ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
The real deal is that folk music is a particular peoples music told at a basic level,
whereas classical music is a “refined” expression filtered through the consciousness
and techniques of an educated composer and trained musicians.
* * * * *
Hail! Odetta: Seminal Matriarch of Modern Black Music
Reviewed by Mtume ya Salaam & Kalamu ya Salaam
We dont fully know ourselves. We need to know ourselves. All of us. All of us need to know the all of us. Especially the obscure sides of us, the hidden, ignored and just plain forgotten sides of us. The Odetta of us. The women and men of us who stood tall when America wasnt nothing but mostly one big old giant chopping axe. When it was common to think of us as much less than we actually was. Even among ourselves we low-rated our peoples, our history, the rich survival legacies we passed around, legacies what was blankets in the wretched times of our economic nakedness and was cool sips of water in the desert of the mock democracy we endured. I dont mean to solely focus on the political in talking about Odetta, about our music, about what is commonly called American folk music, but what you going to do? If you tell the truth about our music, you gotta tell the stone truth about what was going down all around as the music was being made, even though its also true that you dont have to know none of the context to like what you hear. Here in the beginnings of the 21st century, we are kind of used to music as mostly being ass-shaking entertainment, so these life stories of ramblers, prisoners, heartbroken individuals, struggling families, and assorted strivers, all these reels, airs, tunes, melodies, musical tapestries and such probably strike our modern sensibilities as odd. But what is really odd is how reluctant many of us are to handle up on the guts of our traditions, the 19th and 20th century roots of our current humanity. Americans are used to thinking there is no past worth studying and remembering. History is boring and civics a waste of time. So we not only dont know, we dont want to know. Fortunately, Odetta, who started recording in the late Fifties is still with us and well into the Nineties continues to drop sonic gems.
Born Odetta Gordon on December 31, 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama, this Los Angeles-raised woman was training for classical music when she found herself in a San Francisco Bay coffeehouse and was captivated by what she heard, i.e., folk music. What is folk music? What is the difference between folk music and classical music or any other music? Folk music is a label usually used to designate non-literate musical expressions of a specific ethnic or social group. The emphasis is usually on the performance of music that has passed on from mouth to mouth, from older musicians to younger musicians. In America, the term “folk music” is generally associated with guitars, fiddles, dulcimers, tambourines and other portable hand instruments. The real deal is that folk music is a particular peoples music told at a basic level, whereas classical music is a “refined” expression filtered through the consciousness and techniques of an educated composer and trained musicians. Anybody can play or sing folk music but you have to be educated (at the very least be able to “read” music) to perform classical music in a manner considered acceptable by the mainstream. Thats what is usually meant by “folk” music, but people such as Odetta surpassed the limitations often imposed on folk music. She was literate, she was a serious student of music and she had the ability to play all types of music. The notion of “just grew,” i.e., a natural performer who has not studied, does not apply to Odetta. In other words: you dont have to be illiterate to be a folk musician.
What Odetta did was consciously collect the music of the various ethnic groups that make up America, which is the same thing the early blues artists did. They could perform all of the popular music both national and regional. Thus, Odetta does a song like Sail Away Ladies. This is all our heritage, especially so when we speak of African Americans who are the most creolized, i.e., mixed, of any identifiable sub-group in America. Odettas impact on American music in general and folk music in particular is most easily measured when you consider that a young Bobby Zimmerman gave up his electric guitar and started playing acoustic after hearing Odetta. It doesnt matter than less than a decade later, that Zimmerman, bka Bob Dylan, would shock the folk world when he electrified his music. What matters is that Bob Dylan became Bob Dylan partly as a result of Odettas inspiration. Dont Think Twice is taken from Odetta Sings Dylan. Although it may not be immediately obvious, Odetta inspired a lot of people, yours truly included. Around 1959, I was just starting to study and collect black music. I got into the blues through two performers: Harry Belafonte with his Belafonte Sings The Blues recording and Odetta, especially that 1962 Odetta and The Blues album with Vic Dickerson on trombone. Neither Harry nor Odetta is primarily known for the blues but they introduced me and, as some sort of seal of approval, check out that the both of them are still active. Two songs from Odettas early recordings will always stay with me: Make Me A Pallet On The Floor and Another Man Done Gone. Pallet has a deep traditional New Orleans jazz feel but even though I was a native, back then I didnt know much about the history of jazz. I was just responding to what felt good. Another Man struck me as an important witness statement about running away from oppression. At that time, those of us who were teenagers in the Civil Rights Movement saw ourselves as standing and fighting back. We believed that the best the previous generation could do was run. It was through deeper study of the music that I began to hear much more than fleeing, I also heard fighting and that bucked me up.
