me, mavis & white sheet(s)
cultivating booker t. soltreyne: a race rekkid
(a creative nonfiction or stream of belief)
“…You know I’m all alone as I sing this song.
Hear my call, I’ve done nobody wrong.
But I’m treated so bad.”
from “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)”
—The Staple Singers
Everything that confirms that I am alive was immediately engaged when Janet Harper, Librarian at Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago said, “Well, you must take a look at our coon sheets.” This was a Friday afternoon in mid February, some between a snow and a frigid cold, alongside printer/filmmaker/curator April Sheridan and visual artist/writer, Krista Franklin. April had invited Krista and me to the Center because she thought the space would be resourceful for projects we were both working on. Krista and April were working on broadsides, and I a “race rekkid.” So after a week or so of coordinating schedules, I met up with Janet Harper at the Center to be introduced to “coon-sheets.” Monday, March 4, 2013. 9 o’clock—on the dot.
I had received an artist residency through the University of Chicago and had decided to create a body of sound design that would explore race, gender, and politics inside the Obama Era, and then present this body of work as a “race rekkid.” Being familiar with my work as a performance and visual artist, April Sheridan introduced me to Janet Harper and the other CBMR staff. It was in this initial meeting where I got a chance to see the bounty of resource materials available inside this space. With nothing more than paper, pen, and willingness to learn, I met with Janet on that day unaware of how much those “coon sheets” would impact the music and the art created throughout the remainder of my residency. This essay will review the morning and how the space, those sheets of music, and video footage of The Staple Singers on Jubilee Showcase,1 activated, shaped, and inspired a process in creating sound narratives and visual work attached to a work entitled “booker t. soltreyne: a race rekkid.”
By 9:30 that morning I was at a table, and Janet was bringing out box after box of sheet music with images of coons, minstrels, pickaninnies, watermelon patches, guns, and razors. But most striking to me was the linguistics inside the titles and the lyrics. My written work plays with dialect, sound, and ways in which words can be formed, so to see the broken English fascinated me in regards to the overall visual aesthetic of these sheets. Janet explained that these “coon sheets” were amongst the earliest documentation of race music and/or recordings. These were songs featured in Minstrel shows and were also designed for the popular dances at the time. The sheet music was filled with narratives of love, sorrow, joy, and the happenings inside the jook-joints and other spaces where African-Americans found leisure. By 10am, I had sheets of narratives, language, and images spread before me. There I was, sitting at a table-load of “nigger-shit.” There was no room to allow emotion and racial disposition to block this information residing inside the stories. The tar-black faces and wide buck eye-whites housing beady black dots to be recognized as pupils with watermelon grills were in my face and in my bone. It was a true soul music. The sheets seemed to ask, “You still want to fuck with me?” And I responded, “You have no idea who fucking with you.”
I am a “sunday-mornin’ jook-joint(r).” I am a bluesman who prays and a preacher who cusses. I am bravely black and embrace the messages and imagery inside these coon sheets. I sat at the table and was willing to wade in it. I did not flinch. And as The Disco Godfather would instruct, I “put my weight on it.” My “brother” and artistic collaborator on many projects, photographer Cecil McDonald Jr., showed up. I asked him to come document this date in hopes to use it as imagery. He and I thumbed through the sheets, exchanged knowledge about the music of this time, and talked about the imagery of most of this sheet music. We were inside a candyland of deep cotton-picking records that were designed for quitting time. These songs or “cuts” were built for a drink in one hand and sweet sugar dumpling in the other. These songs were built to let all the folk around town know who the baddest or greatest, and what is the hippest or latest. At this point I am referring to the coon sheets as songs because Janet is explaining these sheets were the equivalent to modern day downloads. Meaning folk would purchase these sheets and then take it home and play on piano, or other instruments and folk would sing the lyrics. The folk buying this music was presumably African-Americans with resources that would afford them music and/or instrumentation. These coon sheets and minstrel shows marketed towards African-Americans and inside these spaces where folk were having a good time balling and brawling. And this becomes the complication of these coon sheets. They come decorated with derogatory images ranging from ink blots with eyes, mouths, and ears to ape-like faces meant to dehumanize the physical aesthetic of black men, women, and children. The songs are in a language deemed “broken,” or uneducated at best. The narratives are about lazy care-free lives in Dixie dancing, charming a stubborn love interest, shiftless character profiles, and/or busting up a good party with a good fight. The visual and lyrical imagery embedded in these sheets that changed my perspective significantly. Before this encounter, I viewed these depictions as propaganda to degrade Black for being Black, but inside that space and that moment I realized that the narratives inside these coon sheets seem to ask, “Ain’t it funny when a Nigger thinks he’s white and begins to acts as such?” Extremely different cannon fodder.
