Sunday, June 19, 2011

Have you Forgotten Your Roots?

In and Out of the Working Class, Michael D Yates, 2009

Yates is a well-known left economist in the U.S., one of only two Marxists to hold that position in the professoriate, according to him. Which shows you the complete control capitalist economics has in this ‘free’ country. He’s from a working-class background, and this background formed a touchstone for him through-out his life. Unlike some ‘working class boys done good,’ he did not betray his roots.

Yates grew up in a factory town centered around Pittsburgh Plate & Glass, not far from the mining town where he was born, and where his family lived for many years in Pennsylvania. This book is a collection of essays and fiction he wrote which revolve around the issue of class - the dirtiest secret in America. He is one of those increasingly rare people who basically jumped classes via education, or, in his description, went to the top of the 'aristocracy of labor.' Yates eventually got a PHD, worked as a professor for 32 years, taught working-class people at labor extension services and at union educationals, even prisoners at a local lock-up. However, he never himself worked in the factory or a mine, leaving that to his father, who worked at PP&G, and got emphysema from silica and asbestos dust.

Yates tries his hand at fiction in this collection, and several chapters are fictional situations that closely parallel his real life. In the real world, Yates tried to organize a union for professors, and further discovers the absolute personal politics inherent in academe; helps with organizing a union for college staff; ponders over the best way to teach Marxist economics against the religion of bourgeois ‘macro-economics;” teaches bored middle-class children from the Pittsburgh suburbs about surplus value; confronts the racism in his home town; talks about his time in a strict and robotized Catholic college; and eventually retires from teaching after a nervous breakdown. For a left academic, this book is a must-read. Let me quote one paragraph which shows what Yates was up against regarding his students:

“The enthusiastic first-generation college students we once taught disappeared with the mills. We replaced them with mediocre and uninterested youngsters from the middle-class suburbs of Pittsburgh. These students were not my cup of tea. They saw college as a place to party and a way-station in between high school and the real world. They expected to get a degree, and the better job and money that went with it, simply because they had purchased their place in our classrooms. If they didn’t do well with minimum effort, it wasn’t their fault. The ‘product’ … must be defective. They resented learning and made their disdain obvious.”

Yates enjoyed teaching working class people in his labor-education service classes, or even mostly black prisoners, because they actually understood the world and theory better than the careerist students he normally met. Surplus value is not so complicated when you realize the owners of your corporation are getting paid many times over what a normal 40 hours would bring, even at the best pay. Class is not a foreign concept when you cannot afford a car.

Yates worked for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers (UFW), and this chapter is the oddest of the book – but true. Yates was on the UFW staff as a professor, working on education, legal and labor issues for the union, and living in a broken-down ranch in California where the union headquarters was. However, there were complaints about the way Chavez ran the union, including from Yates. It was basically a personalist bastion, with no democracy. Chavez’s relatives and children held power with Chavez. One day the union staff had a meeting, and Chavez accused several complainers of being company spies, and threw them out. No facts, no due process, no nothing. Yates was not dismissed or arrested, but his innocent friend was, and Yates left the next day in sympathy. To this day, the UFW is a shadow of its former self, destroyed by Cesar's fame.

Yates ends the book with a cheery fictional cliff-hanger about a new union activist who gets fired, but who wins a 40 to 1 shot at the horse track, and with it thinks he will be able to defeat the company, and continue in the union, perhaps even running for its presidency. But the overall tone of the book is somber – being a Marxist in America is like being an Eskimo in Dallas, and it takes a personal toll on Yates. Better to just think of food and drink, entertainment or family, because that is all the system hopes to leave us with. Yates now drives around the U.S. in an RV, and is a full time associate editor at Monthly Review. So there is life after work.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!

Red Frog

June 19, 2011

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Poverty of Philosophy

Film: “Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick, 2011

Malick is one of these American film auteurs that is somewhat of a hidden legend, like JD Salinger or Marlene Dietrich. His first film, ‘Badlands,’ was a re-creation of the Charlie Starkweather mass murder spree in Kansas in the late 1950s, starring Martin Sheen and Sissie Spacek as young actors. The film is one of the great American movies. Malick followed with ‘Days of Heaven,’’The Thin Red Line’ and a few others that degraded in quality from his first.

Nevertheless, many critics and film-goers eagerly awaited Malick’s new film, “Tree of Life.” It won the Palm D’Or in Cannes, and film reviewers have written turgid, confusing descriptions of this film that make it out to be some cross between the Bible, ‘Texasville’ and ‘Solaris.’

