Black, White, and Blues: A Commentary on Complex Truths and Traditions in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

11 Aug

I forget just when I originally wrote this, sometime in the early 1990s, or maybe the late 1980s. A reference to FloJo sets 1988 as the earliest possible date, as that’s the year she set her “fastest woman in the world” records in the Olympics, but I may have written it a couple years later. No matter. Most of the references are, if not timeless, at least respectably old and well entrenched in American history (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, Nat Turner, W.C. Handy). Since TnT is all about truths and traditions I figued this little packet of poetic dynamite would be just the thing.

(Note: The hyperlinks in the poem are supposed to take you to notes at the end. But they don’t work too well. Still, if something in the poem is underlined, then there’s a note at the end commenting on it. The notes are in order.)

Independence Day, 2001: In Which a President Finally Frees His Slave Mistress

I

When Thomas Jefferson dreamed of Bessie Smith
Lincoln was shot and Michael Jackson got a nose job,
Atlanta was burned and Rosa Parks welcomed Neil Armstrong to the moon,
While hooded Klansmen invaded Star Wars with their laser whips
And FloJo embarrassed Hitler in Berlin.

The dream stained his sheets, the pleasure embarrassing.
Yet Tom needed his sweets and wouldn’t dream of his wife.
She was the mother of his children and the apple of his eye,_
But Bessie knew other things, secret hidden ways to sing
The blues, who do the voodoo? the long snake moan.

II

When Bill Handy had dinner with Mozart
Malcolm X traveled to Mecca and Lennon gave peace a chance,
The Declaration of Independence was signed and Haiti was born,
Bobby Kennedy was shot while chatting with Nat Turner at Trader Vic’s,
And Elvis became the King so he could buy his mamma a house.

It was a good evening. Amadeus sure could tickle the ivories,
And old Bill liked to tickle people, white folks too.
Wolfgang taught him the secret arts of notation so he could gather
Songs for Bessie to sing. That’s how the blues propagated.
Now old Tom could buy records and learn to dance.

III

When Jack Johnson escorted Marilyn Monroe to the theatre
Hiroshima was atomized so Nipponese could sing doo-wop in blackface
Chinese ghosts still haunting the Union Pacific.
Sequoya created his alphabet so the Cherokee could read Booker T.
And Augustine became a Christian before Aretha’s first was born.

The show depicted a familiar tableau:
Leontyne sang Aida in gold lame while Caliban
Fiddled with Queen Bess who couldn’t believe
That Tom had finally taken Shine’s advice and
Decided to jump ship and haul ass for New Jerusalem.

IV

When Bessie played with Martin Luther
Sometimes the magic worked, and sometimes it didn’t.
The writers of those manuals couldn’t cover everything.
Still, when Bird called and Louis Moreau played bamboula
Nijinsky would dance so fast he heated Chano’s skins.

Tom liked to watch but finally got hip to participatory democracy.
He embraced equality and burned his wig,
Freeing himself to perform unspoken acts
With his wife while the children were asleep,
Dreaming of genies and their magic lamps.

Miscellaneous Notes

His writings reveal Thomas Jefferson to be much vexed over whether or not Negroes were the equal of Caucasians and therefore equally deserving of freedom and dignity. Well-founded rumors had him coupling with Sally Hemings, one of his female slaves. He freed his slaves in his will.

Bessie Smith was a hard drivin’ woman and empress of the blues. The most accomplished of the blues singers during the first quarter of the century, legend has it that she could fix her gaze on a man in the audience, lift him from his seat, and walk him down the aisle to the stage. Legend is silent on what she might have done with him after that point.

Michael Jackson has been replacing body parts at such a rate there will be no original equipment left by the turn of the century. (Remember, this was written in the mid-1990s.) He’s making himself into a grim parody of the attempt to determine whether a human being of mixed descent is black or white. Didn’t anyone tell him that we’re all colored, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see one another?

It was, of course, Jesse Owens who embarrassed Hitler in the 1934 Olympic games. With her elaborately decorated artificial nails and high fashion spandex outfits, Florence Joyner re-wrote women’s sprinting in the 1988 Olympics.

Voodoo is a syncretic body of Black Atlantic ritual practice in which African symbols and divinities dip under the skirt of Mother Mary so they might appear Catholic to those white people who are always putting their noses in someone else’s business. The practitioners of voodoo held the snake in higher regard than did the practitioners of Catholicism.

