Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Congratulations Kim Shuck

Kim Shuck was named the new Poet Laureate of San Francisco today. Author of several collections of poetry, editor of anthologies and contributor to countless publications and journals, Kim is part Cherokee, part Polish, and is a fifth generation San Franciscan currently living in the Castro District.

“I’m delighted and flattered and ready to get on with the job,” she told me this morning upon the announcement of her post. “It’s not about me as much as it is about poetry and supporting poetry in the City.”

A lifelong reader, educator, lover of San Francisco’s libraries, its poetry, and writing history, I know Kim best as the curator of the Gears Turning Poetry Series which started at Modern Times Bookstore Collective in early 2015 and ran until the store’s closing at the end of 2016 (Gears Turning continues at Adobe Bookshop). Thanks to her efforts, her monthly reading series hosted a truly diverse, intellectually gifted, and emotionally-deep line-up of Native American readers and San Francisco poets, from the Mission to North Beach: She introduced voices that are not always featured at the usual bookstore readings and helped to restore a sense of normalcy to a bookstore that was having trouble surviving the new San Francisco.  She will be publishing a book of collected works by the poets in the series soon.

Kim’s own poems explore life’s often ineffable and sometimes more tangible mysteries, the light and the dark of them. The work is at once lyrical, traditional, and new. There is joy and grief and hope to be found in the collections of her poems, Clouds Running In, Rabbit Stories, Smuggling Cherokee, and the chapbook, Sidewalk Ndn. She is also an awarding-winning bead work artist.

Kim steps into the poet laureate position where Alejandro Muguía leaves it:  Both Alejando and Kim identify as poets of the People and of the Mission District, though they certainly have their respective histories and ties to San Francisco’s other poetry district, North Beach.  But what I really wish to acknowledge here is their tireless (a cliché, but true) efforts to raise the Mission’s profile as a literary destination in itself and for never saying no when called upon to read, present, or otherwise boost poetry in the neighborhood and beyond it.

A side note: Yesterday’s NPR program Fresh Air featured an interview with Native American writer, Sherman Alexie who noted there were fewer Indian voices at work than when he started publishing. He joked he and Louise Erdich hoped for a Native American writing renaissance and I immediately thought wait: What about the recent poetry prize awarded to Joy Harjo? What about Kim Shuck? Today’s news confirms that Native voices, and all the poets of San Francisco, past, present, and future, will be well-tended to in the hands of our seventh poet laureate. Congratulations to her.

 

 

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Filed under: Book news, Books, California, Poetry, Women's issues, , ,

Song For My Father

I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner, or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.

He must’ve told me of the nights as a teenager, he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and the Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there in North Beach, San Francisco, Saturday night, 1958 or ’59: The Beats had arrived, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through, but my dad was from across town—the Sunset, Ocean Beach, a Catholic boy—and the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce worked in the area and would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a stiff-necked straight, but my father was no square: I like to imagine the neighborhood regulars welcoming him, an innocent among hipsters for the night.

As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that he favored and he had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, along with MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale – Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid –J oao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida – with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way others tell me they’ve known Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia; they were like fathers, a part of the family.

It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. Sure, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I really want, caked with his energy, accompanied by the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his approval and enthusiasm for my taste in the avant-garde and for own small, tidy, and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz. Somewhere along the way, he left behind his passion for it.

By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times changed, and the City, as we call it, had been psychedelicized.  My dad was a young suburban family man, a periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision and become a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before those things helped define leisure styles in the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— and his life between jobs just outside San Francisco. Music didn’t figure into that picture. There was no nightlife to pursue there and no trips to town to hear the jams; most all the old clubs had gone dark though North Beach was becoming home to the next generation of outsiders, the art students and punk rockers of my generation. Not yet 40 years old, a suspended driver’s license kept him unemployable and housebound, his wife at work on the swing shift. By day, he slept in the hammock or sat at the kitchen table, pouring filtered coffee through a cone. He stayed occupied, typing mysterious reports and letters on the Royal and watering the lawn, but he never reached for the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, adjacent to the patio, just on the other side of the sliding glass door, in the family room of our California ranch-style home. It was as if getting up, the simple act of putting a needle to a record, was just too much for him: He had entered the no-jazz zone.

