I must admit that when I posted the songs from Southern Exposure yesterday, I hadn’t really sat down and listened to them all the way through. Today I am doing that, and man, it’s fantastic stuff; beautiful but brutal, musically adventurous and lyrically scathing.
It is quite an accomplishment to make political music that is not boring. With all respect to the Joan Baezes and Pete Seegers of the world, whose sincerity I’m sure is genuine, that very sincerity makes them bland. It takes somebody with a little more grit to make the music come alive.
I also learned today that the liner notes for the album were written by none other than Richard Wright. Though Elijah Wald’s book has some excerpts, surprisingly the whole thing does not appear to be online anywhere; all I could find was a blurry photo of one inside panel of the record. In the interest of the public edification, I spent some time this afternoon transcribing as much as I could. With that I will leave you to your weekend as I proceed to mine.
The blues may be called the “Spirituals” of the city; they are the songs of simple folk whose lives are caught and hurt in the brutal logic of modern industrial life. The Spirituals were born on the plantation; the blues were created on the pavements of the city, in saw mills, in lumber camps; in short, wherever the migrant Negro, fresh from the soil, wrestled with an alien reality. In contrast with the other-worldly preoccupation of the old Spirituals, the blues are anchored in the mundane world; they grapple with stubborn fact; they grieve and accuse; they mock; they taunt; they express bafflement and disillusionment in the paradoxical terms of laughter and tears. Of course, no final line can be drawn between the blues of the city and the Spirituals of the plantation. The blues are the brothers of the Spirituals, and both partake of the blood and likeness of the other.
If you listen carefully to Spirituals, you will hear the melancholy renunciation of life out of which the blues later came; and if you listen carefully to the Blues, you will hear the lingering traces of the Spirituals. This is as it should be, for the human heart does not change when men move from one part of the country to another; and the blues came into being coincident with the drift of millions of black folk from the harsh conditions of the plantations to the industrial and urban centers of the North and South.
The blues, contrary to popular conception, are not always concerned with love, razors, dice, and death; they are concerned with every item of experience that disturbs and moves the imagination of the Negro folk. Hitherto, the best known songs have had love as their main theme, and, as a result, the public has gotten a rather one-sided impression of their real scope and function in Negro life. With the issuance of this album, SOUTHERN EXPOSURE, Keynote presents the “other side” of the blues, the side that criticizes the environment, the side that has long been considered “non-commercial” because of its social militancy.
The form of the blues is simple and direct; there is usually one line that repeats and rhymes, followed by a longer line that rhymes with the preceding two and expresses a judgment, clarification, or resolution, as:
I woke up this morning, rain water in my bed
I woke up this morning, rain water in my bed
You know my roof is leaking, Lord, leaking on my head
The form of the blues can be expressed figuratively: A man encounters a strange object; he walks around it twice, noting all of its features, then he renders a statement as to its meaning and relationship to him.
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE contains the blues, the wailing blues, the moaning blues, the laughing-crying blues, the sad-happy blues. But it contains also the fighting blues… Underneath each long drawn out moan is mocking laughter, under each melancholy wail a deepening consciousness of experience.
The images which we call know and see each day, images that form the frame of reference of our national life, run through these blues: trains, battleships, wages, unions, planes, the Army, the Navy, the White House, the plantation, voting, Poll Tax, boll weevil, landlords, pellagra, bass men [?], Jim Crow, and lynching. These blues are as honest as physiological fact; on the whole, they spring from physical experience. Their very titles indicate the mood out of which they were conceived: Jim Crow Train, Hard Times Blues, Defense Factory Blues, Uncle Sam Says, Bad Housing Blues, and Southern Exposure.
Why are the blues so popular in American life? Is it not that the Negro, in singing his spontaneous, blue songs, expresses in a large measure the deep hunger of millions of Americans for sensual expression, for the free play of impulse? Whatever the answer, this much is true: where the Negro cannot go, his blue songs have gone, affirming kinship in a nation teeming with difference, creating unity and solidarity where difference once reigned.