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Paul von Blum
Henry Rosemont, jr.
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Queering the Scouts
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In the last decade the music industry has gradually discovered the music of American Indians. As a result, at least a small portion of the music buying public has started to hear sounds that have nothing to do with the Hollywood western soundtracks that have defined "Indian Music" as methodical drum beats, shaking rattles, monotone chanting, and crazed war whoops. In the music of Native American musicians such as Sharon Burch, R. Carlos Nakai, John Trudell, Bill Miller, Robert Mirabal, Ulali, Burning Sky, Jerry Alfred & The Medicine Beat, Douglas Spotted Eagle, Robbie Bee and Boyz From The Rez, and Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, one can hear a rich variety of traditional indigenous music, as well as contemporary sounds blending assorted Indian roots expressions with rock, reggae, blues, hip-hop, country, jazz, and folk.
Robbie Robertsons Contact
Coming out as a half-Mohawk in 1994, Robbie Robertson had this wide spectrum of Native American music in mind when he produced the soundtrack for the television series "The Native Americans." With a broad array of Indian performers, the former leader of The Band, created a seamless fusion of traditional, modern, and "earth" sounds evoking the culture, history, and spirituality of Native Peoples. On his recently released album, Contact From The Underworld Of Red Boy (Capitol), he continues to defy stereotypes of Indian music by mixing Howie B and Maurice de Vriess avant electronic effects with explosive doses of electric guitar, trancy Indian chants, and haunting sing-talk narratives.
While Contact may be taken as another attempt to rediscover his Native heritage, the seemingly fragmented perspective of the albums 11 tunes eventually yields a hard-edged social critique and an inspiring manifesto of resistance. On "Sacrifice," Contacts pivotal track, American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, through a taped phone conversation, lays out his version of the 1975 confrontation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that left two FBI agents and one Indian dead. In prison for over 21 years for the murders of the agents, Peltier maintains his innocence and defiance against a dark atmosphere of languid beats and ghostly background vocals: "Ive gone too far now to start backing down. I dont give up. Not until my people are free will I give up."
Robertson also shares lead spoken and sung vocals with Leah Hicks-Manning (on "The Sound Is Fading"), Verdell Primeaux (on "Peyote Healing"), Chief Jake Thomas (on "The Code Of Handsome Lake"), and The Six Nations Women Singers (on "Stomp Dance," Unity). And, as on music for "The Native Americans," writing, instrumental, and vocal backing feature some of todays most formidable Native American talent. Which means, although Robertsons singing, lyrics, and guitar work clearly stamp a personal imprint on the project, Contact From The Underworld Of Red Boy is a communal statement of struggle and triumph. And one of the most powerful releases of the year.
Portions of the profits from this recording are going to the Leonard Peltier Defense Fund and The Jake Thomas Learning Center.
The Ignored Legacy of Black Country & Western
Although the "whiteness" of country music is taken for granted, the tradition has considerable roots in African American music. Despite the political, social, and economic barriers separating white and black Americans in the South, working class musicians of both groups freely borrowed musical ideas without regard for skin color. Thus the country song, in its song structure, instrumental techniques, and lyric traditions, reveals heavy influences of blues and black gospel styles. Although non-white country performers are still rare in the country field, African American musicians have, at various times, won wide acceptance with country audiences.
Thanks to the Country Music Foundations recently released three volume compilation, From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music (Warner Bros.), this underappreciated vein of country music is getting some light play. Listeners who have some familiarity with the Grand Tradition will not be surprised by tracks by Deford Bailey, the Grand Ole Oprys first black star or the many selections from the Hank Williams-influenced Charley Pride, by far the most popular black country singer of all time. But to hear the black rockabilly of Al Downing, the Memphis Sheiks raucous version of Jimmie Rodgers "In The Jailhouse Now," the varied "soul-country" crossovers by Ray Charles, Joe Tex, and Solomon Burke, the New Orleans stylings of Professor Longhair, Aaron Neville, and Fats Domino and the gospel-tinged twist of "Release Me" by Esther Phillips, brings revelations of the deep musical and emotional kinship between black and white music in the South.
The full story of this give and take is, of course, distorted by racism. But those willing to give a listen to From Where I Stand will be steered toward a more complicated and less one dimensional view of the country tradition. (For more on the subject see my "Wild And Blue: The Politics of Country," Z September, 1994.)
Revisiting Maya Angelou
Though these days Maya Angelou is regarded as one of the countrys most distinguished writers and a woman with a gracious and genteel sensibility, there was a time in the early 1970s when her words blazed with savage honesty and bitter discontent. In the era of Black Power, her work, along with that of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, the Last Poets, and so many others in the Black Arts movement, detonated the lies and and sins of White America, while igniting a new sense of pride and dignity in Black America.
