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Black Music: Bringing Atlantis Up to the Top

Black Music: A Special Section

…the rhythm is so hip that it can comple­ment all that intellectual shit that’s been going on, which is cool to a point. 
—George Clinton to Chip Stern

One of the great problems of the develop­ment of jazz over the last 20 years is that the aesthetic battles engendered by the innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and John Coltrane took place in a community that was far removed from the sources of the music. In Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, musicians played for people whose only contact with the rich layers of African-­American culture that the music so often symbolized was through the proxy of bohe­mian social life and interracial romance. As a result, the music frequently sounded very European despite the proclamations about its blackness: The dance rhythms and the ten­sions of syncopation against a pulse were deemphasized; limited tonal vocabularies were often employed; and an abundance of absolute fakes, or players of small talent and much con, justified their ramblings with a fraudulent and pretentious mysticism (if one played as horribly as some of those men did, one should have been praying all the time — ­for talent if nothing else). Under the pres­sures of rejection and hostility a few very good players made use of inept or ignorant musicians, dismissing craft and knowledge as too restricting. Even Coleman, Coltrane, and Taylor sometimes hired musicians who were “avant-garde” only because they could not fulfill the technical requirements of any other jazz style.

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Yet at the same time there was an incred­ible confusion over the nature of the black identity. It infested art as well as politics and resulted in a great deal of rather simplistic and ludicrous ancestor worship, intellectual irresponsibility, primitive mask-wearing, and counterfeit militancy that frequently had more to do with renegade dilettante romance than more fascinating combinations of notes, sounds, colors, and rhythms. It proved once again that there is some sort of pendulum within the black arts community that swings back and forth between intellectual ambition and the rejection of intellect in favor of a willed savagery. Of course, as with Duke Ell­ington, an unpretentious melding of the two would not only be ideal aesthetically but would probably achieve what the most intel­ligent of 20th-century people are trying to do: Combine intellect with emotional, spirit­ual, and physical vitality.

The upshot of the confusion, however, was a scorning of intellect in favor of “energy” and a narrowing of stylistic possibilities that resulted from rejecting tempo, meter, har­mony, intonation, repeating form as symbol­ized by the chorus, and even swing as “European.” Consequently, some very talented players were caught saying things as stupid as “You’ll never play bebop better than Bird so why try? Do something new.” At one point, genuine artists such as Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp were considered old hat or reactionary because they swung, were lyrical, or reminded one of the richness and breadth of the tradition. Not only had the baby been thrown out with the bath water but the tub as well. Thus, the avant-garde received an audi­ence only in Lower Manhattan and Europe. Coltrane alone led a band at the Apollo.

Coltrane had a black following while most of the avant-garde didn’t because Elvin Jones had orchestrated the triplet blues beat into a sophisticated style that pivoted on the boody­-butt sway of black dance. In tandem, Col­trane and Jones created a saxophone and drum team that reached way back to the sax­ophone of the sanctified church shouting over the clicking of those sisters’ heels on the floor and the jingling, slapping pulsation of tambourines. The sound was lifted even higher by the antiphonal chants of the piano and bass played by McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, whose percussive phrasing helped extend Jones’s drumming into tonal areas. In fact, one could say that both Coltrane and Coleman were the most sophisticated of blues shouters. Yet Coltrane’s fascination with African music gave him an edge, for he was to discover in his own way the relationship between harmonic simplicity and rhythmic complexity held together by repeated figures played on the bass and piano. In fact, one could say that the actual time or the central pulsation was marked by the piano and bass while the complex variations were made by saxophone and drums.

What made Coltrane’s conception so significant was that it coincided with the interest in African or African-related dance rhythms and percussion that has been re­vived at the end of each decade for the last 40 years. One saxophone player even told me that the first time he heard Coltrane, around 1961, he thought that a new kind of Latin jazz was being invented. I recall, too, that during those high school years the mambo and the cha-cha were gauntlets of elegance. Norman Whitfield’s writing at Motown for the Temptations and Marvin Gaye leaned on congas and bongos, and the dance power of the drums came to the fore, sometimes light­ly and elegantly, as in the bossa nova. The very nature of most black African music, which is layers of rhythm in timbral and me­lodic counterpoint, and the exploration of the blues were the sources of the dominant aes­thetic directions in jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock. For the jazz players those reinvestigations of roots called for the kinds of virtuosity developed by Elvin Jones and Tony Williams if another level of polyrhythm was to be achieved; James Brown’s big band, while alluding to Gillespie and Basie, evolved a style in which guitars became percussive to­nal instruments staggered against chanting bass lines, two drummers, and arrangements that were riffish, percussive, antiphonal; rock players began to investigate the electronic textures and contrapuntal possibilities of Point overdubbing.

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Point of fact: all of the musics became more complex in one way or another. And they all influenced each other in one way or another. Percussion, multi-layered struc­tures, modality, social consciousness, and mysticism traveled through them all.

But with the death of Coltrane in 1967 and the media dominance of rock, the new jazz began to receive less and less attention. Jazz itself seemed to exist outside the huge dance-­oriented rituals such as Woodstock or the concerts and dances given by men like James Brown. Almost comically in tune with the times, Brown flipped over from “America is my home,” which has one of the great lines — “I got a jet!” — to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Militancy to dance by.

What was so important about Brown, however, was he had the best band in rhythm and blues and he could out-dance everybody. He had the kind of performance power men like Mick Jagger were looking for, but it never seemed to fall into hysteria or the stiffness blacks associate with white dancers. Yet the way white people were singing and dancing seemed to say more about their actual ambitions than much of the nationalistic political talk in the black community. That is to say, I believe Mick Jagger and all those others wanted much more to enter the world of pul­sating grace and erotic elegance they recog­nized in black music and dance than black people of the same generation actually want­ed to be Africans. Today black people are back to trying to make their way into America. Mick Jagger is still coon-shouting and -­shaking. And if John Travolta, who was laughed at in Saturday Night Fever by many black dancers I know, is not a body snatcher, what is he? Did America ever see Soul Train?

Younger black people in pursuit of identi­ties separate from those of both mainstream and alternate-culture America rejected traditional figures such as B.B. King, Howling Wolf, and others because they felt those mu­sicians had been taken over by hippies, whom they found crude, lame, bizarre, and nasty. It was also true that Chuck Berry’s rhythm was outdated for black dancing — the dominant beats were those of Motown, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sly Stone. Aretha Franklin reinvented the gospel beat for popular music as Ray Charles had earlier. The phrasing of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Ro­binson, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, the Impressions, the Temptations, and Dionne Warwick was much more supple than that of the rock singers, suggesting the influence of jazz in the ways they soared through or syn­copated the time.

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Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix became the gods of the black drug culture, which attracted black people who were — unlike sanctimonious nationalists — social adventurers, traveling from white to black circles, learning the language of the psychedelic world and transforming it for their own ends, keeping up with the dances and music of rhythm and blues while embracing the intellectual context of rock musicians’ experiments with electronics. Stone and Hendrix muscled in on that, Stone anchoring himself in the musi­cal blueprints of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo albums and Hendrix in the innate avant-garde high-handedness of the blues guitar tradition, folk to urban. Both worked with an audacity like that of Muhammad Ali or the basketball players who were using “the hang” and turning the game into a high-­speed and illusive African-American dance. For the blacks within the drug culture Hen­drix not only avoided much of the clunkiness of rock but seemed to have conquered the form. “Jimi’s out there castrating those acid­-head white boys,” they used to say. When he died, some told me, “I bet all them white boys — Jagger, Eric Burdon, and the rest of them — are glad he’s dead. It’s like this: the kinds of white boys who get over with white girls because they remind them of nigguhs without the nappy hair and the big lips, they get nervous when the real thing comes around.”

Around that time legend had it that the Funkadelics came on stage naked at Mave­rick’s Flat in Los Angeles. Things were get­ting even looser than Hendrix had set up. Yet, there had been important rumblings in the jazz world as well. Most obvious was Ornette Coleman’s performance at Town Hall in De­cember of 1962, when he combined his regular trio with r&b players for a piece entitled “Blues Misused.” It was recorded, but never released. I have heard it. It predicts the fu­sion era in no uncertain terms. 1962. In 1967, Archie Shepp recorded Mama Too Tight, which was a bow to James Brown, just as Brown’s Super Bad included a tenor saxo­phone solo that seemed a bow to Albert Ay­ler, if not Coltrane.

Then Miles Davis stepped into the game. I consider Filles de Kilamanjaro his last totally masterful recording and “Mademoiselle Mabry,” which is included in the album, an absolute innovation in jazz rhythm that stands alone and has yet to be investigated. It was recorded in 1968, apparently. But, of course, Bitches Brew was his blockbuster and the record that unarguably announced the beginning of an enduring trend. The record never really gassed me, but I found the music on At Fillmore fascinating for it was often phrased with such angularity, suspense, gloom, and wit that it made me think of how Thelonious Monk might have played funk. In retrospect, it was obviously funk not rock, that Miles Davis was scuffling with there.

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Most of all, it is clear now that Davis had deemphasized complex melody and harmony in favor of percussion and sound. Almost every piece from those years was too long for my taste, and was usually rough, sometimes brilliant, off-handed, and sloppy at the same time. Still, the sitars, tablas, conga drums, Fender basses, electric keyboards, reeds, and trumpet (first acoustic then electric) came together in very original ways. By the early ’70s, Davis had recreated in jazz-funk lan­guage an African percussion ensemble fleshed out with electric instruments. The master drummer in the African ensemble sig­nals the end of a section and cues the players to change up gears and directions; Davis sig­nals either with his horn or with his raised and lowered arm. (James Brown uses verbal cues.) In Concert is an example, though it is so poorly recorded that the colors Davis was trying to develop don’t come through with clarity.

Since Davis began his experiments, jazz musicians have recorded a great deal of music which has been called crossover, fusion, jazz­rock, and what have you. Most of it is, to my ears, garbage. Not because crossing idioms is a bad idea, but because so few of the players believe in the music, and because, as Herbie Hancock once pointed out, many jazz players have problems playing the more intricate funk rhythms and phrases with any imagination or subtlety. R&b musicians like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, on the other hand, have done very well with influences from jazz (e.g., the bridge of Wonder’s “Too High” comes from the piano vamp of Duke Ellington’s “Purple Gazelle”).

Nevertheless, there is now a search for a combination of the sophistication of jazz and the fluidity of the polyrhythms that have developed within the black dance world over the last 15 years, or at least since James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” But we are also in a period of percussion fever. Drums are everywhere and dancers are doing things with the individual parts of the arrangements, not just dancing to the obvious accents, which makes for an extremely intricate array of styles. There is also a reaction against the pretentiously intellectual directions certain wings of the jazz avant-garde have taken recently. Also, more and more jazzmen are beginning to feel as though they are segregated from the black community. The bridge could be dance rhythm.

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George Clinton is the man many younger jazz players are listening to now, and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is often discussed. Clinton is the Sun Ra of funk; his work exemplifies Miles Davis’s observation that things are now so slick an artist can play the entire music of the last decade in a few phrases. In other words, whole worlds of as­sociation can be summoned with the appropriately chosen notes. In a Parliament selec­tion, for instance, Sly Stone will be suggested in one phrase, Marvin Gaye in another; a flash of harmony will recall the Impressions, just as a few grunts on “Anger,” (Here, My Dear) will reinvent in one’s mind the entire arrangement of Sam Cook’s “Chain Gang.” It seems as though the comprehensiveness one hears in the music of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, the AACM, and Arthur Blythe is now coming into r&b.

