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Oxford American 17th Annual Southern Music Issue: Georgia

C. Michael Bailey By

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Oxford American 17th Annual Southern Music Issue: Georgia
Eliza Borne, Editor
Issue 91, Winter 2015

One of my best friends (and fellow Arkansans) and I often discuss the maddeningly conflicted legacy of those United States making up the Old Confederacy. He likes to point out that in no other region is ignorance and cultural retardation more embraced and valued than our very own Dixie. My friend often laments that anywhere is better than the American South and that we are little better than a rag-tag collection of Third-World counties making up the geographic underbelly of the 48-contiguious states.

I do not dispute any of this save for the South is much more than race, religion, guns, and "Mississippi Goddamn." This steamy, almost tropical region, has been a hot house incubator of creativity that has not just enriched the United States, but the world as a whole. Picking just two areas of cultural contribution: literature and music, the South is almost without peer. That is why consideration of the Oxford American tradition of an annual music issue is so critical—it highlights and celebrates both music and literature contemporaneously, featuring the music of the South and writing about that music.

The Music.

Mark Kemp, in his study of roots music, Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music Race and New Beginnings in a New South (University of Georgia Press, 2006) quotes a certain Crystal Lunsford, on the subject of southern music:

"How come you think music's so good in the South. It's because black people and white people worked together to make it so damn good, that's how come. There's always been black people in white southern music and white people in black southern music. That's the way it works down here. We wouldn't have southern rock & roll without the black influence, but then, I don't think the blues and rock & roll would have been as accepted if it weren't for white people down here who backed them and pushed them and recorded them. It took both races. Music has always been universal thing down here. It goes beyond color. And it goes all the way back to slavery."

David Kirby, in his recent Little Richard: The Birth of Rock & Roll (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009) I read preparing to address David Ramsey's contribution to the issue, "Calling Little Richard," elaborates on Kemp's quote from Lunsford by noting that:

..."Crystal Lunsford isn't a professor or music critic. As Kemp explains, she is a third- generation employee of the Eveready plant in in Asheboro, North Carolina who lives by herself in a trailer in rural Guilford County. If you're the kind of expert who doesn't look beyond the obvious, you might think the musical world is as segregated as the school systems back in the day. But if you live out in the wood and you keep your eyes and ears open...then you know there's more to the picture."

And that brings us to the Oxford American 17th Annual Southern Music Issue: Georgia.

A 17th annual anything should be labeled an event. Oxford American magazine's annual music issue, with its companion compact disc, has become one of the most expected and anticipated publications of the year among music and literary enthusiasts. Founded in 1992 in Oxford, Mississippi, the magazine has concentrated on the writings of such southern literary luminaries as Charles Portis, Roy Blount Jr., Allan Gurganus, and Kevin Brockmeier, as well as new writing talent emerging from its hot climes. For the past 17 years, the Oxford American has published an annual Southern Music Issue, accompanied by CD collection of songs focusing on specific genre and musical eras. Beginning with the 2009 Music Issue, the magazine began devoting the entire issue to the music of a single Southern state, including Arkansas (2009), Alabama (2010), Mississippi, (2011), Louisiana (2012), and Tennessee (2013), Texas (2014) and presently, Georgia (2015). This has been a successful way to showcase music locally Southern grown. This is, of course, completely appropriate given the cradle of American Music civilization is the South, from which all American music sprung.

The change in programming format and editorial leadership has improved the Oxford American considerably, as can be detected in this current issue. Both the writing and the CD programming reflect a measured and mature approach to covering both a state and its music which are sprawling with too much worthy talent to address. Gone is the too-smart-for-their-own-good writing that littered the publication in the beginning. The past number of years have been very good, bringing us to the present. The music of Georgia is rich, deep and, often overshadowed by Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and NOLA. But if Tennessee has Memphis, then Georgia has Macon, Athens, and Statesboro. Ray Charles (Albany), Emmett Miller (Macon), Little Richard (Macon), Blind Willie McTell (Thomson), REM (Athens), these are all Georgia products who do not appear among the 25 selections on the CD. However, their spirit permeates every word written in this issue.

A mistake? Not so. I could not have resisted making a twofer of the Allman Brothers Band tending perfect electric momentum with Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues." Instead, McTell is represented by a Peter Guralnick article and the ABB with inclusion of "Midnight Rider" on the CD and a succinct history provided Amanda Petrusich, whose Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For The World's Rarest 78 Rpm Records (Scribner, 2014) pretty well documents how the blues became a commodity and how deeply strange are the collectors of 78-rmp shellacs. That is a better choice, but the publishers and editors of the magazine did not stop there.

