Ornette Coleman once said that “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” Sound is foundational to the human and it enhances our other senses. Like my previous Black Lives Matter playlist and past ENGL 125 playlists, I offer this playlist in relation to my current ENGL 125 courses focused on music, literature, and popular culture. Music is a through line of the two primary texts—Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—and the anthemic refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” punctuates the final work studied in this course: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Music unifies and celebrates, but it can also resist and serve as protest. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (write-up on my #BLM playlist) to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” music has played an integral role in the pursuit of social justice. That all said, get comfortable. Grab a cup of tea, coffee, or your beverage of choice, and sit back and listen.
INTRO: Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” and DJ Techné, “Another World”
Week 1: Feelin’ Blue: Johnson, Parker, Bessie, Billie, and Armstrong
Week 2 (Half-Blood Blues): King Oliver and Oscar Peterson
Week 3 (Half-Blood Blues): Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton
Intro: Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” and DJ Techné, “Portals”
David Byrne speaks about the coronavirus as an opportunity for change, and music is all about change and adaptation. Byrne led the rock/new wave band Talking Heads for nearly 30 years. Talking Heads have a number of albums that appear on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and they are probably most known for their song, “Psycho Killer.” Another one of their well-known songs, and the focus of our intro listening is the obfuscate, “Once in a Lifetime” (produced by Brian Eno from Remain in Light). Sonically, the song is inspired by the Afrobeat sound of Fela Kuti, and lyrically Byrne borrows from the cadences and antiphony of sermonizing preachers (see the lyrics). In part, the song deals with the pointlessness of not being content with what you have. It is impossible to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean and there is no way to stop the flow of life. There is certainly a lesson here, especially in terms of how we adapt and try to remain content during the challenges presented by COVID-19. In an interview with Time Out, Byrne describes how the song came from “evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.” The song has also been analyzed as an invective against consumerism, but the central question the song asks is “How did I get here?” A question, we can ask ourselves as individuals and as a species. On NPR, musician Travis Morrison praised the lyrics saying it is the perfect song: “The lyrics are astounding – they are meaningless and totally meaningful at the same time. That’s as good as rock lyrics get.” What do you hear in them, and does the technologically outdated, but certainly interesting, music video for the song clarify its meaning? Probably not, but check it out.
Another song worth mentioning is Byrne’s Broadway cover of Janelle Monae’s anthemic “Hell You Talmbout,” which functions as a protest and uses call-and-response as the names of victims of police violence are shouted out. I am sharing the original Monae version, which feels as timely as ever, as it is not available on Spotify (but you can check out Byrne’s version there).
Lastly, I want to share my live track, “Portals.” The track opens with a sample from the Man Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy speaking about the coronavirus pandemic as a portal: “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” With systemic injustices more visible than ever, she asks us to use this opportunity to imagine another world, which is echoed in the second part of the performance as Sun Ra envisions music as another language. There is freedom in sound (especially when it is open to different styles) to dream and shape the future, which fits with Sun Ra’s vision of music as a gateway to a better world. If you listen closely, you will also hear vocal samples from Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Charles Mingus. Will we ignore the rupture the pandemic created and return to “normal,” or will we improvise and step through the portal into another world?
A slightly different version of song can be heard on my album, Portals.
Week 1: Feelin’ Blue: Johnson, Parker, Bessie, Billie, AND Armstrong
“I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.” —Duke Ellington, The Duke Ellington Reader, 147
“There is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave.” —W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 7
I realize there is a lot of music for this week. Too much to fully grasp the meaning of all of the songs, but hopefully even reading through these short write-ups and having the playlist playing while you read the material, or think through it, will prove helpful and insightful. Esi Edugyan also made a written playlist to accompany her text, which you can find on VIULearn in the folder for this week’s class. This week is all about the blues and jazz.
