B-Girl Be there

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Wish I didn't have to miss most of this, but family comes first. See links at the bottom for much more.

Recently posted elsewhere:

"Out Loud: They scream. They wear tacos for underwear. Meet Faggot, rock's next big gay thing" (citypages.com 6/21/06), What else can I say? Everyone is-- (cpculture.com 6/21/06), Travitron is backitron (cpculture.com 6/21/06), Keston and Westdal release new album online (cpculture.com 6/21/06), 3-D chalk drawings by Julian Beever (cpculture.com 6/21/06), Faggot, stronger than Pride (complicatedfun.com 6/21/06), Pride Twin Cities off the beaten path (cpculture.com 6/22/06), Rhymefest at Fifth Element (cpculture.com 6/22/06), Sleater-Kinney breaks up (cpculture.com 6/27/06), Atmosphere finally get some media attention (cpculture.com 6/28/06), Songs about Minnesota (cpculture.com 6/29/06), North Star Gay Rodeo this weekend (cpculture.com 6/30/06), Soul Asylum play Taste of MN, release album (cpculture.com 6/30/06), B-Girl Be there, especially Saturday night (cpculture.com 6/30/06)

Roxanne Shante, Lovebug Starski in Minneapolis tonight

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A couple can't-miss old-school hip-hop events are happening tonight in Minneapolis. Former teenage legend Roxanne Shante (official myspace) delivers the keynote for the B-Girl Be hip-hop festival (more here) at the Capri Theatre on Broadway at around 6:00 p.m., with the fest continuing tonight through this weekend at Intermedia Arts and other venues. If you don't know Shante, you better ask somebody.

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Also tonight, hip-hop founding father Lovebug Starski (a.k.a. Love Bug Starski, Luvbug Starski, Luv Bug Starski, Star Ski, Starsky, etc.) spins at the Dinkytowner (more here; RSVP here ASAP). Then, later (at around 12:15 a.m.), check out Heat at the Red Sea.

Starski is arguably more influential and less known than Shante--one of hip-hop's founding DJs and MCs, he never had much commercial success beyond touring with Run-DMC in the early days. He began his career carrying records for Pete DJ Jones in the Bronx, and worked every club in the early hip-hop scene of the 1970s, becoming house DJ at legendary joints such as the Disco Fever, the Renaissance Ballroom, and Harlem World. Online searching turns up facts I haven't checked: Starski recorded his first single, "Positive Life", on Tayster records, and cut the soundtrack to the 1985 film Rappin' on Atlantic Records before recording his first LP, House Rock, on Epic. A prison sentence kept him out of the late '80s scene, but in the '90s he began DJing again with his old friend DJ Hollywood. I'll have to ask him if it's true what promoters claim, that he coined "hip hop."

In Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade (Da Capo, 2002), Afrika Bambaataa remembers Starski as one of the earliest Bronx MCs: "In the early '70s, we was already indoors in many of the community centers in the area [Southeast Bronx]. One of the first DJs that came out of the Black Spades organization was a guy by the name of Kool DJ D and his brother Tyrone, and they had a MC by the name of Love Bug Starski."

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"My grandmother lived like four blocks away from Bronx River," says Starski in the same book, "and we used to be in the Spades--in order to walk in that neighborhood I had to be in the Spades. So I met Afrika Bambaataa and Kool DJ D, and DJ Tex and all them, who were old school DJs, you know? People don't even mention them anymore."

Starski tells the authors he was introduced to Pete DJ Jones by Grandmaster Flash. "I worked with Pete DJ Jones for about four or five years carrying equipment and filling in with him when he was too tired to play. We played all the clubs, like Superstar 33, Nell Gwynn's, Leviticus, Justine's, places like that. Pete DJ Jones was big on the mature club side. Flash, Mario, Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Breakout form Uptown, and Grandmaster Flowers from Brooklyn, that was the only heavy hitters that was out back in those days, besides Eddie Cheba and Hollywood."

He also says he put on Kool DJ AJ, who has this to say: "Love Bug, he was a great guy. He might be one of the first to have that crowd response. 'Look in the sky, look in the tree, who do you see? Star-ski!' And that 'Bob didda bob de danga dang diggy diggy diggy diggy, diggy diggy with the bang bang boogie.' People used to love that. And he'd make the people shout, 'Chant my name. Somebody say AAAAAA-JAAAAAY."

"You know the way some people go to church to catch the Holy Ghost?" adds Starski. "That's how I caught the Holy Ghost--at a party. That was my spiritual thing. When I was about fifteen, between fifteen and seventeen, and I used to stay out way beyond my hours and accepted that ass whipping from my mother, for real. She thought I was on drugs at one time, and all I was doin' was house parties and playing in the parks."

According to Busy Bee Starsky (who apparently borrowed the last name from his friend), "Love Bug Starski was the only person I ever heard that played in a Burger King. Imagine that: Coming to a disco in Burger King! The lights is out, and you're playing the music, and it was different, I mean... a party in the Burger King, where you buy your burgers and fries at? That's amazing! And he did it."

"Sylvia Robinson will tell you: I was 'Rapper's Delight,'" Starski concludes. "She got the idea off of me. I did her birthday party at Harlem World, and that's where she got the idea. She said, 'I've got to have him." She'll tell you that. But I wasn't interested in doing no record back in them days, 'cause I was getting so much money for just DJ-ing."

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Faggot, stronger than Pride

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(Click the above photo for full image.)

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As I wrote in today's City Pages, the Minneapolis rock and roll group Faggot is much more than a provocative name. Here are more photos (the studio shots above are by Nick Vlcek, as is the cute one at the very end of this post).

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Faggot have invited dozens of bands to do the Mexican hat dance in their attic. Singer Tim Carroll puts the number at 80.

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Faggot's self-titled 2005 cassette

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Watercolor poster by Michael Gaughan (a.k.a. Ice-Rod, of Brother and Sister and NOW, more here, here, and here, and here) for his Rock 'n' Roll Escape from Summer School event (click for Lindsey Thomas's article) featuring Faggot and a dozen other bands.

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(Click the above photo for full image.) Faggot drummer Jon Nielsen plays in funk trio Synchrocylotron during the Rock 'n' Roll Escape from Summer School scavenger hunt. Nielsen also played in his rock duo Knifeworld (or Knife World) that day. Here are more photos from the event.

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(Click the above photo for full image.) Faggot guitarist Jason Wade is also an experimental filmmaker (more here).

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(Click the above photo for full image.)

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(Click the above photo for full image.)

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(Click the above photo for full image.) More on Faggot bassist Saira Huff's fashions here. A former member of Detestation and Resolve, Huff is also a member of the hardcore punk band Question. She says she's never had as much fun with a band as with Faggot.

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Email from Sara Shapouri, of the NYC band Animental:

sorry i'm on tour so i don't have much computer time and i don't know if you are finished with your article but i just think they are amazing. it's dirty drunken rock n roll at its very best but that doesn't even really come close to describing them as their show and energy is way more dynamic than that...i feel like everything i could say will sound a bit trite but they do totally kick ass and are totally inspiring too in their literally balls out approach to performance. they're everything that a band should be... wild, raw, psychedelic, scary, sexy, heavy, you name it. my band animental was inspired by them after the show we just played together. they don't hold back, they aren't afraid, which is exhilarating and wonderful to behold. and the best thing is it's not an act at all which is probably why they are also the coolest band around. so maybe that helps or doesn't but i am excited to read the article when its done.


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Happy Father's Day, Winstons. Love, drum-n-bass

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Watch Can I Get an Amen?, an absolutely awesome 2004 video installation/documentary short by Nate Harrison, which comes to my attention via fimoculous via youtube, and has apparently been making the blog rounds since appearing at last year's EMP Conference. Harrison makes a pretty damning case against the British company Zero-G, and its Jungle Warfare CDs, for appropriating and copyrighting a breakbeat created by somebody else, one that had essentially existed in the public domain for three decades: the "Amen break" from a 1969 gospel funk track by the Winstons, "Amen, Brother," an instrumental cover of 1968's "We're a Winner" by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and b-side to the Winstons hit "Color Him Father" (hear both songs on myspace, read the "Amen break" wiki, and this ILM thread).

I won't add much to this except to say that most of the above sources appear unaware that the Winstons still exist in Washington, D.C.--here's their official site:


Today I phoned Joe Phillips, owner of the Winstons trademark (listen to this interview with him), who re-launched the group in 1996. Since the death of guitarist and musical director Quincy Mattison, he says, and the retirement of lead singer/tenor saxophonist Richard Lewis Spencer (who published a novel in 2003 on Lulu Press, The Molasses Tree: A Southern Love Story), no original members have been involved, though the band continues to record new Winstons gospel albums. Spencer lives at an unpublished number in North Carolina, while organ player Phil Tolotta plays regularly at JD's Restaurant and Lounge in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida. (I'll phone him tomorrow night.) Otherwise, I'm still looking for alto saxophonist Ray Maritano and bassist Sonny Peckrol.

My hope is to find drummer G.C. Coleman, who created the "Amen, Brother" beat, and who seems to have fallen off the face of the earth. He was reportedly another veteran of Otis Redding's band, but unlike Richard Spencer or, say, "Funky Drummer" Clyde Stubblefield--the other most sampled drummer in history, still giggling regularly in Madison, Wisconsin--Coleman has yet to come forward and take credit for his influence. Phillips said he might be able to track Coleman down, and if so, I'll let you know.

[Update 6/14: Brian Poust of Georgiasoul says that Mattison might have told him Coleman still lived in the Atlanta area (mentioned here, too), and here's a Coleman album credit from The Spirit of Atlanta's 1973 LP The Burning Of Atlanta (Buddah), a project put together by Tommy Stewart.]

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I wonder if Coleman is even aware that he essentially birthed a genre of music--drum-n-bass (dnb, jungle), or that his drum part appears on literally thousands of releases. On May 17, 2003, Phillips responded to an email from somebody on this message board thread, saying, incredibly, that he hadn't known anything at all about the legacy of the Winstons "Amen" break:

Thanks Andrew, I was not aware of the huge following from the drum break of Amen. I am looking into right now. Thanks for making me aware of that. Joe Phillips(The Winstons)

So in anticipation of Father's Day, and in honor of my own father's loving role as a stepfather, and my own stepfather's love, here's an excerpt from an article about Richard Spencer and "Color Him Father," a sweet ode to a fictional stepfather who marries a woman with seven kids, and raises them as his own. May drum-n-bass track down its dad, too.

