By Matt Cooper (this article also appears on the Workers Liberty website)
The 1950s saw a revival of interest in “folk” music in Britain and the USA. Folk revivalism in Europe has a long heritage going back to the early nineteenth century and was largely allied to nationalist movements.
European nationalists sought out, and often invented, national cultures on which to base their claims for statehood. This was not always an illiberal project — it was based on the idea that a common identity was the basis for national self-determination and that in turn was the basis for democracy.
Composers helped the search for common identities: thus Greig researched Norwegian hardanger fiddle music and orchestrated folk tales, Bartok adapted Hungarian folk dances into his work, and Glinka interpreted the balalaika music of the Russian peasantry.
In the 1930s this “nationalist” view of culture re-emerged in the state policy of the Soviet Union. It was a million miles way from the cultural policy of the Bolsheviks in the early years of the Russian Revolution.
The Bolsheviks were for free artistic expression, and if their policy had a tendency it was towards modernism, cosmopolitan internationalism and the avant garde.
Like all else democratic and progressive in the Russian Revolution, cultural experimentation was abandoned and subverted with the rise of Stalinism. In 1934 the USSR adopted an official cultural policy of socialist realism.
Socialist realism had two elements. The first, and the one that is unusually emphasised, was that the measure of good art is the degree to which its message was “progressive”. That was in practice synonomous with the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. As one supporter of the new orthodoxy put it in the 1930s, “A writer today who wishes to produce the best work that he is capable of producing, must first of all become a socialist in his practical life, must go over to the progressive side of the class conflict… unless he has in his everyday life taken the side of the workers, he cannot, no matter how talented he may be, write a good book, cannot tell the truth about reality”.
In Britain or the US Stalinists, and those who lived in their intellectual shadow, began to like any old crap so long as it toed the party line. In Soviet Russia and its satellites it was accepted that art and culture be put at the service of the “people” and “socialism”, or rather the state that claimed to embody these. In the USSR it was dangerous to think otherwise. Writers who refused to adapt to the new thinking were executed or died in labour camps.
There was a second element to socialist realism — an element of folk culture. One of architects of socialist realism, Andrey Zhdanov, stated, after the Second World war, that music should be, “realist and of truthful content, and closely and organically linked with the people and their folk-music and folk-song.”
The idea was that music should not only carry a socialist message but also be the “people’s” music, a national music, music that is not “owned” and only enjoyed by a cultural elite but of everyday life. In Russia this came to mean regimented state folk ensembles that make Riverdance look like an honest, restrained and tasteful expression of Irish culture.
Outside of Russia, coming as its did at the time of the Popular Front where the Communist parties sought to align themselves with the “progressive” section of their own ruling classes against fascism, this very quickly came to mean promoting a nationalist conception of folk music.
Of course the Communist’s approach could also attach itself to a living tradition. This was particularly true in the USA which had a strong and living tradition of workers’ song, both black and white. Woody Guthrie was someone in this tradition. He became intellectually close to the Communist Party while never joining. A writer and performer of real merit, his songs often transcended the kind of doggerel and simplistic propagandising that characterised what passed for “socialist” song-writing at the time.
It is impossible to say whether the folk revival in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and the USA were directly caused by the ideas and the members of the Communist parties, but it is certain that they were heavily influenced by the Communist line.
In Britain one of the major protagonists for the folk revival was A L Lloyd, a card-carrying CPer, as were some performers such as Ewan McColl (although he left the CP in 1953, he continued to bear its politics). The CP ran a Workers’ Music Association and its record label, Topic, was the first British folk label.
In the USA the folk-song collector and folk-promoter Alan Lomax was a CP member, as were key performers such as Pete Seeger (like McColl, Seeger left the CP — in 1950 — but continued to hold its beliefs in music).
The folk-revival had programmed into it the idea that there was an authentic workers’ music that was superior both in its folk-style and its political content to the pop music of the day. This “authenticity” was something of a concoction. The folkies were, at heart, middle class urbanites. The folk revival in the USA happened in Greenwich Village and university campuses; in Britain it happened in rooms above pubs in middle class suburbs.
