Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kultur Lost

A Kafka Morning
After a long night struggling with arranging my own words on several pages of virtual paper, I awoke at 7 am to the dulcet tones of Simon Loehkle, a local Saturday-morning radio personality here in New York City and reverend of the "Stand-up Academy" held on certain Monday nights of a month at the Swift Hibernian Lounge in downtown New York City. And this morning, sleep was demanding I resnuggle down into my pallet-on-the-floor (Faites-moi une palette à l'étage as the old Cajun song says) in the sky--I sleep in a very high loft bed--I like being high!--and cop some more Zs--but then Simon's dulcet tones hit the awake button on my biological clock when he started reading--and I had not heard him announce what he was reading, but with the first tones of his reading I knew he was reading Kafka's great story about the professional faster! I bolted awake and sat there stunned for over 45 minutes listening to Simon relate this fabulous story of the Fasting Man (The Hunger Artist), the professional faster, the man who is placed in an iron-barred cage--like a zoo cage--and he sits in his cage on his straw pallet morning, noon, and night doing his fasting act, with 'round-the-clock observers and attendants keeping eyes on him to see that he doesn't some how get nourishment through trickery and beguile. The Fasting Man usually is good for a performance of about 40 days and nights--and then people begin losing interest in his act and he is forced by officials--with a military band blasting away near his cage--to leave his fasting pen and be carried by two maidens down to a table full of tasty morsels, where the professional faster has to be forced to eat. Then his manager books him into another village square and he moves on to his next gig.

Kafka at his best carries the reader through the professional faster's career--though he's usually "force quit" at around 40 days and nights, the fasting man always feels he could go on fasting for another 40 days, setting world records, breaking his own world records, except he never gets his opportunity to continue on--until one day when the profession is petering out in terms of public interest and the best the manager can get him is a gig where they sneak the Hunger Artist's cage just inside the gate to a new menagerie--a new zoo--and the professional faster's cage sits first in a row of further cages containing wild animals of all sorts and sounds. At first the huge lines to the menagerie are clogged into a dragging state due to the first flood of the public entering the zoo stopping at the fasting man's cage out of curiosity before being driven on by the maddening crowd following them to the zoo's main attractions, until that maddening crowd gets up to the fasting man's cage and then they, too, stop out of curiosity before moving on into the main action of the other caged animals. This goes on for 26 days and then one day, the observers quit observing, the counters quit changing the days on the fasting man's "number of days of fasting" board, and soon even the zoo visitors quit stopping at his cage--breezing on by him--his advertising signs then fading and falling into disrepair--leaving the fasting man left alone and forgotten in his zoo cage. One day an observer looks at the cage and can't see the fasting man, only the bed of thick straw he resides on during his act. The observer goes over to the cage and takes a stick and pokes into the straw--and sure enough, damn, the fasting man is in there among the straw, thin as a straw himself by now. The observer speaks to the fasting man--the fasting man whispers in reply--the observer asks, "Why do you do this? Why do you fast? Why don't you eat and get merry fat like the rest of us?" To which the fasting man replies just before he dies, "Because I never found any food I wanted to eat" ("Ich fand nie jedes Essen, das ich essen wollte"). Then the fasting man dies and is buried with the straw from his cage. After the fasting man is dead, the zoo authorities see no sense in his cage going to waste and it soon becomes the home of a panther who proves much more popular than the fasting man ever was! There is nothing like a good Kafka story!

I'm not a hip up-to-date reader. There's too much out of my past I haven't ventured into reading yet--I mean I just discovered all these writers from the 1970s, like Albert Murray, that I'd never read before--and though I can see where something written 38 years ago is somewhat obsolete now (and obsolescence is the marketing word of the NOW) still I enjoy devouring them--because the 70s were my greatest years of moments to remember and work off of--and I am thoroughly enjoying reading Murray's great book on the blues idiom, Stompin' the Blues--or Sam Charters great little book The Legacy of the Blues--containing a great bio of Juke Boy Bonner, the Houston blues man who thought of himself first as a poet then as a bluesman--and all of the great inspiration in those two "blues" books is now diluted by time--and today, I doubt if there are but a handful of people who've ever even heard of Juke Boy Bonner or have certainly not heard a Juke Boy Bonner record--or a Bukka White record; or who have never heard of Big Joe Williams, J.D. Short, Robert Pete Williams, the great blind New Orleans singer and whiz guitarist Snooks Eaglin, Champion Jack Dupree, Sunnyland Slim, Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd, Mighty Joe Young...and these are only the bluesmen mentioned in Sam Charters book (published in 1977 by DeCapo).

A Juke Boy Bonner poem:

Lonesome Ride Back Home

There's gonna be a long, long lonesome ride back home.
There's gonna be a long, long lonesome ride back home.
What hurts me so bad, ain't nobody missed me since I been gone.

Can't get no letter, telephone don't never ring,
Can't get no letter, telephone don't never ring.
It's gonna be a long lonesome ride back home, goin' back home again.

Sam Charters said Juke Boy Bonner represented the African griot in the legacy of the blues.

Funny Money (written by Juke Boy Bonner after President Nixon (a crook) in his first term in office put a freeze on prices and salaries)

Doctor, take me off penicillin because it give me a rash,
Now the president took me off cash,
All the money got funny,
Man, my money got funny,
I ain't jivin' you baby, sure make my money get funny.

I couldn't get the raise I been waitin' on so long,
Nixon told me the freeze was on,
Yeah, money got funny,
Money got real funny,
I ain't jivin', man, my money gets real funny.

Charters writes about Juke Boy Bonner: "What's all this gotten Juke Boy? Not much, so far. If you want to listen to him play and you don't happen to be near a festival or a concert when he's making an appearance, you have to look around the black clubs for him. In some towns blues is still the neighborhood music.... This is where Juke Boy's liable to be. He still has to keep his household going, though the children are almost old enough to be own their own.

