"The Times They Are A-Changin' ": Port Huron and the Folk Revival
Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin' " heralded the new world coming with a warning that tripped quickly from clarion to cliché. But for a brief time in the early sixties, a cluster of mostly white, mostly middle-class students seemed determined to forge a new politics attuned to the ideal of the beloved community. Armed with acoustic guitars and an earnest belief in interracial brotherhood, the musicians connected with the folk revival brought the movement's basic values as close to the pop culture mainstream as they've ever been, before or since. In the early sixties, their energies coalesced around the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Media-fed memory has reduced SDS to a cluster of chaotic images: Tom Hayden endorsing guerrilla warfare in the streets of Newark; the Weathermen rampaging through the Days of Rage; students seizing the administration building at Columbia University; angry hecklers drowning out Ted Kennedy at the University of Wisconsin; the whole world watching blood flow in the streets of Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. Even when distorted by revisionism and nostalgia, those images nonetheless reflect the passion, confusion, and profoundly misguided ideological romance of the late sixties. Sometimes it seemed that no one, not even the people who wrote it, remembered the founding document of SDS, the Port Huron Statement.
The Port Huron Statement bears disquieting signs of its academic origin: turgid prose and telltale indications of the ideological hairsplitting that would tear the New Left apart. But its vision of a living political community dedicated to economic accountability, world peace, and racial justice remains vital in a time when a "liberal" president has overseen the dismantling of the welfare state and widened the yawning chasm between rich and poor. Seen by its framers as an attempt to make America live up to its own betrayed ideals, the statement celebrates the concept of participatory democracy. It envisions politics as a way of "Bringing people out of isolation and into community," helping them find "meaning in personal life." Addressing a political context in which Southern "Dixiecrats" and conservative Republicans controlled Washington, the statement endorses what in retrospect seems a fairly conventional, if unusually hopeful, liberal agenda. Although its calls for nuclear disarmament and corporate reform were never seriously considered, large parts of the statement read like a rough draft of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
Expressing an urgency foreign to a Kennedy administration unwilling to risk its shaky power base, the introduction concentrates on two "events too troubling to dismiss": the reality of "human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry" and "the enclosing fact of the Cold War." As New Left historian James Miller observes, the students who founded SDS drew their political theory primarily from "the tradition of civic republicanism that links Aristotle to John Dewey." At the same time, they were acutely aware of how much they owed to the freedom movement, which was "exemplary because it insists there can be a passage out of apathy."
Like King's wing of the movement, the Port Huron Statement maintained a cautious hope that the Kennedy administration might be convinced to play a substantial role in addressing "human degradation." Released several months before Kennedy reluctantly committed federal force to the integration of the University of Mississippi (thereby abandoning all hope for further support from the white South), the statement damns the administration with the very faintest of praise:
It has been said that the Kennedy administration did more in two years than the Eisenhower administration did in eight. Of this there can be no doubt. But it is analogous to comparing whispers to silence when positively stentorian tones are demanded. President Kennedy leaped ahead of the Eisenhower record when he made his second reference to the racial problem.Calling for an aggressive alternative to Kennedy's gradualism, the statement emphasizes the need for voter registration, pointing toward the collaboration with black activists that culminated in the Freedom Summer of 1964. Earlier, during SNCC's 1962 voter registration campaign in McComb, Mississippi, SDS leader Tom Hayden had met Bob Moses, whose political philosophy exerted a major impact on the Port Huron deliberations later that year. Transmitted through mimeographed copies of the Port Huron Statement, the vision of participatory democracy fueled the moral imaginations of the students who founded local chapters of SDS in Boston, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and Madison.
Many of those same imaginations had been attracted to the movement by the political songs on the 1963 folk revival classic The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Dylan dealt directly with both of SDS's main concerns: "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" focused on the cold war; "Oxford Town" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game" on racial justice. Several other political songs that elicited a strong response when Dylan performed them in concert were omitted from the album: "The Ballad of Emmett Till" and "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," which Columbia Records vetoed for fear of lawsuits from right-wing lunatics.
Thousands of college students streamed south to help register voters in Mississippi. Often romantic in their politics, sometimes naive about the depth of white supremacy, almost all shared a conviction of righteousness. They were responding to King's plea to let freedom ring and to the folk songs they took with them to the base camps dotting the Mississippi Delta, "looking like a strange mixture of kids going to camp and soldiers off to war," one of them wrote home.
Many of the students looked to the folk revival for perspectives and information excluded from the nightly news. The framers of the Port Huron Statement belonged to the first generation raised on television; many of them were enthralled by the moral dramas the SCLC constructed for the nationwide audience. In the early days of the movement, TV coverage usually placed viewers in a position closer to the demonstrators than to the authorities resisting their demands. White middle-class viewers in the North gazed into the steely eyes of state troopers snatching American flags out of the hands of schoolchildren in Jackson, Mississippi, shared the tension as the Freedom Riders-white ministers wearing clerical collars and welldressed young black men-were swept away by the hurricane of violence in the Birmingham bus station. In her autobiography, Joan Baez describes King's constant awareness that the whole world was watching his every move. Walking beside King during an SCLG sponsored campaign in Grenada, Mississippi, Baez responded angrily to the crowd harassing the marchers:
They looked particularly pasty, frightened, and unhappy on this day, not at all like a "superior race." I whispered to King, "Martin, what in the hell are we doing? You want these magnificent spirits to be like them?," indicating the miserable little band on the opposite curb. "We must be nuts!" King nodded majestically at an overanxious cameraman, and said out of the corner of his mouth, "Ahem ... Not while the cameras are rollin'."The SCLC's most effective use of the media strategy occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, where fire hoses and police dogs deployed against black schoolchildren made a clear moral statement in living rooms and dens throughout white America.