Immediately, my brain and spirit opened up some more and it was confirmed—Racism’s greatest lie is that being white is being better than any other color; or that race, especially inside music, has any bearing on color at all. The color of music has always been transparent. It is vibration. The stories and language speak to the experience, and many times the imaginations of the voice doing the speaking. Imagination more so that I know I have never met an ink-blot-colored or ape-headed person. These secular musical tales are riddled in the same narrative and messages of music written by and for white folk. These secular musical tales render the other side of morality. When other music is spiritual and for the purpose of worshipping God or propaganda of a religious theology, these coon sheets of secular music really ask, “What happens when people put their destiny in the hands of other flawed humans? How wise is it of folk to take our love, lives, and above all happiness, into someone who may or may not have the capacity to hold, honor, and/or carry such a responsibility?” The coon sheets are not graced with stories about Black life, they are weighed with stories about Blacks in America obtaining and engaging in a lifestyle afforded only through whiteness. Money, sex, violence, care-free days, and some random acknowledgement of a God, much greater than you and I, reminded me of Rick Ross’s Maybach music. These coon sheets were drenched in indulgence. “Life can’t be hard for niggers. All they do is drink, eat, fuck, and sleep.” An aspect of the conception of what life must be for the “oppressor”—Whiteness.
Every song, spiritual or secular, speaks to the human condition. Every song seems to be seeking and/or presenting a place near the ultimate truth. And with this bit of insight, I could sit inside the murk of these coon sheets and not be rattled. In fact, I had one of the most informative and fascinating experiences in my life, especially inside the context of study and/or research. Cecil and I were still looking through some books and sheets when artist and music enthusiast Rebecca Hope entered the space and sat next to me. She immediately began looking at the coon sheets and had tons of questions. Janet explained to her what she had explained to Cecil and me about the history and function of the coon sheets, and Rebecca was obviously disturbed by all of this. And when I say all of this, I am including the images on the sheet music, the “niggers” in the lyrics, the language, tone, titles, and stories. Rebecca also appeared a bit baffled at the disposition of Cecil and me who seemed to be not as visibly disturbed as she was as a white woman, or even more disturbed because we are black men. Her question, “Black People bought this music?” My answer, “a lot of any kind of people bought this music. They bought it then and they buy it now.” I said that as I perused “Leave Your Razors at the Door.” The sheet is bright red and has a row of razor blades on the bottom of it. The narrative is of “a big burly nigger by de name of Brown,” who has a joint and it is enforced that his patrons leave their razors at the door, but circumstantially, a fight breaks out and these patrons stop fighting to go find Brown and demand the razors they left at the door only to find Brown and the razors have vanished. The song is problematic in many ways, but again, the imagery of this song and many others reflect the imagery and desires of much rap and R&B music of today. Being big and bad; having money and winning; obtaining and losing love—this cover art of caricatures of people possessing materials or ideals of higher class, and I do say, whiteness, all in efforts to market or portray to people that this is black reality. This is when and how this space inside an institution that finds its residence on one of capitalism’s grandest examples of power and privilege (the true essence of racism), Michigan Avenue, influenced the art that I would go on to make through sound and visuals, the thump of a people. I was determined at this point to guarantee that the sound design would be the anti-thesis to the pedagogy inside these songs. My “race rekkid” would definitely acknowledge race, racism, and Blackness, and how Black folk in America have endured such misrepresentation of ourselves by being our true-selves inside our culture—and how ironic that the largest CONSUMER (’cause music business–coon sheet is all about dollars) of our authentic selves has been and may continue to be, white folk.
