Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Women’s History: Memphis Minnie

Memphis-Minnie-book-1.jpgIn what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has, over time, been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy.

As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

A certain amount of projection, imagination, and accounting for what the Garons call “the listener’s own obsessions” aid in an understanding of Minnie’s blues, alternately concerned with cooking, hoodoo, love, sex, and the natural environment. A least that’s what I hear when she sings “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuits,” “Black Cat Blues,” and “When the Levee Breaks.” When Minnie sings, most of her lines go at least two or three ways, which in itself is not the revolutionary part; that she was a woman, saying and doing the things that she was in her time, contributes to the possibility she was also the greatest songster of them all, and yet, she remains the proverbial secret hiding in plain sight. Broonzy said as much in his 1955 book, and since then, the songs have supported the fact she’s a giant—just ask the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Chuck Berry who used them as springboards for their own. Is it possible that Minnie was so good—the world’s deepest blues player, conjurer, show person and poet—her story is believable only if it’s portrayed as myth?

Minnie’s way with words is largely the focus of the Garons’ study, a combination of interpretation and inquiry into Minnie’s blues and the deep subconscious well from which she drew inspiration. Crafting lines with far more layers of meaning than the kind of poetry which generally receives laurels, the authors emphasize Minnie’s contributions to blues form have barely begun to be unpacked. The Garons’ surrealist portrait of Minnie is a unique work of scholarship and an essential text toward understanding not only Minnie’s world and work, but the blues itself. Quoting her lyrics and others in blues tradition, the authors consistently and convincingly deliver the idea that a blues narrative is often less critical to interpretation than its lines and metaphors. Pieces of the dream are absorbed in a flash, by design, assimilated “on the fly, while dancing and drinking. Thus, there may be an analogy of how we listen to the blues and how surrealist poets listen to the unconscious.”

A captivating performer—agile, fast, and showy—Minnie was not only an accomplished guitarist but a songwriting original with verses double and triple-loaded with richness. She covered it all, though an area that Minnie mined singularly and deeply was the kitchen: Like the bluesmen’s perpetual and enduring references to liquor as poison, potion and magic elixir, Minnie used food as a way to sing of longing, desire and consummation but also of autonomy, liberation and ultimately transformation. (In addition to her ability to wipe the floor with her guitar competitors, Minnie was also known for her home cooking, especially her biscuits).

Automobiles and trains, allusions to the great outdoors, and the open road also serve as symbols of freedom in her songs, an ideal that still largely lived in the abstract for a rural black woman—and most all women—of Minnie’s generation. And though she might have done sung on the drudgery of domestic work, more often she chose not to: All these sides of Minnie, and what may also be perceived as her contradictions are explored throughout Woman With Guitar.

And you can’t tell me nothing, baby, that I never seen (2x)

And if you don’t believe me, follow me back to New Orleans

Among the new discoveries in this fresh edition of Woman With Guitar: Minnie, born Lizzie Douglas, was not from Algiers, Louisiana as was previously believed; rather, she is a Mississippian, like so many other legends of the blues, likely born in Tunica County around 1897. The eldest of 13, Lizzie or “Kid” as she was known, began to play guitar and banjo from age 10 or 11. She ran away from home to begin her career as a teenage guitarist on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus for a few years. Returning to Beale Street, she fell in with friends in the Memphis Jug Band and was eventually discovered and signed to a Columbia recording contract in 1929. Her first sides, cut with “Kansas” Joe McCoy, were released that year and in 1930: Among the early songs, which remain her best-known were “Bumble Bee” and “When the Levee Breaks,” concerning the great Mississippi flood of 1927 (famously covered by Led Zeppelin).

Wild associations, side roads, and back doors are the Garons’ stock-in-trade, infusing their studies with an edge that the work by other scholars of classic American music forms often lacks; and yet, Woman With Guitar is no easy ride for casual readers who may need to delve deeper into America’s blues past to perceive the big picture.

When LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) described the makers of indigenous African American music as Blues People, he explored the idea that as musical innovators jazz and blues players could look misery in the face while never allowing despair or suffering the last word; music was their soul expression, a place where joy, pain, and liberation occupied the same truly free space, no matter one’s circumstances. Scholar Cornel West has furthered this idea in his ongoing dialogues suggesting, “These people are neither sentimental [nor] cynical; they’re blues people.” Blues people are willing to fight for what’s right and to be of service, “even when it did not look as if it would produce major consequences and effects.”

It’s unlikely Memphis Minnie was conscious of what she had to give or the ground she was breaking or taking—she was merely trying to survive America, the South, and escape her oppressors. Using her poetic and musical gifts, her expressions were samples of the life sustaining properties of song and the unconscious messages emitted when a poet puts pen to paper and gives voice to her soul. Given her circumstances, it’s miraculous that Minnie could read and write at all (any number of her contemporaries could not).

Paul Garon’s City Lights title, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, further defends the blues as a complex form, piled with as much meaning as so-called standard poetry has, if not more. Making the case that the blues is a “sustained poetic attack on the superstructure of an exploitative society,” he asserts the blues has made its own “psychopoetic” contribution to American music and social history. The same must be said for Minnie. Whether or not she is acknowledged by the masses, or the blueskeepers and tastemakers who reissue records is irrelevant.

“We have everything to gain if we interrogate our own level of consciousness about what we hear and how we hear it, in an effort to plumb the depths of responsibility toward the determination of the nature of the revolutionary poetic voice,” write the Garons. An offering to anyone interested in better understanding the blues and aiding in its survival, the Garons’ work has certainly made a difference in my own explorations, listenings and writings on blues. While there are no pat stories or explanations and few solutions to age old dilemmas on offer, Minnie’s story as a consummate artist against the odds will resonate with anyone who finds him or herself up against it in the here and now. Let Minnie’s life and work be a reminder that it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it that’s important.  May she continue to inspire and inform listeners for another 100 years or more.

Originally appeared in Blurt

Filed under: Blues, Books, Poetry, Women in Rock, ,

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate

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The Thursday morning announcement that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, seems to have struck a raw nerve among (mostly) male novelists and some crabby millennials on social media who were intent on disputing the 75-year-old American songwriter’s worthiness of the honor. We pay no attention to them other than to say, they are entirely wrong: Dylan is a writer the likes of which we will never again see in our lifetimes. That we lived in his time and were able to see him perform his written work just happens to have been our good luck and privilege, an idea suggested by the writer Paul Williams and one I believe should be kept close at hand when the inevitable bashing and clashing continues.

The Nobel committee called Dylan’s work “poetry for the ear,” celebrating him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition;” authors Joyce Carole Oates and Mary Karr weighed in with a series of favorable tweets as did the great Salman Rushdie who offered comparisons to Orpheus and Faiz.

Meanwhile author Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) used his twisted sarcasm to tweet, “books are kinda gross.” Irvine Welch (Trainspotting) was a little more coarse, and Hari Kunzru (My Revolutions) wins for angriest. That Dylan is a songwriter, and an innately American one, touring during his country’s likeliest darkest hours yet was not enough to stop the novelists’ outbursts: All three were born outside of the USA and are well read here, though none among them have written anything that can remotely compare to the beauty of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Visions of Johanna” nor anything as compelling as “Masters of War,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Their lyricism has not been likened to that of Keats, Blake, and Shakespeare, like Dylan’s work has been. Of course this is barely scratching the surface of a long list of Dylan-writings, including songs, poems, memoirs and screenplays, and possible reasons for other writers’ grievances. One is tempted to simply list the titles and produce evidence of the full bodied depth and freshness to the work that stretches out following the ’60s and into the ’70s, ’80s and beyond, whether it be the collaborative Desire or high watermarks Infidels and Oh Mercy, or late work like “Not Dark Yet” from Time Out of Mind and “Mississippi” and “Sugar Baby” from the 21st Century magnum opus, Love and Theft, released on September 11, 2001.