Though occasionally he’d ignite the old flame:  He took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing at St. Francis High School. I heard he rousted my brother and took him to see Milt Jackson at the grand opening of the Mayfield Mall.  Other times, if ever he dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that jazzer’s strange custom, finger-clicking (shoulders hunched). And sometimes while driving, he’d tune into the jazz spot and bop to the radio, occasionally gesturing with an air-cymbal crash. These efforts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal for me: Jazz made life bearable, if only for a moment, as we floated off to another land, returning refreshed, after a couple of bars or beats. 

When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ’70s, my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them.  I moved back to San Francisco, and I’d heard so did my dad, after he’d done some rambling.  Eventually we got together for lunch, often at St. Francis Creamery in the Mission, and on days he was flush, at Mama’s or Vanessi’s in North Beach. We never spoke of the past — it wasn’t in our repertoire — but the memory of his LPs, their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their spiraling liner notes occupy a large space in my heart, lighting a space in the darkness of the holy here and now. I wonder, had he lived, if we’d ever get back to jazz, if he would’ve rediscovered his passion for it, or if he would share mine for Mingus and Monk. If only it had occurred to me to have played some Louis Armstrong at his funeral.  What if he’d lived to see his 50s?  Would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm or held strong?  For sure we’d agree Duke is king, and we most certainly would’ve gone to see Ahmad Jamal at his most recent appearance in town.  But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he be-bopped down the hall, and would I still reflexively roll my eyes at him?  I will never know, though whatever his style and taste in his 70s and whether we agreed wouldn’t matter, if only he was here, right now.  Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is why he stopped listening.

 

A version of this piece was published in my 2016 chapbook, Awful Sweet.

Filed under: It's Personal, Jazz, Sunnyside Up, , , , , ,

Latinas And The Roots of American Music

For my monthly column on music making a difference, I tried to capsulize the long history of Latinas contributing to popular music in America. From the earliest phonograph records made by San Antonio’s Lydia Mendoza, to LA’s Alice Bag (pictured here) who helped invent West Coast punk, and into the 21st Century with Fea, that’s nearly 100 years of recording history on their side. Read the entire article here and let me know what you think.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, cross cultural musical experimentation, Latino culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Punk, Texas, , ,

Shonen Knife Keeps Going and Going

Formed in 1981 in Osaka, Japan, Shonen Knife, founded by sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano are still going strong. Cheered to hear of the pop-punk band’s recent US tour dates which they dubbed The Ramen Adventure Tour, I’m reprinting a portion of an interview with Naoko which appears in my book, Rip It Up: Rock ‘n’ Roll Rulebreakers.   20151214-181016-466913.jpg

Three Japanese women named after a brand of penknife seem the unlikely embodiment of punk rock, yet Shonen Knife may be among the genre’s last rebels.  The power trio makes a pop-punk noise comparable to the Ramones, and counts Sonic Youth, Redd Kross, and the former members of Nirvana among their fans.  But after six albums, fifty singles, and more than ten years together, in 1995, the band was headed stateside in search of a record deal, having cut all management and US label ties.

“We didn’t have enough control, so we quit,” explains guitarist, songwriter and group leader, Naoko Yamano, at home in Osaka.  She was due on the West Coast in a few days, where she intended to test the waters and play a couple of dates with a newly organized Shonen Knife.  “We have about twenty new songs, and we’ve demoed all of them. Our shows in America are going to be our showcase to play our songs and find a record company.” She reels off the new titles:  “‘ESP’ is about people who have extra power, ‘Explosion!’ is about anger, ‘Buddah’s Face’…how he looks at you as if you’ve gone too far this time.”

The band’s album prior to its split with Virgin Records,  Rock Animals, had a metal-lite sound and hellbent for leather meets Spinal Tap graphics that may’ve given the wrong impression to listeners.

“I love hard rock and punk,” says Naoko.  “Hard rock has the spirit of punk.  But I think our managers may have pushed things in the wrong direction…”

Shonen Knife are true fans of rock and quite simply aren’t afraid to let their enthusiasm shine. They’ve played ’60s pop, psychedelic rock, Asian pop, reggae, Motown, ’80s punk and more.  As natural musicians they’ve diversified and developed technically. Nevertheless, the Knife have been teased mercilessly, often by otherwise intelligent male critics, who note they “can’t play,” that they are “cute,” and have “funny accents:” The criticisms betray a wild misunderstanding of what it means to be “of the Knife.”

