Gary Clark Jr’s This Land is the Texas bluesman’s third studio album and without a doubt his best. Seventeen tracks where he cleverly and successfully fuses a number of styles from rock, R&B, hip-hop and soul, with a dash of reggae on Feeling Like a Million, and punk on Gotta Get Something. In bringing the blues bang up to date, he seems to be living up to his reply a while back when asked, “What do you want to be?” and he said, “Snoop Dogg meets John Lee Hooker.” Clark is never too far from his blues roots in the album, though, with the Robert Johnson fuelled Dirty Dishes Blues, and the album’s general underpinning. It’s exhilarating stuff, each song something of a revelation on first encounter and then hugely enjoyable on subsequent listens. Pink Cadillac, where Clark channels his inner Prince, is a sophisticated, full production pop number and The Guitar Man is a thorough-going toe-tapper, with an echo of eighties R&B.
Musically, it sounds fresh and alive, driven, though not dominated by, Clark’s always outstanding guitar work and his sweet vocals. Lyrically most of the songs ruminate on themes like marriage, fatherhood, life on the road and success. But importantly Clark hasn’t held back from making some rather direct political and social points on some of the songs, particularly What About Us, Feed the Babies and the title track.
He kicks off the album with This Land, a powerful, blues-soaked howl of protest about racism in the United States. The song was prompted by Clark’s own encounter with a neighbour is Texas who wondered how Clark could possibly own such a large plot of land. Clark says he’s “right in the middle of Trump country,” with a neighbour who “can’t wait to call the police on me.” It’s shocking in today’s world to hear the chorus of ‘N—- run, n—- run, Go back where you come from, We don’t want, we don’t want your kind,” the edginess matched by the furious music and the Hendrix-esque guitar work. Clark’s expletive-laced anger cries out “I’m America’s son, This is where I came from.”
A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that more than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today. More than 40% say the country hasn’t made enough progress toward racial equality, and there is scepticism, particularly among blacks, that black people will ever have equal rights with whites, More than 80% of black adults say the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in America today. (check out our interview with Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell about the album Songs of Our Native Daughters which is entirely about slavery and its on-going legacy).
The evidence indicates that black people are treated less fairly than whites in hiring, pay and promotions; when applying for a loan or mortgage; in stores or restaurants; when voting in elections; and when seeking medical treatment. That’s even without discussing the problem of interaction with police forces.
A recent New York Times article cited research that shows the United States tolerates a widening chasm between the very rich few and the many with low incomes. And that the burden of poverty falls heaviest on African-Americans and other people of colour. The median white family has more than 40 times the wealth of the median African-American family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family. And things are getting worse, not better: the proportion of black families with zero or negative wealth rose by 8.5% to 37% between 1983 and 2016.
In her article, Courtney Martin asks why people of colour do not have more money. The answer she and others give is what she calls the country’s original sins: colonization and slavery. There’s a strong case that closing the racial wealth gap is about addressing these historic injustices monetarily – check out Trevor Noah’s segment on “The Daily Show” – but as Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Philanthropy says, “We have to be willing to examine the dark realities of what led us to this imbalance in the first place.”
The Pew Research said that most Americans (65%) say it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president. A recent Vox article tracks Trumps history of racist controversies from the 1970s onward concludes that “At the very least, Trump has a history of playing into people’s racism to bolster himself.” Hence Clark’s reference to “Trump country” in This Land. He told Rolling Stone Magazine, “I think it’s only right at this point in time, if you have a microphone louder than others, to speak out about that anger…I haven’t been through s*** compared to my people. But if I can do anything with my opportunity, and say thank you to Dr. Martin Luther King for sacrificing your life so that I can have a microphone … that’s the least I can do.”
It’s certainly a powerful statement of protest, heightened by the video accompanying the song, featuring images of nooses, fire and Confederate flags. Terrific album and a challenging title track.
We don’t normally expect prisons to play a role in the history of music. But with the blues, it’s not just drinkers, ramblers and vagrants who take a starring role, but also convicts. The blues grew up not only in plantations but in prisons.
Songs from the 1920s onward complain about the privations of life in prison, loneliness, lost love and injustice. Because under Jim Crow, African Americans were abominably treated by a justice system that might better be called an injustice system. Consider, for example, the convict leasing which took hold in Mississippi towards the end of the nineteenth century and went on for decades. Black people convicted by the law were leased to farmers and businessmen and literally worked to death. They were savagely beaten, made to work seemingly endless workdays and treated with murderous neglect. “Convicts dropped from exhaustion, pneumonia, malaria, frostbite, consumption, sunstroke, dysentery, gunshot wounds and “shackle poisoning” says historian David Oshinsky – and in the process made fortunes for plantation owners. Many of the convicts had fallen foul of local ordinances for minor infractions, were simply not able to pay the hefty fines levied, and then fell foul of well-off whites who paid their fines and forced them into indentured slavery characterized by back-breaking and life-threatening labour. “The end result was a stream of back bodies to the county chain gangs and local plantations” (Oshinsky).