However biased in favor of the movement TV coverage might have seemed to George Wallace or Spiro Agnew-the godfathers of Rush Limbaugh's "liberal media" hallucination-white students seeking the meanings behind the SCLC's carefully orchestrated morality plays found television useless. Many of them turned to folk music, to Baez, Dylan, Phil Ochs ("Talking Birmingham Jam," "Too Many Martyrs (The Ballad of Medgar Evers)," and the devastating satire "Love Me, I'm a Liberal") and Peter, Paul & Mary ("Very Last Day," "If I Had a Hammer," and the hit version of "Blowin' in the Wind"). The folk singers provided the kind of insight the students sought.
But there were limits to the folk revival's political vision. Especially after the catharsis of Freedom Summer, the folkies had trouble building bridges to ordinary black people. Despite the presence of Odetta, Josh White, and a few other black folk singers, the folk revival was mostly a white thing. If the goal was brotherhood, this wasn't a problem that could be ignored. The black presence at folk concerts was pretty much limited to the small group of black Bohemians who had decided to check out what was happening over on the newly accessible white side of town. Amiri Baraka, who had been one of them, observed that most of those Bohemians preferred to listen to the R & B on the jukeboxes in the black taverns where they went to loosen up and relish a less contrived sense of community. Part of the problem with the folk revival was that it failed to attract the black listeners who preferred Motown, Sam Cooke, or even less "historically correct" versions of gospel or the blues.
The folk revival's sense of the blues reveals the core of the problem. For the vast majority of the folkies, the blues were something strummed on the front porches of picturesque Southern shacks by grizzled old men descended directly from Mark Twain's Jim. They'd suffered, but they endured, and cool stuff like that. Given the number of humanities majors and aspiring writers in the crowd, the echo of the literary noble savage shouldn't come as any surprise. What the folkies didn't want in their blues was electricity, drums, any tinge of the fallen modern world. Which was a real problem since by 1960, a good three quarters of those grizzled old black men were hanging out in Chicago, Detroit, or other points north, trying to get paid while they set out the basics of rock guitar for the more attentive if less earnest rock and rollers. The Folkways record label, probably the definitive source of material for the folk movement, shunned all contact with urban blues, thereby isolating Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and John Lee Hooker from the American white folks with the greatest theoretical interest in black culture. Anyone getting his or her sense of black life from Folkways liner notes would have been hard-pressed to guess that black folks had ever encountered electricity.
Woody and Race
Woody Guthrie spent damn little time worrying about authenticity. If the concept meant anything at all to him, it was backing up the words he'd written on his guitar: "This machine kills fascists." The folk revivalists who looked to Woody as a mythic hero could certainly have learned some things from taking a closer look at how he dealt with race. By the time Woody recorded "This Land Is Your Land," which Lyndon Johnson suggested should be made the national anthem, his concept of America included blacks, Mexicans, and Indians as well as the sometimes virulently racist white folks of the Oklahoma hills where he was born.
The voices Woody heard as a boy in Oklahoma came from all over America's racial map: the black town of Boley lay ten miles down the road from Okemah, where he grew up in what had been called Indian Territory until the white folks developed an interest in the oil pooled beneath what they'd mistaken for a barren wasteland. But like his white companions, Woody was taught to hear the phrase "people" as "white people"; a part of the local Democratic political machine, Woody's father at least condoned and probably participated in several lynchings. One of the turning points of Woody's political development came in 1937, when he received a letter protesting his use of a racial slur on the Los Angeles radio broadcast where he played the role of the naive hillbilly. The listener wrote: "You were getting along quite well in your program this evening until you announced your `Nigger Blues.' I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person ... of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today." Rather than downplaying the situation, Woody admitted his upbringing had blinded him to the issue; he simply hadn't thought about it. He apologized and promised not to do it again.
And he didn't. Which no doubt helped him build friendships such as the one described in the first chapter of his autobiography, Bound for Glory, which opens with the line "I could see men of all colors bouncing along in the boxcar." Strains of the old spiritual "This Train"-"This train is bound for glory, this train"-echo through the chapter, which focuses on Woody and a black companion as they attempt to avoid the railroad bulls.
Like his descendants in the folk revival, Woody wrote dozens of message songs including "Hang Knot," a blistering condemnation of lynching, and "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)," written after he'd read a newspaper story about the crash of a plane carrying migrant farmworkers back to Mexico. The news report identified the Anglo crew members by name but cloaked the migrants in anonymity. Adapted by activists working for immigrant rights in the nineties, the chorus of "Deportees" redresses the dehumanization. Guthrie bids farewell to his "amigos" Juan and Rosalita, Jesus and Maria-and laments the white world's refusal to value them as anything other than disposable labor: "You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane. / All they will call you will be deportees."