The lyrics are not Dylanesque or even Smokeyesque, and Spencer himself admits, "It's not a great piece of music." But the song struck a chord in 1970 America. It was a staple of AM radio stations and won Spencer a Grammy award for R&B songwriter, and versions of it hit No. 1 on the country, R&B and easy listening charts.

The idea and most of the words for the song came to Spencer
after a painfully embarrassing incident when he was a child.

"When I was 13, we had something at school, and I had to wear
a tie," he told me earlier this week. "My mother tried to tie it,
but she didn't know how. It looked really bad. I went to school,
and the other kids laughed at me. That's when I created an
imaginary guy who would do all the things a real father was
supposed to do, like teach me to tie a tie."

He had to create an imaginary dad, he said, because his own
father was often missing in action. "He wasn't much of a father,
but I loved him very much. I don't know why."

Spencer never repeated the success he had with that one song--the band broke up a year later, and he drove a bus in
Washington, D.C., while going to college, but he has no regrets
about being a one-hit wonder. "That song was one of the important
things in my life, and I'm glad I did it."

(See "Oh, my; Papa strikes back," News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, June 17, 2001.)

(Click first image for Kalamu ya Salaam's history of Amen break, the second image for Nate Harrison's video.)

Why Nagin beat Juvenile

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The new reconstructionwatch.org blog (from the Institute for Southern Studies and its Facing South publication) already has a number of pieces of essential reading, including a report on why New Orleans isn't hurricane-ready (see also levees.org to do something about this apalling situation, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers' recent admission of responsibility for the failed levees) and an analysis of why Ray Nagin won the New Orleans election despite the popular distrust echoed by rapper Juvenile and others:

It was the deliberate efforts of the white elite and their supporters to take control of city government and prevent poor African Americans from returning that created the racial fear and distrust that sent black voters into Nagin's camp. It was white people, not blacks, who got Ray Nagin elected.

Weekend fun: Heat and "Escape From Summer School"

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Heat are simply my favorite new myspace page, www.myspace.com/heatonline--Minneapolis rappers who will gnash you up, and kill live. Below, if you're in Minnesota, don't miss this scavenger hunt event tomorrow with some of the more creative bands on the planet:

Details here and here!


Good Riemenschneider piece on Michael Gaughan in preview of the scavenger hunt.

"Something about that song haunts you"

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(Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger leading Freedom School students singing "We Shall Overcome" at Palmer's Crossing Community Center, August 4, Freedom Summer, 1964, photographed by Herbert Randall, more here and here.)

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(Zilphia Horton singing on a picket line in the 1940s, from the Highlander Research and Education Center photo collection, via this article.)

It's been years since I first noticed that less and less people were joining in every time somebody would start to sing "We Shall Overcome" as a protest. Like marching itself, the anthem of the Civil Rights movement is boring work. Slow and mournful, it lacks the backbeat of "Eyes on the Prize," another movement song with a parallel history. "We Shall Overcome" can be thumping and repetitive, like Woody Guthrie's "This Land as Your Land," but also spellbinding, like my father's own "They'll Know We Are Christians (By Our Love)." It is so overloaded with historical significance, and that significance is so intimately connected with real and unfathomable courage and trauma, that singing the tune can be deeply moving, or deeply embarrassing, or both at the same time.

"Simple strains and dogged sincerity made the hymn suitable for crisis, mourning, and celebration alike," writes Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters: America In the King Years 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster, 1988), describing the tune's rapid spread through the student sit-in movement of 1960 after an April workshop at Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee.

Yet today the tune's unfunky earnestness seems stranded in its era even as the lyrics are being taught in Arabic and Chinese. People everywhere else seem to believe this song still has something to tell them, even if Americans have heard it all. The communal and universalist "we" is a relic of starchy, Kennedy-era idealism (who's "we" paleface?), as annihilated by hip as the turtle-necked folkie's acoustic guitar in Animal House--the one John Belushi smashes after hearing a few verses of "I Gave My Love a Cherry."

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Even Bruce Springsteen, who'll play the song on Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center, can only bring himself to revive "We Shall Overcome" as a love ballad, on his new album-length tribute to Pete Seeger--the man who helped make the tune an international protest staple. (See reviews here, here, and here.) You'd have to go back to 1968 to find another good recording of the song, specifically to the Maytals and Marion Williams--the former a Jamaican reggae 45 cut in 1968 (probably not long after Martin Luther King's assassination, and certainly before the new genre had a name), and the latter re-imagined as a cut-time gospel workout. (Though Beenie Man deserves a mention for effort. Here's a "We Shall Overcome" discography, with audio sources here.)

So why even learn about "We Shall Overcome"? Because it has a history worth knowing, and the truth of that history is worth defending, and not just in the way you protectively indulge grandparents their remembrances. Songs that function socially, evolving in the mouths of different singers without ever being recorded, don't really exist anymore, except on the playground--the last true bastion of un-self-conscious folk culture. In the era of A Mighty Wind (a parody my folk-mass singing dad thought was hilarious, by the way), what do young people make of a figure like Seeger?

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(Pete Seeger playing for sailors in the 1940s)

The man turned 87 recently, a persistence of breath that might frustrate his anti-Communist attackers, forever revving the obit. Writing in last summer's City Journal, Howard Husock traced indigenous American radicalism to its only possible source--Moscow--and framed left-wing Yankee folk music as just another Popular Front strategy, with Seeger the key figure in this deception (see "America's Most Successful Communist" by Howard Husock, City Journal, Summer 2005). By way of example, he offered:

Another Popular Front success from this period was the 1937 reworking, at Tennessee's communist-founded Highlander Folk School, of the traditional black gospel number "I Will Overcome" into "We Shall Overcome," soon a labor rallying song.

The only problem with that sentence is that just about every part of it is false. Highlander was "communist-founded" (note the bet-hedging lower-case "c") only in the sense that Booker T. and the M.G.'s were a "white band." One of the people who started the Appalachian folk school in 1932, Don West, was a member of the Communist Party, but he had moved on by the time the school received its charter in 1934. Principle founder Myles Horton, who ran the school through the 1960s, never joined the party (though even this has been spun). Horton studied under theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the intellectual godfathers of anticommunism, and a key figure in the intellectual development of Martin Luther King, Jr. Niebuhr himself raised start-up funds for Highlander, enlisting help from International YMCA Secretary Sherwood Eddy ("YMCA-founded"?), and two of Niebuhr's graduate students became teachers at the school.

After decades of criminal, legal, and media attacks on Highlander by the political allies of the Ku Klux Klan, no evidence has been brought to light to support the segregationist slander that the institution was a "finishing school for communists." (Larded with mild accusations from unnamed informers, the FBI files are a joke.) Today the Highlander Research and Education Center stands 20 miles east of Knoxville, outliving a campaign that long ago should have blown back on those playing the guilt-by-association game (see "Myles Horton (1905-90), Educator and Social Activist of Highlander Adult Education Center, Tennessee" by Franklin Parker and Betty J. Parker, April 10, 2006 blog; and "Myles Horton, Civil Rights Leader and Teacher, Dead at 84," by Rob Wells, Associated Press, January 20, 1990).

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(Myles Horton)

The rest of the "Popular Front success" sentence is simply wrong: The song "I Will Overcome" was not reworked into a political anthem at Highlander, and it wasn't reworked in 1937.

The actual origins of the tune, not to mention where Seeger took it, argue the opposite of Husock's thesis that radical folk music was somehow a foreign plot. "We Shall Overcome" is more American than the national anthem, and became more international and universal through the Civil Rights movement. Its political transformation occurred on a tobacco picket line in 1946, well before arriving at Highlander the following year. Seeger was a member of the Communist Party between 1942 and 1950 (a period during which he also served in WWII, singing to hospitalized troops in Saipan), giving the international Communist conspiracy about four years of overlap with the song. Seven years after Seeger left the CPUSA, he sang "We Shall Overcome" for Martin Luther King at Highlander. Eventually, Seeger sang it in East Berlin as well, and in the Soviet Union, where it became a popular anthem of resistance to Communist rule.

(See "Pete Seeger: Still Singing for Peace," by John W. Barry, Poughkeepsie Journal, April 27, 2003; "Pete Seeger: Despite his best efforts, this radical is finding honors are being added to his fame," Laura Outerbridge, The Washington Times, November 28, 1994; "Life from the left: Folk icon Pete Seeger tells staff writer Jeffrey Weiss about his years as a communist," Jeffrey Weiss, Dallas Morning News, July 17, 2005; How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, by Pete Seeger with David Dunaway, Da Capo 1981/1990, as cited by Wikipedia; Susanne's Folksong-Notizen, also cited in Wikipedia.)

Husock concludes:

Happily, some have embraced the Popular Front's legacy in ways that Seeger probably didn't anticipate and wouldn't likely approve. In March, a crowd in Taipei, several hundred thousand-strong, sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Blowin' in the Wind" as part of a protest against forcible annexation by mainland China--and the prospect of Communist Party rule.

You have to wonder whether the writer ever stopped to consider how these songs reached the Communist world in the first place.

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When Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, "he was grilled on whether he was a communist," writes David Corn. "Seeger declined to talk about his political associations or ideas, but offered to tell the committee what songs he had sung in public. The committee was not amused" (see "Springsteen Does Seeger," David Corn, The Nation, March 6, 2006). What the singer actually said was:

I will tell you what my answer is. I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

Chairman WALTER: Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

Mr. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution.

(Read the full transcript.)

I've seen Seeger sing many times, and I interviewed him in 1993. I've never once heard him talk about the wonders of Communism. As he said half a century ago, his songs speak for themselves.