African Americans were also worked in unbearable conditions in Mississippi’s penitentiary, Parchman, which sprawled over 20,000 acres of rich Delta farmland. Prisoners were put to work as if they were slaves, with men working until they dropped dead or burnt out with sunstroke. They worked from dawn to dusk in the brutal heat, surviving on worm-infested food, kept at it by the brutal application of the “Black Annie,” a heavy leather strap. Bluesman Willie Dixon, who was born in 1915 was once sentenced to 30 days for vagrancy on the Harvey Allen County Farm. He recalls the use of the Black Annie:
“They’d haul us out there to work and put us on a great big ditch…We were on top cutting and all of a sudden I hear somebody screaming, “Oh Lawdy! Oh, Lawdy, captain please stop doing it…I run over there peepin’. Boy, they’ve got five guys on this one guy…and this guy – they called him Captain Crush – has got a strap about eight inches wide. It’s leather, about five or six inches long, a handle on it about two feet long and holes in the end of this strap about as big as a quarter. They called it the Black Annie…Every time he hits this guy, flesh and blood actually come off this cat…He was out and they were still beating him.”
Dixon goes on to relate how, for being caught watching this, he too was beaten with the strap round the head, resulting in deafness for the next four months. He was thirteen at the time.
But in these prison-farms, remarkably, music thrived – mostly as a survival mechanism. When father and son musicologist team, John and Alan Lomax embarked on their famous blues-collecting road trip in 1933, they discovered that their most productive visits were to penitentiaries. They described finding here a “black Homer”, an aging black prisoner called “Iron Head”, with a songbook that would fill 500 pages if written down. In Louisiana’s Angola, They also found Huddie Ledbetter, later to be known as Leadbelly.
Possibly Leadbelly’s most famous song is Midnight Special, covered by Creedance Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison and many others. The Midnight Special was a train whose headlights lit up Ledbetter’s cell. The song speaks of “Nothing in the pan,” in other words nothing to eat, and if you were to “say a thing about it, you’d have trouble with the man.” It highlights the minor infractions that could put you away in prison – “if you ever go the Houston, boy you’d better walk right… Benson Crocker will arrest you, Jimmy Boone will take you down.” Blacks often did not have to commit any crime, in order to be arrested and subsequently jailed. A white person was completely at liberty to stop and question a black stranger in the neighbourhood, and if they did not have a local white person to vouch for them, then the police could be called upon to make an arrest.
As you listen to blues songs the Lomaxes recorded at Parchman (check out “Negro Prison Blues and Songs, Recorded Live by Alan Lomax”) – prisoners recounting personal tragedies, injustices and the ever-present hope of pardon and freedom, you get an insight into the hardship and injustice that Parchman and other penitentiaries represented.
To be sure, many incarcerated in Parchman had committed very violent crimes. But factors of extreme poverty, lack of education and racist oppression need to be reckoned with. Not only did they contribute to a climate of violence, they increased the conviction rate, lengthened sentences and lessened chances for pardon or parole.
Other famous blues convicts include Son House and Bukka White, second cousin to B.B. King. In his Parchman Farm Blues, Bukka sings of the dawn to dusk work regime:
Go to work in the mornin’ just at the dawn of day And at the settin’ of the sun that is when your work is done.
No wonder he also wrote Fixin’ to Die blues:
Now, I believe I’m fixin’ to die, yeah
I know I was born to die
But I hate to leave my children around cryin’
(Check out the Postscript after the songs)
Here’s our selection of prison blues songs.
Furry Lewis, Judge Harsh, 1928
It’s an appeal from an innocent man for a light sentence:
They ‘rest me for murder, I ain’t harmed a man
‘Rest me for murder, I ain’t harmed a man
Women hollerin’ murderer, Lord I ain’t raised my hand
I ain’t got nobody to get me out on bond
I ain’t got nobody to get me out on bond
I would not mind but I ain’t done nothing wrong
Blind Lemon Jefferson, Prison Cell Blues, 1928
The hopelessness of the convicted prisoner:
I asked the government to knock some days off my time
Well, the way I’m treated, I’m about to lose my mind
I wrote to the governor, please turn me a-loose
Since I don’t get no answer, I know it ain’t no use
Leroy Carr, Prison Bound Blues, 1929
Early one mornin’, the blues came falling down
Early one mornin’, the blues came falling down
All locked up in jail, and prison boun’.
Peg Leg Howell, Ball and Chain Blues, 1929
Howell served time in Georgia prison camps for bootlegging offenses. He knew
what it was like to endure physical labour for the state as a prisoner.
They arrested me, carried me ‘fore the judge
They arrested me, they carried me ‘fore the judge
Said, the judge wouldn’t allow me to say a mumbling word
I’ve always been a poor boy, never had no job…
And the next day, carried the poor boy away
The next day, they carried that poor boy away
Say, the next day, I laid in ball and chains
Take these stripes off my back, chains from ’round my leg
Stripes off my back, chains from ’round my leg
This ball and chain about to kill me dead.
The Memphis Sheiks, He’s In the Jailhouse Now, 1930.