This realization led me to the conversation with Cecil about really going forward with the idea of placing a group of white patrons on the cover of the record, immersed in Black artifact and watermelon. Watermelon definitely directly links to the imagery of all the watermelon or the color red in most of these coon sheets. The library that you see them in, made of wood, is riffing on the fact that once in visiting the Dorchester Archive house, a structure inside the revitalization projects headed by Theaster Gates, students from Fenger2 described it as a “slave shack.” The wood tables and benches very rustic—a great contrast to the white tables and chairs in the Center for Black Music Research, but being inside that space, looking at these sheets, I felt transported to a particular space in time that didn’t include carpet or the internet. I am talking candlelight—not light bulb. In the midst of all of this there was Rebecca, who was still visibly disturbed by what she could have perceived to be me being rather nonchalant or unmoved by the images that were wrestling with her constitution. I also then knew that whiteness is the main culprit in a number of the narratives of the sound work—this collection could not be looked at as what white folk did/do to Black people—this work had to be looked at as how Black people in-spite of what has been done to us.
That spirit of resilience is what I hear inside the music of The Staples Singers, and to be more distinct, the voice of Mavis Staples. By this part of my day, I had moved from the sheets to the tapes of Jubilee Showcase. I watched all of The Staple Singers’ performances. And before I can theorize at what makes Mama Mavis the voice that exemplifies soulful black beauty, I have to mention that Pops Staples’ smile and head rock conceals the joy I aimed to present through the “race rekkid.” Pops’ head rock is the line in Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, Too,”—“But I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong.” I can watch and/or listen to his guitar picking all day. But Mama Mavis is essential when you discuss race in America music. For me, she is the most soulful singing voice in all of the protest song genre. In popular music the female voice is damsel in nature. The most successful voice leaves an audience with the desire to conquer or seize it. Fuck with it somehow. Through admiration or lust, the popular female voice is high-pitched, pretty, and clean. But Mama Mavis. Jee-sus!!! Mama Mavis’s voice, for lack of a better term, is a voice that already sounds like it’s been laid down and laid up with. It’s guttural; only going to go up so much. It doesn’t have the luxury to be melodic. Her voice is rhythm. Her voice is nowhere near trying to fascinate you with the hills and mountain peaks it can reach; her voice is like “Look here. I ain’t got time for foolishness. I have something to tell your bone and you need to sit down and listen a spell. It may hurt, but the feel-good soon and surely do come.” She is gorgeous and I know she a soul singer. I watched her enter a divine space on each and every one of their appearances on Jubilee Showcase that are in the Center’s possession. It’s all in her eyes—the wait, the entry, and exit from that other space. The “holyghost” as they would say in church. That “zone” as Yeezy would place it. Mavis as a vessel understands the dirt or naughty insinuated in her vocal range and timber and it’s as if she is spending each moment of singing trying to get back in the good graces of her father (mortal and spiritual). Not ashamed of what she did, but in advocacy that Eve, not just Adam, had something to repent for. Popular American music shames its women vocalists who sound mannish. Popular American music pigeon-holes the sound of womanhood inside a vortex of cloud-dwelling keys, presuming that a lower-pitched voice can only come attached to maleness. Mama Mavis’s voice, inside the spectrum of popular American music, is an intercessor for Mama Sojourner Truth, claiming “I am a woman, dammit!” Her voice states that real women sound like me. Not them damsels in distress. Mama Mavis not singing about the man that did her wrong or the sugar she wants in her bowl; she is singing about the edification of her mortal soul and how can she present herself more as a human to receive humanity from her fellowman. Mama Mavis’s voice is perfect for their songs which are part spiritual but secular in message and groove. Complete with politics, love, and humanity. Mama Mavis and The Staple Singers are black people talking about all people being God people. They’re not looking for blood, money, Sweet-Sweetback sex, or razors; their songs emit triumph in spite of tribulation.