"We Shall Overcome" says more than most. It had existed in one form or another for as long as a century before it was copyrighted in 1963 by Seeger and three other white Civil Rights and labor activists associated with Highlander: Zilphia Johnson Horton (Myles Horton's first wife), who first transcribed it; Guy Carawan, who taught the song to sit-in students and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founders in 1960; and Frank Hamilton, who taught the song to Carawan (see "The Rise Of the Rights Anthem; 'We Shall Overcome': The Song, the History" by Caryle Murphy Washington Post, January 17, 1988). This version of the tune, whose royalties go to a Highlander "We Shall Overcome" Fund for "grassroots efforts within African American communities to use art and activism against injustice," has become standard:


Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall/will overcome some day

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
Some day

We'll walk hand in hand
Some day

We shall live in peace
Some day

We are not afraid

The whole wide world around
Some day

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There's inevitable mystery at the heart of the question of where this song comes from, but also unnecessary confusion. In The Music of Black Americans: A History, Third Edition (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), for instance, Eileen Southern cites different lyrics than those above:

"We shall overcome/We shall overcome/We shall overcome some day/For I know in my heart/It will come true/We shall overcome some day"

She doesn't offer a source for these lyrics, though she does recommend James J. Fuld's The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk (Dover, 1966/1995), still the definitive study of the song's early beginnings. The assertions that follow are as fascinating, and similarly un-sourced:

Its opening and closing phrases point back to the old spiritual "No More Auction Block for Me"... The middle section of the freedom song seems to be a contemporary insertion. The text of the song apparently derived from Charles Tindley's gospel song "I'll Overcome Some Day" [circa 1900]... and there are musical similarities as well between the gospel and freedom songs.

My only problem with the above is that the transcribed melody of Tindley's tune sounds exactly nothing like "We Shall Overcome," which should be no small detail in music historiography. (It sounds slightly more like "No More Auction Block For Me," but is still distinct, and was apparently sung alongside that number as a different song.)

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Set to an entirely different melody, the lyrics of Tindley's pre-gospel composition do read similarly: "I'll overcome some day/I'll overcome some day/If in my heart/I do not yield/I'll overcome some day." (The words first appeared in 1900's New Songs of the Gospel, where the hymn was credited to C. Albert Tindley and Rev. A. R. Shockly, according to The People's Almanac.)

Given the lyrical closeness, you can understand why historians less agnostic on the question than Southern have strayed further from the obvious fact that these are simply different songs. I'd include here everyone from Taylor Branch to Seeger himself (co-writing his autobiography). One very human reason for linking "We Shall Overcome" to Tindley's "I'll Overcome Some Day" is the simple one that doing so gives the song a person and biography to credit--Charles Albert Tindley, Methodist minister from Philadelphia. Tindley, as Branch writes, "was a prime influence on Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of modern gospel music." He also wrote "Stand By Me," which Ben E. King of the Drifters adapted for popular music (see Parting the Waters; and "Song of History, Song of Freedom," Mike Hudson, The Roanoke Times, January 14, 2001).

The more likely root of the song is "I'll Be All Right," which is sometimes written as "I Will Be All Right" or spelled "Alright" rather than "All Right." (Memories of the religious lyrics similarly vary: "We will meet the lord someday," "I'll see His face, I'll be like Him, I shall overcome some day.") According to Fuld, and to David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace's 1975 book The People's Almanac, the opening bars of the melody appear to derive from a hymn first published in 1794, "O Sanctissima," a European Christmas carol sung in Latin that in turn lifted its melody from "Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners" (or "The Sicilian Mariner's Hymn to the Virgin," or "Sicilian Mariner's Prayer"). One listen to "O Sanctissima" will confirm the match to "We Shall Overcome."

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(folk music fan Johann Gottfried von Herder)

Johann Gottfried von Herder--the German philosopher, theologian, and international folk music champion--seems to have brought the "Sicilian Mariner" tune to Germany in 1788 after a trip to Italy, and the song gained a second life there as a popular Christmas hymn ("O du Frohliche," sung today in English as "O How Joyfully"), after Johannes Daniel Falk gave it German lyrics in 1816. The following year, Beethoven arranged "O Sanctissima" for strings (see The People's Almanac, by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, Doubleday, 1975, reproduced here; and this page at www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com).

The melody, or a modern version of it, was adapted to new lyrics as "I'll Be All Right" in the days of American slavery, before its likely author could have laid legal claim to much of anything, least of all songwriting credit. Yet this hymn, which became popular in Southern black Baptist and Methodist churches in the early part of the 20th Century, eventually came to contain the lines "Deep in my heart, I do believe/I'll overcome some day" (see How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, as cited by Wikipedia). Dr. Bernice Johnson-Reagon, director of the black American culture program at the National Museum of American History (and one of the founding members of the Freedom Singers), believes that by the time "I'll Be All Right" reached the American Tobacco strike of 1945-'46, it was being called "I Will Overcome" or "I'll Overcome" in some parts of the country.

This jibes with The Book of World-Famous Music, which reports that "I'll Overcome Someday" with its contemporary, non-Tindley melody was published on May 1, 1945 by Martin and Morris Music Studio in Chicago, with original words by Atron Twigg, and revised music and lyrics by Chicago gospel arranger and publisher Kenneth Morris (1917-1988). The People's Almanac refers to the title as "I'll Overcome Some Day," calls the words by Twigg "additional," and credits Morris only with the arrangement, but adds that Chicago gospel legend "Roberta Martin [1907-1969] wrote another version, the last 12 bars of which are part of the current version of 'We Shall Overcome.'" Whether the song was inspired by the lyrics in Tindley's remains an open question, but I'd love to answer it.

(See The Book of World-Famous Music, cited here; The People's Almanac;"The Rise Of the Rights Anthem; 'We Shall Overcome': The Song, the History"; "The History of 'We Shall Overcome'" All Things Considered, January 15, 1999; and "The Martin and Morris Music Company" at History Wired.)

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(1946 Lucky Strike advertisement)

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(Roi-Tan, "The cigar that breathes")

After black women took up the song as "I'll Overcome" on a Charleston, South Carolina, picket line in 1946, the story becomes clearer and verifiable. The modern chapter of "We Shall Overcome" began in October, 1945, when workers walked out of the American Tobacco plant in Charleston as part of the CIO-affiliated Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Allied Workers Union. These were the folks who replaced the "I" with "we" in the final line of "I'll Be All Right," changing "I will overcome some day" to "We will overcome someday."

At American Tobacco, workers rolled, wrapped, and boxed Roi-Tans on segregated factory floors. "The jobs were so numbingly repetitive that a few workers in the plant had the reputation of being able to doze off and keep at it," writes Bo Petersen in the Post and Courier of Charleston (see "'We Shall Overcome': Civil rights anthem rose to prominence in Charleston strike," September 21, 2003). The reporter interviewed Lillie Mae Marsh Doster, whose job was to label boxes, turn them over, put them in a machine, and ring a bell.

The workers had been asking for 30 cents an hour. "Negotiations had raised the wage from 10 cents to 15 cents," writes Petersen. "Labor unions were on the rise. But for black workers, in a place and time when lynching still loomed as a threat, a strike took a lot of daring. The plant employed more than 2,000. After rounds of 'sit down' work stoppages and negotiations, the majority walked out in late October..."

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(National Urban League "We Shall Overcome" Pamphlet, 1963)

"I'll Overcome" (which Petersen identifies, probably incorrectly, as Tindley's "I'll Overcome Some Day") was a favorite of American Tobacco employee Lucille Simmons, a black woman who sang in the choir at Jerusalem Baptist Church, which supported the strikers.

"Simmons began singing the song to break up the picket line at the end of each day," writes Petersen. "Her voice turned heads. 'She had a beautiful alto voice, and she would holler that song out,' [Delphine] Brown said..."

Simmons sang a slow "long meter style" version of the song, and called it "We'll Overcome" (see Pete Seeger and Peter Blood, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies, Independent Publications Group, Sing Out Publications, 1993, as cited by Wikipedia; and "Guy Carawan uses music for recording social change," Hugh Boulware, Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1990.)

Seeger also specifically credits Simmons with changing the "I" to "We," though this reaches back into a period before his direct experience. In any case, others strikers were soon joining in, singing, "Down in our hearts/I do believe/We'll overcome some day."

"You think about that, it's almost like a prayer of relief," Doster told Petersen. "We didn't make up the song. We just started singing it as a struggle song."

As the picketing continued, the lyrics evolved into other variations: "We will organize"; "We will win our rights," and "We will win this fight." "The Lord will see us through" became "The union will see us through," and "We're on to victory" (see the 1988 documentary We Shall Overcome, cited in "We Shall Overcome," Walter Goodman, New York Times, December 6, 1988; and "Employing Music in the Cause of Social Justice: Ruth Crawford Seeger and Zilphia Horton," by Julia Schmidt-Pirro and Karen M. McCurdy, Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Spring-Summer, 2005).

When the strike ended in April 1946, four of every five workers had already gone back to work. Protesters wound up settling for the money they'd been offered in the beginning. "But the cigar factory strike spurred a voter registration drive that made the workers the main source of new black voters in Charleston in the next few years," writes Petersen. And with this new movement went the song.

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(Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan in Greenwood, Mississippi, July 6, 1963)

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(Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger, and Theodore Bikel photographed on July 26, 1963, by John Byrne Cooke at the Newport Folk Festival, singing "We Shall Overcome" with a standing audience of 13,000 joining in.)

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(Record of Joan Baez singing "We Shall Overcome" at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington)

In 1947, a couple of the workers involved in the American Tobacco strike were invited to Highlander folk school, founded 15 years earlier on a farm in Monteagle, Tennessee--a coal-mining town near Chattanooga. One of the few integrated institutions in the South, Highlander had trained union organizers since it opened, working with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and offering a scholarship in Eleanor Roosevelt's name while supporting farmers, textile workers, and coal miners across racial lines. "In the early days, the policy was to welcome anybody who could help build the CIO," said founder Myles Horton. "They didn't care whether you were Communist or reactionary or Catholic or the AFL."

Located in one of the poorest counties in America, Highlander practiced pedagogy of the oppressed long before the activity had the name. "We made it clear that we weren't bringing people together to tell them what to do," said Horton. "We had confidence in their ability to share their experiences and learn from each other and learn to trust their own judgment." A key part of the process was culture. "The school mixed classes on politics and economics with square dances and local lore," wrote Kristina Lindgren in the Los Angeles Times (see "Myles Horton, 84, Founder of Early Civil Rights Center," January 21, 1990).

