the courthouse in Liberty is owned by white folks. They remember how Lee was shot right next to the court­house.” She admits that many Negroes remain afraid to be seen with her in public. Even the most rebellious local Negroes think a demonstration in Liberty must wait for another age.

An incident that happened in Amite dramatized the total vulnerability of Negroes to random violence. Four of us — Miss Rogoff, Miss Lee, a local woman named Juanita Griffin, and myself — were putting up posters for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service election. A man in a pick-up truck without a license saw us and began to chase us in his truck by driving up a narrow gravel road. The driver let out a woman, a child, and a Negro who were riding with him. He made three passes; the last time, driving at us head on, he forced us into a ditch. Cursing, he followed us until we reached the main road.

The following day we spoke to the FBI, who claimed “no Jurisdiction.” “File a complaint with Sheriff Jones,” the agent said. The Negro riding with the driver would not talk to us, and cer­tainly not with the FBI.

Yet, the fledgling movement here is characterized by a kind of love. Most Negroes in Amite are deeply religious. Meetings are usually held in churches. There is no tradition of freedom singing. Instead, meetings are begun with Baptist hymns like “Jesus, Hold My Hand While I Run This Race” and “Lord, Come By Here.” Nobody knows “We Shall Overcome.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

Four Meetings

I attended four meetings dur­ing a week here. The first was held in the Mount Pilgrim Church on Steptoe’s land. It was here that Parris conducted his voter-registration classes in 1961. Herbert Lee is buried in the churchyard and his 15-year-old son was among the 75 people who filled the 10 wooden benches.

Reverend Curtis Dawson, who first tried to register in 1961, spoke to the meeting.

“We must love everyone,” he began, as amens welled up from the benches.

“White people from the North care more about us than we care about ourselves.”

“Yes, Lord, say it, brother.”

“They do everything for us. They go farther with us than we go with ourselves, but we have to redish (register) for ourselves. We can do that for them.”

“Right. Amen.”

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At another meeting the Rev­erend explained the right to vote in a Biblical analogy.

“God told Moses,” he began, “to pick up a stick. But Moses said it was a snake. But the Lord insisted he pick it up, and when Moses did, it turned out to be a sword. And that’s how go­ing to the courthouse in Liberty seems. Right now it looks like picking up a snake, but once you pick it up, it will becomes the sword of freedom.”

Unfortunately, most of the Negroes of Amite do not have the inner certainty of Moses. Until the federal government con­vinces them that going to regis­ter is not like picking up a snake, Amite Negroes will not register in numbers large enough to di­lute the terror, much less alter their condition.

“Lord, Come By Here. Federal Registrars, Come By Here.” ♦

Equality From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Marching to Montgomery: The Cradle Did Rock

It was the Ecumenical Council, a hootenanny, a happening, and a revolution all rolled into one. And it happened in Montgomery, “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

A broken-down hipster, the Realist sticking out of his dungarees, marched alongside an Episcopal bishop clutching the Holy Bible. There were the kamikazes of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — in their blue-denim overalls, mud-caked boots, and rash helmets, next to middle-class housewives who won’t ride the subways after dark. There were nuns in flowing black habits arm in arm with jowly labor leaders who discriminate in their unions.

There were rabbis, junkies, schoolboys, actors, sharecroppers, intellectuals, maids, novelists, folk-singers, and politicians — 40,000 motives and 40,0000 people marching to Montgomery behind James Forman who hates the oppressor and Martin Luther King who loves the oppressed.

March on Washington

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New Generation

There were hundreds of high school and college youngsters — that new breed of revolutionary that has somehow grown up inside the bowels of prosperous America. There were kids who rioted against HUAC, vigiled against the Bomb, invaded Mississippi last summer, and turned Berkeley upside down. They are a new generation of insurgents, nourished not by Marx or Trotsky, but by Camus, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and SNCC. Their revolution is not against capitalism, but against what they deem to be the values of an enlightened America — Brotherhood Weeks, factories called colleges, desperation called success, and sex twice a week.

And there were thousands of clergymen symbolizing the revolution within a revolution — the nun with suntan cream on her face who marched all the way from Selma, priests, ministers, rabbis with yarmulkes. There was a huge sign: “Lutherans are Here Because Christ Cared.” Another read: “Kansas Mennonites Support Civil Rights.” And another: “SMU Marches for Freedom.”

On the streets of the Confederacy’s cradle that “coalition of conscience” Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington have tried to will into existence materialized spontaneously. A line of marchers, strung out as far as the eye could see, sang “America the Beautiful” and made it sound like a revolutionary anthem.

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Sleepy Beginning

The day that was to end in triumph and tragedy began in sleepy whimsy at 4 a.m. last Thursday for the 104 participants in the Village Independent Democrats’ “Fly-In” as they pulled out of the West Side Airlines Terminal singing ironic songs about their pilgrimage.

They sang in spirited atonality that quickly disintegrated into anarchy songs like “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “I’m Alabamy Bound” and “Swanee” and “Dixie.”

“Al-a-bam-a, here I come,” roared Bill Tatum, “VIDers, don’t be late, open up that capitol gate. Alabama, here I come, right back where I started from … “

The “Welcome to Montgomery” sign at Dannelly Airport reinforced the ironic mood of the pilgrims, especially for those who noticed that billboard just outside the airport that read: “Get the U. S. out of the U. N. or get the U. N. out of the U. S.”

Within 20 minutes the small airport lounge became congested as flights from Boston and St. Louis also landed, disgorging eager, smiling, scrubbed middle-class faces, some on top of clerical collars.

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Minister’s Greeting

A white minister from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) greeted new arrivals, urged them to leave the city “as soon as the rally is over because it will be dangerous,” and directed them to shuttle buses to the City of St. Jude, a Roman Catholic complex where the marchers had camped the night before. On the SCLC minister’s lapel was a button that said “GROW.” He explained it stood for “Get Rid of Wallace.”

At St. Jude the predominant mood was gaiety, as thousands upon thousands of visitors swelled the great serpentine line of march that coiled around the vast, muddy athletic field.

Small clusters sang freedom songs during the two hours it took for the whole line to unwind onto the streets towards the capitol, four miles away. The visitors sang off-key versions of better-known freedom songs, while local Negroes, led by either SNCC or SCLC staff members, sang raucous, sassy, taunting songs that came out of the Movement in Alabama’s Black Belt. A group of about 500 from St. Louis stood in a large circle, one small, Negro woman calling out chorus after chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”

Other demonstrators milled around the staging area like conventioneers, wearing name tags and introducing themselves to strangers, pronouncing their home towns with accents of pride — Montreal, Berkeley, Boston, Detroit — and their association with equal pride — ADA, the United Auto Workers, NAACP, the University of Virginia, the American Legion (Gramercy Park chapter).

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To the Capitol

At noon, under one of the day’s brief showers, the procession began to move out, with the bloody-shoed 300 who had marched all the way in the vanguard. With them were barefoot Joan Baez; James Baldwin, nervously smiling, just back from Scandinavia; the angelic looking Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks, who ignited the mythic bus boycott a decade ago; and SNCC’s John Lewis, who walked the whole way from Selma and who had suffered head injuries on “Bloody Sunday” at the Alabama River Bridge. And there was Martin Luther King, to whom Negroes of the Black Belt now sing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and then kiss his hand.