What seems to be about to happen is what LeRoi Jones called Unity Music in 1966. It will include the entire range of black music, maybe in one long performance, but pivoting on the drums. Jerome Cooper has developed a totally original style of solo percussion that includes simultaneous use of trap drum set, African balafon, and a double-reed Mexican wind instrument. He writes compositions that are the blues and funk another way. In fact, I believe that when Clinton gets wind of Cooper he might use him. Someone will. Ju­lius Hemphill has often worked with those rhythms; “Skin 2” on Coon Bidness and the monumental Dogon A.D. (both on Arista) show more than a little potential. James “Blood” Ulmer has not only created the most original guitar style and system since Wes Montgomery but is now getting ready to ex­tend the possibilities of funk. After having conquered the European orchestra on his own terms, Ornette Coleman is now trying to foment revolution in the world of dance rhythms; Dancing in Your Head and Body Meta show that he is right around the corner from the world George Clinton’s music is implying. David Murray has written a few songs that have the touch of popular hits and his background in funk gives, him command of the idiomatic nuances of the style.

None of this is to say that everybody in jazz will go over to funk, but I do believe that the way in which Marvin Gaye organized rhythms on Here, My Dear‘s “Time To Get It Together” shows that certain r&b musicians have been much more successful than many jazz players in organizing multiple rhythms that sustain the dance groove and the uses of drums, not only for rhythms but colors and contrasting lines, is the key to what is going on now. And wasn’t Charles Mingus’s last great com­position entitled Cumbia and Jazz Fusion?

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The reluctant maestro of the Miles Davis school could be Wayne Shorter, while trum­peter Olu Dara seems to have most success­fully expanded on the more viable elements of the Davis style since 1969. In his collaboration with Milton Nascimento, Native Dancer, Shorter managed to maintain lyri­cism, intervallic boldness, great rhythmic au­thority, and swing. Having begun in 1976 what he calls the Okra Orchestra, Dara, who is the adventurous equal of any contempo­rary trumpet player, develops written and improvised music over orchestrated percus­sion, voices, acoustic bass, and electric strings. An album that could set new trends was recorded by Dara for Alan Douglas, but was never released. It was a superb combina­tion of ethnic and popular rhythms with sim­ple or intricate melodies and the vanguard improvising of Dara, Hamiet Bluiett, David Murray, and Arthur Blythe. Blythe’s two newest releases are also central to the discussion. Bush Baby (Adelphi) finds the leader’s alto accompanied by tuba and single conga drum, comprising the most original sounding rhythm section in recent memory. The al­bum is an extraordinary exploration of the blues, of tempo, and of swing, while “Down San Diego Way” (Lenox Avenue Break­down — Columbia) perfectly places modern improvising in a dance situation. It can be danced to or listened to.

I am confident we are on the verge of hear­ing some exceptional music, music that will cut across more lines than ever, and will be much richer than the mechanical get-down music and would-be dancing of motor-booty affairs. As George Clinton says, “The rhythm of vision is a dancer.” I am sure that the new combinations of rhythm will allow jazz to maintain its sophistication and yet be more easily communicated. It is as though what used to be avant-garde is now old hat in cer­tain respects if it does not swing. In musical terms we are moving toward what literary scholar Werner Sollers has called “populist modernism.” I think so, anyway. ■

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Black Music: The Duke of Earl Gets Into Studio 54

“I remember when the Duke was popular,” says Gene Chandler to the writer from Jet. “There were so many wom­en trying to get to me backstage, we started telling them that they’d have to bring a gift if they wanted to see me — just to keep them away. Hey, if I’d had a piece of some of those gift shops nearby, I wouldn’t need to tour.” Chandler was being feted by Jet magazine in the dining room of the Johnson Pub­lications building in midtown Chicago, and he was making conversation effortlessly.

“Today, music is coming together,” he continues. “With people like Rod Stewart and Elton John, white music doesn’t have that loony tune sound anymore. Still, I don’t see where ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ is that much tougher than ‘Get Down,’ yet they told me that ‘Get Down’ was too funky to break white.”

If Chandler’s rap seemed tainted with the “whitey-stole­ our-music” clichés that pervade black publications, there are few performers who have as much right to run it as Chandler. With his hit recording, “Get Down,” Chandler has taken advantage of disco’s democratic playlist — which has given ev­eryone from Cher to Cab Calloway another shot at the charts — but his second taste of success is tinged with bitter­ness, for he knows that disco has become, in many quarters, another synonym for r&b, for soul, and is subject to the same segregating radio policies. So, if victory for Chandler is bit­tersweet, it is still victory, one of the most dramatic come­backs in the business. Eighteen years ago Chandler ex­perienced overnight success with and as the Duke of Earl, one of rock’s most memorable oldies. Chandler, caped and tuxedoed, cut one of rock/r&b’s most colorful figures, and extended his career through the ’60s as one of the era’s most durable soul singers. But like many others, Chandler was swept away by the British invasion and the declining local scene, and his success became increasingly segregated. In the early ’70s, he packed it in as a performer, and still the bottom was not in sight. Jet reported in its January 13, 1977, issue that Chandler had been convicted of the sale of 388 grams of heroin (street value: $30,000) for which he would serve four months in late 1978. It is a subject he steadfastly refuses to talk about for the record.

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The interview is scheduled for late that afternoon, and Chandler, who initially suggested we do it at his place, raises his guard higher by suggesting instead that we do it at the home of his producer and longtime professional associate Carl Davis. Chandler picks me up in his 1979 maroon Cadil­lac Fleetwood; “I usually use the Coupe,” he offers. Yet de­spite his obsessive cool, Chandler is not a difficult interview. He is courteous and articulate, and impresses with his dura­bility. Though at 38 the lines on his face are etched more sharply than in his early publicity photos, he is considerably slimmer. A couple of years ago he started dieting — cutting out meat, and having his fish and poultry broiled — and it is his most engaging topic of conversation.

His singing, too, reflects his good health. Chandler’s new album, Get Down, though paced by his disco hit, is most im­pressive for a ballad, “Traveling Kind,” which has a lyrical folkish bent and is about someone leaving a loved one. It was cut just before Chandler went to prison, or as he puts it, “went out of town.” But it is “Get Down” that has revived Chandler’s career. The tune has a heavily synthesized rhythm section, overlaying an infectious insistent disco beat, and is mixed with an endless series of instrumental fades in and out, so that it is as much one long succession of hooks as it is a structured song. And by straddling the song-groove structure, it has been able to chart top-25 disco, top-5 r&b, and top-50 pop.

We get to Davis’s home in Flosmore, one of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs, where he lives with his wife and the four youngest of their seven children. It’s a luxurious though tasteful ranch house, equipped with tennis courts, and an in-door pool, and Davis greets us at the door wearing a sweat­shirt and gym pants. At 44, his moustache and the burns of his short Afro are flecked with silver but his medium height frame is healthy and robust. If Chandler is a survivor, then Davis is the fittest, and when pressed, Chandler, who is somewhat stifled by the need for historical overview, will de­fer to Davis’s carefully worded and enunciated observations.

The Chicago of the ’50s that Chandler came through was a hotbed of musical activity. Representatives of the majors were old and out of touch and it seemed that there was a gen­erational turnover among local musicians and record men. Chess Records and its stable of artists had their secure share of professional success, but on the street the sound was pass­ing over to hundreds of teenage doowop groups. New, black-owned labels like United and Parrot and Chance were estab­lishing themselves, but the comer was Vee-Jay Records, owned by Vivian Carter and administered by Ewart Abner. The label had the combination of street ears, professional smarts, executive-level charisma and its records, beginning with the rather segregated blues of people like Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, gradually cut a swath across the charts, with pop-sounding records by artists like Jerry Butler and finally with white acts like the Four Seasons.

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Chandler was singing lead with a group called the Dukays when the group’s manager called them to the attention of Da­vis and producer Bunky Shepard. Davis had gotten to know all the record men in the area after he came out of the service in the early ’50s. He was an expert DJL Veritype operator and was able to research and compute sales reports. Soon he was doing it for every major local label. From there he went on to local promotion and together with Shepard produced a session with the Dukays that resulted in two charted records for the group, “The Girl Is a Devil” and “Nite Owl,” both of which were leased to a small New York–based company, Nat. “The Duke of Earl” was also recorded at those sessions but Nat passed on it. Vee-Jay heard it and liked it, but faced with a group already signed to another label, “Gene Chandler was created,” says Gene Chandler.

“My real name was Eugene Dixon, but Carl and I both liked Jeff Chandler, we thought the name had a white sound to it, the record company was crazy about the record so I gladly stepped into the slot. The record was released in November, ’61, and by January ’62, it had knocked ‘The Twist’ out of the box. And I played the act to the hilt,” recalls Chan­dler of the days when his outfit consisted of a tuxedo, top hat, cane, cape, and monocle. The image perfectly complemented the tune, which merged doowops’ exaggerated bass harmony and falsetto vocals with the then-popular cha-cha-inflected groove. Two and a half minutes of teenage majesty, the song and the image was a fantasy fulfillment for every hood who ever wanted to crash the high school dance. But like so many records of the era, it was followed up with a lifeless imitation, “Walk On with the Duke.” Although it bombed as it de­served to, it is in retrospect noteworthy, for on it Chandler temporarily forfeited his own newfound pseudonym for another — the artist-listing is simply “The Duke of Earl.”

Then Chandler got his first professional reprieve; some northern stations flipped one of his novelty follow-ups — an answer record to Mary Wells’s “You Beat Me to the Punch” called “You Threw a Lucky Punch” — and uncovered a ballad called “Rainbow.”

“Rainbow” would kick off the most productive period of Chandler’s career, as a ballad singer, and also begin a series of magnificent collaborations with its author, Curtis Mayfield. Listen to it on side one of the deleted Chess LP, The Duke of Soul, one of the best-sequenced album sides ever. “Rainbow” — like “Valerie” by Jackie & the Starlites farther north, and “Please, Please, Please” by James Brown & the Flames farther south — was less a song than a slow hyp­notic groove, its two chords repeated cyclically over a gospelic female chorus. Here Chandler combines the unbridled yet highly stylized emotionality of the doowop singers with the powerful tradition-ensconced vocal maneuvers of gospel. The album segues to “Rainbow, Part Two,” recorded live, as Chandler defines soul’s love-man performance, inflecting his vocals with a sexuality as unpop as his gospel style. Then lis­ten to another Mayfield composition, “A Man’s Tempta­tion.” If Curtis Mayfield, with his songs of poetry and ideali­zation, was pure spirit, and Jerry Butler, who sang Mayfield’s songs of love and survival, was his secular ego, then Gene Chandler was Mayfield’s libido, and in “A Man’s Temptation” he dramatized the conflict of a man caught be­tween his wife and lover, a role neither Mayfield nor Butler could have played.

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Finally, there are “What Now” and “Just Be True,” fea­turing Johnny Pate’s majestic strings and trombone-laden horn sections. These two songs characterize Chicago soul, as individual and original a contribution to the ’60s as Stax and Motown. As for Chandler’s stature, a local writer Robert Pruter observes, “In the ’60s, there was no one bigger in Chi­cago — not Marvin Gaye, not Otis Redding, no one.”

But Chicago was dying as a music center. Vee-Jay, crip­pled by lavish spending and the huge gambling losses of one of its key executives, soon folded, and Chandler, who was contracted to that executive, shuttled along from one dying label to another.

At one point he was alternating between Brunswick (where Davis had returned after heading CBS’s Okeh label for a spell) and Chess, scoring r&b hits for both. Finally, he switched to Mercury, which put him in charge — nominally, at least — of his own affairs with a novelty label called Mr. Chan. A picture of his face was incorporated into the logo. There in 1971, his self-produced hit, “Groovy Situation,” gave his lagging career a buzz. But Chandler was essentially a man on his own by then. He overburdened himself with pro­duction assignments, and except for Mel and Tim’s “Back­field in Motion” was not successful with any of them. There was a brief, but abortive contract with Mayfield’s Curtom Records in ’72; then, for the rest of the decade, zero. Chan­dler describes his decline with nonchalance. “I just couldn’t get the good help. People like Gamble and Huff are fortunate to have each other. I can say that I closed up shop not owing anybody any money. And I always knew in the back of my mind that if the business thing didn’t work, I had plenty of time to bring Gene back.”

