Category Archives: music writer

Angie Assists Russian Author in Writing The Coming of Blues

To my knowledge,the book The Coming of Blues by Valery Pisigin is only available in Russian.  I assisted Valery during the writing of his book.  He and an interpreter met with me several years ago.  He graciously sent me copies.  However, because the books are in Russian, I haven’t been able to read them.   Luba Rohrback was able to read the book and translate some of it to me this week.  Here is a recording of the partial translation used with her permission.

 

Valery also recorded me playing the piano on my early 1900s upright.

valery-pisigin-blues-russia

Flowers for Blind Blake’s Grave from Detroit Michigan

Hi Angie,

A few years ago, my oldest brother stumbled on an article from OnMilwaukee.com with your journal entries on finding Blind Blake’s grave. He sent it to me and told me to read it, which of course I did. Our dad raised him, me, and my other brother on the blues, so we have an attachment and respect for anything like this.

To make a very long story short, we did a Mississippi Blues Trail road trip last summer with our mom that took us from Tupelo to Indianola to Memphis to St. Louis, and we planned one for this past weekend in the Chicago area. We made a trek up to Milwaukee specifically to see Blind Blake’s grave. We were actually concerned that we weren’t going to make it in because the hours online said it was closed Saturday and Sunday (thankfully that was just the office hours).

We found it on Sunday tucked away in the back corner past the infant section, starting to get overgrown. But that was the reason we brought gardening tools on this trip. Like your journal says, that entire section is so hard to navigate. We cleaned it up and placed some flowers on top and were happy to see other trinkets have been left.

I attached the picture we took on Sunday; I thought you’d appreciate seeing it. I also wanted to thank you for your searching and dedication and the fact that you got him a headstone so blues fans can come and pay their respects. Honestly, if it wasn’t for you, your team, and your research, we wouldn’t have even gone to Milwaukee on this trip. It was definitely something special—and something I’m not going to forget anytime soon.

Regards,

Christina Lazzara, Detroit Michigan

My Dream Home

by Angie Mack Reilly 7.20.19

The Art of Dreaming

I believe that dreaming is an underrated skill.

Not the sleep kind of dreaming.

But daydreaming.

Dreaming gives us hope.

I see dreaming as a coping skill.

I see it as being visionary.

Being visionary is a skill that any good leader needs to have.

I encourage dreaming.   Fantasy.  Fiction.  And everything in between.

My Dream HomeSunset on the Wisconsin Farm by Angie Mack Reilly

Featured image taken by Angie Mack Reilly titled, “Sunset on the Wisconsin Farm”

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Angie’s Dream Home

Design concepts are open, natural, creative and aesthetic.   Free flowing.  Like my soul.

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August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” Analyzed by Angie Mack Reilly

The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson

Analyzed by Angie Mack Reilly (c) 2007

We all have a legacy. We all have a heritage; a history. Parts of our history, perhaps we would rather forget. Others of it, we are proud of and want to be remembered throughout the generations. What to do with our heritage can be answered differently be different people. Some people are extremely nostalgic and desire to be highly pre-occupied with the past. They see the past as something that is worth saving. They want to preserve their history whether it is through ancestral books, heirlooms, or even stories passed down. Others are futurists; being preoccupied with the future, dreaming of the possibilities, and fantasizing about what can be.

This issue of what to do with the past is the source of conflict and inspiration in August Wilson’s play, “The Piano Lesson”. It raises important questions about which is better; nostalgia or futurism. Is it enough to simply remember, or is there a point in which one must move forward; away from his or her past?

These are the questions that literally “haunt” two of the main characters in the play; Boy Willie and Berniece who are siblings. August Wilson sets up the character of Boy Willie who is representative of a futurist in this manner:

“BOY WILLIE is thirty years old. He has an infectious grin and a boyishness that is apt for his name. He is brash and impulsive, talkative and somewhat crude in speech and manner”. (Wilson 1-2)

Wilson does not set up the nostalgic character of Berniece as specifically. He writes,

 “BERNIECE enters on the stairs. Thirty-five years old, with an eleven-year-old daughter, she is still mourning for her husband after three years.” (Wilson 3).

Boy Willie is set up to be a charismatic and entertaining character whereas Berniece is set up to be sort of “plain”. She represents a logical and unassuming side. Based upon the description of these two characters at two separate poles, I would contend that August Wilson himself is more like Berniece in mannerisms. In an American Theatre article, August Wilson explains about himself,

“I’m not a performer”……”I never had any desire to perform anything. I don’t like to be in front of a room full of people, but as it happens I’ve done that a fair amount of times. When I go to an opening-night reception, I may say a few words…….” (American Theatre 22).

It is interesting to note, that likewise, Berniece does not like to perform. In speaking about the family heirloom piano she says,

“I done told you I don’t play the piano……..When my mama died I shut the top on that piano and I ain’t never opened it since. I was only playing it for her….I don’t want to play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits.” (Wilson 70).

The piano is the symbol of conflict in the play. I say it is a symbol because it represents far more than an old instrument made of wood and ivory with a few important carvings on it. On a deeper level, it represents Boy Willie and Berniece’s past. Even deeper, it represents freedom which I will explain later. The piano of this story is one that had been passed down to Berniece and Boy Willie who are living during the Industrial Revolution. The story of the piano goes back three generations. It began in the hands of a man named Joel Nolander. It ended up in the hands of the slave master Robert Sutter who “owned” Boy Willie and Berniece’s ancestors. Robert Sutter wanted to give his wife, Miss Ophelia, an anniversary gift but didn’t have enough money. However, he had slaves. Robert Suttor traded Boy Willie and Berniece’s great grandmother and their grandfather for the piano. At first, Miss Ophelia was delighted with her piano but after awhile, began to miss her slaves. Robert Suttor couldn’t trade back the piano, so he had Boy Willie and Berniece’s great grandfather, who was also called Boy Willie, carve the ex-slaves pictures in her piano in attempts to appease her. However, he also carved his own mother, “Mama Esther” and father “Boy Charles” into the piano which made it even more legendary. Then one day, Boy Willie and Berniece’s father stole the piano from the Sutter family. He said, “it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it…..he had us. Say we was still in slavery.” Their father, who was also named Boy Charles, stole the piano because it represented the family history. The piano represented freedom to him. Unfortunately, he was burned in a boxcar as a result of a jretaliation over stealing the piano. In essence, he died for his family’s freedom.

