hot male bodies

I talk an awful lot about women’s bodies, and women and the erotic gaze. I am, of course, working with the assumption that most dance performances are geared towards a male gaze, which Laura Mulvey introduces in her 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, and which caused such a stir Screen then devoted an entire issue to the matter. But I wonder if that’s what’s actually going on in dance performances? Are we really that dull? In this post I’m going to look at some hot male bodies, and see how we might go about fucking up shit in the modern swing dance world. High heel shoes: for all!


This idea of the male gaze was originally constructed as a response to mainstream narrative cinema, and argues that mainstream narrative films are constructed (from story to shot framing and mise en scene) for an imaginary, idealised male viewer. In this context, men and male protagonists operate as the active, subjective heroes (the people the viewer wants to be) and the women are reduced to bodies to be objectified, acted upon by others (the object the viewer wants to possess or act upon).

You can see how this approach would stimulate lots of discussion. It’s an inherently heterocentric reading: what about queer women watching these female, sexualised bodies on screen? What about queer men watching and wanting to possess and be the male subject? And is it really useful to use this fairly fucked up psychoanalytic approach to cinema which boils everything down to sex? Whether you dig Mulvey’s approach or not, she certainly started people talking – in loud and quite excited ways – about the way cinema constructs stories and images of bodies and people, and she invited us to critique assumptions about gender and power in cinema studies. Which can only be a good thing.

Now I don’t have much patience with psychoanalysis as a tool for analysing film and performance. I don’t think it works, mostly because it boils everything down to sex, and I think that this approach tells us a lot more about 19th century middle class Austrian men than about cinema. But I do think there are some interesting starting points, here. And I want to apply them to dance. Because that is what I do. I’m also interested in the way vernacular dances – on-stage and off – allow the audiences and performers to interact, in a way that cinema does not. In a dance performance, the sexualised body (be it male or female) is capable of physically, verbally and discursively interacting with the audience whose gaze they’ve invited. I think this adds a really interesting and exciting element to the fairly dull model of visual pleasure.

…I have to mention, much of this discussion draws – in a fairly long distance way – on Judith Butler’s talk about gender performance in Gender Trouble. If I had room, I’d go into that, and then into transgender performance, but I don’t think any of us could be bothered with that now. Another time perhaps.

It’s tempting to leap into a discussion about burlesque here. But I’ve done that already (in this post ‘My concerns about burlesque’), and I’m kind of over it. I want to talk about something new. I want to remind people that it’s not only women who are sexualised and men who are sexualising. Just as Mulvey was a starting point for discussions of cinema, I want to move on from talking about sexualising women’s bodies in dance (in the context of contemporary swing dance culture) and talk about sexualising men’s bodies.

I’d like to pause here, and note that I once delivered a conference paper on the sexualised male body in blues dance performance. I was squished, once again, into a panel that featured no other dance talk. In fact, I was after a woman talking about child rape and sexualised children and before a woman talking about literature by women who’ve survived rape. The crowd was all women, with one or two scared young men, and these were hardcore queer studies women, who were absolutely disinterested in men. Sexually, socially or academically.
At one point during my paper, as I began a section discussing the appeal of a young, well-muscled man performing a highly sexualised solo blues routine, I thought “aw fuck.” Needless to say, my lines about the pleasures of gazing upon Falty’s fine young frame and his own pleasure in his body and performance did not go down well.

But, then, this is the point of it all. We are not all watching cinema in the same way. Each text yields – encourages! – a range of viewing positions and ways of looking.

But let’s pause and consider the clip with which I tried to excite those angry lesbian separatists:

linky

The nice thing about this clip… well, hells, there are plenty of nice things about this clip. But the one I most prefer is the way solo dance is more accommodating of a queer gaze than partner dance. In fact, solo dance gives us a chance to side step heteronormativity. Here is a young, healthy man dancing for his own pleasure, and engaging with a range of discourses about gender and sex and sexualised bodies and audiences and performances. He is not anchored to a particular partner (and associated sexual preference). He is autonomous, sexually complete in himself. Which is pretty interesting, as women-as-sexual-object are pretty integral accessories to the heteronormative, hegemonic Man that patriarchy digs.