The invented nature of the tradition it claimed to stand in can be seen in its attitude to the blues Most of the important blues artists in the US in the 50s played in electric bands in the north, but this is not what the folk purists wanted. When John Lee Hooker played New York and when Big Bill Bronzy played in Britain, they had to go acoustic, and imitate a Southern country blues style for the white middle-classes. They were not “allowed” to present the revolution in popular music that they were really engaged in.
Folk music was also seen as politically of the left. Tribune had a folk music column until the mid-1960s.
The folk revival was not a bad thing. It engendered interest in music beyond the increasingly bland pop-mainstream, which after the rock and roll of the mid ’50s had fallen back into saccharine crooning. Much of what collectors like Lomax collected was interesting in its own right and suggested new musical directions. It was not merely bucolic reaction. Out of the folk-revival grew the 1950s British skiffle boom and out of that eventually came the British beat bands, including the Beatles.
But these developments were opposed by many folk purists. Folk became a straitjacket — performers were expected to work within the tradition. Even when they wrote there own music it was expected to be musically conventional (and above that meant acoustic) and “realist” in its lyrical approach.
By the early 1960s new folk writing consisted either of “protest songs” — topical songs that showed folk’s political engagement — or songs which simulated the form of the “folk canon”. The template for this was Woody Guthrie, who mixed political songs, traditional songs, and songs that sounded very much like traditional ones although he had written them. It is at this point in the story that Bob Dylan comes in.
In the early 1960s, when Dylan came on the folk scene in Greenwich Village, he consciously modelled himself on Woody Guthrie — sang his songs, mimicked his clothes and his political engagement. It soon became clear that Dylan had a greater and more mercurial talent than his idol. After a throwaway album of folk standards, Dylan’s real debut as a songwriter was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Here Dylan went beyond the protest song.
Typically a protest song would retell a news story, sometimes with a bit of editorialising. Indeed Phil Ochs, a protest singing contemporary of Dylan’s, called his first album All the news that’s fit to sing. Sometimes there would be calls to action, such as Pete Seeger’s Which side or you on? But the songs on The Freewheelin’… and its follow up The times they are a-changing’ did not fit these templates. The questions raised were often rhetorical; they offered no answers. In many ways Dylan’s most famous protest song, Blowin’ in the wind was not a protest song at all. It mentions no specific injustice, and offers no answer; it was a demand to think. As Dylan commented at the time, “Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is, but oh, I don’t believe that.”
The complexity and texture of Dylan’s lyrics gained Dylan a huge following. (As opposed to his music, which was derivative; his guitar playing, which was mediocre; and his harmonica playing, some of which was diabolical.) Bizarrely Dylan’s non-specific “message” raised him in the eyes of many to the spokesperson, if not the leader, of a new movement. The designation clearly revolted him, and eventually angered him. In his next set of songs, the carefully titled Another side of Bob Dylan, he began to question the ideas of the left, the morality and motivation of himself and those around him. In My back pages he writes:
“Equality, I spoke their word
as if a wedding vow
but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
As Dylan stated, “Me, I don’t want to write for people any more — you now, be a spokesman. From now on I want to write from inside of me… the bomb is getting boring because what is wrong goes much deeper than the bomb… I’m not part of no movement…” For those who expected folk to be about the repetition of received truths and comforting consensus, it was something of a shock, but it really was no preparation for what was to come.
Dylan’s first albums had been musically unexceptional, old folk and blues tunes recycled. But all along something else musically had been happening in the world. While the folkies were singing to themselves, while mainstream pop was sinking into a pit of pink glop, black urban America had created a new, dynamic, electric music. For a long time this had been designated a “race” music, and then Rhythm and Blues, and despite Rock and Roll (which was R&B played by white people) it had really passed the American mainstream by.