This same passion that Boy Charles had to preserve the family history is found in August Wilson himself. Literary and traditional African American styles are preserved within the play. Apart from the main story, Wilson also acknowledges the beauty of the African, the “call and response” spiritual, the African American preacher and sermon, the blues musician, the black man in the segregated south and the migrant African American. Some aspects are seen overtly. Others are subtleties.

Beginning with the beauty of the African, it is highly significant to note the name, “Mama Esther” in this lineage of the piano. August Wilson uses the name “Aunt Ester” frequently in his plays such as in Two Trains Running, Gem of the Ocean, and King Hedley II.

“Aunt Ester carries the memory of all Africans, the memory of the ancestors,” Wilson explains. “She embodies the wisdom and traditions of all those Africans, starting with the first one. It is a tremendous responsibility to carry all of this—to remember for everyone, as well as to remember for yourself— “

(American Theatre 21) This quote by Wilson reveals that he highly values heritage. Again, true to Berniece’s character, Wilson himself is nostalgic and sees carrying on the family stories as being a “tremendous responsibility”.

In his speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand”, Wilson shares his own personal testimony of what role his ancestry had on his own life,

“Growing up in my mother’s house at 1727 Bedford Ave. in Pittsburgh, Pa., I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain, that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on these shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit.” Interestingly, the play is set in Pittsburgh, Wilson’s childhood hometown.

In the summer 1998 issue of the African American Review magazine it says, “But the interaction in The Piano Lesson is instead structured like the classic call-and-response…….” This “call and response” style found in so many African American spirituals is incorporated into Wilson’s writing. Typical to “call and response”, there are repetitive phrases followed by a response. The “call” aspect is heavily punctuated. Watch the dialogue between Berniece, Doaker, and Boy Willie as Berniece blames Boy Willie for her husband’s death:

BERNIECE: He ain’t here, is he? He ain’t here! I said he ain’t here! (call)

DOAKER: Come on, Berniece…..let it go, it ain’t his fault. (response)

BERNIECE: He ain’t here, is he? Is he? (call)

BOY WILLIE: I told you I ain’t responsible for Crawley. (response)

BERNIECE: He ain’t here. (call)

BOY WILLIE: Come on now, Berniece…..don’t do this now. Doaker get her. I ain’t had nothing to do with Crawley…… (response)

BERNIECE: You come up there and got him! (call) (Wilson 54).

(If you look at Berniece’s bit of dialogue alone, it also fits well with the typical A,A,A,B blues lyric style.)

The African American sermon is also preserved in the text as Avery gives his “testimony” of being called into the ministry and as Avery comes to the house to “bless” the house in order to free it from Sutter’s ghost. The typical religious excitement is seen in the escalated lines,

“Get thee behind me, Satan! Get thee behind the face of Righteousness as we Glorify His Holy Name! Get thee behind the Hammer of Truth that breaketh down the Wall of Falsehood!” (Wilson 105).

In the preface of his play, August Wilson puts the lines of Delta Blues artist, Skip James:

“Gin my cotton

Sell my seed

Give my baby

Everything she need”

August Wilson does not forget the legacy of the African American musician either. He preserves it in the character, Wining Boy:

“WINING BOY is fifty-six years old. DOAKER’S older brother, he tries to present the image of a successful musician and gambler, but his music, his clothes, and even his manner of presentation are old. He is a man who looking back over his life continues to live it with an odd mixture of zest and sorrow.” (Wilson 28). August Wilson is sympathetic to the African American musician as evidenced by his play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” which is all about the injustices of the recording industry in the 1920’s and 30’s. Wining boy shares some of his own personal sorrows:

“See, you think it’s all fun being a recording star…..Now, there ain’t but so many places you can go. Only so many road wide enough for you and that piano…..Go to a place and they find out you play piano, the first thing they want to do is give you a drink, find you a piano, and sit you right down. And that’s where you gonna be for the next eight hours……You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, and you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that’s all you got.” (Wilson 41). This was typical of most African American musicians in the “race recordings” era. White men took advantage of their gifts and often paid them solely with booze. August Wilson expounds upon these truths in his very first play that gained him recognition, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”.

August Wilson also expounds on life in the segregated south. During the time period in which this play took place, despite the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for the slaves, there was neither equality nor freedom for that fact. Especially in the south, many ex-slaves “borrowed” money from former slave masters and worked on their land so that they could earn a living. (What other opportunities did they have but basically none?) They used the money to buy seed, food, clothing, and other necessary commodities with the hopes of paying back their debt at the harvest time. However, there was a “sharecropping” system in which these slave masters charged tremendous prices and high interest rates. These masters made sure that it was impossible to pay back the debts, thus requiring the “free man” to remain on his plantation another year. It was an endless cycle of debt. It kept African Americans bound to these landowners making them no better off than they were prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Furthermore, the local law enforcers were not fair. Sheriffs almost always sided with the cause of the white man. Black men were frequently accused of crimes that they did not do such as raping a white woman or stealing. They did not have any means to defend themselves and the consequences were beyond fair and consistent. Wining Boy explains this unfairness of the segregated south with this illustration:

“But I’ll tell you the difference between the colored man and the white man….Now you take and eat some berries. They taste real good to you. So you say I’m gonna go out and get me a whole pot of these berries and cook them up to make a pie or whatever. But you ain’t looked to see them berries is sitting in the white fellow’s yard. Ain’t got no fence around them……Now the white man come along and say that’s my land…..He tell the sheriff, ‘I want you to put this nigger in jail as a warning to all the other niggers. Otherwise first thing you know these niggers have everything that belong to us.’” (Wilson 38).

