Thursday, February 9, 2017

25 Cents

Back in the olden days if not the mythic times we fell in a kind of love with the old music and to some extent culture of what Alan Jabbour liked to term the “rural upland south,” mostly Appalachia in other words, but since there was quite a bit of this same music extending down into the relatively flat lands below the hills, Alan was generously inclusive as was his way. As lovers do, we played and performed the music we loved. Mick Jagger could sing “the blue light was my blues, the red light was my mind.” I could sing “police come, didn't wanna go this morning, shot him in the head with my .44 this morning.” Even with Tommy Jarrell's lyrics, there was an almost immediately perceivable dissonance with our audience. That is, no matter how revered Tommy Jarrell was, we could not sing words like “darky,” or worse, “nigger,” to any audience we wanted to play for. This realization was not immediate. We made one record which included Jarrell's lyrics to Yellow Rose of Texas as we learned them directly from him. For a while we actually performed the song as we learned it, true to the basic principle of field collection. Then we realized there were boundaries. There should be boundaries. So the lyrics were changed. “Darky” and “nigger” became “soldier,” “preacher,” even now and again, “honkie.” We were highly educated and knew about scare-quotes, just like the man who rode the mule around the world.

There was of course a perfectly good audience out there that would have cheered at each “nigger.” Tommy Jarrell himself was to some extent part of that audience. He would sing his songs no matter who was in the audience. The hippies he didn't care enough about to self-censor, and the hippies loved him enough to let it pass. The black man in the crowd, well he just “got a dose,” as Tommy would say.

One of the first on-the-road gigs we did was a package tour of the deep south set up by Anne Romaine. It was mostly concerts at schools and libraries. There were no bars or big hard-drinking venues. No race tracks. No drive-in theatres, such as where Ralph and Carter Stanley would play before it got dark enough to show the film, and then get pelted off when darkness arrived. Our tour included Tommy Jarrell and also a great black bluesman who'd learned directly from Robert Johnson by the name of Johnny Shines. One night in Alabama Tommy did his set and came off, and I asked him what was the name of the last tune he'd played. Johnny Shines was sitting across from us, in the dressing room, reading a newspaper. Tommy, without hesitation, said, “well, that was Nigger in the Woodpile.”

There was a fairly deathly silence. Then Shines kind of cracked his newspaper, but did not lower it. “No,” he said, “I think that one was called “I'd Rather Be a Nigger than a Poor White Man.” The silence was not broken. Then Tommy said, “well, yep, I think you're right.” We had already by then dropped the dubious words from our Tommy Jarrell repertoire, and I should have recognized the tune and never brought it up at all, but I didn't. It wasn't one Tommy played very much, being in G.

Now and very then we'd inadvertently run into the wrong crowd—the crowd that would have cheered. One time we played a small bluegrass festival in Wise, Virginia, where Ralph Stanley lived. As you can imagine, the bands were great bluegrass bands, with the exception of us. They liked us well enough, until the slot in the set where our bass player pulled out his trumpet. We'd then crossed the line. Ain't no trumpets at a bluegrass festival in WisegoddamVirginia. During his break, someone in the audience fired a purple snow cone at the trumpeter, and hit him pretty square in the upper thigh. He was wearing white pants. His break suffered. Dale Jett, a good friend and the son of Janette Carter, said after the set, “I hate that old boy throwd that snowcone.”

Ten years after I'd left the outfit, in 1991, a country singer named Travis Tritt had a pretty good hit with a song called Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares). I'll bet he was tickled pink to get in a parenthetical in the title. He was a good songwriter, not his audience, but he understood their bitterness and anger. Here's the song:

His audience responded with cheers. They also threw so many quarters at him that, eventually, he had to stop performing the song live. Quarters hurt.

Right then and there we should have known Trump was on the way, slouching towards Golgotha to be born. Maybe we could have done something about it. Instead, we thought Ross Perot was a blessing from Jesus himself and let it pass.


Here's some further reading.
Even Woody Guthrie saw through the Trumps.

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