Woody consistently backed up his songs on racial justice with action. Recounting his experiences as Woody's shipmate in the merchant marine during World War II, Jimmy Longhi told a story about his friend's confrontation with segregation in the military. Midway through a particularly perilous Atlantic crossing, their ship came under heavy attack. Jimmy, Woody, and Cisco Houston ventured belowdecks to sing for the troops, hoping to take their minds off the depth charges exploding all around them. During a pause in their performance, Woody heard the sound of a "glorious Negro chorus." Seeking the source of the sound, Woody discovered fifty black soldiers crowded into a toilet room. Longhi described entering the room to encounter an energetic call and response between the group and its commanding officer, Daniel Rutledge. Reaching deep into the shared images of the gospel tradition, Rutledge sang out his sermon on the coming "Judgement Day" and the soldiers responded with cries of "Free! Free!"
Accepting Rutledge's invitation to sing for the troops, Woody surprised them by singing "John Henry" initiating an exchange of songs. When Woody offered to let Rutledge play his guitar, the black officer noticed Woody's slogan and improvised a sermon on the connection between the war against Hitler and the struggle against American racism. Rutledge called out, "An' we know that after we win this war, when the king of slavery is dead, when the king of slavery is dead, things is gonna change for the people of Israel!" When the men responded "Change! Change!," Rutledge held Woody's guitar "above his head like a weapon" and hammered home the main point of the movement that returning black veterans would help define and carry through: "An' the walls will come tumblin' down!"
The most immediate wall, Longhi recalls, was the one separating the black and white troops on Woody's ship. Hearing the commotion in the toilet, a white officer arrived to summon Woody back to the white soldiers waiting for him to resume his performance. Woody refused to return unless the black soldiers could come with him. Refusing to accept the officer's insistence that segregation was a policy he didn't support but was powerless to change, Woody insisted on seeing higher and higher ranking officers until he found himself face-to-face with the ship's commander. Determining that the commander was a fan of Benny Goodman's swing band, Woody pointed out that Goodman's group included black musicians Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. Although many of the clubs Goodman played in banned integrated "dance bands," Goodman circumvented the Jim Crow laws by defining Wilson and Hampton as "concert performers." When the commander acquiesced, Woody and Rutledge proudly led the black troops back to the "white" area of the ship, where Woody's "no dancing" pledge lasted about as long as it did in the clubs where Goodman played.
But the part of Woody's life that most directly relates to the folk revival's race problems was his admiration for and work with black musicians including Leadbelly and the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Woody's music shared the rough edges, intensity, and immediacy of Leadbelly's "The Midnight Special" and "The Bourgeois Blues." Neither Woody nor Leadbelly produced commercially successful popular music, perhaps because neither held a nostalgic ideal of returning to an "authentic" music located in some mythic rural past. While Woody thought of his music as a voice of, from, and for the people, he knew the people's voices changed as their experiences changed. As a committed leftist, he welcomed any change that would reduce the violence and poverty beneath the nostalgic images.
Until Huntington's disease muffled his voice, Woody struggled to make musicians on the American left understand how crucial race was to that change. Once, Woody arrived in North Carolina to perform for a strike fund in the textile mills only to find the union segregated. He refused to play for an all-white audience. As a result, he played for an all-black one when the white union boycotted his "open" performance.
Woody was distressed when folk music began to move toward the mythic notion of authenticity. The first folk group to enjoy major mainstream success was the Weavers, whose lineup included Woody's old leftist friends Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert. Paving the way for the even greater popular success of the even less political Kingston Trio, best known for their version of the Appalachian ballad "Tom Dooley," the Weavers had major hits with Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" and Woody's "So Long It's Been Good to Know You." The traditional melodies remained but the politics and the polyrhythmic drive that connected Brownie and Sonny with the South and, at second remove, the electric blues, faded away along with the black presence in the folk scene.
The Weavers' triumph marks the real beginning of what music critic Dave Marsh calls the "rhythm problem" in the folk scene. Woody saw it coming and tried to resist. In response to the Weavers, he announced plans to form an integrated group with Leadbelly, Brownie, and Sonny. But when his illness silenced him, no one pursued the vision of an interracial folk group, maybe because some of the fifties folksingers felt compelled to downplay their leftist pasts in response to McCarthyism. After all, this was an era in which FBI agents were trained to spot "communists" by their comfort around Negroes. Or maybe black/white groups didn't match the folk revival criteria for authenticity. Whatever the cause, by the early sixties not many of the politically serious folk revivalists were willing or able to get down with the sounds coming out of Sam Cooke's Chicago or Berry Gordy's Detroit. And even though folk drew on black sources, it had precious little appeal among young blacks. Which was a shame because the folkies and their black contemporaries really did share a commitment to freedom and dignity. But they were living in different worlds.
"Blowin' in the Wind": Politics and Authenticity
A well-known image from the closing concert of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival sums up the folk revival's sense of its political mission. The concert culminated with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, the SNCC Freedom Singers, and Peter, Paul & Mary joining together to sing "We Shall Overcome" and "Blowin' in the Wind." A widely circulated photograph of the performers, arms linked, testifies to the movement's ideal of interracial solidarity. Like so many images from the sixties, the image tells only part of the story.
