I was so pleased when Bill and Stephen began this series, and I especially enjoyed reading about one of my all-time favorite artists, Nina Simone. Music frequently serves as a source of inspiration for listeners. It can bring people together around a common cause. At times though, and sometimes more important than this call to action, music can serve as a much-needed source of comfort. Therefore, I asked if I could contribute a post focused not only on activism in the traditional, outwardly-directed sense, but also on what I think of as activism on a more personal level. To that end, when I think of music centered on knowing one’s worth and demanding respect from others, one artist inevitably comes to mind, and that artist is Lizzo.
Years before she garnered mainstream success, Lizzo released her debut Lizzobangers. Songs like “Be Still” and “T-Baby” (short for tar baby) reference the difficulties she faced in those early years trying to make it as an artist, namely her experiences with houselessness and food insecurity. Numerous tracks speak to the experience of living in a world that devalues blackness, women, and bodies that have never been and will never be a sample size. These themes continue in Lizzo’s second studio album, Big Grrrl Small World. From the opening song “Ain’t I,” a reference to a speech by the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, to the penultimate track “My Skin,” Lizzo reveals to us her confidence while also highlighting the long journey it takes for so many of us to overcome self-doubt. The world does not often know how to handle such brazen self-assuredness from a bigger-bodied black woman, and, luckily for her listeners, Lizzo could not care less.*
The final album I want to address in this post is my personal favorite, her 2016 EP Coconut Oil. While her earlier and, tragically, lesser-known music spoke of struggle—both personal and more broadly—this six-track EP exudes joy in its reminder to take care of ourselves. In “Scuse Me” and “Coconut Oil,” we find self-love anthems. With lyrics like “I don’t need a crown to know that I’m a queen” in the former and “Don’t worry ’bout the small things, I know I can do all things” in the latter, Lizzo exudes a sort of self-assuredness toward which we all strive. Furthermore, she stresses that, if we can love ourselves, then we know just how deserving of others’ love we are, as illustrated in the lyrics of “Worship” and her first big single, “Good as Hell.” Activism, whether it entails fighting for the collective or for oneself, is exhausting. This EP provides us with that brief break necessary to avoid burnout and to practice a little self-care.
Of course, if you are completely unfamiliar with Lizzo, go ahead and start with her most recent album Cuz I Love You, which you can borrow from the Music Library here. Do yourself a favor though, and go back and stream all her earlier releases.
*I wanted to include an addendum after the online bullying that occurred in response to the release of Lizzo’s most recent music video. In stating that the singer “could not care less,” I am in no way implying that she is unfazed by the racist and fatphobic comments she receives online and in the media. The confidence that Lizzo displays in her lyrics and her media presence is something to which so many of us aspire, and I hope this post illustrates my gratitude to her for that.
Thanks for the prompt, Bill. I’m pleased to spring forth from the mighty Nina Simone and bring this to the present day with a spotlight on the Chicago-based composer, clarinetist, keyboardist, bandleader and vocalist Angel Bat Dawid. Part of the International Anthem record label’s roster, and truly a force to be reckoned with, she and her band Tha Brothahood sit at the nexus of modern free and spiritual jazz, unfurling cosmic waves of righteous beauty and anger and passion. And of all her releases thus far, the best demonstration of her craft and insistence can be found on the 2020 release ‘Live’.
Recorded primarily at JazzFest Berlin in 2019, the festival and experience of being in Germany presented her and the band with a series of stressors and slights that very much played out in the band’s confrontational performance that November night. The recording is also bookended with field recordings (set to music) of her giving a hotel staffer the what-for and of comments from her appearance on a panel discussion during the festival.
This is a truly transcendent and fiery recording, and there might be no better current embodiment of the purpose of this blog series than ‘Live’. This post will remain short so you, dear reader, can listen to Angel Bat Dawid’s sounds and read her in her own words.
Find the entire release, with extensive notes and commentary from Angel Bat Dawid, on Bandcamp.
Stephen, thanks for a solid post on Eugene McDaniels. I knew the Les McCann version of “Compared to What”, but that was the extent of my awareness of his work. “Supermarket Blues” sure packs a wallop of defiance embedded in a tight groove that can propel a person through even the most tedious Excel spreadsheets at speed.