Rather than include the obvious "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" by Thomas Dorsey of Villa Rica, the editors allow Dom Flemons' "Lead Me Home" to represent Dorsey. Flemons weaves Dorsey's contributions as Ma Rainey's music director (Ma Rainey (Columbus), whose 1922 Paramount (12252) "See See Rider" is on the disc) with his secular romps as "Georgia Tom" with Tampa Red ("It's Tight Like That" (Vocalian 1216, 1928), finishing things in the church, providing Mahalia Jackson "Peace in the Valley." That is quite a legacy. But these are just the views from 10,000 feet. The magazine is wall-to-wall writing, bright and shiny and dark and dangerous.

Provocatively, the CD opens with a 24-second false start of James Brown's "Cold Sweat," where the control room announces "'In a Cold Sweat" take one" and what follows is a sound that changed rhythm & blues into perfect funk. Just not perfect enough for the Godfather. Brown can be heard counting off the piece and then stopping things to instruct the band how to make perfect better..."That's a pop!" Just like the writing in this issue. In the opening summaries of the songs on the CD, the editors note:

"Before then, no one had heard music quite like this... Thereafter, no one would be able to shake this new sound. James Brown was both the medium and the architect, the prophet and the divine in one body. And while Brown certainly didn't invent hip-hop, he's a worthy subject in that conversation, too, because of beats like this one."

Some personalities and reputations are so big that they require only the fragrance of acknowledgement. That is the funk of James Brown.

While lyricist Johnny Mercer almost feels like an odd man out he is presented, warts and all, in an illumination by John Lingan and on the CD with "Moon River." It takes a village and Mercer was part of its upper crust. Singer/songwriter Gram Parsons is mostly thought of in a Southern California sense save that he came from Waycross by way of Winter haven Florida. Elyssa East opins on the origin Parson's famous Nudie Cohn suit, while the CD reveals Parson's thoughts of his mother, passed from cirrhosis, his only solo song on Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974). The song is as staggering as Parson's early loss.

There are two Georgia musical figures, whose reportage is central to the issue and contains writing that cracks like winter thunder. David Ramsey's "Calling Little Richard" and Cynthia Shearer's "Sugarfoot Stomp: The Genius of Fletcher Henderson" cover two artists not included on the CD whose spectre, like that of James Brown, is so big that the authors make it our obligation to seek out this music and hear it for ourselves. Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, December 5, 1932. His immense musical legacy is one that has been either hampered or promoted by his white-hot flamboyance and incendiary performance style. David Kirby's biography, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock & Roll (Continuum, 2009) spends as much time justifying Richard as the alpha of the genre as St. Augustine justifies the Glory of God in his famous Confessions with about equal results: they both "protest too much, methinks." But Kirby has a point. Little Richard has always been portrayed as a "novelty" act rather than the seminal performance force that he was. It is really quite simple. In the best light, was there no Little Richard, there would never have been a Freddy Mercury, a Madonna, an Elton John, a Cher, or a Lady Gaga. Richard did for the R&B performer what Liszt and Paganini did for the classic performer 200 years earlier...he made the performer a god.

Ramsey's Little Richard is that of the enigmatic Jonah wavering on the sharp point of the secular and divine. A child of the chitlin' circuit, Richard was a stage animal. As Ramsey writes:

"Richard's career as a traveling musician—and his life as a sexually adventurous, gender- bending wild man—started in his teenage years. He experimented with men in the gay underworld in Macon, guys named Madame Oop and Sis Henry and Bro Boy, as well as older women..."

By 21st Century standards this is in no way impressive. But in the mid-1950s Jim Crow American South this was a scary open secret that was sure to terrorize white America. About recording his signature "Tutti Fruitti," Ramsey relates the intersection of Richard, Art Rupt (owner of Specialty Records), producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, lyricist Dorothy LaBostrie, and NOLA recording J&M Studios owner Cosimo Matassa. His account is humidly descriptive:

..."Blackwell said. 'That's all you gotta do is give Richard an audience.' [Richard] went to the piano and banged out a raunchy ode to sodomy that he used to play at the dodgier clubs on the circuit: 'A wop bop a loo mop / A good goddamn / Tutti Fruitti / Good booty / If it don't fit / Don't force it / You can grease it / Make it easy.'

If rumors of Richard were not enough, then this would justly scare the shit out of Eisenhower's America. Ramsey continues:

And a good goddamn, thought Bumps Blackwell—now that is what I need to get on record. Blackwell brought in local song writer Dorothy DaBostrie, to write some family- friendly lyrics. "Good booty: became "aw rutti" and then there was a girl named Sue and a gal named Daisy...

...Bubblegum lyrics don't change the urgency of the song, barely contain the sex and fury and fun. Nonsense can deliver a perfectly coherent message depending on the way you say it. And wooo how he said it. Like a preacher speaking, lasciviously, in tongues."

Ramsey had been pursuing an interview with the octogenarian Richard, who played hard to get. In his quest, Ramsey fesses up and states the obvious about Baby-Boomer music fans if not all of them:

"Music fans are insatiable. The records are not enough. We are historians, ists, psychologists. Little Richard is not just a legend but one of the last people alive among the first wave of rock & roll, the prime movers and shakers. So it is probably inevitable to treat Richard Penniman like a public treasure. If Richard is gracious, if he keeps thanking God simply that he is still alive, we are gracious, too. Every minute that he remains on this earth feels precious...

