On Race and Folk Music: Classic African-American Songsters and Keb’ Mo’
by Kim Ruehl, originally published in NoDepression.com, July 11, 2014
I’ve been listening to a little bit of Keb’ Mo’ recently and a whole lot of the Smithsonian Folkways Classic African-American Songsters collection, thinking about the strange connection I have to African-American storytelling traditions. Strange because I’m a white lady who grew up in a small self-segregated Southern town.
As a student of literature, I gravitated toward African-American stories. Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker — these were my heroes during young adulthood. People who met an oppressive, confusing, scary, often violent world, not with anger or fear or violence in return. They met it with stories. Stories that shooed away the idea that black voices didn’t carry important ideas. Stories that answered the oppression of black lives by lifting up black beliefs. Stories that, by virtue of being told, broke silences with strength and the command: “Listen.”
Toni Morrison, for example, has said she won’t write white privilege into her books. It lives in the real world; we don’t need it in stories. Stories are there to give us an idea of how much greater we could be if we exercised a little imagination, a little will, a little defiant hope.
As a student of music, it took me a while longer to come around to African-American stories. Maybe it was my classical upbringing, maybe something else. After finding folk music, when faced with Leadbelly, I chose Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. When encountering Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee, I opted for the Carter Family and Charlie Poole.
I remember walking through the Marigny in New Orleans shortly after I moved there, taking in the color of the houses, recognizing the connection with the Carribbean and African influences, moving through Congo Square and wandering along the river. Walking through the music. Hearing the black banjo and the black trumpeteer. Watching the sax player in the Quarter, under an awning, in the rain. A light switch flicked on and I suddenly understood there would be none of this music I loved without the music I had been locking out. There was more music than I could ever have imagined, behind the music I knew. The music that sings through the storm, that flits along in the throes of a gale. Music that, by virtue of having melody, commands: “Listen.”
Make me a pallet on your floor…
I learned that one from Lucinda Williams. I could say, “what a shame,” but a doorway is a doorway, as long as it leads you somewhere you need to go. The song went through a half-dozen recordings and thousands of performances before the Weavers brought it into the mainstream, which is to say the awareness of white folks. Since then, it’s gone everywhere from Gillian Welch to Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s elephant show, where it no doubt lost all meaning. If you Google the lyrics, the first result that comes up is for Gillian Welch lyrics. Like she wrote it. (That would have been W.C. Handy.)
But, listening to Brownie McGhee sing it on this Smithsonian collection, you sail down the paved highway that ends at the dirt road. You know where you’re headed. You know what this song is about. As smooth and fluid and easy as McGhee’s guitar picking flows, you know this is a song about being down and out, and wanting to run away.
“Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” now that’s one you probably know from Flatt & Scruggs or good old Charlie Poole, who had a hit record with it in 1925. I can’t find the specific origins of the song, but it came from African-American communities and was about the cardgame Georgia Skin. Here, it’s sung by John Jackson of Virginia — a guy who made his way in music by playing it in his living room for friends and family. Suddenly the folk boom happened in the mid-20th Century and Jackson became a darling of the Washington D.C. folk and blues community. By that time “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” was probably close to a century old, but we count it as a 1925 hit for Poole.
Keb’ Mo’, meanwhile, picks up these traditions and updates them with a kind of humor and accessibility that you just won’t see from any other contemporary performers, except maybe Todd Snider. “You made me a brand new man / but I like the old me better,” Mo’ sings. And, even though it’s just him and the band, it feels like a party in the room. Like a crowd of people has just moved on in, clawing past the command to “Listen” and is instead demanding: “Dance.”
As I’ve mentioned before, dancing is freedom. Dancing to music is embracing humanity. It’s meeting someone else’s ideas and letting them flow through your own body. It’s giving space and movement to the voice of a stranger. It’s an agreement, an endorsement. The thing about dancing is you can’t do it if you think about it too much. You must realize the thing this person is singing, is something you have in common. It’s the essence of life, of living freely.
Keb’ Mo’ no doubt spent a little time in his formative years listening to Jackson or Broonzy or McGhee, or some of these other “songsters.” He’s carrying that pallet, so to speak, and he’s making it his stage. There is absolutely no finer artist of his caliber, doing what he’s doing.
Anyhow, I’ve been ruminating on all these things since Terry Roland posted in this space, quoting Otis Taylor: “When a songwriter is white, he’s called a singer-songwriter. When he’s black, he’s called blues.” I would submit that this is because it’s listeners doing the naming. Listeners call it “singer-songwriter” or “blues.” Listeners or companies, marketing departments, record store organizers. The musicians have always just called it music. Mother Maybelle learned to play guitar in a way that’s now called the Carter Scratch from an African-American friend. Woody and Pete were students of Leadbelly and McGhee. They wanted to tell a story like those guys could tell it. They wanted to get inside the song like those guys did. Seeger soared in his career, not by appropriating African-American spirituals, but by opening doors to them and inviting audiences in.
It’s difficult for me, this — writing about African-American music while naming the cultural divide. Perhaps that’s why it’s so infrequently done by Americana/folk critics. There’s an impulse when discussing these recordings, to ignore racial history in the U.S. and just talk about the music — the notes and melodies, the rhythms. To put aside the stories which led to these things. But folk music is borne of the daily life of its makers.
You cannot write a song like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” unless you’re a white midwestern young man frustrated by the headlines and the direction you see your parents’ generation steering its socio-political endeavors. You cannot make “Pastures of Plenty” unless you are an Okie who’s been set to ramble due to oppressive dust storms, facing extreme poverty during an economic crash. You cannot make a song like “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” without living in a world that won’t allow you to stop at any hotel you feel like stopping at, washing up in any bathroom on the side of the road. It’s not a song about the Jim Crow South, but it’s a song that was borne of it. It’s not a song of oppression and racism, but the determination to sing it is an assertion of personal freedom in the face of daily reality that disallows absolute assertion of your personal freedom.
It’s impossible to ignore that there is a cultural experience in these songs that is not my cultural experience. It’s impossible to listen without hearing our shared history and the embarrassment innate in the knowledge that Woody and Pete will forever be heroes and Broonzy and McGhee and Jackson are, at least now, barely known outside of certain circles. That Keb’ Mo’s extraordinary new album BluesAmericana has yet to be discussed in this space, whether that has anything at all to do with race or whether the audience of this site simply isn’t aware he released it, both are results of the same historical institutions. And, anyway, it’s what I do — talk about the context of the music, the stories that led to it. It’s my schtick as a critic. I must admit how natural it is for me to turn on and enjoy the exceptional musicality in these recordings, and how clumsily I stumble over the best words to use, to discuss it here. The only thing I can think is to name the dominance of white voices in American folk music and the fact that, as Taylor nailed, the listener is inclined to recognize white singer-songwriters as “singer-songwriters” and African-American singer-songwriters as “blues” artists, whether or not what they’re playing is actually the blues*.
All I know is I can’t stop hearing, can’t stop listening, can’t stop dancing.
*Townes Van Zandt said there are two kinds of music: the blues and “Zippadeedoodah.”