Gene was brought back in 1978. Within weeks after his ac­quittal in the Brunswick payola trial, Davis had formed Chi­-Sound Records, and within months of that Chandler was signed as an artist. “Get Down” had already been recorded a couple of years earlier on a demo album that was never re­leased. It was laid down again with a newer, hotter, more synthesized rhythm track, then was disco-mixed by Rick Gianatos. It took less than a month to break.

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Why did it take Chandler — and Davis, who had usually as­sisted in producing Chandler, even when other contractual commitments forbade putting his name on the record — so long to meet the commercial demands of the market head on? Why was Chandler allowed to fall into an artistically satisfying but commercially limited ballad groove?

“During those days,” offers Chandler, “they just weren’t playing black records pop.”

“I would say that during the early ’60s they were playing more black music then than they are now,” adds Davis. “Now, it’s ridiculous. Then it was just bad. If you could reach number one on your black stations you had a good shot of going over to your pop station, but it went like this: If Dee Clark had a number one record in the country, r&b and pop, when his next record came out he did not automatically go pop, he had to go back on the r&b stations and prove himself all over again, and if he didn’t hit number one, he didn’t go pop. Now you take the same situation with Bobby Rydell, if he had a number one record, when he came out with his sec­ond record, it automatically went pop. It wasn’t until the days of Motown and Stevie Wonder that some black music would be an automatic pop radio add. In fact, I left my posi­tion with CBS over a fight with an executive who wanted me to copy whatever was hot. It depends on what you’re about. I don’t believe in gimmicks. I believe in getting an artist who can sing, giving him the right song with the right arrangements, and he’ll sell his share of records. The whites like to hear ‘bip-bam thank you ma’m’, but when you start thinking about it after one or two records you never heard from those acts any more. None of them were able to sustain like a Nat Cole, who lasted for years without ever singing uptempo tunes.”

“Or take Chubby Checker,” adds Chandler, “when the twist was over with, so was he. I used to notice that fast records took off much quicker than mine, but I had confidence in my ballads, and if everybody’s records shot past mine on the charts, mine would sit there a little longer than theirs.”

“Even Motown,” says Davis, “was just an invention. If an artist was out of the country, he’d come back and ‘Here’s your track.’ The key was too high? They’d put background vocals on for the high notes. So while the invention worked, when any of those acts left Motown, they died, because they couldn’t take the invention with them.”

“For black entertainers,” concludes Chandler, “it was a ‘you can eat, but you’ve got to eat in the back’ situation. Or the concerts that were all white with blacks allowed to sit in the balcony.”

Has disco, with its democratic playlists, made it a whole new ball game for crossing over? “No” they both answer simultaneously and emphatically. “Because now you’ve got your pop stations saying that they’re not disco stations, and using that as an excuse for not playing records like ‘Get Down.’ That’s the same reason you now have separate disco charts,” says Chandler. And Davis adds: “I can’t think of a major pop station that’s gone on ‘Get Down,’ even though it’s approaching a million and the album’s approaching a half million.

“Let me tell you something,” Davis goes on. “ ‘Disco’ was being played by black tavern jockeys so long ago it was ridiculous. All of a sudden, in the past few years, someone — or whites — said let’s capitalize on it and call it disco, but years ago we couldn’t get our records played on a lot of stations so a lot of guys went to jockeys who had their operations set up in a tavern where they used to have sock hops. Even before that, in the dance halls, you’d have some guy by the turntable taking the volume knob and just punching it and it would give you that choom-choom,” he says, flicking his hand forcefully… “Now somebody had the bright idea to com­bine it with lights and call it disco, and they’re making a mil­lion bucks on it, but during the times when we couldn’t get our records played, thank God we were able to use that to de­velop grassroots sales.”

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Still, didn’t “Get Down” represent Chandler and Davis’ most aggressive pursuit of the marketplace in many years? And had Chandler read Wilson Pickett’s remarks in Rolling Stone about how stand-up singers should not compromise their sound for the demands of disco?

“Yes, I read that,” snaps Chandler, “and that’s his opin­ion. But I personally feel that we are performers for the pub­lic, that we don’t owe them and they don’t owe us. My all­-time favorite entertainer is Ray Charles, and that’s because he was able to do any type of material — even material that wasn’t expected of him — and do it well and have hits with it. Now you heard my LP; on it I do some uptempo stuff, some so-called rhythm and blues stuff. The idea is to compete, and if you’re not gonna compete then get out of the business.”

How did Chandler feel about the fact that the type of mate­rial he does best — the ballad — has not been the material that has brought him success?

“I always keep the faith that sooner or later the pop public will appreciate me totally as they should have some time ago. The ballads, those are my first love, but I’m a capitalist. I’m not going to go out there and sell Chandler soap while my competitors are labelling theirs ‘Supersoap.’ I’m going to put ‘New, Improved, Super Chandler’s Soap’ on mine. So if disco is what’s happening I want a piece of that market. It obvious­ly was the correct thing to do because it brought me all the way back out there, whereas the slow record didn’t; so the idea is to keep throwing the fast stuff on them, and every time they buy the LP, they’re just going to have to suffer with the ballads, if that’s what it is.”

That duality was evident at Chandler’s recent comeback performance at Chicago’s Auditorium. Supported by Joe Simon, Chandler only filled the 3800-seat hall to about one-­third capacity, and according to Prouter there was a sharp di­vision between an older audience, who came prepared to enjoy an evening of Chandler’s oldies, and teenagers, who “seemed to come from nowhere and pour out through the aisles when Chandler closed the show with ‘Get Down.’ ”

The question of whether Chandler can parlay his disco-ori­ented chart success into concert level popularity is unresolved and is likely to remain so through his upcoming Eu­ropean tour. Although “Get Down” is currently top-25 in England, European audiences have a tendency to treat veter­an black performers as folkloric. If this tradition prevails, the tour could prove vastly unfulfilling for Chandler, who is in a competitive frame of mind. “I don’t dislike Teddy Pender­grass,” he says. “But it’s like if Ali is the heavyweight cham­pion, then everybody else is trying to take his spot, and I’m going to see if I can have Pendergrass’s position before the year is out.”

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This kind of remark is typical of Chandler and his attitude toward his career, as a source close to Chandler puts it, “Gene’s biggest problem is that he’s hung up on ‘I.’ He should quit going around telling people that he is great as anything but an entertainer, when anyone can see that for a seven-year period he didn’t have or produce a hit. He was also affected by the fact that his first record was so big, and there was so much hullabaloo about it that it was bigger than he was… People don’t like an egotist.”

The ride back to Chicago is long, and it’s gotten dark out, and Chandler, who has been “on” for the media all day begins to let his guard down.

“You asked me about incidents from the past that stuck out. How about the time that a woman followed me back to my motel room and threatened to kill me if I didn’t make love to her. That scared the hell out of me,” he says wearily. “Or the time on the road when I woke up in the middle of the night, looked out window and the back of the car was like an accordion, we were in a three car collision — the kind that killed Billy Stewart.

“When the Duke of Earl was happening they moved me around so fast that I didn’t realize what I’d had until the record was over, and only then realized how much more I could have capitalized on it. Then seeing records I’d recorded that I was crazy about miss, I’d say to myself, ‘How could this rec­ord miss? Am I recording correctly? Do I know what I’m hearing? Am I off the beam?’ And working those same joints year after year, seven shows a day at the Howard, never step­ping up to the Vegas thing. But I know that there’s been a void as far as single entertainers go, I’m not talking about groups like Earth, Wind & Fire. I’m talking about the guy who’s out there by himself. So finally, when Carl put Chi­-Sound Records together I had to push my pride aside and ask him if he would take me back.”

Ultimately, Chandler is a man who has had more than his share of highs and lows, and through them, has only rarely shown the tarnished side of his armor of cool. But despite his shortcomings, he is a man for whom music is truth. The last entertainer who told me that singing is 90 percent business promptly put me to sleep in concert, while Chandler, as his new album will evidence, is still singing for all he’s worth, and with a vitality that few if any of his contemporaries can approach. I wish him the best as he embarks on the newest phase of his career; that of “the Duke of Disco.” ■

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Black Music: James Cleveland Sings the Horns off the Devil

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once said that it was conceivable that good could triumph as often as evil if the angels were as well organized as the Mafia. Reverend James Cleveland, founder of the interdenominational Gospel Music Workshop of America, is on the side of the angels. And, along with Count Basie, James Brown, Ray Charles, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Sun Ra, and George Clinton, he is one of the godfathers of black music, one of God’s “bad boys.” At the Gospel Mu­sic Workshop’s 12th Annual Board of Direc­tors meeting recently held in Birmingham, Alabama, Cleveland ably demonstrated that he is an outstanding preacher, gospel com­poser, performer, producer, organizer, and philanthropist. I left Birmingham with the conviction that Reverend James Cleveland has fundamental insights into the nature of evil, and is prepared to put the Devil out of business, but might have a harder time than he realizes.

James Cleveland was born in Chicago on December 12, 1932, and raised in a religious environment, attending the Pilgrim Baptist Church. About the same time, the minister of music of the church, Thomas A. Dorsey, co-founded the National Convention of Gos­pel Choirs and Choruses with Theodore Frye. The organization was basically a vehi­cle for Dorsey to promote his own new gospel music, music that fused jazz, blues, and work songs with traditional spirituals, and aimed to inspire and regenerate the faith among the poor. Reverend Cleveland’s or­ganization is similar but has more ambitious aims.

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“The Gospel Music Workshop of Ameri­ca, Inc., is a product of my mind born out of the need to have someplace where gospel mu­sic could be dealt with by people who aspire to be gospel singers or musicians,” says Cleveland. “I wanted to get the best expo­nents of gospel music in every area — the best pianist, the best organist, the best director, the best songwriter — to come together and share their knowledge. There is no basic diff­erence between the Gospel Music Workshop and Reverend Dorsey’s group. They dealt with solo singers, choirs, and choruses, but it was more of a fellowship showcase, where they would get together once a year and show off their individual talents. They did not have the workshop aspect of teaching. The kids that are coming up with gospel today don’t know the pioneers, because there have not been chronicles written on the history of gos­pel. Many of the pioneers of gospel are still living, so we try to acquaint people with the living and those that have passed on. The workshop also includes the Gospel Announc­er Guild. The guild is going to establish a scholarship fund for students interested in the field of radio broadcasting and will help them obtain their radio FCC engineering licenses.

The board of directors meeting in Bir­mingham was held to make preparations for the Gospel Music Workshop’s national con­vention, which will take place in New Or­leans in August. Reverend Cleveland expects at least 10,000 of the organization’s 25,000 members to attend. In Birmingham, more than 2000 delegates were kept busy with a full schedule of four days of meetings, ban­quets, receptions, and nightly musical services at different churches throughout the city. There were meetings of the evangelistic board, the women’s council, the men’s coun­cil, the youth department, quartets, academ­ic instructors, nurses and ushers, the mass choir and fashion show committee, chapter representatives, and the board of directors.

But most important to the guests and out­siders was the music. I attended musical services at the AOH Cathedral in North Bir­mingham and the First Baptist Church in Fairfield, and my Northern uprooted South­ern roots were replanted in the saving dark­ness of an abundance of deeply penetrating music. At the AOH Cathedral, the Birming­ham Mass Choir brought the spirit over the house when they performed a gospel arrange­ment of Peabo Bryson’s “I’m So Into You,” retitled “I’m So Into Jesus.” Chills go through you when a good choir raises its voices together and hits those high “healing” notes, and the pianist and organist go beyond the technical scope of their instruments, turning key and pedalboard into the burning bush, through which God spoke to Moses. People “got happy” — felt the spirit and moved with it.