The form of the blues comprises work songs, spirituals, field hollers, shouts, chants, and ballads, among other styles. However, it took some time before the blues were as classically ubiquitous and cross-cultural as they are today. As the Du Bois epigraph elucidates, and as James Weldon Johnson accurately predicted, “The day will come when this slave music will be the most treasured heritage of the American Negro” (Autobiography 1197). The blues plants the roots of much music: it is pervasive in jazz, provides the foundation of rhythm and blues, and the twelve-bar blues progression can even be heard throughout rock and roll. One particularly common feature of blues music is the blue note, which for expressive function is sung or played flattened or bent (from the minor 3rd to the major 3rd) relative to the pitch of the major scale. The idiom itself, “the blues,” refers to the “blue devils,” implicating melancholy and sadness with an early use of the term appearing in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils. Some early innovators of the blues are W.C. Handy (known as the Father of Blues), Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Mamie Smith, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, and too many others to list here. What is interesting to notice about this tentative list is how prominent women blues figures were in the creation, innovation, and dissemination of the blues, as female vaudeville blues singers were eminently popular in the 1920s.The blues genre—and the spirituals preceding it—helped materialize a classical African American canon of music (a formal counter canon to the European classical tradition), which provided potent standards off of which other artists could riff, beginning with the early spirituals. Case in point: the Negro Spirituals “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” have been covered and recorded on thousands of records, becoming standards, with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash, Parliament, The Grateful Dead, and hip-hop group Bone Thugs and Harmony covering the former, to everyone from Grant Green, Fats Waller, Archie Shepp, and Will Smith on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air covering the latter. The blues have the power to connect people across diverse backgrounds and time periods, and represents, as Black liberation theologian James H. Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues, “The power of the song in the struggle for black survival—that is what the spirituals and blues are about” (1).
Jazz, similar to the blues, is a distinct musical form, prominently of African American origin, which emerged in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century, although ragtime from the 1890s is also a type of jazz. Similar to the blues, jazz incorporates, adapts, and subverts other musical elements, with early influences including “African and European music, American folk music, marching band music, plantation songs, spirituals and gospel music, minstrelsy, ragtime and the blues” (Stanbridge 286). Jazz is largely defined by its ability to amalgamate other forms, along with the music’s broader techniques, which include various rhythmic properties, from swing and syncopation to complex harmonic languages, as well as an overarching focus on improvisation.
The first song I want to draw your attention to is Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (also known as “Crossroads”). Recorded back in 1936 the song is about the crossroads in Mississippi—“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees”—where Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents. The song was popularized by Eric Clapton—who deeply admired Johnson—in the late ‘60s. Another standard and related Johnson track is “Me and the Devil Blues” (1937), which tells the story of the devil knocking on Johnson’s door and telling him that it’s time to go. Notice the call and response technique as various lines are repeated with some spontaneous vocal alteration. This antiphonic form is a big part of the blues and jazz, and it would later be heard in punk and hip-hop music. I remixed Johnson’s track with Bessie Smith’s “Devil’s Gonna Git You,” along with film and art, which you can view, here.
Hopefully, you had the chance to read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which introduces us to a few pivotal figures of jazz, namely Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. While Armstrong is redeemed in Half-Blood Blues, he is considered “old-time, down home crap” (although check out his “What Did I do to be so Black and Blue” for its persistent themes) by Sonny largely because he wants to play what is new and cutting edge for his time: Bebop music. I’ve written about the power of Bebop music and its relation to hip-hop before, but what is so exciting about Charlie Parker for Sonny is that he took the music somewhere completely new as heard in “Ko Ko” or “Ornithology,” which is a contrafact—that is, a newly created melody written over the chord progressions of another song, in this instance the standard “How High the Moon.” Sonny also covers “Am I Blue” (notably recorded and performed by Billie Holiday) and makes it his own.
Many of these songs would make for excellent choices for your close reading if you decide to go that route.
Week 2 (Half-Blood Blues): King Oliver and Oscar Peterson
I hope you are enjoying Half-Blood Blues. If you were finding the language and style difficult, I also hope that it is getting easier for you as you work through it. There are a number of musical references throughout the novel and this week I want to draw your attention to two of them.
