Sunday, April 15, 2007
ERUPTIONS OF FUNK Part 2
[what follows is the opening passage of the talk I gave at the ERUPTIONS OF FUNK conference at the University of Alabama]
When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
– Langston Hughes (220)
For Langston Hughes, "Daybreak in Alabama" was to have been a future composition, a to-be-written tune that, when it finally arrived, would be a space of prettiness, song falling from the night as stars fall on Alabama. It was to be a music "rising out of the ground like swamp mist." A contingent composition, it was to await his becoming a composer. It may be instructive to note, briefly in passing, that there is nothing said here of lyrics. It is the music itself that is to be of (both in that most insistent sense of aboutness and in the sense of being of a place) daybreak in Alabama. It was to remain for a later composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, to bring "Daybreak in Alabama" to a score, in a piece recorded by Audra McDonald for her 1998 collection Way Back to Paradise. Here, it was Hughes’s past lyrics that were to be conjoined to a subsequent melody, leaving us, we who listen, lodged in one of those curious folds in tense, one of those proverbial verbal turns whereby the future bites its own anterior, another case of, to borrow a line from Al Young, the song turning back on itself. Between the time of Hughes’s composition, and the time of Gordon’s composing and McDonald’s singing, the song itself was lodged in possibility, a lyric awaiting its lyric turn, in the gap between "when I get to be a composer" and the when of our own auditioning. And it is there in that gap that history was happening, as it is there in that perpetual turning in upon itself of song that there was to be an eruption of funk. That eruption was named "Birmingham," and its lyricist was named Baraka:
4 of my daughters
It was the music
failed. (Funk Lore 14)
This is the fourteenth segment of a serial composition written to the background of Coltrane’s "Alabama," titled "Masked Angel Costume." It is a poem that so troubles its own lines as to confound easy listening. First, there are those feet. Such a poem, written out of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, cannot help but call to mind the feet of Rosa Parks as she mounts the bus, the feet of the workers walking back and forth during the Montgomery boycott, the feet of the marchers on Selma, the feet of the people in the flooded streets of Birmingham. Baraka’s lyric masks itself as the sayings of Mantan Moreland, that once ubiquitous filmic spectre of racist spectatorship, the projection of Hollywood’s most stereotypic denigrations of black life, a figure who, in film after film, found himself backed into some corner or another where he had to pray that his feet would not fail him in the ever-pressing present. "Never, " advises the experienced Mantan Moreland of Baraka’s poem, " let Mr. Chan / send you into / a dark / room/ by / your self" (12).
But the unfailing feet here are also the feet of meter. James Brown and George Clinton remind us that the chief characteristic of funk is "the one," that hard, unison landing on the first beat, as in the word "Birmingham," both the Birmingham of Baraka’s poem and the Birmingham of the differently measured state of Alabama, with its greater emphasis upon its third syllable. It was the music of history that moved Baraka to write, the material of what happened. The poem is offered as a mask, a mask of history, a mask that recalls a tradition stretching from Dunbar’s "We Wear the Mask" through Mantan Moreland’s mask of subservience to the mask of meter hung deceptively over the eruption of funk. Baraka masks himself as Moreland, claiming as close kin the four little girls killed in racist explosion in Birmingham. The music of history is not a mask for pain, nor is it a disguise. It is not what hurts so much as it is the persistence of poeisis, our measure of ourselves against the day.
Baraka had earlier written of Coltrane’s rhythms as a stay against the madness. Near the end of AM/TRAK, the poet recalls July 1967, not four full years after the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a summer when Baraka’s Newark erupted in flames and the poet was placed in lockup:
I lay in solitary confinement, July 67
Tanks rolling thru Newark
& whistled all I knew of Trane
My knowledge heartbeat
A part of what Baraka knew of Trane, a part of his heartbeat, a part of those measured feet that didn’t fail, that got him through, was John Coltrane’s "Alabama." A meditative response to Birmingham, "Alabama" was one of the first new compositions Coltrane recorded upon his return to New York from Paris in the Fall of the year of the Birmingham bombing. The piece was a direct response to the events in Alabama, and legend has it, though there is some reason for doubt (Porter 331 n11), that Coltrane deliberately derived the cadence for the composition’s haunting opening bars from a speech given by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., after the Birmingham murders. In December of the same year, Coltrane’s group played the work in its entirety as part of an uninterrupted performance on Ralph Gleason’s San Francisco-based public television program, Jazz Casual. It remains one of the most eloquent realizations of the piece preserved on tape, and its feet are part of what saw Baraka through the long, dark Newark night. They are that which does not fail to move us through history, the measure of the "masked angel."
But, while Baraka, Coltrane and Hughes have all left us memorable, indeed indispensable, works that rise from the national experience of Alabama, none of them was properly of that place. Sun Ra, though he continued throughout his life to insist upon his interstellar origins, is known to have seen the full light of day in Birmingham, a city whose portals once greeted visitors with the slogan "A Good Place to Raise a Boy," on May 22, 1914. His sister Mary quickly dispenses with Ra’s originary obfuscations. "He’s not from no Mars," she declares. "He was born at my mother’s aunt’s house over there by the train station" (qtd. in Szwed, 7). This birth came just three years prior to the final stripping of the franchise from all black voters in the state, and only forty-six years after Alabama had been readmitted to the United States following the Civil War. It might be good to remind ourselves that at the time of secession, Alabama had only been a state for forty-two years. Which is to say that only two generations of Alabamans had come to maturity before Alabama left the Union; only two generations had come to maturity between the time of the state’s readmission and the date of Sun Ra’s birth. He was but forty-nine years old on the day that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church erupted in death and devastation. Ra himself, though, was elsewhere on that dread day, having long left behind the oppressions of daily life in Birmingham. Having removed himself to the outer reaches of the universe, and the inner reaches of Chicago’s South Side, Ra posted his jeremiads to the peoples of earthly America. In one, he writes:
THIS IS THE LAST WARNING TO AMERICA WE AS AMBASSADOR TO THIS COUNTRY OFFER AMERICA WISDOM AND LIFE IF SHE WILL PUBLICLY ADMIT HER SINS WE HEREBY IDENTIFY AMERICA AS THE NINEVAH OF THE BIBLE. WE ACCUSE AMERICA OF CRIME UPON CRIME AGAINST A PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN HER BENEFACTORS .... WE ACCUSE AMERICA OF HYPOCRITICAL LIP SERVICE TO THE TRUE GOD......... (Wisdom 67)
America, it must be said, was not listening.