In Britain, to the disgust of the folk purists, some moved beyond acoustic blues and started to discover the electric R&B. Bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Beatles took black urban music back to the USA.
For Dylan these developments were a way to cut himself out of the cocoon of folk music. Dylan gathered a group of (white) electric blues musicians around him. In response to the heckler in the Albert Hall in 1966 demanding that he play folk music he responded that, “This is not British music, this is American music, now come on.” Popular music had at last very imperfectly come to terms with a changed world. While modernism had transformed the visual arts, jazz had been transformed by bebop and orchestral music was comfortable with dissonance, pop music was still swaddled in easy certainty and formal order. Folk music even more so. Dylan splashed out with shocking colour and let rip a splenetic howl.
Freed from the assumption that songs should be realist, topical and in service to a movement’s immediate political requirements, Dylan looked to the avant garde, the absurdist and the surreal to develop his lyrics. This kind of experimentaion underlay a trio of albums, Bringing it all back home, Blonde on blonde and Highway 61 revisited.
The story of the huge confrontation created between Dylan and his folk audience, a section of which booed him for these years, has been well told. But what it is difficult to understand is enormity of what Dylan had wrought. This was loud, raucous and challenging music. He played American music, the music brought to the UK by the Beatles and Stones, but played with more energy than either. And welded to this were rich and multilayered and at times downright oblique lyrics, that demanded to be listened to, demanded to be questioned. This was pop-music as art, serious, literate and modernist. It was a cultural watershed.
So when someone shouted “Judas” at Dylan when he was playing his electric set at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, there was a political background to it all. The “purist” heckler was demanding that music was not modern, was rooted in tradition, even if that tradition were invented. It was a demand that easy questions be given and that the audience could already mouth the answers. It was a demand not to be challenged, confronted and questioned.
As Irwin Sibler, a leading member of the left-folk establishment in the early sixties who denounced Dylan’s electric turn, and later recanted, put it: “Dylan is our poet — not our leader”. Of course in time he ceased to be that, but that is another story.
I’ve just attended a long overdue tribute to the great poet of Birmingham and the Midlands, Roy Fisher. Roy himself couldn’t be there, but sent greetings. Four poets who admire the man and his work – Luke Kennard, Ian McMillan, Peter Robinson and Jacqui Rowe – read and explored Roy’s poems, written over 55 years. I was pleased that the opening reading – by Ian McMillan – was Roy’s powerful evocation of a favourite jazz pianist, the now nearly forgotten Joe Sullivan. The evening closed with a recording of Roy himself playing superb jazz piano, accompanying the Birmingham singer Ruby Turner. I suggest listening to Mr Sullivan himself, before reading Roy’s poem:
The Thing About Joe Sullivan
By Roy Fisher (1965)
The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous
slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes;
in his time almost the only
one of them to ignore
the chance of easing down,
walking it leisurely,
he’ll strut, with gambling shapes,
underpinning by James P.,
amble, and stride over
gulfs of his own leaving, perilously
toppling octaves down to where
the chords grow fat again
and ride hard-edged, most lucidly
voiced, and in good inversions even when
the piano seems at risk of being
hammered the next second into scrap
For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;
disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,
the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations:
Sullivan can gut a sequence
In one chorus-
-approach, development, climax, discard-
And sound magnanimous,
The mannerism of intensity
often with him seems true,
too much to be said, the mood
pressing in right at the start, then
running among stock forms
that could play themselves
and moving there with such
quickness of intellect
that shapes flaw and fuse,
altering without much sign,
so wrapped up in thoroughness
it can sound bluff, bustling,
just big-handed stuff-
belied by what drives him in
to make rigid, display,
shout and abscond, rather
than just let it come, let it go-
And that thing is his mood:
A feeling violent and ordinary
That runs in standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity
that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.
Above: live performance of Wholly Cats, c 1940 with the Benny Goodman Sextet inc Count Basie and Charlie Christian
There is some doubt about Charlie Christian’s date of birth, but most informed opinion now puts it at 29 July 1916.
