Hello all. Lately I can’t seem to peel myself away from some other projects I’ve got going so I’ve got to hold off a little longer on posting up part 2 to my mix, EL AMBIENTE BIEN BABES Y BEAN DE URUGUAY. But, I’ll be posting some other mixtapes for you to bump through this fading summer, and I’ve got something else here for you today. So, I present to you—collecting much of what we have heard thus far here in these pages, and then some—a MixTape processed and sequenced for your consumption: Longevity Has It’s Place.
You can listen to the same ol’ feel-good-hit-of-the-summer rolling out your radio, or you can listen to something other spit from A Mouthful of Pennies! —Enjoy yourself!
P.S. By & by, Fifty years ago today, 250,000 people crowded onto the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They came from all across the country for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. You can revisit my post on Dr. King from January 14th 2012 over here: BREAK THE SILENCE OF THE NIGHT.
Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes (1935)
Nation as a Promise
This weekend I honor the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who more than most would have understood the weight of the words above. He knew that our Nation is a Promise—a promise that we each make to ourselves, and to our community—a promise of a Shining City upon a Hill. However, as Jesus Christ said as he gave his Sermon on the Mount, “a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (King James Version, Matthew 5:14). Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that not only was it our duty to judge our world, but that in turn it was our burden to be judged.
Our modern view of King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech has had a tendency to reduce his words to merely a pictorial report of utopia. Yet, when King called for integration, he was speaking of our responsibility to our fellow man, and that true equality means that we all labor together to fulfill the promise of our nation, a promise that we have inherited, and a promise that we renew with each day we continue to build our homes here. King’s dream was not merely one of interracial hand-holding and pleasant afternoons together in the sun, but one where “[…] we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day” (Walenta, 2010). As Greil Marcus (2006) writes in “The Shape of Things To Come,” King’s most celebrated speech was one that “[…] judges the nation, and calls on each member to judge it in turn. The speech calls on each citizen to weigh the nation’s promises against their betrayal […]” (Marcus, p.34).
A Model of Christian Charity
Governor John Winthrop
President Ronald Reagan was fond of invoking the image of a “shining city” to promulgate a supposed moral superiority and an ideological slant on American exceptionalism, as well as to suggest that our nation could serve as guardian angel and warden for the world. Ultimately, his words were an expression of optimism. They did not take into account the age-old question of “who watches the watchmen?” Nevertheless, as conveyed in the 1630 sermon by Puritan and Massachusetts Bay Colony founder Governor John Winthrop—while aboard the Arbella, which sailed from the Isle of Wight to Salem, Mass.—this status as a City upon a Hill is one to be considered more of a threat than a blessing:
“The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely
with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to
withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a
by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to
speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We
shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause
their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out
of the good land whither we are going” (Religious Freedom, 2001).
Citizen King in the Great World House
The Computerized Plans of Destruction
As a citizen of the world, King not only appreciated the necessity for community as a prerequisite for peace on earth, but understood that community—regardless of one’s view or relation to it—is by its very nature inescapable; existence is nothing if not a multitude of threads and ligaments, by which each living thing is bound to another and all. Beyond this, King knew the obligation that comes with community. On June 14th, 1965 Dr. King gave a commencement address at Oberlin College in Ohio. Entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” the speech was more of a challenge to the graduating class than just a mere attaboy pat on the back and words of congratulations:
“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together;
all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable
network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
[…] All that I’ve said is that we must work for peace, for racial
justice, for economic justice, and for brotherhood the world over.
We have inherited a big house, a great world house in which we
have to live together—black and white, Easterners and Westerners,
Gentiles and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, Moslem and Hindu.
If we all learn to do this we, in a real sense, will remain awake
through a great revolution (Oberlin College Archives, 2009).