Despite Mike’s independent display, this is also definitely a performance for an audience – the audience in the room, watching, the audience behind the camera, the other dancers in the performance itself, who are following and imitating his movements. The last is especially interesting: here is a young, white man modelling sexualised dance movements for a range of women and men.

Fascinating, much?

Most importantly, though, Mike’s performance climbs and climbs and climbs, the tension increasing, the sexual show exaggerated and exaggerated until it suddenly tips over. His taking off his shirt is met with screams of delight and excitement, embarrassment, laughter, clapping – all the lovely responses this sort of display requires. It’s not until we see his grin that we are let in on the joke. He knows that this is exaggerated play, and we are allowed to see that he both enjoys the attention (as he should – this is the point of it all, right? Pleasure in being the object/subject as well as pleasure for the observer?) and has performed for us. He doesn’t quite slip out out of character, but it’s very clear that this has all been framed as performance. It’s not, for example, a real performance of sexual invitation. … is it?

[Note: understanding the difference between real sexual invitation and, well, just being there in your body, is something a lot of men have trouble with. They assume that all women are constantly available. If they are outside their homes (or inside them), wearing revealing clothing (or not)… hellz, just breathing. I feel the urge to explore the currently-raging slutwalk debate, but I don’t have the energy. But I would like to link to this article to suggest my concerns about the topic.

But all this makes it clear that we cannot compare male and female sexualised performance in a cultural vacuum. We need to remember context. And for me, that is patriarchy.]

Well, the point of my using this clip here is to say, well, fuck. That conference paper failed. Can you see how it went down awfully in that session? Right. Framing is everything for this sort of show.

So let me show you three other clips. They’re all blues dancing performances. Two are partner blues, one is solo blues. But to frame that one as ‘solo’ blues is a little misleading. The most successful of these types of solo blues ‘battles’ or competitions rely, utterly, on engagement between competitors, and between competitors and audience. Visual play, but also aural and oral engagement. Between dancers and audience, but also between musicians and dancers. There is no solo in solo blues competitions. Not if you’re doing it right. This is not a self-contained performance of sexual immanence. It’s a battle, a demonstration, a performance of sexualised movement which requires interaction. Demands it. This is the call; you bring the response.

I’ll begin with that other solo performance, then. This is the solo blues final from the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown in New Orleans, 2009. I’m most interested in the first minute of the competition. You might be interested in the rest, to compare the male and female performers/performances, but I just want to talk about the men, here. Though I have to note: it is rare to find men in solo blues comps. And their style is very, very different to the women’s. And don’t get me started on the whole not wearing shoes thing.

linky

That particular dancer is Dax Hock. He’s been a professional dancer and performer for years, and, obviously, possesses the mad skills. I like the way he engages with the other (women) performers, and the way he displays his body (and mad skills) to the audience. This is at once a highly sexualised male body, but also a very professional demonstration of performance and dance skills. He won that competition.

As you watch, listen as well. Listen to the audience’s response. To the band and consider the way Dax engages with both. This, to my mind, is where the real skill lies.

There are so many things to talk about in this performance. The references to Snake Hips Tucker, a frightening, mesmerising performer. The moments where Dax spreads his legs ridiculously wide, from the hip, suggesting invitation and echoing a woman’s spread legs as invitation for penetration. In a man, this is transgressive: he invites the gaze, the penetration. But it is also aggressively hegemonic masculinity: admire the phallus (down here!). This is sex talk. With the body. He makes eye contact with the audience, with a suggestive/aggressive invitation to admire him (a cocked head, a nod, the eye contact). He repeats this when he turns to address the other competitors, but his more blatant hip thrust (and display) is less a marker of sexual invitation as an invitation to compare sexual/dancing ability in competition. It’s derision dancing at its finest (I’ve written about derision in dance in regards to race and violence in blues music here, and there are links to references there).

The comparison of male and female sex/groin/performance is interesting as well. A man asking a woman to compete with him for the audience’s attention… is he asking the women to compete with him for the male gaze? For a male/female gaze? Really, I think this is where the term ‘queer’ really comes in useful: he’s inviting women to participate as equals (well, as not-quite-equals) in a performance/display/competition to be both sexual object and subject for a male/female/straight/gay/bi queer gaze. He’s fucking up gender norms here.