Charlie was a very important and influential musician, revered in jazz circles as a pioneer (though not the inventor) of the electric guitar and a precursor of the bebop revolution, though he died in March 1942 (of TB, like many other great African American musicians of that generation), before Parker and Gillespie put bebop (or just plain ‘bop’, as it became) on the jazz map.
But his influence goes far beyond jazz, and continues to permeate all of popular music right up to the present day, due to his mastery of the electric guitar. I think it’s fair to say that Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and George Benson are Charlie Christian’s children just as much as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery.
Christian’s big break came in 1939, when an initially unenthusiastic Benny Goodman was persuaded (by John Hammond, Goodman’s socialite brother-in-law and a keen champion of racially-integrated jazz) to recruit him for the Goodman Sextet.
Goodman’s biographer James Lincoln Collier (in Benny Goodman And The Swing Era) gives a good account of how Charlie’s influence and musical ideas developed from there:
Although Christian eventually played with the [Benny Goodman] big band for a brief period before his death, for the most part he played only in the Sextet, and it was with the small group that he made an enduring mark on jazz. Aside from bringing the electric guitar to national attention, he is best known for having contributed ideas to the bop movement which would begin to coalesce around 1942. For one thing, Christian was using some of the upper notes of the chord — ninths and elevenths — more frequently than other jazz players. He was also prone to substitute a diminished chord for the dominant seventh in places. The boppers would eventually develop these practices to the point where chromatic alterations and the upper-chord notes would be a major characteristic of the music.
For a second thing, Christian liked to use long lines of unaccented eighth notes. This was in part due to the nature of his instrument. It cannot be made to accent notes with anything like the subtlety of a wind instrument. But it was also a matter of taste — Charlie Christian liked to run long lines. There is a surprising lack of syncopation in his work. The use of long lines of relatively uninflected notes also became a characteristic of bebop.
Christian habitually phrased against the grain of the tune. Jazz musicians have always played asymmetrical phrases, but there is nonetheless a tendency to design a solo to match the two-, four- and eight-bar segments most tunes are constructed of. Christian persistently played phrases of odd lengths — one of three-and-a-half bars, followed by another of five, and then one of two — interjected at irregular points in the chorus. This use of disjunctive phrasing was also typical of bebop.
Finally, Christian frequently ended phrases on the second half of the last beat of a measure. This is the weakest point in a measure, and in most standard music, ranging from the operas of Mozart to the worst material from Tin Pan Alley, phrases are ended at stronger points, often at the first beat of a measure. But this inclination to plunk down at a weak point also became a characteristic of bebop.
(from Benny Goodman And The Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier, pub: Oxford 1989).
But, as it turned out, Charlie Christian didn’t live to see or hear the musical revolution he’d set in train: in 1941 he contracted TB and died in March 1942 from associated pneumonia in a Staten Island sanatorium. He was buried in Harlem in the cheapest coffin available. His advocate, John Hammond, wrote, “He was a sweet loving man with few defences against the world. His only resource was his music and when he was unable to play he was unable to live.”
[NB: I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Digby Fairweather’s entry on Charlie Christian in the Rough Guide To Jazz, by Carr, Fairweather and Priestly, 1995]
Jim Denham writes:
A born-again Christian semi-Stalinist folk musician may seen a strange friend for Shiraz Socialist and for me in particular. Karl Dallas and I never met in person, but had a number of exchanges by email and via below-the-line comments here at Shiraz. We had some especially sharp disagreements over the saxophonist Gild Atzmon, who Karl continued to defend -and, indeed, to promote in both senses of the word – long after it should have been obvious to him that Atzmon was a vicious antisemite and dangerous reactionary. Mind you, Karl was far from being alone on the left in his softness on Atzmon, and at least (unlike, say the SWP) seems to have been motivated by naivety rather than cynicism and sectarianism.
