Memphis Women and Chicken

Whitey Johnson

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Whitey Johnson



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[Interviewer] Rap and hip-hop as art forms, Evoke images of urban life, Impossibly complex and elegant rhymes, Braggadocio, misogyny and more. Kanye West, Jay-Z, Eminem… Their style is part street-brawl, Part big business. But what about lyrics like this? “I want all you women to fall in line, And shake yo shimmy like i’m shakin’ mine, You shake yo shimmy and you shake it fast, If you can’t shake the shimmy, shake yo’ yes yes yes, You a dirty mistreater, a robber and a cheater, Stick you in a dozens and yo pappy is yo cousin, And yo mama do the lawdylawd” That is a 1929 recording of From “The Dirty Dozen” by Speckled Red, The great Louisiana bluesman. And if you listen closely, his song is exactly that It’s dirty, it’s authentic, It’s picking a fight while playing a catchy tune. Our guest says that it’s that old American tradition, Along with the equally misunderstood tradition Of “yo mama” jokes, That gave birth to modern rap and hiphop. Elija wald is a musician, writer And formal world music critic for the boston globe. He writes about rap’s deeps roots In a new book entitled: “The dozens: a history of rap’s mama. Elija Wald, welcome to radio Boston. [Elijah Wald] Thanks for having me on. [Interviewer] So we’re going to talk a little bit about speckled red And what we just heard there in a second But that title the dirty dozens And this thing called the dozens, what is it? [Elijah Wald] Sort of hard to answer, it’s a lot of different things. It’s partly just the whole tradition of mother insulting, Parent insulting, family insulting. It also is a tradition of verbal dueling Which didn’t always include that … You know, two young guys, sometimes young women Would square off and just ,you know, Have a fight insulting each other Rather than fighting physically. [Interviewer] And how old is it in worldwide Or particularly the American version of that dueling? [Elijah Wald] That’s a good question, There are versions worldwide that are very old And it’s all over Africa in various forms. African-American tradition presumably came over from Africa And goes this far back as you can go. The name the dozens seems to have come in some time Probably toward the end of the century 19th century, The first absolute provable of it is about 1914. [Interviewer] 1914. In your book you have this wonderful quotation From Zora Neal Herston. Quite a bit later, this is a 1942 quotation but she says: “to play the dozens is a way of saying: Low rate your enemies, ancestors and hem Down to the present moment for reference And then go into in his future As far as your imagination leads you, But if you have no faith in your personal courage And confidence in your arsenal, Don’t try it, it’s a risky pleasure." [Elijah Wald] Zora Neal Herston loved that whole southern tradition Of colorful language and insults... Verses and insults and, I mean, She got them in all sorts of different books And she made the link that a lot of people’ve made Since to Shakespeare in English Which also had this huge repertoire of insults. Though it didn’t tend to get into mothers, The closest they ever got was whore son. [Interviewer] So why would, you think, it was so important Particularly for African-American tradition and culture? Was it because, mean there were so much verbal world play Or that… in a way, inherently musical as well, Even though they’re throwing insults at each other. [Elijah Wald] Well I mean, honestly, when I started getting into this A lot of people said it was an African tradition And I was really doopy Because everything gets called an African tradition. But in fact when I started looking around studies in Africa, It is universal in Africa, This idea of mother insulting and parent insulting But specifically mothers. Both in contexts to fighting, There’s a whole tradition in West-Africa Of what’s called combat verse, Were like before boxing matches or wrestling matches They recite these insulting poems that get into people’s moms. But also in contexts like circumcision ceremonies, Were boys, the songs they would sing after being circumcised Included frankly to copulate with your mother. [Interviewer] We are on public radio here So we will keep this family-friendly. But I wanna.. so it’s interesting There’s an complicated history that crosses Cultures and religions here But let’s go back to that first track That we opened the segment with And that is speckled red, 1929, the dirty dozen. Let’s hear a bit more of that. "Yonder go your mama going out across the field Running and shaking like an automobile I hollered at your mama and I told her to wait She slipped away from me like a Cadillac Eight Now she’s a running mistreater, robber and a cheater Pappy is your cousin, slip you in the dozen Your mama do the