Yesterday, listening to a prison work song from Alan Lomax’s field recordings of raw, elemental blues sung by prisoners in the Mississippi and Louisiana State penitentiaries, I found myself at a stop light in River Oaks. The children of some of Houston’s wealthy were coming out of school early. A black woman with parted and braided hair partially hidden under a crossing guard hat crossed in front of my car with a thin blonde woman and two small children, a girl and a boy, in tow.
As I listened to the song’s repeated refrain, “no more, my lord,” punctuated by the flat, percussive sound of a swinging axe, and watched the black woman ferry the three white people across the busy intersection, I was swallowed up by the realization of how little things change in this world and by the clear understanding that real, beautiful art such as I was listening to is born only out of incredible pain colliding with incredible strength.
The light changed, the mother and her children safely on the other side of the street, the crossing guard back at her station, and I drove forward just as the song ended and the free version of Spotify switched to the next song. I looked down at my phone because what was now playing in my ears was imitation blues sung and played by someone who didn’t know how and would never know how to play them. You have to have the blues to sing the blues. I pressed the thumbs down icon with all my heart.
At that moment, I understood through an experience what I’ve known intellectually for a long time; the greatest strength of American capitalism lies in its ability to steal and neutralize the authentic, local culture and art of the enslaved, the poor, and the dissatisfied. Authentic art can only come out of conflict. It can only come out of human beings who, finding no comfort in this brutal world, reach deep inside themselves to create it out of tradition, pain, love, and the tools at hand.
As I drove on a little, a feeling of despair at the seemingly impossible job of reclaiming or preventing the theft of our cultures by our masters, changed to excitement. Spotify tried to take away from me a moment of clarity brought on by a piece of art and replace it with an imitation, a shadow. Why? Because art is that powerful. Culture is the engine of everything. We can survive on a little bread and water but our culture gives us strength, and our masters are terrified.
Listen to Alan Lomax’s recording of “No More, My Lord” here: http://research.