Well, it’s really a very simple film. The film, based partly on Malick’s own childhood in Waco, Texas, is a meditation on the death of a son and brother. It essentially poses the problem of death / evil, and asks ‘God’ why this happened to such a young, innocent person. The two forces of the film are ‘grace’ and nature. Nature took the son, and now the parents (one in particular) and the brothers (one in particular) search for ‘grace’ to accept the death. In the process we see nature in all its ferocious beauty and power through time; and childhood in all its rosy hues and memories – and crises. In that childhood, the father, played by Brad Pitt (yes, that Brad Pitt) is a dictatorial parent, who eventually apologizes for his behavior (achieving ‘grace’ himself). And in the end, the film also ‘accepts’ the death of the son and brother. As the magic mother says, and I paraphrase, “I give him to you” while two angel-like women hover around her.

So, evidently, two forces of evil in the world – ‘human nature’ and death – are overcome by love and acceptance.

History plays a minor role in this film. The father and one son attempt careers – the son, played as an older man by Sean Penn (yes, that Sean Penn) succeeds, while the father eventually fails. At the end, the family is evicted from their Eden-like house in Waco due to his job loss. The children play in DDT fumes. The father and brothers visit black folks grilling food, which reminds you that 1950s Waco was segregated. Scenes of corporate American board-rooms remind you how life goes on now. But history is relegated to the sidelines. History is ignored, actually. And since no one lives in a time ‘outside history,’ this is a calculated deception. Even the father’s authoritarian style is actually straight out of the 50s.

History is irrelevant to the main thrust of the film, which is the images. And the images stand in for the beauty of life. Images of evolving ‘outer space,’ underwater life, volcanic eruptions, dinosaurs on beaches and along rivers, desert formations, star fields, cloud patterns and volcanic plains are interspersed with the gauzy, impressionistic family story evolving in Waco. Malick succeeds in evoking childhood quite well. The film is beautiful in a somewhat labored way, and it reminds every viewer that what we see, hear, smell, feel and touch every day are wonderful delights that should never be forgotten; moments that we should actually immerse ourselves in. For they may never return.

But as a philosophic film it fails. The massed classical choirs accompanying the evolving universe should be a tip off. Quotes from the Book of Job, phrases of ‘Why, God”, “Amens’ and southern Texas religiosity bathe the film throughout. The philosophic answer is actually a Christian message, diluted as it is. “God” is forgiven. His natural world is beautiful. Say “Grace.” Amen. As if the death of this boy was part of God’s ‘plan’ in the first place; as if God was actually involved in a specific drowning or death in Vietnam. This is a reactionary fantasy. So this film rates as a ‘deep thinker’ film for bourgeois critics, but when you look at what it is saying, there is much less than meets the eye. Sort of like the ‘meaning’ of the obelisk in “2001-A Space Odyssey.” Nada.

Current debates among film critics over ‘low’ versus ‘high’ culture (with this film in the “high” culture category…) ignore the fact that some so-called low culture is actually more progressive and emancipating than some so-called ‘high culture.’ Which, given the a-political bent of most film critics, is a completely confusing dialectic to them.

And I saw it in Uptown,
Red Frog, 6/11/2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

Poetic Fact

North Star Country,” by Meridel Le Sueur, written 1945, 1998 Edition

Sometime C.P. author Meridel Le Sueur, our female Whitman, our prose Carl Sandberg. Historical pastiche, cutout, mosaic, montage, a writer’s canvas of collages. The down-home history of the ‘upper’ Midwest, of the central west, of the cold place of lakes, of the 5 Lakotas/ Minnesotas/ Iowas/ Wisconsins, from first white step to last big war. History of cruelty to the native tribes; rebellion in a near place. History of the strengths of the first whites. Plows and eats and plants and trees. Steam engines and pie tins. Hollers and reels. Wagons and timber. Corn and winter. 38 Santee hung. Acres plowed, bottom lands that never bottom out. Democracy rooted in a new country. Freedom’s people.

Minnesota. The North Star State. South Canada. The capstone of a continent. Where the waters divide.

But it doesn‘t stop there in a rosy, earthy, Minnesota memory. Its not all jack-a-wallop poetry. There is a human snake in paradise. It would be an insult to the snake to blame him. Railroad barons, timber kings, ore thieves, big mansions, small money-mad minds. Poverty-stricken timber-jacks. Bunions. Exhausted field hands. Foreclosures. Farmers buying farms for a $1, guns up. Roads of hoes. The unemployed. Strike killers, machine-gun cops, 2 dead, 65 wounded. And sent to war, all together, in the end.

