Wednesday, September 28, 2016

*****I Hear Mother Africa Calling-With Odetta In Mind

*****I Hear Mother Africa Calling-With Odetta In Mind


Sam Eaton, nothing but the son of a son of a son of an old swamp Yankee, that’s a Yankee fisherman, a small tradesman, a farm hand and those who had, or their forebears had, come across the ocean not under some city on the hill dream but to escape the poor house, the debtors prison or the hangman and wound up doing some indentured servitude before getting under some high Brahmin's fist who did things like yeoman’s military service under General Washington against the bloody British when the call came for brave men to come and help in freedom’s fight and who later forged his way, family in tow, to struggle with the rough stony New England land which fought him and his every inch of the way almost as hard but for sure longer than those bloody Brits, tumble rock fought him down in Carver in the southeastern corner of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where he tried to eke out an existence against the grim fresh breast of earth and marsh as a “bogger,” a man who worked the dreaded cranberry bogs for which that town was once famous, worked in harness raking the damn berries for some benighted Thanksgiving dinner, so yes, a swamp Yankee as against the Beacon Hill Brahmins who reaped the benefits of the bloodstained freedom fight without the risks and settled into a quiet life of coin counting and merchandise buying, had been puzzled at the age of fourteen at a time when he first heard a blues song, Howlin’ Wolf’s How Many More Years on a fugitive radio station down in Carver one night in the late 1950s (a song that later, much later, seemingly a technological millennia later, he would see done by Wolf on YouTube taken from a performance at the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s where the Wolf sweat rolling from his ebony cheeks and forehead flowing down his face like some ancient Nile River snaking its way to the sea, deep bass voice beyond deep seeming to get deeper with each drop of water would practically  eat the harmonica he had in the cusp of his hand talking, no preaching to himself, taking himself to task, about some woman, some mean mistreating mama if the truth be known who had him in a sailor’s knot, has him all twisted up, had him so depressed and blue his wanted to go under the grasses but who in the end took the walk of the beaten down, beaten around  and left old Minnie high and dry which Sam had sensed was happening way back when on that fugitive radio.).

That “fugitive” part just mentioned not being some pirate station off the coast which he had heard that some people who couldn’t get their music on the regular dial were doing somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean (he would find out later that this pirate station was out in the North Sea someplace and was there because of the uproar in England, like in the states over the demon effect rock and roll was having on the Queen’s subjects, her gaggle of children who somehow heard the fresh new breeze from America was heading their way and which he found out more about still later when he saw a film starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman about the subject) the result of some mystical still not understood airwave heading out into the atmosphere all the way from Chicago where occasionally around eleven o’clock (ten Chi town time) he would pick up Be-Bop Benny’s Blues Hour over WALM, a station that billed itself as the “Blues is the dues” station.
He was not sure but he thought then that Be-Bop Benny was a black guy, a Negro (the “polite” word of common usage then to signify blacks, now far out of style and thus the need to explain to generations born after who accept the racial designation black or Afro-American or some other local derivative), although he heard his father, Prescott, who was the last of a long line of downtrodden independent Eaton boggers who would soon thereafter go belly up and sell out to the mega-growers, call them “n----rs” without a trance of rancor or self-consciousness and put “damn” in front of that term with rancor when he had been drinking rye whiskey and bemoaning his fate and said the “n” word were being treated better than he and his were).

Although Sam had never seen a black man in person then since they did not follow the bogging trade and none lived in town or went through it as far as he knew he thought that if Be-Bop wasn’t then he was at least from the south because his voice sounded strange, had a drawl, had kind of a mumble-rumble quality to it and he was saying all kinds of be-bop, cool daddy, hot mama, from jump street kind of stuff. And for a time, a fair amount of time he did not like to hear that scratchy raspy voice, or that blues is dues stuff either. That was the source of his puzzlement.

See Sam had not really been happy when he heard that station come over the fugitive airwaves on late Sunday nights (although the song was okay, no, more than okay, cool even if he didn’t quite understand why the Wolf was letting some mean mistreating mama get him down, get him so crazy that he wanted to go six feet under which even na├»ve Sam knew meant old Wolf was losing it but that kind of hard-bitten lyric was not to his taste then since he was just getting that bug, just wanted to hear about roses and playthings, stuff like that, happily ever after stuff). As a dedicated fourteen old white boy from a town with no Negro families, not even people who were connected with those workers in the town like his father and a couple of older adult brothers and uncles who worked the cranberry bogs, he was not interested, or maybe consciously interested is better, the blues.

Sam was totally into rock and roll, totally into listening to WMEX the local radio station out of Boston which was being interfered with by that blues is dues station out of Chi town at eleven o’clock (remember ten Chi town time). Interfered with his listening to Bill Haley blast away on Shake, Rattle and Roll, Elvis doing Tomorrow Night and Good Rockin’ Tonight, Johnny Grey doing a great version of Rocket 88, Sam Jackson doing This Is Rock, Bobby Sams doing One Night Of Sin good rocking stuff that DJ Arnie Ginsberg would play on his At The Hop show where he played songs that had dropped off the charts but were diamonds of rock and roll. So at fourteen he could not figure out, nor could they when he asked his friend Jack Caldwell who knew everything about roll and rock, what the appeal was of that Wolf tune. But that beat, that chord progression, that going down to the messy forlorn earth and then coming back up again would follow him for a long, long time. He never really found an answer, a satisfactory answer until he looked beyond the fugitive sound, looked back to why the blues was even the blues. Looked more to the way it made him feel when times were tough, when he would get into his depressive shell, and a blues is dues song would break the bad ass spell.               