The streets in the Negro slums of Montgomery were of mud and clay. There were row upon row of run-down shacks, with the very old, the very young, the unemployed sitting on porches.

The First Time

At first the non-marchers were timid and shy. It was as if shame made them look down rather than at the masses that surged past them. But slowly, they looked up, to wave, and when the marchers began to shout, “Join us, come on,” many accepted the invitation and probably protested their plight for the first time in their lives. Marching through the slums was like taking LSD for the soul.

One bent old woman ran off her porch and kissed a white marcher. Children, dirty and scrawny, ran alongside, singing the songs and chanting the slogans of freedom. A very old man, his cane resting between his legs, sat on his porch steps and wept.

About a mile from the capitol we reached the downtown section of Montgomery, with its banks, hotels, movies, stores, office buildings and clean asphalt streets. The sidewalks were almost deserted except for a sprinkling of hecklers and the federal troops at each intersection, standing at attention, their rifles at their sides.

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Traditional Gesture

But against the windows of the office buildings were pressed the white faces of the South. Some shook their heads “no” or gave the thumbs-down sign when the marchers waved at them. A beautiful woman of about 25 stood on the balcony of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, and when the demonstrators waved at her, this flower of Southern womanhood made the traditional obscene gesture of one finger up.

On the lawn of an elegant home a hunched, elderly maid stood in the midst of her sullen employers. She was smiling and waving a white handkerchief at the procession. One wonders what was happening in the minds of her employers at that moment.

Remarked Edward Koch, the Village Democratic leader: “Walking through the Negro section made me feel like I was walking through Paris again with the liberation army. The white section was what it must have been like marching through Germany.”

From the window of the Alabama Bible Society Building hung a blow up of the picture Senator Eastland introduced into the Congressional Record prior to the March on Washington to prove Martin Luther King was “part of the Communist conspiracy.” The photograph shows King at a rally in 1957 at the now-defunct leftist Highlander Folk School, which was burned by segregationists several years ago.

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Turns the Corner

Dexter Avenue is the eight-lane street that leads into the white stone capitol building. As the procession turned the corner of that final leg of the journey the marchers suddenly broke into “America the Beautiful” and sang it with a passion normally associated in the Movement with “We Shall Overcome.”

“America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” they sang. Hundreds of school children waving little American flag. Ahead loomed the dome of the capitol with its Alabama and Confederate flags blowing in the breeze.”By 2 p.m. all 40,000 marchers, including about 10,000 whites, arrived at the foot of the capitol and stretched out several blocks down Dexter Avenue. The symbolism of the scene was inescapable. At the spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated, where George Wallace shouted in his inaugural in 1961, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” the largest civil-rights demonstration in the history of the South sang “We Shall Overcome” — black and white, together — “We are not afraid today.”

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Ten Years Later

In the shadow of the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, from whose pulpit Martin Luther King led the bus boycott 10 years earlier, the huge rally was turning into a kind of coronation of the 37-year old minister as spiritual leader of the nation.

“Who is your leader?” the Reverend Ralph Abernathy asked the throng. The answer swelled up. “Martin Luther King!” The only exceptions were veterans of SNCC, who yelled, “De Lawd of Slick.”But even that invidious distortion of SCLC was probably shouted as much in respect as in cynicism.

(The bitterness lurking in the background was based on the fact that SNCC, which had been alone in Dallas County since late 1962, had great difficulty working in harness with King after SCLC took over the Selma campaign in January. There had been serious disputes over strategy and tactics, since King’s basic goal is integration and SNCC’s is a revolution.)

After two hours of speeches by every major leader of the civil-rights movement, King was finally introduced to the crowd. Like the multitude in Washington in 1963, they had become fatigued and restless; many had been awake as long as 20 hours. Overhead, a helicopter and a Piper Cub circled noisily. Behind the platform two dozen green-helmeted Alabama conservation police guarded the steps of the capitol building. Behind them stood a number of members of the Alabama legislature.

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Then King began, his resonant voice and preacher’s alliterative rhythm slowly rousing the audience from boredom. From behind him on the platform came counterpoints of “Amen” and “Tell it, Brother” from other ministers.

In Washington he invoked the phrase, “I have a dream,” the way a blues singer repeats a key phrase. In Montgomery, facing the capitol, it was, “We are on the move now,” that became the launching pad for a series of crescendo-like thrusts.

“We are on the move now,” he said. “The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now.”

Now the throng responded with shouts of “Yes, Lord,” and “Amen.”

“The beating of our clergymen will not divert us. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move now, and no wave of racism can stop us.”

King climaxed his speech by repeating four times with rising fervor, “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” And then the cooks, maids, and janitors were crying and cheering at the same time.

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There were supposed to be 26 shuttle buses waiting after the rally to ferry demonstrators from the capitol to the airport five miles away. But 21 of the drivers called in sick, and for two hours thousands milled around in a muddy lot a block behind the capitol while fives buses tried to do all the work. There was pushing, shoving, and maneuvering each time a bus pulled in. Finally an SNCC worker with a walkie-talkie told the crowd, “Come on, you’re acting like kids. This ain’t the New York subway.”

By dusk, the troops had disappeared and the last handful, waiting unprotected in the lot, feeling fear for the first time during the day.

Chaos reigned at the airport. Hundreds sprawled on the lawn, picnicking, sleeping and singing. Huge lines pointed to the lavatories and phones; there were no snack counters. All outgoing flights were late.

After an hour’s delay on the VID flight was ready to be boarded, except that there was no ladder available. So for another hour, the 104 weary passengers stood in a cramped line, 20 yards away from the plane, while a ladder was searched – or, as some suspected, hidden.

Meanwhile, a few yards away, the dean of all civil rights leaders, 77-year old Asa Philip Randolph, had collapsed from exhaustion and Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington tended him while dispatching friends to find a doctor. The Montgomery police seemed uninterested.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

“It’s my fault,” Rustin mumbled. “I never should have gotten him up at 2 a.m. and he never should have walked those four miles.”

At 10:45 New York time, the VID flight left the cradle of the Confederacy amid complaints to the Civil Aeronautics Board about the delay and caustic reflections on “Southern hospitality.” There was no singing on the flight back. Most of the passengers slept. A few talked about the future of the civil rights movement, agreeing at the outset that Montgomery was just a skirmish in a long war whose end still lies beyond the rim of history.

Steve Berger, an aide to reform Congressman Jonathan Bingham, said the new voting rights bill was “pretty bad and very poorly drawn.” Others, activists of the movement, thought no legislation could possibly deal with the specter of firing, beating, and murder that faces any Negro who tries to register in the Black Belt. Other militants spoke eagerly of the next battle – the continuing attempt to unseat the five Congressmen from Mississippi by the Freedom Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Sutherland, who works for SNCC in New York, sat reading a private legal memorandum on the proposed voting bill, pointing out all its flaws and loopholes. “I just hope the registrars don’t get their hands on this memo,” she said.

And there was speculation about what would happen in the Black Belt now that the “civil rights tourists,” Dr. King, the federal troops, and the outside journalists were leaving and the Negroes were left alone to confront the Jim Clarks, the racist registrars, and those terrible faces that looked down from those windows.