As a man with a particularly high-ranged singing voice, I fashioned a lot of my vocal performances on how I believed Mavis would interpret the phrases of the lyrics. I used the tapes to watch how she shaped her mouth and which notes or what kind of note, rather, made her throat visibly clinch. I watched what kind of lyrics made those dimples appear, and I watched her get into the audience and shake the hands of a friend. During the recording process, I would yell “Mavis!” and “Stay strong-footed!” knowing what I was asking for was not to mimic her vocal styling—I was conjuring the source. There is an experience that Mama Mavis has being that her music career begins in 1950—segregated America. She and her family traveled along highways and roads dangerous to be on at certain times of night when her skin wasn’t the white-color. Her body and voice know burning crosses, water hoses, and “Nigger” and COLORED signs. And her body and voice know the laughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and the church dinners from the hands of the sisters to ensure that she and her family ate on the road when many diners and drug store counters weren’t serving Negroes—especially a band of Negroes declaring change in a Jim Crow country. Her body and voice knows how it can be utilized to activate a people. She and her family were the voice of the Civil Rights Movement. How can I not examine Mavis Staples and call myself creating artwork that would pay homage to moments in time that she and her family made music, but also help motivate and serve its pedagogy through song. This is where Mama Mavis and I meet—voice as activation. Mama Mavis understands that in order to stir, a vocalist must be stirred. Not stirred by the anger that these coon sheets could evoke, but stirred by the love that hipped she and me to the fact that those depictions of blackness inside those coon sheets are inaccurate. Even more than inaccurate, these images and stories are not depictions of real blackness at all.
Two of the most interesting things about the story of The Staple Singers are, one, their two number-one singles, and two, their fall off from the charts after the Civil Rights Movement and the entrance of disco in the mid to late 70’s. Their two number-one pop singles were “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do it Again.” One song is about the space in which heaven is and the other song is more about an earthly or carnal form of paradise. In both songs, Mavis is the conductor of the train. The ideal of heaven and the climax of sex share qualities. They’re both states of bliss and usually are dictated and defined through the confines of maleness. They both are sacred spaces. Mama Mavis has a voice that can navigate you through both spaces and make them feel the same. This dichotomy of spiritual and secular music forms is celebrated and possibly challenged in the art that composes “booker t. soltreyne: a race rekkid.” Songs like “lament,” “ground,” and “cochise” deal with the death of our youth at the hands of them and ourselves, while songs like “lil rikky n’em |ham sammich(is)” and “dat ne blk” all about that front zipper area. The collection of sound work on the booker t. project and the body of work from The Staples Singers contain stories and messages that really speak to a complete life-full of memories, challenges, victories—blackness. Mavis Staples’ voice and the work on “booker t. soltreyne” recognizes that racism in America may have changed clothes, but it hasn’t made any changes.
Race is one of America’s greatest mishandlings. For some it is too bone marrow, blood related, and/or overly documented. Somebody’s peoples were banished from a township, or some other body’s “Another Man Gone” as Odetta would wallow. For many it’s too just yesterday or just this morning at work. A couple of weeks ago, in discussing art and race, a black artist mentioned something about black people could be experiencing racism fatigue. I am not saying, let’s pretend it doesn’t matter and move beyond the past. With this record, I am saying racism is present and is way more dangerous than these blatant acts of racism that cause so much fuss and ruckus. Racism is and has always been more subtle; oxygen-like. Racism is the great patriotic normalcy and this has led to its mishandling. No one has been allowed to handle without being implicated in a way that makes them in a way that isn’t uncomfortable. Handling it may mean getting past the color and getting to the core. Music is an art form that has been doing this for years. It’s vibration. Pure soul. Consumerism has marginalized it into categories that of course brings race into the picture, but the drum is heartbeat vibration. Vibration is not normal; it’s natural; and natural trumps normal any day. Normal man made. Man has nothing to do with natural. In “booker t. soltreyne: a race rekkid,” I, with the help of a community of artists and institutions like the Center for Black Music Research, created a record that reminds us of our most successful race relations ambassador, it is the music that resounds our joy. They can take our name, burn our towns, lynch and murder our children, and we can react with fists, bullets, or hopelessness. But I wanted the record to remind us that they can never seize our drum. The visit inside the space inspired a body of sound design and “cullud sign(s): coonsheet(s)” related to the race record and others not as much, and that visit keeps me encouraged to do all this work understanding the privilege I have being of a people of drums.
- Produced and hosted by Sid Ordower, Jubilee Showcase aired on ABC’s Chicago affiliate television station WLS Channel 7, from 1963 through 1984, and won an Emmy Award for a Pioneering Project in television. Ordower donated to the CBMR Library and Archives a selected portion of the entire video series, which is held at the Harold Washington Library Center of the Chicago Public Library.
- Fenger Academy High School, located on the south side of Chicago.