But for all of that, Karl remained courteous and friendly. I never doubted his fundamental decency, his often personally courageous commitment to what he understood to be socialism and the self-evident sincerity he demonstarted in every aspect of his life. He was living proof of something I’ve long believed: that it’s possible (on the broad left, at least) to have sharp political differences with people, yet still like and respect them. Our shared love of music certainly helped maintain friendly terms. Karl was a frequent contributor to the Morning Star (and its forunner, the Daily Worker), and it only seems right and proper to reproduce that paper’s tribute to him (NB: we’ve only republished the main obituary; it’s worth following the link for several other appreciations):
KARL FREDERICK DALLAS, who died on June 21 at the age of 85, will go down in history as the father of British folk-rock journalism.
But for those who worked with him at the Morning Star or assisted him organising gigs to raise awareness and funds for numerous movements and for those who stood next to him as human shields in Iraq, joined his hunger strikes or even watched him don donkey ears to keep our community swimming baths open, he’ll be remembered for his solidarity wherever human injustices and inequalities prevailed. He was one with us, the people.
Dallas was brought up in a socialist family and was named after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. From the age of seven, he was a peace activist. It was then that he accompanied his mother, a single parent, on a demonstration against Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.
From an early age he set his heart on a career as a poet and lyricist. He understood the value of the arts, specifically the protest song, as a cultural unifier.
Describing his most political songs as “love songs with a universal message,” Dallas summed this up in an encouraging declaration of hope: “People survive despite everything.”
Via a stint as a publicist for Billy Smart’s Circus, he came to journalism and his work was informed by his own considerable skill as a musician. Dallas had a knack of scouting out the best talent around.
At first using the name Fred Dallas, it would be the mid-’60s before he became widely know as Karl Dallas, having established himself as the most influential music journalist in Britain.
He was a contributor to Melody Maker from the 1950s to the 1970s and continued his political interests by writing for the Daily Worker — later the Morning Star — and self-published the magazines Folk News, Acoustic Music and Jazz Music News among others.
Dallas was a popular figure, gaining interviews from even the most elusive of all artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Davey Graham and he was known to gain access to Pink Floyd when no other journalist could.
Throughout his career, he kept his professional integrity by writing what he thought was important and never allowed friendship to influence what he would write.
At some point, he came to the conclusion that “music was a murderous business,” having seen too many creative sensibilities destroyed by a capitalist industry and those controlling it.
Dallas was a rock and folk survivor. A recovering alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since the early 1980s, he never forgot October 9 1979, the day he had his last drink. It was this personal struggle with his own demons that, perhaps, made Dallas so akin to those whom he affectionately called “the walking wounded” who “soldiered on.” Having considering himself an atheist with an inclination towards paganism, Dallas converted to Christianity in 1983.
He retired from full-time journalism in 1999. Even so, he continued to work ceaselessly, celebrating the multicultural richness and diversity of Bradford where he made his home — he had left London and moved there with his wife in 1989.
Speaking out against the EDL, he assembled crowds in peaceful, multifaith opposition to racism and fascism. Having had his songs recorded by the likes of Ewan MacColl and The Spinners, Dallas ran songwriting workshops and he was a regular at Bradford’s Topic venue, where his composition Hamba Khalie, Sala Khalie, with its lyrics: “Go well, stay well, safe journey home” became the folk club’s signature finale.
He wrote plays, novels and poetry like there was no tomorrow, along with online music reviews and he remained a loyal contributor to the Morning Star. His work for Bradford Radio included weekly debates, a jazz show and film reviews and he was at times a quirky broadcaster. His marathon eight-hour Midsummer Night’s Radio Madness Show — at Midnight is remembered with particular fondness.
He was a regular guest at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention and set up his tent there for the last time in 2013, meeting briefly with old friends and enthusing over the raw energy of the Yorkshire band The Dunwells. The most poignant moment of that weekend for me had to be sitting next to him when Fairport sang Who Knows Where the Time Goes. He had seen so many bright lights cut down in their prime but it was the loss of Sandy Denny that seemed to haunt him most.
