|Issue 3 - March 1972|
|Dust My Brain|
Listening to a playback of a tape recorded by a gang of prisoners laying rails in the Angola State Penitentiary, the researcher duly noted that in the third verse of 'John Henry' the singer had, in fact, used one verse of Child Ballad number 137.
The collision between African and European cultures which resulted
in Hogman Maxey singing:
Of course radicalism rears its head (ugly, that is) in the occasional outbreak of 'back to the roots' mania - will Elmore James ever recover from his last baptism of fire at the hands of a thousand would-be Eric Claptons? I'm not pleading for more recognition for black music within the existing framework. What I am saying is that we should look at the way styles and fashion change within rock music itself and try to recognise why they do. At the moment, music is the common denominator that links together those who don't stand up for the National Anthem whenever they go to the pictures. It is fashionable to see people like John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger as 'representatives' and I would go along with that; the title, however, does not embody only those aspects of representativeness which are commonly presented to us by the headlines of the 'Daily Express' or the 'News of the World'. Only Dylan seems to realise it but anyone who depends for his status on the approval of public consumer tastes is the prisoner of those who link his product with the mysterious all-powerful man in the street.
This is the crucial part: anyone who fails to see a relationship between himself and that man in the street is fooling himself. Anyone who didn't read the article on Pete Bennett in 'Rolling Stone' should, if they want to find out what John Lennon, the Image John Lennon, is all about. I do not think anyone can accuse him of insincerity; whether he realises it or not, however, he is the centre of a machine for making money. It has always struck me as ironic that 'Power to the People' did not reach the ears of the public through the writings of Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson or Angela Davis but via the tinkling cash registers of EMI. Support Your Local Capitalist.
Here we are back at black music (almost), and my central theme. It's probably very risky to try to impose a scheme of development on to popular music, in fact the field is far from satisfactorily defined by its title, but for the purposes of my point, there are certain stages, certain periods, when black music and the white market were very close - I doubt if they have ever come directly into contact with each other, but they have come close.
In the thirties, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and the odd guest soloist (predominantly white) swing 'orchestras' presented to the white world the smiling, rhythmic but basically childlike negro in much the same way that the Clancy Brothers presented, in the fifties, the smiling, drunken, rebellious Irish. This representation of stereotype has continued whenever the market had to acknowledge black music. The image has changed, obviously, with popular awareness of changing black identity.
How far, however, do the Temptations really differ from the Mills Brothers? As I said, the market in the thirties presented the negro as rhythmic, laughing and capable of profound musical beauty at times, but basically childlike. Think of how the market presents him now. Rhythmic he still is; he does not laugh so much now, we have 'given' him equality and he must present himself as a serious human being. Rochester has given way to Isaac Hayes.
However, the function of the market is to present, for the consumer, a palatable experience, a vicarious enjoyment of participation in the adventure of a historical situation from which he may be socially isolated. Perhaps 'insulated' is a more appropriate word, for this is essentially what happens when real contact with the rest of humanity is homogenised and plasticised by the media which supply us with our imagery and frames of reference. We thus 'experience' the ghetto and Detroit through James Brown or Marvin Gaye.
The threat of a revolution in black America is utilised in music much the same way as the working class rebel was utilised by the bourgeois literary press in the writing of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne a few years ago. The reason that we do experience it in music now is because this is the aspect of black history at this time which is most readily saleable to the white market. At the moment, the white market is orientated towards black urban political (dance) music. In 1967 it was orientated towards black rural (dance) music of the 30s and early 40s. Just previous to that we enjoyed a boom in 'soul' music.
If we examine each of these periods separately they seem linked with a corresponding phase of white musical development. It seems to me that what happened was that black music developed in a situation where it was closer to its social and historical location than white popular music. (Even now, the leading avante garde black musicians are linked to their blues roots. Coltrane started in a band backing Joe Turner, Ornette Coleman started playing in Jump bands in Texas.) Music served in black slave culture many of the purposes which folk music had served for the peasant population in pre-industrial white society. It bound them together in a common tradition to which outsiders were denied access; they shared experiences and wrote stories and encapsulated their values into songs. These kinds of traditions are the essential strengths of great black music, from field hollers through Charlie Parker to Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor.
The white proletariat, its folk traditions destroyed by the industrial revolution has been subject to whatever form of music the music 'industry' has churned out. Historically the development of communications systems has brought (potentially) the world into the living room. The media as entertainment offer us experiences from which we are otherwise alienated. Black music contains the raw emotionalism which has been intellectually distilled out of the majority of European classical music and, as such, is a rich source for the plagiarist as well as the afficionado.
Almost all of rock music stems directly from black music of one form or another. The Beatles never shook off the influence of Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Little Richard, Larry Williams, Mary Wells etc etc. Bob Dylan has called Robinson "the greatest living poet". The point is, however, that we only ever experience those aspects of black music which, at any given time, are awakened in the consciousness of the consumer by either the interest generated by 'newsworthy' events (e.g. the Soledad Brothers - Angela Davis - Chicago Trial - Vietnam War = popular anti-establishment feeling = 'Burn Baby Burn' = Elvis recording 'In the Ghetto) and/or the adoption of relevant black forms of white musical trendsetters (Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Acker Bilk, T Rex, Cream, etc etc).
I am not saying that this is a bad thing. Far from it; what I am saying, however, is that we should recognise what happens between the creation of the music and the enjoyment via the media and records.
The essential elements, those which express the values of the group, those which aim to expand the emotional potentialities, those which go beyond merely titivating the consumers' palate are filtered off - all is reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator because the average taste buys more than the enlightened.
At the moment, music is the badge which identifies a person as a member of, purportedly, an alternative culture. In black music, and I do not even mean exclusively the music of people like Albert Ayler, Roland Kirk, this is truly the case. Surely any white alternative culture must draw its music from a source freed from the manipulative talons of the big companies. The sooner we recognise the Superstar system for what it is, a high pressure con, the sooner we can force record prices down and demand music by people who care about something other than whether they're going to become millionaires.