Though it may at times be hard to discern, this Department really does have a great underlying and unifying theme, which runs through all its posts, be they about matters international or around the block.
The common thread running through all the pieces published here is that politics is really about culture; in the case of electoral politics, this means that, when a citizen casts a ballot, he/she is making a cultural statement about his values.
The understanding of this simple fact is the common thread that unites Lee Atwater, Bill Clinton, Karl Rove and Chuck Schumer.
It is my further belief that American Culture is ultimately about miscegenation
The phenomenon that gave us rock and roll and made Al Sharpton and J. Strom Thurmond blood relatives is American as apple pie. The story of America is the story of Huck and Jim sailing down the River together on a raft.
That is not to say it has been a comfortable ride. It is more like we are a Scotty and a West Highland White thrown into a kennel case and strapped down by Mitt Romney onto the roof of a speeding Mystery Train.
It is a story I’ve tried to illuminate through such pieces as my two part series on the cultural implications of Michael Steele, my riff on the cultural implications of Barack Obama and my reflections on the beer summit.
Even my pen name embodies this stream down the Mississippi.
The name comes from two bluesmen.
The more famous is Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. In the late forties and early fifties, Brown was a blues guitarist (with a substantial jazz element) who rivaled the great T-Bone Walker (the founder of electric blues guitar), but whose playing was more playful (both guys liked funny lyrics, but only Gatemouth would get lost in high speed solo and suddenly start playing "Pop Goes the Weasel" or "Yankee Doodle").
About 1960 or so, Gatemouth went into a sort of drift, and ended up, among others things, playing on a soul jazz session, leading the band on some "American Bandstand" knock-off out of Nashville, and becoming a Deputy Sheriff in New Mexico. He had a very minor novelty hit with a version of Little Jimmy Dickens' country smash "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose", and after taking part in some sessions in France, both as leader and as backing musicians for serious jazz guys like Arnett Cobb and Milt Buckner (as well as for a couple of bluesmen), he ended up doing as much Country and Western as anything. There were two Country/Cajun (a serious part of his Texas-Louisiana border heritage) albums on which he played mostly fiddle (on which he excelled) and a hot western-swing duet album with "He-Haw's" Roy Clark; Gate then made several guest appearances on "He-Haw" and "Austin City Limits".
Could there be anything more miscegenistic than a black man playing Country, Cajun and Western Swing?
By the late seventies Gate was trying to synthesize the various strands of his identity, and finally in the 80's he put it together, reviving his career among the (mostly white) blues audience with a series of remarkable albums that refused to bow to any genre. By then he refused to call himself a bluesman, saying he played "American Music-Texas style". In this endeavor he utilized not only guitar and fiddle, but also drums, piano, harmonica and mandolin (and probably other instruments as well).
In his 80's and diagnosed with lung cancer, Gate was told that the process of giving his disease its due would immobilize him for some time with no guarantee of positive results. He passed upon chemo and decided to keep playing until he dropped. Bedridden in his house in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, his home was destroyed by Katrina, and he was taken by relatives from whence he came, his ancestral home of Orange, Texas, in Cajun country near the Louisiana border, where he died.
The other Gatemouth was Arnold Dwight "Gatemouth" Moore, a racy blues singer, who one day got a revelation from on-high, quit it all, and started singin’ the Gospel, becoming one of the greatest figures in that field.
Apparently, one day, Moore failed to show at a blues singing appearance, and after the announcement was made, a young man in the audience jumped up on-stage and yelled "Well, Gatemouth Brown is here!", and proceeded to perform a set; the name stuck.
I'd like to think that Moore was out behind the club staring at a burning bush when Brown stole his name, and took up the devil's work in his place, but Clarence Brown appears to have been a saintly figure himself, who, surly though he often was, lived to make people smile (and chose death rather than to quit performing a moment sooner than he had to) while he did his own form of missionary work.
I like to think sometimes that my Gatemouth owes a lot to both namesakes, but that may just be drinking my own Kool-aid.
Which brings me to the late R&B bandleader and (among other things) Watts political operative Johnny Otis, who just passed away at age 90, and who, among his less noteworthy accomplishments produced and played on Gatemouth's Moore's one post-conversion secular album.