Although "Blowin' in the Wind" inspired real political activity, its lyrics carried an undertone of romantic passivity that contrasted with the increasingly aggressive approach of the black movement. "How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man? / How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?" For black singers like Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder, who covered the song after Peter, Paul & Mary made it a hit, the last line expresses the yearning for rest after a long and bitter struggle. When King called out "How long?," his black supporters responded "Not long." Even so-called moderates demanded "Freedom Now!" The black SNCC members who would soon ask whites to leave the organization were rapidly losing patience with what they saw as a white willingness to answer Dylan's question with sorrowful resignation to the universality of injustice. For black participants in the Southern movement, moving forward was a matter of life or death. And while the white students who went to Mississippi put themselves at real risk-witness the murders of civil rights workers Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner-the difference in urgency showed up daily in the sound of the folk revival.
Especially in the years before Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village and announced himself as the second coming of Woody Guthrie, folk music often turned away from the present to gaze back on a half-imagined rural past. John Jacob Niles, a formally trained singer who specialized in reviving traditional music, observed at Newport in 1960 that "My audiences thank all folk singers for comfort, for assurance, for the nostalgia that seems to connect them with times past." For many listeners in those early days, Joan Baez exemplified folk. When she made her national debut at Newport in 1959 singing "We Are Crossing Jordan's River," it's doubtful whether anyone in the audience was particularly attuned to the masked meanings that would have been obvious at movement rallies in Mississippi or South Carolina. There's something mournful, haunting, in the sound of Baez's early albums, which consist almost entirely of traditional ballads lamenting lost love. Her voice filigrees the edges of emotions, evoking a past dimly seen through the mists rising up over the Scottish hills and English moors. Baez's music almost requires silence, freeing listeners for inward-looking reveries that have little in common with either the explosive responsiveness or the expectant silence of a gospel congregation. As folk revival historian Robert Cantwell observes, despite Baez's personal ideals, her ethereal voice and repertoire of what the Newport festival program called "utterly pure, nearly sacrosanct folk songs" was widely received as a "residue of authentic Anglo-American identity."
It wasn't something Baez, who grew up in a pacifist Quaker family and passionately supported the freedom movement, sought. Along with Ochs, she was the most consistently political of the folk revival singers. After Baez met Dylan, her concerts featured movement standards "Oh Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome" alongside Dylan's most piercing political songs "With God on Our Side" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Inspired by the idealism of the Port Huron Statement and the moral heroism of the Southern movement, she encouraged the folk revival to assume a more aggressive political stance. But Baez could never really overcome the barriers her musical form and voice set up between her and the black listeners whose cause she espoused.
It wasn't just a problem of aesthetics. Even as it highlights the folk revival's commitment to racial justice, Baez's autobiography reflects its somewhat romantic sense of the movement. Her description of a concert she presented at all-black Miles College just outside Birmingham at the height of the SCLC campaign there points to the revival's strengths and its problems. Baez remembered her surprise when whites, who had obviously never been on the Miles campus before, began arriving for her performance. Imagining the spiritual connection between her music and the demonstrators who were being jailed and beaten just a few miles away, Baez writes: "Images of the kids gave me courage, and the concert was beautiful. It ended with `We Shall Overcome,' and the audience rose and held hands, swaying back and forth while they sang. The singing was soft and tentative and many people were crying."
That was what the folk revival did best. Star performers like Baez and Dylan could bring people who would otherwise have been content with escapist popular entertainment into at least momentary contact with the larger political world. For a few years in the midsixties all but the least aware Top 40 fans knew a few movement standards. Despite being banned by numerous Top 40 radio stations, Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" reached number one on the pop charts with a lyric that demanded listeners concerned with the "hate there is in Red China" wake up and "take a look around at Selma, Alabama." No doubt, many of those listeners shed a few tears over violence and injustice and left it at that. But a handful marched out and put their lives on the line.
Within a few years of the Freedom Summer, as the folk revival faded, things had changed in ways very few of the students who'd gathered at Port Huron could have imagined. A Southern president elected on a peace platform solemnly intoned "we shall overcome" while SNCC expelled its white members. A new wave of English bands inspired by R & B and the electric blues forged new connections between black and white music. For the students of Port Huron, the Rolling Stones' "Get Off of My Cloud," the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," and the Beatles' "Help" were more authentic than anything the musicologists might recover from old black men toiling in the Delta sun.
Music and the Truth: The Birth of Southern Soul
The South was at least half myth to the Bob Dylan who carefully placed a copy of Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues in the background on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home. But it was something very real to the homegrown musicians who made Southern soul into something harder, grittier than the sweet sounds coming out of Detroit and Chicago. No doubt it had something to do with the fact that most Southern whites didn't even pretend to accept integration, a word which the Klan used to conjure up visions of bestial black men defiling the flower of Southern womanhood. George Wallace said it about as clearly as it could be said: "Segregation now ... segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever."