Our own prose poetess, Le Sueur.

And I bought it at Mayday Books,
Red Frog, 6/10/2011

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Place is the Thing

“In Search of the Blues,” Marybeth Hamilton, 2008

This professorial work by a former punk girl from LA sets out to debunk the idea of the ‘Delta Blues.’ In the process, she creates a good history of white attempts to understand the origins of the blues, while failing in her overall thesis. Just as the real ‘crossroads’ of the Robert Johnson song can only be guessed at (Highway 61 & 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, now a dreary intersection of gas stations, furniture stores and rib joints), so the origins of blues music is like a dark, cracked mirror.

W.C. Handy said in 1895 or 1903 he met a man playing guitar with a knife slide in the railroad depot in Tutwiler, MS, just south of Clarksdale. The man was singing an odd, plaintive music with the refrain, “Goin’ where the Suthern cross the Dog." Handy maintains that this is the first time he heard ‘blues music.’ Handy himself later composed some of the first songs with blues in the title - “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues,” in the key of G, based on stomp tunes about levees and cane plantations he heard in Cleveland, Mississippi. The sheet music and 12-bar pattern of Memphis Blues was published by Handy in 1912. However, as Hamilton points out, the first commercial blues recording was “Crazy Blues,” by Mamie Smith, put out in 1920, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and was a national sensation. Hamilton doesn’t believe Handy’s story, and so invents her own.

Hamilton’s theory is that the “Delta Blues was not born in the bars and dance-halls of Mississippi.” The Delta Blues was ‘discovered’ or “invented by white men and women, as the culmination of a long-standing fascination with uncorrupted black singers…” As proof she says that in 1941 all the jukeboxes in Clarksdale carried black music you would have found in Chicago or New York, and no local singers. Of course, this only proves what was popular at the time, and what would promote business in a bar or club. Or even what was available. A scratchy song singing ‘hell-hound on my trail’ is not what people might want to listen to after a hot, exhausting day at work, even in 1941. Nor was the blues necessarily a music that had a mass black following for a long time. Like all music, other styles came in to replace it. Nor does a style have to be popular to be valid. However, as Hamilton herself admits, in the 1920s ‘race’ music, much of it blues, was everywhere.

A better guide to where the blues came from – i.e. ‘who’ invented it - is an annotated map of the Delta, and Mississippi itself. Who was born or lived in the Delta? White people? A few, and also Robert Johnson … and Willie Brown, James Cotton, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, David “Honeyboy’ Edwards, King Solomon Hill, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, Elmore James, BB King, Albert King, Big Daddy Kinsey, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Little Milton, Furry Lewis, Magic Sam, Charlie Musselwhite, Charlie Patton, Junior Parker, Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Reed, Son House, Skip James, Otis Spann, Hubert Sumlin, Sunnyland Slim, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf … and many others. Even WC Handy lived in Clarksdale for awhile.

Here is one map. Others are sold at the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi:

I think Ms. Hamilton has gotten the word ‘invent’ and the word ‘discover’ – or actually “re-discover” - confused. Or even the word ‘promote.’ Music explosions are many times located in actual places – San Francisco/Haight-Ashbury birthed psychedelic music; Laurel Canyon in LA housed folk rock; NY/Greenwich Village promoted the folk revival and punk music; Seattle begat grunge; Detroit created Motown; Chicago produced the electric blues; Harlem made black renaissance music; Kansas City/Vine Street hosted dance jazz; New Orleans / Storyville / Basin Street launched Dixieland, a certain kind of blues and the original jazz; Nashville/lower Broadway saw country; Austin, Texas countered with outlaw country; Memphis/Beale Street generated rock & roll, Rhythm & Blues and rockabilly; Macon, Georgia played a role in southern rock, etc. The argument is not that no one outside of these areas is involved, but rather that the ‘heart’ of the music originates from a very real place, among a group of people that knew each other. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightin’ Hopkins, for instance, were from Texas, and Blind Willie McTell from Georgia – but that only emphasizes the main point.