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(Woody Guthrie photographed in June, 1940 at the Highlander Folk School.)

Arriving at Highlander in 1935, union activist Zilphia Johnson took over the school's cultural program and married Myles Horton in the same year. "She had a beautiful alto voice, an unpretentious rare voice, but not the showoff kind," remembered Pete Seeger, who had begun visiting Highlander and playing there with Woody Guthrie before the war. "She brought out the talents of her audience and their enthusiastic participation. Her approach resembled more that of a Black singer and the Black church" (see "Employing Music in the Cause of Social Justice").

Always listening for new songs, Zilphia learned "We'll Overcome" from the visiting American Tobacco workers--who reportedly arrived with separate groups of black and white, and on different occasions, to avoid arousing attention from authorities. Soon, she began singing the song "slower than anybody had heard it," according to Seeger. Zilphia taught the tune to her students, and published "Overcome" in the Highlander Songbook, which was distributed to other union organizers. By 1950, Joe Glazer and the Elm City Four had recorded and released "We Will Overcome" through the CIO Department of Education and Research.

Zilphia also taught the tune to Seeger. "It's the genius of simplicity," he said of the song. "Any damn fool can get complicated. I like to compare it to the backboard in basketball. You bounce your life experiences off it and they come back with new meaning" (see "The Rise Of the Rights Anthem; 'We Shall Overcome': The Song, the History" by Caryle Murphy, Washington Post, January 17, 1988).

Before taking the song back to New York, and on the road to California, Seeger added new verses: "We'll walk hand in hand" and "The whole wide world around." He eventually made another alteration as well. "I changed it to 'We shall,'" he said. "Toshi [Seeger, his wife] kids me that it was my Harvard grammar, but I think I liked a more open sound; 'We will' has alliteration to it, but 'We shall' opens the mouth wider; the 'i' in 'will' is not an easy vowel to sing well" (see Susanne's Folksong-Notizen, linked by the Wikipedia entry for "We Shall Overcome").

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Septima Clark with students.

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(Septima Clark, by Erin Currier)

Seeger later questioned his memory, wondering whether the "shall" came from Septima Clark (more here), the Highlander organizer who launched the Citizenship Schools project on South Carolina's Sea Islands in 1956. With the Hortons, Clark had helped teach tens of thousands of poor Southern blacks to read and write, thus enabling them to vote for the first time under Segregationist law (see "Myles Horton, Civil Rights Leader and Teacher, Dead at 84," by Rob Wells, Associated Press, January 20, 1990).

Whoever made the change, "We Shall Overcome" took root at Highlander just when the school was shifting in emphasis from union organizing to what's now thought of as the Civil Rights movement. Seamstress Rosa Parks attended a workshop at Highlander in 1955 before sparking the Montgomery bus boycott (see "Unconventional Folk School Marks 50th Year," Tom Eblen, Associated Press, October 24, 1982). The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the school on September 2, 1957, delivering a keynote speech at the 25th anniversary celebration, where Seeger sang "We Shall Overcome" and played banjo. On the drive to Louisville later that day, King kept humming the tune, then remembered its name. "There's something about that song that haunts you," he said to others in the car (see Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow, Vintage Books, 1986).

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(Martin Luther King, Peter Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander's 25th anniversary celebration, Monteagle, TN, 1957)

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(1960 propaganda postcard of Martin Luther King Jr., photographed in 1957 during Highlander's 25th anniversary celebration, with Daily Worker correspondent Abner Berry in the foreground with glasses, identified by the FBI as the only known Communist Party member in the photo. To the left of King, going from right to left: Highlander funder Aubrey Williams, founder Myles Horton, unidentified woman, and Rosa Parks. Far left: Pete Seeger's elbow.)

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(AFL-CIO button)

Highlander had been under attack from the reactionary right since it first opened, but the school's literacy program brought down the inflamed wrath of segregationists. The few hours King spent at the school on September 2 entered far-right mythology as part of a smear campaign against Highlander, King, and the movement. Photographer Ed Friend had come to the Labor Day Weekend celebration and asked Myles Horton permission to snap photos, and Horton agreed, offering to buy the pictures later. "As the weekend progressed, Horton thought it odd that Friend appeared uninterested in photographing or filming the speeches or meetings and more interested in the interracial socializing, the folk-dancing and swimming," writes Judith Blackburn Bechtel in her online biography of Maurice McCrackin, Building the Beloved Community. "And [Friend] always seemed to be trying to get Abner Berry into photographs."

Berry, unbeknownst to most participants at the conference, was a reporter for the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA (the publication folded the following year). Yet if Berry was quiet about his affiliation, Friend acted purely as a spy for the Georgia Education Commission, established in 1953 for the explicit purpose of preventing school desegregation. (Friend later conned another attendee into copying conference audiotapes for him, and testified against Highlander in a committee hearing of the Tennessee state legislature in Nashville as part of an "investigation" into the school. Read this paper, Bechtel's book, and this book for a fuller account. Note, too, that the prima facie evidence offered for Highlander's Communism was its policy of integration, and the social ease demonstrated between men and women across race lines--inevitably, the hearings focused on charges of interracial sex.)

The Highlander photos were published and distributed by the Georgia Education Commission, and have so thoroughly passed into reactionary lore that they are circulated online to this day.

"They put one of those pictures on billboards all over the South, captioned Highlander... 'Communist Training School,'" remembered Myles Horton. "The John Birch Society and the Governor's Committee of the State of Georgia put them out. They claimed that they spent over a million dollars on billboards. The picture had Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Aubrey Williams, and Septima Clark and me and other people in the front row. And Pete Seeger's elbow. Pete said he came within an elbow's distance of being in the famous picture."

One key piece of recorded evidence was curiously never put into play. "What is so amazing to me," said historian Taylor Branch in 1990, "is that in all this investigation, nobody, insofar as I can find, including the Georgia investigators who took the picture and the FBI agents who interviewed and questioned all the people who were there, recorded what King actually said at the 25th anniversary luncheon."

The tapes were available; they just weren't very helpful. The most salient King passage, as Branch suggested, was the following:

Men hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can't communicate with each other; they can't communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.

Read the transcript of King's speech here.

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During this period, "We Shall Overcome" gained two new verses: "We shall end Jim Crow" and "We shall live in peace." White supremacists viewed these sentiments as contradictory, and, looking at Martin Luther King, saw only fantastic projections of themselves. Captioning the "Communist Training School" photo, the Georgia Commission on Education wrote, "These 'four horsemen' of racial agitation have brought tension, disturbance, strife and violence in their advancement of the Communist doctrine of 'racial nationalism.'" When, of course, it was the Klansmen who rode horseback, and brought down terror in the name of racial nationhood.

One fearful night in July of 1959, a raid on Highlander spurred a new verse for "We Shall Overcome." As Myles Horton recalled,

a group of young people, a youth choir from Reverend Seay's church in Montgomery, was at Highlander. He thought it would be good for them to know there were white people that they could deal with as equals. They were looking at a movie called Face of the South. It was dark. Suddenly, raiders came in with flashlights. They must have been vigilantes and some police officers, but they weren't in uniform. They demanded the lights be turned on, but they couldn't get anybody at Highlander to do it. They were furious, you know, running around with flashlights. In the meantime, the kids started to sing "We Shall Overcome." It made them feel good. The raiders yelled, "Shut up and turn on the lights!" Then some kid said, "We're not afraid." Then they started singing, "We are not afraid. We are not afraid." That's when that verse was born.

(Another account names 13-year-old Jamalia Jones as the "kid," and reports the year as 1957, and still another account credits a different student, future Freedom Singer Mary Ethel Dozier, and puts the year back at 1959. See "Song of History, Song of Freedom," Mike Hudson, The Roanoke Times, January 14, 2001; and "'People Get Ready': Music and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s," by Brian Ward, www.historynow.org, June, 2006.)

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"We Shall Overcome" would not become the Civil Rights anthem, however, until it was sung by a white, South Carolina-born proto-hippie from Los Angeles, who learned the tune from Seeger via fellow Californian folkie Frank Hamilton and others. Guy Carawan came to Highlander in 1959 already loving the song, and when he performed it at Septima Clark's and Ella Baker's workshops in 1960, as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was taking shape, an official movement song was born. Taken up by black youth, the tune sped up again. "The song was different than in union days," one SNCC organizer remembered. "We put more soul in, a sort of rocking quality, to stir one's inner feeling. When you got through singing it, you could walk over a bed of hot coals, and you wouldn't notice" (see Susanne's Folksong-Notizen).

(Here's a musical transcription of "We Shall Overcome" based on a recording of SNCC Freedom Singers with Pete Seeger.)

Carawan took over Zilphia Horton's post as music director, left vacant since her untimely death in 1956. With his wife Candie Carawan, Guy began looking into the roots of "We Shall Overcome" and other folk songs collected by the school, later traveling around the South with a large Ampex tape recorder documenting them. The Carawans were particularly interested in Gullah-rooted Sea Island folk classics such as "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and eventually compiled 1967's Ain't You Got A Right To The Tree of Life, an oral history of Gullah descendents on Johns Island. "We were moved at how rich the culture was there," said Candie Carawan. "The fact that it fed some of that richness into the civil rights movement is a pretty incredible story" (see "Guy Carawan uses music for recording social change," Hugh Boulware, Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1990).

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(1963 songbook, We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement, Oak Publications)

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(1965 sheet music)

By the summer of 1960, "We Shall Overcome" had a soul beat and vocal depth. "The song didn't begin to spread until harmony and rhythm were added," said Carawan (see "Song of History, Song of Freedom"). And as the years marched forward, "We Shall Overcome" became a sort of movement ritual, with singers standing, crossing arms, and swaying in unison. During the 1963 March on Washington, hundreds of thousands led by Joan Baez sang the anthem before the Lincoln Memorial. But the tune slowed down again with the weight of numbers, and grew desperate as racist violence worsened.