On the just reissued Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou (Rhino), you can hear the brave, unsparing, and beautiful voice of Angelou reading 33 poems displaying her remarkable power. Originally recorded in 1969 and joined with five jazz interludes composed by Ed Bland, Black Pearls includes mostly material that would later be published as Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water Fore I Diiie (Random House, 1971). Like her celebrated prose autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1970), the poems collected for Black Pearls describe experiences growing up in the South. Harrowing, tough, and inspiring.
Other works by Maya Angelou: The Complete Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House, 1994); Gather Together In My Name (1974), Singin And Swingin And Gettin Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart Of A Woman (1981), and All Gods Children Need Traveling Shoes (1984), all Random House.
Life in Ani Difrancos Little Plastic Castle
Two years ago when I interviewed Ani Difranco for Z, she was beginning to catch the eye of the mass media, but still remained a mostly word-of-mouth phenomenon. Since then, shes made the cover of nearly every music publication, landed appearances on national television, stacked up endless glowing reviews for her albums and concerts, sold out venues with up to 6,000 seats, garnered a Grammy nomination, and toured with Bob Dylan. Righteous Babe Records, her own self-started indie label, has now sold over a million copies of her nine previous albums.
While this level of success is welcome, and surely modest compared to the standards of major label blockbusters, for an artist whose music and politics are explicitly anti-corporate, it certainly elevates the level of public scrutiny and responsibility. Accordingly, Difrancos newest album, Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe Records), raises questions about how to hold on to humanity and identity in the face of the inexorable music biz star making machinery.
On the title track, the feminist/lefty/bisexual punk folksinger contends with her public persona.
People talk about my image Like I come in two dimensions Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind Like what I happen to be wearing The day that someone takes a picture Is my new statement for all womankind.
Other songs on the album dont address the issue as straightforwardly, but here and there Difranco alludes to stresses and ambivalence that come with high-profile music making.
Ultimately, however, Difrancos musical vision seems pretty much unfazed by her changing status. Her subject matter remains most focused on what she calls her "ongoing, unromantic relationship with romantic love." As always her stories are intimate, harsh, and tender portrayals of relationships shes lived; with wounds, telling details, and frank sexuality pouring forth through elastically phrased, sharp eyed urban poetry. And still defining herself as a folksinger, Difranco keeps her sound centered around her voice and guitar. Some of the albums strongest tracks are driven by her trademark percussive fury on acoustic guitar and her familiar melodious and volcanic singing.
Little Plastic Castle does break some new ground. The title track explodes with a bouncy, ska-flavored horn section, "Deep Dish" floats in a quirky lounge ambiance, and the stunning 14-minute finale, "Pulse," offers bittersweet spoken verse against hypnotic bass and guitar figures, and wistful trumpet lines by Jon Hassell. Fresh ideas for sure, but no major revision of her essential folk-punk aesthetic.
For those concerned with the watering down of ideology, check out the anti-capitalist diatribe on "Fuel" and rest assured Difranco hasnt made peace with The Man. Quite the contrary. Each level of her success offers more proof that musicians and audiences can find each other without drinking from the polluted corporate well.
The Afro-Latin Beat
With the Ry Cooder-convened Buena Vista Social Club grabbing a Grammy at this years music awards, Afro-Cuban music is sure to take another big jump in sales and visibility in the U.S. Which is great because the fusion of African and Cuban musical forms has produced a vast body of vital, innovative sounds that have not been given their due.
One of many overlooked gems from the past year is Ritmo Y Candela II: African Crossroads (Round World). This follow-up to the 1996 release Ritmo Y Candela: Rhythm At The Crossroads (Round World) delves into the African side of the Afro-Cuban blend as it joins players from the first CandelaPatato (congas), Joe Santiago (bass), Orestes Vilato (timbales), and Enrique Fernandez (sax)with exciting Cuban players such as Walfredo de los Reyes, Sr. (drums), Ivan "Melon" Gonzalez (piano), and Omar Sosa (piano), as well as veteran African artists such as soukous singer Samba Mapangala and Senegalese kora player Abdou M boup. A sizzling stew of Afro-Cuban traditions merged with fluid strains of modern jazz. While listening take special note of the performance of the young jazz pianist Ivan "Melon" Gonzalez. His very distinctive sense of time and harmony marks him as one of the bright new voices of Latin jazz.
In response to my review of Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger (Appleseed Recordings), Ive received several inquiries from readers interested in learning more about the lives of various movers and shakers of the left folk tradition. For biographies of the big threePete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and LeadbellyId recommend David Dunaways How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger (Da Capo), Joe Kleins Woody Guthrie: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf), and Charles Wolf and Kip Lornells The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly (HarperPerennial).