lordy-lord" So why is this particular song So important in this ark that you’re gonna drop Between the dozens as a form of game And a day later it is modern day hip-hop in rap. [Elijah Wald] Well couple of different ways. One thing it was to do, It was a huge, huge hit. I mean, my guess is that a lot of people Who would being exchanging mother insults But never called them the dozens, Started using that word After they heard the Speckled red song. ‘Cause I mean, it was so big, It got covered by everybody. These are names that these days only the true bleu’s fans remember But: Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, Memphis Minnie. Everyone did covers back in the ’30. But the other thing about it And the thing that in some ways most fascinates me, Is that Speckled Red’s record Was completely a censored version of the song That he was already singing. I mean that verse that we just heard, None of those lines went exactly that way. Ya’ll go yo mama across the field, This one says running and shaking like an automobile. I’m not gonna say what he said originally But this was filthy. Every line of it was filthy As anything in gangsta rap And the thing that I find fascinating about all of this, Is that it was this culture that was completely traditional. That everybody knew these verses, Everybody knew these filthy rhyme And it is this aggressive, filthy rhyming tradition That goes back at least to the 19th century And it was always that that everybody knew And it just surfaced in rap. [Interviewer] Well let’s hear a little bit of another person’s version Of the dirty dozen , this is Memphis Minnie. "Come all you folks and start to walk, I'm fixing to start my dozen talk What you're thinking about ain't on my mind, That stuff you got is the sorriest kind Now you're a sorry mistreater, robber and a cheater Slip you in the dozens, your papa and your cousin Your mama do the lordy lord" So that’s Memphis Minnie from 1931 And Elijah Wald, the reason Why I wanted to play this track is A: she’s just an American greed But b: it kind of brings us To this question that’s been dogging rap and hip hop, You know, through 2012 that, you know, [Interviewer] Is it inherently misogynistic, is it, You know, a male-only world or Sort of puts itself out to be this male-only world That isn’t entirely welcoming to women And yet here in 1931 we have Memphis Minnie Taking this really dirty song and making it our own? [Elijah Wald] Well certainly dirtiness is not unique to men. Dirty teenage stuff does tend To happen within … within genders. I mean girls tend to exchange dirty rhymes And there are lots of dirty jump roping rhymes That some of them involve dozen stuff And some of them are really filthy. I mean adolescent male culture Is an adolescent male culture And a lot of the dozens was that. There were girls who got involved But almost any time I find an interview With a girl who says she’s a very good dozen player, She’ll say something like, you know: I was the only girl who could play with the boys Or, you know, something like that: Even the boys agreed I’m good. There’s always that suggestion That it is a boys thing. And you know that there is That is this there whole sort of Jockeying, fursexual, power fursexual adulthood That boys go in for And girls have their versions of it But this does seems to be more a boys thing. [Interviewer] Well I’m speaking with Elijah Wald. He is a folk blues guitarist And music historian, formal world music critic for the Boston globe And author of the new book “The dozens: a history of rap’s mama." So listeners what do you think When you hear Speckled Red or Memphis Minnie? Or later we will talk about O Diddley and Langston Hughes. Do you also hear traces Of what will become or would become Jay-z and Kanye West? Or are these two traditions completely different? Why do you think “yo mama” jokes And verbal dueling Worked their way so deeply Into hip hop culture and music? Or do you think this is just another way Of justifying the misogyny and machismo That is in so much commercial, Especially hip hop today? Give us your thoughts at 18004238255. So Elijah, I wanna play a bit… I wanna move forward in time slightly, 1959 and honestly one of my favorites: The great Bo Diddley. "Hey, since you told me about my girl I'm gonna tell you about yours. I was walking down the street with your girl. Yeah? I took her home; for a drink, you know. To the home? Yeah, just for a drink. Oh. But that chick looked so ugly She had to sneak up on a glass To get her a drink of water. Hah-hah-hah-hah" She was so ugly that she had to sneak up On the glass to get a drink of water. So that was Bo Diddley with Jerome Green In *say man*, 1959. Not quite the “yo mama” tradition here But what’s it evolved to? [Elijah Wald] Well, it is both that tradition: It could be your mama is so ugly, Or it could be: you are so ugly. I mean, honestly, they just