...But there comes a day when what we want and need from our legends no longer jibes with what fragile beings have to give when bodies break down. In 1964, when folklorists found the legendary blues singer Skip James, dying of stomach cancer in a charity hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, they begged him to play again. James supposedly answered, "I don't know. Skippy tired"

When, at a soiree in his honor, Richard mentioned that, "God talked to me the other night," someone in the audiences laughed. Richard responded, "When I talk about God, I'm not playing." Ramsey closes his meditation on "the king of rock & roll" thusly:

"And who am I to say that Little Richard is wrong? For all of us, actuarially speaking, sooner or later the end is nigh. So let us dance: black man and white, man and woman, believer and heathen. And everything in between. Let us dance, all of us, while we are still able, while we still can."

That is lip-smacking good writing that touches the core of all, shooting that remnant through all of us. Richard once said that he, "was all that was left." Well, that is almost true. There are exactly four Ur-rock creators living: Richard, Chuck Berry, Antoine "Fats" Domino, and "The Killer," Jerry Lee Lewis. Be sure, when they are gone, all we have is ourselves.

The best writing in the Oxford American 17th Annual Southern Music Issue belongs to Cynthia Shearer, addressing the essential place of Cuthbert-native Fletcher Henderson in "Sugar Foot Stomp." Henderson headed one of the most successful big bands of the 1920s and '30s before providing the arrangement book that was to make Benny Goodman famous. Shearer writes of the early Henderson:

"Fletcher was born with the burden of perfect pitch. Whatever the boy heard, he heard as music. A commotion of younger siblings with chickens in a swept-earth back yard. An arpeggio of rose thorns scraping on the mailbox. A cadence of mule-trot through an open window..."

Neurologist Oliver Sack's patient, Dr. P, detailed in the beginning of Sacks' book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Summit Books, 1986), had music central to his being. Dr. P could not perform the daily functions of life without humming or singing. To this patient, Sacks remarked, "I can't tell you what I find wrong...but I will say what I find right. You are a wonderful musician and music is your life. What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music. Music has been the centre, now make it the whole, of your life." This is exactly what Fletcher Henderson did.

Shearing introduces Henderson and describes his rearing against the backdrop of Southern Racism. She describes Henderson's advocacy during college by a certain Annie Bowman, who Shearer describes as:

..."one of the unsung heroines of American music history. She gave Fletcher Henderson a place to mix ragtime and Rachmaninoff during some of America's bloodiest summers, when the bottom- feeder caste if whites down south were getting all liquored up and looting and burning entire black communities, blowing into their whiskey jugs and calling it music."

Gratefully, Henderson was spared the ragged fate of many from Cuthbert who ended up at the end of a rope. Henderson would go on to study chemistry and music, after which he headed for New York City, where he planned to work in a laboratory. Race did not permit him to do so and thus, that was "No problem: American music became Henderson's lab and popular songs his experiments." Henderson worked throughout the City in a variety of musical jobs. He went on to join Harry Pace working in the first black-owned record companies that produced Black Swan records. Shearer summarizes Henderson's genius like this:

"Some of Henderson's best work happened when he would rake the cheap veneer of lyrics right off a trite white Tin Pan Alley song and make it new. He could peel a hurtful racist song down to its studs, then renovate it into a statelier mansion in which a black soul could stand at its full height...

...Listen attentively to Henderson's 1932 version of the cruelly racist "Underneath a Harlem Moon" and you can hear [Coleman] Hawkins, college educated out of Topeka, wordlessly substitute nonchalant tenor sax for white Tin Pan Alley fake nostalgia for "Ginia hams" and "candy yams," before trailing off into a derisive, flatulent raspberry..."

Music writing like this does not get any better. And while Henderson's late career was tragic, his legacy is anything but. Shearer closes her article on a hopeful note about Henderson:

"This is the source" [Henderson's music], wrote a New York Times jazz critic a decade after Henderson's death. The occasion was Columbia's 1961 release of The Fletcher Henderson Story: A Study in Frustration, a four-album set covering Henderson's work from 1928 to 1938, now considered the necessary compendium. It's all here: "Sugar Foot Stomp," "Dirty Blues," Variety Stomp," and the sublime and magisterial "Jackass Blues." You can pay your money to the white man to hear this music, or you can forage for free on the internet. Whether you catch the Henderson sound on the black swing or the white, claim it as your human birthright. It's an updraft that will lift you to a place beyond race."

So Crystal Lunsford, in her homespun wisdom, did capture what this Southern music is all about.: "It took both races. Music has always been universal thing down here. It goes beyond color." Once we embrace this, Skippy can rest.

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