Mourners sang "We Shall Overcome" after the corpses of four little girls were pulled from the bombed-out church in Birmingham. Movement activist Viola Gregg Liuzzo reportedly sang it as she lay dying of gunshot wounds. John Lewis found comfort in the song after his skull was fractured on Bloody Sunday, 1965. "It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength," he said (see "Song of History, Song of Freedom"; and this sermon).

Demonstrators sang "We will walk together" and "Black and white together" directly at President Lyndon B. Johnson on the streets of Washington, D.C., and when he addressed the nation in 1965 with a promise of a new voting rights law, he closed with the words, "And we shall overcome." (King, whose assistants had never seen him cry, became teary-eyed watching the speech on TV.)

Yet the anthem's moment was nearly overcome. In 1966, when Martin Luther King and others continued James Meredith's "March Against Fear" in Mississippi (the day after he was shot on June 6) the walk down the highway in the sweltering heat produced loose and angry talk, which King himself recorded:

"I'm not for that nonviolence stuff anymore," shouted one of the younger activists.

"If one of those damn white Mississippi crackers touches me, I'm gonna knock the hell out him," shouted another.

Later on a discussion of the composition of the march came up.

"This should be an all-black march," said one marcher. "We don't need any more white phonies and liberals invading our movement. This is our march."

Once during the afternoon we stopped to sing, "We Shall Overcome." The voices rang out with all the traditional fervor, the glad thunders and the gentle strength that had always characterized the singing of this noble song. But when we came to the stanza which speaks of "black and white together," the voices of a few of the marchers were muted. I asked them later why they refused to sing that verse. The retort was, "This is a new day, we don't sing those words anymore. In fact the whole song should be discarded. Not 'We Shall Overcome,' but 'We Shall Overrun.'"

As I listened to all these comments, the words fell on my ears like strange music from a foreign land. My hearing was not attuned to the sound of such bitterness. I guess I should not have been surprised. I should have known that in an atmosphere where false promises are daily realities, where deferred dreams are nightly facts, where acts of unpunished violence toward Negroes are a way of life, nonviolence would eventually be seriously questioned. I should have been reminded that disappointment produces despair and despair produces bitterness, and that the one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness.

(See The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, Warner Books, 1998.)

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(Protester at the 1966 James Meredith March remembers Jimmy Lee Jackson, killed February 1965 in Alabama while demonstrating for voter registration, photographed by Jo Freeman.)

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Seeger remembered young people on the march following up "We Shall Overcome" with a call-and-response chant of "What do we want?" "Freedom!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

"A few years later, even this was not enough to take away the milky taste of 'someday,'" Seeger wrote in his 1972 book The Incompleat Folksinger (with editor Jo Metcalf Schwartz, Simon and Schuster). "In 1972, I occasionally find myself humming it at work when I feel low and pessimistic about the human species."

Songwriter Julius Lester captured the darkened mood perfectly. "Those northern protest rallies where Freedom songs were sung... began to look more and more like moral exercises. 'See, my hands are clean.' Now it is over: the days of singing freedom songs and the days of combating bullets and billy clubs with love" (see Susanne's Folksong-Notizen).

Yet the movement was a moral exercise. And "We Shall Overcome" merely showed how shaky that excercise becomes when the people joining together behind that "we" are still divided by inequality themselves. Sticking to his guns, so to speak, Martin Luther King sang the song into Memphis in 1968, and after he failed to come out alive, mourners sang it again at his funeral. Yet the America that exploded in riots after his assassination was rejecting more than a song of nonviolence. If there was a history of black and white, urban and hillbilly, religious and secular music behind the stolid old tune, that backstory represented a left-wing politics many were ready to jettison for the "now" song. Besides addressing the emotional life of culture directly, Black Power and the armed white revolutionary left were the ultimate triumph of pop over folk. They replaced boring old activist labor with iconography and big gestures, organizers with stars.

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"We Shall Overcome" was dead to this sensibility, even as the song was cheating mortality elsewhere, sung on the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison by South African freedom fighter John Harris, and among U.S. farm workers (in Spanish) during the strikes and grape boycotts of the late 1960s. It was taken up by students and workers in Tiananmen Square, Northern Ireland, South Korea, Lebanon, and pre-fall-of-Communism Eastern Europe. In India, the song's literal translation in Hindi became a patriotic anthem in the '80s, "Hum Honge Kaamyaab," which endures today.

If "we" was the most troubling word in "We Shall Overcome" by the late 1960s, it also became the most malleable--and hopeful. "I confess that for me the most important word in this song is 'we,'" Seeger wrote in Carry It On! (1988, Simon and Schuster). "When I sing it, I think of the whole human race, which must stick together if we are going to solve the problems of war and peace, of poverty, ignorance, [and] fear."

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More "We Shall Overcome" links:

Thanks for the link, Mark Woods.

John Hammond, the link between Seeger, Springsteen, and Dylan.

More sources here.

Wonderful site about movement veterans:

It's not what you earn that make you a man

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Lots more links and text in my Desmond Dekker tribute below than there were last week (I have to confess, I didn't know Chris Blackwell's mom was Ian Fleming's lover, or that Edward Seaga worked with Folkways in the 1950s), so re-read the whole thing, or just skip to the end for audio and video links, including a video at Youtube for 1980's "Please Don't Bend" (click the image to play), and a video for a recent dancehall remake of "Israelites" with Dekker and Apache Indian. If anyone wants to share their own Dekker memories, please post them here or below.

More Desmond Dekker links:

There were a few too many more links in the story, I guess, forcing the computer to cut off links at the bottom. So here are some of the lost links, beginning with (by way of thanks and further reading) the pages linking that post: Rockcriticsdaily, Jeff Chang, Christopher Porter, Dance Crasher, Ochblog (currently down), Wikipedia's Dekker page (where I made a couple basic corrections in the "early days" section, such as his birthplace), and Ghost Roads. Also, check out all this Dekker audio, Mshairi's tribute, my sidebar on "The Mystery of Edward Seaga," donations here in Dekker's memory, Skinhead Nation on Dekker's popularity, an ILM thread, Desmond Dekker at emusic, more on "rude boy music" in my London Calling appreciation, Desmond Dekker interviews at Rock's Back Pages, Complicated Fun Jamaican music links (still in progress), London Independent obituary, Jamaica Gleaner obituary, Jamaica Observer obituary, Jamaica Observer, "Remembering Dekker", New York Times obituary, Rolling Stone obituary, an audio tribute at Hotshitrecords, and my initial cpculture.com post.

Recently posted elsewhere:

No more "no homo": Tori Fixx won't be trapped in the hip-hop closet (citypages.com 5/24/06), Weekend video: Atmosphere on Conan O'Brien (cpculture.com 5/27/06), Desmond Dekker R.I.P. (cpculture.com 5/27/06), First Avenue can't burn down (cpculture.com 6/5/06), National Review in 1977: Punk as Conservative Uprising (cpculture.com 6/6/06), A Starduster's Guide to Roadside Attractions (cpculture.com 6/6/06), a few blurbs in the summer concert guide (citypages.com 6/7/06), Brightblack Morning Light playing tonight, Ol' Yeller CD release on Friday, Prof and Rahzwell CD release on Saturday, Escape from Summer Camp Scavenger Hunt on Saturday! (cpculture.com 6/9/06)

Desmond Dekker Came First

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(Click above for full image.) Desmond Dekker publicity photo for Stiff Records, 1980.

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British issue of Dekker's first single, 1963.

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(Listen to 1966's "007 (Shanty Town)", 1968's "Israelites" at Ochblog, or 1969's "Reggae Recipe" at getupedina for a soundtrack to this article.)

Desmond Adolphus Dacres had to literally force his way into the Jamaican music business in 1962. At the top of a flight of stairs in the back of Beverley's Record and Ice Cream Parlor, on Orange Street in Kingston, Dacres was blocked from entering the rehearsal studio of producer Leslie Kong by two tall and established Beverley's stars, Jimmy Cliff and Derrick Morgan. The aspiring singer had already tried out for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, and for Duke Reid at Treasure Isle, but without luck. He had been taking half-days off from his welding job at Standard Engineering on South Camp Road to audition for "the Chinaman." But Kong kept telling him to come back another time.

"I just said, 'Look--I want to see Leslie Kong and one way or another I'm going to see him,'" Dekker told Chuck Foster in Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall (Billboard Books, 1999). "But they close the door. And when they open the door I just hold it and push everybody aside and just go in. And when I go in the room it was 'Hey, hey, why?' So I went to Leslie Kong and I said, 'Look, you told me to come back a couple of times and I did and nothing. So if you want to hear the songs I've got fair enough, and if you don't want to fair enough.' And he said, 'All right, let me hear what you've got.'"

Leslie Kong:

Dacres sang "Honour Your Mother and Father," a song he wrote himself, and the only undisputed fact of this story is that the man performing the tune had lost his own mother at a young age, and that the song became the first of 20 Jamaican hit singles he recorded for Kong as Desmond Dekker. (Though even here, we must add that Island Records issued the 45 in the United Kingdom under the name "Desmond Decker.")

Beyond that, the historical details blur. According to Stephen Davis's Bob Marley (Doubleday, 1985), a stray piece of iron caught in Dekker's eye at work, and the singer used his sick leave to pester Kong. Morgan claims that Dekker auditioned for him at Beverley's, and in 1961 (though that would put Dekker's arrival at the label within months of his own). "I 'ave Desmond Dekker in a Beverley's fi two years straight before 'im sing a tune," he told Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton in The Rough Guide to Reggae: the Definitive Guide to Jamaican Music, From Ska through Roots to Ragga (Penguin Books, 2001).

But Dekker remembered going into the recording studio the following week. Then again, he also remembered being 15 or 16 at the time, when he was more likely in his early 20s, not much younger than Morgan, or older than Cliff, whose rehearsal he'd crashed to get his audition.

