A Poetry of Code (January 13, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

“It’s all codes.” James Luther Dickinson

We have a tradition in out house over Dr. King’s weekend: we listen to the Impressions. The best of Curtis Mayfield’s writing for the group consists of delicately coded messages of encouragement for black Americans during the civil rights struggle, the most famous, perhaps, being “People Get Ready,” “I’m So Proud,” “We’re a Winner,” “It’s Alright,” and “Keep On Pushin’.” The titles do not suggest much coding, but the lyrics can be heard (and were heard by many, I am sure) as deeply romantic. A deeper dive into the Sixties Mayfield songbook, however, will reward you with more complex gems, such as “Long, Long Winter” and, especially, “Isle of the Sirens.” The former would resonate powerfully with Mayfield’s fellow Chicagoans, both in their activism and their tilting against that cold wind they call “The Hawk,” but it’s the latter that stuns me most. First, have a listen:

On the surface, as perhaps the only pop music representation of an episode from The Odyssey, it’s stunning enough: the lyrics, which could easily have been strained, are expertly crafted; the vocal arrangement reinforces the fact that the episode (and America’s climate) threatened a group; and the guitar? If you’ve ever wondered why Jimi Hendrix was so rapt in his attention to Mayfield, think of Jimi’s gentler compositions and listen to this again. But beneath the surface, the shout of “Keep course!” is where the real action is.

I wish Mayfield’s songs weren’t still so relevant and necessary. We’ll be playing them all day Monday.

Short-shrift division:

Guitar-heroes : Bassekou Kouyate and his ngoni army, wailing as a coup is being launched outside the studio walls in Bamako, on Jama Ko.

Injuns comin’ (it’s Carnival Time): Donald Harrison, Jr. stitching tribal chants into modern jazz on Indian Blues

Joy from Acadiana: the magical soundtrack to J’ai Ete au Bal – see the movie, luxuriate in (and dance to) the music.

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