But it is the music that makes it all wonderful. The song is shouting ‘sex!’, but it’s also shouting ‘humour!’ and ‘laugh!’ and ‘shout!’ and parody and engagement… so many things, so many different points from which to engage with it, that it defies that heteronormative, male gaze narrative. Which is how blues and jazz roll, really. Slippage. It has it. And Dax, wonderfully, extends that aural invitation with his body.

Do note, here, that we are looking at two young, fit, healthy white male bodies. Not too transgressive, huh? But perhaps it is…?

Let’s move on. Here’s something different. Another competition from that same ULHS 2009. This time it’s partner blues. So we see heterosexuality on display. Or do we? As with most of these sorts of dance competitions, I always wonder if the men are really engaging with the other male performers and with the men in the audience (who are also ‘dancers’) more than with the women they dance with.

linky.

So let’s look at the point where Peter dances with Ramona. They’re the second couple, entering at about 0.24 (and yes, Todd’s exit, facing them, his back to his own partner, legs spread, does invite some discussion of phallic competition, yes?). The point I like most is at 0.29, where he breaks them into open position – they’re not touching – and he proceeds to perform for her, and ultimately for us within the frame of their heterosexual pairing. Yes, this is for her (and she responds), but ultimately, we all know that this is for us, the people watching and judging. How are we to assess his performance? In part through Ramona’s response to him. She likes it? He must be hot/good. But we’re also invited to see how his sexualised display (more hips, more pelvis) invites her creative response.

With all this to-ing and fro-ing between Peter and other male competitors and the audience, I’m seeing a whole lot of queer, right here. Particularly when you think about the dance partnership as a professional, working creative partnership. It is always implied, but a professional dancing relationship like Ramona and Peter’s, is not necessarily sexualised. So while Peter and Ramona present as a nice, straight couple, they don’t work that way on every level. So they become available for a little queer co-opting.

The best part of reading on the slant like this, is that I’m pretty sure the men involved wouldn’t be comfortable with my reading them this way. Straight man panics! omg! they might think I’m gay! I’d better butch up! And NSFW!! there’s nothing queerer than the hypermasculine, right? SFW Right? And I have a feeling they’d be equally uncomfortable with the thought of straight and queer women and straight and queer men (let alone transfolk) finding this queering hot.

Here, a short aside. There’s nothing new about straight women imagining straight male pairings as gay. Queering them. Camille Bacon Smith writes about it in her book Enterprising Women, in relation to Spock/Kurk slash. Personally, I enjoy the thought of Sam and Dean Winchester as secret boyfriends. And I’m not alone. But for me, the real pleasure lies not so much in what they actually do together in this imaginary sexual(ised) relationship, but in the thought of their queering – their fucking up – the heternormative world. I like imagining that Dean and Sam have whole lives beyond the television episodes we see. And this enriches what I do see on screen.

I mean, to make alternative readings of women and women’s sexuality work, we have to have alternative masculinities as well. It’s the subversion, the transgression, the rule breaking and naughtiness that I find so appealing. I especially like the way we can read against the grain this way and no one can stop us.

But let me give you one final clip. This one is another partnered blues performance. But it’s not in a competition. So there’s display, but not the same sense of competitiveness.

linky

This one is interesting for the fact that this is a white woman dancing with a black man. There are all sorts of discussions about the young African American man as hypersexualised ‘buck’ to be explored here (check out Donald Bogle’s work on stereotypes of black American identity for a starting place). But I don’t have the references to hand. But I do think it’s cool to see the way this performance subverts that mythology. Here is a young black man with seriously mad dance skills. He has brilliant control. We can see culturally specific as well as gendered movements and bodily awareness at work here. But they are working together as partners. The difference in style is what makes this work. The humour – the parts where we laugh or smile at the jokes – defuse the sexual tension, but at the same time heighten it. It’s the adrenaline and chemical high of laughing that makes us feel good, and we’re more likely to read sexualised subtext as sexualised if we’re feeling good. Or so the theory goes.