I do have to respond to one assertion in your piece though: while I can’t deny that McDaniels wields the word with the skill of a master knife-fighter, the defining “goddam” of the Civil Rights era does in fact belong to Nina Simone.
We’ve been wanting to get to “Mississippi Goddam” since we started this series, but truthfully its centrality to the concept of Antiracist protest in musical performance makes it hard to do it justice with the brevity we’re trying to bring to these posts.
Reportedly written in an hour in response to the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till in Mississippi, as well as the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing in Alabama, Mississippi Goddam cloaks seething outrage in a boppy little piano ditty that would be at home in any Broadway revue of the time. Simone seems to acknowledge this to her Carnegie Hall audience in the live recording from 1964 as she asserts, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” (While one can hear this plainly in the recording, we pull the quote from this excellent article by Malik Gaines in which he contextualizes Simone’s work: Simone’s body of recorded music reveals an anti-racist agenda enacted through performance. Simone used African-American musical, textual, and theatrical strategies, elaborating a history in which blacks have transformed the locations of marginality and exclusion into improvised positions from which to speak.)
However bouncy the tune, the lyrics do not pull any punches. Its opening stanzas make explicit the rage felt by people of color on a daily basis:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
“Mississippi Goddam” nearly instantly became an anthem of the Civil Rights era, despite many radio stations (mostly in the south) refusing to play the song. In fact, as reported both in this Atlantic article and in an interesting Netflix documentary (streaming or at Lilly on DVD), most southern stations returned promotional packages with copies of the record snapped in half. It was an audience favorite in live performances, and Simone played it as a closing number in many of her concerts throughout the Sixties.
While browsing the web looking for a clip of the original release of the song (embedded above), I ran across this live recording from ’65 in Antibes. I was struck by what came across as Simone’s bone-deep fatigue as she turned in what was nonetheless an electrifying performance. How wearying it must have been to have been giving your all in so many performances of such a song, knowing that white audiences likely were listening but not hearing.
I guess I point this out as a way of saying that I hope we’re living up to our responsibility to practice a new kind of listening now at DUL.
So, speaking of the “now”, Stephen – we’ve spent some time on the history of Antiracism in music (and we’re far from done with that), but do you want to take us into the present day for a glimpse of Black Activism in the current music scene?
Picking up from Bill’s last post concerning the titular album for this series, we proceed ahead to the year 1971 and this stone classic of Black Consciousness from Eugene McDaniels.
McDaniels, already a singer and songwriter of much renown, shifted from using Gene back to his given Eugene in the late 60s, along with establishing a much more political and revolutionary bent to his music (and with moving back to the US after residing in Scandinavia for a spell). This update to his sounds first came most prominently in the form of ‘Compared to What’ in 1969 (though written in 1966).
By then, a standard of sorts, the tune became a hit for Les McCann (who McDaniels had been affiliated with since the beginning of the decade) and Eddie Harris on their smash live album ‘Swiss Movement’. The version remains the quintessential one:
‘Outlaw’, from 1970, was the first album-length foray for McDaniels into this new style, but it was the following year’s ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ that set a standard for funk/jazz/rock protest music. And even though it sat un-reissued until the early 00s, the album (originally released on Atlantic) somehow allegedly caught the attention of silly Spiro Agnew on its release, which helped curtail promotion and distribution. The entire album is a stunning commentary, with unassailable musical chops, but one track in particular stands out on listening in 2020 and that is ‘Supermarket Blues’:
The narrator simply tries to exchange his mislabeled can of pineapple and very quickly the full blunt reality of life in America bears down and all hell breaks loose, demonstrating the tightrope on which he constantly walks.