The choirs and groups made their presence felt but the greatest single force at the meet­ing was Reverend James Cleveland. Whether talking with a small group or to a large assembly, whether preaching or singing, Cleve­land suggested that vigilance and courage in the face of darkness and adversity is not only a major theme in black gospel music, but is an essential element to the very nature of sur­vival itself. What Cleveland has been saying since he first started composing and perform­ing gospel music is that God seeks to bring us peace — to reconcile us with ourselves. Through classics like “Peace Be Still,” “Lord Remember Me,” “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,” and “The Love of God,” Reverend Cleveland retells a biblical love story for the plain purpose of reconciling people to God and to one another. His mes­sage is widely appreciated and applauded. However, he does have his critics who de­nounce him for his lack of political involve­ment.

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There is a magnetic quality, call it charis­ma, that he has and it could be channeled into social activism, but he doesn’t seem in­terested in anything more than serving God.

James Cleveland is called the King of Gos­pel Music. Hi singing style — a composite of many gospel traditions — and his fine jazz-influenced piano playing have sold millions of gospel albums, mostly on the Savoy label, although Kenwood and Hob have Cleveland in their catalogues. Cleveland has more than 50 albums in the Savoy catalogue, including Peace Be Still, recorded live with the legendary Angelic Choir more than 15 years ago. It has sold more than a million copies to an almost exclusively black gospel audience, and it is still one of Savoy’s biggest hits. Cleveland’s fourth album for Savoy, Stood on the Banks of Jordan, is almost equal in sales. But there is nothing on the album that can compare with Cleveland’s own composition, “Peace Be Still,” and the way he and the Angelic Choir beautifully express the deep intimacy between soul and God:

The winds and the waves shall obey thy will
Peace be still, peace be still,
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea
Or demons or men or whatever it be.
No water can swallow the ship where lies
The master of ocean and earth and skies.
They all shall sweetly obey thy will,
Peace, peace be still.

One of Cleveland’s works, “Without a Song,” became a semipop hit after a deejay in Detroit picked up on it and gave it heavy airplay. Cleveland could have used it to move toward the wider popular market but, instead, chose to convene the first annual Gospel Music Workshop of America convention in 1968.

Following the lead of Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir, many workshop chapters started their own choirs. Isaac Douglas, strongly influenced by Cleveland as a performer, organized one of the first, the New York City Community Choir, and then moved on to Birmingham to fulfill a similar function. By the early ’70s hundreds of community or mass choirs had sprung up all over the country. The Northern California Community Choir later became the Edwin Hawkins Singers and achieved international fame with “Oh, Happy Day.”

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Edwin Hawkins now sings with his brother’s group, the Walter Hawkins Singers, who along with Andrae Crouch and the Disciples are the major gospel groups to cross color lines. Not only are Crouch’s compositions sung by all the major groups in white gospel, but his personal appearances have brought the first integrated audiences in the music’s history.

Cleveland explains Crouch’s success: “There is no musical form that Andrae Crouch doesn’t embrace. He can be Dixie­land, jazz, soulful; he can be extremely con­temporary, then he can be extremely tradi­tional, if he wants to be. Wherever his creativity leads him he goes there. He never al­lows himself to get boxed in. If he plays on the college circuit, he has a bag of tricks for the college students, and if he’s in crusades he has something for crusades. If he’s in open air pavilions, he has something for that. Being one of the more fortunate, he can adapt to anything, whatever the call might be.

“People try to box me into a traditional category. I allow them to box me in wherever they want to, but I sing what I feel and what I want to sing, no matter how they label it. Nine times out of 10 it’s mislabeled, anyway. I find most people aren’t knowledgable about what they talk about anyway. They’ll call you contemporary when you’re traditional. They’ll call you a radical when you’re a Re­publican. They can call me whatever they want to, but all of my music flows through me completely free. I must admit that I am a victim of the old school. I will sing what I know folks want to hear. Many times I would like to perform other things: but if people come out and tell me what they want to hear, then I feel that my program should contain what that audience wants to hear. I can per­form new things and have them accepted be­cause people respect me as an artist, but to leave them completely satisfied, I have to go back and do the old things that made me what I am. I don’t go out and experiment anymore. I go out and feel the pulse of the audience and feel what they want, and go right to that.”

James Cleveland “Live” at Carnegie Hall and James Cleveland Presents the Charles Fold Singers, both on Savoy, are two of his finest albums in recent years. The former won him a Grammy Award in 1977 and Billboard’s No. 1 Soul/Gospel Album Award in 1978. The latter includes “Say You Love Him,” a gospel arrangement of D.J. Rogers’s “Say You Love Me,” and is one of the best songs ever written in the gospel vernacular. But both albums illustrate the infectious appeal Cleveland has, the appeal common to all great performers. “The focal point of my life,” Cleveland says, “is music. I love it. I have respect for rock music, jazz, but I love gospel music. I don’t think there is anything that I do better. I never tire of it. I never tire of writing it, of performing it myself. An art­ist has to be in love with what he or she does.”

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James Cleveland has been in love from “as early as I can remember,” singing and play­ing piano at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. Since he didn’t have a piano at home, he practiced by improvising on the make-believe keys of a windowsill. By his early teens, his family had managed to obtain a small upright so he was able to work on the tunes of his early heroes like Roberta Martin and Robert Anderson.

The first group he sang with outside his own church choir was the Thorn Gospel Cru­saders, teenagers from his neighborhood. Their appearances on shows around Chicago brought him to the attention of established gospel performers in the area, particularly when the group began using material Cleve­land had composed.

In 1948, one of his early compositions, “Grace Is Sufficient,” was presented at a Baptist Convention in Chicago and so impressed Roberta Martin that she was soon purchasing material from Cleveland for her prosperous publishing house. Her flat fee payment for songs was about $40.

A short time later, Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk left the Roberta Martin Sing­ers to form their own group, the Gospelaires, with James Cleveland as a pianist and occa­sional third lead. The group is reported to have been sensational, if short-lived. In 1950, Cleveland made his recording debut on the Apollo label, singing “Oh, What a Time,” with the Gospelaires. He went on to travel with one of his idols, Mahalia Jackson, dur­ing the illness of her regular accompanist, Mildred Falls.

In the mid ’50s, Cleveland joined the Cara­vans, a group led by contralto Albertina Walker. She credits him as being a great cata­lyst: “James’s arrangements simply make you sing.” Gospel historian Tony Heilbut says that James Cleveland and Clara Ward were the best gospel arrangers around in the ’50s. Cleveland is renowned for adapting old spirituals and making them rock. His version of “Old Time Religion,” performed with the Caravans, was guaranteed to turn out the church: “Give me that old time religion, gets in your feet and makes you shout sometime.” Unfortunately, Cleveland’s recent Reunion album with Albertina Walker doesn’t include the song, but it does have a hand-clapping, hip-slapping, foot-stomping gospel arrangement of the hymn “I’m on the Battlefield for My Lord.”

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When the Caravans began recording for the States label in Chicago, Cleveland was at the piano. He remained in this supportive role for about a year, lacking confidence in his voice, which had been strained, earlier when he attempted to prolong his boyhood soprano. But by 1955, Cleveland had come to terms with his gruff, dry baritone, and took the lead on the Caravans’ first big hits, “The Solid Rock” and, what else? “Old Time Reli­gion.” According to Heilbut, other singers often said, “James has the worst voice I know and he does more with it than anyone else out there.” Reverend Cleveland’s “unpretty” voice earned him the title of the Louis Arm­strong of gospel music.

He briefly joined the Gospel All Stars, re­cording with them the classic “Lord Remember Me,” and an arrangement of Ray Charles’s “Hallejulah I Love Her So,” under the title of “That’s Why I Love Him So.” Cleveland returned to the Caravans, but in quick succession moved on to the Original Gospel Chimes, then to Detroit where he worked with Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, as musical director of the New Bethel Baptist Church. He worked with oth­er choirs as well, including Detroit’s Voices of Tabernacle, and participated in their regu­lar radio broadcasts. In 1960, Cleveland and the Voices of Tabernacle choir recorded a version of “The Love of God,” a gospel bal­lad originally written for Johnnie Taylor, then lead singer with the Soul Stirrers. The record, on the Hob label (owned by and named after Cameron Murphy’s House of Beauty in Detroit), was a hit, and Cleveland became a major gospel attraction. “The Love of God” is included on The Best of James Cleveland (Hob).

Herman Lubinsky, who ran a small record store in Newark, New Jersey, established Sa­voy Records in 1942. It was the first major r&b and gospel independent label, in terms of the artists it developed and its longevity. Lubinsky, knowing that the Voices of Taber­nacle and not James Cleveland were signed to Hob, approached Cleveland during an ap­pearance at the Apollo in Harlem in 1960. Cleveland said, “I didn’t want to go with him, because I wanted to go to Vee-Jay which was a big successful company then.” But Lubinsky persisted and finally won him over. Cleveland has been with the company for almost 20 years. After Lubinsky’s death in 1974, Savoy was acquired by Arista Re­cords.

Fred Mendelsohn is the president of Savoy Records today. He grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, loving blues that he heard on the radio, and later recorded blues artists like Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red, and Blind Willie in Atlanta. Before coming to Savoy as A&R man in the ’50s, Mendelsohn was an owner of three record labels, Regent, Regal, and Her­ald. As A&R man with Savoy, he worked with Big Maybelle, Little Jimmy Scott, Nappy Brown, Charlie Parker, and gospel artists like the Davis Sisters, the Ward Singers, and, of course, Cleveland.

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Savoy Records is a major supporter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, and Fred Mendelsohn has been one of the most committed champions of black gospel music. During the meeting in Birmingham, Cleve­land and the other leaders of the workshop treated Mendelsohn as a trusted friend and showed their respect by electing him to the board of directors. Of the 2000 delegates at­tending the meeting, the only other white person directly associated with the activities was the manager of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, who, like Mendelsohn, is Jewish.

Christianity acknowledges its roots in Jud­aism and their common areas of agreement, but it does not seek to equate the two. At least white Christianity doesn’t; black Chris­tianity equates itself with the Jews of the Old Testament held in bondage in Egypt, and the legends of the biblical Jews have been much used in black gospel songs.

Black gospel music probably developed before blues. Gospel songs were popular on the plantations years before the Civil War, but no writer mentions hearing blues before the 1890s. Of course it’s possible that the ear­ly bluesmen, like shamans in many tribal cul­tures, eluded most western investigators. In any case, gospel music and blues have fed each other for at least 90 years. Although their true power has not been fully under­stood by the American mainstream, both have rightfully earned the title of great art.

Gospel music can be traced back to the first slave who looked to the sky and asked for understanding and a sign of hope from traditional African gods. Combine the Afri­can slave’s prayer tradition with Jesus and Christianity and you have the beginnings of black gospel music.

A decade after Newport Gardner opened the first black singing school in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1791, Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Episco­pal Church, compiled and published the first hymn books by a black for blacks in Philadelphia. But it wasn’t until 1841 that choral singing was first heard in black churches. Many church members became upset be­cause they felt that music should be sung by the entire congregation; choirs and anthems simply were not part of black people’s history. An argument also arose in some churches over instruments being allowed as part of the service. Congregations were split in their de­cisions. In Baltimore’s AME Church around 1848–49, musical instruments were permitted for the first time. Several churches held concerts, using their choirs to raise money for the needs of the church.

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As Eileen Southern explains in The Music of Black Americans (Norton), when black people began pouring into the nation’s cities during the 1920s, they took their spirituals, hymns, and anthems with them, but found the rural-born music to be unsatisfactory in urban settings. Consequently, the church singers created a more expressive music to which Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleve­land have added their visions.

Dorsey turned to the composition of reli­gious songs after joining the Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1921. As a blues pianist, he worked with Ma Rainey, Tampa Red, and in a band called the Whispering Syncopators, directed by Will Walker, which included Les Hite and Lionel Hampton. When the Na­tional Baptist Convention met at his church that year, A.W. Nix so impressed Dorsey with his singing of C.A. Tindley’s “I Do, Don’t You,” that Dorsey decided to devote his life to the art of writing sacred music: “Precious Lord,” “I Surely Know There’s Been a Chance in Me,” and “If You See My Savior” are among the more than 400 songs he’s written.