On another level, listen to Black Woman and you will hear Odetta still tapping that resistance sound, hooking up external social situations and internal personal loss into one big ball of hurt and pushing it on down the road. Our people have long known that one of the most important social functions of music is publicly expressing hurt as a way to heal the self. Odettas version of Amazing Grace is a soul song done up old-time congregation style. Recorded at a festival, Amazing Grace scoops up the audience and teleports them into a spiritual space that many of them had probably never visited afore. Our featured song is a Nineties version of The House Of The Rising Sun. Odetta calls her duet with pianist Henry Butler simply New Orleans. Like Odetta, Henry Butler is deep into the blues and is also a trained musician who studied classical musicyou can hear the breadth of Butlers musical experiences in how he offers altered chords and unexpected progressions on this traditional song. The last two songs Give A Damn and Hit Or Miss represent recent recordings from Odetta done in a contemporary style. Check the fatback drum intro on Hit Or Miss. Here we can easily hear how Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman are Odettas daughter and granddaughter, respectively.
Id like to close this homage to Odetta with a note on her appearance. She was a big, black woman who wore her hair short and natural. Marilyn Monroe was the beauty icon of the Fifties. Joan Baez became the major image of the folk singer. Odetta was a big, black woman. Who wore her hair cut short. Real short. And natural. Go look at the pictures of black women in Jet or Ebony in the Fifties (or the Nineties for that matter). See how many big, black (i.e., dark-skinned) women you find with short and natural hair. Hail, Odetta! A seminal matriarch of modern black music. Musically, she collected our roots and passed them on to the most conscious elements of musicians from the Sixties and Seventies. And now in the 21st century, she continues to offer guidance and inspiration.
Hail, Odetta.Kalamu ya Salaam
Source: Breath of Life
* * * * *
A personal hang-up It may be a personal hang-up of mine, but Ive always had a problem with educated people “putting on” as though they arent. I always think, man, just do you. Just be what you are. I dont know Odetta the woman, of course. For that matter, I dont know the first thing about Odetta the musician either. So these comments are less about Odetta herself, and more about my reaction to Kalamus biographical sketch and to the (relatively) few selections Ive heard here. I listen to some of these tunes and I think of how much it drives me crazy when I hear a university professor playing Dixieland or when I hear classically-trained jazz musicians playing New Orleans street music or, as Kalamu and I talked about last week, when I see well-spoken, well-educated, well-dressed blues musicians on PBS singing to a mostly-white and affluent-looking audience about how po broke and lonely they feel now that they woman done gone.
The particular tune that got me thinking about of all of this is Another Man Done Gone. I was actually digging that one. I was feeling the whole thing: the lyrics, the handclaps, the vocals, everything. Then Odetta finished and immediately this loud but polite applause came in. I was like, What?! That was recorded live? If you dont get the point Im trying to make, listen to something like Arethas Amazing Grace album. That music was recorded live in a church full of true believers, music lovers and probably assorted hangers-on and political types who managed to snake their way in. Of course, if youve heard the record, I dont have to tell you it was recorded live because from beginning to end, the audience never shuts up. They never let you forget its live, not even for a minute. And Aretha wouldnt want them to.