Back in 1981, on the occasion of Dallas’s 50th birthday, folk-rock musician Roy Harper predicted: “Karl Dallas will outlive us all.” With a massive backlog of writing, published and unpublished, he leaves enough of a mark to ensure his voice will live on.
He lives on also in the most vulnerable and would-be silenced of society to whom he gave his support, at times risking his own safety and even his life. A man of words, a maker of songs and verse and a teller of tales, he embraced new technologies and was an eager advocate of the selfie-broadcast.
Shortly before his death Dallas announced on Facebook: “I’m living one day at a time and planning a fun-filled funeral. Try and be there.”
A lifelong activist and comrade, he will be sorely missed. But it is a small comfort to know he remained with us for the summer solstice, when the tilt of the earth was most inclined towards the sun.
Our kind thoughts and condolences are with his wife Gloria, his children Molly and Steven and their families.
This article appears in today’s Morning Star:
We need to talk about homophobia
LGBT education is needed now more than ever in the wake of the Orlando shootings, argues RABBIL SIKDAR
FIFTY people killed because of their sexuality in Orlando. It’s clear that though 21st century is here with increasing legislations in support of LGBT people, there is still an entrenched camp of bigots who have nothing but seething hatred for these people.
What struck me the most wasn’t the incident itself. Jihadist violence against innocent people is becoming increasingly common. The appeal of Islamic State (Isis) is far-reaching.
What particularly struck me was the grief and rage of Owen Jones later on Sky News when he was trying to explain this to two heterosexuals.
This wasn’t violence against humanity, as they blindly insisted. It was violence against one of the most viciously oppressed and marginalised groups in the world, who face varying degrees of discrimination, prejudice and violence.
What happened was a terrorist attack, but it was also an attack on LGBT people. The killer’s father would come out and say his son was openly repulsed by the sight of two men kissing.
With any terrorist incident there come the inquests. Why did it happen, the motivations, the factors, who to blame, who not to blame?
Muslims often find themselves dragged into that blame game as the far-right brigade come out in their numbers.
Atrocities become shamelessly hijacked for right-wing propaganda. With the attacks in Orlando, we had Donald Trump praising himself and the EU Leave rightwingers warning about Islamism.
The issue of gun control and the easy access that mentally deranged lunatics and terrorists have to weapons has not been addressed.
It’s a failure of Barack Obama that he has been effectively blocked from gun reforms by an NRA-backed Republican Party.
The country has shifted in its opinion, but Republicans remain firmly wedded to the free access to guns. Even as violence rips through the US, the second amendment is fiercely protected.
But those who place the biggest problem from this at gun reforms are wrong. The biggest problem is homophobia.
It’s still rampant. Within the US, the LGBT community faces immense prejudice and discrimination. The right to marry and adopt is fiercely contested.
Though many states have now legalised gay marriage, the US faces a battle with homophobia.
The Orlando killer was also a Muslim. That doesn’t automatically mark Muslims out as being uniquely homophobic, as many are claiming.
But people need to be honest: the stances towards the LGBT community within parts of the Muslim community are often extremely regressive and troubling.
It’s why gay Muslims rarely come out. In the Muslim world, the punishment for homosexuality is often death.
In Britain, polls have shown that over half of Muslims believe homosexuality is wrong.
And of course at the extreme end of the scale Isis punishes homosexuals by throwing them off towers.
This despite the Koran itself never prescribing a punishment. Homosexuality is often treated as some sort of sin that’s as morally corrupt as murder or rape.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have institutionalised and rationalised homophobia rather than showing tolerance.
Within Britain, it’s not talked enough about in households or in schools. LGBT Muslims face huge identity conflicts, fear of being marginalised and treated as freaks, unable to find mosques welcoming them.
Conservative Muslims have insisted that whatever their stance on homosexuality, murder is wrong. But it misses the point.