As a true patriot, King not only loved our country and its inherent promise, but also was willing to descry that there is a disease within our nation, and that it was our responsibility as a people to deliver a cure. He knew that it little mattered where in fact Plymouth Rock landed. Regardless of semantics and pedigree, in the words of Woody Guthrie (1940), “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Again, as a patriot, King did not necessarily view the malady as an innate element to our nations principle architecture of government, Democracy, but rather the result of a promise perverted by those in power that seek personal gain through the influence of money and violence. Furthermore, I believed he viewed our nation’s malaise and inequity as a matter of depraved, cruel, arrogant, and often merely imbecilic value systems growing viral within our culture; a culture becoming a gluttonous creature in blind pursuit of comfort and dollars, obsessed with the distractions of torture and cartoons on the television. If one wonders what is wrong with this world—why these wrongs are prevalent—one need only to take a look at his world; to understand the product, one need only inspect the factory.
Despite his “I Have A Dream” speech remaining what he is mainly remembered for, I find King’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” to have endured as one of his most pertinent. On April 4, 1967 (exactly one year prior to his assassination) at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King delivered these words:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the
fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on
life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we
must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed
so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed
as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is
more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice
which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will
look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West
investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America,
only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment
of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance
with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.”
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others
and nothing to learn from them is not just. (A More Perfect Union, 2011).
Essentially, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message remains one of Hope and Compassion, however, I believe there was a bit more fire & brimstone to his sermons than people care to remember. King knew that Time remains ambivalent to the aspirations of man. King knew that progress is not inevitable, but requires the vigilant struggle and toil of a conscientious community. King knew that with this community we could one day create “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” King knew that without this community we are surely damned; our names will remain a stain on history, a curse upon all our offspring’s lips, and a curse upon the lips of God itself.
—The World is a better place for having had this man in it—The World can be a better place for having had this man in it—
Here is a YouTube post with the audio for Dr. King’s speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. Beneath that I have pasted several of what I feel are critical passages from his speech, particularly in the context of our modern world.
“The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
“So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
“What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
“We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing—in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.
“Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon, the only solid—solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.
“Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call “VC” or “communists?” What must they think of the United States of America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence, which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the North” as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
“Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala—Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
“And so, such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
“In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisers in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
“It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring.
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
“This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions.
“It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes-hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing—embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door, which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate—ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.’ ‘If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.’ Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says:
“‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action.
“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
“And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when ‘justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’” (A More Perfect Union, 2011).
OK, now that I got that off my chest—
Here are a few tracks in tribute of MLK.
First up is perhaps my favorite Public Enemy song, 1991’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” Chuck D spits incisive line after incisive line at both the legislature and citizens of Arizona State after their refusal to observe a holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To give a brief history, Sen. John McCain (Republican of Arizona) voted against the creation of the holiday to honor King, and later defended Arizona Republican Governor Evan Mecham, who in 1987 rescinded a former Democratic governor’s establishment of the holiday. As a result, Arizona lost an estimated $300 million in cancellations of concerts, conventions and the 1993 Super Bowl (Hardigg, 1993).
Arizona State eventually relented to observe the holiday. Now, Arizona has gone on to note that in fact they are the only state that actually voted to recognize the holiday, unlike other states, which simply accepted the federal mandate. To me, however, that sounds like mere revision and spin, and an attempt to distract the issue with State’s Rights. One need only look at recent laws that permit the police force to demand your “papers,” to get a fair sense of Arizona’s collective conscious.
The video for this song was received in scandal due to graphic re-enactments of the civil rights movement and King’s 1968 murder interspersed with scenes of Public Enemy members leading an armed insurrection, which culminates with a series of political assassinations.
The heavy-metal-funk groove prominently featured throughout “By the Time I Get to Arizona” is a sample of the Bed-Stuy funk group that was formed in 1968 by three Panamanian born brothers: Mandrill. The sampled song, “Two Sisters Of Mystery” off of their 1973 album Just Outside Of Town has more in common with Led Zeppelin and Stone Temple Pilots than hip-hop, which goes to show just how eclectic P.E. could be.
Mandrill – Just Outside Of Town (1973)
However, the sample that I find particularly inventive occurs as the break-down when Chuck D grits his teeth and obstinately declares that he’s got twenty-five days to get to Arizona. To complement D’s message and delivery, the music is swallowed whole in a rhythmic swamp of menacing bass/drums and disturbing shrieks. These sounds bring to mind a perturbed vision of a playground massacre. Yet, with such precision, this snippet of looped sound is actually taken from a 1971 live concert by the Jackson 5 while performing a rendition of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By.” Recorded for the live/soundtrack album, Goin’ Back to Indiana, The screams are nothing but giddy girls cheering on the slow-step dance routine on stage. What a perfect subversion of sound.
