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Music

5 trailblazing Black artists failed by history

@TomTaylorFO

“Rock ‘n’ Roll may not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” – Pete Townshend 

In truth, while the Pete Townshend quote above might seem pithy on the surface, when you dig into it, you find it gets as close to distilling down an entire cultural movement as is possible with only seventeen words. The problematic seeding ground for rock ‘n’ roll was the plantations of old. Through the oppression of slavery, it staggered and soared as the defiant voice of liberated souls. Rock ‘n’ roll crawled out of the mire and misery of one of humanity’s great atrocities and etched itself as gilded poetry written in the margins of one of the darkest pages in history.

The early pioneers of the genre are now cast amid the coals of time as the diamonds who harnessed the suffering that surrounded them, absorbed the pressures of the world’s woes and transfigured it all into music that glistened with humanities inviolable spirit. It is no surprise that given the treacherous terrain from which it rose, this early exultation from woe came embalmed in a hue of what be called: the blues. 

However, the beauty of the blues – from which the whole spectrum of modern music is spun out in a kaleidoscopic tailspin of medicinal glory to life’s mechanical grind – is that it too contains the multitudes of existence. As musician Wynton Marsalis once said, “Everything comes out in the blues. Joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”

Beyond the otherworldly exultation of rock ‘n’ roll is the rockstars themselves, and all the early upstarts were far more of a liberated middle-finger to the bullshit bourgeoise than any snarling strummers that came thereafter. What faced them was genuine danger and they pushed through for the great good, making their own defiant triumph ours to share in and behold. 

Sadly, however, the triumph that many great artists produced have been wrongfully overlooked in the murky depths of history.  To some extent, these prejudices still remain a hindering handbrake to progress. Thus, below we have plucked five magical musicians too good to forget, sadly failed by history, but hopefully not for much longer.

5 trailblazing Black artists failed by history:

Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912 – 1982)

“People have learned how to strum a guitar, but they don’t have the soul. They don’t feel it from the heart. It hurts me. I’m killing myself to tell them how it is.” – Lightnin’ Hopkins

In the life-affirming Les Blank movie, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, there is one scene where the Texan blues numen is perched on a raised bench, sporting a golden shirt and a cream woollen cardigan, clearly prised from a sheep that took enormous pride in itself. He has his guitar tucked under his arm and an attitude so sanguine that he was probably giving off a light spring breeze. Sat alongside him is his trusted Centerville companion Billy Bizor. Bizor is dressed all in orange and staring down dotingly at his monolithic mouth organ. 

In front of the two workaday Michelangelo’s of blues music are two young white boys sat cross-legged in the grass. It is unclear what exactly this congregation is, how it came about, or essentially what will happen. Through modern eyes it seems inexplicable – ‘where are the ticket stubs, security and stage separations?’ – music simply doesn’t happen in that natural and organic way anymore. However, Hopkins thought nothing of spilling his soul out for a spellbound audience no matter how big, small, old, young, rich or poor; he simply dished out his talent like the warming balm of the sun on a cold winter’s day. And before these two awestruck young lads, Hopkins tells the tale of Mr Charlie’s Rolling Mill…

… “Once in the country there was this little boy and he stuttered,” Hopkins casually begins. It is a story of a pariah who left home after it became clear his mother couldn’t understand his stammering ways. Out on the road with a meagre flower-pack full of possessions and a spiritual sack-full of woes, he wandered his tired legs up to a dingy outbuilding called The Rolling Mill that belonged to Mr Charlie. The boy stammered his way towards asking Mr Charlie if he had a place for him to stay. Mr Charlie told him he could stay in his Rolling Mill shack down the road so long as he sees to it that his stove never catches fire. The boy agrees and Mr Charlie tells him he never wants to hear from him again unless there is ever a fire. One day the boy is in the Rolling Mill and the place catches aflame. He races his way up to Mr Charlie’s house to tell him about the blaze. As the boy struggles to spell out the problem in his failing words, when Mr Charlie stops him and says, “Look here boy, if you can’t talk it, then sing it,” at which point Lightnin’ Hopkins strums his guitar and bursts into song…

The story is one that forms an allegorical mirror to the tale of the blues. When those suffering on plantations couldn’t speak, they had to learn to sing. It is this encrypted meaning and the humanised expression of the blues that elucidated the vital necessity of music, both as a means of communication and as a soulful vessel to exultation. Hopkins knew this tale better than anyone and, in part, this is why he is less noted than many of his peers—he simply got the word out as and when he could and didn’t bother with any fake fame or glory. 