Made famous recently by featuring in the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou by The Soggy Bottom Boys. This unusually cheerful jail song was originally found in vaudeville performances from the early 20th century, usually credited to Jimmie Rodgers. The final verse of the song is about the singer taking a girl named Susie out on the town and the two winding up in jail together.
I went out last Tuesday, Met a gal named Susie…
We started to spend my money, Then she started to call me honey
We took in every cabaret in town
We’re in the jailhouse now
We’re in the jailhouse now
I told the judge right to his face
We didn’t like to see this place
We’re in the jailhouse now.
Bukka White, Parchman Farm Blues, 1940
White was born in Mississippi, but moved to Memphis and Chicago to record. He ran into trouble when he and a friend were “ambushed” by a man along a highway, according to White. He shot the man in the thigh in self-defence. While awaiting trial, he skipped bail and went to Chicago, where he recorded two songs before being apprehended. He was sent back to Mississippi to do a three-year stretch at Parchman Farm. He recorded two numbers for the Lomaxes at Parchman Farm in 1939. His Parchman Farm Blues speaks of the long days of back-breaking labour:
We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
Just at the settin’ of the sun
That’s when da work is done, yeah
Leadbelly, Midnight Special, 1934
Leadbelly recorded a version of the song at Angola Prison for the Lomaxes. They said that the Midnight Special was a train from Houston, shining its light into a cell in the Sugar Land Prison, where the light of the train is the light of salvation, which could take them out of prison. Author Carl Sandburg’s view, however, was that the singer would rather be run over by a train than spend more time in jail.
Well, you wake up in the mornin’, you hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table to see the same old thing.
Ain’t no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan.
But you better not complain, boy, you get in trouble with the man.
Big Maceo, County Jail Blues, 1941
Written by Alfred Fields, the song was also recorded by Eric Clapton in 1975.
So take these stripes from around me, chains from around my neck
These stripes from around me, and these chains from around my neck
Well, these stripes don’t hurt me, but these chains oughta give me death
Walter “Tangle Eye” Jackson, Tangle Eye Blues, 1947
One of many recordings made in late 1947 at Parchman by Alan Lomax, the song speaks of the regret of the incarcerated prisoner.
Well I wonder will I ever get back home?
Well it must have been the devil that pulled me here
more down and out
Oh Lord… if I ever get back home, I’ll never do wrong
If I can just make it home I won’t do wrong no more
Lighnin’ Hopkins, Jail House Blues, 1961
Originally written by Clarence Williams and Bessie Smith in 1923, and recorded also by Ella Fitzgerald in 1963, Hopkins’s version is telling, in that he had been sent to Houston County Prison Farm in the mid-1930s – for which offense we don’t know.
Hey mister jailer, will you please sir bring me the key
I just want you to open the door, cause this ain’t no place for me
Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison, 1955
Recorded first on his debut album, Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968. It contains the classic lines, which were roundly cheered by the inmates:
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die…
Far from Folsom Prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away
Bob Dylan, Hurricane, 1976
Co-written with Jacques Levy, the song concerns the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who, it alleged, was falsely tried and convicted, a victim of racism. In 1985 Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin, ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and overturned the conviction, resulting in Carter’s release and the granting of a writ of habeas corpus to Carter, commenting that the prosecution had been “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”
Sam Cooke, Chain Gang, 1960
Cooke’s incongruously upbeat 1960 hit “Chain Gang” was inspired by his encounter with a prison chain gang while out on tour. These prisoners had been out build a highway, and the only thing keeping them in good spirits was the hope that one day they’d be free from their shackles.
All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin’ down
Working on the highways and byways
And wearing, wearing a frown
You hear them moanin’ their lives away
Then you hear somebody sa-ay
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain ga-a-ang
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
The inequity of the justice system in the United States continues to this day, with one in every three black male babies born in this century expected to be incarcerated. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with a prison population that has grown from 300,000 to over 2 million today, and one in every 15 people in the country expected to go to jail or prison. Its rate of incarceration is four to eight times higher than those in other liberal democracies, including Canada, England, and Germany.
Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow says that “more African American adults are under correctional control today…than were enslaved in 1850.” The United States now imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. Alexander goes on to note, shockingly, that “young black men today may be just as likely to suffer discrimination in employment, housing, public benefits and jury service as a black man in the Jim Crow era.”
Black rapper Meek Mills tells of his experience as a black man caught in a justice system in need of reform: “Like many who are currently incarcerated, I was the victim of a miscarriage of justice — carried out by an untruthful officer, as determined by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, and an unfair judge.” You can read details of his case here.
Mills speaks of the disproportionate number of men and women of colour in prison and contends that “the system causes a vicious cycle, feeding upon itself — sons and daughters grow up with their parents in and out of prison, and then become far more likely to become tied up in the arrest-jail-probation cycle. This is bad for families and our society as a whole.”