When the plane landed at Kennedy Airport, its passengers were told it had already happened – murder. Nobody said anything memorable or poetic. They just cursed. ♦


Andy Warhol’s Pop Riot

Art: Help!
October 14, 1965

The latest Arthurian exploit of the legendary Andy Warhol occurred last Friday at the public opening of his first comprehensive exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (The show closes on November 21.) At the preview opening the night before, attended by 1600, a tuna fish painting was impaled by a television light stand and Institute Director Samuel Adams Green was himself pushed to the wall against a painting. Realizing he was up against something big, Green took the unprecedented step of removing the paintings for the public opening. Left up in three spacious rooms were a few dozen flower paintings on one wall and about seven grocery carton sculptures in a corner.

Confronted by vistas of stark white walls, the milling crowd, mostly students, debated the merits of the absent art. TV reporters with mobile cameras in­terviewed earnest co-eds who pointed at nail-studded walls and made pronouncements like: “I always thought art was supposed to be creative,” “pop art is just comedy in art,” “all of his art is trash, you know it, it’s got to be a fad.” The sophisticated audience that had turned out to put down the art that was not on display provided a chilling touch of surrealism worthy of Buñuel or Fellini.

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Borne Along

By 10 p.m., one hour after opening, 1000 people had crammed into the galleries and refused to budge. On the wall op­posite the flowers, a single crutch hung on a nail where a painting had been, presumably left behind by someone now borne along by the crowd.

Andy and the Satellites were recognized by their golden and silvered locks and engulfed in a sickening crush. Forming a human chain, they sought refuge in the back room. Nearly trampled in the melee was the entire pop art brain trust — Rosalind Constable, Henry Geldzahler, and G. R. Swenson, all of them old hands at non-violent museum openings.

The crush to get into the back room was so great that three people were forced out a window on the opposite side and landed in a hospital. The unruliness of her fans prompted Edie Sedgewick — incredibly gorgeous in a floor-length, shocking pink Rudi Gernreich sheath — to shriek. Escorted by campus police, the Warhol party swept back to the front room where they scrambled up a corner stairway. “We want Andy,” the crowd chanted. ”Well, now I’ve seen Andy Warhol,” one boy crooned, while another screamed, “Get his clothing!” At the first turn in the stairs, Warhol wheeled around to look back horror-stricken through his yellow sunglasses. Like the star-crossed heroines with whom he identifies (Marilyn, Liz, and Jackie), he was menaced by the disrespectful idolatry of his fans.

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The stairway, alas, did not lead to the second floor, having been boarded up years ago. ”We were trapped like rats,” Green said, but also protected by four policemen posted at the base of the stairs. From their perch, Warhol’s party stared at the crowd and the crowd stared back; both sides seemed to be getting satisfaction. “I wish he would leave so I could leave,” a boy said. Co-eds pushed forward bearing tins of Campbell’s pork and beans and Campbell’s tomato soup that were relayed up the stairs for autographing. An attractive housewife had her book of S & H Green Stamps autographed; she said she would never redeem them.

Warhol and the Satellites were rescued by a group of students who cut a hole in the floor above, through which they made a Beatlesque escape.

Although the show received unfavorable reviews, Warhol was credited with sparking tremendous in art in Philadelphia. “All the people thanked me for doing something in Philadelphia ,” he said.

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Village Voice story about 1965 Warhol exhibit that caused riot in Philadelphia

From The Archives Uncategorized

Bob Dylan Meets the Press

Four years ago a thin, aquiline-faced boy of 19 got off the subway from Hibbing, Minnesota, to come up for air in the Village, bearing with him no more than a battered guitar and an offhand way of singing that reminded some people of Woody Guthrie.

American folk music has never been the same since. Three of his Columbia LP records have made the charts. His songs have made him synonymous with the whole new topical folk-song movement. Kids try to tear his clothes off at Carnegie or Philharmonic concerts. And just recently he romped away with a whole Les Crane show. All of which makes of Bob Dylan, as the folks down home might say, one of your living legends.

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On the eve of Dylan’s fifth LP release, the press finally managed to corner the young singer-poet in an old stone house some miles outside Woodstock, New York. Dylan, hair shooting up like a shock of wheat, boots shined, face as pale as the winter snow outside, had consented to answer all those deep, meaningful, searching questions he’s been bombarded with by reporters and TV interviewers for years. The following is a transcription of what took place between Dylan and the large numbers of newsmen on hand:

Q: Bob, when you first started writing songs, did you write like Woody Guthrie?

A: Like I’m from Minnesota. Did you ever grow up in Minnesota, or hear Woody Guthrie? I didn’t hear him until I was around a college.

Q: Who did you write songs like before that?

A: Ever hear of Gene Vincent? Buddy Holly?

Q: Then you had a rock and roll band in high school.

A: I had a banana band in high school.

Q: So then you heard of Guthrie and he changed your life?

A: I heard of Odetta first…

Q: Then you heard of Guthrie and he changed your life?

A: Then I heard of Josh White…

Q: Then you heard of Guthrie…

A: Then I heard about those riots in San Francisco…

Q: The HUAC riots?

A: An’ I missed out on meeting James Dean so I decided to go meet Woody Guthrie.

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Q: Was he your greatest influence?

A: I don’t know that I’d say that, but for a spell the idea of him affected me quite much.

Q: What about Brecht? Read much of him?

A: No. But I’ve read him.

Q: Rimbaud?

A: I’ve read his little tiny book, “Evil Flowers.”

Q: You’re thinking of Baudelaire.

A: Yes, I’ve read his tiny little book, too.

Q: How about Hank Williams? Do you consider him an influence?

A: Hey look, I consider Hank Williams, Captain Marvel, Marlon Brando, The Tennessee Stud, Clark Kent, Walter Cronkite, and J. Carrol Nalsh all influences. Now what is it — please — what is it exactly you people want to know?

Q: Tell us about your movie?

A: It’s gonna be in black and white.

Q: Will it be in the Andy Warhol style?

A: Who’s Andy Warhol? Listen, my movie will be — I can say definitely — it will be in the style of the early Puerto Rican films.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720824″ /]

Q: Who’s writing it?

A: Allen Ginsberg. I’m going to rewrite it.

Q: Who will you play in the film?

A: The hero.

Q: Who is that going to be?

A: My mother.

Q: Will it have significance? That is, some hidden philosophical meaning or message? Say, like Albee’s play, “Tiny Alice”?

A: “Tiny Alive”? Is that what you said?

Q: No. ”Tiny Alice.” Let’s drop — Bob, do you have any philosophy about life and death? About death?

A: How do I know, I haven’t died yet. Hey, you’re insulting me all to shit —

Q: Well, Bob, don’t you have any feeling about Albee’s work?

A: What’s he got to do with me? I dig Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Q: What goes on between you and Joan Baez that doesn’t meet the eye?

A: She’s my fortune teller.

Q: Bobby, we know you changed your name. Come on now. What’s your real name?

A: Philip Ochs. I’m gonna change it back again when I see it pays.

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Q: Do you like writers like Jack Gelber, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara?

A: I don’t really read that much. I hate to be motivated. I’d rather read when I’m bored. Then anything will do.

Q: What about your friends the Beatles? Did you see them much when they were here?

A: John Lennon an’ I came down to the Village early one morning. They wouldn’t let us in the Figaro or the Hip Bagel or the Feenjon. This time I’m going to England. This April. I’ll see ’em if they’re there.

Q: Bob, what about the situation of American poets. Kenneth Rexroth has estimated that since 1900 about 30 American poets have committed suicide.

