Category: Black Music

A Little Saturday Zydeco

Zydeco is black Creole music that is native to Southwest Louisiana. It originated as a unique and distinct art form after the early 1900s.

Zydeco music is characterized by the use of an accordion as the lead instrument, and occasionally, the use of a metal washboard or “frottoir.” Over the years, zydeco has been influenced by blues and R’n’B music. It remains popular in southern Louisiana and east Texas, but people in other parts of the country, especially young people, might not even know what it is.

Early zydeco made heavy use of French lyrics, but as the use of the language has declined throughout southern Louisiana, new Zydeco music is almost exclusively in English.

Zydeco has developed its own hand-dancing form, and this is a nice video of couple strutting their stuff on the Louisiana Zydeco Live television show:

I also like this zydeco line-dance video:

The music on the above video is from top zydeco band Brian Jack & The Zydeco Gamblers.

Big Mama Thornton Sings the Blues: Rock Me

Don’t forget the blues.

Big Mama Thornton was a blues woman. And she could rock. This is from a live show in Oregon in 1971.

Willie Mae Thornton, aka Big Mama Thornton, was born on December 11, 1926 in Montgomery, Alabama. Like many black musicians, she started out singing gospel at her church. At the age of 14, she left home to join a chitlin circuit music troupe in Georgia named the Hot Harlem Revue. She went on to tour and do musical dates with a number of blues and R’n’B figures.

Her biggest hit was “Hound Dog”, which was released in 1952, along with the B side tune “They Call Me Big Mama.” The song was #1 on the Billboard R’n’B charts for seven weeks, and sold almost two million copies.

Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his own version of the song, and it became an even bigger hit; few people today remember that Big Mama was the first to do the song.

Big Mama was not a beauty queen. And she was big, getting to as much as 350 lbs, although illness later in life made her lose her size. On the above video, she looks almost lean.

But no matter, she could still carry a tune and then some. Blessed with gravelly sounding, booming voice, Big Mama belted people with the blues. She taught herself the harmonica, and that added some depth to her performances, especially live.

She died young at the age of 57, due to heart and liver problems that many attribute to her hard drinking lifestyle.

She left us too early, but her music lives on.

Check It Out: Links of Interest, 4/13/09

Here are links to some recommended reads.

Abagond has a blog entry about actress Ellen Holly:

Ellen Holly (1931- ) is an American actress, the first black actress ever to appear regularly on a soap opera. She played Carla Hall on “One Life to Live” from 1968 to 1985. She also played the president’s wife in “School Daze” (1988).

Holly grew up in New York, the daughter of a chemical engineer and a librarian. She studied acting at Hunter College and went on from there to act on stage. By 1956 she was on Broadway. She got in to the Actors Studio, the first black woman ever to do so. She later got parts in film and television too.

In 1968 Holly wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times about what it was like to be a light-skinned black woman. Agnes Dixon, who was then starting a new soap called “One Life to Live”, read that letter. It led her to create the character of Carla Gray (later Hall). She offered the part to Holly herself. Holly took it and became the first regular black female character on a soap. Other soaps soon followed their lead and had black characters of their own too.

I remember watching Holly on One Life to Live as a teenager. At the time, I didn’t appreciate that she was breaking new ground for black actors in the soaps.

I can see why so many people thought she was white: it wasn’t until the late 1960s that color TVs started selling in large numbers. On black and white TV, her light skin did make her look white.

She started out on the show doing a story line where she is a black person passing for white. A white male character on the show actually proposed to her, but she had to reject the proposal because she was not white. I later found out that the theme of the “tragic mulatto who passes for white” was a not an uncommon one for Hollywood (see Imitation of Life). But at the time, I was shocked that this kind of race-sensitive stuff was being shown on daytime television.
***

Monroe, Louisiana is a city of about 50,000 in north central Louisiana. It’s about a half hour drive from Grambling University. The following is from a recent story in the Monroe Free Press, which is one of the city’s African American newspapers:

Monroe: The city where it’s safe to say Nigga
City won’t fire or reprimand foul mouthed department heads

It started a few years back when we started reporting about the tendency of our police chief to curse and use extremely foul and graphic language publicly. In one instance he even told the police chief of Sterlington to get under the table and suck his…

There were no reprimands, lost days of pay, or other slaps on the wrist. The subliminal message is that such language is acceptable for department heads…

The most recent problems occurred this year when Sean Benton the Superintendent of Monroe’s Water Distribution plant was accused of referring to black employees of his department as Niggas and routinely using foul language and expletives in his references to others. Police had to be called once when Benton took off his shirt to fight a subordinate…

What raises eyebrows is that Benton is black. Most of his “Nigga” comments were made to blacks. The issue that this raises is whether or not “Nigga” is an generally offensive by whites but acceptable when used by blacks.

Because Benton has not been fired or reprimanded by the city’s black mayor it appears to be an endorsement of “Nigga” as acceptable language for a black professional in a department head status to use toward subordinates.