Totally as a side-mention, Eugene McDaniels remains the phraser par-excellence of ‘Goddamn’ in song, with apologies to Miss Simone. Any potential blasphemy aside and forgiven, his emphatic usage of the term/phrase in both ‘Compared to What’ and ‘Supermarket Blues’ serves to set both songs a bit more on edge and drills the seriousness of their situations more into being. For a further example of the use of the phrase, and a sound/style also similar to McDaniels, check out this Chicago underground track from 1973 from a group called Boscoe:
One cut from ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ is on the box set ‘What It Is: Funky Soul and Rare Grooves’ CD is available from Duke University Libraries’ Music Library, here, with all other tracks currently active on Spotify and YouTube. Also, the album is partly well-known and regarded for the bounty of samples it supplied to hip hop tracks. Which, on that note and speaking of sampling, expect near-future posts to head in that direction…
As promised in our last post, today’s post highlights an album that features, among other stellar musicians, the vocalist Abbey Lincoln, in a performance that at times can sound haunting and plaintive and at others embodies the rage and frustration felt by Black Americans during the (first) height of the Civil Rights Struggle.
We Insist! – Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite is one of the seminal recordings of activist jazz (and is the album from which our humble blog series takes its name). The album emerged from a joint project between Max Roach, one of the most significant drummers in jazz history and a lifelong civil rights activist, and Oscar Brown, a singer and lyricist also deeply involved in Black rights issues. The original intent of the project was to commemorate the 1963 centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, but after the 1960 Greensboro Sit-Ins, Max Roach felt a sense of urgency about contributing his voice and vision (both comparatively more radical than those of Oscar Brown) to the Civil Rights movement. As seen in the above picture, the cover of the album featured a picture of three of the Greensboro Four seated at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, making explicit the connection between the event and the art it inspired.
And wow – the art! The musicians on this record represented what at the time were both straight-ahead hard bop royalty (Max Roach and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, most significantly) and members of an emerging progressive sound (notably the always amazing Booker Little on trumpet and Julian Priester on trombone). This album would be an early step in the ongoing intertwining of the jazz Avant Garde and Black Activism, future examples of which we’ll no doubt get to. (Eh, Stephen?)
Abbey Lincoln’s impassioned delivery of Oscar Brown’s lyrics enhances many of the pieces, but most stirring is her wordless vocals, delivered alternately in tones of sadness, anger, and hope, in the piece “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace”:
Streaming versions of this record are unfortunately scarce. None of DUL’s online music services offer the recording (as far as Stephen and I can tell), and it’s not available through any of the standard commercial streaming services such as Spotify or Googleplay or, like, FaceTunze or whatever.
Maddeningly, the physical disc seems currently to be out of print, though thanks to Laura and Stephen, our fine Music Library does hold a copy (linked above in the main text of the post).
You can stream the whole album on YouTube, though. It’s a tough, gut-punch of a listen, but inspiring and motivating nonetheless.
We should also point out that many, many articles have been written on this important recording, not a few of which are available in full text versions online via the DUL catalog. We looked at many of these, including this piece. (Also, yes we looked at Wikipedia. We’re lazy.)
Stephen, what do we have up next? I’m excited to see what you’ve picked out for us…
Duke University Libraries Technical Services Division’s (DULTS) Resource Description Department has recently composed and adopted a Statement on Inclusive Description, which begins:
The Resource Description Department of Duke University Libraries Technical Services acknowledges that the creation and management of metadata are not neutral activities. We further acknowledge that the framework of national and international standards in which we work has served to uphold white supremacy, marginalization of sexual orientations and gender identities, and colonialism, among other forms of oppression. While we will continue to work within the parameters of national and international standards and organizations, we pledge as creators and managers to make metadata more inclusive …
The metadata that describes the millions of resources Duke University Libraries makes available to users dates back to the early 20th century, and as society has changed, so have cataloging practices. In 2020, we have perspectives on inclusion and representation that perhaps our predecessors did not have in previous decades. Our Statement on Inclusive Description is our pledge to do better, not just as we move forward but as we look at some of our old metadata and think of ways to improve it.
Limitations of Cataloging Standards
Most academic and public libraries in the United States—and in many other countries—use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) as their main thesaurus to provide subject access to works in their collections. Medical libraries, by contrast, typically use Medical Subject Headings—MeSH–or a combination of MeSH and LCSH. Library of Congress Subject Headings are what most Duke University Libraries catalog users are accustomed to seeing, with familiar patterns like these:
Salvador (Brazil)—Social life and customs—19th century.
