sing a new song

black brown white

Memoriam. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

The last few months, while we’ve all been sheltering-in-place, I have been teaching my grandniece and grandnephew some painting and music lessons. We live about 3,000 miles apart, so, these wonderful Sunday events are brought courtesy of phones, meeting software, and social media – anything that can help us keep a connection. Recently, we sang old folksongs together – some by Woody Guthrie and others traditional. The children are very young – for them they are sweet songs, they don’t yet know the stories behind them.

When I was their age I began to learn to play the guitar and sing. A few years later, when I was about eleven I discovered the great song collector and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. At my music teacher’s shop there was a big thick book of more than 600 pages that fascinated me. It was Lomax’s 1960 Folk Songs of North America: In the English Language that included the melodies and guitar chords transcribed by Peggy Seeger, sister of the beloved folk singer Pete Seeger. Somehow I scraped the money together, and about a year later, I bought this treasure chest representing all regions of the United States, song stories about sailors, farmers, pioneers, railroaders, hoboes, dam builders, cowboys, folks in good times and folks in bad times, and singing the stories taken from the countries of immigrants transplanted to this new country, many from the British Isles. The book includes a section called The Negro South where spirituals, work songs, ballads, and the blues are archived. In the 1960s it was a victory to say that African-Americans had a history, had a part in the American Story. A generation ago that was a step towards the light yet, as I opened the book to prepare for teaching my grand ones a few things about folk songs, the label used for the collection of African-American songs hit me hard. The framework is dated. It is a record documenting that era, but how do I tell little children about the pain and suffering that comes from the racism, which is the source of some of these songs? How do you tell that story? What do they need to know? As a historian and archivist, I understand and appreciate the book’s artifactual value, but from the perspective of an uninformed reader, without any context, I wonder. History is complex; when and how do you introduce the complexities? Some fifty years later, that book has traveled with me across the country and across my many paths. It’s been a constant in my life; and as I grew the music taught me empathy and I began to learn about the complexities. It opened the door to so much wonderful music – music I’ve played and sung, and music I’ve listened to and helped me become an archivist and historian. It put me on the path to discover the stories behind the songs. The book is a catalog of our roots, Americana, a music visited by many artists during the 1960s ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead, and more recently by musicians such as Dave Alvin and Tony Dubovsky. That wonderful big black book and the stories it tells has played an important part in my life. And perhaps that is what I tell my grandniece and grandnephew; learn the truth about what was and with empathy be part of writing the new story and writing their new song.

Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who wrote and copyrighted more than 300 songs – some of his songs are included in the Folk Songs of North America. The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings also captured Mr. Broonzy singing both some of his songs and traditional songs like Trouble in Mind, C.C. Rider, and Midnight Special. On late nights, I love listening to Mr. Broonzy then turning around and trying to play his songs myself. I do OK on the singing, but he was a master guitarist, so I just try to get the rhythm guitar going. Born in Mississippi, he worked as a sharecropper, preacher, soldier in World War I, and later, after moving to Chicago as a Pullman Porter, a foundry worker. But through it all, there was always the music he wrote, played and recorded including folk songs, spirituals, country blues, urban blues, and some jazz. His voice is authentic, it is strong, it is ironic, it is sad, it is angry, it is wise, it is brilliant, and it is beautiful.

One of Mr. Broonzy’s most poignant blues compositions is the Black, Brown, and White Blues. It’s a song about the relentless Jim Crow…it always finds some place to roost. Mr. Broonzy “had written this protest song, which addressed the experiences of black war vets and the painful issue of preferential treatment by gradations of skin color, in 1945 and had offered it to RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and several of the newly formed independent record companies, but none of them wanted to record it. As a result Mr. Broonzy had to wait until 1951 before he could record the song commercially in Europe for a white and overseas audience. In the US it took until after his death in 1958 to be released and was titled Get Back.” Relentless. I share the lyrics below. The Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery giving the benediction paraphrased the song at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama stating “we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

And here we are in May 2020, and once again we are a nation pushing the contours of its historic founding documents, hoping that those long cotton threads are strong and flexible. We are engaged in a mighty struggle. What vision of America will triumph: the fearful authoritarian contraction or the confident democratic expansion? Will our Bill of Rights be torn to pieces as we fight oppression with our questions, our demands, and our protest? Taking inspiration from Dr. Lowery, it is a good time to write and sing a new song about these struggles. The new song will be righteous, like Bill Broonzy’s, but it will sing a story about the struggle for justice and a vision of political power, economic opportunity, and respect for all.

**********

Black, Brown, and White Blues

This little song I’m singing about,

People you know its true.

If you’re black and got to work for a living’ boy,

This is what they’ll say to you:

Chorus:

Now if you’re white, you’re all right,

And if you’re brown, stick a-round,

But as you’s black, O brother

Get back, get back, get back

 

I remember I was in a place one night,

Everybody was having fun,

They was drinkin’ beer and wine.

But me, they sell me none.

(Chorus)

 

I was in an employment office,

I got a number and got in line.

They called everybody’s number

But they never did call mine.

(Chorus)

 

Me and a man was workin’ side by side,

And this is what it meant.

They was payin’ him a dollar an hour

And they was payin’ me fifty-cent.

(Chorus)

 

I helped build this country,

I fought for it too.

Now, I guess you can see

What black man has to do

(Chorus)

 

I helped win sweet victory

With my plough and hoe.

Now I want you to tell me brother,

What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

 

Now if you’re white, you’re all right,

And if you’re brown, stick a-round,

But as you’s black, O brother

Get back, get back, get back

2 thoughts on “sing a new song

  1. Dear Robin,

    Reading about the very early and beautiful path you chose as a child, and your courage and uncommon humility about whiteness even then, inspired me so much today. It brought me the feeling of gratitude, knowing that change is possible (because we ourselves are changing), the sadness for the hard cruelty of our complicity, and determination to change the reality that is before us in such clear view.

    The great charm of the painting at first glance, followed by the casual delivery of the hard truth (that will truly make all free) is powerful, graceful, true. Thank you for adding your art to The Witness,

    Cinde Ordelheide

    • Dear Cinde,

      Thank you for reading my witness and for your generous words. It fills my heart to make the connection with you as we walk along this rocky path. This last Sunday I participated in an all day conference sponsored by the Upaya Zen Center “Awakened Action: Women Leaders speak to Race, Poverty, Climate and the Pandemic.” It was an amazing day and it has reaffirmed for me (and I quote you here) “that change is possible” and forging our bonds, building our community, and listening to the truth from each other’s experiences is they way to change this world. Thank you again for connecting with me!

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