The members of Shonen Knife came of age at a time when forming a rock band was a serious transgression for girls in Japanese society; they’ve since toured the world, including a stint opening for Nirvana, and remain duty-bound to their mission.

“Shonen Knife is our life’s work,” Naoko says of a vow taken by the women long ago.  “It is equal to ourselves.  So we will do it as long as we live.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Punk, video, Women in Rock, , ,

American Epic or American Tragedy? The Myth of Robert Johnson and the State of Mississippi Delta Blues

I wrote this piece  on the occasion of the Robert Johnson Centennial in May of 2011:  Reassessing the worn-out folk legend about his meeting the devil at midnight at the crossroads, it reports on the state of the 21st century blues from the perspective of a contemporary Mississippi blues player, Cedric Burnside. I hope you enjoy reading and as ever, let me know what you think.

“You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future,” Bob Dylan writes in his book Chronicles of Robert Johnson, the 20th Century blues giant whose work is still celebrated. Johnson’s 29 songs were prescient in the way they would shape folk, rock, blues, and soul—as was his groundbreaking style of playing and singing them. From old-time and ragtime, to uptown Chicago strut, Delta picking, and hill country stomp, the root of all blues can be found in the songs of Robert Johnson, serving all forms of folk, rock, and even soul-jazz. Johnson’s songs have survived homages by artists diverse as the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, Gil Scott Heron, the White Stripes, Keb’ Mo’, and satirists like Tenacious D. Indeed there is something supernatural about the way Johnson’s music, as well as the Faustian myth surrounding him, has survived time and outstretched the work of musicians from here to Yazoo. But far more went into his achievements than a simple midnight pact made on the hallowed ground at the famous crossroads where Highways 61 and 49 now stand.

     “I have to say, I’m a big fan of Robert Johnson’s music, and always have been, but when it comes down to him selling his soul to the devil, I don’t believe in no type of stuff like that,” says musician Cedric Burnside. “I think he really buckled down and practiced a lot and came out blazing.” Burnside is right about Johnson’s devotion to his music rather than the devil according to the Johnson scholars who’ve studied his life and music for over 50 years now. But there is enough drama, dirt, and lowdown on Johnson to fuel a legend in his likeness and many more like it, drawing as it does from existing folk tales and details drawn from the hard scrabble lives of other blues players and the lives they led as black men in the Jim Crow South. As grandson of the late R.L. Burnside, the rural South is something that Cedric knows something about; he worked alongside his grandad who sharecropped for food and shelter until Cedric was nine or 10. As for what he knows about Johnson, he learned that from his grandfather, too. He says Johnson’s works ring true to his experience in the rural blues.

“Some people that ain’t used to the blues and don’t listen to it much, they might see a movie on television, and it might have blues songs in it and the scene might be sad or violent, and that’s what their interpretation of the blues is, but it’s really way different. It’s a deep music. It’s soulful. I think it’s good for you,” he says.

For Burnside, the blues isn’t about harsh reality, breaking up, or bad times; rather, he says, “It helps you appreciate where you come from. I feel good when I’m playing it. I think about having been there and done that, that I made it through it, and I feel good about that.”

Burnside (pictured right) sings and plays guitar with his own Cedric Burnside Project and drums with guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm on 100 Years of Robert Johnson by Big Head Blues Club featuring jam band Big Head Todd and the Monsters, alongside tracks recorded with actual bluesmen: Charlie Musselwhite, B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards, and Hubert Sumlin. Burnside and Malcolm caught their signature hill country groove on Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”; they also cut a mean slide version of “Ramblin’ on My Mind.” “We play similar music to Robert Johnson,” Burnside explains. “That’s all I know.”