Post-World War II gospel music can be di­vided into four major styles: male quartets; female groups; male and female soloists; and choirs. Modern male gospel quartets often have more than four members, sometimes as many as six or seven, including guitar, bass, and drums, unlike the prewar groups. Quar­tets usually rely on two lead singers, who al­ternate during performances. Female gospel groups are a little looser in size than male groups, and are often accompanied only by a piano. They place more emphasis on group harmony than on a lead voice. Male and fe­male soloists share similar styles and James Cleveland has acknowledged both Myrtle Scott’s and Robert Anderson’s influence on his singing.

There is a genius, a soul force in gospel music that gives it life and vitality, that makes it stand out among other American cultural developments. But the biggest prob­lem that threatens to erode the force is that many black people aren’t true believers in Christianity anymore, aren’t accepting Jesus as their savior anymore. Reverend James Cleveland has said that the church’s role is to save souls and it shouldn’t be involved with social and political problems. Critics of the church, of black religion, are saying that Christianity is a “slave’s religion” because it encourages people to die before they live, and to be a Christian is to be a passive participant in the continuation of the status quo. Because there have been so many “con men” and “pimps” in black pulpits, many people are turned off to “any” preacher’s words, spoken or sung. Cleveland, or somebody in the workshop, has to know that the social and political implications of black religion are more important — not idealistically but realis­tically — than the spiritual implications. If Cleveland really wants to keep gospel alive, he had better come up with something to educate people to the viability of traditional values and practices. Fred Mendelsohn has said that Reverend James Cleveland “wants what he wants when he wants it, he has tre­mendous ambitions.” The workshop is something he wanted to see happen, and it happened. Perhaps Cleveland’s other dream will provide the answer: “My biggest ambi­tion is to build a school somewhere in Ameri­ca, where we can teach and house our con­vention and everything of it, and perpetuate gospel music for all time.” ■

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Robert Johnson: The Sound and the Fury

An early member of the 27 Club, blues master Robert Johnson has been an object of veneration among such rock luminaries as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards since 16 of the roughly three dozen recordings he made in makeshift studios in the 1930s appeared on a 1961 compilation album, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. “Poor Bob” — as the singer, guitarist, and harmonica player referred to himself on “Cross Road Blues” — has also been the subject of numerous biographies, of which Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Up Jumped the Devil is the latest.

Looking to get past the tale of Johnson (1911–1938) selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in order to master the guitar, the authors have tracked down birth certificates, land deeds, medical records, and other documentation of the musician’s actual life. They recount interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries and family members, and dive into all manner of books and articles to convey the poverty and racism through which Johnson persevered to become a performer whose dynamic guitar playing and beguiling vocals could make a juke joint jump or turn a house party solemn. The authors give a sense of Johnson’s power with a quote from an occasional collaborator, Johnny Shines: “One time in Saint Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come on in My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying — both men and women.”

Jimmy Page once said, “The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs. The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams.” In the winter of 1986, Village Voice contributor Greil Marcus related his own first encounter with the legendary musician: “Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.”

If Conforth and Wardlow’s book looks to sculpt an accurate portrait out of a fog of poorly kept records and embellished memories, Marcus, in his essay below, gets at the poetry of pain, grace, and joy that has kept Robert Johnson alive long after his one-score-and-seven years on this Earth had ended. —R.C. Baker

When You Walk in the Room

Almost exactly 50 years ago, in late November 1936, a 25- year-old blues singer from Mississippi made his first records in San Antonio, Tex­as: among them “Terraplane Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Walking Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” In January 1970, just a month after Altamont, the all-day Rolling Stones rock festival, where I’d witnessed the worst violence I’d ever seen in the flesh, I walked into a record store, not looking for anything in particular; I just wanted to buy a record. I flipped through the blues rack and saw the name Rob­ert Johnson. It didn’t mean much to me; I’d noticed it as a songwriting credit on Cream LPs, for tunes called “Crossroads” and “Four Until Late.” The previous fall, I’d watched the Rolling Stones play a pristine version of “Love in Vain,” a track on their then new Let It Bleed, but I hadn’t known it was Johnson’s — for rea­sons I’ve never figured out, they credited it to someone called “Woody Payne.”

I was just starting out as a rock critic, though after Altamont I felt a hundred years old; I thought I ought to know where Cream songs came from, so I bought the Robert Johnson album, King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers. It was one of those moments when you get your life changed — like picking a college course that leads you to think for the first time, or walking thoughtlessly into a room and falling in love. I took the record home and put it on: I knew nothing about country blues. I knew almost nothing about the Deep South in the ’30s — I’d never even read Faulkner. All I had were memories of Life magazine photos of lynchings, Richard Wright’s autobiography, the autobi­ography of one of the Scottsboro Boys (both mediated through the ever-chang­ing Communist Party line on the “race question”). All I had, really, was a liberal upbringing, a lot of socialist realism. I brought virtually no context to the record. I simply took it home, put it on, and had my life changed.

I heard a sound I’d never heard before, but which, for some reason, I connected to. It was what Edmund Wilson called “the shock of recognition” — and for me, the “shock” has always been the realiza­tion that you have recognized something nothing could have led you to expect to recognize. The question turns out to be not what-makes-the-music-great, but why you recognized its greatness when, all things considered, you shouldn’t have understood it at all, or even stumbled upon it in the first place. I’ve been mar­ried for 20 years; sometimes, like anyone married that long, I wonder what my life would have been like if, on a certain meaningless day, I hadn’t walked into a certain meaningless room. Sometimes I think my life would be more or less the same; sometimes I think I wouldn’t have a life at all. I feel the same way about Robert Johnson. And it’s this sort of con­nection I want to talk about.

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Predictably, playing the Robert John­son album, I didn’t like his 1936 version of “Crossroads” as much as Cream’s 1968 version. Cream’s version was a firestorm; this was too quiet. As the album played, I read the liner notes. This is how they began: “Robert Johnson is little, very lit­tle more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.”

Those lines were poetry to me. I still think the cadence of the prose is pure poetry — the movement from “little, very little” to “no longer exists.” I turned the record over and stopped dead with “Stones in My Passway”; my nice living room was suddenly invaded by absolute terror. To get away from what was hap­pening, I read on: “Robert Johnson ap­peared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street.” This wasn’t po­etry — it was corny — but it reminded me of the cover of Camus’s The Rebel, a picture that has stayed with me with far greater force than almost anything in the book itself. The cover showed a sheet of newspaper, with headlines in half a dozen languages, all carrying reports of revolution, upheaval, blowing down the street to nowhere. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Berlin revolution of 1918, Barcelona in 1936 — all events expelled from history by those with the power to get history written, published, taught, and censored, the incidents appearing, when they ap­peared in the record at all, like a list of perversions in a sex manual about healthy married life. What I’m trying to say is that I experienced those words on the Robert Johnson album, and Robert Johnson’s music, as an invasion of a world I had taken for granted — of an ur­ban, modern, white, middle-class, educat­ed reality I had taken as complete and finished, as a natural fact.

Robert Johnson‘s music was a rent in that reality, a violent rip, a negation, a no. I suddenly realized that I was sick of rock ’n’ roll; sick, after Altamont, of what it could do and what it had already produced. Altamont showed me blood, and death. I’d seen people beaten to the ground with lead-weighted sticks, seen naked people with their teeth knocked out, and I’d left the place only to hear on the radio that, as I’d stood behind the stage on top of a van to hear the Rolling Stones, a young black man had been knifed, kicked, and bludgeoned to death. There was death in Robert Johnson’s songs — but it always stopped short, stopped short at the point of choice. As I listened, full of ugly memories, Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.

Now, this was not socialist realism, or even liberal realism, which says that all people are products of great historical forces in a world they never made: that all people are sociology. Robert Johnson’s music wasn’t just a rent in the bourgeois life I’d lived; it was a rent in the theories of the leftists who’d fought against that life, who reached their high point in the ’30s, at the very moment Johnson was singing. The bourgeois view of the world said people like Robert Johnson didn’t count; the socialist realist view of the world said that he’d been made not to count, and that if by some miracle he’d made his voice heard, it was as the voice of the irrepressible will of the people — in other words, as sociology; as an individ­ual, he didn’t even exist. But this wasn’t what I heard. I heard a particular person, someone no sociological construct could have predicted, or even allowed for. Years later I would read Albert Murray’s comments on Bessie Smith — he said, more or less, that writers have tried to tie the expressive power of Bessie Smith’s music to the pain and suffering of black people in America, and then he wondered why, if this were so, 400 years of slavery and oppression, of pain and suffering, had not produced another Bessie Smith. Albert Murray, a black writer, was trying to rescue Bessie Smith from socialist re­alism; he was trying to grant her the subjectivity, the autonomy, that in the Unit­ed States is automatically granted any white artist. She was, Murray was saying, a genius. And, as Freud said, everyone knows genius is incomprehensible. Com­ing from the premier 20th century advo­cate of rationalism, that is saying something.

I wasn’t ready to deal with this — this sort of autonomy. Instead I tried to un­derstand the form — the genre, the sociol­ogy. I became obsessed with Mississippi Delta country blues — primitive blues, it was called in the notes to the Robert Johnson album. I learned a lot about it. I bought everything I could find. I learned about the first country blues performers to record, men much older than Robert Johnson: Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James, Garfield Akers. I heard a music that was rich, fierce, funny, and bitter. But I kept lis­tening to Robert Johnson, and what I learned still didn’t touch what he was doing.

I learned that blues had come into be­ing — was invented, was discovered, I don’t know the right word — around 1900, probably in the Mississippi Delta; wher­ever it came from, the sound was soon heard across the South. Everyone, black and white, who heard this new sound — ­all those with enough education to write down their thoughts on what they heard — said the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was some benevolent rich white woman or W.C. Handy of Mem­phis, who later named himself “the Fa­ther of the Blues.” They all had the same reaction, used the same words: “Weird.” “Strange.” “Eerie.” “Unearthly.” “Devil­ish.” “Terrifying.” “Not of this world.”

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The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music had made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues had made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, gospel music, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B and B leads to C, and who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there is what counts — and what those who were there said was that they’d nev­er heard anything like this before, and they weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear it again. A white woman heard her teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry — whatever the song was about, if it was a song, it wasn’t about laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men sat down beside him and began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream.

What was this? Robert Johnson at­tracted international attention in his life­time; Melody Maker ran a short item about him, bemoaning the fact that his record company wasn’t known for en­couraging protest songs. Obviously, blues was full of pain and suffering; therefore at its heart it had to be a protest against white oppression. On the page, that wasn’t hard to understand — why was the sound so hard to understand?

It was hard to understand because blues was not music born of oppres­sion, but of freedom. It was not a protest against “conditions” — ­against racism, lynching, sharecrop­ping, and worse — it was, like The Sound and the Fury, a protest against life.

Blues was invented by one of the first generations of black Americans not to be born slaves — to be born with the freedom of movement that from the time of Dan­iel Boone had been enshrined as the first principle of American life. They were among the first Afro-Americans to escape of their own free will the ties of home­town, home plantation, family, church — and, most important, work. The black church as well as white sheriffs pushed them back — and they pushed back against the black church no less than against white sheriffs. No, they said, I do what I like.