The Mississippi Delta – so-named because it was created by regular flooding of the river north of Vicksburg into the flat plains east, extending nearly all the way north to Memphis – was just such a ‘place.’ And the place IS the thing. That ‘place’ was filled with what we northerners call ‘farms’ – but which are still called plantations. After the Civil War, these very large plantations were farmed either by sharecropping or by direct, paid stoop labor, not much different than in slavery days. This is the proletarian roots of the delta blues – a material basis which many modern blues fans ignore. Many bluesmen worked on plantations, or became singers to escape plantations. After all, what is more alluring – working all day under a hot sun doing back-breaking work – or drinking, traveling, singing, playing guitar and having sex? Not a difficult choice if you can sing and play.

Black theoreticians have always focused on the blues, so there was no need for white people to invent it, or even discover it. Frederick Douglass discussed slave songs long ago. WEB Dubois wrote “Souls of Black Folk” in 1903, and talked about ‘sorrow songs’ - work songs and field hollers; LeRoi Jones wrote “Blues People” in the 60s - and who can forget Cornel West, the ‘bluesman / jazzman’ PHD of our own time?

The real story here is the re-discovery of the blues by white people, which culminated in the 1960s. Hamilton bases her history on chapters about certain key individuals or groups of individuals who attempted to dig up the blues, or specifically the “Delta Blues,” and it makes fascinating reading. As is predictable, any study of black people in a reactionary and racist nation is bound to have political ramifications. Art is never isolated from politics.

Proper academic Howard Odum set out from Faulkner’s Oxford, MS in 1907 to catalog ‘the social and mental traits of the Negro,’ in a world not far removed from the Civil War. Odum rejected spirituals as the actual music of black people, given the Christian origin of the music. Instead, he attempted to record using a ‘grapho-phone’ invented by Alexander G Bell, which recorded on wax cylinders. In the process, he came upon traveling singers with songs made up of a three lines, two repeated, using slides of different types, and the word ‘blues.’ His recordings were not saved, but he remembered the lines, and compared them to blues songs of 1925, making a number of almost exact comparisons between his written and remembered lyrics. Odum later gave up the study of black music, as he could not handle close association with the itinerant players and their ‘rotten’ themes and activities.

Hamilton spends time discussing the effect of ‘recording’ on music, and also the intervention of white investigators. Zora Neale Thurston observed that spontaneous music and singing in a community were drowned out by the appearance of the 78 rpm record and later, radio. Folk culture was damaged by contact with these machines and people – at least to some folk analysts like Thurston. Others maintained that folks culture continues under different conditions, which was the position of the left at that time.

The next major white investigator of black folk music was Dorothy Scarborough. She, I think, is the model for the academic in Appalachia searching for ‘old time’ music, profiled in the film “Songcatcher.” As the grand-daughter of slave-owners in Louisiana, she remembered fondly the songs, lullabies, spirituals, and work music of the black people she grew up around. Scarborough decided in 1921 to begin an academic search for ‘uncorrupted’ black folk music prior to recordings. Her method was to contact almost exclusively other white people who’d had plantation experiences, and thus acquired many of her lyrics and songs from them - instead of talking directly to black folks. Occasionally an ex-slave who reminded her of the ‘old Negro’s’ she remembered did sing to her. Like Odum, she also used a version of the wax recorder. This all became the book, “On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs.” In it, Scarborough attempted to bring back the songs of the ‘old time Negroes’ and, indirectly, the ‘good times’ on the plantation. Scarborough called the blues ‘barbaric,’ ‘jerky’ and like a ‘cripple dancing.’ It is no wonder that she gave up the study of black music, and switched over to Appalachian folk songs, after her sympathetic take on ‘old’ Negroes butted up against the actual ‘new’ Negroes of the 1930s.

And now we come to the most famous white ‘song hunter(s)’ of all – John and his son, Alan Lomax. John Lomax first recorded cowboy tunes in Texas, then turned his attention to black song – and specifically those found in prisons, ostensibly because they were isolated places. Lomax got a job with the Library of Congress to record and he did just that, using bulky equipment invented by the Library technicians installed in their car trunk. With it, Lomax meant to take ‘sound photographs.’ In the classic story, Lomax and his young son Alan went to Angola prison farm in Louisiana in 1933, and asked to record the inmates. After fruitless recordings of mediocre material, a ‘trusty’ was introduced to them – a killer, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. Lomax recorded Leadbelly and was astounded at the quality of his voice, and the tunes he had written, or remembered – some of them blues, some of them more like straight folk songs. Leadbelly was paroled because of his singing, and later worked for Lomax as a guide. At one point, Leadbelly told Lomax he was tired of visiting ‘correctional’ institutions, and so Lomax took him to New York.