As a kid growing up, Burnside says the family didn’t have a radio. “My grandad used to have house parties. He’d invite all his friends over; they’d set up on the porch, set up a little raggedy drum set and a little piece of amp, and go to playing, and that was our music. He explained to us, some of it was Muddy Waters, some of it was Howlin’ Wolf, and some of it was Robert Johnson. That’s how I came to know some of the music, by my grandad playing some.” Burnside is a fan not only of the Johnson guitar style, notable for sounding as if more than one guitar is playing simultaneously, but for his lyrics. “Some of the songs he wrote you can relate to, like ‘Come on in My Kitchen’—I definitely related to that. And ‘When You Got a Good Friend.’ They hit you right where the heart’s at. Anybody that done heard Robert Johnson or hill country blues will love to come to a live show; if they’re hearing it for the first time, they’ll love it for the rest of their life,” he says.

Clearly Burnside is a blues advocate and doesn’t have to be persuaded to talk up his state’s most famous export. He touts the North Mississippi All-Stars as “great musicians” and when I ask for recommendations he tells me the sister/brothers act, Homemade Jamz Blues Band, from Tupelo, are “phenomenal” (I have to say I agree). But Burnside reserves his utmost respect for the living Mississippi bluesmen Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton who made their marks with the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands, as well as for Johnson’s contemporary Honeyboy Edwards, all of with whom he says it’s been his great honor and pleasure to play. The experience of sharing stages with these men places Burnside in a direct a line of Mississippi bluesman whose roots connect up directly with Johnson’s.

King of the Delta Blues

In a classic early book on the subject of the blues titled The Poetry of the Blues, by Samuel Charters, bluesman Henry Townsend explained the blues as a story in which the singer can take sympathy with another. J.D. Short seconded the emotion when he explained, “Sometimes the people that’s listening at you have actually been through some of the same things that I’ve been through, and automatically that takes effect on them and causes their attention to come.” The personal story of Robert Johnson has plenty of instability and strife for a perfect blues tale of woe, and yet through his songs run the threads of compassion Townsend describes. Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi most likely on May 8, 1911, young Robert was shuffled between his parents’ homes until he eventually settled with his mother and stepfather in the Tunica-Robinsonville region of Mississippi. Married at 17 to a young wife who died in childbirth, old and superstitious church types might’ve said that such a fate was his punishment for playing secular songs to earn his living. You could even say this is the beginning of the so-called devil myth, though the story of bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation) who reportedly told folks that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent also figures in; admittedly, it’s an attention-grabber.

The Mississippi Delta region was rich with folktales and blues musicians in the early part of the 20th century, their traditions and sounds descended from slaves from West Africa. Dislocated from their homeland and mistreated to degrees that they don’t teach in school, these men, women, and children were often put to work picking cotton for landed gentry. Once slavery was abolished, those who did not escape or migrate north often found work as sharecroppers, tending farms for owners who paid them a grossly disproportionate piece of the pie. As time went by, conditions in the South didn’t necessarily improve for black men and their families who subsisted in a cycle of poverty. A man could be incarcerated simply for being on the street at night (the subject of Johnson’s song “Crossroads”), then sentenced to work in a labor camp or on a chain gang. This was the fate that Johnson intended to escape, and it motivated him to master music; it also kept him on the move throughout his short life.

In 1930, the blues singer Son House moved into the area where Johnson stayed, as did  Willie Brown (who Johnson shouts out to in “Crossroads”) and Johnson picked up what he could from the blues professionals. By now remarried and with a child, Johnson’s second wife fell ill, and the crisis sent Johnson leaving town again, this time to perform in towns around Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. He found a new mentor in Ike Zinnerman, said to have developed his power by playing in a graveyard—and there again, a supernatural connection. The details have been debated for years now, but historians generally agree it was a comfortable life Johnson created for himself, away from the hard labor that caused others to be too tired to enjoy much of anything, much less develop prodigious skills as a musician. But it was no easy ride: Not only did Johnson have a habit of loving up other men’s women, the menfolk were jealous of Johnson’s ability to get away with not working (therein the beginnings of another archetype that has persisted in and around rock ‘n’ roll for years—the layabout musician). When he eventually returned to Robinsonville,  blues elders like House and Brown were said to be surprised by Johnson’s new-found professionalism. He was ready to record.