"In a small club, sometimes with a drummer, usually by himself, working behind his guitar and his harmonica rack, a nervous, thin man, dressed in casual clothes--you'll find Juke Boy Bonner. He does the songs as they come to him, working over personal versions of the newest hit records if the songs interest him. He's loose and irregular about the chord changes and the phrase lengths--as Lightnin' Hopkins is--but the rhythm's always there. If it's a medium shuffle it stays a medium shuffle. People can get up and dance to it--and in the clubs he works people usually do." [Samuel Charters, The Legacy of the Blues, "A Partly Made World--Juke Boy Bonner," p. 61.]
Weldon Juke Boy Bonner, the griot of the blues.
And these bluesmen remind me of "The Hunger Artist"--starving to death in order to keep on playing the blues--resulting in the "death" of the bluesmen--after disco came into our culture and pretty much put an end to LIVE music--by the end of the 90s, blues was pretty much as dead as jazz--such a shame! The death of a US-original culture based on musics remembered from an ancient past, a past in which the griots told the news of the tribes and communities with their story songs--which along with the multirhythms and polytonalities mixed with the American white (European) forms to become the blues, r 'n b, jump, swing, be-bop--from whence came Gospel music, too (Thomas A. Dorsey started as a bluesman), to come up with a true American idiomatic music!

Wow, what a day! Kafka all morning...the blues the rest of the morning!

Good mornin', blues, blues how do ya do?
I'm doin' alright, son, so how's'a 'bout you?

I loved the blues so much after I first heard my first blues that even to this day they dominate my musical tastes and personal efforts at composition. The first true blues I ever heard was by St. Louis Jimmy Odum and he was playing and singing his own blues classic "Goin' Down Slow" on John R-ah's "Record Review" radio show coming out of WLAC (the radio station of the Western Life and Casualty Company) in Nashville, Tennessee, late one deep midnight night in 1950 when I was but a kid, a kid with no "color" awareness--not thinking of the blues as the black man's private music, but thinking instead that I seemed to naturally take to this music; therefore, perhaps somewhere deep inside me (where all blues exist) I was a true inheritor of this blues music tradition that started so many years ago in Africa with the griots singing the news of the day--whether hard times or good times! The blues in America is a series of train stops leading up from Congo Square in New Orleans, up past Greenville, Mississippi, and the Mississippi Delta, to Memphis, to West Memphis, Arkansas, to St. Louis, to East Saint Louis, Illinois, eventually ending up on the Southside and Westside of Chicago and the Southside of Detroit...why, there were even bluesmen in Cleveland and New York City--and now I'm completely satisfied--it's been a great day so far.

Sad, but great. Sad because this is a cultural part of the America I wanted to love forever and sustain like a good marriage that I sense has been forced into the obsolescent zone--now dead and buried--unless you listen close to black rap and homey shit and white rockers--especially white guitar players--you see, white boys imitating black singers was an abomination (and the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger are the consummate white boy black mimickers)--but white boyz playing guitars could presumably pass for black--and all white guitar players when they play whatever kind of rock whites were able to imperially conquer and call their own, still play blues riffs on their guitars--if you hear a white guitar player warming up, I'll guarantee you he'll be running blues chords or progressions as his warm up. White guitar players and singers started rockabilly, hillbilly rock, or just plain ol' rock 'n roll (a black invention though and don't ever forget that--Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino--do I need to keep naming more?)--to the point that some white kids really do believe Eric Clapton is the greatest guitar player ever! Holy shit. White prejudice! Eric Clapton is maybe the best WHITE guitarist but he's no comparison with the truly brilliant blues guitar playing of say Lightnin' Hopkins, or the finger-picking style of the great Texas son of an emancipated slave guitarist and singer Mance Lipscomb, or John Lee Hooker (and I know several NYC blues aficionados who contend

Manse Lipscomb at 65 years of age sittin' on his front porch down in Texas.
JL Hooker was the most fascinating guitar player to ever come down one of those Detroit blues freeways--and I know, I know, Jimi Hendrix defined rock guitar playing--and Little Richard knew that when Jimi was in his band).

And a bluesman today's got no home to go back to--no lonesome ride home anymore for the bluesman--nor the Hunger Artist.

for The Daily Growler


Marybeth said...

I recently borrowed and astounding little video from the Berkeley Public Library-- I'm an addict to the public library-- of Mance Lipscomb at the age of, something like, 74 talking about his life, his marriage, his children, his farm, his philosophy, etc., all interwoven with his playing. This little video was a gem. It showed his wife cooking and the two of them eating dinner, him at the table and her on the couch. She hadn't eaten with him in something like 50 years because one night she cooked for him and waited all night and he didn't come home. She never ate with him again. But she still cooked for him. I thought that was odd. Then there was footage of his one-legged neighbor getting up on his horse. Manse said "He used to be a bad man. Beat his wife up all the time. Then one day after a bad beating she shot his leg off and left him there in the field. He recovered and never hit her no more. Stayed married to her too. See, she turned a bad man into a good man." Yeah, by shooting him. Very odd. And then there is Manse's incredible playing along side all the strange stories. Great little film.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I would never have thought of connecting Kafka and the blues, but you excavated a big nugget of truth there.

--LH ("Anonymous" because every once in a while the Google/Blogger interface forgets who I am and I can't remember my damn password)

languagehat said...

Damn, marybeth, those are great stories. I'll have to watch that video someday.

Marybeth said...

Yeah, lhat, that little video is a delight. Just Manse talking about his life and playing his music. It's very short but it's really sweet. It's a nice little slice of an interesting and profound artist, just talking straight about what he knows. He raised 23 kids too.