Library of Congress Subject Headings are not, however, always ideal, and can present some obstacles when trying to catalog inclusively. There is often a presumption of whiteness and maleness in LCSH; its default is frequently “straight, white, cis-gendered male,” and anyone that doesn’t fit into those categories can be seen as exceptional. For example, the LCSH “Chemists” is used for works about chemists of all genders and for works limited to male chemists; a work about female chemists gets the LCSH “Women chemists.” (There is no heading “Male chemists.”) Similarly, the assumption seems to be that “American literature” is written by straight white male authors: if a work is about any other subset of Americans as authors, the headings must be modified: “American literature—Women authors” or “Gay men’s writings, American,” for example.
Library of Congress Subject Headings also include some vocabulary that may be considered outdated, inaccurate, or offensive. You may have heard about the political controversy that arose when the Library of Congress considered a proposal to change the heading “Illegal aliens” to “Undocumented immigrants.” The change was blocked, and “Illegal aliens” remains the authorized LCSH even though many find it offensive. There are other terms in LCSH, again often dealing with marginalized groups, that some find questionable, such as “Problem children” and “Eskimos.” There is a process to propose changes and additions to LCSH, but it is extremely involved, can take a very long time, and can be blocked by external factors, lack of consensus on what a better term would be, and diminished staffing at the Library of Congress.
Finally, there are some areas in which Library of Congress Subject Headings just aren’t very good, such as terminology for LGBTQ people and culture. The default LCSH heading for anyone or anything non-straight is “Sexual minorities,” a term which may technically be accurate, but which certainly isn’t in common usage and also presents LGBTQ folks as an anthropological Other. Meanwhile, the term “Female impersonators” for the entertainers we all know and love as “Drag queens” is, if we’re being generous, quaintly outdated. And LCSH just doesn’t get specific at all for LGBTQ cultures and subcultures, making it difficult to provide appropriate access for works about them.
Making Library of Congress Subject Headings Work for Us
So, if Library of Congress Subject Headings are problematic, why do we continue to use them? Well, for most subjects, LCSH is pretty good. For many disciplines, it is extremely good. More importantly, it’s an internationally used standard. Most cataloging in the English-speaking world and beyond is done cooperatively—that is, libraries contribute bibliographic description for works they acquire to the WorldCat database, so when another library gets the same book (or DVD or anything else), they can just use the record that’s already in WorldCat rather than creating their own. It makes everything go faster: trying to catalog every monograph, periodical, map, streaming video, and e-book we receive from scratch to our own exacting standards would be an impossible task. Terms in LCSH are the international standard, and libraries have agreed to use it as our common language when describing what works are about and then sharing description of those works.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean we are limited to out-of-the-box LCSH. There are several ways we provide enhanced access to our resources by bending LCSH or by using other vocabularies altogether. In addition to actively participating in the process of proposing additions and changes to LCSH mentioned above, Duke University Libraries staff also provide more inclusive description in other ways. Perhaps most obvious to the user is our public catalog, which we share and develop with our colleagues in the Triangle Research Libraries Network (Duke, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and UNC-Chapel Hill). DUL staff are able to customize what displays to the public, so even if the underlying metadata is standard LCSH, we can choose to make alternative terms both visible and searchable. For example, instead of the standard LCSH heading “Poor,” which reduces people to a financial status, we have chosen to display “Poor people.” Even though “Illegal aliens” remains in our behind-the-scenes metadata, library user see “Undocumented immigrants” when viewing the catalog. Continuing to use standard LCSH allows us to accept bibliographic records from other libraries without having to make manual changes to them locally, but our Search TRLN public catalog empowers us to display alternative terms our users say they prefer, or that we know through analyzing data, that they are more likely to search for.
In DULTS, when we create original cataloging records, or when we enhance shared records in WorldCat, we also work intentionally to make sure our description is inclusive and accurate, especially for works by and about members of marginalized groups. For example, as we describe the Edwin & Terry Murray Comic Book Collection with our colleagues in Rubenstein Library Technical Services, we make sure to provide specific subject access to works about women, African Americans, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and other non-“cis white straight male” characters. “Superheroes” may be the default Library of Congress Subject Heading for caped crusaders, but we make sure users are able to go beyond Superman and Batman by adding more descriptive subject headings like “African American superheroes” and “Women detectives” so characters like Storm, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones aren’t lost in the shuffle.