John Pfaff, in his recent Locked In, observes that “blacks are systematically denied access to the more successful paths to economic stability,” and therefore “face systematically greater pressure to turn to other alternatives.” He goes on to note that young men without a way out of poverty turn to gangs, and gangs always turn to violence. The way out of the cycle of violence and incarceration that America has got itself into in not straightforward, but surely has a lot to do with the need to tackle poverty, with the fact that prosecutors are elected and need to be market themselves as “tough on crime,” with the lack of any sensible gun control policy, and with the need to examine drug policy.
Michelle Alexander concludes her book by reminding her readers of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King’s appeal for a “radical restructuring of our society,” and urges a radical restructuring of America’s approach to racial justice advocacy as well.
James Baldwin, in a letter written in 1962 to his nephew, tells him that, “you were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity…that you were a worthless human being.” The sad history of incarceration in the United States is achingly reflected in the prison blues songs.
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1962 Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, David M. Oshinksy, 1996 The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, 2010 Race, Crime and Punishment, The Aspen Institute, 2011 Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Locked In, The True Causes of Mass Incarceration, John F Pfaff, 2017
How do you like your Christmas songs? Schmalzy soft jazz, White Christmas and all that? Gritty like the Pogues? (please, no!) Or maybe with a tongue firmly in cheek, like the Bare Naked Ladies?
And of course there are the Christmas blues songs. B B King with Merry Christmas Baby; Freddie King’s Christmas Tears; Koko Taylor’s Merry Merry Christmas; Roy Milton’s Christmas Time Blues; Bessie Smith’s At the Christmas Ball Blues; or maybe Joe Bonamassa’s Lonesome Christmas. All on the general theme of – it’s Christmas and my baby done left me / I ain’t got a baby / my baby and me are apart.
But then there’s Victoria Spivey’s Christmas Morning Blues, where she’s lamenting the fact that her man’s in jail; John Lee Hooker’s Blues for Christmas, with the plaintive “I ain’t got a dime;” and Blind Blake’s Lonesome Christmas Blues where he remembers last Christmas when he was in jail, and this Christmas isn’t much better – “I’m sick and I can’t get well.” Tough times don’t stop for Christmas. Just ask the millions living in war torn Syria or Yemen or South Sudan; other those going hungry in East Africa, or the brutalized Rohingya people of Burma. Or even the more than 43m Americans and 14m Britons living in poverty.
Truth is, the world can be a tough place, and none of us are immune from tough times – family problems, health problems, relationship problems. The celebrations of the holiday season don’t make these go away.
It’s hard to find a blues song that taps into the heart of Christmas. And by that I mean hope. G.K. Chesterton, the writer, poet, and philosopher said that “hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.” So it was with the first Christmas – a family living under the occupation of a brutal, despotic regime; a new baby, brought into the world in the most humble and poor of circumstances; the birth announced to a bunch of rough, uneducated shepherds; the new family becoming refugees, forced to move to a foreign country. Pretty tough circumstances.
And yet the story is shot through with hope – that change and redemption is possible. That things can be different. That the power of love unleashed into the world through the coming of this baby can ultimately be more powerful than all the tyrants and war-mongers and greed-merchants and liars. That justice and fairness can prevail. Instead of despair at the state the world is in, the Christmas story urges us to take courage – see the possibility of redemption and change for ourselves and begin to make a difference in the world around. Hope in a hopeless world.
Hope. New possibilities. Change. It’s what Bethlehem is all about.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years and his latest album, The Prodigal Son, his first for six years, has been hailed as “destined to become an instant classic” (Daily Telegraph), the produce of a “musical mastermind” (Rolling Stone) and “completely fresh and contemporary” (NPR). MOJO declared it “A career-high.”
It is, indeed, something of a masterpiece – perhaps remarkable, in that it is a collection of gospel songs and the artist himself makes no claim to belief. But this is music that Cooder has always loved. “I’m not religious,” he says, “but I always felt drawn to these songs. There’s some kind of reverence mood that takes hold when you play and sing.” For Cooder reverence means “being a conduit for the feelings and experiences by people from other times, like when you stand in an old church yard and let the lonely tombs talk to you…I think any creative artist has to have a sense of a truth or force beyond the visible.”
These are songs that will speak to anyone, believer or unbeliever. The arrangements, musicianship and feeling – and the songs, what a collection of songs – are spiritually powerful. There’s humanity, decency, inspiration, hope in these songs, that anyone can feel. If you are a person of faith, however, you’ll find an extra dimension of faith, encouragement and challenge here too.
All of this much needed, of course, in these days of political bitterness, disregard for the truth, corporate greed, and desperate social inequality and injustice. So thanks, Ry, for putting the spotlight on the spiritual values that can ground us and help make us human again.
71-year Cooder plays guitar, bass and mandolin in what is mostly a carefully curated selection of blues and gospel from the early 20th Century. There are three Cooder originals, Shrinking Man, Gentrification and Jesus and Woody, the latter bemoaning the current state of the world and imagining Jesus telling Woody Guthrie “Guess I like sinners better than fascists, And I guess that makes me a dreamer too.”
