February has come and gone, alas.
It remains impressive that Knox County Public Library can herald Black History Month simply by re-arranging precious favorites long on hand. Here are just a few of the thousands of titles in the collection that illuminate and document the black experience in America and beyond. Of course, they are available year-round. Visit knoxmercury.com for even more selections.
Recorded in 1960, the compositions on this fairly explosive record began as a commemoration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, with portions intended to accompany modern dancers. It had its course changed by the emerging movement for independence among former colonies in Africa, coupled with the sit-in protests spreading throughout the American South. Vocalist Abbey Lincoln is nothing short of incendiary, and cements her reputation as a truth-teller over the course of this suite. Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins plays some of his most expressive lines on record and declined the offer to correct a couple misses. And Max Roach, thank God, is Max Roach. His instrument was the drum kit, but rather than mere music or rhythm he seemed to radiate the potential for excellence in those around him.
Let us hopefully presume that everyone reading this is aware of the existence of this bounty. Let’s include it just in case you were unaware that you and your public library own it and share it. There was no precedent for the spirit, talent, and genius that came together in this musical Memphis community. The instrumental brilliance of the house bands, the Bar-Kays and Booker T and the MGs, continues to resonate throughout jazz and popular music. Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, Carla Thomas, and scores of their labelmates set lasting standards for stage and studio performance. You can see their aspiring descendants wherever music is being made.
Scripture and gospel music provided a vocabulary for nonviolent activism during the Civil Rights movement. Life is hardship and rewards are deferred or denied. This anthology is notable for its stylistic diversity, its departure from the quartet tradition that prevailed following World War II, and its inclusion of some most excellent oddities. Recorded in 1956, Alabama preacher Elder Beck condemns rock ’n’ roll music at length and with great conviction. He also happens to be rebutting/accompanying himself with some smoking electric guitar right out of Aftermath-era Keith Richards. Also present is the near-mythical minstrel Abner Jay, who made a name for himself playing and preaching across the South, from the back of his mule-drawn cart, as recently as the early 1990s. “My Testimony” captures him in a studio with organ, choir, and full ensembles. Here are some righteous sounds, all worth hearing.
While on the subject of Stax Records, consider this mandatory viewing. Mel Stuart built this documentary around the 1972 Wattstax Music Festival, an all-day, all-star Los Angeles concert featuring Stax Records hitmakers commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. Tickets cost a dollar. Killer live music is interspersed with pre-fame and among-friends recordings of Richard Pryor’s most provocative riffing and intense, inner-city street-life montage. The entire city seems to be simmering. And the exuberant soul music of the Staples, Hayes, the Bar-Kays, Johnny Taylor and others—uplifting and energizing in any context—somehow manages to keep a lid on it. There are some asterisks related to what might be called authenticity here, but they diminish none of the film’s power.
The creative black polymath Gordon Parks spent a career as a photographer documenting what being black in America looks like. His influence can be seen in the work of contemporaries ranging from Martin Scorsese to Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Learning Tree is Parks’ 1969 adaptation of his own autobiographical novel of the same title. It made him the first black director of a major Hollywood film (he also composed the score), and he followed up with Shaft. Plan to watch The Learning Tree a couple times. The tale is worthwhile coming-of-age Americana, shot in Parks’ hometown of Fort Scott, Kan. Once you know the story, you can watch it again to luxuriate in Parks’ generous lessons in composition.
Simply put, it holds up. Even in late winter, Norman Jewison’s 1967 potboiler can send a viewer to damp and muggy Mississippi summertime. The racism is oppressive and genuinely portrayed. The racists onscreen, vile as they are, seem worthy of something like sympathy, just like the racists we know or encounter still. In Wattstax, the Rev. Jesse Jackson leads the audience in reciting the William Borders poem “I Am — Somebody.” Max Roach gave We Insist the subtitle Freedom Now Suite, after the popular chant shouted by uprising African colonials at the time. It is not unreasonable to imagine that the conversation-ending, bigot-toppling line delivered by Sidney Poitier’s character—“They call me Mr. Tibbs!”—will outlive in memory both of the former as a moment during which mere words sustain a threatened man’s dignity and humanity.
Like the thought of Chuck Berry nearing retirement, Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film about the preparation for and presentation of a concert celebrating the legend’s 60th birthday is a parade of delightful frustrations. Berry helped invent what became rock ’n’ roll but has little to show for it. Berry and film crew revisit the St. Louis locations where he made music and history, and recount the process of trial, error, refinement, loan, and theft without credit that led to a style and then to an industry. Cranky, contrary, and justifiably suspicious, Berry and luminary friends—Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Keith Richards—share an oral history that manages to make Berry’s musical gifts—and the finale concert—kind of bittersweet.
Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.
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