Finally, the migrant African American is acknowledged within August Wilson’s text. Like so many during that time, the character Lymon has great hopes and expectations of the north during the Industrial Revolution. Many blacks migrated north as new jobs were available and were needed to be filled. Buildings were going up everywhere as the steel industries and railroad industries were exploding. The north represented opportunity and an escape from the unjust south. Lymon originally escapes to the north with Boy Willie because of an injustice with the law, to make a long story short. Lymon carries curiosity and utopian dreams with him as he arrives in Pittsburg. He wants to “see what it’s like up here.” (Wilson 3). Boy Willie explains Lymon’s secret dreams:

“Talking about all the women he gonna get when he up her. He ain’t had none down there but he gonna get a hundred when he get up here.” (Wilson 9). And

“You think you ain’t got to work up here. You think this is the land of milk and honey.” (Wilson 17).

Just as August Wilson weaves African American history throughout his play in both overt and subtle forms; the piano which is the central focus of the play carries its own history. Besides the carvings of the ancestors, it has also been polished with the blood and tears of the women who took care of it in the family. Berniece believes that the piano should stay put in her home. Her brother Boy Willie, on the other hand, has different ideas.

Boy Willie is a futurist who is not so sentimental about the piano. Boy Willie wants to sell the historic piano and “buy some land” with the profit. Boy Willie believes that it isn’t good to “hang onto” the past. He strongly believes that his ancestors, especially his father, would have wanted him to have an easier life:

“If my daddy had seen where he could have traded that piano in for some land of his own, it wouldn’t be sitting up here now. He spent his whole life farming on somebody else’s land. I ain’t gonna do that. See, he couldn’t do no better. When he come along he ain’t had nothing he could build on.” (Wilson 46).

Boy Willie thinks that the piano should be BUILT UPON. He is a visionary who is not content to remain in the past. He is concerned for his future and for future generations. The most valuable monetary thing that he possesses is the piano which is half his and half his sister’s. He wants to create a new life. He wants to begin his own life of freedom. He wants to develop a future. This idea of developing the future is seen in an interview by August Wilson which said,

“I think that the fundamental question that has confronted Blacks since Emancipation Proclamation is, Are we going to adopt the values of the dominant culture, or are we going to maintain our cultural separateness and continue to develop the culture that has been developing in the southern United States for some two to three hundred years? I think that is the question. Ultimately the people are going to decide one way or the other about how we are going to proceed.” (National Forum).

Boy Willie is all about how to proceed. Yes, he acknowledges and knows about his heritage. But he wants to proceed. He wants to develop. This is where the crux of the conflict lies. Just how valuable is the piano? Boy Willie is offered $1500 for it. He promises to give half to his sister, Berniece. But the conflict is heightened in this dialogue:

BERNIECE: ……..I ain’t selling that piano.

BOY WILLIE: I’m trying to get me some land, woman. I need that piano to get me some money so I can buy Sutter’s land……..

BERNIECE: Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money………

BOY WILLIE: I ain’t talking about all that, woman. I ain’t talking about selling my soul. I’m talking about trading that piece of wood for some land…….You can always get you another piano……….You can’t do nothing with that piano but sit up there and look at it. (Wilson 50).

This creates a predicament. Which is more important? Preserving the past or building on the past to create a future? I believe that good art is art that is full of contradictions. It is this tension throughout the play that excites the audience’s attention. It is easy for me to sympathize with both Berniece and Boy Willie. I think that there is a bit of nostalgia in all of us as well as a bit of futurism. I think that both are good. I identify with both characters. This play is unique in that, I feel, it conflicts good against good. Both Berniece and Boy Willie are right. Both have valid arguments. In most literature, the antagonist is easy to see. He is evil. But, in this case, I feel that both Berniece and Boy Willie are the protagonists. The audience is the jury that is left to decide whose case is stronger. Of course, in the end, Berniece wins.

The reason why Berniece wins is fascinating. The climax of the story occurs at the end of the play rather than in the middle like most texts. It is full of intense drama as all characters are present to create a frenzied atmosphere. Boy Willie and Lymon struggle to remove the piano. Wining Boy, unaware of the conflict and most likely drunk, decides to finally play a tune on the piano. Avery arrives to perform an exorcism. Berniece gets out her gun. Doaker tries to be a peacemaker. Grace, a woman who had been womanized by Boy Willie and Lymon arrives clueless to the conflict at hand, the Sutter ghost is present and Boy Willie is tantalizing it. The ancestors are surprisingly present. You see, amidst the chaos, Berniece desperately calls upon the ancestors as she sits at the piano to play and sing. In song, she calls upon “Mama Berniece…..Mama Esther……Papa Boy Charles…….Mama Ola……” It is calling upon these that cause her to win the victory. After her dramatic plea for help in song, an amazing calm sweeps over the house. Surprisingly, immediately after the song, Boy Willie forgets about trying to move the piano and harassing the Sutter ghost. He says,

“Wining Boy, you ready to go back down home? Hey, Doaker, what time the train leave?” This dramatic shift in his character indicates some sort of exorcism. This is the typical response of someone who is delivered from a demon. They are ambivalent to what occurred prior. This leads me to believe that Boy Willie was persuaded by some “evil spirit” all along. However, his evil is that in his passion for his future, he becomes greedy. His greed blinds him to his past, thus making him ignorant and foolish.