Cooder’s reworking of other songs include Carter Stanley’s Harbour of Love; Blind Roosevelt Graves’ I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called; You Must Unload by Blind Alfred Reed; Straight Street by The Pilgrim Travelers; William L Dawson’s, In His Care; and two songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Nobody’s Fault But Mine and Everybody Ought to Treat A Stranger Right(“Blind Willie’s music is pure trance, it’s not 12-bar blues or any suchlike…In steel guitar heaven, I felt Willie looked down and saw that was good,” says Cooder. (Mind you I’m not so sure Willie would have been happy about Ry slipping in those couple of lines which adds Buddha to Jesus in Nobody’s Fault But Mine.)).
The choice of songs is masterful, and the treatment of each brings them bang up to date, without losing their original intent or spirit.
One of the most powerful songs on the album us You Must Unload, written by Blind Alfred Reed, who was recorded, along with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, at the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions (The “Big Bang” of modern country music).
The song mercilessly challenges “fashion-loving, money-loving and power-loving” Christians – arguably broad swathes of self-proclaimed believers in North America and Europe – and tells them they must “unload.” Anyone who has read their New Testament scriptures would recognize the voice of John the Baptist here, with his fiery denunciation of religious self-satisfaction, or indeed, Jesus, with his searing critique of acquisitiveness and love of money. The Old Testament prophets, too, from which John and Jesus took their cue, were unflinching in their lambasting of those who were content with religious observance but yet oppressed the poor, sought power and preferred a nice glass of wine with their feet up to helping their neighbour – go and read the eighth century prophet Amos and you’ll see what I mean.
The song starts with an amusing dig at the fashion conscious whose obsession with “jewellry encrusted high heel shoes” bars them from the joys of heaven. They sure give Ry the blues. And Jesus too.
Then there’s the money loving Christians who don’t pay their way, who think making it in the kingdom of God is easy. Pretty damning of the way a lot of us Western Christians live, isn’t it, indistinguishable from the pushing and shoving and acquisitiveness that is the hallmark of life these days. The urge for more, bigger, better, more choice. And we want it all for ourselves – cut those taxes, let those poor people stand up on their own two feet.
And then the last verse – taking aim at those power-loving Christians. Power is such a seductive thing. As if political power were somehow linked to the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked so much about. But Jesus said his kingdom wasn’t “of this world,” meaning that it wasn’t like the kingdom of Caesar or America or wherever – it isn’t based on violence, the threat of violence, money, or influence. It’s based on love, compassion, generosity. That’s why Christianity was so successful in the first three centuries before it got entangled with government and the trappings of power. Christians lived out the counter-cultural values of love and self-giving service, devoid of political power, and yet ended up attracting huge swathes of the Empire to follow Jesus. Which is what gives the lie to the support for the 45th President of the United States by so many so-called evangelical Christians. Do they understand the message of the person they purport to follow, if they are prepared to sacrifice values of compassion, love for the stranger, truth, and human decency for the passing gratification of temporary political power? What happened to taking up the cross and following the compassionate, justice-announcing Jesus? Wherein, paradoxically, is to be found the real joy of life.
All of which makes Blind Alfred Reed’s song and Ry Cooder’s fresh interpretation so relevant and compelling right now. It strikes at the heart of a false religion that somehow feels that money and power are compatible with the gospel. They’re not. Thank you Ry for this timely reminder.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Mavis Staples has had a remarkable career. She sang with her family band which moved from their church roots in the 50s to the vanguard of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, before becoming a commercially successful R&B group in the 70s. Turning solo, Mavis recorded with Prince and in the last twelve years or so, has re-invented herself as a rootsy, bluesy, Americana artist, with a heavy dose of gospel. Her latest album, If All I Was Was Black addresses the broken heart of today’s America, suggesting that, despite the racism, violence and lying, redemption is possible. Mavis Staples wants to “Bring us all together as a people – that’s what I hope to do. You can’t stop me. You can’t break me. I’m too loving,” she says. “These songs are going to change the world.”
Down at the Crossroads caught her show in Union Chapel, London. Here’s what we learned:
Mavis Staples is a lovely person. That’s it. No qualifications. She loves her band, she loves performing and she loves her audience. And it showed from the moment she breezed onto the stage to warm applause and cheering at Union Chapel.
Union Chapel is a wonderful concert venue in north London. It’s a working church which hosts gigs by major artists and recording sessions, and has fantastic acoustics. Nobody is very far from the artist which gives the whole things a wonderful, intimate feeling. You can sign up for dinner before a gig and so get in early to nab your seat – and contribute to the church’s homeless ministry by so doing.
Mavis’s first song set the stage for the rest of her set – she sang about “love and peace,” and invited the audience to “take my hand.” “I got people who love me,” she sang, in that unmistakable voice which can rasp, croon, scat or belt it out, as the need may be. You begin to feel the love, forgetting for a while Trump, Brexit and all the other stuff that has been annoying you. We ended up, most of us strangers, holding each other’s hands and beaming like children.
Love and peace for sure – but also, she said, she was there to bring us some “joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations.” And that she did for about 75 glorious minutes (too short, Mavis, but then you have just turned 79, sorry for bringing that up!).