decided To do girlfriends And that still counted as the dozens. I mean, talking about somebody’s girlfriend And in hip hop that’s remained much more common, If you watch rap battling. They very very rarely talk About each other’s mama’s But talking about each other’s girlfriends Is still open. [Interviewer] I’m just very curious As to why you say… Why you got involved In pursuing the history of the dozen’s And the “you mama” rap link Because it doesn’t seem like something, Initially, that has had some serious colorly treatment. [Elijah Wald] You know, really what happened was I was doing a much larger, broader product Checked on all the connections Between the bleus tradition and the rap tradition And chapter 4 was gonna be the dozens. I mean, I have 3 other chapters written And then I just started reading up on it. And there was so much material And so I tought, you know, Let’s read the book that Somebody must have written On the dozens and no-one had. So that just seemed like A quick, easy, fun thing to do. [Interviewer] But it turned into an entire… [Elijah Wald] No it was a quick, easy, fun thing to do. I mean, it’s a whole book But it’s a book that took a year And not a book that took 5 years. [Interviewer] And so I guess, what I keep coming back to Is this idea that there are lots of Deep-seeded, antecedents or tradition That worked their way, you know, Through the generations into modern music. And forgive me if it seems Like I’ve asked this before, I guess the answer just isn’t Entirely clear in my mind. What do you think that it is In particular about the dozens, And about, I mean, Something which today We kind of laugh and scoff at. The whole concept of “yo mama” jokes That you say is such a powerful force in music. [Elijah Wald] Well I’m not saying It’s such a powerful force in music. I mean, I mean laughing at it was..was What we were always supposed to do, I mean, the Speckled Red record you played, What it says on the record is Comedian with piano. I mean that was a comedy routine. So no, I don’t think that’s changed, I think the only thing That’s changed that with rap, And incidentally somebody Just e-mailed me this morning With a rap record called *yo mama* That’s a pure dozens thing from 1982 That I had missed And that no-one had mentioned to me, So that’s how early in rap People were doing straight up “yo mama” records. What I … basically what my bigger point is, Is that this is huge tradition Of African-American verbal rhyming, Which has always kinda been overlooked If it wasn’t in songs And that has surfaced in rap and the dozens… I’m not saying that the dozens is IT, Their all sorts of aspects To that tradition But clearly when you get into Like rap battling. I mean, all the African-Americans Regularly call in When I’m doing shows like this: And yeah, you know, I was saying to my kids That rap battling, You do this, nothing new about that. We used to do that And they’re talking about the dozens. [Interviewer] Well let’s talk a little bit About how we see the tinges really, The echoes of this in the world of poetry. ‘cause this is something that you sent us. It’s wonderful, it’s Langston Hughes. His poem *horn of plenty* from… Actually his epic poem *ask your mama, 12 moods for jazz*, 1960. It’s an epic poem That he intended to be set to jazz, The cut that we have here Is Hughes himself but without the music. "Me, who used to be nobody, Nothing but another shadow In the quarter of the negroes. Now a name, my name. A name, Yet they ask me, right out on my patio, Where did I get my money? I said: from your mama" Lanston Hughes recorded their In his poem *horn of plenty*, What’s particularly special about this to you? [Elijah Wald] Well, he actually regularly brought up the dozens, Also in his columns, The simple columns for the Chicago defender And he very much saw it as an African-American code That you could use on white people And they didn’t know what you were saying. And that’s what he’s been doing in that poem, That poem is about living In a white neighborhood on long island And it also has lines like, You know: still they ring my doorbell And ask me: can I recommend a maid? I said yeah, your mama. The idea is that black person hearing this Knows exactly what he’s saying, Whilst white people go: my mother? Why my mother? [Interviewer] In the poem he also talks about… It’s a really beau… fascinating poem Because he mentions Charlie Mingus And he talks about Richard Wright And why Richard Wright went off to Europe And didn’t come home to the United States At the end of his life. I mean, I have part of the poem here Where Langston Hughes, you know, writes: Instead of coming home to descent die, And referring to Richard Wright, In Harlem of the south side of Chicago Or the womb of Mississippi. And one should love one’s country For one’s country is your mama. So that’s a completely different sort Of take there on the whole