The Jackson 5 – Goin’ Back to Indiana (1971)
Affirming the conclusion that most logical Americans arrive at, “[…] my money’s spent/on the goddamn rent/Neither party is mine/not the jackass or the elephant,” and directly stating the threatening consequences for cultural subjugation, “When the blind get a mind/ Better start fearing while we sing it;” off of Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black here’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona.”
Up next is Baby Huey and the Babysitters with their 1970 epic rendition of the song that for many came to epitomize the sixties’ Civil Rights Movement: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I’ve already discussed much of Baby Huey’s brief history and the story behind their Curtis Mayfield produced record elsewhere, so, I’d rather consider the impetus behind the song itself. Written by Cooke while on tour in early 1963 and recorded on December 21 of that same year, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released on 1964’s Ain’t That Good News, which was comprised of the first material that Cooke had recorded in the six months following the drowning death of his 18-month old son. Unfortunately, this album would also be his last released while alive, as Cooke was murdered under mysterious circumstances nine months after the album’s release; he was 33 years old. Ten days after his death on December 11, 1964, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as a single.
Sam Cooke was driven to write this song after being both inspired and filled with anxiety upon hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke felt challenged by the song’s depth and understanding of America’s current climate in regards to race relations. Cooke is quoted as saying, “Jeez, a white boy writing a song like that?” (RollingStone, 2012).
Baby Huey and the Babysitters do Cooke’s song more than justice by swelling it into an epic psychedelic anthem that keeps the integrity of the definition of psychedelic intact: soul-manifesting, or soul-revealing. Punctured with scattergun horns, Baby Huey maneuvers the ballad through various temperaments while relating various humorous but personal asides. The most poignant of these being “There’s three kind of people in this world—There’s White People, there’s Black People, and then there’s My People.”
Third, here’s the song that inspired Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan, at the age of 20 in April 1962, introduced this song while onstage at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, by stating: “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs” (RollingStone, 2012). He later said that he wrote the song in ten minutes, and anyone familiar with Dylan’s genius will believe him. The version I present was recorded live February 13th, 1974 in Los Angeles during Dylan and The Band’s joint tour. The fact that this tour was the first time Dylan had returned to the road since 1966 is evident in the unrestrained, muscular, and nearly irate delivery of this performance. Through the haze of Garth Hudson’s organ, Robbie Robertson provides some dynamic lead guitar that plays interesting games within the melody.
And to conclude, here are the final public words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The next day, at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, he was murdered by a coward while standing on the 2nd floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. If these words do nothing to you then check your pulse.
The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Meridian, 1974. Print.
Public Enemy and Island Def Jam Music Group (1991) (Creators). PublicEnemyVEVO (Poster) (2010, Aug. 27). Public Enemy-By The Time I Get To Arizona [Video] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrFOb_f7ubw
Ridenhour, Robertz, Gary G, Wiz, Depper, Mandrill, Santiago. (1991). By the Time I Get to Arizona [recorded by Public Enemy] On Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black [CD] Def Jam.
(“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy, on 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet).
Not only are the above lyric revisionist malarkey (albeit malarkey within an incredibly well-constructed song—with The Bomb Squad’s dense, intricate layers of loops upon loops, and Chuck D’s relentless delivery) but also they stem from the resentment that lies in a false belief that Elvis Presley owes something to somebody.
Perhaps it is difficult, looking back from here on our modern perch, to realize that Elvis did not emerge from the factory floor, fully equipped with “Karate Chop! Power Action” and packaged with a set of poor colored-folks songs that were market-tested to go over like hot cakes with the sterile white youth.
Elvis was some strange, new strain of American; he was something that America had been searching for. He was a creature of self-invention as well, who had the imagination to view himself as something other than white trash on welfare, and had the ambition to see his delusions come true. That is what I feel is the essential element to Elvis Presley’s best work: the Fantastic.