Live recordings of authentic folk music (black folk music, at least) done with an authentic folk crowd would never have that austere quiet of a recording studio. How could it when the audience is clapping and yelling and hollering, sure, you right, and go head, and testify! Im not just talking about gospel. Im talking about blues, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, anything. In its early manifestations, every type of black music theres ever been is folk music, and if its live, youre going to hear that audience participating in the music. Theyre never quiet observers. Over and over, it seems, our music becomes popularized until it loses all connection to the people. Then its treated as what it has actually become: as a museum piece. Upscale people of all races pay lots of money to see musicians (usually quite sincere musicians Im actually not knocking the musicians themselves) recreate the same music that, back when it was actually relevant, those same upscale people wouldnt be caught dead listening to. I saw a blurb the other day announcing that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had become the first hip-hop artists to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. As someone whos been loving hip-hop since the early Eighties, I guess I shouldve been proud. Instead, I felt a little queasy. Go to a show featuring real hip-hop these days and youll find its just like the Odetta thing. It might be real, but for me at least, its real in a vacuum. Mtume ya Salaam
* * * * *
Dont sleep on Odetta Mtume, remember this: you were learning to play bass and you had a horrible music teacher in high school. You gave it up. Later, there was a conversation with Ellis Marsalis. Ellis grinned his acid Cheshire cat grin and intoned: so you let a lame cat stop you from learning something hip? (or something to that effect). Im sure you remember.
That said, Ive had some of the same feelings you describe. Odetta came through the folk scene, a scene that was overwhelmingly white. Moreover, during the sixties, the folk scene was almost a frenzy of embracing black folk artists, particularly acoustic blues players who were often literally in their last years alive on earth. Your (and my) general aversion to scenes where the performers are black and the audience is overwhelmingly white is a residue of being raised in America. You go to Europe and you dont quite get the same feel, even though its the same black performer/white audience syndrome. So, Mtume, what did you think about the version of Amazing Grace on which the audience does as much, if not more, singing than Odetta. What about those last two tracks recorded in the nineties with a band? You stopped playing bass because of your square-ass, obnoxious teacher. One of the great paradoxes of black music is that very, very often (some, like you and I, would say way, way too often) the available venues for the presentation of the music is in alien spaces and places. Certainly we both are aware that the audience is an important element of the music. You cant produce hip music if you only play for square audiences. No argument from me on that count. But whats a musician to do: turn down gigs unless there are a specific number of blacks in the audience. Oh, um, sorry, we cant play tonight, not enough black people out there.?!?!? And do we give up touring Europe altogether? Obviously this can quickly fall off into the realm of the senseless, but its a necessary discussion. In some ways the role of the audience is critical to the development of the music. I dont approach this issue mechanically, nor do I think it makes any kind of sense to have some kind of racial quota, as if being hip was a racial thing. Condeleeza plays piano, you think shes hip? Theres a very, very interesting discussion going on in the blogasphere about this very subject. Check out Hello black folks? Can you hear me?, an article by jazz saxophonist Matana. She delves into the “absence of a black audience” question from her perspective as a musician.
Ok, we took the long way around, but Mtume I urge you to give the Odetta tracks another listen. Not just for the music itself, but also to understand that paradox and contradiction are at the heart of what we doif we let the absence of blacks or the presence of whites totally determine what we do or dont do, were not going to get very far. We may never learn to play the bass.Kalamu ya Salaam
* * * * *
Real in a vacuum? Maybe so. But I’m not sure that that causes any diminution in value and significance. I suppose at one point that was my view about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They did not sing the Spirituals in the same manner as folks did in the backwoods. On reading James Weldon Johnson’s sermons, though artistic, they seemed somewhat of a shadow of the authentic Negro sermon of, say, a C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father. And I know I’ve said that the blues of Langston Hughes and those of Sterling Brown fall short in ways from the blues of Robert Johnson or Sun House or even Muddy Waters. The same applies to their ballads. These formally “educated” artists, however, brought something else, an important addition, I think, a self-consciousness, a self-awareness, possibly absent in the authentic folk artists, of a broader and deeper significance of the folk material. This “backward glance” and the understanding of the larger significance of the material made the folk material itself and more than itself at the same time. This may be a paradox. But there is indeed something in it. It is ironic too that it took a lot of young white men and women to refocus our attention on the importance of Negro folk material and folk artists. Without them Im not sure we would have had a blues/folk revival in the 60s and 70s. Different times, places, and audiences are indeed important for a greater appreciation.Rudy
posted 25 March 2007
* * * * *
#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
* * * * *
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
* * * * *
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
update 13 January 2012