Sunday, July 5, 2009

song for my father (4)

song for my father

my music memory reaches back into time to embrace songs, musical concepts & structures i could not have possibly known if my temporary definitions of birth – date, place & moment – are to be believed. i have known some melodies, some harmonies, some structural forms instinctively, before i heard the records, heard their tinny reproductions on the horned victrolas & the vacuum-tube radios of the late forties & early fifties; knew them to be part & parcel of my body, etched upon my soul, resonating when proper tone, chord or thoughtform sounded, thrilling through my system. these are no doubt the coded ciphers ensconced in the genes passed to me by my daddy, a prototypic blues shouter-turned-preacher, who in the turbulent second & third decades of the twentieth century would ascend the dwarfish, arboreal hills near bassfield mississippi to a place called nigga ridge each weekend to take his place among the local rural & itinerant troubadours – under the stars, in a clearing stomped flat & smooth by feet supporting the worldweight of dancing black humanity; & with minimal accompaniment – an occasional fiddle or acoustic guitar, a banjo, a mouth organ or tin whistle, & some bones – would ejaculate in libidinal meter & vivid verse, his gift to his loved ones, those lucid mournful, meaningful blues that were his lifepoem. the folk up there called him blue jesus, because he stood out & apart from the other singers, most of whom were inspired by abundant 'shine & motivated by coins tossed into the hats at their feet or for the favors granted free of charge or passed for small profit by the fresh or jaded women who frequented the ridge every friday & saturday night. daddy stood out, not because he was blueblack, over six feet tall & wore a starched & creased jumper; not because he was barrel-chested, built like a steamroller (for comfort, they said, not for speed ) & cast a dense shadow; not because he wore his hair trimmed skin-scraping short at the ears, but cut in an oblique slant on the top, resembling at a distance a lower case, cursive "r." no, what made him stand out more than his presence was his voice, an ultimate emotive vessel, shaping, containing his fluid, shape-shifting feelings, his visceral, instinctive & sanguine response to his life. his voice, a thick black baritone caress, a subliminal narcotic, stimulating, depressing the frayed nerves of honest dirt farmers & sharecroppers; slicksters, gamblers & scoundrels; liberal wives, daring spinsters & the "other" women who would come to forget or at least to numb the muscle aches of back-bending labor; the despair distilled from a life of exigency & flavored by racism; the pretence, fickle-fortune, inconstancy & loneliness left at the foot of the ridge but waiting faithfully like old friends to accompany them home when the evening was over. his voice was a goad to those who came to lose themselves in the 'shine passed around in earthen jugs, in the occasional fights embellished by razor & pistol, in the loud, not-to-happy laughter, in the tomcat posturing of arrogant swains, in the weekend wantonness of soul-weary women – but that same voice was a comfort to those who came mainly to hear the country blues. he could holler like a mountain jack; he could moan like the wind in the trees. he could keep time by clapping his hands, the cadence syncopated with the echoes his lyrics made bouncing off of surrounding hills & hearts, or marking the slow, irregular patter of falling tears. he could shimmy like sister kate; his shoulders & hips ablur, fading in & out like a hummingbird's wings. he could bend over backwards, touching his heels with the back of his head & come up slowly in a snakish torso poem w
ithout missing a word or a lick. he would be driven by his voice, by the forces focused therein, to do anything to draw attention to that emptiness out of which his melody came, out of which his rhythm came, out of which his feelings came, out of which his words came, out of which his world came. that emptiness called compassion which encompassed all self-absorbed black actors of his time & the peculiar drama playing itself out in southern rural america. daddy created space in his blues, wherein a black man or black woman could escape; wherein a black man or black woman could be made over if they so desired. a space that made black bittersweet, turned a nigga into something human, made the whiteman vulnerable, beatable, made hoodoo a charming necessity, even made bad luck the evidence of some luck. he created space in his blues, a space so empty it qualified as love, & as love creates out of nothing, out of nothing daddy re-created hard-headed women, no-good cheating men, stack-o-lees, hard-hearted hannahs, spell-casting two-heads & bad-assed suckas who would cut u if u stand still, shoot u if u run. he recreated female love objects of every shape & kind–heavy-hipped mamas & long-legged gals, blackberries, honey bees & wing-spreading angels who could make a hog get up & leave his slop, make a lazy rooster crow for day, make a tom cat fight all night long or make a preacher ball the jack. out of nothing, he re-created a pleasantly distorting mirror into which those rustic local blacks could gaze, applaud themselves, laugh at their own dark comedy or become resigned to inevitable tragedy. regular musical therapy every friday & saturday night – until that fateful tuesday morning when blue jesus, while scraping cotton in his daddy's northwest field, met the real deal – de original lawd, & he with his bludgeoning love battered my daddy about the crown of his head, shocked him with his electrifying spirit down to the soles of his feet, knocking him senseless. & when he came to, daddy was singing a brand new song...

©Joseph McNair;2009

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