However, the real demon or ghost throughout the play is a man named Sutter. He was the former slave master who died supposedly by falling into a well. Berniece, her daughter, and Doaker all see him in the house at separate times. Berniece believes that he is after Boy Willie and is convinced that Boy Willie killed him. Boy Willie thinks that Berniece is seeing things but blames the piano as being the reason for Sutter’s return.

The theme of ghosts is prominent in this play. There is the “Ghost of Sutter” and the “Ghost of the Yellow Dog”. The Ghost of Sutter is a ghost that is seen in Berniece’s home. The Ghost of the Yellow Dog is a little bit more difficult to interpret. However, the text gives some clues. Wining Boy states:

“……It didn’t look like nothing was going right in my life………call on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, see if they can help me. I went down there and right there where them two railroads cross each other…….I stood right there on that spot and called out their names. They talk back to you, too.” (Wilson 34-35). The Yellow Dog is the railroad track. Doaker, who has a job working for the railroad says,

“I pieced together the Yellow Dog stitch by stitch. Rail by rail. Line track all up around there. I lined track all up around Sunflower and Clarksdale.” (Wilson 18). Furthermore, Wining Boy says, “So the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog got Sutter.” (Wilson 28.)

The legendary story is that, long ago, when Boy Willie and Berniece’s father stole the piano from elder Sutter, he escaped on a train; a boxcar. Some unknown person or group set the boxcar on fire. Their father and several others in the boxcar died. I interpret the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog as being those who died on the train track. Perhaps their ghosts had come back to fight various white men in the south in revenge; thus the reason why Sutter supposedly fell into his well. However, Sutter was not the only one to have died in this manner. Supposedly, 9 or 10 other white men of the south fell in their wells also. Lymon says,

“The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog pushed him. That’s what the people say. They found him in his well and all the people say it must be the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. Just like all them other men.” (Wilson 15).

A more logical interpretation of these deaths is that these men all committed suicide. Perhaps with the booming of the railroad and steel industries, they were losing their cheap labor as blacks migrated north. Or, perhaps the Great Depression carved a deeper hole into their pocket and they were left broke. Whatever the case, I believe that these men killed themselves because of their financial demise. Wining Boy gives an interesting account of the time period which would have been during the Great Depression:

“Nineteen thirty. July of nineteen thirty I stood right there on that spot……” (Wilson 34).

Between the way in which August Wilson forms his story by incorporating African American history and literature styles into his texts, the audience attracting conflict, the themes, and believable characters, The Piano Lesson has been proven to be a work of art. In 1990, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. August Wilson has offered the world an invaluable piece that will truly live on beyond his years. In a sense, he has also given a definition to art as a whole. This definition can be found, surprisingly, in the setting of his play:

“On the legs of the pian, carved in the manner of African sculpture, are mask-like figures resembling totems. The carvings are rendered with a grace and power of intervention that lifts them out of the realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art.” I believe that August Wilson defines art in the piano of his story and in the story itself. Art transcends craftsmanship alone. Art carries with it some story. Art is invaluable.

So what about nostalgia? What about being futuristic? Perhaps Boy Willie didn’t learn well enough from the past. Suppose he sold the piano to buy the land. But then, suppose the land he was buying wasn’t any good after all. Suppose it caused him more grief than blessing. I think that Doaker was right,

“That land ain’t worth nothing no more. The smart white man’s up here in the cities. He cut the land loose and step back and watch you and the dumb white man argue over it.” (Wilson 36).

Wisdom says, “Learn from the past”. Berniece and Doaker are knowledgeable about the ways of the white man in the south. They are nostalgic and wise. Zealous futurism alone is foolishness and ignorance as embodied in Boy Willie.

Is August Wilson nostalgic? Definitely, as evidenced by the weight he gives the African American legacy in his play. But is he also futuristic? Yes, as seen by the impact that his play has had on art and literature as a whole. You see, preserving the stories of the past ARE the future. To wipe out one’s legacy would be to wipe out one’s identity. We must remember. As we remember, the future will naturally be affected. What is the main message in The Piano Lesson? PRESERVE THE PAST FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS BECAUSE IT IS PRICELESS. Berniece knows this. August Wilson knows this.

Works Cited

Devon, Boan. “Call-and-response: parallel ‘slave narrative’ in August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson.'” African American Review Summer 1998 v32 n2 p263(9).

Sheppard, Vera. “August Wilson, an Interview”. National Forum Summer, 90, Vol. 70 Issue 3, p7, 5p, 1bw.

Wilson, August. “The ground on which I stand.” American Theatre Sept 1996 v13 n7 p14(3) (speech on African-American theatre by playwright August Wilson)(Transcript).

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York et al: Plume, 1990.

“Bailey v. Alabama.” Great American Court Cases. 4 vols. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.

<http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/HistRC/>.

Billington, Monroe Lee. The American South. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1971

Divine, Robert A…..(et al.), America, Past and Present. NY…(et al.). Pearson Longman. 2005.

Eskridge, Greg. Interview by author. Grafton, WI, 3 May 2005. Koda, Cub.

King, George. “Letters From Mississippians, 1916-1918”. Goin’ To Chicago. PBS Online. < http://www.pbs.org/gointochicago/migrations/index.html>.

Koda, Cub. “Charley Patton Devil Sent the Rain Blues”. (Audio CD insert): La Spezia, Italy: Comet Records. 2004.

Meier, August and Elliot Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto, Third Edition. NY: American Century Series. 1976.

Rubel, David. Fannie Lou Hamer From Sharecropping to Politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Silver Burdett Press, Inc. 1990

Woodson, Carter G. “From a Century of Negro Migration (1918)”. From Bondage to Liberation. New York: Faith Berry. 2001.

 

Interview with TennJim on Living in the Rural South During the Great Depression

This was previously published on creativeconnectionarts.com and has not been edited since 2006.