A whole new, common language grew up around that negation, that affirma­tion — “No, I do what I like.” It was a shared language of guitar riffs and lyric phrases (“My black mama’s face shines like the sun,” “The sun gonna shine in my back door someday,” “Minutes seem like hours, hours seem just like days”), a set of fragments reaching for some all-encompassing blues parable that every blues singer presented in pieces. You could say, as Peter Guralnick has, that the tradition itself, not the individual artist, was the poet, and the tradition grew up as a poetic opposition to playing by the rules. In that sense, of course, blues was a protest, but blues singers didn’t see it that way. They considered themselves free men, as good as anybody, better than most — if not better than most, freer than most. Their music was made out of a conviction that, like all Americans, they were masters of their own lives — or should be. When they ran into the limits of that mastery — the in­ability to hold a woman, to keep a dollar in hand, to live without fear — they found themselves face-to-face not merely with the particular racial, economic, or social conditions of the Deep South in the ’20s or ’30s, but with the facts of life. Those facts could be summed up in one: men and women are not at home in this world. It was the same fact that Herman Mel­ville had discovered in Moby Dick, that Faulkner was raging against in The Sound and the Fury, that the writers of Greek tragedies had chewed over more than 2000 years before. That was why, to those who heard it around 1900, the sound was strange, scary, confusing: the new blues singers were singing about things people had never wanted to talk about. For the first time, they were acting like free people, and running into the wall that separates desire from its realization.

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It took me a long time to understand this — or to believe it. For a long time, what I heard in Mississippi country blues, and always most intensely in Rob­ert Johnson, was a contradiction: the mu­sic reached me directly, went straight to the heart, seemed to call forth responses from the blood; but at the same time that music was impossibly distant, odd, and old. For black people in the ’20s and ’30s the Mississippi Delta was full of horses and wagons and ruled by peonage. There weren’t any telephones and there weren’t any toilets. No one was allowed to vote, and most couldn’t even dream of learning to read and write. The first contact most of these people would have with a world outside the one into which they were born was when their sons were drafted to fight in World War II — and many of their sons were given farm deferments, arranged by white landowners partly to in­sure that they never would see a world outside the one into which they were born.

But I’ve fallen back into sociology — the opposite of what I’m trying to talk about. I’m trying to talk about a different sort of distance, a different sort of oldness, a different sort of oddness. I was raised on The Twilight Zone TV show — Mississip­pi blues was twilight zone stuff. The sing­ers, recorded in their twenties and thir­ties, seemed in their voices to have been old before they were born. Robert John­son was a ghost — out of a past I had never expected to confront, he was years ahead of me every time I listened to his music, waiting for me to catch up.

I am writing about Robert Johnson be­cause if any of the things I have been saying are true, they are overwhelmingly, titanically more true of him and his mu­sic than they are of any other Mississippi blues singer one might mention. Once one has been through the tradition, many of the great singers and most of the countless minor ones — and scores of black men made records in the South in the ’20s and ’30s — recede into that tradi­tion: the tradition speaks for them: this means they become sociological. Their music makes sense sociologically — and after that, it may not make any other kind of sense, or, more important, make non-sense out of whatever preconcep­tions a listener might bring to it. Charlie Patton, considered the founder of Missis­sippi Delta blues, sounds like a founder. Son House sounds like an exponent. Skip James and Tommy Johnson, both of them with highly developed individual styles, sound like eccentrics, like isolates within a tradition itself isolated from the American mainstream, be it political or artistic, where history is supposedly made.

Now, compared to Skip James or Tom­my Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. Com­pared to them, he sounds very tradition­al — and also as if the tradition, this par­ticular social/economic/religious/aesthetic happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed. In his music you seem to hear what everyone else was reaching for, what everyone else was try­ing to say, what no one else could touch, what no one else could put into words, into the twist of a vocal, the curl of a guitar line — or for that matter into the momentum of a passage of prose, the scene of a play, the detail of a painting. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way we take it as a given that people we meet will speak, eat, and sleep, and then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent that the concepts of speech, eating, and sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.

Robert Johnson, his music says, worked and lived with a deeper autono­my than any other bluesman, all of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that au­tonomy, limits he discovered and made real, and he did so with more ferocity, and more tenderness, than any other bluesman, all of whom encountered simi­lar limits. The difference is this: all the other bluesmen dealt with that problem within the bounds of the tradition, within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common lan­guage. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their life, they ac­cepted the limited power of the tradition to deal with those limits, to make sense of them.

Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to want more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself — a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired and limited his ability to make demands on life, to pro­test it. It’s said that when he started out he was a pest, a teenager making noise at houseparties and juke joints, a complete incompetent on the guitar, a joke. Then he went away, and a year later came back, still demanding that Son House and Willie Brown give him a chance to play in public. They laughed at him and left the room; he started to play. They turned around — and what they heard sounded as strange to them as the first blues had sounded decades before. It was like Vasily Rozanov’s metaphor for nihil­ism: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round… No more coats and no more home.” Right there, in the heart of the tradition, in the sociology of its everyday life, no one knew what was going on.

Blues was Robert Johnson’s lan­guage. It’s unclear whether he could read or write, but if he could, it was at a rudimentary level; blues was his only chance at self-expression, or making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly dif­ferent than he had found it. He mastered the tradition — he formally extended its guitar language, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength and delica­cy. Yet he also found the tradition inade­quate — and you can hear this in his greatest songs, in “Stones in My Pass­way,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Traveling River­side Blues.” The tension of wanting to say more than the tradition can allow explodes the tradition. “Stones in My Passway” and “Hellhound” do not sound like any other blues. It doesn’t matter how well any musicologist can trace their melodies or their lyrics back to any other performers. You run into a wall of emo­tional, aesthetic fact: sociology can ex­plain the Mississippi Delta blues, but it cannot explain Robert Johnson any more than 400 years of pain and suffering can produce two Bessie Smiths.

Most traditions of any sort decay, fall into ruin, wear out. It’s rare to see, to hear, any tradition actually be explod­ed — to be taken to a critical mass of pos­sibility and desire and then be destroyed. That’s what happens in Robert Johnson’s last recordings, made in 1937, the year before he died. It seems impossible that there could be any Mississippi blues after those last recordings — and, in a way, there weren’t. Nothing new; just refine­ments, revivals, footnotes. Many of Johnson’s more conventional compositions­ — “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Dust My Broom,” “Crossroads” — became blues and then rock ’n’ roll standards in the years and decades after Robert Johnson’s death; it’s interesting that almost no one has even tried to make a new version of “Stones in My Passway” or “Hellhound on My Trail.”

Once it’s really heard, Robert John­son’s music takes shape as a mystery — and, confronted with a mystery, the hu­man impulse is to try and solve it. Robert Johnson is no longer a name on an index card; since King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers was released, 25 years ago, almost every fact one might care to know about him has been discovered. There are enough facts for a full biography; not long ago there was mostly legend, tall tales, superstition. And yet Robert John­son’s music has not been reduced, has not been contained, has not been made sense of, not one bit. You hear a man going farther than he could ever have been ex­pected to go — even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear a man fall back violent­ly before them. What you hear is a strug­gle more extreme, and more fully shaped, than you can accept. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? What would it mean to lose that much?

Carlos Fuentes once spoke about the difference between literature that can be contained within the bounds of sociology and ethnography and literature that can­not. “Perhaps Babbitt and Main Street could only have been written by a per­fectly determined North American writer born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, in the year of grace 1885,” Fuentes said of Sin­clair Lewis. “But Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August or The Sound and the Fury could, in their mythic essence, have been told by a wise savage in central Africa, an ancient guardian of memory in the Himalayas, an amnesiac demon, or a re­morseful god.” Sam Charters, one of the first to write in detail about Mississippi blues, once wrote that only a black man living in the Mississippi Delta in the first third of the century could possibly un­derstand what Son House meant when he sang, “My black mama’s face shines like the sun.” Maybe that is true, in the same way that Fuentes’s words about Sinclair Lewis may be true. But nothing similar could ever be true about Robert Johnson, just as one does not have to be anything like Faulkner to understand what he wrote.

For all this, Robert Johnson remains a figure in a story that, as it is usually told, is already completed: that is, he is a so­ciological exemplar of an ethnographic cultural incident that makes complete sense within the bounds of American so­ciocultural ethnography. No one talks about Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson (or even D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Howard Hawks) this way. They are discussed as people who took on the world and, for whatever reasons, made some­thing of it; what they made of it is what gets discussed, and discussed in the most wide-ranging way, connected to and informing anything that might connect to or inform it. Such talk makes their work richer, and the world richer, more inter­esting. But there are few American black artists discussed in these terms, and no blues singers. Formal objections are easy — how can you compare a handful of two-and-a-half-minute songs to Mel­ville’s books, or just Moby Dick? Can you actually say that there is a labyrinth as deep, as complex, in “Stones in My Pass­way” as in The Sound and the Fury? Maybe not. But one can say that Robert Johnson went as far, went far enough that the question becomes not how he got there, but what goes on there. ■

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Bob Dylan’s Book of Love: Thirty Standards That Map a World Sweeter Than We Will Ever Know

Bob Dylan walks through the landscape of love. This three-disc set is his third (or third, fourth, and fifth) consecutive album of standards mostly associated with Frank Sinatra, but Triplicate doesn’t have the curated feel of Shadows in the Night, from 2015, or Fallen Angels, from last year — by comparison they seem hesitant, partial, chapters in a book that doesn’t need to be finished.

This is the book, and it does feel finished. When you reach the end of its thirty songs, from the 1929 “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” — recorded by Fred Astaire, then by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Julie London — to “Why Was I Born?” from the same year — recorded by Billie Holiday in 1937 and Sinatra in 1947 — there’s the feeling of having been somewhere, of having been there: the country made by these songs. “Stormy Weather.” “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me.” “As Time Goes By.” “The Best Is Yet to Come.” “It Gets Lonely Early.” “When the World Was Young.” “I Could Have Told You.” “Once Upon a Time.” “It makes me so sad,” said a friend, hearing the album for the first time. “It makes me think of all the people who are gone who loved these songs, every one of them.”

That isn’t a feeling the album insists on or even calls for. It’s not elegiac, regretful, rueful, nostalgic, a gaze into the past where, as “Once Upon a Time” goes, “the world was sweeter than we knew.” That might read as an elegiac, regretful, rueful, nostalgic look over the shoulder — we didn’t know those were the best days of our lives, we didn’t know that they would never come again. As those words come out of the song here, they don’t have to mean anything, but if they do, they might communicate something much harder: that the world itself is sweeter than we will ever know, that knowledge will always escape us, that there is no locating oneself in any single place or time. Life sweeps everything away, and you depart without knowing more than when you arrived.

That was the sense when Dylan sang “Once Upon a Time” for the Tony Bennett ninetieth birthday tribute The Best Is Yet to Come on NBC last December — a show-stopping performance that seemed to search for all the directions a song that begins “once upon a time” could take, including those followed in his own song that opens with the same words.

The words don’t have to mean anything because it’s the sense of an atmosphere to breathe, to be changed by, that you hear. The signposts of the songs, “The fundamental things apply,” “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,” “Don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky,” don’t necessarily register, worn down by the hundreds of singers who’ve recorded them — from 1927, when Hoagy Carmichael first cut his own “Stardust” for the Gennett label in Richmond, Indiana, a small jazz and blues company that featured Charley Patton, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, to 1965, with Sinatra rolling out “The September of My Years” on his own Reprise label in Burbank, California. What you hear is much lighter than any carefully crafted catchphrase — instead you hear a certain person, the fictional character who inhabits Bob Dylan’s voice in these renditions, lighting down on a song, then moving on to the next one, and so modestly that when you finish listening to the third disc and go back to the first, the feeling is that that character, too, has come back to the first song on the first disc for another go-round — and much deeper.

“P.S. I Love You” — not the Beatles song, in which, Jonathan Cott once wrote, “P.S.” probably referred to Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, but a tune written in 1934 and a hit for Rudy Vallée, done better by Bing Crosby, with words by Johnny Mercer, music by Gordon Jenkins, who in 1959 arranged Sinatra’s indelible No One Cares — doesn’t even remotely suggest that it’s a great song. The bends in the melody are so cheesy people in the Thirties probably thought they’d heard it before. “P.S. I love you” is supposed to catch your ear, elicit a response — How clever to use that phrase in a song! — and make you smile, but it seems like it came into the song as an antique. Yet as Dylan sings it, it feels like a great song, or a great occasion for a great song. Again, it’s that sense of the song not as a specific combination of words and music, but as a place where words are music.