A: Thirty poets! What about American housewives, mailmen, street cleaners, miners? Jesus Christ, what’s so special about 30 people that are called poets? I’ve known some very good people that have committed suicide. One didn’t do nothing but work in a gas station all his life. Nobody referred to him as a poet, but if you’re gonna call people like Robert Frost a poet, then I got to say this gas station boy was a poet too.

Q: Bob, we understand that you’re writing a book.

A: Yeah, it’s a funny book. I think it’ll come out by spring.

Q: What’s it about?

A: Angels.

Q: Bob, to sum up — don’t you have any important philosophy for the world?

A: I don’t drink hard liquor, if that’s what you mean.

Q: No. The world in general. You and the world.

A: Are you kidding? The world don’t need me. Christ. I’m only five feet ten. The world could get along fine without me. Don’t cha know, everybody dies. It don’t matter how important you think you are. Look at Shakespeare. Napoleon. Edgar Allen Poe, for that matter. They’re all dead, right?

Q: Well, Bob, in your opinion, then, is there one man who can save the world?

A: Al Aronowitz.

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Spider-Man: Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Cult-spotting, a branch of the old science of trend-spotting, became a national sport in the days of the old American Mercury, when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan first made fashionable the cultivation of trivia. Mencken and Nathan probably invented Pop as well, but since people had other things to think about in those days, no­body else bothered to record it. Today, the press having finally caught up with Mencken and Nathan, both trivia-cultivation and cult-spotting have risen again to public prominence. Their latest manifestation is pop cult spotting, which began in earnest in 1964 when Time mag­azine spotted the long-established Harvard Bogart Cult. Since then no trivia-cultist has been safe from the feature writer’s predatory eye.

Realizing that if Time was onto a trend the trend must be in its death-throes, other magazines rushed to spot newer pop-cults. The New Yorker came up with the Sunday-Afternoon-Reruns-of-the-Lone-Ranger-Cult. The Tribune noted that a small cordon of “stay-at-home intellectuals” was watching daytime television. The Times began doing textual analy­ses of homosexual publications. At this point the whole thing got out of hand and, in a desperate effort to stay a step ahead of the incognoscenti, the press turned to cult-creation. Defining pop as any object of which a normal aesthetic judgment would disap­prove, the press took to describ­ing the 18th-century painter Fragonard as the object of a pop-cult. And, “Everybody on the social scene is working on pop movies,” crowed Eugenia Shep­pard last October in the Tribune. By “everybody” she meant the girls in Andy Warhol’s “13 Most Beautiful Women” film.

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Master Stroke

But the Tribune made its master stroke of pop-cult crea­tion a few weeks later when it discovered the Golden Age of Comics and announced that “everybody” is buying old Bat­man and Superman magazines. Now the Paperbook Gallery has put a six-foot poster of the Phan­tom in its window, and the Old Comics Cult is, presumably, fact. Two college girls, passing the window last week, looked rever­ently at the poster. “That’s the ultimate in pop art,” one of them exclaimed, and with these words delivered fashion’s coup de grace upon the literature of her childhood.

Real pop or not, the Old Comic Books Cult has got to be a fake. Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Bat­man only if you continually re­mind yourself that you liked him when you were 12. As for the new issues of Batman and Superman, they are thin even by comic book standards. Superman’s only concession to modernity has been his formation of a league of super-heroes, a dubious improvement at best, and he is still as addicted to time machines as he was in 1940. Batman has not even attempted to come up to date. He still travels by Batmobile and Batplane; where is his Batcopter? and why has no one thought to equip him with hali-toxic Batbreath? No, reading Batman, like listening to Lone Ranger re-runs, is merely a Proustian memory trick, a de­vice for creating a state of mind conducive to summoning up the childhood self. There is a real Comic Books Cult, but it has nothing to do with the old heroes, and it has claims on our attention other than those of nostalgia.

Three Rules

I realize that in making the above statement I risk casting my lot with Eugenia Sheppard and the Cult-Spotters Guild. Nonetheless it must be said, for the Marvel Comics Cult is, under the existing Rules of Pop-Cult Spotting, ripe for exposure. It conforms to the first rule of pop (see above) and also to rules two (“Your cult must replace a pre­vious, inferior cult”) and three (“No one else must have pub­licly spotted your cult”). Furthermore, it is a legitimate cult. College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics pro­fessor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes. I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World.

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Stories Signed

The Marvel Comics Group has been in existence less than five years, and during that time their circulation has risen to about six million a year. As befits pop literature in a pop-mad world, the Marvel books are highly self-­conscious. Their covers announce adventures dedicated to “The New Breed of Comic Reader,” and two pages on the inside of each magazine are given over to advertisements for the Marvel fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. All the stories are signed (“Earth-shaking Script by Stan Lee, Breath-taking Illustrations by Jack Kirby, Epoch-making delineation by Chick Stone”), and the heroes who range in style from tradi­tional action types like Captain America to tragic, ambiguous figures like the Hulk, seem continually bemused by the way in which their apparently normal lives keep melting into fantasy. “This is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book,” says the wise-cracking monster The Thing as he and his friend the Human Torch flee across a col­lapsing dam with a deadly iron ball in hot pursuit.

Recognizing that life has begun to imitate fantasy to such a de­gree that the public is most comfortable with fantasy which imitates life, the creators of Marvel comics have invented superheroes with discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions. Further, they have given the heroes a recognizable geography.

Real Rules 

Thus, a Marvel Comics reader can get the impression that costumed superheroes form a sizable voting block in New York City. In fact, one suspects that they are the real rulers of Manhattan. And they have the citizens quite bewildered.

A New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidently rip the dark scales from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed. And, last year, New Yorkers awoke to find that their city had been taken over by the under­sea legions of Namor, the ruler of the sub-continent Atlantis. Washington was afraid to bomb the invaders lest the bombs in­jure innocent citizens. “Wait ’til the Fantastic Four get here!” murmured a bystander as the submariners marched through Central Park. He was right: the Fantastic Four ultimately drove the undersea legions back into the Hudson.

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Local Landmarks 

There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel  Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks. On Madison Avenue the Baxter Building (“New York’s most famous skyscraper”) houses the Fantastic Four and their various self-protective devices. Further down Madison Avenue is the flagpole from which Spiderman swung the day he lost his spider powers. Somewhere in the east 60s the townhouse of playboy industrialist  Tony Stark (alias Iron Man) is secret  headquarters for the Avengers, a group of traditional fighters for justice which includes the thundergod Thor. Thor in his human identity is the lame doctor Don Blake (whose cane turns into a magic hammer when he puts on his Thor costume) who works surgical miracles in an uptown hospital.

The newspaper run by J. Jonah Jamison, sworn enemy of costumed superheroes, is also in midtown. And, “on the outskirts of Greenwich Village” Dr. Strange, the most bizarre superhero of all, has his secret retreat. Strange is a master of oc­cult knowledge and often walks around in ectoplasmic form; his creators imply that he lives in the Village because no one there is likely to become alarmed at being jostled by a wraith.

