Thursday, March 31, 2011

Savannah Music Festival Part 2: Shouters and Jukejoint Blues

Kenneth Routon recently attended the annual Savannah Music Festival and filed this report for Afropop Worldwide. Read his previous entries here.

Driving back to my hotel Friday night, all those beautiful moss-covered oaks seemed to take on a more menacing presence, their crooked and hairy arms inked out onto the asphalt in the form of sprawling moon shadows. Things can change here within the blink of an eye. One can move from stately opulence to ghetto and back again all within the same block. At times a jolting and disfiguring urban landscape, it is as if Savannah were endowed with great shape-shifting powers, a quaint southern belle and brooding sorcerer all at once, depending on the angle and time of day.

With those spectral night shadows from the previous evening still lingering in my head, I returned to the SMF the following day to catch a performance by the McIntosh County Shouters. The Shouters perform a genre of slave song called “ring shot,” perhaps the oldest surviving musical tradition of African origin in North America. Returning to their quarters after a long day in the fields, slaves would gather to perform this unique form of percussive call-and-response singing. Still performed today in some black communities in McIntosh County on Georgia’s coast, the ring shout combines a rhythm section of “clappers,” foot stomping, and the percussion of a stick beaten on a wood floor with a “songster,” usually a man, providing the “calls” or lead and a group of women called “bass-ers” who repeat the phrase in response.

Although once referred to as “running spirituals,” these songs are now called “shout” songs. The term “shout” here has a specific, unconventional meaning. Its refers not to the act of hollering but rather to the movements of the women, who shuffle their feat as they move in a counter-clockwise circular pattern during the performance. The women shuffle rather than step in order to avoid crossing their feat, which is considered profane, an invitation to evil. Interestingly, the word “shout” might have originally been derived from the Afro-Arabic saut, referring to movement around the Kabaa in Mecca. Over time, however, Christian cosmology has been slowly grafted on to this form of expressive culture, so that many of the original African (and, perhaps, Islamic) religious foundations have been lost or buried.

McIntosh County Shouters

Since Art Rosenbaum first recorded the group in 1980, the Shouters, a ten-member Gullah-Geechee group who directly inherited these songs from kin, and who can all trace their lineage back into the slave-era, have been performing and receiving accolades all over the country. They dress the part. The men wear overall dungarees and the women are clad in antebellum cotton dresses and headscarves, carrying with them on stage material artifacts of the era – washboard, antique iron, burlap sack etc. The group’s themes range from Biblical vignettes to worldly conditions, often evoking harrowing snapshots of slave life. When performing, members often mime the meanings of the songs with gestures. In one song, for example, members stretch out their arms in an “eagle wing” as a gesture of flight expressing empathy for a companion who’s come under the slavemaster’s viscious whip. Other songs touch on more banal issues, such as gender relations, the women encouraging fathers to “hold the baby.” Still others can be humorous in tone, like the one about how slaves on a plantation wanted to make a party but had no meat; one among them decided to steal it from the big house and the rest of them perform a song to help him escape notice and get away without incident.

Although they sometimes resort to a kind of bland, prosaic narrative of slavery, and although one gets the creeping sense that something of the non-Christian meanings of this “tradition” have been silenced, the Shouters are still powerful, impressionable performers. I myself was moved by their rousing rendition of “Know I Been Changed.”

Fast forward a few hours later and the very same venue, the Charles H. Morris Center, was now a romping jukejoint, hosting three powerhouse bluesmen – Michael Burks, Sherman Robertson and Lucky Peterson. Burks, backed by a remarkably robust and dynamic rhythm section and an atmospheric old Hammond organ, has an almost locomotive presence, somehow combining all his influences – everybody from Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, B.B. King and Albert Collins to T Bone Walter – into one steam-driven, iron-clad style.

Michael Burks

After working up a sweat just listening to him, he nodded over for Sherman Robertson, who was standing just off stage, to join him. Robertson, who was born in Louisiana but raised in Texas, likes to crank up the amplification – making a point to tell the crowd that’s how do it down in Texas. His style is hard-hitting, blending swampy Louisiana blues and Zydeco with the big sounds of the Lone Star State. Having honed his skills with zydeco royalty like Clifton Chenier and Terrance Simien, and even being invited to play on Paul Simon’s Graceland album, Robertson, wearing a gaudy Harley Davidson shirt and sun visor hat, and chewing gum like it was no tomorrow, ripped through a number of blistering leads before the crowd even had time to adjust to his sudden presence.

Burks and Robertson continued to trade licks on several joints before beginning another, and seconds into it they were clearly looking towards the backstage door for Lucky Peterson, trying to cue him that it was time to go on. But Lucky was nowhere to be found. A few moments later, however, Lucky did manage to make his appearance but not from the backstage door. Instead, he burst in from the other side of the venue where the cash bar is located. “Oh Lord, look out, he’s right now!,” an older black man behind me exclaimed, laughing in anticipation of some kind of spectacle. Wearing a red mechanic’s shirt with a patch identifying him as “Lucky,” the middle-aged bluesman seemed to act as if Burks and Roberton had only been the opening act, an light appetizer before the big meal of meat and potatoes. A protégé of Willie Dixon before he had even lost his baby teeth, the gloriously pot-bellied Peterson hopped on and off the stage; smiles turned to grimmaces and then back again in a matter of seconds, and he would no sooner begin a lead before stopping to talk to the audience or shoosh the band (something he did repeatedly, and although the others seemed to be taking it in good humor, there did come a moment when it appeared to be wearing them thin). I too began to wonder if Peterson was half-lit or just craved attention. But then he suddenly jumped back on stage, took a seat at the organ, and tore into the most thunderous riffs, telling the others, “I told you I had something for you!” At one point, he lifted up the back of his shirt and told Robertson to look. Laughing, Robertson went over and whispered something in Burks’ ear. I’m no lip reader but I could’ve sworn he mouthed the word “pistol”! Told he was out of time before he had really gotten started, Peterson dropped the antics and got down to business, ending the night (and fully redeeming himself) with a stunning organ-fueled version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
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