Although not a folksinger, actor, singer, activist Paul Robeson had such an enormous impact on left art, anyone interested in folk music politics should examine his legacy. The Spring 1998 issue of Sing Out: The Folk Magazine provides a nice introduction to the life of Paul Robeson with Irwin Silbers article "Paul Robeson: A 20th Century Joshua." For a thorough biography of Robeson see Martin Baumi Dubermans Paul Robeson (New Press).
For a deep immersion in the many strains of music that make up the folk tradition, theres no better place to start than Harry Smiths six-CD compilation, Anthology Of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways) and folk musicologist Alan Lomaxs six Southern Journey CDs (Rounder) and single disc The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler (Rounder). Those on a tight budget should begin with the Lomax Sampler, which whets the appetite with deep rooted music from the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, The British Isles, Italy, Spain, Africa, Japan, and Bali.
For a taste of the 1960s folk revival check out Rhinos three-volume compilation, Troubadours Of The Folk Era and/or the four-CD set, The Prestige/Folklore Years (Prestige/Folklore Records).
Dirty Blues And Sublime Gospel
Its always a jolt to discover something new and soulful amid the glut of overproduced, by-the-numbers records now flooding the blues market. One of my strongest recent charges came when I put on the debut CD of guitarist/singer/writer Susan Tedeschi. On Just Wont Burn (Tone-Cool), Tedeschi rattles the walls with a powerhouse wail that crosses Bonnie Raitt with Janis Joplin while smoking her guitar with fretwork steeped in the lessons of Otis Rush, "Guitar" Watson, and Ronnie Earl. Also surprising in a player so young, some of her strongest material is self-written. At times her influences show a little too much, but she is a bona fide blues artist on the rise.
Another rough, tough barnburner is Alligators Hound Dog Taylor: A Tribute. Taylor, who died of cancer in 1975, worked around Chicago for 35 years before finally gaining a wider audience in the wake of the blues explosion of the 1960s and 1970s. Playing a nasty, searing slide and howling in raw, gravelly voice, Taylor stuck to a program of loud, intense shuffles, boogies, and tortured slow blues diced with "wrong" notes and primal out-of-tune bashing. To pay homage to his wild legacy, bottleneck masters such as Sonny Landreth, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Luther Allison, Son Seals, Elvin Bishop, Michael Hills Blues Mob, and others cover Taylor numbers in an appropriate hard, high-spirited fashion. Hound Dog would be proud.
Coming from the other end of the African American music spectrum is a three volume series of gospel releases honoring the genres "golden age" from 1947 to 1964. Compiled and produced by Lee Hildebrand and Opal Nations from the vaults of Art Rupes Specialty Records, Golden Age Gospel Quartets (in two CDS) and Golden Age Gospel Choirs (one disc) present consistently rousing performances from famous and lesser known groups breaking up musical conventions during the early civil rights era.
Included in the quartet sets are the legendary Soul Stirrers (featuring Sam Cooke), the Swan Silvertones (featuring Claude Jeter), the Five Blind Boys of Alabama (featuring Clarence Fountain), and the Pilgrim Travelers alongside the under recognized Southern Harmonizers, the Paramount Singers, the Chosen Gospel Singers, and West Coast Jubilees. Selections on each volume of Golden Age Gospel Quartets are arranged chronologically and give an overview of changing quartet styles as groups evolved from a cappella singing to vocal performances backed by full rhythm sections that became popular by the mid-1950s.
The Choirs package concentrates on four pioneering choirsLos Angeles Voices of Victory, Newarks Back Home Choir, Chicagos Helen Robinson Youth Choir, and The Pentecostal Choir of Detroit. Although choirs and large choir-like ensembles predominate contemporary African American gospel, small groups, vocal soloists, and quartets defined the black gospel sound through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The 23-song collection on Golden Age Gospel Choirs surveys some of the innovators laying the blueprint for African American gospel music of today. Before these and other groundbreaking groups, church choirs performed mostly spirituals, anthems, and hymns. By contrast, the rising gospel choirs brought both a new repertoire and huge, unprecedented vocal power.
Most gospel music, of course, is made by individuals and groups whose names remain unknown outside their local communities. A recently reissued compilation of recordings on the little known Chalice label, a subsidiary of the renowned Stax Records, offers stirring examples of 1960s gospel that never caught on with any national commercial trend. On Free At Last: Gospel Quartets From Stax Records Chalice Label (Fantasy), The Dixie Nightingales, The Jubilee Hummingbirds, The Stars Of Virginia, and The Pattersonaires sing rootsy Southern gospel capturing the fiery passions and hopes of a turbulent era. There are many gospel anthology packages coming out with all the legends of the tradition. But this humble release from last year holds its own against all the best and brightest.