This is my favourite partnered blues dance performance. I like the humour, it reflects the things I like about a lot of blues music. I love the use of solo and traditional jazz steps. I adore the use of tango rhythms and styling, as tango was massively popular at the same time as blues music in the 1920s. This is recorded music, not a live band, but it’s a modern performance – Winton Marsalis – covering Jelly Roll Morton’s song ‘New Orleans Bump’. Marsalis himself suggests an engagement with race and ethnicity (though he never seems to gain any sense of reflexivity about gender and sexuality!). And Jelly Roll Morton? Well. He’s all about braggadocio and sexualised masculine performance.

There’s lots more to say about all these. But I think I want to end here, pointing out that my favourite parts of all these are:

  • The male bodies (rather than female) presented for an eroticised gaze.
    Men are presented (and presenting themselves) as sexual objects as well as subjects. I think that this transgression is a useful model not only for other male dancers, but for women dancers as well. As I said on FB, these guys make it clear that the sisters need to put their shoes on and get their action in gear.
  • The invitation to play and to laugh is central to the sexualised display.
    Laughter is about rule breaking. It interrupts power and control. It is power and control. For many women, their greatest fear is being laughed at or ridiculed because they aren’t sexy/beautiful/young/skinny/white/whatever enough. I think that we can gain some sense of self power to engage with the humour in an assertive way. Combining humour and dance is very difficult. It requires a great deal of skill and confidence. Why not model our dancing on the example set by men, and then twist it, queer it, to undo the traditional gender and power dynamics?
  • It’s all about breaking rules.
    I really, really like performances which break rules. I don’t like to see people hurt or humiliated. I do like to see assumptions about what is ‘proper’ tipped upside down. I do like to be surprised. Patriarchy is boring. Heteronormativity is dull. I want to be entertained. And these are performances. If I’m going to stop dancing and sit down for 3 minutes (or longer), you need to make it worth my while.
  • It moves us away from the boring, stupid idea of sexualised performance embodied in boring second rate burlesque. Yes, ladies, there are other ways of being powerful, sexually, than just presenting your body like a big present for male audiences.

Do, please, go on and seek out other images of men dancing that subvert the hetero stuff. There’s plenty about, from both present day dancers and historic dances. Why not start with these:

[EDIT: I would really like to engage with the race stuff in the final clip, but I don’t feel I’m properly up to date on the literature, so I’d just be bullshitting my way through. But race is absolutely central to this stuff. Contemporary American swing dance culture (accommodating all the related dances) is dominated by white, middle class young people. Dancing dances that developed in black working class and working poor American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has to be addressed, if we are talking power.]

References

Bacon Smith, Camille, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, Pennsylvania Press: USA, 1992.

Bogle, Donald, Uncle Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, Viking Press: USA, 1973.
(this topic is introduced in the chapter ‘Origins of Black Body Politics’ of Jackson’s book)

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge: USA, 1990.

Jackson, Ronald L, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media, Suny: USA, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): pg 6-18.

LOLMulvey image from alibosworth

LOLFreud image from you are doing that wrong

-> both c/o LOLTHEORISTS

LOLButler image from thrownoverboard

I hate the capitalist system, or DJing blues

Last night I did a blues set for the first time in a while, and it was the first time in ages that I feel I did a decent job. It was easier this time because we weren’t in the huge, high-ceilinged, cold room, but in a smaller, lower-ceilinged, darker room where the couches were right in there. I like an L-shaped room for this sort of thing, but only if the couches are in the little ‘leg’ of the L and the dancing in the main part. We also had a better sound system – one that used a proper mixer rather than just plugging straight into the speaker (!!!).

The space made a big difference to me, but it was even more important for the dancers, who could actually get into the songs emotionally. I saw a lot more movement with emotional commitment, or at least movement that was dancing rather than just moving about on the dance floor. There also seemed to be better communication between the partners, which was also nice to see. Once again there were too few leads, but this lead to lots of talking and fun-having by the women standing about on the side lines, which was a relief. But I’d still like to see more women leading to forestall this problem. Guess we need some good role modelling, huh?

Speaking of role modelling, in this post I’m going to explore the themes of the lyrics and delivery of the songs I played, as well as how they worked in the room. They are all pretty hardcore, politically speaking.

