They hung him on a cross…for me.
The Welcome Wagon takes up Leadbelly’s lyric, “He never said a mumblin’ word.”
The Welcome Wagon takes up Leadbelly’s lyric, “He never said a mumblin’ word.”
Racism is evil. That’s always been our stance at Down at the Crossroads. Anyone who knows anything about the blues knows that the blues grew up in the iniquity of the Jim Crow era in the United States and were a visceral response to the suffering and afflictions of the black community. Skip James’s Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues captures the grim reality of the time for his community:
“Hard times is here
An’ everywhere you go,
Times are harder than ever been before.”
Leadbelly’s 1930 Jim Crow bemoaned the social situation he was in and pleaded, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.” In Bourgeois Blues, he takes issue with the idea of America being the “land of the free” and “home of the brave” – for Leadbelly, it was somewhere he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.”
And Josh White’s Trouble in 1940 says bluntly, “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” All he could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Despite the gains made since those days, racism has patently not gone away, and it’s been heartening to hear some of today’s artists putting it firmly in their sights. Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars takes a look at the current state of race in his country in Pray for Peace, and wonders just what is going on:
“I think our grandmothers would be broken hearted
To see their children’s children right back where we started…
Makes me want to holler, makes me want to moan.”
Other artists have recently echoed this theme: Jason Isbell in White Man’s World confronts the privileges and disadvantages inherent in American society because of race, and his own complicity in it:
“I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.”
For a good summary of the problems of race in the US, check out Nicholas Kristof’s series of articles in the New York Times, entitled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” Outside of the evident problem of the shootings of unarmed blacks by law enforcement and the problems in the criminal justice system (just read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy to understand more about this), Kristof points out that “overwhelming research show[s] that blacks are more likely to be suspended from preschool, to be prosecuted for drug use, to receive longer sentences, to be discriminated against in housing, to be denied job interviews, to be rejected by doctors’ offices, to suffer bias in almost every measurable sector of daily life.” The statistics tell their own story – and yet around 50% of white Americans today say that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks.
Which narrative feeds the hate and vileness spewing from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who turned up in force last weekend in Charlottesville. And whose views and actions are given succour by the reaction of the American president. White separatist David Duke declared that this show of unity by the alt-right “fulfils the promises of Donald Trump.” The statements by Trump since Charlottesville have been quite simply shocking. Despite a half hearted attempt to condemn racism, he has doggedly held on to his narrative of “many sides” being responsible, thus effectively equating out and out hated-filled racism with protest, and lamented the removal of the “beautiful” statues and monuments that celebrate and glorify the defence of slavery – structures that for the most part were erected long after the civil war to bolster the Jim Crow system and opposed the Civil Rights movement.
Michael Eric Dyson is worth quoting at length here:
“Such an ungainly assembly of white supremacists rides herd on political memory. Their resentment of the removal of public symbols of the Confederate past — the genesis of this weekend’s rally — is fueled by revisionist history. They fancy themselves the victims of the so-called politically correct assault on American democracy, a false narrative that helped propel Mr. Trump to victory. Each feeds on the same demented lies about race and justice that corrupt true democracy and erode real liberty. Together they constitute the repulsive resurgence of a virulent bigotocracy.
This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt. When black folk and others point that out, white bigots are aggrieved. They are especially offended when it is argued that slavery changed clothes during Reconstruction and got dressed up as freedom, only to keep menacing black folk as it did during Jim Crow. The bigotocracy is angry that slavery is seen as this nation’s original sin. And yet they remain depressingly and purposefully ignorant of what slavery was, how it happened, what it did to us, how it shaped race and the air and space between white and black folk, and the life and arc of white and black cultures.”
We’re grateful for the music artists that are prepared to stand firmly against all of this. Wilco, for example, has just released a song in the wake of last weekend’s unrest. It’s called All Lives, You Say and takes on the “All Lives Matter” slogan which seeks to protest the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I can see you are afraid
Your skin is so thin
Your heart has escaped
All lives, all lives you say
…But you don’t know how to sing anything anyway
So all lives, all lives you say”
We can applaud too the broad coalition of local faith leaders called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective who resisted the racism in their town last weekend. “I’m trying to lead a church whose Christian identity leads my members to their politics, and not to have their politics lead them to the church,” said Rev. William Peyton, Rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, a mostly white Episcopalian congregation.