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The three singers had something else in common besides youth and an ear at Beverley's. Dacres was born in the parish of St. Andrew on July 16, 1941 (or 1942, or 1943), and grew up in Kingston, where he attended the legendary Alpha Boy's school. "Then my mother was taken ill and died and my father took me to St. Mary's," he told journalist Laurence Cane-Honeysett in 1999. They soon moved again, to the rural town of Seaforth in St. Thomas, where other Dacres relatives lived, and Desmond recalled spending his youth on a farm, working as a tailor and singing gospel in a church choir before moving back to Kingston and apprenticing as a welder, going to the various sound systems on Maxfield Avenue every weekend (see "Obituary: Desmond Dekker," by David Katz, the Guardian May 27, 2006; and "Chance of a Dekker Trek Back in Time," by Martin Longley, Birmingham Post, February 21, 2001).

Morgan was from Clarendon, while Cliff (who claimed Dekker auditioned for him at Beverley's) hailed from St. Catherine (see Lloyd Bradley's This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music, Grove, 2000). They were all, in other words, part of a migrant wave to the city:

And still they come to town, gangling teenage runaways from the canefields and five-acre farms, all looking for something faster than chopping cane and humping bananas all their lives. Not sure... what they're really looking for at all--except they all know about Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker and the rest of them. They were all just country boys running with the Rude Boys until they bluffed their way into Leslie Kong's record store with a little tune they'd written...

--Michael Thomas in Jamaica: Babylon on a Thin Wire, 1977 (cited by Dick Hebdige in Cut 'N' Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music, Comedia, 1987)

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The "rude boys" were Jamaican street toughs who dressed to impress, taking their fashion cues from Hollywood gangsters and Western outlaws, and joining those figures as the glamorous subjects of Jamaican popular song as early as 1963. Yet Dekker was far from being the rude boy icon he would become. In his interview with Foster, he remembered ska pioneer Theophilus Beckford (of "Easy Snappin'" fame) accompanying him on piano during his Beverley's tryout. The older veteran cracked up halfway through the song--maybe Dekker's sweetness and biblical literalism was a bit much even by ska standards.

The soft-spoken young man had a striking high voice, however, and soon he was heading into Federal studio on Marcus Garvey Drive with Cliff, Morgan, Beckford, and the other Beverley All Stars to cut his 1963 debut single (with "Madgie" as the b-side) in a matter of hours. Timothy White's Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley has Dekker recording with sound-system legend Count Boysie, but others claim Australian-born Graeme Goodall engineered the session.

As he waited for the release of "Honour Your Mother and Father," the singer went back to welding, even learning underwater techniques before Byron Lee offered him a show. Back on the job, Dekker met a young trainee from St. Ann's named Robert Nesta Marley, who had been brought to the shop by his mum. Dekker encouraged his new pal to pursue his own musical fortunes at Federal and Beverley's.

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"We were very, very good friends," Dekker later said of Bob Marley. "I called him Robbie, he called me Iley One--it means a person who don't have no girlfriend, just eat and sleep and work" (see "Desmond Dekker, voice of Jamaica's slums, dies at 64," by Cahal Milmo, London Independent, May 27, 2006). The two would go up to the roof of the plant overlooking Sabina Park and watch the cricket games (by day) and football games (at night), eating buns and drinking Fantas.

"Bob loved to play football and I sometimes used to watch him play," Dekker told Cane-Honeysett. "I didn't play, 'cos cricket was more my thing."

Today, Bob Marley is the figure most associated with Jamaican popular music in the world. But as the old Maytals song put it, "Desmond Dekker Came First." With that chorus, Toots Hibbert merely and literally credited his fellow Beverley's singer with taking first place in 1968's third annual Jamaican Independence Festival Song Competition. But the words became true in less trivial ways. With Trinidadian-born guitarist Lynn Taitt strumming the lilting rock steady riff of 1966's "007 (Shanty Town)" (a.k.a. simply "007"), and close harmonies from backup men the Aces (formerly the Four Aces, with Carl Winston Samuel, Clive Campbell, and Barry Howard--minus departing vocalist Patrick Johnson), Desmond Dekker became the first patois-singing Jamaican to rush the British charts with a song recorded on the island.

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The first international ska hit had actually been 1964's "My Boy Lollipop," a cover of Barbie Gaye's 1957 R&B number by one Millie (born Millicent Small in Clarendon), another Beverley's singer, whom Island Records founder Chris Blackwell brought to London to record with a local band (led by arranger Ernest Ranglin) catering to the pop audience (see Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music, by Chris Salewicz and Adrian Boot, Abrams, 2001). But "007 (Shanty Town)" was different. Otherworldly and indecipherable, the hypnotic track blended imperial movie iconography (the James Bond of 1962's Jamaican-set Dr. No--with an un-credited Bryon Lee singing "Jump Up" at the club "Puss Feller's"--and the Rat Pack of 1960's Ocean's 11) with the exploding Jamaican street, making pop figures of the rude boys in a major key. Dekker's rolling lines, transcribed below (with help from Dick Hebdige's Cut 'N' Mix, this Dekker site, and a comment below), described an unfolding civil war (listen to the track here):

"007 (Shanty Town)" (Dacres/Kong)

Oh oh seven
Oh oh seven
At Ocean's Eleven
An' now rude boys a go wail
'Cause them out of jail
Rude boys cannot fail
'Cause them must get bail

Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail (a Shanty Town)
Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail (a Shanty Town)
And rude boys out on probation (a Shanty Town)
And rude boy bomb up de town (a Shanty Town)

Police get taller (a Shanty Town)
Soldier get longer (a Shanty Town)
De rude boys a weep an' a wail (a Shanty Town)

Whether or not you hear "a go wail" as "are for real," the song was an arresting freeze frame of Kingston cool on the edge of disillusionment and a ganja trance. Jamaica had achieved independence on August 6, 1962, but had since spiraled into an economic crisis not yet troubling the conscience of Daily Gleaner editors or the wealthy exporters of bauxite. As the ruling Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) (aligned with the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and the island's oligarchy of so-called "21 families") touted a new tourist economy, the rural unemployed filled Kingston to create a new, hungry underclass.

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(The Wailers: Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh, 1964)

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("Love, prosperity be with us all": Bob Marley joining the hands of the People's National Party's Michael Manley and the JLP's Edward Seaga at the One Love Concert in Kingston, April 22, 1978. Read "The Mystery of Edward Seaga" at complicatedfun.com for more background.)

Years later, when Prime Minister Michael Manley (of the opposing People's National Party, or PNP, and the National Workers Union) attempted to address the poverty problem by nationalizing some industry, he was met with American economic sanctions, capital flight, and a flood of Central Intelligence Agency M-15s into the Jamaican criminal underworld, a campaign of destabilization that ended only after Manley had been eased out of power in the 1980 election--with surrender to the International Monetary Fund foregone. (Henry Kissinger, who pushed the operation forward in 1976 as a sequel to his Chile success, was incensed by Manley's support of Cuban intervention in Angola against South Africa. See Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, by William Blum, Common Courage Press, 2003; "Murder as Usual," by Ernest Volkman and John Cummings, Penthouse, December 1977; and Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, by Jeff Chang, St. Martin's Press, 2005.)

(Sidebar: Viewed in CIA communications as pro-PNP, Bob Marley himself was shot in the left arm on December 3, 1976, by gunmen led, according to Vivien Goldman's new The Book of Exodus [Three Rivers Press, 2006], by JLP-affiliated gang leader Lester "Jim Brown" Coke. Marley had attacked the CIA in 1976's "Rat Race"--Rasta don't work fe nuh CIA!"--so you can imagine why conspiracy theories flew once it became known that filmmaker Carl Colby, son of the CIA director replaced earlier that year by George Bush, William Colby, had been part of a film crew following Marley before the assassination attempt. Carl Colby denied any involvement with either the CIA or Marley's death--including the wild story that he gave Marley cancer with a pair of boots--in a 2002 issue of The Beat. Brown died in a Jamaican jail in 1992. See Charles Aaron's column in Spin, June, 2006. For more conspiracy mongering, see a 1998 article from Conscious Rasta Report, "The CIA and Reggae", though it's probably telling that the sentence "The CIA employed Charles 'Little Nut' Miller as a political thug attached to Edward Seaga's JLP Party and later as a member of a vicious Jamaican 'posse' drug gang in the U.S." is misleadingly inserted into an otherwise faithfully quoted passage from the L.A. Times--it appears nowhere in the original article.)

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In 1966, the very real response of the Jamaican ruling class to its new poor was to arm itself to the teeth. When tens of thousands of Dreadlocks and Rastafarians overtook the Kingston airport to worship visiting Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie as a god in April, elites were spooked (see Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica, by Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, Da Capo, 1992). Both major political parties began carrying firepower, with the JLP taking the lead, and a police raid of a legendary JLP-controlled club (Chocomo Lawn on Wellington Street in Denham Town, West Kingston) for weapons in 1966 was seen as a sign of the times (see "Turf Wars Tear Island: Gang, Political Rivalries Fuel Jamaican Violence," by Tim Collie, Sun-Sentinel, July 15, 2001). By 1967, Kingston had come to resemble a series of military garrisons, with political parties strategically allying themselves with any of the four largest downtown street gangs and drug posses: the Vikings, Park, the Spanglers, and Salt City.

(James Bond's and Felix Leiter's real-life counterparts were complacent about, if not complicit in, the changing Jamaican landscape: "We've got everything in our back pocket," said CIA director Richard Helms to a Washington staff meeting in 1968, returning from the island after meeting with local CIA station staff and members of the Jamaican Security Service, according to Ernest Volkman and John Cummings. British intelligence also reportedly maintained a steady presence long after independence.)

In response to this climate, Dekker merely observed and described. When police moved in with bulldozers to clear mostly-Rastafarian squatters from the Back-O-Wall slum in Western Kingston on July 12, 1966, leveling their huts, residents resisted. "The students had a demonstration and it went all the way around back to Four Shore Road and down to Shanty Town," Dekker told Foster. "You got wild life and thing like that there because it went down near to the beach. And the higher ones wanted to bulldoze the whole thing down and do their own thing and the students said no way! And it just get out of control."

(Where the shanties had stood, the JLP built Jamaica's first housing project, the notorious Tivoli Gardens, which became a sort of JLP fortress against PNP-dominated Trench Town. The JLP recruited a new gang, the Phoenix, to police the development and make war on PNP rivals. See Can't Stop Won't Stop.)