Dylan meanders through the song. There is no destination: He flattens everything in the melody that suggests purpose, intent, desire, even meaning. There’s no need to stake a claim, or even carve your initials into a tree. The trees in this song don’t need you. They were here before you came upon them and they’ll be here when you’re gone, and that’s what’s so wonderful about them: You owe them nothing. The singer in this song owes nothing to its images of domestic loneliness — in bed by nine, a burn on the table, each day seems like a year. He owes something, perhaps, to the few notes of the cello and guitar counterpoint that open his version, because they wave him goodbye as he sets out. What you hear is someone exploring the shifts in the melody as if they’re hills, resting places, passageways that you never noticed the last time you were here, exploring the notion that any walk down the same street, across the same field, can show you something you never saw before.

Compared to Dylan’s own songs, the songs on Triplicate are tight, constrained, most of all orderly. They don’t have the expanse, let alone the fabulism, of the ballads that lie behind the Dylan songs that seem like epics, from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in 1963 to “Scarlet Town” in 2012. Except perhaps for “Stardust,” which can seem less composed than found, they aren’t, in the best sense, folk songs — and yet in a certain sense they are. The omission of any writers’ credits anywhere on Triplicate — on back of the package, on the discs, in the liner booklet — can let the songs communicate as if they actually don’t have authors, as common coin that is also common property, as if they are landscape, atmosphere — and isn’t that what a song, not its composer, not its singer, but the song itself, really wants? To be the air that you breathe?

“He has such a nice voice,” said the same friend. You don’t hear that said. The conventional word for Bob Dylan’s voice, today, is ravaged. Certainly he doesn’t have the clean tone of other older singers: Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett. What he does have, in the tears and breaks in his voice, is the ability to converse with the songs he sings, especially these songs, each of them carrying so many other singers. And that’s also to say that with any given number he now might be discussing it with Holiday, Ethel Waters, Crosby, London, Sinatra, Bennett, Patti Page, Chet Baker, Astaire, Perry Como, Lena Horne, Helen Forrest, Dorothy Lamour, and countless more — and all those who will sing these songs after him.

Listening to these three discs, these thirty songs, opening and closing and opening this book, I found myself thinking not of any other Bob Dylan album, but of the Theme Time Radio Hour shows he hosted on Sirius XM between 2006 and 2009, and not only for the old songs he played. In the way Dylan reaches for high notes he can’t rise to, or goes flat before letting a hidden theme in the melody rescue him and bring him back into the song, as with “Stardust,” the real analogue is Dylan’s flinty, cracker-barrel commentary in those shows: a sense of having lived with any song he’s playing, listening to it over time as if it were a person, and not telling half of what he knows. Whether the theme was “Lock and Key” or “Birds” or “More Birds,” there was, each time, that sense of a territory, a country of songs, a place to visit. For this show — for this album — if it’s the landscape of love, Dylan may be crossing it in muddy boots, leaving tracks for others to erase or follow.

The steel guitar playing is kind of boring.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Valerie June Contends With a Legacy of Struggle and Sacrifice

While it’s interesting to ponder for its narrative possibility, the idea that an artist could ever emerge fully formed is curious — especially at the moment of their breakthrough. When Valerie June’s official-label debut, Pushin’ Against a Stone (Concord Music Group), started gaining critical momentum in 2013, it was hailed in several quarters as a neatly gestated statement of purpose from a newcomer. In truth, the Tennessee native was already in her thirties, and her career to that point had progressed in fits and starts for several years, during which she hustled to establish herself on the Memphis scene. Along the way, she appeared on a short-lived MTV web series and did “anything that’s not illegal or degrading,” as she once put it, to make ends meet. The iteration of Pushin’ Against a Stone that was eventually released featured re-recordings of songs that had been in the works since 2010; far from being June’s first album, it was actually her third as a solo artist.

That her breakout collection of “organic moonshine roots music” sounded effortless to newly converted fans is a testament to her talent as a songwriter and instrumentalist, but June, 35, knows a few things about time, in particular just how long it can take to achieve something true. Her new album, The Order of Time, luxuriates in patience and the slow burn, drawing power from surrendering to both.

Opener “Long Lonely Road” sets the tone for the album, but it’s not one of sadness, as the title might imply. June instead finds inspiration in her own lineage, reliving the history of generations that came before her, whose sacrifices were made so that one day she could find her own path through the world. Her vocal performance grinds down to almost a whisper as she sings about her formative years, preserving that family history on record (“Pops earned his bread in dust/But his hardworking hands fed us/Sun up to sun sink down/His body worked to the ground.”) Strings, keys, and percussion are all at work, too, combined here and in ever more compelling ways on the rest of the album to form the unique blend of folk and soul June calls her own.

Her voice is perfectly suited for roots music; equal parts twang and drawl, it hovers somewhere between Erykah Badu and Joanna Newsom. At times she lets it creep along, wielding it to pick apart a failing romance (“Love You Once Made”) or to caution against waiting to acknowledge love until after it’s gone (“If And”). The grandeur of the latter track owes in part to a sweeping harmonium melody, which should sound out of place — these days the instrument is more readily associated with music from the Indian
subcontinent than Appalachia — but instead envelops the electric guitar riffs and subtle percussion to deliver one of the album’s most memorable pieces.

The instrumentation is as much a character on The Order of Time as June’s voice. A strong supporting cast of musicians takes on synth and percussion duties while she reigns over the fretboards, playing either the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or banjo on all but one of the album’s twelve tracks. Her deft hand lends itself naturally to musical styles and traditions that are quintessentially American. But June was initially apprehensive of her own national market, choosing to release Pushin’ Against a Stone in the United Kingdom several months before she brought it back home.

Her guardedness at the time was at once a preemptive strike against being marketed the wrong way as a black artist and a means to flirt with stardom before taking a chance on the kind of fame and visibility that is possible on American soil. On The Order of Time June frees herself from any unease, leaning at will into the blues, country, rock, and even a little pop. Lead single “Astral Plane” reflects this lightness of spirit quite literally, as she implores an unknown entity to look within for wisdom and to trust in patience as an intractable aspect of self-discovery (“Is there a light/You have inside you can’t touch/A looking glass/Can only show you so much”).

She seems primarily interested in going beyond the surface of life’s truisms and taking stock of the lessons learned through careful observation of its patterns and rhythms. Heartbreak is a recurring theme, and June makes peace with the fact that time is just as good for strengthening a bond as destroying one. Her resilience is apparent, and there is a certain quiet confidence to the album’s unrushed pace, evident on songs like “The Front Door” and “Slip Slide on By.” In the latter third there is almost a sense that the record is running out of steam, but closer “Got Soul,” with its opening blast of horns, gives it a welcome shot in the arm. “I could sing you a country tune/And carry the name Sweet Valerie June/But I got soul, I got sweet soul,” she intones as backing vocals, guitars, piano, and fiddle join the mix.
“I could play you, play you the blues/To help carry the load while you’re paying your dues/But I got soul. I got sweet soul.”

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Exile on Bourbon Street

“Nothing as traumatic had ever happened to American music,” says filmmaker Robert Mugge. “This was Armageddon.” The trauma was Hurricane Katrina, and in his 2006 documentary New Orleans Music in Exile, Mugge vividly illustrates how the storm was also a cataclysm for a city that holds a totemic influence across American music.

Rather than capturing the impossible sprawl of the city’s musical history, Music In Exile focuses on individual performers and how they managed to survive the storm — often far away from home. As the film’s title suggests, it was a post-Katrina existence lived not in New Orleans itself but in cities all over the Deep South, like Memphis, Lafayette, Houston, and Austin.

Ten years later, the doc is getting a Blu-ray rerelease, and the grim New Orleans its two hours depict is hardly recognizable. Music in the city is once again thriving, with a flourishing of homegrown genres, like bounce, that have been percolating in the Big Easy for decades. There’s been a sharp increase in gigs for local musicians thanks to soaring tourism numbers, and local heroes are popping up on the national stage. “[Now] there are big benefit concerts, rock stars with New Orleans artists,” Mugge tells the Voice. “So many New Orleans artists got out of New Orleans and got better known.”

Over a decade after the levees broke, “resilience” — a phrase repeated, mantra-like, by city boosters on the occasion of the storm’s tenth anniversary last year — has become a moldy cliché in New Orleans. But the post-Katrina era has nonetheless seen a swelling of pride in the city’s identity, including a boom in shows for local acts such as the great trumpeter (and Treme star) Kermit Ruffins, who appeared in the documentary. “It’s definitely got a hundred percent better as far as me,” Ruffins says. “I’m blessed to have gigs all over the world, and there are so many youngsters in school in New Orleans playing jazz.”

Many of the other musicians Mugge profiled have also recovered, including Paul Sanchez, of long-running blues-rock act Cowboy Mouth. “In the four years after the flood,” Sanchez remembers, “I lived in nine different places.” He’s settled back in New Orleans and gigs constantly, playing multiple shows a week. But while it’s a welcome renaissance, it makes reflecting on the immediate aftermath of Katrina even more gut-wrenching. “I looked back at the film recently and saw how heavily sedated I was, how in denial I was,” Sanchez says. “No pain could be that great. No loss could be that great. There was no sense of direction — it was like we couldn’t find our way back home.”

Like Spike Lee’s sprawling When the Levees Broke, which was filmed a few months after Mugge left New Orleans, Music in Exile offers indispensable snapshots of those earliest moments of local culture warriors resuscitating a city left for dead. “I didn’t want to make an exposé,” Mugge explains, although he did make a point to pin the disastrous aftermath on the levees and not the storm itself. “I wanted to make a film about a tragic event that was going to change the lives of musicians forever, in the place where American
music was born.”

While those changes have ultimately — and astonishingly — been for the better when it comes to music in the city, the story of post Katrina New Orleans culture isn’t entirely triumphant. The poverty rate among New Orleans youth has returned to pre-Katrina levels even as real estate prices and rents have skyrocketed; 37 percent of renters spend more than half their income on housing. It’s a smaller city now, short about 100,000 residents since the storm, with an influx of wealthier newcomers. Luke Allen, a musician who co-owns a nightclub on the bustling strip of St. Claude Avenue, says that “guys with advanced degrees [are] coming in and asking me about bartending gigs.” What progress has been made was driven by music, Allen says, pointing to the esprit de corps born of tragedy. “Those were wonderful years — it felt like occupied Paris. Musicians were so connected and so close, and the battle for the recovery was so important.”

Sanchez, from Cowboy Mouth, sees New Orleans’s vast cultural import likewise carrying it through the current moment of economic uncertainty. “Are the people moving here changing New Orleans? I don’t think so,” he says. “People come here for the poetry and romance and mystery, and they bring that sensibility with them. America has been trying to change New Orleans for three hundred years. But you don’t change New Orleans — we change you.”

 

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Picking Favorites: The Players Who Keep Banjo Moving Forward

No player in the history of the banjo has done more to free the instrument from the confines of bluegrass than New York native Béla Fleck. His innovative playing has melded the banjo with pop, classical, and folk; he’s collaborated with Dave Matthews Band, Phish, and fusion legend Chick Corea, among others. His solo work and long-running progressive bluegrass project the Flecktones have earned him Grammy nominations in more categories than any other instrumentalist. Now he’s brought his wide-ranging practice to Symphony Space for a series of live banjo performances that culminate in a roundtable with four other players on October 23. All of them came to the instrument in roundabout, surprising ways.

Fleck received his first banjo at the age of fifteen, his interest in its sound piqued by Appalachian banjo legend Earl Scruggs’s performance of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song. “It was an existential crisis for me, being an Upper West Side New York kid learning to play the banjo, because it didn’t make sense to anybody around me,” Fleck says with a laugh. “It didn’t even make sense to me!” As a teenager, he sought the expertise of fellow Tri-Stater Tony Trischka, who had just released an influential solo debut, Bluegrass Light, after years of playing in country music ensembles.