Lightning Hopkins (Credit: Wikimedia)

Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938)

“You can’t listen to a Rock ‘n’ Roll song without hearing one of Johnson’s chords.” – Keb Mo

Robert Johnson is so mysterious that even the birthdate of 1911 is purely a best guess. Whilst his mystic origins echo a shady history, it is perhaps fitting that the birth of rock ‘n’ roll is founded in the drowned depths of fate, mystery and the sort of folks who escaped the record books. 

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From humble beginnings, Johnson persevered his way to the top of the Delta Blues, with the help of the Devil at a crossroads, if you believe the tale of old. When he returned from a year in exile, practising day and night, he had an extra string to his guitar and played all seven in a way that nobody had heard before. As it is recalled by Robert Santelli in the novel A Century of the Blues, “Listening to Johnson you often swear two guitarists are playing, not one. His long fingers reached for notes other guitarists can only dream of, while his penchant for slide guitar and walking bass riffs gave his style a remarkably rich language of notes, tones and sounds.”

Aside from his playing style, it is also his Promethean Rockstar-like ways that catapult him beyond his peers in the eyes of many. He was a sauntering bluesman who truly couldn’t give one God damn. The origins of that attitude may be rooted in tragedy, but along with his chords, it has been propagated in rock ‘n’ roll forevermore. He might now be lauded as a hero in blues circles, but as the star with the clearest claim to inventing rock ‘n’ roll, his name can hardly be revered enough.

Robert johnson (Credit: Alamy)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 – 1973)

“My whole career has been one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” – Chuck Berry

Before Patti Smith became the Godmother of Punk, there was first the Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll. This Godmother dabbled in the soul of gospel, danced into R&B, threw in the off-kilter rhythms of swing, tossed it all together with an almost careless amount of swagger, and just about spawned the stylings of guitar rock ‘n’ roll. 

Her fast hammer-clawed guitar plucking may well be her most obvious gift to the inception of rock ‘n’ roll, but once more, it is the attitude with which she propagated her Promethean guitar playing that helped it conquer the world. She left her gospel troupe behind to go off travelling on her own, she was pretty much openly bi-sexual in a pre-secularised world, and she shredded the guitar as nobody had done before her, all while dancing in heels: how’s that for a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?

“Can’t no man play like me,” was her motto as she entreated the lord to watch her rattle off cloud-shifting riffs as she stared heavenward during blistering solo’s, very much the first of their kind. But perhaps the most prophetic move in her playing style was to enlist The Jordanaires as her backing singers. The notion of white male musicians being the ‘backing’ singers for a Black female was incredulous, and it was this poignant show of liberty and union that brought her to the attention of a man who would be king, a young Elvis Presley. Whether it be her hammering style or her attitude of liberty and the power of her soul, she is a sister who formed rock ‘n’ roll, and one who mustn’t be forgotten.  

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Credit: James J. Kriegsmann)

Odetta (1930 – 2008)

“The better we feel about ourselves, the fewer times we have to knock somebody else down to feel tall.” – Odetta

Dubbed “the queen of American folk music” by Martin Luther King Jr, Odetta was the pioneering voice of the Greenwich Village musical movement – a scene that became central to the civil rights movement – long before Joan Baez or Bob Dylan ever began espousing messages of equality in their songs. In fact, Odetta was a personal hero that both Baez and Dylan looked up to and continued to hold in the highest regard. 

When Odetta’s path crossed with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s in the 1950s, she became aware of folk and blues music and turned away from the swing and spirituals that were abundant at the time. “In school, you learn about American history through battles,” she told the New York Times in 1981. “But I learned about the United States through this music, through the songs that I sing.” Her timeless folk tales then began to inspire the next generation, with Dylan citing her album At the Horn as the record that made him turn to folk in the first place.