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Poetry, Protest Songs, racism,

Poet Bob Kaufman and the Here and Now

bobKaufmanIt’s been 30 years since Beat poet Bob Kaufman passed on, a few months shy of his 61st birthday. The often underlooked surrealist was a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs; he lived in the North Beach and the Mission Districts of San Francisco for much of his life. In the spirit of National Poetry Month and in commemoration of what would’ve been his 91st birthday today, his work was celebrated here last week, a demonstration that it is never too late or too early to appreciate a visionary artist.

Speaking to Kaufman’s influence on the wider world of poetry and his deep imprint on them, poets Anne Waldman and Will Alexander, though only briefly acquainted with him personally, read Kaufman’s work aloud, accompanied by saxophonist David Boyce and percussionist Kevin Carnes. Sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation and the San Francisco Public Library, members of Kaufman’s family traveled from Mississippi and Louisiana to be present and to honor his memory.

Listening to Waldman and Alexander, you could hear why Kaufman’s poems are best experienced aloud and accompanied by the jazz he loved. Kaufman’s epic “The Ancient Rain,” written after his famous vow of silence (following the Kennedy assassination and until the end of the Vietnam war) was read by Waldman, as she sounded out the blows empire wages against humankind, and on bodies Black and Brown. Readings were also selected and extracted from “I, Too, Know What I Am Not,” “Rue Miro,” and “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,” among others (I did not hear my favorite, “Hollywood,” though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t read).

Kaufman gave up writing down his poetry in 1978, but his words survived thanks to friends, fellow poets and his wife Eileen who taped and cobbled together the pieces collected in the works published after his death. Though
Kaufman’s poems foretold the persistent dilemmas of our age—the surveillance state, police violence (he was arrested over 30 times), media irresponsibility, a collapsing democracy and unnecessary poverty in a nation of great wealth—with his vision came the cost of direct engagement with such disturbing truth.

In his introduction to the posthumous Kaufman collection, Cranial Guitar, writer David Henderson noted that Kaufman’s life was unusual for a man of letters in that he left very little in the way of written materials or correspondence; just three published volumes, the broadsides Abomunist Manifesto, Second April and Does The Secret Mind Whisper? and some songs. One of those songs, “Green Rocky Road”  has enjoyed a long tenure as a folk music standard; most recently it was revived in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Lleweyn Davis. Co-written with Len Chandler, and popularized by Dave Van Ronk, the song bears the dreamlike, compelling qualities that are the hallmark of Kaufman’s poems; Chandler adapted the melody from a slave-era song quite possibly from the Georgia Sea Islands.

Kaufman’s most easily accessed works in libraries and bookstores are generally Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956–1978 and Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman as well as Mel Clay’s Jazz Jail and God: Impressionistic Biography of Bob Kaufman. A new film, debuting at the San Francisco International Film Festival, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (Billy Woodberry, 2015), burrows into some of Kaufman’s secret history, from his beginnings as a union organizer, to the shock therapy at Bellevue that contributed to his silent years; there was substance and alcohol abuse and he was an absent father, though his magnitude as a poet is not open to debate. Artist and translator Mary Beach says, “I think he was one of the greatest of the 20th Century, frankly.”

I think of Kaufman’s poem,  “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,”  just about everyday. It begins like this:

In the City of St. Francis they have taken down the statue of

      St. Francis,

And the hummingbirds all fly forward to protest, humming

     feather poems.

The following is a rare, brief clip of Kaufman at work (likely at San Francisco Art Institute).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Jazz, North Beach, Poetry, , , ,

Black History Month: Langston Hughes

Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes (born February 1, 1902) was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Writing about life in a familiar and authentic vernacular, he incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems:  “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.” Originally a Midwesterner with a family history that included mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes’ ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind made a deep impression on the voices of the Freedom Movement in the ’60s. His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too.  Nina Simone, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron are among the musical artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’ jazz-inspired work.  As decades wore on, his imprint resounded in the work of poets Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and many more.  Decades later, Hughes remains a continuous source of inspiration and influence, his words impacting the work of artists and scholars diverse as Cambio and Dr. Cornel West.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Freedom Now, Poetry, video, ,

Thanks for the Music: Van Morrison is 70 Today

Written last summer for Blurt online, I’m reposting my review of Morrison’s collected lyrics, Lit Up Inside, on his 70th birthday.