When you treat homosexuality as a sin and LGBT people as abominations, you strip them of their humanity and empathy and forge a scenario where acts of violence can be inflicted upon them because they are regarded as lesser beings who have strayed wildly.
When the media continuously demonises Muslims or black people, we immediately point out how the antagonist was radicalised by the social environment of hatred and poisonous bile and bigotry towards these people.
Homophobia isn’t exclusive to Islam and, indeed, polls show that overall Roman Catholics tend to be more negative towards homosexuality than ordinary Muslims.
Historically, it wasn’t always the case that Muslim society reacted like this to LGBT people.
Under the Ottoman empire, homosexuality was not treated as a crime. But right now religious authorities have to act.
Within the Muslim world, Muslims who are politically, culturally or sexually different from others are treated as deviants and heretics. Their punishment is often execution.
LGBT people still have to live in fear of being who they are. Homophobic attitudes are harder to defeat in later stages of life. So start early. LGBT education is needed now more than ever.
And acknowledging that there are huge swathes of the Muslim community that do not tolerate homosexuality, peaceful though they may be, is one of these tasks.
This is fabulous stuff: musician Dennis Rose’s amateur film of the jazz life (as lived by young professional musicians) in Soho of the early 1950’s, watched and commented upon thirty or so years later by participants Ronnie Scott, Benny Green, Laurie Morgan and (perhaps surprisingly) comedian Bill Maynard, amongst others. This went out in the 1980’s as part of a BBC2 jazz week, but hasn’t been seen since. Prepare yourselves for a lot of working class East End Jewish humour and political incorrectness:
Above: trailer for the 1961 film version
Review by Jean Lane (also published in the current issue of Solidarity):
A Raisin in the Sun was written in 1959 by Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), the first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway and the inspiration behind Nina Simone’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’.
The play is set in an overcrowded Chicago slum apartment just before the emergence of the civil rights movement. The Youngers, a working class family comprising of grandmother Nena (Mama), her son Walter with his wife Ruth and child Travis, and Walter’s sister, Beneatha, are about to come into an insurance pay-out of $10,000, after the death of Nina’s husband. The potential opportunities that come with it, cause tension.
Walter wants to use the money to realise his dream of self-advancement by investing, along with his old street friends, in a liquor store business. His sister, Beneatha, is studying to become a doctor. She is experimenting with radical ideas new to her family such as atheism. She berates one boyfriend for his assimilation into white culture and is being drawn by another, a Nigerian medical student, into the ideas of black nationalism and anti-colonial independence.
Arguments over the money and the cramped conditions of the Youngers’ lives are exacerbated when Ruth discovers that she is two months pregnant. Her relationship with Walter reaches breaking point when Lena refuses to fund the liquor store idea. Instead, Lena puts a deposit down on a larger house in a solidly white neighbourhood. Eventually Lena relents and gives the rest of the money to Walter to use as he sees fit, with the proviso that he keeps back enough of it to pay for his sister’s education.
A representative of the white neighbourhood, Karl Linder, turns up with the message that they would far rather the Youngers did not move in as they would not fit in, and offers to buy the house from them. With righteous indignation from the family, Linder is sent packing by a Walter now imbued with a sense of confidence, as a young up and coming business man. However, Walter’s friend, Willy, runs off with all the money including that for Benathea’s education. Walter’s chance to prove himself a man deserving of respect again seems far away. To the horror of the three women in his life, he contemplates taking the money from the white man who says that they are not good enough to be his neighbours.
The dashing of the family’s dreams of a better life are reflected in Benathea’s loss of confidence in an independent future for black people. She asserts that nationalism is a lost cause which can only lead to the swapping of white masters for black. Walter finally proves himself to be a man in Lena’s eyes by telling the white man where to go with his money and the family prepare to move into their new home. The play ends leaving the audience aware that many of their troubles as a black family in 1950s America have only just begun.