And the joy and inspiration clearly comes from Mavis’s Christian faith – she unabashedly gave us the old blues song, Death Comes Creeping (covered by a host of artists, including Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell and Bob Dylan) – asking “whatcha gonna do when death comes creeping at your door?” Followed up by Far Celestial Shore, with its “jubilation, joy and exaltation when I see my lord.”
That faith is no other-worldly faith, but one that is driving for change here and now. She talked about working for justice in the 1960s, inspired by Rev Martin Luther King Jr., and about needing to continue that work, especially at the moment. “I’m thinking about going up to that White House,” she said, to the biggest cheer of the evening. Go for it Mavis!
Her five-piece band was everything you’d expect from long-time collaborators. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom treated us to a wonderful virtuosic display in a variety of styles, rewarded along the way by a fist bump from Mavis, and singers Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randel rounded out the sound, allowing Mavis to let her vocals soar with freedom.
A glorious, inspirational evening – keep going, Mavis, we love you!
Volume 13 in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series has just been released, Trouble No More, covering the so-called “gospel years” of 1979-1981. There’s a two CD pack with 30 songs, including a couple never before released, and then a whopping 8 CD + DVD offering which, at over £135, I’m afraid priced me out. I might have a friend who can help me out though!
Dylan’s three “gospel” albums from the period were widely pilloried at the time, but the release of this material, all recorded live from concerts in the United States and Europe, has shown what anybody who attended these gigs at the time knew – the performances were nothing short of electrifying. I went to my first Dylan concert on July 1, 1981 at Earl’s Court, London, which was kicked off by four tambourine swinging female gospel singers, Regina McCrary, Carolyn Dennis, Clydie King and Madelyn Quebec, before Bob weighed in with Gotta Serve Somebody. By this stage, Dylan was beginning to mix in some of the old songs with the gospel material, so it wasn’t long before the whole place was erupting to Like A Rolling Stone. I was in Bob heaven with the set list that night, but it was the energy and conviction of the performances that pulsated through the arena that stayed with me long after the final chords of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door had died away.
Rolling Stone, never a fan of Dylan’s gospel material, admitted of Trouble No More, “What’s often lost in those arguments is that it produced some of his greatest concerts,” while the Times of London grudgingly confessed that “the two-disc version is ample proof that Dylan finding God was, in musical terms at least, no bad thing.” The New York Times understood better what went on: “What comes through these recording is Mr. Dylan’s unmistakable fervor…[the songs are] “anything but routine…Mr. Dylan flings every line with conviction.” Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin says simply, “Like the mid-1960s, he was at the absolute peak of his powers.”
This was a prolific period. More than a dozen songs that didn’t make it onto the three albums from 1979 to 1981 show up in Trouble in Mind. The body of work composed by Dylan during this time “more than matches any commensurate era in his long and distinguished career – or, indeed that of any other twentieth century popular artist,” says Heylin, and it’s hard to disagree.
The song performances are in turns exhilarating, rowdy, playful, and combative, combined with moments of prayerlike reverence. It’s hard not to be moved by What Can I Do for You, from San Diego’s 27 November 1979 performance. This was a centrepiece of Dylan’s performances in these concerts and his passion and sense of gratitude is undeniable. The gospel backing and the mournful harmonica adds to the poignancy. “You have given all there is to give; what can I give to you?” Dylan’s sense of indebtedness oozes from the song. My wife and I were listening to this song the other day in the car. She doesn’t really like most of the music I listen too – she’s more of a classical music fan. But she suddenly said, “He’s really a fantastic singer, isn’t he?” The character of Dylan’s voice will always, I guess, be something of an acquired taste, but he is indeed a very fine singer, able to phrase a song exquisitely, and, as he does on this one, wring the emotion out of it.
What I found interesting listening to these performances is how much they are blues songs. Gospel blues, yes – but nothing wrong with that – we have a long line of such songs from Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Robert Wilkins onwards. Slow Train, Gotta Serve Somebody, When You Gonna Wake Up, Do Right to Me Baby, Are You Ready and Dead Man, Dead Man are all served up in a heady mixture of the blues, rock and gospel. There’s something about the blues, when it’s played right that just manages to get right inside you and touch you deeply. And that’s what’s going on here with these songs – aside, of course from the deeply felt lyrics.
And then there is the very solid blues rock of The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar. The November 13, 1980 performance of this from San Francisco features Carlos Santana on guitar with a couple of blistering solos and Dylan as intense as you’re likely to hear him. The song is not on my vinyl version of Shot of Love, but was eventually added to the CD version.