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Calling the Back-O-Wall rebels "rude boys" cashed in on a waning trend (though Dekker kept flogging with the pre-reggae "Rude Boy Train"--"Double-Oh Seven is back on the scene," he sang--and "Rudy Got Soul"), and Dekker's pop free-associations had an element of the cavalier (he later referenced 1965's The Face of Fu Manchu on 1968's spellbinding reggae "Foo Manchu"--listen here--for no other apparent reason other than he'd recently seen it).

But Jamaican record-buyers loved the well-pressed and deadly British Secret Service agent 007, whose John Barry-composed theme song (lifting a guitar line from his own "Bea's Knees") was covered by Roland Alphonso. So the identification of superspy with insurgent made perfect commercial sense, however ironic. James Bond's fastidious creator, longtime Jamaican resident Ian Fleming, had helped imagine the CIA into existence in the first place, with a 1941 advisory memo to Roosevelt's general in charge of espionage, Co-ordinator of Information "Will Bill" Donovan. JFK, who listed From Russia With Love as his ninth favorite book in a 1961 Life article, led a campaign of terror and assassination against Cuba that owed an apparent royalty to Fleming's imagination (exploding cigars for Fidel Castro, etc.), before the federal cult of secrecy and violence turned back on the young president. (See "Bottoms Up," by Christopher Hitchens, the Atlantic Monthly, April, 2006; Corruptions of Empire, by Alexander Cockburn, Verso, 1987; and The James Bond Films, by Steven Jay Rubin, Arlington House, 1981.)

Today, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who built his fortunes in part on the export of Dekker's records, and on Bob Marley's subsequent career, owns Fleming's Goldeneye estate on Oracabessa Bay in Jamaica, among his many hotels. His mother, Blanche Blackwell, had sold the property to Fleming in the first place, and remained a neighbor for years before her son bought it back for her in 1977. The longest love of Fleming's life, Blanche was the model for Adela, heroine of Noel Coward's unpublished play Volcano, and sold Coward his property as well. Meanwhile, Fleming unwittingly helped launch young Chris Blackwell's career by recommending him to be a production assistant on Dr. No, shot in Jamaica in 1962. With money earned from the film, Blackwell created Island Records (see "Jamaica: Where it all began," by Veronica Gould Stoddart, USA Today, January 19, 2003; and "Fleming's 'Bond' With Women," New York Post, May 23, 2000).

Singing about cool bomb-throwers transformed the smiling and soft-crooning Dekker into a pop god for the violent, stylish British mods and skinheads (more here), who adopted his fashions several years before "007 (Shanty Town)" appeared on the soundtrack of the violent, stylish 1972 reggae film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff and other Beverley's greats, and executive-produced by Chris Blackwell. Suddenly Dekker, an unabashed fan of Nat "King" Cole, was seen as a new balance of elegance and macho, vocal lightness and the weight of the world. (In retrospect, to my ears, he was a unique link between Sam Cooke and Youssou N'Dour.) Paul McCartney name-checked "Desmond" on the Beatles' belated 1968 stab at ska, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," and Dekker's records began selling across Europe as well.

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(Sheet music for 1968's "Israelites," adding the widely misheard "The," a mistake reinforced by the titling of Dekker's 1969 album, via Dance Crasher.)

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(UK issue of Dekker's 1969 album The Israelites on Pyramid.)

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(Click above to watch Desmond Dekker lip-synching "Israelites", announced as "The Israelites," on British television's Top of the Pops, 1969, via Youtube.)

Then 1968's "Israelites" transformed Dekker from foreign pop mystery into something more universal--a crier of suffering, with a startling falsetto and even gentler, more spacious new music (reggae, this time). Still one of the more beautiful and powerful songs ever to grace the pop charts, "Israelites" (not "The Israelites," and not "(Poor Mi) Israelites") invited confusion from its title on downward. As released in 1968, at any rate, the single was "Israelites" (with "The Man," or "My Precious World (The Man)" as the b-side) on Beverley's Records in Jamaica, Pyramid in the UK, and on Uni in the U.S.A., in 1969. Neither a reference to Israel, African repatriation, nor Rastafarian faith (Dekker was a Christian), "Israelite" was merely a biblical allusion to the status of the African Diaspora in a world of have-nots, in which the haves hire men with guns.

"It's really about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica," Dekker told Honeysett. "Downtrodden, like the Israelites that Moses led to the Promised Land. And I was really saying that no matter how bad things are there is always a calm after a storm, so don't give up on things." (See my "Rivers of Babylon in Liberia" for more twists in the Jamaican-African-Moses waterway.) Decades after Dekker lip-synched the tune on Top of the Pops in 1969 (watch it here) with that strange flopping mouth of his, he was still explaining himself to fans: No, the opening line was never "Ketchup in the morning, baked beans for breakfast." (Though Dekker, never one to argue much with fans, appeared to change the chorus to "the Israelites" in later years--see this video from Jools Holland at Youtube.)

"Israelites" is so misquoted that even its "misheard lyrics" page and published sheet music get it wrong. (I'm guilty of misquoting as well.) Given that Dekker is on the record as saying that the opening lyric is "Get up in the morning slaving for breads, sir" ("Breads is money," he told Foster), there's no correct version of the lyrics online. So here's a new transcription drawing on a number of sources, and probably still wrong:

"Israelites" (Dacres/Kong)

Get up in the morning, slaving for breads, sir
So that every mouth can be fed
Poor me Israelite

Get up in the morning, slaving for breads, sir,
So that every mouth can be fed
Poor me Israelite

Wife an' ma kids, dem pack up and a-leave me
Darling, she said, I was yours to receive
Poor me Israelite

Shirt dem a-tear up, trousers a go
I don' wan' to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.
Poor me Israelite

After a storm there mus' be a calming
You catch me in ya palm, you sound ya alarm
Poor me Israelite

I'm wandering
I'm working hard to
A poor, a poor, a poor
Me Israelite
I look a-down on a-me, sir

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(Click above to read NME article on reggae from 1969 at Dance Crasher)

"Israelites" was the first native Jamaican recording to reach No. 1 on the British music charts, or to crack the U.S. Top 10, and it gained enough nostalgic power in America to turn up on the soundtrack of 1989's '70s-set Drugstore Cowboy.

Dekker toured the UK in 1969, and soon, like so many other reggae singers, took up residence there, settling in Surrey. Yet his career lost momentum in 1971 with the death, from heart attack, of longtime producer and manager Leslie Kong, who had stuck with him since 1963. "That kind of knock the stuffing out of Desmond," says his friend Delroy Williams, in a May 26, 2006 interview with myself--see the full text below. "It took him a long time to recover. Because Leslie Kong was in charge of all his finance."

Dekker had never recorded with anyone else: According to legend, he left Kong briefly in the mid-1960s, following Bob Marley, but on the day he was to record with Duke Reid, Kong showed up and begged him to return.

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Dekker reached the UK Top 20 one more time without re-recording "Israelites," with 1975's cheerful "Sing a Little Song." But his answer to the 2-Tone ska revival of the late '70s, the album Black And Dekker (recorded with Graham Parker's Rumour for Stiff Records) quickly went out of print (watch this wonderful 1980 video for "Please Don't Bend" at youtube, via musiclikedirt), and in 1984 he was declared bankrupt. A collaboration with the Specials on Trojan followed in the '90s, and Dekker kept touring as a reggae oldies act right up until his death last week, on Thursday morning of May 25, after suffering a heart attack onstage during sound check on Wednesday in Dublin, Ireland. Dekker had European shows planned through next month. His final concert appearance was at Leeds Metropolitan University on May 11, 2006.

It is America's loss that Dekker waited until 1992 to tour the United States, when the CD boom made his Jamaican sides widely available to a new cult audience. Rhino's choice compilation of that year, Rockin' Steady: The Best of Desmond Dekker, is still the best place to start, though the mastering of "Israelites" is inferior to that on the classic 1993 genre box Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music (which also contains Dekker's backup singing on Derrick Morgan's jubilant proto-"_ _ _ _ Tha Police," "Tougher than Tough"). The recent Trojan Dekker two-disc, You Can Get It If You Really Want: The Definitive Collection, fills in such 1970 orchestral gems as the b-side "Perseverance." (Though the mastering is questionable throughout--most songs sound slower than on other compilations--this set includes some wonderful rarities, including a medley of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Wise Man" recorded at the BBC in 1969.) Beverly's All Stars were a musical marvel in more ways than one, with Theophilus Beckford's ramshackle piano making "Mother Pepper" (appearing on both compilations) a thing of pure, ragged loveliness--Dekker's second greatest recording of 1968. Of that track, unless you're Jamaican, you probably won't understand a word.

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(Click above for full image.) Program from Wembley Reggae Festival, 1969, previously posted at Dance Crasher, adding "The" to "Israelites."

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"Single of the Week," Sounds, May 17, 1980, via thespecials.com message board.

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(Desmond Dekker at his final concert in Leeds, 2006, photographed by Danielle Millea.)

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Delroy Williams on Desmond Dekker: an interview

Born and raised in St. Ann, Jamaica, Leon Delroy Williams was brought to England by his parents at the age of nine, and began dancing and singing with the Soul Explosion revue in the mid-1060s, when he was still a teenager. As a sound system DJ, he organized one of the first open-air reggae festivals in London's Brockwell Park. As a singer, he signed to Bell Record in 1970, releasing his version of Billy Joe Royal's "Down in the Boondocks" on Trojan. An aspiring screen actor, he's had bit parts in The Saint and Batman Begins. But Williams's main profession since 1981 has been managing and singing with Desmond Dekker, whom he met during Dekker's 1969 tour of the UK. Speaking over the phone on May 26, Williams asks me to call back, at first: Between speaking with reporters and making funeral arrangements, he had not had time to shower in two days. When I call him back, he's eager to discuss the man he calls his best friend.

How did you meet Desmond Dekker?

I was on his tour in 1969 for about two months. I wasn't performing, but I was just going with Tony and Bruce, the managers, because I was Jamaican, like Desmond. Just for company. I wasn't even onstage with him. Just for company.

What was Desmond Dekker like?