Intellectual Elite

In other respects besides geography, the Marvel world  mirrors the real world. Occupationally, of course, it has a heavy concentration of scientists, but then, these characters are supposed to be members of an intellectual elite and one cannot blame comic book writers for idolizing physicists. Within this larger elite, however, there are subtle gradations. The aristocrats of the Marvel world are the Fantastic Four, four healthy, at­tractive, and socially prominent people headed by physicist Reed Richards (who is dull but very dependable and has interesting body-stretching powers) and his blonde debutante fiancee Sue Storm (invisibility powers). Sue’s outside interests are clothes, novel reading, and doing her nails. Her brother, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, races cars and seems to have a bit of a death wish, but otherwise we can take him for the Marvel prototype 0f a normal adolescent superhero. The Thing, otherwise Ben Grimm, is Reed’s old col­lege roommate. The cosmic rays which gave the F. F. their powers turned Ben into a monster, and he is a trifle bitter about the whole thing. Still, group loyalty usually prevails over his resentment, and on the whole the Fantastic Four are quite aggres­sively well-adjusted. Everybody looks up to them.

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Neurotic Superhero 

The most popular Marvel hero, however, is much lower on the social scale. He is the maladjusted adolescent Spiderman, the only overtly neurotic superhero I have ever come across. Spiderman has a terrible identity problem, a marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women. He is anti-social, castration­-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone.

Spiderman began life as Peter Parker, a brilliant science student at a Queens high school who lived with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a Forest Hills split-level. He had no friends and was plagued by a dominating mother figure. Then he got bitten by a radioactive spider and took on the spider’s climbing, jump­ing, and web-shooting powers. Being a child of the television age, he immediately went on the “Ed Sullivan Show” (for which he received a check which, having no Spiderman identification, he was unable to cash). On his way out of the studio he saw a burglar escaping but, having decided to use his power only for his own benefit, refused to capture him. When he went home, Spidey found his uncle murdered by the same burglar. So, in a fumbling attempt to expiate his guilt, Spiderman decided to devote his talents to public service.

Cocky Manner

Ill luck has pursued him ever since. His shyness led him to adopt a cocky manner which so alienated the other superheroes that none of them will have any­thing to do with him. He is always having trouble maintain­ing his secret identity. And his powers are so closely allied to his highly problematic virility that they often seem to be on the verge of deserting him. His castration complex is constantly tripping him up. Once, while on the trail of a gang, he was trapped by the sinister villainess Princess Python. “What am I going to do?” he murmured desperately as she caressed his neck. “I can’t hit a girl.” Her presence had evaporated his web­shooting apparatus.

Another time, while standing on a roof surrounded on all sides by phallic-looking skyscraper towers, he began thinking about his Uncle Ben and became so consumed with guilt that he lost his spider-powers entirely. As he crawled home, thinking that now he could devote himself entirely to his Aunt May (toward whom guilt has made him more sub­missive than ever), he received word that Aunt May had been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Octopus. Eventually the need to act brought back his powers, for Spiderman is nothing if not a functioning neurotic.

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Needed Care

Spiderman’s most significant adventure took place when J. Jonah Jamison began writing articles about the hero’s mental instability. A psychiatrist had told Jamison that Spidey needed immediate psychiatric care, and Spiderman became so worried by this that he went to the doctor for help. The psychiatrist was finally unmasked as the villain Mysterio, who had been trying to flip Spidey out by pasting his office furniture onto the ceiling and convincing the tormented superhero that he was hallucinating. So Spiderman escaped with his interior defenses intact (a psychiatrist can be the functioning neurotic’s greatest enemy after all) only to fall, in the next issue, into the arms of a robot controlled by J. Jonah.

Spiderman, unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support. Even the public which cries up his victories invariably deserts him in the clinches. Spiderman is, God save us, an absurd hero, fighting with purely defensive weapons against foes he cannot understand. And, in last month’s issue, he was finally sabotaged at home: Aunt May burned his Spiderman costume so that he is now unable to venture out of doors.

How can a character as hope­lessly healthy as Superman com­pete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neu­rotic’s neurotic, Spiderman, the super-anti-hero of our time.


An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones

The Press of Freedom: An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones
March 4, 1965

Four men — each a well-known practitioner of one of the arts — appeared on a recent Monday night in the small basement room of the Village Vanguard to address an overflowing crowd on the grandly entitled subject “Art vs. Politics.” The men were Larry Rivers, painter; Archie Shepp, musician; Jonas Mekas, film-maker; LeRoi Jones, play­wright. The audience was predominantly — predictably — white, liberal, middle-class. They had come to be entertained and instructed. They stayed to be­come serious or delighted. They left in a roar of confused frus­tration, feeling as though they had, with unexpected stunning, been dealt a kick in the stomach and a few swift blows to the side of the head. For LeRoi Jones and Archie Shepp, whose evening it was, had told them repeatedly, “Die baby. The only thing you can do for me is die.”

It is almost impossible for me to train total recall on a con­versation which developed with the bewildering speed of a bar­room brawl. But here’s the gist of it:

Larry Rivers led off, reading from a prepared statement. Speaking of the artist’s relation to his audience, Mr. Rivers traced that changing phenomenon through Courbet, the Im­pressionists, the Futurists, the Surrealists, coming at last to the present time, in which, he concluded, the artist is his own audience; this not merely in the sense that a painter works for himself, but in the broader sense that in our time the art­ist’s greatest urge is to emphasize the similarity between his own fundamental desires and those of every other member of society. He put it something like this: I want to eat good, fuck good, work good … just like everybody else.

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Uneasy Stir

Archie Shepp, the next speaker, gaped for a moment at Ri­vers, seemed a bit nonplussed, muttered something about “Art, art. What the hell is all this talk about art?” and, with a shrug of the shoulders, launched into a comparatively mild ram­ble about a book he’d been reading the other night which described the first passage of slaves to this continent, a passage in which two-thirds of those slaves had died in the hold — and if this (Shepp’s) life and work didn’t represent an attempt to pay the homage of eternal remembrance to those two-thirds, well then … He ended by looking out at the au­dience and telling them that while he didn’t particularly want to put them down for the ofays they obviously were, still they couldn’t hope to understand what he was talking about.

Rivers’ head went back; the audience stirred uneasily (what was this? they were here as partisans — was this how you talked to partisans?); LeRoi Jones laughed softly and said “Take it easy, Archie. We’ve got all evening.” (The man is a veritable prophet.)

Mekas then struggled through a vague and rather incoherent speech (unfortunately because I suspect his point was, ultimately, the most worldly of them all) about how the experiences of wartime Europe had led him finally to understand that man’s only valuable occupation was his struggle to fashion for himself a more beautiful soul.

Theatre of Victims

Then Jones took the stand. He read a piece entitled “The Re­volutionary Theatre” (a piece, he informed the audience, which had been commissioned by the New York Times and then re­fused). In language of  poetic and highly imaginative insistence Jones claimed that it was the business of the theatre to reflect life … to stir up such hatred and such feeling that when the curtain comes down the theatre seats are soaked in the blood of split heads (needless to point out whose blood and whose split heads). This, he maintained, is a theatre of victims; by Western standards (sneer) perhaps a theatre of heroes … but victims all the same. He went on to quote the famous Oxford professor Wittgenstein as having said: “Ethics is aesthetics” and to point out that the white world has never understood or accepted this pro­position, intimating that the new Negro artist does understand it and will make damn sure that the whites do before they die.

In the long give-and-take (to be generous about it) that then ensued among the panelists, the dominance beat was one of unflagging insult from Shepp and Jones to the audience, the city, the country, the world — that is, to that section of it which was white, pure white. Nor did the other (white) panelists get off the hook. Mekas, who had been describing an interview between himself and Jack Smith and Mike Wallace, was suddenly asked by Jones: “Tell me, of you can, what is the difference be­tween Jack Smith and Mike Wallace.” To which Mekas had enough humorous composure to reply: “Mike Wallace would never be interviewed by Jack Smith.”