“Interview with a Tennessee Native”
“Interview with Tennesse native :The cultural landscape of Tennessee from a once poor,  white man’s perspective”
by Angela K. Mack (c) 12/06(This man who wishes to remain anonymous is from  Murfreesboro, Tennessee and was born in 1934. He recently retired as a V.P. General Manager of a fortune 500 company.)  He is also a musician.   Check out his country music here:  http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=698443

Angela:   I have written a scholarly in depth article about peonage/sharecropping in the south.

“TennJim”:  Angela,  thanks for the article. Having grown up in the rural south during the depression, I can attest to the validity of your essay. Sharecropping during that period resulted in forced indenture as you so aptly put it, however, the alternatives to both african-americans as well as uneducated caucasians were not too attractive. History will substantiate that the basics of life in the agrarian south was hard to come by. Unless you had access to land on which to grow food, there was little option available to prevent starvation. That meant for basic survival, you needed access to land. That was only available by renting land from existing landowners, purchasing land for yourself, or entering into an agreement to “sharecrop”. The more enterprising individuals would rent the land from a landowner who was facing eviction from his farm for overdue taxes. Then they would solicit credit from the local seed company to plant their crops, paying back the cost of the seeds as well as the rent on the land when the crop was harvested and sold. After a successful first year, they could recycle their portion of the seed for next years crop. Remember, cotton gins typically retained half of the cotton seed as their “toll”. The only drawback to this rental system was the initial cash required to rent the land. That led to the option whereby the tenant could rent the land for 50% of the crop returned to the landowner.

I remember seeing a large african-american family of 8 coming to my Grandfather’s farm in 1943. The family was homeless and had no money for food or shelter. The father of that family ask my Grandfather if he could live in an old shack we had behind one of the barns. My Grandfather gave him rights to live in the house and use a large plot for a garden. In return, he allocated a 40 acre field to his family on which they were to plant a cotton crop, work it and harvest it. 50% of the crop would be given to my Grandfather, the remainder was theirs. My Grandfather provided the seed, mules and plows, gave the family garden seed and equipment and let them have milk, eggs, etc. from the animals on the farm. The women of the sharecropping family were expected to help out with the preservation of food from our garden, help with the butchering of pork and beef and some other chores. The 40 acres produced around 60 bales of cotton which were worth around $2,000 back then. The sharecropper had $1,000 in cash at the end of the year. The family that we had were frugal and made most of their clothes or bought them from “rummage” sales. They preserved enough food to carry them through the winter with some small exceptions. After about 3 or 4 years, they were able to move out and get a small farm of their own. I even remember my grandfather selling them some calves to get them started.

So, yes, the servitude referred to is accurate. There were a lot of large landowners who did take advantage of the plight of the freed blacks to create an environment of forced servitude. I was friends with a large plantation owner’s son in Tunica Mississippi. I have seen first hand the Plantation Store charging $10.00 for a $2.00 pair of work pants, $5.00 for a $.50 sack of sugar, $1.00 for a 5 cent pack of garden seed, etc. and “putting it on the due-bill”. Also, I’ve seen this same landowner cheat the sharecropper out of their half of the crop by showing a gin-ticket that only produced half of what the crop really made. Then after extracting the ginning toll, instead of the share cropper getting $1,000, they only received $500. After extracting the Plantation Store bill, the sharecropper was left owing $500…meaning he had to work another year to work off his debt. Keep in mind, most of these sharecroppers (black and white) were illiterate so it wasn’t hard to mislead them.

Both scenarios happened. Some were fair and honest, some very unfair. Maybe that’s why blues music came out of some of those unfair situations. They represented the hopelessness of the social systems prevalent on some plantations.

Angela:  Wow. Fascinating stories. I like first hand stories the best. It sounds like your grandfather saved this family. I take it that you owned a plantation? Would you mind telling me what state you grew up in? I am fascinated with understanding the south during this time period. You brought up something that I haven’t heard much of……those plantation owners who WERE fair and helpful. Why do you suppose some were fair and some not? Human nature?

“TennJim”:  I grew up in Tennessee. My Grandfather was a Doctor and had acquired land over the years, some as payment for his services, the rest as an investment. As the depression deepened, all of my relatives moved to the farm. Jobs in the cities just weren’t available and we all had to eat. My Grandfather was a very strict man and demanded everyone work. I remember chopping cotton right beside some of those sharecroppers. Don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t treated the same as the African-Americans, but I was expected to carry my own weight when it came to the work.

I knew a few land owners who were fair. Most went to the same church as my family and we would talk about the general economic conditions after church service. Often the conversation would center around the labor needed to harvest the year’s crops and where that would come from. My Grandfather knew that to get the temporary labor from “town” when September came, he would need to be known for fair play. There was a very developed line of communications between the sharecroppers and the itinerate workers who lived in town and eked out their living by doing odd jobs for shopkeepers. Every Saturday night the entire “black” community would gather along a section of town that was considered “their area” and chat about the week’s events – both in town and on the farms. Since there was typically a shortage of temporary laborers at harvest time, the available workers would go to the farms that were known for fair practices.

The largest plantations had sufficient workers in most cases to handle their harvest, and thus were not dependent on the temporary labor pool. That meant they could be less fair in their dealings, hence, the conditions I described above.

I had an uncle who ran one of the stores where the “black community” would congregate on Saturday night. I remember when he died and we had to inventory his store, we found deeds to large parcels of land in shoeboxes at the back of the store. Apparently, he loaned money to landowners during this depression era and they had given him the deed to their property as collateral. If we had pursued this collateral, it would have created critical economic problems for the small town. I remember my Grandfather burning those deeds to make sure no one ever tried to repossess the lands. There were also several “due-bills” to the African-Americans, some over 20 years old. Again we just burned them.

Angela:  What disparities were there in how you were treated and the African Americans were treated? Did they ever get together and sing or play music?