Almost forty years have passed since Wallace's ringing declaration made him the symbol of Southern white supremacy and lifted him to national prominence in a series of telling presidential campaigns. Few Americans recall that Wallace won 90 percent of the white vote on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1964, or that he consistently polled more than 20 percent of national support during most of the 1968 presidential campaign. The amnesia concerning everyday life under Jim Crow, encouraged by white indifference to racial problems and a growing tendency among some blacks to see segregation as a golden age of self-sufficiency, is even more disturbing. In his biography of black activist Robert Williams, Radio Free Dixie, historian Tim Tyson rips away the veil of nostalgia and forgetfulness cloaking the realities of daily life under segregation:
The power of white skin in the Jim Crow South was both stark and subtle. White supremacy permeated daily life so deeply that most people could no more ponder it than a fish might discuss the wetness of water. Racial etiquette was at once bizarre, arbitrary and nearly inviolable. A white man who would never shake hands with a black man would refuse to permit anyone but a black man to shave his face, cut his hair, or give him a shampoo. A white man might share his bed with a black woman but never his table. Black breasts could suckle white babies, black hands would pat out biscuit dough for white mouths, but black heads must not try on a hat in a department store, lest it be rendered unfit for sale to white people. Black maids washed the bodies of the aged and infirm, but the uniforms they wore could never be laundered in the same washing machines that white people used. It was permissible to call a favored black man "Commodore" or "Professor"-a mixture of affection and mockery-but never "mister" or "sir." Black women were "girls" until they were old enough to be called "auntie," but could never hear a white person, regardless of age, address them as "Mrs." or "Miss." Whites regarded black people as inherently lazy and shiftless, but when a white man said he had "worked like a nigger," he meant that he had engaged in dirty, backbreaking labor to the point of collapse.
Jim Crow and white supremacy weren't abstract to the black singers and white musicians who collaborated to make Rick Hall's Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio one of the two most influential locations in Southern soul. Muscle Shoals wasn't all that far from Birmingham, which may have been the most deeply entrenched bastion of white supremacy. New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury described the city in the early sixties: "Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police, and many branches of the state's apparatus." Telephones were routinely tapped, mail intercepted and opened-"the eavesdropper, the informer, the spy has become a way of life."
Contact between blacks and whites, in private homes or musical studios, was subjected to intense scrutiny. In his invaluable Sweet Soul Music, Southern soul chronicler Peter Guralnick describes the dangers and tensions that went along with making music that redefined racial conventions. Songwriter Donnie Fritts remembered traveling with white organist Spooner Oldham and black soul singer Arthur Alexander to play a date in Birmingham. "Birmingham was dangerous back then, and I mean dangerous, son. As best I can remember the show was for some high school graduation, and it seems to me like it was at the Jewish Community Center. Which was two strikes against us right there. It wasn't long since those three little colored girls had been blown away, and we got some bomb threats that night.... Arthur was scared to fucking death. He wouldn't get out of the car."
Fritts recalled another time when Alexander, Oldham, guitarist David Briggs, and a couple of black friends went over to Birmingham. Briggs wanted to stop off and visit a friend in a white section of town. Fritts remembered "waiting on him, and me and Spooner got out and went into this cafe, and the lady behind the counter said, `Are you guys with those niggers out there?' I said, `Yeah. Why?' She said, `Look, it's none of my business, but I been watching this car that's circled the block twice with some guys in it, and if I was you, I wouldn't be here the next time they come around.' I said, `Nuff said, ma'am.' "
Wallace's words echoed clearly throughout the mid-South-a loosely defined region incorporating northern Alabama, and Mississippi, western Tennessee, and eastern Arkansas. They were in the heads of the white supremacists who used dynamite and guns without a second thought to enforce racial divisions. They thundered beneath the declarations of the Alabama White Citizens Council, which established a committee "to do away with this vulgar animalistic nigger rock and roll bop." The executive secretary of the council declared: "The obscenity and vulgarity of the rock and roll music is obviously a means by which the white man and his children can be driven to the level of the nigger."
That was the racial backdrop for the unlikely group of musicians who came together to mount a challenge to segregation that was less ideological, but more far-reaching, than what the folk revival had in mind. As deeply grounded in the gospel impulse as anything coming out of Chicago or Detroit, Southern soul had no tendency to downplay the harsh realities at the heart of the blues. That might have been because the Southern soul singers stuck closer to their black audiences. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Sam and Dave always did much better on the R & B than on the pop charts. Redding, for example, never placed a record in the pop top twenty during his lifetime. Careful not to stray from their core audience even when they experienced mainstream success, the Southern soul singers felt much freer to deal with the places where it was hard to tell salvation from damnation than the singers who made Motown's upbeat sound a constant presence in the top ten.
Both the black audiences and the local white folks had their impact on the sound of Southern soul. No one was about to mistake the mid-South for the promised land. When Wilson Pickett, who was born in Alabama but moved to Detroit as a teenager, arrived in Muscle Shoals looking for producer Rick Hall, he was shocked by what he found: "I couldn't believe it. I looked out the plane window, and there's these people picking cotton. I said to myself, `I ain't getting off this plane, take me back North.' This big Southern guy was at the airport, really big guy, looks like a sheriff. He says he's looking for me I said, `I don't want to get off here, they still got black people picking cotton.' The man looked at me and said, `Fuck that. Come on, Pickett, let's go make some fucking hit records.' I didn't know Rick Hall was white." Recording at Hall's Fame Studio, Pickett laid down the classics "Land of 1000 Dances," "Mustang Sally," and "Funky Broadway."