The two sessions where Johnson laid down his 29 songs to tape were in 1936 and 1937: First stop was in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where the Brunswick label set up a studio. Johnson played facing the wall, a set-up that has occasionally led historians to conclude that he was shy; rather, it’s likely he was trying to create a good acoustic environment for his recordings of “Terraplane Blues,”“Cross Road Blues,”,and “Come on in My Kitchen,” among others. In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas where he recorded more sides for Brunswick, including his epic classics, “Hell Hound on My Trail,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,”, “Love in Vain,” and “Stones in My Passway.”

Now keeping company with Estella Coleman of Helena, Arkansas, a woman 10 years his senior and mother of Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnson took a shine to “Robert Junior,” just four years younger than him, and taught him everything he knew, deepening the family ties among bluesmen and between de facto stepfather and son. Johnson also fell in with an alliance of musicians including Honeyboy Edwards, Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Petway, and Tommy McClennan, all of whom were forging careers of their own. He traveled with Edwards and Johnny Shines performing all types of songs, including his own “Terraplane Blues.” Ladies loved this song concerning the flashing lights, oil checks, spark plugs, and starter on an automobile, although it wasn’t just the sensational metaphors that attracted listeners. Johnson had a smooth style, developed and honed it, and when he played, it was like listening to a one-man band. So extraordinary were his abilities that to this day there persists a misguided theory that his tapes were sped up to achieve the otherworldly effects.

In Chronicles, Bob Dylan writes about receiving a pre-release version of Johnson’s landmark album finally released in 1961 as King of the Delta Blues. Columbia Records executive John Hammond had acquired Johnson’s previously issued recordings and had newly signed Dylan who describes running to Terri and Dave Van Ronk’s house where they would listen to Johnson for the first time. “Johnson’s voice and guitar were ringing the room and I was mixed up in it. Didn’t see how anyone couldn’t be.” Van Ronk didn’t especially care for what he heard, though Dylan was immediately mesmerized, taking the record home with him and listening to it repeatedly for several weeks. “Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition.” He was particularly impressed with Johnson’s writing; the sophistication of the verses and economy of the lines, the way “every couplet intertwined with the next, but in no obvious way.” Dylan says he wrote down the lines so he could study their construction, “the patterns, the sparkling allegories, big ass truths wrapped in the hard-shell of nonsensical abstraction… They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture.”

Sixty years later, Cedric Burnside says Johnson’s stories pull him into the action too, which is how he came to record “When You Got a Good Friend” for the Johnson tribute project. “A lot of people want good friends and they want to keep good friends—somebody that can stay right by your side through thick and thin. You’ve got something good,” he says.  “A lot of people can relate to that. Some can’t.” Far from the image of a blues tough guy, Johnson advocates caring for friends, in this case a woman in question, though according to those who remember, Johnson was hardly the loyal and steadfast type. Surely Johnson was not the first or last musician motivated to hook up with the woman who would provide him with a warm bed for the night, but he was apparently notorious for catching hell from the men who normally occupied those beds.

Which leads us to the jealous husband who poisoned him—a story that is most likely true, according to Honeyboy Edwards, who was with Johnson on his final rounds. Although, the cause of death was more likely the pneumonia Johnson caught while he was laid up from the poisoning, had he heeded the advice of Sonny Boy Williamson to never drink from an open container, he may’ve avoided this fate. But then he would’ve missed all the women who reportedly sat vigil for him, attempting to nurse him back to health. And had he not fallen so ill, who knows if he would’ve felt the need for a last-ditch conversion on his deathbed, written in longhand and printed on his tombstone (one of three gravesites in the Greenwood/Hazelhurst area): “… I know that my redeemer liveth and that he will call me from the grave.” To this day, there remain three burial sites for Johnson: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Payne Chapel, and Little Zion Church.

The era immediately following Johnson’s death found his songs becoming embedded in the repertoire of his fellow Delta bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, to name but three whose blues helped shape rock ‘n’ roll. And yet it wasn’t until the release of King of the Delta Blues that the real obsession in the hearts and minds of musicians and fans began to swell. At the time that Dylan, followed by Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Eric Clapton, first heard Robert Johnson, there wasn’t even a photograph of him, just 29 songs and a myth a mile long. In 1973, the first photographs of Johnson were found, the familiar close-up with cigarette and long-shot with guitar. It was in these years that Johnson’s connection to rock ‘n’ roll was established that the crossroads bargain myth grew larger. Led Zeppelin, their “Traveling Riverside Blues” and obsession with all things blues and magical, certainly contributed to spreading the music’s mystique around rock ‘n’ roll, as did the high era of ’70s Rolling Stones and their back to country-blues period around Exile on Main Street. By the ’90s, when Columbia issued The Complete Recordings, a generation raised on the myth of Johnson and rock ‘n’ roll was ready to embrace him like never before.