Without imagination mankind would be a hollow thing—robbed of its aspirations and the confidence with which to pursue them. There must always remain a tinge of the fantastic in our minds in order for mankind to rise above its self-perceived dull life. Without this fundamental component where would Herman Melville be, other than just another sailor looking for work?
Besides all the metaphysics and philosophy: Elvis could sing these songs better than anyone else—wet with wisdom and amusement from the guts—and to the ears’ of America’s children it felt just like sex.
So in retort to Chuck D—in reality, how many peoples’ heroes have appeared on stamps? Furthermore, how many people even have heroes to be commemorated anymore? But Chuck D does tend to make a good argument, and at the very least makes a man think. As he once said, “Words are your artillery” (Edwards, 2010). Public Enemy is certainly a phenomenal group that should be required listening in public schools, particularly in an age where the content of most hip hop has more corporate endorsements than a racecar’s hood. Anyway, more on Public Enemy come January 16th.
Now, to return to the miasma of race, authenticity, the fantastic, and Elvis (and at this point in my life I have grown so bored by race discussions that I wouldn’t even bother unless I thought there was a good story in it) I’d like to post something written by Greil Marcus. Marcus (1975) writes in Mystery Train (probably the last time I’ll be quoting from this book for awhile as I had to return it to the library):
“—but for Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.
Singing in the fifties, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” (one of his first sides for RCA, and the only one in the Sun rockabilly style) with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records were more than popular with blacks; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that gave them only obscurity in exchange for their music and penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in American music are just not that simple. Consider the tale of “Hound Dog.”
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were Jewish boys from the East Coast who fell in love with black music. Hustling in Los Angeles in the early fifties, they wrote “Hound Dog,” and promoted the song to Johnny Otis, a ruling R&B bandleader who was actually a dark-skinned white man from Berkeley who many thought was black. Otis gave the song to Thornton, who made it a number one R&B hit in 1953; Otis also took part of the compser’s credit, which Leiber and Stoller had to fight to get back. Elvis heard the record, changed the song completely, from the tempo to the words, and cut Thornton’s version to shreds.
Whites wrote it; a white made it a hit. And yet there is no denying that “Hound Dog” is a “black” song, unthinkable outside of the impulses of black music, and probably a rewrite of an old piece of juke joint fury that dated far beyond the birth of any of these people. Can you pull justice out of that maze? What does Huck owe Jim, especially when Jim is really Huck in blackface and everyone smells loot? All you can say is this was Elvis’s music because he made it his own” (p. 154-55).
The track I bring you today is Elvis Presley’s run-through of Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town.”Percy Mayfield was the remarkably gifted songwriter behind “Hit the Road Jack,” which Ray Charles made a hit in October of 1961.
Here is Elvis at RCA Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, on July 24, 1970, rehearsing for his upcoming Las Vegas concerts at the International Hotel. Elvis really drags his vocal through the mud of America on this one. Contained in the same breath there’s a languid playfulness and straightforward emotional anguish, each in equal measure. This is what it sounds like when the Lord of Mischief resigns himself to being a truck driver. You can see how the sentiments for this song might’ve been particularly relevant for him, as he truly could never return home again without being seen as some Freak Show King. This demo features Ronnie Tutt keeping rhythm and some great guitar licks & freak-outs from James Burton that border on Phil Upchurch’s psychedelic-funk style in certain places.
Despite what one can say about his descending into B-movie parody in the mid-sixties, or ending as a swollen song-and-dance-man swaddled in rhinestones and Lycra, this hillbilly from a two-room shotgun house loved music. To some extent, you must see that the goose that lays the golden eggs must be maintained complacent with prescription pills and antibiotics if you want to continue to sell product; and that is in a sense what I believe happened to the man in the end.
Here’s how Elvis put this song down on tape more than a year prior on February 17, 1969 at American Sound Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, while recording the album From Elvis in Memphis. This up-tempo, orchestrated stage version features some sick electric sitar by Reggie Young.
D, C., Sadler, E., Shocklee, H., & Shocklee K., (1989) Fight the Power [recorded by Public Enemy]. On Fear of a Black Planet [CD] Def Jam/Columbia. (1990)