The history of Southern music contains hundreds of similar scenes involving the sometimes friendly, sometimes tense contact between black and white musicians. Carl Perkins provides the archetypal version of the story when he credits his musical education to a black sharecropper, "Uncle John" Westbrook, who worked in the same cotton fields as Perkins's poor white family. "He used to sit out on the front porch at night with a gallon bucket full of coal oil rags that he'd burn to keep the mosquitoes off him, and I'd ask my daddy if I could go to Uncle John's and hear him pick some." When Perkins began developing his version of the rockabilly style he shared with the young Elvis Presley, he took Uncle John's style to heart. "I just speeded up some of the slow blues licks," he remembered. "I put a little speed and rhythm to what Uncle John had slowed down. That's all. That's what rockabilly music or rock 'n' roll was to begin with: a country man's song with a black man's rhythm." Two decades later- Dan Penn, one of the real aces of both Muscle Shoals and Memphis, echoed the point: "We didn't know nothing until black people put us on the right road. I never would have learned nothing if I'd have stayed listening to white people all my life." Putting a slightly sardonic spin on the situation, Memphis drummer Jim Dickinson commented, "Everybody learned it from the yard man."
Which doesn't alter the reality that Southern soul, like early rock and roll, really was an interracial collaboration. Soul singer Solomon Burke, whose country/R & B hybrid "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)" predated Ray Charles's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by a year, summed up the underlying connection between the musics of the black and white South: "Gospel is the truth. And country music is the truth."
In some ways, what happened musically in Memphis might have happened almost anywhere in the South. Several of the central figures in Southern soul-Booker T. Jones, Duck Dunn, Aretha Franklin-were Memphis natives. But most grew up elsewhere: Otis Redding in Macon, Georgia; Sam Moore in Miami; James Brown in South Carolina and Georgia; Wilson Pickett in Alabama. Aretha, Pickett, and Al Green all moved north with their families before they were adults. The same pattern held for the white musicians who helped build the city's musical tradition. Elvis was born in Mississippi, Jerry Lee Lewis in Louisiana, Carl Perkins in rural Tennessee, Steve Cropper in Missouri. Sam Phillips, whose Sun Studio became the magnet for the musicians who established Memphis as the cradle of interracial rock and roll in the fifties, didn't arrive until he'd spent his first sixteen years in northwest Alabama, a hundred miles north of Greenville, where a black street singer named Tee-Tot (Rufus Payne) had taught a young Hank Williams to sing the blues. And the hard truths of Williams's "Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)" and "A Mansion on the Hill" responded to the example of Jimmie Rodgers, the first star of country music, whose "Waiting for a Train," "In the Jailhouse Now," and "T for Texas" echoed the blues and gospel traditions of Louisiana and Texas. Rodgers frequently traveled with black sidemen.
The pieces that came together in Memphis were available elsewhere, in part because the black and white Souths were closer culturally than anyone wanted to admit. In a slightly different universe, you can imagine rock and roll or Southern soul developing out of the Piedmont blues Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry played for the black and white crowds who thronged to the Carolina tobacco markets every fall. Or as a part of Atlanta's never-ending effort to establish itself as the capital of a "New South" that never quite seemed to arrive. Or in New Orleans, where it kind of did happen. Or Macon, home to both Little Richard and Otis Redding.
But the historical fact is that it happened in Memphis. Sam Phillips's description of his entry into the city in 1939 suggests one of the main reasons. Following a path blazed by thousands of young men growing up in the backwoods South, the sixteen-year-old Phillips "went to Memphis with some friends in a big old Dodge. We drove down Beale Street in the middle of the night and it was rockin'! It was so active-musically, socially. God, I loved it!"
If you were looking for good times, Memphis offered plenty. Suspended midway between brutal reality and regional hallucination, Memphis occupies a strange place in the psychic landscape of the region. The Mississippi Delta, it is said, begins on Catfish Row in Vicksburg and ends in the lobby of Memphis's Peabody Hotel. In the semifictional geography created by William Faulkner, who grew up just down the road in Oxford, Mississippi, Memphis provides a safety valve for the tensions created by the hard-shell religious fundamentalism and white supremacist orthodoxy of the small-town white South. When they aren't running off to the wilderness to armwrestle enormous mythic animals, Faulkner's Mississippians love nothing better than road-tripping up to Memphis for a few days in the brothels and gambling dens. Like the Harlem where a young Malcolm X made his living guiding whites to whatever sexual adventures they could imagine, Memphis revealed the white obsession with segregation as a pious mask over a moral vacuum. As in Harlem-and Berry Gordy's Detroit for that matter-the bottom line was the dollar bill.
Memphis had a different sort of appeal for the black musicians who brought the musical forms from their Delta homes to the big city. Although black Memphis as a whole was never affluent, it offered far more opportunity than the even poorer rural places most of them came from. Providing semipublic interracial spaces that just weren't available in Sunflower County, Mississippi, or Osceola, Arkansas, Beale Street gave black musicians a chance to cash in on the white folks' desire to walk on the wild side.
The comparatively open racial atmosphere that brought black musicians together with both black and white audiences on Beale Street hadn't happened by accident. Unique in the Jim Crow South, the white power structure in Memphis depended on black votes and black money. The central figure in Memphis politics from 1910 until his death in 1954 was E. H. "Boss" Crump, head of a machine as powerful as Richard Daley's in Chicago or Fiorello La Guardia's in New York.
When Crump arrived in Memphis just after the turn of the century, the city's politics followed the classic Southern pattern: aristocratic white planters manipulated racial animosities to set blacks against poor whites, who were only too eager to be manipulated. Often the aristocrats relied on sanctimonious appeals to religious purity, invoking the ideals of "pure white womanhood" and the " white Christian nation." Such appeals deflected attention from the Delta's economic system, which enabled Mississippi to rank near the top of the list of millionaires per capita at the same time it held a firm grip on its status as the poorest state in the nation.