In a 2009 piece about the “N-Word”, I wrote the following:
I conclude with some thoughts about a song by JOHNNY OTIS AND HIS ORCHESTRA, which I’ve attached :http://www.nme.com/nme-video/youtube/id/w1Zez5yPs1o/search/johnny-otis--his-orchestra
Almost 25 years after I first heard the 32 year old recording of “Nigger, Please!,” it still shocks. More so than almost any gangsta rap using the word “nigga.“
It is an ugly tale, written by Lermon Horton, Sonny Craver and Otis Hayes, who also arranged the tune and played the piano. It is sung in the voice of a probably middle-class, possibly church-ified, black woman lashing out at a pimped up, loud-mouthed, jeri-curled, woman beating, heavy drinking, welfare recipient she blames for “holding all of us down.” The title is sarcastically repeated again and again to indicate both her incredulousness and her derision.
The hard edge of the music is conveyed not only through the tough singing of blues-belter Barbara Morrison, but by the stinging blues guitar of Shuggie Otis, an R&B star in his own right, better known for spacey soul tunes like “Strawberry Letter Number 23,” later a hit for The Brothers Johnson. Equally stinging is the saxophone of the great Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, who later recorded a version of the song himself, with Johnny Otis in the producer’s chair and Shuggie once again on guitar.
It is the sort of tale told within the community, but not out of school, written and sung by blacks and played by an almost exclusively black band. One gathers that the genteel woman singing the song would be appalled to have it heard by my ears, or that of any other white person.
The Bandleader/Producer of the cut, Johnny Otis, who also plays incongruous Hampton-style vibes on it, is a story in himself. Otis was a talent scout (discovering, amongst others, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Etta James, Esther Phillips, Big Mama Thornton, The Coasters, and Hank Ballard), producer, singer, drummer, pianist, night club owner, songwriter (Eric Clapton recorded both “Willie and the Hand Jive” and “Crazy Country Hop”) and label owner, amongst other things. He was also Chief of Staff to Mervyn Dymally, who served as Jerry Brown's first Lt. Governor (the next one was Mike Curb), and as the first Trinidad-born member of Congress. Otis also was minister in his own church.
Otis is the author of two books; the first “Listen to the Lambs” followed the Watts Riots in the 1960s, the second, “Upside Your Head,” updates the story to the Rodney King riots, but Otis does not use that term--he prefers “uprisings,” and probably taught that phraseology to Maxine Waters.
His militancy extended to music. The theory of American popular music as the product of joyous miscegenation as articulated by the likes of Nick Tosches, Griel Marcus and Yours Truly was not one embraced by Johnny Otis. “[W]here music is concerned, money is involved and the white have gotten it. It’s a racist situation. It’s not a cultural exchange; it’s long distance theft.”
“American pop has become increasingly black. Black men and women have been the innovators, breathing life into new form. Black artists have always dug the road maps; white artist shave picked up on the music, dug it, copied it, interpreted it, become the kings, and reaped enormous financial benefit. Very often, they have accepted the proffered crowns. Paul Whiteman, ’The King of Jazz’--surely not the king; Benny Goodman, ’The King of Swing’--a fine musician, but surely not the king. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford wore the crowns, whether they were invested formally or not. Elvis Presley, ’The King of R ’n R’--a fine creative artist and a revolutionary figure in American music, but the kings of rock ’n roll were Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, B.B. King.”
A fair man, certainly willing to give the blue-eyed devil his due, but ultimately, despite the joy within his musical legacy, an angry man. And “Nigger, Please!” is a song of angry black men and women. Angry at white America, but even angrier at themselves.
Who among us would deny Barbara Morrison, Otis Hayes, Horton Lermon, Sonny Craver, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Shuggie Otis the right to express that anger? And, who amongst us would even deny them the use of the word “nigger” if they want to use it, to express that anger?
But what about Johnny Otis?
According to R&B historian Arnold Shaw, Johnny Otis is the son of Alexander and Irene Veliotes, Greek immigrants. The Veliotes family lived above their grocery in an integrated Berkeley, California neighborhood which became a black ghetto. Early in his life, Otis, who was dark, but clearly white, decided to join that community.
Evidence indicates he was largely accepted as such.
“I did not become black,” writes Otis, “because I was attracted to Negro music. My attitude was formed long before I moved into the music field. Nor did I become a member of the Negro community because I married a Negro girl. I became what I am because as a child, I reacted to the way of life, the special vitality, the atmosphere of the black community…I cannot think of myself as white.”
So, what do we do with Johnny Otis?
Culturally, it can be argued that Johnny Otis partook of the black experience, earlier in his life, and with far more intensity, than Barack Hussein Obama.
But does that give him the right to put his name on a record called “Nigger, Please!” ?
But then again, I would never want to hear Barack Obama use the word “nigger” either.
Like Barack Obama’s story, Johnny Otis’ is surely an outlier. There aren’t really many people like either of them.
But except for Barack Obama, it is hard to think of anyone who so embodies the contradictions we call “America.”
And I like his music too.