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find it extremely necessary to leave cityVan-Morrison-1 limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

It is within these songs—written in Morrison’s own Irish, romantic, soul code, with their carefully planned lines and studied notes and phrases, learned from jazz and classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll—the story of Morrison’s life unfolds. Whether in the concise rock ‘n’ roll tale, “The Story of Them,” the timeless “Gloria,” “Lonely Sad Eyes,” and “Mystic Eyes,” or epics like “T.B. Sheets” and “Tore Down à la Rimbaud,” we get a glimpse into the people and places of Morrison’s heart, while every sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah, every your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye rolls off his tongue with the same ease it does our own.

Van-Morrison-book-343x500Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

While “Domino” isn’t included in Lit Up Inside (it doesn’t need to be), others that work similar magic are included: “Blue Money” (take five, honey—when this is all over, you’ll be in clover, etc.), “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (as we gaze out on, as we gaze out on), “The Great Deception,” (you don’t need it): All are timeless, rich, and just that much sweeter for capturing a place, a time, a San Francisco (or other locale) that no longer exists.

And then there are the hymns, so many of them, providing the book’s heft, conjuring the Almighty, and the music itself, and the ability to heal, whether for the skeptic in “Dweller on the Threshold” or the believer in “See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee).” Literature serves as savior in “Summertime in England,” the book’s centerpiece, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Eliot join the gospel of Mahalia Jackson in one hella hallelujah chorus. In his celebration of the oneness (“Rave on John Donne”) and explorations of the dark (“Tore Down à la Rimbaud”) there is an unremitting acceptance of the what is.

Even in what some might call the middle of the road songs, “Days Like This” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Morrison provides simple truths served up by a full service songwriter, and the kind of warmth, companionship, healing, and love too often in short supply in real life (in spite of a reputation that has painted him as a bit gruff). Reading these works on the page I was not only mesmerized, but delivered to a place where recordings cannot always take me. I’m astonished by the depth of the songs, unaccompanied, and their illumination of the Vanness—of a life lived intentionally yet with imagination.

In keeping with the new tradition of assigning the task of writing about musicians to those who generally write on other subjects, Irish professor Eamonn Hughes, American poet David Meltzer and Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin provide the book’s largely personal front material. Both forwards include testimony of the ways in which music in general and Morrison specifically aid transition and provide a vision toward destinations unknown. All the contributions refer to Morrison’s Belfast past and soul while Meltzer makes a case for the Irish songman belonging to the City Lights family of outsider poets and dissidents. Though I had not previously given much thought to the idea of Morrison—maker of hit singles, taker of world tours and recognizable throughout the West and way beyond it—as an outsider, the songs compiled are certainly a validation that fitting in is for squares, being on trend is for the birds, and speaking one’s mind may not win you any popularity contests, but in the end, truth wins. Lit Up Inside is further evidence, as if more was needed, that Morrison’s burr takes us toward our own truths and serves as a guide for the weary and restless on their way home. An artist for the ages, his songs are timeless contributions to poetry, written and spoken word, and shall remain in the air, long after we’re gone and the very last foghorn blows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, Poetry, rock 'n' roll, , ,

New Ebook, Shaman’s Blues

shamans_bluesWhat was meant to be a short, between books project is now officially a new ebook, Shaman’s Blues. As an author from traditional publishing and as a person who spends much of her energy as a books advocate and activist, it’s a strange twist that my own title is available through that infamous bookstore-eating electronic channel. Let’s just say it’s an experiment for this writer and others like me: We’re in processing of discovering whether it’s possible to earn a living from our books instead of owing our publishers infinitely. Whether it’s possible to do that, as I’ve heard some writers have done, remains to be discovered. The good news in all this is a hardcover edition of the book will be available October 1 at independent booksellers and libraries (ordering details will appear here soon). And if you’re a traveler or fan of e-reading, Shaman’s Blues is available to you at no cost, beginning Friday August 22-Sunday August 24. For now, please visit the Blooming Twig/Sumach-Red blog for a taste of what you’ll find inside. And thanks for taking a chance on Shaman’s Blues.