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The Different

But it was Larry Rivers who bore the brunt of the assault:

Shepp would turn to Rivers every now and then and say: “Man, you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.” And then: “They hire YOU at the Five Spot; they don’t hire me; that’s the whole difference, right there.” And then: “How do you feel about that? I know how I feel. How do you feel? What would you lay your ass on the line for? Nothing! That’s what. Or you? (To the audience, now.) You wouldn’t lay your asses on the line for shit!”

Jones told Rivers he was the exponent par excellence of the middle-class white world: “You aspire to the society of those faggoty uptown art dealers. You paint for them … ”

A round of protesting noises now went up from the audience. “What are you talking about?” cried a woman.

Shepp spoke with elaborate disdain or open anger of the pain with which he lived every day of his Negro life. Finally, in an eloquent outburst, he spoke of James Chaney, the young Negro who was murdered last summer In Mississippi:

“They beat him until unrecognizable. Unrecognizable! They only KILLED Schwerner and Goodman, but they beat Chaney to a pulp. They beat the humanity out of that boy. And in that act, in that heinous crime, in that unspeakable crime they accepted Schwerner  and Goodman and refused me. Even in death they are embraced and I am refused. Even in death America accepts its own. You” — he swung on the audience —  “you accept your own —and refuse me. And in that fact lies my pain.”

A boy in the audience, agitated now beyond endurance, jumped up and screamed, “Oh shit!”

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‘World ot Pain’ 

Shepp turned a glance of loathing on the boy. “Oh man,” he sighed,  “sit down. Just sit down. You hear that?” he ask­ed the audience, ”you hear that? Between me and that ‘Oh shit’ is a world of pain.”

“Oh shit, baby,” the boy screamed again. “I’ve been up tight for a year because of you!”

“Man,” said Shepp, “I don’t want to hear your life story. Will you listen to that? We’re getting a confession here.”

Then LeRoi Jones made a re­mark of stunning contempt. “His life story?” he sneered. “Why, you can turn on the TV set and get it any day of the week on ‘The Guiding Light.’ ”

From that instant it was cry­stal clear that the night be­longed to Jones — and had from the very beginning. (One had the feeling that Shepp had been tak­ing cues all along.) His anta­gonists multiplied by the min­ute … and, with incredible ease, he swung like a beam of light from one to another; his retorts came with deadly speed and precision; it was no sweat for him, no sweat at all, because it was abundantly clear that there were no separate faces in that audience for him. (For when it suits his purpose, Jones produces in his mind a vision of the “homogeneous American soul,” a soul whose only relevance consists in the fact that it dwells in a white skin.) The distinctions of age, sex, background, occupation were as though they never existed. Jones was talking to The Man and only The Man.

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What to Do

A small, round, bespectacled man, shaken with emotion, rose: “As a Jew and as a white man, I hear you.” (“Could you pos­sibly hear me in any other way?” interjected Jones.) “You say we are all guilty. What do you want us to do? What on earth do you want us to do?”

“Do, man? Do? There’s noth­ing you can do!” The malicious pleasure in his voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.

A woman with a contorted face and an eerie fluff of sil­ver-blonde hair shrieked: “What about Schwerner and Goodman? Don’t you care about them?”

“Absolutely not,” rapped out Jones. “Those boys were just artifacts, artifacts, man. They weren’t real. If they want to assuage their leaking consci­ences that’s their business. I won’t mourn them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

A civil rights worker, his eyes popping behind his glasses, yelled: “These are not the facts! Maybe we are guilty be­cause we’re white. But God­dammit, we’re not all equally guilty. Some are more guilty than others.”

“Sort of like being ‘almost pregnant,’ Isn’t it?” laughed Jones.

A Women Strike for Peace type lady called out: “This af­ternoon 400 people marched on the U.N. to protest the bomb­ing in Vietnam. There wasn’t one Negro among them.”

“Why didn’t you send buses down to the garment district to collect some Negroes if you wanted to be all nice and representative? I mean, man, man, when were you marching? At three in the afternoon?” An answer for all eventualities.

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Clowns and Gorillas

A roar of anger began to fill the place; out of it Jones was suddenly saying: “You’ve all elected a Texas cracker to represent you, all of you!”

A sandy-haired man dressed in denims jumped to his feet. “Now that got to me,” he said in a soft Southern voice. He be­gan a rambling retort on the variety of pains to be suffered in this world, blurting out: “Man, I’ve paid my dues. And you know it, LeRoi.”

No-mercy Jones, a little tired now: “So you’ve been in jail and you write your confessions for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“I don’t write for the Satur­day Evening Post!” the blue-­jeaned man cried. “Just ’cause they buy it, don’t mean I write for ’em. I write for people … ” (Thus is passion seduced by farce.)

Casting a cold eye on the increasingly infuriated audience, Shepp said (straight into the mike): “Look at them. The clowns who come to throw peanuts at the gorillas. Only in this case it’s gorillas throwing peanuts at humans.”

Well, why go on with this? By now the direction of all this was obvious. By the end of the evening the audience was reduced to a screaming plead­ing, degraded, bewildered mob: Jones goal from the very beginning, of course.

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LeROI JONES LOOKS into my ofay face with cold steady eyes and in a soft, seductively rea­sonable voice accuses me:

  • You can never — but NEVER — understand the nature of my pain. To wake up in my skin, fall asleep in my skin, and live all the hours in between in my skin — this you can never know. There is nothing on earth you will ever experience that will give you the remotest clue to my life …
  • All whites are equally guilty — ALL — of the unforgivable crime of attempting to destroy my humanity.
  • The world under white au­thority has become a disgust­ing place: weak, shallow, cow­ardly. When we Negroes are in command things will be differ­ent. Your sins, your failings, your mistakes will be unknown among us; we will prove to be a better people.

As to the veracity of the first accusation: who is there to say him nay? Certainly not I. His pain, he claims, is relevant, and mine is not. I believe him. I believe every word of it. His ex­perience will remain forever foreign to me. This too I believe. Every now and then one looks into a man’s face or overhears an exchange or reads a page of print or sees a photograph and for one hideous instant there is revelation: blind, wordless, over­whelming. You stumble in your tracks, you have difficulty breathing, there is a terrible pressure in your head. That is the most, I think, that we who pass for white can ever know. That is the closest I can get to realizing the words of a young Negro woman I once knew — the intelligent, restrained, pro­foundly bourgeois daughter of a Harlem doctor — when she said, in an unbearable moment: “There are mornings when I get up and walk out in the street wishing I had a rifle with which to mow down every white face I see.”

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Lines Broken

As to the second accusation: where does one begin — in the name of reason and justice — to unravel the half-truths and the painful falsehoods? Now­here. Here the lines of communication are entirely broken down. Thus every white works now (in or out of the civil rights movement) on the side of the Negro does so in the knowledge that he is committing an act of conscience, an act which is essentially lonely and which to a large extent is unwelcome, unrewarded, unremarked. And rightfully so. The Negroes who tell us: “You’re doing this for yourself, baby, not for me,” are right. Or at least they should be. So now, in America, white men of conscience find themselves in the same ironic position that the Russian Jews who fought in that remote Revolution found themselves in. Anyone with half a brain could see that in anti-Semitic Russia, comes the revolution, the first ones to be purged as counter-revolutionaries would be the Bolshevik Jews … and sure enough. But what choice did those Jews have? By the same token, many white men know now that when the barricades are thrown up in the streets of this country, they will have no choice as to the side they find themselves on, even though comes the revolution, they too will probably be in the first purge.