concept of, I guess, “yo mama”. [Elijah Wald] You know, well, I mean the reason That “yo mama” goes so deep is That it does mean so much to people, I mean, it is a metaphor For where you come from. You know, it’s a metaphor for Where you start And for what you love most. [Interviewer] So lets get another woman’s voice in here, This is Maya Angelou And her poem, a portion, I should say, Of a poem, *the thirteens*. "Your Momma’s took to shouting, Your Papa’s gone to war, Your sister’s in the streets, Your brother’s in the bar, The thirteens. Right On. Your cousin’s taking smack, Your uncle’s in the joint, Your buddy’s in the gutter, Shooting for his point, The thirteens. Right On. And you, you make me sorry, You out here by yourself, I’d call you something awful, But there just ain’t nothing left, ‘cept the thirteens. Right On." Maya Angelou and the thirteens. Great poem, what she.. what is she doing there? [Elijah Wald] Well that’s half the poem, that’s *the thirteens black*, And there’s also the thirteens white Which is addressed to white people. [Interviewer] Well we’ve got that, so let’s play that. "Your Momma kissed the chauffeur, You Poppa did the cook, Your doughter did the dirty, In the middle of the book, The thirteens. Right On. Your sister wears some jockeys, Your son he wears a bra, Your brother jonesed your cousin In the back seat of the car. The thirteens. Right On. Your money thinks you’re something, But if I’d learned to curse, I’d tell you what your name is, But there just ain’t nothing worse Than the thirteens. Right On." So tell us about what Maya Angela’s doing here. [Elijah Wald] Well she’s doing a bunch of things. The cadence is… she’s taking The sorts of rhymes That she would have learned as A girl on the streets, I mean that’s a very much A sort of school-girl, clapping, Jump roping kind of rhymes And there are lots of those. Your mommy, your daddy, Your greasy and your granny And so forth. She’s also trying To make a political point, About white and black. And she’s also trying, very obviously, To find a poetic voice in black tradition, To use in academic poetry And she’s turning to the dozens for that. She’s saying, you know, This is the kind of rhyming We’ve always done And if I put it on a page You call it poetry But we’ve always done this. [Interviewer] Well, I guess now is the time For us to sort of really Wind the clock into where we are today. In the last two minutes or so, We have in the show And I wanna do that By reading a quote That you have from Jay-Z. And you have it in your book: The dozens: the history of rap’s mama. And here is what Jay-Z says: "I’ve read articles Where people compare rap To other genres of music Like jazz or rock ‘n roll. But It’s really mostly like a sport: Boxing to be exact: The stamina, the one-man-army, The combat aspect of it, The ring, the stage, … " And then also a little earlier You’ve got a quote from Grandmaster Flash Who says, I mean, This is much earlier, Several decades earlier but he says, you know, "one day he was like with his crew, Walking around the streets And looking for, basically another group To sort of musically compete with And he said: when we found another crew For four-deep just like us, When Melvin said: "one of the other dude’s mama’s Dance like a sissy-back gorilla" It was on." So talk about these things, The idea that the verbal sparring, The “yo mama”, It’s all the way into, you know, Grandmaster Flash, who’s a really…, One of the great.. people Who have gave birth To the modern day hip hop To Jay-Z. [Elijah Wald] Well, I mean in that moment, Actually Grandmaster Flash, They were a dance crew And they were going Into breakdancing against the other group. But the Jay-Z thing, That whole idea That you can fight with your malther, With your fists. And it’s not that different, It’s completely inherit in the dozens. I just had a Charles Coe, a local poet, Just came up to me After he heard I’d done this But he said: "yeah, you know, When I was growing up, The dozens were so great, ‘cause, like, I was not one of those kids Who could fight with my fists But I could fight with my mouth And it got me the same respect." [Interviewer] So we’ve just got a couple of seconds But I’ve got to ask you, I mean, For people listening, Some people might think: This is all very interesting But is Elijah Wald, you know, Excusing some of the worst Or less savory aspects Of modern day hip hop. [Elijah Wald] I mean, I think the bottom line is: Who cares what I think? I am a 50 year old white guy. I mean, I’m supposed…, you know, We’re supposed to be upset By hip… nasty hip hop. We’re in P.R. It’s our job to be upset by that. [Interviewer] Okay, Elijah Wald is the author of the book: The dozen: the history of rap’s mama. Thank you so much, it was a great run through time And a really wonderful idea. Thanks so much for being with us today. [Elijah Wald] Thanks for having me. …outro…