Monday, January 7, 2008

File Under: It's About Time

Florida indicates that it might have plans to consider hauling itself into the 20th 21st century with the announcement that the state song, an unlikely nostalgic paean by a fictional former slave to his beloved plantation, may soon be retired:

The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)
Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.
All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!
All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I;
Oh, take me to my kind old mudder!
Dere let me live and die.
One little hut among de bushes,
One dat I love
Still sadly to my memory rushes,
No matter where I rove.
When will I see de bees a-humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo strumming,
Down in my good old home?

I would like to note some inconsistencies with reality. How extremely unlikely it was that this former slave squandered happy days on the old plantation. Far more likely that his body still bore the scars of chains and beatings, and that during the whole of his tenure on the plantation, he had most likely been half-naked, half-starved, and definitely separated from his "mudder" and "brudder" at a very young age. It does not stretch the imagination to speculate that he may have been tortured.

Even if he had escaped the most extreme brutality to which most slaves were subject, the "little hut" was probably not a source of pleasant memories, as it was squalid and drafty, lacking in the barest of comforts, with straw or moss serving as a bed:
Such of these dwellings as I visited today were filthy and wretched in the extreme, and exhibited that most deplorable consequence of ignorance and an abject condition, the inability of the inhabitants to secure and improve even such pitiful comfort as might yet be achieved by them. . . . The moss with which the chinks and crannies of their ill-protecting dwelling might have been stuffed was trailing in dirt and dust about the ground, while the back door of the huts, opening upon a most unsightly ditch, was left wide open for the fowls and ducks, which they are allowed to raise, to travel in and out, increasing the filth of the cabin by what they brought and left in every direction.
Maybe he missed hearing the banjo. Maybe. I doubt it. He probably took his with him, or made a new one, or traveled with people who had theirs.
. . . the banjo — the proverbial “white-man” mountain instrument — was developed centuries ago by enslaved Africans in the North American and Caribbean colonies. The earliest banjos were played exclusively by the enslaved at least 200 years before whites ever considered laying hands on what was, to the slaveholding culture, a “primitive” instrument. By the beginning of the 19th century, this negative perception began to change, and by mid-century white musicians had adopted the banjo in minstrel shows, catapulting it into mass production in the last half of the century. The banjo is now mostly known for its role in bluegrass music, overshadowing its historical origin and its place of prominence as an African American contribution to American music.
(Elvis and the Rolling Stones weren't the first whiteys to co-opt Black culture and music.)

Maybe by this time he could return to that most African of instruments, the drum, which slaves were prohibited by law from having. Didn't want the slaves getting themselves and each other all stirred up with those African beats. But what enrages every tyrant is that you can take away the drum, but you can't take away the music:
Denied their most prevalent, and indeed sacred means of expression, the slaves substituted the forbidden drums with bone clappers, tambourines, and most importantly, hand and body slaps, and foot beats. The most primitive of all instruments, the human body, became the main source of rhythm and communication.
What about a song to celebrate the force of the human spirit of the slaves who had the courage to keep on drumming?

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