In Jones’s eye there is blood and in his system a raging bile. The burning sword at his side (or is it the hatchet inside his breast pocket to which he continually and ominously alludes?) is his blanket indictment of white America. For him now there is only passion … which is not always the same as truth. His effectiveness as a revolutionary lies in the emotional power with which he seeks to wrest his humanity from his oppressors by in turn denying them — every last one of them — their humanity. From this wretched vantage point in these bloody terms, I supposed we ARE all guilty. Who is there to give the final judgement?

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Naive Belief

It is to the third accusation that I most strenuously address myself — this utterly wrong-headed insistence that when the Negro’s turn comes to rule, he will do things differently. Under his authority the precious fluid of the human spirit contained in a chalice broken in white hands will be scooped up and treasured as the white world never knew how to treasure it. In the lifetime of Negro authority a particular level of spiritual decrepitude, moral rot, and demeaning weakness will vanish. The human race will develop a lovelier form, occupy a handsomer skin. The Negro will, once and for all, show the white world how a man can and ought to live.

This entire speculation turns on the incredibly naive belief that suffering has ennobled the Negro, that his pain will continue to exert an influence over him even long after it has passed from his life.

What rubbish! The sad, sad point about suffering is that there is no point at all. The lesson to be learned is that there is no lesson. It is simply a fact of life which has no after-life. While it endures it is the entire universe. On the very instant that pain ceases, the process of forgetfulness already begins. (And this is an element of white experience that no Negro can comprehend for the simple reason that while a man is suffering, he is unable to en­vision a time when it will have no meaning for him.) The scars begin to fade, the memories be­gin to dull, the relaxed hand can hardly remember the shape of the clenched fist. If there is any single great lesson to be learned from the 20th century it is this lonely and barbarous fact (witness “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), which is at once the salvation and the irony  of our lives. If we retained the memory sharp and clear of every  wound ever inflicted on us, we surely could not survive; and the fact that we do not remember our wounds makes or our lives a primitive and unexalted thing. For all men in all conditions at all times this has been true. It is therefore hardly likely that it will be less true for the Amer­ican Negro. When it’s all over but the shouting, the American Negro will lose along with his soul-destroying fury the memory of that fury; his spirit, in time (in a generation, in two generations,) will become as flimsy and as shapeless and  as impoverished as the spirit of that decadent white bourgeoisie he now so comfortably despises.

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‘Starting Point’

Poverty of the spirit has nothing whatever to do with the life of a race. It has to do with the seduc­tion of men’s souls at the hands of that prosperity. For men do not thrive on the good life; they are, rather, atrophied by it. Thus very few men are in possession of the middle-class life; mainly they are possessed by it. And for the most part there is no escaping it. For the point is not so much that the nation has aspired to the middle-class life, but rather that, in the absence of certain specific tensions, it has acquired it. Without war, without depression, without foreign troops in occupation, without social oppres­sion, without combat with the elements … what is one left with? One is left with what nine­-tenths of the world spends its life fighting for: freedom from want, the so-called starting point of life. But freedom from want is not enough. Not enough? It doesn’t even come anywhere near the mark. The demons are still with us, in fact they loom larger than ever, and oddly enough, they even get harder and harder to identify. Thus freedom has become a desperate affair. Freedom from what? Toward what? FOR what? Very few men have the talent or the imagina­tion to know what to do with themselves once they have achieved the good life. They never did have it — in no class and during no age. In some remote and distant time (say, 50 years ago?) there did exist a belief in a unifying structure of principle, a perception of contin­uity, a conviction that he lived at the center of his universe, which allowed a man to live out his life relatively unshaken in his faith in the validity of the pursuit of life. In our time those principles have been shattered, and we have been left with nothing — nothing but the rotten hoax of he good life and the contemplation of futility. And so in the Land of Peace where the Meaningless is King, there exists an insatiable hunger, an unfillable emptiness, a numbing aimlessness — in response to which we open more supermarkets and more psychoanalysts’ offices. In a frenzy we seek the orgy of accumulation: the accumulation of more goods, more personal loyal­ties, more uncommitted opinions. The result, of course, intolerable isolation, so that instead of being the master of his split-level dovecot, a man finds himself wandering about its rooms as though under house arrest. And still he will not open his doors to strangers …

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There is no one in this country who understands the meaning of this condition better than the American ex-radical. What des­troyed him was his insight into the paltriness of the political vision, that long look down the road to Utopia which told him suddenly that the enemy was inside us, not outside us. The passion of the American radical was certainly as whole-souled (and as naive) as that of the Negro revolutionist, and the loss of that passion drove half of them into existentialism and made of the other half gibbering idiots, men terrified of the void, who — in the most literal sense of that word — copped out after 1938 by simply refusing to take further note of the world’s changing knowledge.

It is one of the bitterest ironies of our life that the tension that keeps men alive in their nerve­-endings and equipped with a sense of urgency is the tension of deprivation. And deprivation is what — with an imperative need  — we work to rid ourselves of. Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer have both written with understanding about the first half of this proposition. It is on the second half that they screwed up. To romanticize oppression in order to stimulate waning passions is a disgusting perversion, and the yearnings of these two finely confused men for the Ne­gro’s life-sense (knowing it is based on his unspeakable condition) are on a parallel with the Japanese tale of the businessman who encouraged an affair between his wife and a young doctor and then spied on them while they were making love in order to awaken his own failing sex­uality. It was with obvious truth and in perfect justice that James Baldwin declared that should Kerouac or Mailer get up on the stage of the Apollo Theatre and recite one of  their white Negro hymns, they would be stoned to death. If there is justification on any level for the Negro’s contempt for the white liberal, it is certainly on this one. Norman Mailer sitting in his Columbia Heights mansion, drawing thousands in royalties, complaining of his lost appetites … Christ!

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Rewards and Payments 

The point is that this is what we are stuck with. The rewards and the exacted payments of Western culture are the accumu­lation of goods and the existen­tialist’s sense of loss. “Western culture!” LeRoi Jones sneered the other night. But it’s ridiculous. After all, who the hell does the man think he is? He’s not a Chinese communist or an African soldier or a Hindu religious. He is a Western man, and the shape of his anguish and of his longings has been determined by Western culture. When he says he wants his, what he means is that he wants his share of this life — and no other. And he will reap the rewards and the losses of this life just as every other American has. For Negroes are, indeed, men like all other men, which means that for the most part they are weak and greedy and anxious, of limited imagination and hopeless mediocre ambition. While suffering depresses their spirits and causes rage to flare up in them, it is true that their sensibilities are dipped in fire. But when that suffering ceases (and as sure as the sky is blue and the grass is green, it will cease), the fire will die down, the holocaust will pass, its former existence will be marked only by ashes which eventually will be kicked into oblivion … and Negroes will live exactly — but exactly — the same lives as every other American now lives.

In answer to all of which LeRoi Jones will beyond a doubt reply: “Yeah, baby. But I want my chance. My time is coming, and I want my chance. You dig?”