“Béla was pretty unforgettable,” Trischka says. “He was sixteen and could already play bluegrass and fiddle tunes. He was interested in some of the weirder stuff I was doing,” which included introducing Middle Eastern–inspired modes and jazz improvisation to traditional bluegrass. Trischka had begun playing banjo in 1963, quickly becoming accustomed to the mocking cries of “Yee-haw!” that followed him whenever he carried his instrument around New York. He’d been honing his craft for nearly a decade when he took Fleck on as a student. “I would jam out on a traditional tune, and he would come back the next week having learned every note. After a few months, it was obvious that he didn’t need lessons.”

Abigail Washburn, another of the panelists, had a very different introduction. In the late Nineties, she was studying Chinese culture at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “I was obsessed with China, and in that angsty, know-it-all kind of phase you get into in college, I felt America, culturally, had so little to show in comparison,” she remembers. Her friends played casually in a bluegrass band, but she had never heard the instrument until, at a party, someone put on a recording of “Shady Grove” by Doc Watson. “When I heard the sound of the banjo as Doc Watson was playing it, I heard something ancient.” Washburn plays an open-backed five-string banjo, down-picking a melody with her fingers while up-picking a fifth, shorter string with her thumb. The technique, called clawhammer, was Watson’s specialty.

The old-time style encapsulates the complicated, difficult history of the instrument itself: the merging of Irish and Scottish immigrant cultures with the American slave trade, whose victims brought banjo-like instruments, played for centuries prior across Africa, onto plantations across the South. Blackface minstrels popularized the five-string banjo in the 1830s; a century later, Scruggs would play his three-finger up-picking style at the Grand Ole Opry, defining the sound of bluegrass. “The way [all these things] fused together is incredibly powerful — that’s the center of what made blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll,” says Washburn.

Five years after first hearing Doc Watson, Washburn ditched plans to study law in China and secured a record deal to instead tour the country as a musician, including a trip along the Silk Road with her band, the Village, in 2011. She’d married Fleck two years earlier, after meeting him in 2003 at a square dance in Nashville. Their three-year-old son, Juno, already plays a toddler-sized banjo.

In addition to Washburn and Trischka, Fleck has invited Don Vappie and Seamus Egan to the roundtable; Vappie’s jazz- and Creole-style banjo speak to his New Orleans roots, while Egan has been a champion of traditional Irish music. In showcasing a mixture of backgrounds and styles, Fleck hopes to foster respect and understanding for an oft-pigeonholed instrument.

Things have already changed a bit, as Trischka points out: The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons have put banjos near the top of the Billboard 200, while indie fans hear the instrument on records by Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine. This innovation is key to the banjo’s survival, says Fleck. “If people are trying to imitate things that have happened in the past, then it’s gonna become a museum piece. The future of it lies in people learning to be themselves on the banjo.”

 

Banjo Roundtable takes place at Symphony Space on October 23.

 

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Down Under Blues: Australia’s C.W. Stoneking Is a Roots Music Disciple

C.W. Stoneking is, as far as I can tell, the hottest — and most enigmatic — blues artist in Australia. Born in the city of Katherine, in the Northern Territories, and raised in part by his poet father in the mostly indigenous town of Papunya, Stoneking is startling not because he does something new but because he barely does anything new at all. Where most like-minded musicians over the past fifty years, from Eric Clapton to Jack White, have used the blues as a launchpad for blues-rock, this Brylcreem-loving father of four howls harrowing, stripped-down music that sounds like a product of the Deep South — that is, the American Deep South — circa 1930. He uses long-dead slang, as on the title of his new album, Gon’ Boogaloo, and he often draws his voice so that it resembles that of, say, Charley Patton.

So, the obvious question, which I finally ask about halfway into our recent interview: C.W. Stoneking, are you a white guy trying to sound black? Or at least, are you trying to make songs that sound like black songs? “Well, yeah, most of the music I listen to was made by black people,” he explains. “[That’s] not really the reasoning, though. It’s just the sound I favor. I [have] a textural palette that tends to fall into that category, but I don’t categorize it as that, generally, or think of it in that way.” The relationship, as far as he’s concerned, is purely aesthetic.

Born in 1974, Christopher William Stoneking’s (yes, his real last name) first favorite artists were not old blues singers but Kiss, the Bee Gees, and Ted Egan, a contemporary Australian folk singer famous for hand-drumming on empty Foster’s boxes. Stoneking got his first guitar when he was eleven; by high school, he was listening to the blues compilations on his father’s record shelf, which were full of both old stars like Blind Willie McTell and the kinds of curious rarities — he mentions David Wylie’s “You’re Gonna Weep and Moan” — that can send serious collectors on a decades-long goose-chase.

Rather than track down old artists, though, Stoneking slowly learned to play their music. “I stopped hanging with people from my own age group for a while there,” he says, recalling the years after high school when he kicked around Australia’s blues scene. But even then, he often felt alienated: Most players he met preferred electric Chicago-style blues over his beloved hokum, or country, blues, and beyond aesthetics, they didn’t — as he puts it — “seem like the most thinkin’ bunch of musicians.”

This disappointment in unthinking players becomes disdain when our conversation turns to Australia’s well-documented racism, impossible to ignore when you’re talking about the blues. “There’s a terrible history, and people keep on doing it,” says Stoneking, citing both violent crimes against Aborigines and the island refugee prisons that now dot the coast. I ask if this history affects the way that blues is understood in Australia. “I don’t think anyone in the blues scene cares about that,” he tells me. “Most of those guys are more about strutting around with their fedoras on and playing ‘hot licks.’ ” Stoneking says he doesn’t share that attitude. “For anyone who’s got a soul, that [history] will bleed into what they do.”

Objecting to both the indifference and the licks, Stoneking began playing solo shows at rock clubs, and in 2007 he earned an ARIA nomination (the Australian equivalent of a Grammy) for King Hokum. With his American South–accented singing and jarring austerity, Stoneking pursues a romantic notion of the blues as outsider art, the stuff of mysterious, idiosyncratic loners.

This myth has captivated music fans (particularly white ones) since at least 1961, when Columbia reissued American blues singer Robert Johnson’s catalog. Gon’ Boogaloo tells a different story, recovering another side of the music — blues as a popular art form, with dance beats and catchy choruses indebted to the Latin dance music from the Fifties and Sixties from which the record takes its name. “Tomorrow Gon’ Be Too Late” includes a spoken-word intro that even invokes early r&b groups like the Dells, and “The Jungle Swing” could almost pass for a loose Chuck Berry outtake.

Stoneking recorded the album in a two-day time warp during which he, a small band, and a few backup singers performed live in front of a pair of vintage microphones routed to a Fifties-era two-track tape machine. “I gotta tell you, it was hard and I didn’t quite get it in the beginning,” says Vika Bull, one of the singers, “but when I heard the end result I thought it was brilliant.” The LP won the 2015 ARIA for Best Blues & Roots Album, high contemporary praise for a record that, thanks to its production value, sounds like it arrived over half a century ago.

Which demands another obvious question: C.W. Stoneking, do you consider your music retro? In this response he sounds frustrated. “I don’t really know what that means,” he sighs. For him, Gon’ Boogaloo can’t be “retro” or “nostalgic” because the blues is about immediacy, the feeling that hits you the moment you hear it, and that’s outside of time. “I go for maximum power,” he says, pointing again to the starkness of both his sound and his lyrics. “If someone dies in my songs, they’re not ‘dead and gone.’ They’re allowed to just be dead.”

C.W. Stoneking plays at Rough Trade on Thursday, May 26, and at Mercury Lounge on Friday, May 27.

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For Its Eighth Year, the Brooklyn Folk Festival Responds in Song to Signs of the Times

Banjo player Eli Smith grew up in New York in the 1990s, when the city was fertile ground for revolutionary music and art. Queens and the Bronx produced bar-raising hip-hop, the Club Kids took over nightlife, and the downtown Manhattan performance art scene flourished. Smith, on the other hand, fell in love with old-time folk. He now hosts the Down Home Radio Show, a weekly podcast where he spins “hardcore, unreconstructed, paleo-acoustic folk” like Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt. In other words, he’s a purist, part of a small but dedicated scene of Brooklyn folk-lovers centered on the intimate Jalopy Theatre in Carroll Gardens. In 2008, when he was 26, Smith co-founded the Brooklyn Folk Festival with Geoff and Lynette Wiley, the couple who started the Jalopy.

“When people think of folk music these days they think only of singer-songwriters,” says Smith. This, he explains, is too narrow a definition; to him, folk is “the historic music of the largely rural working class.” He programs the festival, which this year runs April 8-10 at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, accordingly: The lineup includes jazz, blues, country, jug bands, ragtime, and traditional music from other countries, including Mexico and Ethiopia. Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a young musician from Los Angeles who models himself on the blues giants of the 1920s, will take the stage on Saturday evening. Gaida, a New York-based Syrian vocalist, will perform her mournful traditional songs with her band earlier that afternoon.

Musical performances anchor the weekend, with workshops and film screenings providing further context for the music. As is festival tradition, there will also be a “banjo toss,” in which participants compete to throw the instrument as far as they can into the Gowanus Canal. But this year, for the first time, the festival will focus explicitly on American folk music’s connections to leftist politics and social justice. “The whole world is sort of erupting,” Smith explains. “There are so many crises unfolding, it seemed sort of disingenuous to not address that in some way.” His answer to the call is a performance featuring new “topical songs,” Smith’s way of describing what’s usually called protest music, on the Saturday of the festival.

To ground these songs in some of the political music that preceded them, the festival welcomes 82-year-old civil rights activist Mattie Jones, of Louisville, Kentucky, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was arrested dozens of times for civil disobedience. Smith invited her to speak at the festival after seeing a video of her singing old freedom songs, which she’ll be teaching in a workshop on Sunday, following an interview with Smith.

Eighty-two-year-old civil rights activist Mattie Jones
Eighty-two-year-old civil rights activist Mattie Jones

“I’m not a professional soloist,” Jones laughs when reached by phone at her home in Louisville. “But I sing from my heart of some of the struggles that I have been involved in.” Her songs are traditional African-American Baptist spirituals that civil rights activists brought out of church and into the streets for marches and protests. “Those songs gave us that extra shot, if you will, to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to keep on going, I’ve got to keep on standing up,'” she says. “[They] lifted our spirits.”

Unlike some of her contemporaries, though, Jones does not believe the best days of activism are behind us, and she’s heartened by the young activists working today in movements like Black Lives Matter. “At one time, I felt like racism was not a word in [younger generations’] vocabularies,” she says. “What happened in Ferguson, Missouri — that was an awakening, that was a call. And those young folks, all over the country, are beginning to rise up.”

Today, young activists are choosing as their anthems not traditional spirituals but songs by artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor of music history at Berklee College of Music, says there are clear parallels between folk and rap. “If we’re talking about [the] process — collective recitation, reshaping, recirculation of songs and lyrics — then yes, of course rap is a modern form of folk music,” he says. Marshall also sees a continuity between the progressive themes of traditional folk music and hip-hop today. “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ like many a Pete Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant,” he says, referencing the multiple instances in which activists have sung the chorus at marches and actions.

While Smith dislikes radio-friendly pop, he hears this same spirit of folk music in rappers who address struggle. What’s important to him isn’t the form the music takes so much as the feeling it provides. “There’s so much in the world today that to me is sort of nonhuman, but when I hear this grassroots music, that speaks to me on a very personal human level,” he says. “I think the place where that exists most strongly today is in rap. It’s so literary, it’s so verbal. You can really say a lot.”

Jones hopes that her freedom songs will help the young people following in her footsteps understand — and learn from — the trials and triumphs of her generation. “I can’t march like I used to,” she says, “but now that age is upon me, God has left me with a big old mouth.”