***

There’s been a slew of articles written in the past year or so about Tyler Perry. A recent piece about him in Entertainment Weekly, titled Tyler Perry: The Controversy Over His Hit Movies, claims to go “inside black America’s secret culture war”:

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Paul Robeson, a Giant of American Culture

Today, Aptil 9th, is the 111th birthday of Paul Robeson. He is a giant of our culture whose contributions should be celebrated by all, black, white, or other.

This is from Robeson’s entry in wikipedia:

Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (April 9, 1898–January 23, 1976) was an Afro-American actor of film and stage, All-American and professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator, lawyer, and basso profondo concert singer who was also noted for his wide-ranging social justice activism.

A forerunner of the civil rights movement, Robeson was a trades union activist, peace activist, Phi Beta Kappa Society laureate, and a recipient of the Spingarn Medal and Stalin Peace Prize. Robeson achieved worldwide fame and recognition during his life for his artistic accomplishments, and his outspoken, radical beliefs which largely clashed with the colonial powers of Western Europe and the Jim Crow climate of pre-civil rights America.

Paul Robeson was the first major concert star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals and was the first black actor of the 20th century to portray William Shakespeare’s Othello. His 1943-44 Broadway run of Othello still holds the record for the longest running Shakespeare play. Despite Robeson’s vocal dissatisfaction with movie stereotypes, his roles in both the American and British film industry were some of the first parts ever created that displayed dignity and respect for the African American film actor, paving the way for Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

At the height of his fame, Paul Robeson decided to become a primarily political artist, speaking out against fascism and racism in the US and abroad as white America failed post-World War II to stand up for the rights of people of color. Robeson thus became a prime target of the Red Scare during the late 1940s through to the late 1950s.

His passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958 under the McCarran Act and he was under surveillance by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency and by British MI5 for well over three decades until his death in 1976. The reasoning behind his persecution centered not only on his beliefs in socialism and friendship with the peoples of the Soviet Union but also his tireless work towards the liberation of the colonial peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, his support of the International Brigades, his ardent efforts to push for anti-lynching legislation and the integration of major league baseball among many other causes that challenged worldwide white supremacy.

Condemnation of Robeson and his beliefs came swiftly, from both the white establishment of the US, including the United States Congress, and many mainstream black organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This mass vilification by the American establishment blacklisted and isolated Robeson for the latter part of his career.

Despite the fact that Paul Robeson was one of the most internationally famous cultural figures of his era, the persecution virtually erased him from mainstream culture and subsequent interpretations of 20th century history, including civil rights and black history.


Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River in the 2nd version (1936) of Showboat: “Colored folks work on de Mississippi / Colored folks work while de white folks play / Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset / Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day.”

The most notable aspect of Paul Robeson is that he always fought for the dignity and progress of the race, no matter what the personal cost. And as said above, that cost was very, very high.

To those who don’t know about Paul Robeson: please, find out and learn. This is a man who lost fortune, fame… everything… in the furtherance of the cause of African American progress.

His name deserves to be invoked among the pantheon of American and African American giants. Don’t let those who sought to destroy him and his legacy be successful.

Celebrate his life.

Freddie Hubbard, Jazz Trumpet Great, RIP

Frederick Dewayne (“Freddie”) Hubbard, one of the great American jazz trumpeters, died on December, 29 2008 at the age of 70. He will be missed.

Hubbard was an exponent of the so-called bebop and hard bop schools of jazz. He played with a number of jazz greats, from drummer Art Blakey to saxaphonist John Coltrane to pianist Herbie Hancock. His wikipedia entry gives a very good summary of his life and work.

(I sometimes hear the question, what is bop/bebop/hard bop? I am no expert on this, but here’s how I look at it. When jazz became a unique art form in the first half of the 20th century, it was mainly dance music. The rhythms and melodies were made to help dancers keep in step/rhythm with the beat.

Bop-style music still had a beat, but it wasn’t necessarily dance music, and lots of bop isn’t even dance-able (think John Coltrane). Bop is built a lot around jazz solos and improvisation. One way to tell early non-bop jazz from bop jazz is to listen to the bass player. In early jazz, the bass players pretty much plays a steady, uniform rhythm throughout piece. But in bop, the bass plays rhythmically, but not uniformly; the chords can go all over place, as the bass player helps to push the soloist through the music.

Or something like that.)

Freddie Hubbard was a favorite, perhaps the favorite, jazz musician of mine as I was grew up in New York City during the late sixties and early seventies. His trumpet solo on Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, from the album of the same name, is still like a gourmet dish to my ears. And his early work with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers is still a thrill to listen to.

Here are two videos featuring Hubbard. The first is from a Jazz Messengers re-union perfromance, with the band performing the tune A La Mode for a German TV special in 1989 celebrating Art Blakey’s 70th birthday. The band includes Freddie Hubbard and Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter and Benny Golson on tenor sax, Jackie McLean on alto sax, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Walter Davis Jr. on piano, Buster Williams on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. Art Blakey can be seen in the background, with a medium sized silver afro.

Hubbard plays the second trumpet solo.

The second video is from a 1984 live performance with the Jazz Messengers, with Art Blakey doing the drums. The band also includes Benny Golson on tenor sax, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Walter Davis Jr on piano, and Buster Williams on bass.