I dig. And he will get his chance. He’ll get more than that, he’ll get everything he is now straining for. And then he will live, to his everlasting sorrow, to look up one day, aged 75, at his grown grandchildren, leading utterly ordinary lives — absorbed in taking Johnnie to the dentist and not opening the door at night to strangers and telling a psychoanalyst once a week, “Doctor, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. No matter what I do I have this strange feeling of emptiness … ” — and, remembering these draining days, he will say (as OUR revolutionary grandfathers have said to US): “Is this all? Is this what it was all about?” And his grandchildren will answer, with affection and mild irritation, “Oh, for good­ness sake, Grandpa! This is 2005, not 1965. All that stuff is over and done with!”

Like the man said: “That’s the way it is, man. That’s the way it really is.”


Burying Malcolm X

Burying Malcolm X

March 4, 1965

By Marlene Nadle

It was a strange funeral on Saturday. At Faith Temple, Church of God in Christ, the altar was decorated with policemen. In a bronze coffin El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, wrapped in the white linen of Moslem ritual, rested beneath two giant murals of Jesus Christ.

The funeral of the man known as Malcolm X was a blend of Islamic faith and Christian custom. The priest wore the brown robes and white turban of the Middle East; the widow the black veiling and clothes of western tradition. Flowers are not part of a Moslem’s funeral. Yet Betty Shabazz sent flowers to her husband. Embossed on the five-by-two-foot bank of red carnations was the Star and Crescent of Islam.

Death for a Moslem is supposed to be a private matter. There is not supposed to be any public exhibition of the body, which must not be kept from the grave beyond two sunsets. Yet they kept Malcolm’s body for a full week, and 30,000 people visited Unity Funeral Home and another 3000 came to the church trying to hold onto the part of them that had died.

For Malcolm had been the spokesman for that part of all blacks that is in constant rage at their life in the land of the rich and the home of the righteous.

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Hiding Tears

Eulogies for Malcolm were heard on every corner of Harlem. But the ones delivered at the funeral were out of order. Nothing is supposed to be done during an Islamic service to create emotion or a sense of bereavement. Nothing had to be done. Even before the service began, a strapping young man sat with his hand over his eyes feigning sleep to hide his tears. An old woman wearing a white crocheted scarf over a jockey cap sat with her mittens clutched in hands wrinkled and worn with scrubbing other people’s floors. Asked what she thought of Malcolm, she said, “I love him.”

At the front of the church Ossie Davis, in a voice that kept cracking, began the first part of the service. “Malcolm was our manhood,” he said. And the people in the pews shouted, “That’s right!”

“They will tell us to write him out of history. They will ask what Harlem finds to honor. And we will smile.

“They will tell us he was a fanatic. And we will ask, ‘Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm?’

“They will tell us that he was full of hate. And we will say, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’.”

The people in the pews shouted, “That’s right!”

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Other Speakers

Ahmed Ossman, head of the Islamic Center in Switzerland, said that he was shocked by the remarks of Carl Rowan, the Negro director of he United States Information Agency. Rowan had said that the African press was mistaken in interpret­ing the death of Malcolm X as the death of a hero. He charged Malcolm wilh preaching separa­tion and black supremacy. Ossman fervantly declared that Malcolm had abjured all racism after making his pilgrimage to Mecca. The mention of Rowan’s name set off a low rumble. Some ­people hissed.

Finally the speeches were over. The second half of the service was conducted by an Islamic priest. There were four takbeers, or prayers. When the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the Most Great”) was uttered the Moslems — perhaps 50 — placed their hands open at the side of their faces.

Close friends and Malcolm’s half-sister filed past the coffin. They struggled to maintain the dignity and restraint required by the occasion.

When Betty Shabazz, pregnant with her fifth child, stood before her husband, she bit her lip in a fight to control herself. Then she broke. Weeping, she pressed her lips against the glass shield that divided her from his body.

The crowd broke with her, and a moan went up. There was a shriek from a woman in the first row.

The coffin was carried down the left aisle. People reached out.

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‘Making It Worse”

One woman following behind the coffin began to scream “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” A younger woman put her hand on the other woman’s mouth and walked her out, saying “Stop, Mamma! Stop! You’re only making it worse.”

The coffin went on to a silver-blue hearse. Policemen stared down from the rooftops. The 50-car funeral procession left for Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.

But the people wouldn’t go home. They tried to get back into the church to get a prayer book. To get a flower. To get something they could hold on to. Eventually the crowd thinned A small cluster of women remained on the sidewalk in front of the church. There was one, a big woman in a black kerchief, who cried as she talked. When she saw a reporter trying to take down the conversation, she turned to her companions and said, “Stop talking. Don’t say anything. They always take words and twist them. That’s what they did with Malcolm.”

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‘Opened My Eyes’

Then, turning on the reporter she said, “That man didn’t teach violence like the papers all say. He taught me about myself. He taught me I was more than a Little Black Sambo or Kinky Hair or nigger.

“They called us junkies and drunks. And I was ashamed. He opened my eyes. He made me see who was bringing all the dope to Harlem. Who was opening all the liquor stores. Black men don’t have that kind of money.”

As the woman named Doris talked, she continued to cry. And as she cried the crowd gathered. Turning to the reporter she asked, “If I slapped your face, what would your normal reaction be?”

“To hit back,” said the reporter.

“Well, that’s what Malcolm told us to do. To defend ourselves. Yet all the papers keep talking about is his violence. It make me sick.”

“Sure,” said a young college student, “they just love him now — the liberal columnists — now that he’s dead. It’s like Kennedy and business. They heaped all kinds of praise on him after he was no longer a threat to their establishment.”

Then a woman wearing a leopard print turban and stole and dancing silver earrings introduced herself as Audley Moore. “I’m 66 years old,” she said. “I was one of Marcus Garvey’s people. I’ve been work­ing in Harlem now for over 40 years. I sat at the feet of Mary Bethune and other leaders trying to learn how to help our people. I fought to get Negro history taught in schools in 1934. I wasn’t a follower of Malcolm X, I was his mother.

“He used to call me his Queen Mother. And I would say to him, ‘Now, Malcolm, honey, why do you have to rob Africa? We are African-Americans, not Afros. How come France produces Frenchmen? And Italy produces Italians? But Africa can only hatch Negroes and Afros?’

“Why, being an Afro is almost as bad as being a Negro. It almost puts us in the same class as that man Rowan. Now, he is a Negro! A real U.S. made and manufactured Negro!

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“The Only Law”

Miss Moore and the people in the crowd began to talk about building a monument to Malcolm X. A Harlem young man walking by in Nigerian dress stopped, raised his stick, and shouted, “Don’t spend money on statues, spend it on guns!”

“What’s wrong with these?” said another young man, raising his fists.

“The only law that exists out there is the law of the gun,” answered the man dressed in Nigerian clothes.

“I don’t believe in turning the other cheek,” said Miss Moore. “But it’s stupid to use guns when they have the Army, the Navy, and the Marines.”

The talk about Malcolm caused Miss Monroe’s sister to suggest that gas be put in the car and everyone go to see Malcolm’s grave. Many people wanted to go. But the seven who finally wound up in the car were a physician from the West Indies, a collector of materials for the African-American Historical Association, a teenager in a plain beret, Miss Moore in her imposing leopard-skin turban, her sister, Doris, and the reporter whose presence had originally brought the crowd together.

A half-hour later the group stood beside the grave of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. They made impromptu pledges to unity and the struggle for freedom. They each took a leaf from the grave. And made promises to meet again.