Leadbelly performed for many audiences in New York. However, Lomax considered Leadbelly to be a low criminal, and refused to give him the money he’d earned at shows or as an assistant. He tried to restrict his movements in the city, racist bad-mouthed him, and at some point, Leadbelly had enough and left. This incident brought a parting of the ways between Lomax and his son, Alan, who started his own career of recording, but increasingly tied himself to the Marxist movement of the time. Alan was instrumental in the 1941-1942 recording of the Library of Congress disc, “Negro Blues and Hollers” – recorded in the Mississippi Delta. Lomax Sr. almost never found fault with Jim Crow, or the massive amount of black people in prisons in the South. And this ideological problem, which affected Odum and Scarborough as well, finally came home to roost. Lomax Sr. was supported by Thurston, the most conservative of the black cultural figures of the time. But Richard Wright, who grew up on a plantation just east of Natchez, MS, attacked Lomax Sr. in the pages of the “New Masses” as a patronizing racist. Leadbelly eventually came back to New York and became part of the left-wing folk revival, playing with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others. Not surprisingly, Lomax Sr. also hated Woody’s voice and songs.

The next group of white people to investigate the blues were a group of New York record collectors interested in jazz – Frederic Ramsey, Charles E Smith and William Russell. Smith was a Marxist, Ramsey an owner of a record exchange, and Russell a patrician. They discovered the “Father of Jazz’ – Jelly Roll Morton – attending a run-down bar in Washington, D.C., and afterward collaborated on the book, “Jazzmen” for the Federal Writers Project in 1939. That book was a response to the positive hysteria over Bix Beiderbecke, a white jazzman from Iowa - a book that insinuated that white people were the best jazz players. In response, in "Jazzmen," the trio detailed the history of Basin Street and Storyville, an all-black neighborhood of flophouses, whore-houses and bars in New Orleans, next to the French Quarter. And how jazz … and perhaps blues … were invented there by black men - Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and especially, King “Buddy Bolden,” a cornet/trumpet player. Bolden was credited with starting the first jazz band in New Orleans. Oliver and Morton recorded in the 1920s, but they had played the city prior to that. One somewhat unreliable source from Bolden's band had them playing in 1895-1896, which seems to most far too early. Bolden had a song called “King Bolden’s Blues,” which is also translated as the “Funky Butt.” (A blues/jazz bar with that name is still on Basin Street, I might add.) The trio got this history down, partly through Morton’s talk recordings with the Library of Congress. Morton used the terms ‘blues’ and ‘jazz’ interchangeably, and recited lyrics that were straight out of a blues song. As Hamilton notes, most blues purists do not think that jazz is related, but there was, at some point, a relationship, before the branches … branched.

The last white individual is the so-called inventor of the Delta Blues, according to Hamilton. He was … a fanatic 78 rpm record collector from New York named – drum roll – James McKune. McKune was an alcoholic homosexual, who died in New York in 1971 nude, in an alley. Between 1944 and 1950s he became the leading blues music collector in the country, leader of a group of New York collectors called the Blues Mafia, keeping only the best and most rare music – 300 discs - under his bed in boxes at the Williamsburg YMCA. McKune discovered and promoted the earliest rural blues singers like Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson to his group, and, according to Hamilton, set the stage for the ‘birth’ of the Delta Blues as a taste-maker. His promotion was purely aesthetic, not political, as befits conservative American culture.

However, it seems accurate to point out that Patton, Johnson, House and James were the earliest and also highest quality / unique singers, players and composers, and, as such, had a legitimate claim to borning the tradition. The fact that they were black, were from the Delta, and nearly all dead does not mean McKune sucked them out of his thumb. McKune recognized them. Hamilton does not mention a word about the British lads who brought blues out of these shadows to a mass white audience – John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richard and Robert Plant. Together with American’s like John Hammond & John Fahey; locals like John Koerner, Dave Ray & Tony Glover; and blues bands like Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat – you could even claim, like Hamilton – that they too ‘invented’ the Delta Blues.

For her next book, Hamilton should center on the invention of rock & roll. The story, I’ve been told, was that Ike Turner, a black man, wrote the first rock song, “Rocket 88” in the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi. But then, she probably thinks some white tastemaker – like Sam Phillips - really invented that song and rock and roll.

And I bought it at Square Books, an independent bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi
Red Frog, May 31, 2011