The Groom’s lyrics are not anywhere near as explicit in Christian meaning as most of the other songs, which speak clearly of God, Jesus, the need for faith, repentance and Christ’s second coming. Here Dylan seems to be in enigmatic prophet mode, speaking of a world of chaos, madness, war and misunderstanding. But remember, this is a period where Dylan has steeped himself in the scriptures, and with his prodigious memory, all this theology and apocalyptic imagery is still swirling around his head. The talk of the groom, the implied bride and waiting at the altar seems to me has to refer to Christ and his bride, the church, straight from the pages of the Revelation of St. John. The stage, says Dylan, is burning and the curtain is rising on the new age, but we’re not quite there yet – the groom (Christ) is still waiting at the altar for his bride (Christ-followers) to be welcomed to the new age. For now, there is chaos, massacres of innocents, enough to nauseate you. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
The song is a powerful one – “a fiery piece of molten fury” [album liner notes] and the repetitive blues riff drives home the prophet’s urgent message. Before anyone gets too dismissive of this apocalyptic thread in Dylan’s songs, here and elsewhere, let’s realize that, like it or not, the idea of a second coming of Jesus has been part of orthodox Christianity for the last two thousand years. Yes, recently some Christians have got a bit confused about the idea of heaven as a golden city in the skies and about expecting a so-called “rapture,” but Christians have always hoped for a new world forged out of the old, where peace, love and justice would prevail. And that idea comes through loud and clear in, for example, When He Returns: “Like a thief in the night, he’ll replace wrong with right, When he returns… Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease, Until He returns?”
Dylan gives us, as the New York Times put it, “a sense of moral gravity, a righteous tone, apocalyptic thoughts and a delight in the rich and powerful receiving their come-uppance.”
The important thing for Christians is to live now as if that new age mentioned in The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar had already arrived – peaceably, loving neighbours and enemies alike, and seeking justice for all. That’s the answer to Dylan’s question, What Can I Do For You?
I had a conversation with some friends recently about the idea of personal responsibility and how that might apply depending on your circumstances, particularly if you happen to be poor. There’s no doubt that poverty limits your choices in life – most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to live, as so many do, on less than $2.50 a day. There are many things that can be said to be getting better in the world, but still – over three billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. And at least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
Hard to imagine getting by on that, isn’t it? Your options for food, shelter, clothing, healthcare – the basics – never mind things most of us take for granted, like leisure, career, travel, entertainment – become pretty limited. Not only that but the lives of the poor become very precarious, because of the environment in which they live (subject to problems associated with climate change or subject to violence, for example) and the ruthlessness at times of those who are more powerful and wealthy.
I reflected on the issue of personal responsibility a while ago in a post about Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine. What I didn’t consider in that post was a very important point made by Rishawn Biddle in an article provocatively entitled Beyond the Personal Responsibility Myth. Knowledge, he says, is power, but also “the most-crucial tool for acquiring the financial and social resources needed to emerge and stay out of poverty.” Unfortunately, says Biddle, many people in poverty do not have the education and hence knowledge required to make good decisions or to make the best of good decisions made, and become trapped by their own situation and bad decisions. He concludes, “ thinking that bad choices alone explain poverty is as wrongly simpleminded as believing that impoverished people are too tied down by structural inequities to emerge from their conditions.” It’s not a straightforward issue.
However we think personal responsibility fits into the picture, those of us who are better off can’t let ourselves off the hook. More than ever before, our lives are interconnected, the world is getting smaller, we have responsibility one for the other, and each of us can make a difference. I was reminded in thinking about all this of Eric Bibb’s song Connected. The song isn’t about rich and poor, but it’s a powerful reminder that we are all part of each other, we are all connected. Someone famously asked a long time ago, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A while later, but still a couple of thousand years ago, the answer came: “If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person?”
It’s that time of year again – trees, lights, carols, mince pies, wide-eyed children, and – Santa! Yes, the big man’s coming to town. Check out this terrific, fun-filled version of the song from Austrian guitar maestro, Gottfried Gferer.
Gottfried’s version is based on that of Bahamian guitarist and singer Joseph Spence. You can find Joseph’s Santa Claus is Coming to Townhere.
So, what is it with Santa? Who the heck is this big guy in the red suit? Santa Claus is generally depicted as an overweight, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, red trousers, and black leather belt and boots – and of course the bag full of goodies for children. This seems to have originated in the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast, and it quickly became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century. This sort of image of Santa Claus was further popularized through Coca-Cola’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s.
But behind the fat guy in red stands the historical figure of St. Nicholas. Born in AD 270, he became the Bishop of Myra in Lycia (modern day Turkey). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus.
Nicholas was the only son of wealthy Christian parents who died in an epidemic while he was still young and he was raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara. He followed in his uncle’s footsteps, becoming a priest and then a bishop.
In 325, he was one of many bishops to appear at the emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea, where, as a staunch defender of the Orthodox Christian position, he signed the Nicene Creed. During the council, the presbyter Arius was called upon to defend his position on the inferiority of Christ. Nick, feeling Arius’s position was just so much nonsense, listened for a while but eventually could take it no more, so he stood up and laid in to Arius with his fist!
As a result of this outburst of temper and violence, our good St. Nick was stripped of his office as a bishop and held in a prison cell. Fortunately for him, Jesus appeared to him in his cell, appeared puzzled as to why he was being imprisoned, and presented him with a copy of the Gospels. As a result of this miraculous intervention, the emperor promptly restored Nicholas to his bishop-ship.