“Crowder told Armstrong Hiero reminded him of King Oliver in his prime” (84) … “Have you ever seen King Oliver?” (111)
The novel talks a lot about Louis Armstrong (and later features him as a character) and Armstrong is considered one of the great innovators of jazz, but without King Oliver (1881-1938) we might not get Louis Armstrong. Oliver was both a mentor and teacher of Armstrong. As Armstrong says, in Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans, “if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today.” I’ve added both “Riverside Blues” and “Speakeasy Blues” to the Spotify playlist.
While you haven’t gotten to it yet, it doesn’t spoil anything to let you know that the novel allows draws in Canada and jazz.
“I’m from Montreal … Little Burgundy” (108).
We learn that Delilah is from Little Burgundy in Montreal, which is the home of famous jazz musicians Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson. You can view a short Wikipedia article that I wrote about a legendary club in Little Burgundy named “Rockhead’s Paradise” if you want to learn a little more about the history.
While there are number of Canadian jazz songs I could add, I will share one from Oscar Peterson. Drawing on the energy of the black church, and speaking across borders, Black Montreal-based musician Oscar Peterson conceived of “Hymn to Freedom,” which was sung in various places in the States as an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement.
Also, for those interested in learning more about jazz music, see the documentary Jazz (link posted to VIULearn) as the documentary provides more detail about the man and legend, Louis Armstrong. In particular, later we will view the short clip on the novelty number called “Heebie Jeebies,” which Armstrong sang with vocal improvisations. Innovation is often a result of chance, and Louis Armstrong’s impromptu scatting in “Heebie Jeebies” (the first scat caught on a recording) was the result of a mistake: as the legend goes, Armstrong’s lyric sheet fell while recording and so he began to scat/improvise.
You can hear the song (and the others) on the Spotify playlist.
Week 3 (Half-Blood Blues): Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton
“He was playing Empty Bed Blues, but doing it so coy it ain’t sound nothing like itself.” (122)
Bessie Smith was a major figure of the blues (we will watch the film Bessie about her), and she, along with others like Ma Rainey represent, as observed by Angela Davis, a “black working-class social consciousness,” while moreover they “foreshadowed a brand of protest that refused to privilege racism over sexism, or the conventional public realm over the private as the preeminent domain of power” (Blues Legacies 42). And so, (in tandem with its often-bawdy nature), the blues genre was, as Davis concludes, “responsible for the dissemination of attitudes toward male supremacy that had decidedly feminist implications” (55). In a moment that leaves Sid very jealous, Delilah and Hiero perform Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” (originally from 1928). You can read the lyrics here and listen to the song below (also on the playlist).
What do you think this song is about? Read the lyrics while listening to the song and then come back here. I’ll wait…
Okay. Did you listen to the song and read the lyrics? It is full on innuendos about sex (“coffee grinder”) and even references performing cunnilingus: her new lover is a “deep sea diver” who can “stay down at the bottom” holding his breath. No wonder Sid is jealous.
Deeply personal and explicit lyrics have always been part of the blues. At one point in the novel Jelly Roll Morton is mentioned. Born in 1890 Jelly Roll Morton is one of the earliest jazz artists and he even claimed to have invented the music in 1902 (this is disputed). He also played in Vancouver cabarets as early as 1919 and as late as 1921. He played piano, gambled, drank, told bawdy jokes, and sang during his residency at the Patricia in Vancouver. He also wrote some very explicit music, such as “Winin’ Boys Blues” (recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939).
Warning: the song below is very explicit and you may find it offensive (lyrics, here). There’s a clean version of it on the Spotify playlist, as well as a version by singer Stephanie Niles with the original explicit lyrics. Does our understanding of the song change when a woman sings it?
There are many other songs of a similar nature, such as “Travelling Riverside Blues” (also added to the playlist). I guess we’ve been singing and writing about sex for as long as we’ve been writing and singing.