Odetta would not only spawn the folk movement, but she also was a central performer at Civil Rights marches, was a prolific actress and put liberating equality at the forefront of everything she did. As she poetically put it herself: “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.” 

Her voice itself is one that seems to insist upon life. There is no finer example of this fervent artistry than ‘Hit or Miss’, both in its performative expression and content. She booms out, “Can’t be nobody else / I gotta be me,” as she plays and sings like nobody else ever could. As poet and writer Maya Angelou said, “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognise time.”

Thus, it is sufficient to say that Odetta has had plaudits both posthumously and in her performing heyday. Her influence is ubiquitous in both the fields where she plied her craft and society as a whole, but somehow, she never came close to breaking the top ten of anything, anywhere. Such was her zest for creative output it would seem the success of the end result hardly mattered, it was the life-affirming journey along the way that counted.

Odetta (Credit: Alamy)

Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917)

It is not far from a scientific certainty that you would have heard the music of Scott Joplin, whether you know it or not. His classic composition ‘The Entertainer’ has become so ubiquitous in modern culture that off the back of hearing two notes alone, the majority of the western populous would be able to hum out the rest of the tune themselves. It is the classic caper accompaniment to silent movies, the frequent calling card of the Ice Cream Van, and it’s bound to have been a polyphonic ringtone at one point. 

Such is the way with a lot of songs that transcend music to such an all-encompassing degree, the visionary skill behind it has been bleached out in the sheer amount of light of day that it has seen. Thus, Scott Joplin – a man who can rightfully be called America’s first pop star without it being overly bombastic or meaningless – has faded into the unreturned library book section of history and tragically this journey towards obscurity began while the artist was still very much alive. 

All of this is quite remarkable considering that Joplin was a Black man born in the American South in 1868, only three years on from the armistice of the American Civil War. And sadly, the fateful end to his life serves as a reminder of how large tragedy still loomed. Considering the enormous success that crowned him the King of Ragtime, his deathly destitution is perhaps most inexplicable of all.

After the profound success that Scott Joplin had experienced with a slew of popular ragtime pieces, he vowed to ensure that he and his fellow Black performers would be respected as the musical luminaries that they were. However, he did not merely want respect; he wanted to use any esteem he could gather to impart an important message, a message that would change America into an egalitarian state. 

To fulfil this goal, Scott Joplin sequestered his ragtime success and set about creating an epic opera. He would name the opera Treemonisha, and it would accelerate the civil rights movement by celebrating the power of education. The story of the opera would follow a young, freed woman who taught her community the ways of unity and liberalisation. Through the epic tale, Joplin wished to impart the change he sought in the world. 

However, despite millions listening to his music, nobody was willing to publish the play. Ultimately, Joplin had to fund it all himself, and the epic that he had in mind was distilled down to a small staging in 1915 in a venue not much large than a bar. His music may have provided a balm to life for millions, but when he wanted to embolden that simple exultation into something rather less subversive, his art met with deaf ears. 

Scott Joplin would tragically die two years after this failed performance on the 1st of April 1917. He succumbed to syphilis and dementia and died in a psychiatric hospital, so penniless that he had to be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. He was unquestionably one of the most preeminent music figures in history, his impact was not only the spiritual tonic that he provided through art in his lifetime but the presiding influence that he had on the jazz that followed and thereafter rock ‘n’ roll. And despite all of this he was left to be forgotten. 

Gladly, however, his legacy remains. From the ash heap of history, the legacy of Joplin rose once more and in 1972 the triumph of his defiance would finally see itself reach rightfully rarefied celestial heights. His opera, Treemonisha, was unearthed and his opus was finally given the treatment it deserved. It was performed by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and it crystallised the legacy of an artist whose impact time may have faded, but it was too inviolable to forget. The coal of the nearly forgotten opera was transfigured into the triumphant jewel in the legacy of the King of Ragtime’s crown. This reparation might seem like a small mercy, but repairing the history books is a vital part of moving forward towards a less racist society where the unifying message of music is a realised and cherished reality.

Scott Joplin (Credit: Alamy)

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