While this fist-fight story has become quite well known, what perhaps is not so well known are stories where Nicholas acted to protect children from being taken into slavery, save young women from being sold into prostitution, save his people from famine, and spare the lives of those innocently accused. While we can’t be sure of the veracity of all of these stories, the picture emerges of a man who acted on his faith with compassion, and seeking justice.
Which brings us to the true heart of Christmas – behind the stout guy in the red suit who represents all the worst excesses of Western consumerism, we have the One whom Nick sought to follow, whose birth brought about a new “kingdom, to be established and sustained with justice” (Isa 9.7), and who would “scatter those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations, pull the powerful down from their thrones, lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1.51ff). The evil that Nicholas encountered in his day – slavery, sex-trafficking, injustice – still mar the world’s landscape. Christmas reminds us of God’s agenda for change in the world and of our need to get involved in God’s justice project.
A few night ago I went to see Buddy Guy play the Apollo Theatre in Hammersmith in London. This is a lovely old theatre dating from the 1930’s with a fan shaped auditorium; it’s comfortable, has good acoustics and it was a fine setting for the blues master, himself born in the 1930s.
At nearly 80, Buddy Guy is in remarkably fine fettle, his voice strong, and still able to give full expression to that sweet falsetto. And his guitar playing is undiminished as well, the licks and tricks as nifty as ever. He gave us an hour and a half’s top notch entertainment – not bad for a guy his age – was constantly joking around, engaging with the audience, and at one point, came right off the stage and wandered up and down the aisles of the theatre singing and playing, constantly mobbed by fans taking photographs and selfies with him. Quite a show.
Before Buddy appeared we had a supporting set from a young guy whose performance had us all enthralled. Nobody around me knew who he was, but his guitar playing was stunning – not just in terms of technique, but also in terms of its musicality – and his singing and stage presence were impressive. Turned out this was one Quinn Sullivan, a protégé of Buddy’s and…he’s seventeen years old! This young guy is the business, and surely has a great future. He came back later to play with Buddy and we enjoyed the two of them mimicking a number of guitar greats, including Guitar Slim, B. B. King and Jimi Hendrix.
Buddy Guy played a selection of blues standards and songs off his latest album, Born to Play Guitar, backed by a superb band. One song off the album he didn’t play, particularly appropriate at the end of this particular week of violence in the United States, is Crazy World: “It’s a crazy world, the hole we’re digging, getting deeper every day…”
So it seems – police violence against the black community seems unremitting and on top of that we had the senseless killing of police officers in Dallas. The Atlantic summarized the week:
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot
“Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed by police officers on Tuesday, July 5, while he was selling CDs outside of a convenience store. The following day, Philando Castile, 32, was shot and killed by a police officer after he was stopped for a broken tail light. Videos of both killings were widely shared on social media, causing hundreds to take to the streets in protest of police actions, as well as memory of the two men killed. Thursday night, snipers shot and killed five officers at such a protest in Dallas, Texas. Questions of police brutality, America’s historic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and second amendment rights have been pushed to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.”
It’s a crazy world. One song Buddy did play was a song off a 2008 album, Skin Deep.
“We all gotta be careful, Buddy sings, “How we treat one another.” Because,
“Skin Deep, Skin Deep
Underneath we’re all the same.”
In the song Buddy mentions:
“A man in Louisiana
He never called me by my name
He said ‘boy do this and boy do that’”
He prefaced his performance of the song by recalling for us that, as a boy, he remembers his mother using a broken piece of glass as a mirror, and that he was 17 before he saw running water from a tap. His words and the song were a stark reminder of the recent history of black experience in America. The legacy of all of this cannot be easily erased and the current experience of African Americans, not least in their encounters with law enforcement, gives rise to a huge amount of fear, resentment and anger.
Michael Eric Dyson wrote a telling piece in the New York Times this week, expressing his sense of the way white people perceive blacks. He talks about the “binoculars” used by whites when looking at blacks:
“Those binoculars are also stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories, about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down, informally, from one white mind to the next.”
We need to be increasingly aware of the in-built, enculturated biases that we can be prone to and learn to resist. Whites need to seek to learn – insomuch as they can – what it is to stand in a black person’s shoes.
“It all comes down to just one simple rule
That you treat everybody just the way
You want them to treat you.”
That’s not original, or course – “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you,” says Jesus in Matthew 7:12. That’s the fulfillment of the whole of God’s law. It’s a crazy world. But we can all do our bit to make it a little less crazy. “We gotta be careful, how we treat one another.”
Check out Scottish musician and broadcaster Lins Honeyman’s excellent blues radio show. You can “listen again” over the next week to this broadcast, which features an interview with Gary Burnett about his book, The Gospel According to the Blues.
The book dares us to read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in conversation with Robert Johnson, Son House, and Muddy Waters. It suggests that thinking about the blues-the history, the artists, the songs-provides good stimulation for thinking about the Christian gospel. Both are about a world gone wrong, about injustice, about the human condition, and both are about hope for a better world. In this book, Gary Burnett probes both the gospel and the history of the blues as we find it in the Sermon on the Mount, to help us understand better the nature of the good news which Jesus preached, and its relevance and challenge to us.