Filed under: Book news, Books, California, Jim Morrison, Poetry, Protest Songs, You Read It Here First

Memphis Minnie’s Blues

In what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has over time been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While  Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy. As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW OF WOMAN WITH GUITAR: MEMPHIS MINNIE’S BLUES AT BLURT ONLINE:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Book news, Poetry, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Music for Change: Cambio

Cambio’s album title, I, Too, Sing America caught my eye for being named after a Langston Hughes poem (his answer to Walt Whitman’s work, “I Hear America Singing”). Cambio’s music caught my ear, too, thanks to a broadcast by Ignacio Palmieri on KPOO San Francisco about a year ago. With allusions to illusions, references to referendums, and tracks built on layers upon sound bites, scratch noises, and clips of speeches, Cambio’s point of view is progressive to the max, and that powerful voice is at the center of the mix.

Californian by birth, Latino by descent, Cambio is from Watsonville while belonging to Quilombo Arte, the international collective of artists, writers and musicians spearheaded by Mexico’s Bocafloja, committed to breaking down barriers and to emancipation for all people.

As a Latino influenced by hip hop, a young man in love with basketball and a speaker of “broken Spanish,” Cambio described himself as “having issues within his own community.” It was through becoming educated and learning the stories of colonization that he began to seek and find his place in the world as an artist. Beginning to record and perform locally, it was by chance that Bocafloja heard Cambio’s recordings and reached out to him. Though he records in English, Cambio has since found an audience for his music in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

An earlier album, Or Does It Explode?, also has a title borrowed from a Hughes poem (“A Dream Deferred”); a newer project, Underground Railroad, of course refers to the network built from slavery to freedom. History, poetry, social movement and music are among the themes in Cambio’s work: One minute he’ll borrow from Malcolm X, Fred Hampton or Che Guevara, the next from Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. Here’s a remix “I Need A Dollar” featuring Bocafloja originally from I, Too, Sing America.

This Saturday afternoon, Cambio and I will be making a presentation on music with a message and music  for change at the Oakland Museum of California. If you are interested in hearing more from Cambio, check his Bandcamp page and the archived broadcast of the show I heard. Please support his work and the work of other musicians for change: Positive hip hop is still marginalized but Cambio’s voice, if given a proper hearing could resound all over this land: He, too, sings America.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Poetry, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, video, vinyl, , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Langston Hughes

Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Writing about life in a familiar and authentic vernacular, he incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems:  “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.”  Originally a midwesterner with a family history that included mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes’ ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind made a deep impression on the voices of the Freedom Movement in the ’60s. His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too.  Nina Simone, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron are among the musical artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’ jazz-inspired work.  As decades wore on, his imprint resounded in the work of poets Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and many more.  Decades later, Hughes remains a continuous source of inspiration and influence, his words impacting the work of artists and scholars diverse as Cambio and Dr. Cornel West.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Freedom Now, Gil Scott-Heron, Greenwich Village, Harlem, Jazz, Poetry, Richie Havens, video, , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Gil Scott-Heron

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry history, specifically where the two forms meet and get real. Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano–often classified as jazz–but with an emphasis on words. Truth was, there were echoes of blues and gospel, rock’n’soul in his grooves, though if ever you go and seek his work in the record bins, cross-check the jazz or “miscellaneous” sections and you’re likely to find discs there. Come April 19, Record Store Day, there will actually be a new slab of wax in the stacks by Scott-Heron: Nothing New is a collection of stripped down tracks, recorded in 2005.  This sample cut, “Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams),” was originally released on the 1980 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album, 1980. Amazing how timely the song and its sentiments remain, though that is of course the nature of visionary poetry–and jazz. 

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock’n’soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Gil Scott-Heron, Immigration Reform, Poetry, Protest Songs, vinyl, , , , , , ,

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