Incompentent Gardener

Songs Are Sneaky Things

   Tue, February 28, 2006 - 12:01 AM
The folk singer Pete Seeger observed:

"Songs won't save the planet, but then neither will books or speeches. Songs are sneaky things; they can slip across borders."

Yesterday I was moved to read Vincent Harding talk about music in the freedom movement I thought about writing about Fanny Lou Hamer because while best known as the co-founder of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and speaking before a televised session of the credentials committee at the 1964 Democrat Covention; she was also known for her enthusiastic use of singing.

Harding can't imagine a freedom movement without songs; that songs are sneaky is a reason for that. But perhaps protest doesn't capture just how slippery songs are, slipping across so many borders of our lives. A post about Fanny Lou Hamer is certainly a good idea, but songs provide such a broad topic. Huddie William Ledbetter, Leadbelly makes the context of songs in the struggle wider and so perhaps makes the story of songs more strange and curious.

James Baldwin in his essay "Stranger in the Village" wrote:

"One of the things that distinquishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men and vice versa...It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again."

Songs have slipped across racial borders here in America for a very long time. When my mother died we cremated her body. So at her funeral in lieu of a casket we had a cupboard which we place some artifacts to remember her by. At the closing of the service the door of the cupboard was closed and locked so it could be carried out. The closing song was "We Shall Overcome." I told a friend in India about that and he recalled that they had sung "We Shall Overcome" at school.

"The melody heard in the first and last lines of this song has been traced back to the spiritual, "No More Auction Block for Me," which was sung by slaves in the 1800s." And the song, perhaps more than any other is associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Still, the song means so much to so many; a song that captures what in the heart seemed so appropriate to remember my mother. Someday, we will walk hand in hand; someday we will live in peace, were words which resonated in the heart of a Republican woman from New England. They are words of redemption, words which remind us how good we can be.

Michelle Schocked in her notes to "Arkansas Traveler" said that the real roots of many of the songs on the collection are in blackface minstrelsy. Blackface minsrelsy is so strange, it's hard know where to beging to understand it. This essay I happened across, "Every Time I Turn Around: Rite, Reversal, and the end of blackface minstrelsy" is quite smart. The shorter version is to imagine these minstrel shows which were popular in the U.S. and Europe from 1840 onward as rites of reversal familiar to oral and literary traditions in many cultures. Comer provides this quote from "The London Illustrated News:"

"With white faces the whole affair would be intolerable. It is the ebony that gives the due and needful character to the monstrosities, the breaches of decorum, the exaggerations of feeling, and the "silly, sooth" character of the whole implied drama."

Minstrel shows provided the character Jim Crow whose name was applied to the draconian laws enforcing apartheid, but these shows also provided a forum for public criticism and satire. In blacking up the performers and audiences often received what they hadn't bargined for. The long popularity of minstrel shows, however made black performers a stereotype.

Leadbelly had to contend with that stereotyping. And to an extent he played along for commercial advantage. The promotion of Leadbelly after the Lomaxes brought him to New York was heavy on "legend, and apparently the Lomaxes "hated that" Looking over pictures of album covers and promotional shots there are plenty that reflect the stereotype for example this picture But Ledbetter was conscious of his image and proud of his muscianship so there are other pictures as well, like the one shown at this blog.

Here's a good page with a biography of Woody Guthrie A performance in 1940 Guthrie played in a "Grapes of Wrath Evening", a benefit for the "John Steinbeck committee for Agricultural Workers" which featured Leadbelly and other folk singers the Lomaxes had recorded. Pete Seeger was also impressed and a broader audience for a beautiful American form of music emerged.

Perhaps it's important that Seeger is so closely associated with Ledbetter's signature song, "Goodnight Irene." But it was an immaculately dressed Ledbetter who brought audiences in direct contact with black music and not black face. Jazz muscians and most memorably Duke Ellington did so too, but Ellington never played the clown, and his urbane music wasn't so directly apprehended as drawn from a shared tradition of minstrelsy.

"Shaft" is probably Gordon Parks's best known film, but he also made a biographical film about Leadbelly Ledbetter is one of the most important American musicians. His legacy also entails stepping out of the minstrel clown tradition allowing audiences to hear his songs directly and not through a curtain of farse. Park's film dramatically shows the tennor of the times which made life so difficult for the proud and talanted musician, Huddie William Ledbetter.

Songs have slipped across boundaries to an extent that now the boundaries have been stretched beyond recognition, such that as Baldwin observed: "This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again."

1 Comment

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Sat, April 15, 2006 - 8:28 PM
sneeky songs
One of the things I like to think about is how songs and music travels, and how those travellers mingle and how traces f thier meetings leave themselves throughout music like breadcrumbs.