Not until later did Sam figure some stuff out after he had kind of given up on rock and roll for a while, maybe around sixteen, seventeen, when the music seemed, well, square, seemed to be about blond-haired, blue-eyed guys searching for (and getting) blond-haired blue eyed girls with a “boss” car and dough as a lure, maybe a surfer guy cruising the beaches out west, out California way, none of which he and his had much of, the dough and car part, and Carver being kind of landlocked no surfer profile, and so kind of distant from the life of a son of a son of a son of a swamp Yankee.
Sam started figuring stuff out too when he got into his folk music thing for a minute, music which mainly made him go up a wall but which he put up with because Sara Leonard, his girlfriend or the girl he wanted to be his girlfriend got all excited about it when she saw Joan Baez in Cambridge at some club (the original Club 47 as it turned out where Joan and lots of other folkies hung out) and insisted that he like the songs or hit the road, you know how that is (this Sara by the way all dark hair and the whitest of white skin got hung up on the iron-your-hair-like Joan Baez craze and he would have to sit in the Leonard parlor cooling his heels while Sara did her ritual). Jesus. Part of that folk thing although he was not sure how and why was about the blues, about down south music from the plantations and sharecropper cabins, and how they made music to keep themselves from going crazy when the hammer came down and they needed some way to express their rage at their plight without getting hung up on a tree somewhere or shot in the back down some dirty road.      

The critics, and don’t ever ask Sam who these guys are since all he cares about is the music, about the blues, who performs it and whether it will take the bite out of his depression or not and not some discursive history stuff although if you talked about the Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, some guys called the Diggers (not boggers, not as far as he knew), or about the Renaissance he will listen all day, as long as you realize that you will be listening all night, say that the blues, you know, the quintessential black musical contribution to the American songbook along with first cousin jazz that breaks you out of your depression about whatever ails you or the world, was formed down in the Mississippi muds, down in some sweat-drenched bayou, down in some woody hollow all near Mister’s plantation, mill, or store. Well they might be right in a way about how it all started in America as a coded response to Mister’s, Master’s, Captain’s wicked perverse ways back in slavery times, later back in Mister James Crow times (now too but in a different code, but the same old Mister do this and not that, do that but not this just like when old James ran the code).

Sam believed however they were off by several maybe more generations and off by a few thousand miles from its origins in hell-bent Africa, hell-bent when Mister’s forbears took what he thought was the measure of some poor grimy “natives” and shipped them in death slave boats and brought them to the Mississippi muds, bayous and hollows (those who survived the horrendous middle passage without being swallowed up by the unfriendly seas). Took peoples, proud Nubians who had created very sharp and productive civilizations when Mister’s forbears were running around raggedly wondering what the hell a spoon was for when placed in their dirty clenched fingers, wondered still later how the heck to use the damn thing, and why and uprooted them whole.          

Uprooted you hear but somehow that beat, that tah, tat, tah, tah, tat, tah played on some stretched nailed string tightened against some cabin post by young black boys kept Africa home alive. Kept it alive while women, mothers, grandmothers and once in a while despite the hard conditions some great-grandmother who nursed and taught the little ones the old home beat, made them keep the thing alive. Kept alive too Mister’s forced on them religion strange as it was, kept the low branch spirituals that mixed with blues alive in plain wooden churches but kept it alive. So a few generations back black men took all that sweat, anger, angst, humiliation, and among themselves “spoke” home truth low down mean mistreating mama, two-timing man, cut you if you run, weary tune blues on juke joint no electricity Saturday nights out in the back woods accompanied by Willie’s fresh made brew and then sang high white collar penance blues come Sunday morning plain wood church time.

Son House, Charley Patton, Skip James, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt and a lot of guys who went to their graves undiscovered in the salt sweat sultry Delta night carried on, and some sisters too, some younger sisters who heard the beat and heard the high collar Sunday spirituals.

Some sisters like Odetta, big-voiced, big-voiced in a naked world, speaking of freedom trains with her brothers and sisters jam packed on the road, speaking of sweated field hand labor for damn Mister, man, women and child, speaking of that dirty bastard Mister James Crow and his do this and do that and don’t do this and don’t that like his charges were mere children to be ordered about, or hung from stange fruit trees or lying down in some shallow bottomland grave chains tied around the neck, speaking of the haunted northern star which turned Mister’s plantation indoors as it headed north, speaking of finding some cool shaded place where Mister would not disturb, couldn’t disturb and making lots of funny duck, odd-ball,  searching for roots white college students whose campus halls she filled, marvel, mainly marvel, that they had heard some ancient Nubian Queen, some deep-voiced Mother Africa calling them back to the cradle of civilization, calling them back to where all, everything began.  
And then Sam knew, or began to know, what that long ago fugitive beat that stayed in his head meant.         

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