Friday, December 19, 2008

Musical Miscegenation

The Memphis Seven - Gruntmeat Blues

This is a fascinating collection. I guess it's out of print, but you can download the whole thing from Amazon for 33 bucks. It's the sensible alternative to the Anthology of American Folk Music! In fact, I like this collection better, because it traces the development of American music over 25 years, telling the story of America in the process. The music consists of country, blues, gospel and other folk styles from Columbia Records and subsidiary labels like Vocallion and the great Okeh. The black and white music begins on opposite sides of the room in the late 20's, with Appalachian fiddlers and Atlanta gospel preachers seeming to have little in common. But as the discs go by, the two begin slowly moving toward each other, and toward American music as we now know it. It's a perfect encapsulation of the journey laid out in Nick Tosches' Country, of the long process of musical and cultural miscegenation that defines who we are as a country. Which brings me to "Grutnmeat Blues." "Gruntmeat Blues" comes near the end of the last disc, when things are starting to sound like what we would come to know as rock-n-roll (the song was recorded in 1947, 20 years after "Lowdown Blues" on the first disc). It's a great, greasy glob of raw rhythm and blues (or early rock-n-roll), but what kills me is that steel guitar solo right next to the honkin' sax break. Everything you know tells you it shouldn't be there--steel guitar is common on country records, but extremely rare on black records (Tosches cites Freddie Roulette's Sweet Funky Steel as a notable exception, and Robert Randolph rocks the fuck out of one)--but there it is.
In a few weeks, I'm going to be teaching an American Culture class to advanced ESL students. This is going to be a hell of a challenge--for the other classes, I had a book with lesson plans to work out of every day. For this one, I'm pretty much on my own, and I'm going to need to basically compose the whole 6-week class myself. But I'm going to do a unit on American music, and I plan to use it to illustrate how different cultures interact in America. And I think I'm going to use Kareem Salama as an example. Kareem is a Muslim country singer from Oklahoma.
This brings to mind one of Kareem's songs, "Generous Peace" - perhaps the first time Ancient Arabic poetry has made its way into country music. Kareem translated a verse by eighth-century poet Imam Shafi'ee for the song. In the poem, Shafi'ee responds to the increasing anger of others by increasing his tolerance, saying, "For I am like incense, the more you burn me, the more fragrant I become." Kareem was inspired by the idea of burning incense, since as it burns "it just keeps giving out a more beautiful smell."
I just love how this form of music that developed here can accommodate people of every culture, ever-changing and morphing but never becoming anything other than American. It's what the melting pot means.

EDIT: OK, I didn't notice until after I posted it that that video has a bunch of what looks like radical propaganda which I may or may not agree with, and which I doubt Kareem Salama (who strikes me as having fairly conservative American views) would agree with.


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