“TennJim”:  Disparities. I remember one Christmas eve when another Uncle came by our house. Now this Uncle was one of the “unfair” landowners. He had a little “black” boy with him. This child was dressed in a Tuxedo and was carrying my Uncle’s whiskey jug. My Uncle would offer the adults in my family a drink and tell the little boy to give them the jug. Then he would have the little boy take a drink from the jug. Everyone would have a big laugh. I remember feeling sorry for the child but knew that because he was black, there was nothing I could do. I also remember that the school bus that carried the white children to school would stop right at the front gate to our farm. There was no bus for the black children. They had to walk around 4 miles to get to school. Most of the black children just gave up and quit school. Every year at harvest time, the black schools closed for “cotton-picking” season. The schools would be out for around 4 weeks while all of the black children would help with the cotton picking. Remember, the cotton pickers could earn 1 cent per pound for picking cotton. The more family members you had picking, the more money you made. The white schools would stay in session except for the last week of the harvest season. That’s when we had the county fair and school would be out for that. I remember the bus depots with their “white” and “colored” bathrooms, drinking fountains. It was only a couple of years ago that the local Doctor’s office eliminated the “colored” waiting room.

Angela:  What denomination were you a part of?

“TennJim”:  I was and still am a Southern Baptist. Services on Sunday use to be an all day event. Families would bring a covered dish to one of the homes and in the summer we would have a big spread on tables in the yard. Most of the time, the “black” sharecropper families would assist in the preparation and serving of the food. When all of the “white” families had eaten, the “black” families would help themselves to the leftovers.

Angela:  Did you have a phonograph? If so, what types of music did you listen to? Did you know any white musicians?

“TennJim”:  My Father had made a Victrola phonograph in shop class in High School. One of those crank up types. We had a large collection of 78 rpm records, many of which I still have. A lot of them were blues (mostly “Stomps”), some country (Jimmie Rodgers” and a few “jazz” – foxtrots. The one song I remember playing over and over was Hobo Bills Last Ride by Jimmie Rodgers. It was interesting that a little later in life I met and played with the Carter Family. Mama Maybelle had played on the same recording session as Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol when he recorded his first records. I later met and played with several “country” music people…Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Sr., Ernest Tubb, and lest I forget, Johnny Cash and Elvis…

I do remember hearing some old African-Americans sitting on the porch of the Plantation Store on Saturday night. One would be playing an old Stella guitar using a broken “coke” bottle neck for a slide, one a harp and maybe one would have a washboard or nail keg to provide the percussions. I was enamored with the sound of the blues, even though it was inappropriate for me to hang around them. I remember my Father telling me one day, “Son, you have been hanging around those “darkies” so much you’re beginning to turn black yourself…just look behind your ears”. Of course he was referring to the fact that my face needed washing, but the insinuations were there at any rate.

Angela:  This information is extremely helpful. What blues records do you have? Do you have any Paramount records? If so, which ones?

“TennJim”:  I’m not sure which records I have left. They are in Atlanta where my Mother lived until her death last month. I remember we had Al Jolson “Sonny Boy”, numerous Jimmie Rodgers, a song “Grandfather’s Clock”, “Memphis Stomp”, “St. Louis Blues”, and a bunch I can’t remember right now. I’ll have to get my hands on the records and I’ll let you know. If I remember, most were either “Victor” labels or “RCA”.

Angela:  The music you heard them play as a child is so typical. And you are a musician too? What do you play?

“TennJim”:  I am somewhat of a musician…or at least use to be. I play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and piano. My instrument of choice is acoustic guitar though and when I was doing session work for various labels around Nashville and Memphis it was with the acoustic guitar…although I do believe I have the honor of playing the first Telecaster on stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Angela:  Did the African Americans in your area have phonographs? Would you let them listen with you?

“TennJim”:  I don’t recall any African Americans having a Victrola when I was growing up. Most didn’t even have a radio. On Sundays, I remember after church when we were having Dinner in the front yard, I would sometimes play the Victrola. The african-americans who were there would listen. But, the most interesting thing I remember was when Joe Louis was fighting Billy Conn for the Heavy Weight title and the fight(s) were on the radio, the black family who lived on our farm would gather outside our window to listen to the fight. They would be rooting for Joe Louis to win, while we would be for Billy Conn…Joe of course won.

Angela:  Was your church all white? What church did the African Americans go to?

“TennJim”:  Oh definitely the churches were segregated. The church I attended as a child didn’t really integrate until the 90’s. I’m not sure if they would have turned away an African-American, but I’m sure some of the old timers would have frowned upon a “black” person entering the congregation. Even though I grew up in a rather unbiased family, we were taught that “separate but equal” was not to be questioned. The African Americans had their own churches, predominantly Baptist and Methodist. Usually they were a small one-room structure located in the section of town set aside for the “black people”. Much the same for their schools. No indoor plumbing, just an outhouse out back. And the one thing I remember about the churches and schools, every one had a baseball field. That was the only sport that we integrated during the 40’s and 50’s.

It wasn’t until 1954 or 1955 that the white kids were allowed to really enjoy “black” music. When Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, et al were just getting started, it was considered inappropriate for white kids to go to concerts where these acts were playing. I still remember the church sermons about how this “devil music” is going to destroy our morals.

Angela:  You have been the most helpful. You have no idea how important this information is. It’s one thing to read about it, but another thing to hear personal stories.

“TennJim”:  Of course it brings back lots of memories. As you may have noticed, the Church keeps coming up in my posts. Church was our escape from the day to day realities of life. The music of the church has always influenced our lives and contributed to the way we intrepret music. From the blues singers I’ve talked to over the years (and I’m 72 this year), most attribute their musical talents to the church.