They are reflecting the God revealed in the Bible as one who “loves justice” and cares for the poor and oppressed. Just read the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets if you’ve any doubt about that. Jesus declared those blessed who sought after justice and peace. The apostle Paul said that a key component of the gospel for him and the other Christian leaders was “remembering the poor,” and that the kingdom of God consisted of “justice, peace and joy.” He also said that equality in Christ trumped all human divisions.
As Buddy Guy says in Skin Deep, “Skin Deep, Skin Deep, Underneath we’re all the same.”
That being the case, “We all gotta be careful, how we treat one another.” And Josh White in Free and Equal Blues: “Every man, everywhere is the same, when he’s got his skin off…That’s the free and equal blues!”
To quote Nicholas Kristof again: “A starting point is for us whites to wake from our ongoing mass delusions, to recognize that in practice black lives have not mattered as much as white lives, and that this is an affront to values that we all profess to believe in.”
The blues emerged during a period of tremendous inequality, injustice and discrimination against black communities in the Southern States. During this time, it would have been pretty much impossible for blues artists to sing protest songs in the way that they were sung in the 1960s when the Civil Rights’ movement had gathered momentum. Although the majority of blues songs are about the troubles of love, there is a steady stream of social protest from the early days right through to the present.
Leadbelly recorded “Scottsboro Boys” in 1938, where he warns black people not to go to Alabama lest they suffer the same fate as the Scottsboro nine (nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping a white woman):
I’m gonna tell all the colored people
Even the old n***** here
Don’t ya ever go to Alabama
And try to live.
Clearly not afraid to voice his protest against what he experienced, Leadbelly also wrote “Bourgeois Blues,” where he sings about his experience of discrimination in the nation’s capital city:
Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a n***** just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around
Leadbelly talks about looking for accommodation and being turned away by the white landlord:
Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say “I don’t want no n*****s up there.”
America, according to Leadbelly may have been hailed as “The home of the Brave, The land of the Free,” but it was just somewhere where he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.”
The legacy of racial prejudice and injustice some 80 years later rumbles on:
The recent deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others have polarized opinion and made the need for a national conversation on issues of race urgent. Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” and a former national correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times, says that:
“Such cases force black families again to consider how to safeguard their children and themselves from the violence they suffer at a disproportionate rate at the hands of authorities assigned to protect them. They are still giving a version of the same talk their ancestors gave their children back in the old country of the South, about answering yes, sir, and no, sir, and watching how they comport themselves around the upper caste and the police.”
She believes there is a national problem which requires the commitment of the entire nation to resolve. Nicholas Kristoff from the New York Times suggests the US needs to “borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.”
Recent events show the challenges that exist. The blues continue to bear witness about the on-going problem of racism – not just in the US but in Europe and elsewhere as well.
And here’s the original protest song – the achingly graphic Strange Fruit.
The blues grew up in an environment of the most virulent racism and discrimination, perpetrated by white people on the black communities of the Southern States. Many of the early blues songs bear witness to the suffering endured by black communities. In 1930, Lead Belly sang Jim Crow, bemoaning the inequity he found everywhere he went: “I been traveling, I been traveling from shore to shore, Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow.” Eleven years later, Josh White gave us Jim Crow Blues, where he complains he “ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat.”
Lead Belly also suffered racism in the nation’s capital. In Bourgeois Blues, he tells us about the ostracism he faced as a black person: “Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs, We heard the white man say’n I don’t want no niggers up there.” Then:
“Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow.”
But those days are long gone, right?
Last week the news emerged that the police commissioner of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Robert Copeland, admitted to publically calling the president of the United States a “f***ing nigger.” In March Jane O’Toole overheard Copeland make the remark as she finished her dinner in a local bistro.
O’Toole complain to the town management, but Copeland was unrepentant, saying in an email to his fellow police commissioners, “I believe I did use the ‘N-word’ in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse. For this, I do not apologise – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.” His loudly stated opinion, according to Copeland, was merely an exercise of his first amendment rights.
The sorry tale was compounded by the Chairman of the Police Commission, Joseph Balboni, saying he had no plans to ask Copeland to resign. He said of Copeland, “He’s worked with a lot of blacks in his life. . . . He said some harsh words about Mr. Obama, and here we are. This woman, she’s blowing it all out of proportion.” Mr. Copeland has now resigned.