He was very shy, very quiet. When he got onstage, he was a different person. Onstage there was no one else like him. Offstage, when he's home, he's a gentleman, and when I say gentleman, I mean gentle. He wouldn't step on a fly. He was private, and when I say private I mean very private. He wasn't one of those artist who, when he's not working, he needs to be out there among the scene. No, that's not him. You won't see him in no nightclubs or no bars or no nothing like that. He love his home. And when he's on his own, he enjoy his own company.

Were there many other Jamaicans around him when he first came to England in 1969?

No, because the management company that he was with, they kind of was in total control, and they just let him work and take him back to his hotel. Because the song "Israelites" was a hit all over the world, especially Europe, he find that traveling from Jamaica to do all this work was a strain. So he kind of settle down in England because it was easier to get to the rest of the world from England than from Jamaica. So he sent for his wife and child and settled down here and stayed.

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What were your duties when you were working with him?

Well, 26 years ago I took over as manager. At first I was a solo artist on my own. Then we decide to join up together. At first I would go out there and do a half-hour show, and then he would do his show. And then I decided I would just do one show. I sang backup vocals.

I wasn't just a manager. He was, you know, he was my best friend. We were like brothers. Anywhere you see Desmond, you see me. Anywhere you see me, you see Desmond.

What was it like singing with him?

Oh my God. You see, the reason why I enjoy singing with Desmond is because he's got a voice that nobody else in the reggae world have. Nobody can beat him when it comes to falsetto. And the way he can curve some of his notes, sometimes you think he's going out of key, and the way he go and come 'round it, he just amaze you. He was one of the nicest vocalists, one of the most energetic entertainers that I know.

Back in 1969, England must have seemed almost an alien world to him.

Well, I'll tell you what. One time we went over Hampton to do a show. And when we got there, there was a queue of about a thousand people outside, and we drove up and everybody saw him in the car. And they all start shouting, "Desmond!" And he just get out the car and start walking over to them. And then a thousand people come. We had to jump out the car, grab him, and throw him in the car, and drive off. He didn't realize how dangerous it was. They weren't going to harm him, but they were going to swarm him in such a way that he would get hurt.

Were these people mostly...?

All white. All white. The white people really take Desmond as their own. 'Cause all the shows, everywhere we go to, even in a black area like Brixton in England, Birmingham, you can count the black people on one hand.

Weren't there a lot of Jamaican immigrants in England at that point?

Oh, yes. Because in the '60s, when Desmond had his hit, he was working the black clubs and the white clubs. But black folks are not loyal fans. If you're current, yes. But if you're not current, anymore, then that's it. But with white folks, like for instance, jazz. There was a time when jazz was a black thing, but then white folks just take it as their own. It becomes a white thing. There was a time when rock and roll was a black thing. Of course, a lot of people think white folks create rock and roll, which is amazing. You understand?

Yeah, I suppose you had first-hand experience with reggae becoming not just a white thing, but a skinhead thing.

Oh, the skinhead just totally capture, I wouldn't say "reggae," I would say "Desmond's music." The skinheads, Desmond is their god. And then they discovered Laurel Aitken. But Desmond was their god. Because we been to places where people said it was all National Front skinhead.

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Did you talk to any of these people?

Oh, yes. I mean, me, personally, when we go to some places that we know that they're National Front. But they just love Desmond's music, I said, "On Saturday night they jump to reggae music, and on Sunday they go kick head in." [laughs]

Were these guys racists?

People used to say they're Nazis. But as far as Desmond was concerned, they were fans. They loved Desmond. I don't know if they like black people, but Desmond was theirs.

Was his fashion style influential? It seemed like the skinheads were copying the way he looked.

Yes, and the mods with the short pants, and the rude boys in the short pants. You know, Desmond's trousers used to be three-quarter length, above his boots. And you look at the rude boys and skinheads today, their trousers stop above the boots. That's Desmond.

Were you familiar with his singles before he came to England?

Well, at the time I was singing, I used to buy all the music. I had a room for just music. You know, soul music, reggae music. Then that got raided. They broke in when I was touring in Germany. I left my house for six months, and left somebody to take care of my house, and when I got back, somebody break in and stole all my records. And the funny thing about it, I was down in Brixton one day, and a guy came up to me and said, "Delroy, you're into music, you want to buy some LPs?" I'm a say, "Yeah, man. I'll take what you got." He said, "Come with me." And I went 'round to his house, and there was all my records, what you got left after he sell. I said, "Jesus Christ, how much you want?" And at the time he said about 800 and something pounds. An' I said, "Wait here, I'll go get the money and come back." And I came back with the police. The guy I left in charge of my house was the guy that rob it with him.

So did you buy "Honour Your Mother and Father"?

I buy all those things because I was also DJing in a sound system as well.

Where were your sound systems?

Oh, London, Birmingham, Manchester, just in the black places.

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Did you like his music right away?

Desmond Dekker's music? "Honour Your Mother and Father" was his first recording that I had, and another song that he won the Jamaican Song Festival, "Music Like Dirt" [a.k.a. "Intensified Festival 68" listen here] that won the festival. When I put that on my sound system, that used to mash up the dance. You know? I've got all of his music, because I'm a collector.

Did he do any recent recordings that people might have missed?

There's 20 tracks that we went into the studio and re-recorded about three years ago because he said, "Before I die, I want to hear my music in stereo." [laughs] That's on Secret Records. The only difference between the new recording and the old recording is that it's in stereo.

You knew him by the time Leslie Kong died.

Yes. When Leslie Kong died, that kind of knock the stuffing out of Desmond. It took him a long time to recover. Because Leslie Kong was in charge of all his finance, because Leslie Kong set up a company for him where all his money was going. And then Leslie Kong died and he didn't know where his money was. And that died with Leslie Kong.

Did he get money from his music?

No, for a while he wasn't getting his money. But when we decided to go to court, it was settled on in court, and he got enough money to live on for the rest of his life.

What was his life like in the past few years?

Well, Desmond like his home. He like to be at home when he's not working. And he never get tired of being at home, in his garden, and sitting down with his guitar, writing and playing music. He enjoy his own company. He like his own space. Because getting dressed to go to a nightclub is like going to a factory. His home was his refuge. Because it was private. He was private, man, and he was laid back. He was so laid back, man, sometime I think he's going to fall down. He was, you know, you have to kind of know Desmond like I do, and live with Desmond like I do, to know how funny Desmond can be. Honestly, he can make you laugh until your stomach fly away, man.

What did he say?

Just jokes that he'd tell. But nobody outside his home, or outside his little circle, would hear dem jokes. Nobody outside his circle could see how funny he was. He was a-sweet, he was loving, he was kind. When he decide to, like when we're together around his house, myself, his daughter, and his son, and we play music and laugh, and Desmond was the party, what you would call it. You can't be down when you're there, because he was always life. He cook. He like to cook. And we eat. And he don't want you in the kitchen when he's cooking. And when you finish eat, it don't even make sense to help to wash up. He don't want you in his kitchen. [laughs]

What was your favorite dish by him?

Fish. And beef. Desmond was a really good cook. But again, only myself and his daughter and son can say that.

Did his neighbors in Surrey know who he was?

On the whole street, I think there was only the two people next door and the one in front of him [who knew him]. Because he would get there in his car, get out his car, and go inside his house, leave his house, get in his car and leave. You won't see him walking up and down his street. That is Desmond. He say hello to his neighbors and that's it. [laughs]

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What do you think his contribution was to music?

Well the thing is, you used to hear people saying that Bob Marley is the first reggae superstar, and [Desmond] used to just kind of give that little funny look. It never bother him, because he know. He know that when "Israelites" was number one, nobody ever heard of Bob Marley. But Desmond opened the door for all reggae artists that you hear of today.

Did he ever do anything besides music after "Israelites"?

There was no time to do anything else. I can't think of anywhere in the world that we haven't been. Next Friday we supposed to be in Czechoslovakia, and then Saturday we supposed to be in Vienna, and Sunday we supposed to be in Ireland. A lot of the dates aren't on the web site because a lot of them are private society shows.

Are you helping with preparations?

I'm sorting out all the funeral arrangements and everything, because he lived his life as a private person, and I'm going to give him private funeral just for families and friends, just because he wouldn't like no stampede. So that's what I'm going to do.

What religion was he?

He's a Christian. What country you calling from?

Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A.

We just toured there last year.

I wish I could have seen him.

Yeah, all the shows were sold out. But that is life, man. Don't be disappointed because at the end of the day, we're all going to see him again.

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Desmond Dekker links:

Complete Desmond Dekker links at Complicated Fun

Desmond Dekker official webite

Desmond Dekker tribute site

Desmond Dekker tribute blog at Trojan Records

Desmond Dekker Wikipedia entry

Delroy Williams site

Lynn Taitt site

Video: Recent collaboration between Desmond Dekker and Apache Indian, remaking "Israelites" (or view it at Apache Indian's official site), via the Pietasters forum

Video: Hilarious 1980 video for "Please Don't Bend" at youtube, via musiclikedirt

Video: "Israelites" live in the disco '70s

Video: "Israelites" live in 1969?

Video: Desmond Dekker lip-synching "Israelites", announced as "The Israelites," on British television's Top of the Pops, 1969, at youtube

Video: Complete Desmond Dekker concert at Google Video

Audio: Fresh Air tribute to Desmond Dekker on NPR--repeats at least one myth (according to Dekker, the Cherrypies, a.k.a. the Cherry Pies, weren't the Maytals, though members might have overlapped or collaborated)

Audio: 1968's "Israelites" at Ochblog

Audio: The Clash covering "Israelites" live at Retro Clash

Audio: 1968's "Foo Manchu" at DJ Durutti

Audio: 1968's "Intensified" at DJ Durutti

Audio: 1970's "Reggae Recipe" at getupedina

Audio: 1967's "007 (Shanty Town)"

Audio: The Skatalites' "Doctor Dekker" at undomondo

Audio: New Sam Cooke reggae mashup at piccadillyrecords.com

Audio: Desmond Dekker Live in London at Ochblog

1969 Top Pops British music newspaper interview

1999 interview with Laurence Cane Honeysett

2005 interview in Undercover Magazine

Desmond Dekker tribute on Johnny Spencer's page

Jamaican and Caribbean music links, A-Z, at Complicated Fun