As many of you know, I was a session guy in Nashville, primarily with RCA. When the musical industry began their shift to Rock and Roll, I went to Memphis to see what connections I could make in the studios there. That’s where I met Sam Phillips and the whole stable of blues artists he represented. As I’ve said in another post somewhere, Dewey Phillips was responsible for the marketing arm of Sun Records. Black music was played on WDIA (I believe that is the right call letters). White music on WHBQ along with other stations, but Dewey was with WHBQ. Without Dewey playing the black artist’s music on WHBQ, I still don’t believe the success of the blues artists would have reached the prominence that it did. That’s just my opinion.

Angela:  You said, “It was only a couple of years ago that the local Doctor’s office eliminated the “colored” waiting room.”  Was this place in operation as a segregated facility? My God…………..

“TennJim”:  No, the facility was integrated. No one really enforced the waiting rooms, it was just that the facility didn’t remove the signs. And most of the African American community still adhered to the signs even though they weren’t enforced. I assume that it was a “comfort” factor for them.

I was thinking last night about how the general public viewed the race issues in the 40’s and early 50’s. I made some references to the “Black Area” of town. In my hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee the section of town set aside for the general non-caucasian population was in the flood plain of the Town Creek. Every year in the spring, you could expect the creek to flood at least once. That area was known locally as “black-bottom”. The people who lived there were predominantly african-american but there were a number of “white-trash” families living there as well. The general public viewed both of these social levels as equals and when it came time to hire temporary field workers, farmers would use the caucasians as well as african-americans on an equal basis. The section of town that became the hangout for the African-Americans on Saturday night was known as “mink-slide”. I’m not sure of the origin of this nickname, but it probably related to the color of the mink…predominantly dark skinned. I remember listening to the “Boll-Weevil” song…

“Farmer said to the boll weevil
whatca doin’ here on the square.
Boll weevil said to the farmer
Got a great big family there…
Just lookin’ for a home…
Just lookin’ for a home.”

The black population weren’t permitted to congregate on the town square. If an African-American was caught on the square, he was arrested. “Mink-Slide” was located about a block off of the square and there was an imaginary boundary where they could come to. So, in the context of my home town, the song made sense. The boll weevil was viewed as a metaphor for the African American people and the farmer was wondering why he was on the square.  Just another tidbit.

Angela:  Anything else?

“TennJim”:  remind me of the significance of the Illinois Central railroad to the blues music in Mississippi in the 30’s and 40’s. As I said in one of those posts, my Father in Law worked as a contract heavy equipment operator for the I.C. during those years. They were building the tracks and trestles through the Delta and worked and lived along side the African-American “tie-gangs” who were laying the track and crossties. Most of these workers were ex sharecroppers who were trying to escape the peonage situation found on the plantations. In most cases, they had moved to Memphis and found they couldn’t live there without a permanent job. With the expansion of the railroad from Chicago to New Orleans and the movement of industrial products from the Steel Belt to the growing South, jobs were available from the railroad. These displaced African Americans would get a job with the railroad and work (sometimes along side the inmates from Parchman) to complete the expansion and upgrading of tracks. Occasionally a few would catch a freight train north to Chicago thinking that was a better place to live than Memphis.

As I said in that earlier post, my Father in Law would tell of stories of hearing these “Negroes” playing their instruments and singing their blues songs at night. Again, as an escape from the realities of the hard life they were living. He also would tell of the “darkies” having to buy their own tools from the Company Store (which was just a converted box-car). Again, like the plantations, the store charged higher prices for their goods and would put them on a charge system which left the worker with little or no real cash after they settled up their bills. So, in effect, the railroads were contributing to the peonage system. Guess that’s why they were still “Singing the Blues”…

Angela:  How has the African American music that you heard as a child influenced your playing?
Do you have elements of that in your music?  And the whole hillbilly era/stage…………what do you know of that?

“TennJim”:  I had to really think about your question, “How has the African American music that you heard as a child influenced your playing?”. I tried to remember if I even thought of the music as African American. In all honesty, the answer is no. I didn’t know there was such a thing as African-American music or any other “race” related music. All I remember is that when I heard Al Jolson sing Sonny Boy, I enjoyed it. Same with W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. I really didn’t connect it with any specific race.

Most of the music that influenced me has some basis in both African-American as well as Appalachian Mountain Music (Which I prefer to “Hillbilly”). I believe that both styles have some roots in Irish Jigs and Irish Folk Songs. It’s just that the Delta blues incorporated the “shout” used by the field hands on the plantations in their development of the “call and respond” style of the blues while the Appalachian Mountain Music kept pretty much to the style of the Jigs and Folk songs.

It’s interesting to look at some parallels of the growth of the two genre’ of music. Sharecropping or peonage created the environment that led to the delta blues. Of this I have no doubt. The pain, despair, longing for freedom and the hope of one day escaping that condition lives in most of the Blues songs. In the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina the European immigrants, the Native Americans and numerous runaway slaves toiled in dark, unsafe coal mines working for the “man”. Like their African American counterparts on plantations in the delta who were indentured by the sharecropping system, these people were indentured by the company store and the large coal companies who used them to line their own coffers. Instead of the Delta juke joints, this group of people would gather at a local church to sing songs of pain, despair, longing for freedom and the hope of one day escaping the life in the coal mine. In both styles, the simple acoustic instruments were the choice for the music…Began with the fiddle playing jigs and lullabys, accompanied by banjo’s and guitars, usually for church or local dances.

As I said earlier, my Grandfather on my Father’s side of the family was a Doctor and Landowner. My Mother’s side of the family were from Appalachia. My Maternal Grandfather was a blacksmith in the Coal Mines of Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee. His roots were from Wales and Native American. My maternal Grandmother was Irish and I still remember her singing Irish tunes when I was very young. My maternal aunts and uncles were musicians. When we would get together for family reunions, everyone would play their instruments and sing. So my largest influence was from the mountains.