Recognizing the economic reality of the city's underground economy-based on gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging- Crump organized a coalition of white and black businessmen with Beale Street interests. Whatever their color, the entrepreneurs were sick of the periodic crackdowns ordered by politicians seeking to maintain their standing with the good Christian voters. The respectable black citizens of Memphis, every bit as dedicated to their churches as their white neighbors, viewed Beale Street with Godfearing suspicion. They most definitely wanted to keep their daughters as far as possible from its dens of sin. But they knew that Crump was preferable to the Klan. If nothing else, he needed their votes to maintain political control. It probably didn't hurt that W. C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," had written Crump's campaign song.
Rising to power with the support of this bizarre coalition, Crump guaranteed tolerance of the black- and white-owned businessesmostly bars and brothels-that operated side by side, drawing a mixed crowd to the two-block free zone just off the Mississippi waterfront. Although segregation remained nominally in effect, there was plenty of crossing of racial lines. The Memphis whorehouses were the only ones in the South which condoned black men's access to white prostitutes, though only after three a.m., by which time white men had presumably had sufficient time to exercise their racial privilege. In the Beale Street clubs, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, and Memphis Minnie took the blues songs from the Delta and reshaped them into something new while playing for customers of all races. It was a perfect workshop for Handy, who deserves his title only in the sense that he wrote down and marketed a form that was taking shape all around him.
If Handy's claim was ambiguous, Memphis had certainly earned its designation as the "murder capital of America." In part because Crump's police tolerated the open sale of cocaine, drug addiction was epidemic. Plenty of dark corners were available for anyone eager to explore the night side of the Southern psyche. Beale Street simmered and sometimes exploded. The 1938 murder of eight prominent white citizens by three black men in a Beale Street turf war precipitated a public outcry that closed down the old wide-open Beale Street. But Memphis musicians never quite forgot the vibrant interracial scene that would resurface at Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in the fifties.
However exhilarating Beale Street could be, black folks recognized its limits. If Faulkner's Memphis signified an ambiguous sort of freedom for small-town whites, black novelist Richard Wright's autobiographical Black Boy portrays the city as something more like purgatory, a halfway house for Delta blacks on their way to Chicago. If moral or sexual lines blurred in Memphis, a black man or woman had to be a fool to trust it very far. For anyone paying attention, Memphis history provided plenty of warnings against accepting white fantasies at face value. In 1892, the white citizens of Memphis responded to black journalist Ida B. Wells's antilynching campaign, during which she suggested white women might conceivably be sexually attracted to black men, by destroying the offices of her Free Speech newspaper and driving her out of the city.
A half century later, the civil rights movement consistently avoided Memphis, preferring to deal with white supremacy in the small towns of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Martin Luther King's advisers expressed grave reservations about his decision to engage the garbage collectors' strike, a decision that took him to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. There was no shortage of whites who thought James Earl Ray was a hero, many of them the same ones who, angry over the Kennedy administration's role in the desegregation of Ole Miss, had cheered the news of JFK's death in Dallas. They had company, of course, throughout the nation.
In Memphis, then, white supremacy coexisted with the most fluid interracial musical heritage in the South (with the complicated exception of New Orleans). The blues were a way of life, not just a musical form. Despite the money black businesses made under Crump, many black citizens simply kept their distance from Beale Street and everything it represented. Holding firmly to the church that provided their rock in a weary land, they tried their best to keep their families and communities together. It wasn't easy: prostitution was by far the most lucrative employment available to black women; their brothers often preferred to take their chances on the street rather than scrambling for manual labor in an economy that didn't pay white folks much. The black community was all too familiar with lost souls; it knew that every minute of every day someone you loved was standing at the crossroads, wondering which way to go.
That's one of the reasons why the blues and gospel have such a complicated relationship in Southern soul. When Southern singers strike out to make some money, they're more likely to sing about sex than salvation, violence than the promised land. They don't always bother to distinguish love from hate or sex from death. But almost all of them learned to sing in church. When Wilson Pickett testifies to that moment in the midnight hour when his love comes tumbling down, he's remembering the savior waiting for the sinner in the dark night of the soul. When Sam Moore and Dave Prater whipped their listeners into a frenzy of call and response, the energy came right out of the sanctified church.
Describing the source of Sam and Dave's appeal, Moore pointed to their direct connection with Marion Williams and Mahalia Jackson. "Nobody up to that had never done that kind of stuff," he said, referring to the R & B singers who had adapted gospel to the pop marketplace. "People had taken the gospel harmonies and some of the gospel melodies, gospel songs, and gospel chord progressions and gospel singing inflections-but to actually bring the C. L. Franklin preaching style, no one had done that the way that, in a show, the Stirrers with R. H. Harris or Sam Cooke or whoever, or the Highway QCs would do," Moore continued. "All of them-even Wilson Pickett, when he was in the Violinaires-would preach, evangelize onstage. We incorporated that into soul music. It was really, as the people used to say, `messing with the Lord. You're messing with God, boy. What are you doing?' "
Where Mahalia and Sam Cooke kept their eyes on the prize, Stax's interracial house band, Booker T. and the MGs, like Sam and Dave in their "messing" mode, worried mostly about keeping the party hot. Listening to them, you couldn't always tell how much of the fire came from the devil and how much from the Lord.