William C. Handy was a turn-of-the-century minstrel musician and son of a preacher who became an ethnomusicologist and composer. He found melodies and words, put them together with some of his own, and became America’s foremost writer of blues song. “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues” are his most famous. Bessie Smith sang and recorded his songs, among others.

Nat Turner was a Virginia slave who got a sign from his God and led his people in a rebellion in 1831. The rebellion failed. But it scared the masters, who, with all their fear, still didn’t believe their slaves had the courage and dignity to rebel. They couldn’t see reality for their paranoia. Now they saw.

Jack Johnson was an early 20th Century heavyweight boxing champion who scandalized the civilized world with his penchant for white women. Marilyn Monroe is rumored to have consorted with the Bobby Kennedy who made an appearance earlier in this poem.

There is Booker T. Washington, educator, and Booker T. & his MG’s, instigator of funky organ lines, best known for the loping blues of “Green Onions.”

St. Augustine may have been of black descent. He urged us to hate the sin but not the sinner. Aretha is the daughter of a prominent Detroit minister. She preaches strongly on the need for R. E. S. P. E. C. T.

Shakespeare created Caliban in 1611-1612, a few years after the first Africans were brought to the New World. We don’t know how much, if any,”fiddling” Queen Bess actually did. She was a stern lady, and a great ruler. But what was on her mind?

Shine is the protagonist in an African-American folk poem about the sinking of the Titanic. Shine was the only black on board and worked in the boiler room. When the Titanic began going down, Shine jumped ship. The Captain offered Shine his money and his daughter – who was quite willing – if he would return to the ship. Shine kept swimming and by the time the Titanic had sunk, he was safely on shore, wining, wenching, and singing. So much for white folks’ invincible technology. The Challenger disaster shows that they still haven’t gotten the message: people first.

Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t” is a line from Little Big Man, spoken by a pragmatic shaman. As for for the writers of those manuals, Rahsaan Roland Kirk once remarked, concerning sex/love, that he’s glad he’s a blind man so he doesn’t have to look at any of “those magazines.”

Bird, Charlie Parker, jazz practitioner of the alto sax whose genius was ultimately unable to contain his self-destructiveness. He died while watching Glenn Miller on TV in the Manhattan apartment of a Rothschild baroness.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a mid-19th century pianist and composer born and raised in French New Orleans who went on to become the toast of Europe. He attended the voodoo sessions at Congo Square, where they danced the bamboula among others, and put some of that rhythm into his compositions. He died in Argentina at, I believe, the age of 40.

Nijinsky was an important ballet dancer who helped Stravinsky scandalize European society with hard-driving rhythm at about the same time Louis Armstrong was getting his trumpet chops together. Chano Pozo was a Cuban drummer Dizzy Gillespie brought to the United States. Since leather contracts when heated, congueros would hold candles to their drum skins to bring them up to pitch.

There are several Toms in this poem. Tom Hayden was one of the authors of the Port Huron statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society. “Participatory democracy” was a key concept. This particular Tom later married a movie star who was to divorce him in favor of a billionaire media mogul who went on to buy up lots of old Hollywood black and whites and stirred up minor controversy when he decided to colorize them.

As for genies and their magic lamps, what things, pray tell, come to life when rubbed gently? Childhood innocence is wonderful indeed. Shake it to the east, shake it to the west, shake it to the one that you love the best. O baby.

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3 Responses to “Black, White, and Blues: A Commentary on Complex Truths and Traditions in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”

  1. Charlie Keil August 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Got to have more of these imagined conversations, get people talking to each other again like they used to back in the day. Not sure where the truth in all this, because my answer to the old query, “Vas you dare Cholly?” is mostly No. But I like the tradition you have invented. Dat’s fer sure.

    • Bill Benzon August 11, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

      And as you know, Cholly, invented traditions are the best kind. Heck, they’re the only kind, once you get to know them. I figure this particular tradition is just America, not so plain and not so simple. It’s just that it’s so difficult to live up to ALL of it.

  2. Charlie Keil August 15, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    As the 29 grievances of the Montpelier Manifesto will make plain, it’s becoming nearly impossible to live up to ANY of the American traditions we once knew.

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