Electricity didn’t arrive in the East Tennessee mountains until TVA was created under FDR. Exposure to music was limited to church, social events, and if you were fortunate enough to have a battery powered radio, the Grand Ol’ Opry broadcast every Saturday Night on WSM Radio. So other than the music that was handed down from generation to generation by family members, you only knew what you happened to hear on the radio broadcasts. Since battery power was valuable, you didn’t get to hear much of that.

Living so close to Nashville during my younger years and having been exposed to the mountain music and the Grand Ol Opry on Sat. nites, it was natural that my music leaned that direction. I still didn’t connect the blues to the appalachian music until I met the Carter Family. Listening to Mama Maybelle Carter talk about her relationship with Jimmie Rodgers and how he had come from Mississippi with his experiences and exposure to the African American music of that area, coupled with their mutual experiences with the railroad, that I began to put two and two together. I realized that some of the songs I had heard from the sharecroppers on our farm contained the same feelings of despair and hope that I was hearing in some of the music coming from the coal mining communities of Appalachia. I realized just how important the railroad was to the possibility of escape to those in the sharcropping dilema as it was to the coal miners of appalachia. The only way out of the mountains or the delta was on a freight train headed north.

So, does my music relate to African American music. Indirectly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From an Ant’s Perspective: A Parable by Angie Mack Reilly

From an Ants Perspective
(C) 11/2004 Angela K. Mack
Hello.  My name is Alfred Ant XII.  This is my testimony of my salvation…..

 

You see, on the day I was ready to walk, my father pulled me aside.  We sat underneath the dandelion and he gave me “THE TALK”. He said, “It is time for you to go to work, young man”.  Then, he proudly placed a pin on my chest with the numbers 1-4-2.  “Your place in this society is to stand 142nd in line.  You are now ready and strong enough to carry dirt from point A to point B.”  Immediately I questioned him, “But dad, I was thinking about being some sort of pioneer.  You know, like Columbus or something.  I want to travel.  I want to explore.  I want to voyage like the Vikings.  I want to know the world like no other has known it.  I want to be a like a gypsy.  I want to be an artist.”  My father gave me a blank stare as if I had thrown him off of his brainwashed mind.  To be honest, he looked as though he were going to have a heart attack.  “Dad, are you OK?” I asked.

Then, he awoke from his stare and frowned while firmly pointing.  “Get in line.  This is the way our people live.  They have lived like this for billions of years.  We are the working middle class.  We have our place in the queen’s society.  We follow the rules.  We toil with all of our might.  This helps create order.  Your desires are deviant.  They are dysfunctional.  It’s not normal, son.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from him.  I actually thought that he would be happy for me and my dreams.  I thought that, perhaps, he would bring me before the queen and say, “Your majesty, meet my brilliant son.  He has a vision.  He wants to explore.  You may want to listen to what he has to say.”  But no, he didn’t even care.  (I learned from that point on that I could not fully trust or confide in my rigid father.)  He must have pitied the sadness on my face as he continued, “Son, I do love you.  But in our society, deviance is not allowed.  The queen does not allow for any artists or explorers.  She does not want any countercultures to rise up, gain the affection of the people, and potentially dethrone her.  Thus, all rebels are carried by the colony to the spider’s web only to have their blood sucked out of them alive.  It’s torture.  I’ve seen it before many times.  I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Well, of course I didn’t want to be eaten alive.  So I took my place as 142nd in line.  Each day, as I carried out my monotonous tasks of carrying dirt from A to B, I questioned my existence.  I questioned why I was created.  I questioned what was wrong with me.  I tried to stop thinking about exploring.  I tried to keep my mind on the task.  But I often got distracted and tripped on others during the job because I was daydreaming.  I couldn’t help but secretly fantasize about things such as flying, meeting different species, and living independent of the colony.  I felt like an outsider, clumsy, and ashamed.  My feet just didn’t seem to walk as steadily as theirs.  I had an odd walk.  It was sort of bouncy and syncopated.  I felt hated by God.

Then, one day out of nowhere, I saw a bright light.  It nearly killed me.  It began to literally fry my antennas.  I looked up in terror to the blinding light.  But I couldn’t see where it was coming from.  Next, I saw a raging fire about a foot away from me.  A leaf was burning.  Again, in confusion, I looked up.  Two human boys were hovering over me and my people.  One was holding a magnifying glass and laughing.  I was terrified.  I felt as though I was about to be eternally punished in the fires of hell for being “different”.

Then I heard a voice from above, “Stop!  I have an idea!”  Before I knew it, I was soaring high above my colony.  I started to giggle.  It felt so strange, yet so right.  I was being carried by one of the boys on a woodchip.  I wasn’t even afraid of falling.  In fact, I raised my hands and thanked God.  “Thank you, Jesus!” I shouted over and over again.  At the moment, I didn’t care where I was going.  I was just so elated to be GOING SOMEWHERE, ANYWHERE!  I saw the blue sky so clearly.  I felt like I could touch it.  The colors of the trees around me were greener than I ever imagined.  Like angels, I watched a flock of geese fly overhead.  It was beautiful.  I thought I was going to heaven.

Suddenly, PLOP!  I was rapidly dropped toward the ground and landed in a puddle of water by the curb.  As scary as THAT was, sure enough I began to swim!  I never knew I could swim.  I always dreamt about it.  I wasn’t afraid.  Like flying, it just felt “right”.

As soon as I was able to work my way out of the puddle, I went on to meet many species of insects, birds, and small mammals.  Most of them, aside from some of the human children, were friendly.  I wandered around on my own.  I couldn’t find my way back to my colony even if I wanted to.  It was wonderful.  I ate what I wanted and when I wanted.

Now, my fellow geese, I bring my message to you.  Perhaps, you too, can be saved from your social system.  Perhaps some of you long to soar on a different path.  Perhaps you are tired of flying from North to South to South to North year after year.  There is hope for you.  There is deliverance……..I was saved.  You can be, too.