It was a problem Robert Johnson knew well.
Down at the Crossroads
If you were white and honest, the blues revealed things the upbeat America of the early sixties assured you didn't exist. That's why so many mid-South white boys-Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn of the MGs, songwriter-producers Dan Penn and Chips Moman, even Elvis before the velvet paintings filled in the blank spaces-fell in love with music that made desegregation sound like something more than an empty dream. Then again, if you were just white, the blues could make you swear off mirrors, never mind music with a harder edge than Perry Como. Dozens of white musicians bear witness to how black music helped them escape the suffocating communities they grew up in.But for most black musicians, the blues evoked a deeper, more agonized relationship between the individual and the community. The crucial difference is that, in the black blues, evil retains its religious significance. Every note Robert Johnson played as he wandered the dark highways of America during the Great Depression reverberates with the reality of exile from a gospel community he knows is real. Widely honored as the most profound of the Delta bluesmen, Johnson wrote songs that testify to his anguished connection with a spiritual force. Johnson's titles resonate with apocalyptic biblical images: "Stones in My Passway," "If I Had Possession over judgement Day," "Hellhound on My Trail," "Crossroads Blues."
For white rockers like Eric Clapton, the crossroads mark a place of existential decision; for Johnson, they stretch over an abyss that's both theological and social. Like most black Southerners, he knew the choice you make at the crossroads can determine everything. For a fugitive slave or a black man running from the Klan, every crossroads presented a choice of direction that could make the difference between slavery and freedom, life and death. Johnson's anguished blues place the listener at one of the crossroads. You can hear the wind howl; you can't quite be sure whether it's covering the patroller's baying hounds. No question that "Crossroads" points to the grounding of the blues in American racial realities. But there's also no question that the sense you're about to take an irrevocable step is something everyone feels sometime, somewhere. It's the sense, as Robert Penn Warren's narrator in All the King's Men puts it, "that you are alone with the Alone, and it is His move." One more cry from the guitar string, one more twisting chord from the gutbucket, and there's no going back.
It's a place where white folks have a choice of getting past white, of understanding something about what it means to live in a world without options other than the ones you can figure out for yourself right now. And you've got no time to think about where that step might take you, to weigh implications. The blues say you do what you have to do, your act's what you are. It's why Bob Dylan titled his greatest album Highway 61 Revisited after the road that carved crossroads through the heart of the Delta. "Like a Rolling Stone" wasn't named for Mick and Keith. Dylan's at least got a sense of what Johnson and Ma Rainey and Muddy Waters were talking about, of what it means to walk down the road that bends back to where black and white came to pretty much the same thing. If only on Beale Street. And only between three a.m. and dawn.
But there's another dimension of "Crossroads" that remains obscure even to the Dylan of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," stranded in a place where "gravity fails and negativity don't see you through." If Dylan maps the existential wasteland, Johnson's "Crossroads" remembers the routes connecting West Africa with the Delta. For many West African tribes, the crossroads were the place where the spirit world and the material world converged, where you went when you needed spiritual energy. For the Yoruba, the crossroads were a place of power and danger. They were dedicated to and ruled by the spirit, or orisha, Esu-Elegba, who walks with a limp, revels in chaos, and carries messages between the material and spiritual worlds.
Like all orisha, Esu-Elegba combines strengths and weaknesses. When the Yoruba tell stories about the orisha, they're initiating discussion, not presenting role models. Unlike the stereotypical Sunday sermon that reveals the meaning of a biblical passage, the Yoruba process requires call and response. Esu's strength lies in his mastery of language and codes, his verbal facility, his literary intelligence. His weakness lies in his amorality. He loves confusion just because he feels at home with it. He's perfectly capable of tearing a community apart because it's interesting, to see what happens. This brother has clearly got to be watched.
But if you need to get closer to the divine presence, to learn the inner meaning of the incomprehensible messages that come in dreams or moments of awe-ful awareness of the spirit, you've got no choice but to deal with Esu. One way or another, Esu-a.k.a. Legba, Papa LaBas, the Signifying Monkey, Brer Rabbit, the NiggaYou Love to Hate, Richard Pryor, and Flava Flav-is gonna deal with you.
So you go down to the crossroads. And maybe you meet a man with a limp. Which, legend has it, is how Robert Johnson learned to play the blues. Laughed off the stage at a Delta juke joint, he vanished for a year, some say three. When he returned, he spoke the blues in tongues his elders had never even imagined. Some say he traveled from New Orleans to Chicago, mastering his craft; others say he sold his soul to Beelzebub.
Black Christians had strong reasons for renaming Esu the "devil." They'd seen what happened to folks who chose the wrong road. If Esu bestows creative brilliance, he exacts a price. He brings chaos to a community in desperate need of stability. Esu embodies the spirit of Beale Street: drugs, sex, violent death. All in the name of a good time, good music. Pure deviltry.
Maybe the most basic crossroads for a black Southerner led one way to Beale Street, the other way to church. Robert Johnson made his choice, but his music never lets you forget it was a choice. That somewhere a Sunday-morning sister was singing him back home. Or that she was more than half likely to follow him into the woods when she heard that dark blue moan some lonely Saturday night.