There have been other incidents of expressions of racism recently. One Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who is leading a ranchers’ dispute with the government over cattle grazing, recently wondered whether the “Negro” shouldn’t be back in chains. He recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids – and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch – they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do…And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Bundy, the New York Times reported, has become a celebrity, “drawing hundreds of supporters, including dozens of militia members, many carrying sidearms, and members of Oath Keepers, a militia group, who have embraced him as a symbol of their anger and a bulwark against federal abuse.”
Then there’s the recent case of Donald Sterling, manager of the LA Clippers basketball team, who asked his girlfriend not to take pictures with black friends or bring them to games. “Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f*** him,” he said of former basketball legend, Magic Johnson. “But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.”
Racism is alive and well on the other side of the Atlantic as well. The host of the BBC’s successful Top Gear programme, was caught on camera reciting a version of “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” from his childhood in which he is heard to mutter “catch a nigger by the toe.” Clarkson’s got form in this regard, of course, previously calling Mexicans “lazy, feckless and flatulent.”.
Perhaps this is just a few ignorant and well-known people getting caught saying some things they shouldn’t. In a recent Guardian newspaper article, however, Gary Younge argued that racism is “a system of discrimination planted by history, nourished by politics and nurtured by economics, in which some groups face endemic disadvantage” and went on to say that, “The reality of modern racism is…the institutional marginalisation of groups performed with the utmost discretion and minimum of fuss by well-mannered and often well-intentioned people working in deeply flawed systems. According to a recent US department of education report, black preschoolers (mostly four-year-olds) are four times more likely to be suspended more than once than their white classmates. According to a 2013 report by Release, a UK group focusing on drugs and drug laws, black people in England and Wales are far less likely to use drugs than white people but six times more likely to be stopped and searched for possession of them. In both countries black people are far more likely to be convicted, and to get stiffer sentences and longer jail time.”
The blues, forged as they were at a time of deep distress and racial oppression, continue to be a howl of protest and a stark warning about the racism that, sadly, often seems to be just under the surface.
The second biggest bike race in the world, the Giro d’Italia swung into Belfast for two days this weekend. It was a big deal for the city and country which was festooned in pink (the race’s official color); people turned out in their hundreds of thousands to cheer on the riders as they whizzed past, all colourful lycra and bulging thighs. For once we were united, old grievances forgotten in a haze of sporting, multi-colored, cycling fever.
It reminded me of that old 12-bar blues song, C.C. Rider or See See Rider, or possibly even Easy Rider, recorded by a great many artists over the years, first by Ma Rainey in 1924. It’s hard to know exactly what or who this See See or Easy Rider was. Theories vary, from it referring to a person with easy going sexual morals, to it being an itinerant bluesman with a guitar slung over his back or a “county circuit” preacher, to Big Bill Broonzy’s tale of a local fiddle player named See See Rider who taught him the blues. Seems to me that “see see” and “easy” sound pretty similar and that the term most likely refers to an easy lover, man or woman, someone who was habitually unfaithful – the subject of many a blues song.
The song has been recorded by a host of artists, including classic blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly and Lightnin’ Hopkins, as well as artists like Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Animals and Elvis. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also been covered by Bruce Springsteen, appearing on the Boss’s “Detroit Medley” contribution to the 1979 No Nukes Live album.
Film director Martin Scorsese counts Lead Belly’s version of the song as formative for him: “One day, around 1958, I remember hearing something that was unlike anything I’d ever heard before…The music was demanding, “Listen to me!”…The song was called “See See Rider,” [and the] name of the singer was Lead Belly… Lead Belly’s music opened something up for me. If I could have played guitar, really played it, I never would have become a filmmaker.”
Whatever exactly the easy rider of the song means, there’s nothing easy about what these professional cyclists do. It’s a punishing sport with riders clocking up hundreds of kilometres of racing day after day, in all weathers, up and down mountains and across countryside and urban landscapes. Now that the sport’s cleaned itself up after decades of drug abuse culminating in the shameful Lance Armstrong years, the sight of the peleton whizzing past at speed or the pain endured by the riders on the upper slopes of high mountains is a thing of wonder. Easy it’s not.
But I guess that’s true for almost everything in life. As author Scott Alexander says, “All good is hard. All evil is easy. Dying, losing, cheating, and mediocrity is easy. Stay away from easy.”