The tune is called I Remember Clifford, and is an ode to another jazz great, trumpeter Clifford Brown.

Nina Simone: Four Women

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known by her stage name Nina Simone (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003), was a many-time Grammy Award-nominated American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger and civil rights activist.

nina_simone_1969
Nina Simone

Although she disliked being categorized, Simone is generally classified as a jazz musician. Simone originally aspired to become a classical pianist, but her work covers an eclectic variety of musical styles besides her classical basis, such as jazz, soul, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop music.

Her vocal style is characterized by intense passion, a loose vibrato, and a slightly androgynous timbre, in part due to her unusually low vocal range which veered between the alto and tenor ranges (occasionally even reaching baritone lows).

Sometimes known as the High Priestess of Soul, she paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert she could fluctuate between exuberant happiness or tragic melancholy.

EDIT: This song seems almost too sad given the recent Obama breakthrough.

Has the Obama election made it wrong to sing the blues?

Black Masculinity: 50 Cent and Barack Obama

This is a very interesting documentary that looks at black masculinity, by comparing rapper 50 Cent and presidential candidate Barack Obama.

It’s very insightful and provocative, and worth noting on your blog. Thanks to the Tariq Nelson blog for the heads-up on this.

Sunday Sing – 9/21/08: I Won’t Complain

John Legend sings “I Won’t Complain.”

The late Bishop William Abney sings a stirring version of “I Won’t Complain.” There is a 30 second break in the video in the middle of the song, but keep listening; it’s worth it.

Karen Clark Sheard and the FAMU Gospel Choir with a thunderous version of “I Won’t Complain.”

Hmm… why not this long version of the song by Marvin Winans? The organ has a little bit of flavor to it…

And finally, Stevie at the Luther Vandross funeral.

Links of Interest, 8/11/08

The New York Times Magazine has an article titled Is Obama the End of Black Politics? which is must reading. The article addresses a theme that’s been seen throughout this election: a new generation of African American politicians, symbolized by Barack Obama, is emerging, and their world view is much different from that of the old guard:

The latest evidence of tension between Obama and some older black leaders burst onto cable television last month, after an open microphone on Fox News picked up the Rev. Jesse Jackson crudely making the point that he wouldn’t mind personally castrating his party’s nominee. The reverend was angry because Obama, in a Father’s Day speech on Chicago’s South Side, chastised black fathers for shirking their responsibilities…

Most of the coverage of this minor flap dwelled on the possible animus between Jackson and Obama, despite the fact that Obama himself, who is not easily distracted, seemed genuinely unperturbed by it. But more interesting, perhaps, was the public reaction of Jesse Jackson Jr., the reverend’s 43-year-old son, who is a congressman from Illinois and the national co-chairman of Obama’s campaign. The younger Jackson released a blistering statement in which he said he was “deeply outraged and disappointed” by the man he referred to, a little icily, as “Reverend Jackson.”…

This exchange between the two Jacksons hinted at a basic generational divide on the question of what black leadership actually means. Black leaders who rose to political power in the years after the civil rights marches came almost entirely from the pulpit and the movement, and they have always defined leadership, in broad terms, as speaking for black Americans. They saw their job, principally, as confronting an inherently racist white establishment, which in terms of sheer career advancement was their only real option anyway…

This newly emerging class of black politicians, however, men (and a few women) closer in age to Obama and Jesse Jr., seek a broader political brief. Comfortable inside the establishment, bred at universities rather than seminaries, they are just as likely to see themselves as ambassadors to the black community as they are to see themselves as spokesmen for it, which often means extolling middle-class values in urban neighborhoods, as Obama did on Father’s Day.

This real or imagined generational divide has been discussed a lot, but the Times article is the best I’ve seen on the subject so far.

Dr. Algernon Austin, whose work I cited earlier, is the founder and director of the Thora Institute, which “disseminates facts and analyses about black Americans for the purpose of improving the socioeconomic standing of black Americans.” The blog he writes for the Institute’s site is timely, provative, and informative; I highly recommend it. The latest blog entry (8/10/2008), titled 200,000 Black Jobs Lost to China, discusses the impact of China’s economic expansion on African Americans and the rest of the country:

Between 2001 and 2007, over 200,000 blacks lost their jobs due to U.S. trade with China, estimates economist Robert E. Scott in “The China Trade Toll.” Further, other research estimates that the average black worker earns about $1,400 less a year because of the downward pressure on wages from trade with less-developed countries. America’s trade policies have been driven by what is most beneficial to economic elites, not what benefits average workers in the U.S. or abroad.

The U.S. trade deficit with China has been growing about 21 percent a year. It increased from $84 billion in 2001 to $262 billion in 2007. There are a number of unfair ways that China achieves this export advantage. China devalues its currency. Currently, the yuan, China’s currency, is about 30 percent below its true value. This devaluation basically puts a 30 percent discount on all Chinese goods. China is very lax with labor and environmental laws. Exploiting workers and the environment is cheaper for businesses than following good labor and environmental practices. The combined effect of these policies produces a large and unfair trade advantage to Chinese goods.

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