The title for the play is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore – And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
All the emotions expressed in the poem are there in the play, in this production, directed by Dawn Walton, and electrically so. All the political ideas of identity, racism, gender roles and social consciousness are brought refreshingly within the sphere of working-class life.
• The play is on tour around Britain ending in Coventry on 28 March.
William McIlvanney 25 Nov 1936 – 5 Dec 2015: writer, thinker, poet of ‘Tartan noir.’
Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him. When the mood seeped into him, nothing mattered. He could think of no imaginable success, no way of life, no dream of wishes fulfilled that would satisfy.
Last night and this morning hadn’t helped. He had finally left Bob Lilley and the rest still on the surveillance in Dumfries. On the strength of solid information, they had followed the car from Glasgow. By a very devious route it has taken them to Dumfries. AS far as he knew, that was where it was still parked — in the waste lot beside the pub. Nothing has happened. Instead of catching them in the act of breaking in, three hours of picking your nose. He has left them to it and come back to the office, gloom sweet gloom.
It was strange how this recurring feeling had always been a part of him. Even when he was a child, it had been present in its own childish form. He remembered nights when the terror of darkness had driven him through to his parents’ room. He must have run for miles on that bed. It wouldn’t have surprised him if his mother had had to get the sheets re-soled. Then it had been bats and bears, wolves running round the wallpaper. The spiders were the worst, big, hairy swines, with more legs than a chorus-line.
Now the monsters were simultaneously less exotic and less avoidable. He was drinking too much — not for pleasure, just sipping it systematically, like low proof hemlock. His marriage was a maze nobody had ever mapped, an infinity of habit and hurt and betrayal down which he and Edna had wanered separately, meeting occasionally in the children. He was a policeman, a Detective Inspector, and more and more he wondered how that had happened. And he was nearly forty.
* Guardian appreciation here
Ten years on from Katrina, and New Orleans is still recovering. Great progress has been made (no thanks to the wretched initial response from the federal government under Bush), but it’s been uneven and problems remain – not least in working class black areas like the Lower Ninth Ward.
Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, though based in New York, has long regarded NO has his spiritual home:
“I was there playing at the Satchmo Summer Fest right before the hurricane … and then again at Jazz Fest (the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival), nine months after the hurricane. A dear friend took me on a reality tour, from the ‘blue roofs,’ protective blue tarps on wind-damaged roofs, to the devastation of whole neighborhoods totalled by the flooding. The Ninth Ward looked like a war-ravaged ghost town. It broke my heart to see my beloved New Orleans in such a state’ (quoted by Michael Steinman, of the most excellent Jazz Lives blog, in his notes to Jon-Erik’s fantastic 2007 Arbors CD Blue Roof Blues – A Love Letter To New Orleans).
Now Jon-Erik has released a new CD/album celebrating the Crescent City’s partial recovery: it was recorded in NO in April and as well as Jon-Eric, features his New York pal, guitarist and vocalist Matt Munisteri and two New Orleanians – clarinetist Evan Christopher and bassist Kerry Lewis. The album is entitled In The Land Of Beginning Again, and Jon-Eric writes of the title:
“Why ‘In The Land Of Beginning Again?’ Louis Armstrong spoke of playing this song regularly in his early days as a member of Fate Marable’s band on a Mississippi Riverboat. It was their closing theme. This wistful, seldom-heard song is a fitting theme for this album … as it reflects New Orleans’ resiliency. It is a huge relief to see how this unique and wonderful Gulf Coast city has bounced back and reinvented itself since ‘the storm.’ It seems my hometown of Detroit is now being talked about as another ‘land of beginning again,’ with its ‘keep on keepin’ on spirit.”
NB: I have no commercial interest in this CD (on the Jazzology label), but can personally recommend it. As well as the fantastic music by Jon-Erik, Evan, Matt and Kerry, it comes with notes by the A.J Liebling of jazz writing, Michael Steinman and cover art by Cécile McLorin Salvant – a fine vocalist who turns out to be an equally excellent graphic artist.