We have also begun exploring specialized thesauri to supplement Library of Congress Subject Headings when LCSH just isn’t specific enough to accurately describe a work’s contents. One controlled vocabulary we’ve begun using is Homosaurus, which calls itself “an international LGBTQ linked data vocabulary.” We’re able to enhance access to works by and about LGBTQ folks by using specialized terms from Homosaurus that LCSH just isn’t able to convey, such as “Bigender people,” “LGBTQ sports clubs,” “Transgender people of color,” and—yes—“Drag queens.”
Making our cataloging more inclusive takes time, but we think it’s worth it. We also realize it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Until the majority of other libraries that contribute cataloging to shared databases like WorldCat start taking similar approaches, not all of our resources will be cataloged as thoroughly and thoughtfully as we might like. But the principles we lay out in our Statement on Inclusive Description are a start. As we incorporate these tenets in newly created descriptive metadata going forward, we will also explore ways to enhance and improve our old records en masse in hopes of someday providing better, fairer description of all the millions of resources Duke University Libraries make accessible to our users. It’s a huge job, but we are committed to making it happen. It’s the right thing to do.
During the recent 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge to DUL staff made by the Racial Justice Task Force, my fellow MonoACQ-er, Stephen Conrad, and I had a number of conversations about Black activist voices in music. This was partly inspired by Stephen’s work with Laura Williams to expand diversity within DUL’s music holdings, and partly due to the fact that the two of us turn to music as a way both to make sense of, and push back against, what we see in our country right now.
We thought it might be nice to replicate and continue that conversation here in Signal Boost. We’re going to do an open-ended run of (very) short posts highlighting tracks of interest. These will be in no particular order and likely will bounce around various genres.
As our first post below will demonstrate, we’ll be delving into the history of Black activism in music, but we’ll be careful not to limit ourselves to sounds of the past. Activism is a thriving part of contemporary music, and we’ll want to highlight that. When we can point to DUL holdings we will, and for emerging voices we’ll do our best to link to sources that benefit artists directly.
We’d love it if anyone else who is interested would join the conversation, either by guest-writing a post or simply by sending us suggestions!
Before jumping in, we’ll note a couple of facts that are glaringly obvious. First and foremost, as two white men we should acknowledge that, while we align ourselves with the voices we’ll be representing, our innate privilege allows us to experience these works of art basically from a position of fandom. To pretend otherwise would be an affront to those who have experienced the struggles from which these voices emerge.
And speaking of being fans, we’ll also point out that neither of us is an historian, a musicologist, or any kind of expert in the music we’ll discuss. We’re just two dudes talking about records. (Because, you know, the world doesn’t have enough of that already.)
So, Stephen, how about if I go first?
For both of us (and, I’ll note, for our fearless leader Dracine who immediately yelled the title of this song when told of our plans for this series), the first piece that comes to mind when thinking of Black activism in music is of course Strange Fruit, as sung hauntingly by Billie Holiday:
This blunt confrontation against the practice of lynching is, to my mind at least, one of the keystones of protest music. It sounds just as raw and sadly relevant today as it did when it was originally recorded in 1939. Its horrific imagery and anti-racist boldness almost ensured that it was never recorded. Columbia Records refused to record the song for Billie Holiday, as did her producer at the time, John Hammond. Only smaller label Commodore had the courage to do so.
The story of Strange Fruit’s being adapted from a poem and of Billie Holiday’s early performances of it, as well as the impact it had at the time and throughout subsequent decades, are detailed in two resources held by DUL:
The book Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an early cry for civil rights (online; print)
The documentary “Strange Fruit.”, directed by Joel Katz, streaming via Alexander Street Press here. The DVD is available from Duke University Libraries Lilly Library, here.
(Stephen, you may notice that one of the artists featured in the documentary is Abbey Lincoln, who will figure prominently in our next post…)