Blues Power

Submitted by AWL on 27 March, 2019 - 9:12 Author: Barrie Hardy
McCalla

Right-wing politicians always have great difficulty trying to get support from anyone with artistic integrity. In the Thatcher era, when numerous talented musicians sang up for the Labour cause under the banner of Red Wedge, all the Tories could cobble together were talentless tosh like Vince Hill, Jim Davidson and Mrs Mopp. Similarly, the Trump Presidency from the world of showbiz have been decidedly threadbare. Apart from the odd aged crooner or obscure country artist, the chief White House favourite has been the despicable Ted Nugent – NRA nut and serial slayer of North American wildlife large and small.

The Trump era has however witnessed something of a renaissance within the diverse American music scene with excellent albums from the likes of Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff. Three other artists have also made more recent contributions worthy of note. First up would be Shemekia Copeland’s album ‘America’s Child’. The opening track ‘Ain’t Got no Time for Hate’ mentions no one by name, but its pretty clear who the sentiment is aimed at. Another song, ‘Would You Take My Blood?’, cuts to the quick of racist hypocrisy by asking ardent racists if they would accept donated blood from a black person if they needed a vital transfusion.

Arguably the best of several standout tracks is ‘Americans’ – a celebration of the USA’s present cultural diversity. Here we find Elvis impersonators, slick haired deplorables, sandal wearing holy fools, orthodox Baptist Jews, left-wing liberal geeks, red neck freaks and other interesting types “still free to be you and me”.

Copeland’s singing and the strength of her songwriting team are what makes this album exceptional. She locates herself in the blues tradition, following in the footsteps of her late father Johnny Copeland.

An old bluesman who is very much still with us is Otis Taylor, whose brought out a powerful album, ‘Fantasizing About Being Black’. With a title like that you’ve just got to listen! This is no lounge-lizard easy-listening effort. It’s a deeply emotional example of “trance blues”, trying to encapsulate various aspects of the Afro-American experience, dealing as it does with slavery, inter-racial relationships and civil rights activism, raw and unflinching stuff.

On a lighter note, but no less worthwhile, comes the latest release from Leyla McCalla, ‘Capitalist Blues’. This New Orleans based musician of Haitian parentage has produced a collection of original songs both musically and linguistically diverse, singing in English, French and Creole – the latter regarded by her as a language of resistance. The title song is an attack on the rat race of capitalist society, whilst ‘Money is king’ highlights deep social inequalities. The hungry man gets the bulldog set on him whilst the mega rich one “can commit murder and get off free, rise to the seat of the Presidency.”

McCalla also has a song here attacking the bombing of civilians in Aleppo — the first time I’ve come across anyone highlighting the Syrian conflict in their music. McCalla also teams up with her old singing partner Rhiannon Giddens in what turns out to be an amazingly ambitious new album ‘Songs of our Native Daughters’. Along with fellow musicians Amythyst Kiah and Alison Russell they form a veritable battalion of banjo players performing songs about American history from the perspective of the black female.

There are several extremely powerful songs here. ‘Mama’s Cryin’ Long’ deals with rape, murder and lynching. ‘Black Myself’ tackles inter racial discrimination and the notion that a lighter shade of black is more desirable (the paper bag test). ‘Barbados’ compares the toiling slaves of the 18th century Caribbean with the plight of modern day wage slaves who produce laptops, tablets and smart phones. All of these artists deserve much wider attention for the important things they have to say. ‘Songs of our Native Daughters’ in particular is an outstanding work and definitely the folk/roots album of the year.

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