Whether through the pursuit of blues purity by collectors or by Budweiser blues and festival enthusiasts, the blues enjoy greater popularity than ever, though it must be said, largely among white audiences, but that’s changing too: In recent years African Americans returning to the South seeking work and better lives away from urban centers are reclaiming the Southern heritage that is their birthright. Alvin Youngblood Hart (who has Mississippi roots), Corey Harris, and Ruthie Foster are among the contemporary African American artists who play the blues

In 2008, a third photo of Robert Johnson was published in Vanity Fair magazine. Moving footage surfaced but was quickly waved away by scholars; in particular it was nixed by Robert Lockwood Jr.who definitively stated the man in question was not Johnson. In lieu of that holy grail of all Johnson artifacts, the inevitable digitalization and commercialization continues: Columbia’s issued The Centennial Collection of The Complete Recordings as both two-disc and four-disc sets;  Dogfish Head brewery makes Hell Hound on My Ale, a Johnson-inspired craft beer. One suspects a Johnson hologram is on the horizon.

Johnson’s contemporary, Honeyboy Edwards (pictured left),  wrote about Johnson’s unique playing style in his own blues memoir, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing: “Robert came out with a classic blues style, with mostly a lot of minor chords. He had a lot of seventh chords in his blues and it sounded better than just playing straight. And that took with people, because he had a different sound.”

Edwards (who performed up until his death in 2011 at the age of 96) described his fellow bluesman as a nice person who admittedly loved his whiskey and women, but who was no hellraiser. “Robert’s more popular because he died, like everybody else who dies young. But he was a great musician. He innovated his own way of playing. Robert had his own style and he held with it till he died. He wasn’t out there long, but he changed everything.”

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, , , , ,

Prophets of Rage, Rage On

Prophets-of-Rage.jpgOn the occasion of the one year anniversary of its formation, I filed a brief overview of Prophets of Rage, the supergroup, featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford, B-Real of Cypress Hill, and DJ Lord. The rap-metal band is on a mission to “Make America Rage Again.” Read the entire story at Tourworthy:

Filed under: anti-war, Black Power,, Hip Hop, rock 'n' roll, , , , ,

I Called Him Morgan

ichm_lee-morgan-color_publicity_kcpab_francis_wolff.jpgI reviewed the new documentary on the life of jazz trumpet player and composer, Lee Morgan, in the new edition of No Recess! magazine. Let me know what you think.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Jazz, , , , ,

Happy Earth Day

Filed under: video, , , ,

Back On The Chain Gang

Dear Readers,

It’s an unusual post where I want to send you away from my site and toward another, but that’s the case this evening…As it happens, I’m back on the rock ‘n’ roll beat and want to point you to a couple of publications where my work is now playing:

Last week, a group of former colleagues launched No Recess! a music and culture site that aims to bring you some good reading on rock ‘n’ roll, resistance, and whatever else they feel like.

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Check my contributions, a column titled What Are We Gonna Do Now? and subtitled Rock and Resist or Rollover.  I also contribute a book review of the new autobiography by the Band’s Robbie Robertson.   And here’s a film review of I Called Him Morgan), and a news brief (an item on John Hurt Jr.)

I’m also filing a monthly column over at Tourworthy.  My first piece is on the Latino psychedelic soulsters with a message, Chicano Batman.   I hope you’ll look deeper into these new publications and lend them your eyes (and ears) as they keep you up-to-date on the sounds that matter, on the music that’s making a difference. As ever, thanks for reading!

Filed under: Protest Songs, rock 'n' roll, video, You Read It Here First

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock in the ’70s that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, these are the songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charting single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized also revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century).

Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired music served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest stories in music history ever told, as is the origin story of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on this gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus, and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,”  the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,”  and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival and continues to grow stronger following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and to people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site annually).

 

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