Here’s the set I played:
Friday 6 May 2011, 9.50-10:50

I’m Feeling Alright – Big Mama Thornton – Ball N’ Chain – 111 – 1968 – 3:00

Sleep in Late – Molly Johnson – Another Day – 87 – 2002 – 2:48

Built for Comfort – Taj Mahal In Progress & In Motion (1965-1998) – 98 – 1998 – 4:46

Ballin’ the Jack – Mona’s Hot Four (Dennis Lichtman, Gordon Webster, Cassidy Holden, Nick Russo, Jesse Selengut, Dan Levinson) – Live at Mona’s – 111 – 2009 – 5:27

Reckless Blues – Louis Armstrong and his All Stars (Velma Middleton, Trummy Young Edmund Hall, Billy Kyle, Everett Barksdale, Squire Gersh, Barrett Deems) – The Complete Decca Studio Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (disc 06) – 88 – 1957 – 2:30

Come Easy Go Easy – Rosetta Howard acc. by the Harlem Blues Serenaders (Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Lil Armstrong, Ulysses Livingston, Wellman Brand, O’Neil Spencer) – Rosetta Howard (1939-1947) – 90 – 1939 – 3:03

Moaning The Blues – Victoria Spivey acc by Henry ‘Red’ Allen, JC Higginbotham, Teddy Hill, Luis Russell – Henry Red Allen And His New York Orchestra (disc 1) – 97 – 1929 – 3:07

I Ain’t No Ice Man – Cow Cow Davenport with Joe Bishop, Sam Price, Teddy Bunn, Richard Fullbright – History of the Blues (disc 02) – 89 – 1938 – 2:51

Amtrak Blues – Alberta Hunter (acc by Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Fran Wess, Norris Turney, Billy Butler, Gerald Cook, Aaron Bell, Jackie Williams) – Amtrak Blues – 95 – 1978 – 3:24

Back Water Blues – Belford Hendricks’ Orchestra with Dinah Washington – Ultimate Dinah Washington – 71 – 1957 – 4:58

Cherry Red – Big Joe Turner, Joe Newman, Lawrence Brown, Pete Brown, Frank Wess, Pete Johnson, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Cliff Leeman – The Boss Of The Blues – 96 – 1956 – 3:25

Sweet Home Chicago – David “Honeyboy” Edwards – Sun Records – The Blues Years, 1950 – 1958 CD4 – 112 – 3:01

Knock on wood – Ike And Tina Turner – The Ike & Tina Turner Archive Series : Hits & Classics Vol.1 – 119 – 1998 – 2:31

Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton – Very Best Of – 76 – 2:52

Backlash Blues – Nina Simone – Nina Simone Sings the Blues – 78 – 1967 – 2:32
Things are Slow – Barbara Dane – I Hate the Capitalist System – 91 – 4:17

3 O’clock In The Morning Blues – Ike and Tina Turner Putumayo Presents: Mississippi Blues – 64 – 1969 – 2:40

Sugar Blues – Preservation Hall – The Hurricane Sessions – 61 – 2007 – 5:02

I came in with that Big Mama Thornton song because it usually works: loud, high energy, lots of fun, hi-fi. But that wasn’t quite right in this darker, more mellow room. I was a bit nervy, though, and felt a bit out of practice, so I went with something I’d tried before.

Followed up with Molly Johnson because it’s a good change. It went down a lot better than the Thornton, but I still wasn’t happy. The floor filled up, though.

Taj Mahal after that, and that worked well. Though it still felt a bit loud and shouty, it did go down quite well. I do like the way he’s singing about being built for comfort, not speed:

Some folks built like this,
Built like that,
Don’t you howl at me, don’t you call me fat!
You know I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed.
Oh, sweet papa Earl, got everything sweet mama need.

Then a song by Mona’s Hot Four, which I adore. It went down surprisingly well for something which is quite long, quite emotionally intense (though not as serious as some). It was nice to move towards a banjo/piano/group impro sound. Also, I really dig that Gordon Webster (piano)/Jesse Selengut (vocal) combination. ‘Balling the Jack’ is a dance, but it’s also a sexual euphemism.

Because people seemed to be ok with the more serious, intense sound, I decided to slow it down and head towards some saucier, slower old school stuff. This Armstrong modern All Star stuff is good for that. I overplay this song in blues, which is kind of ok because there really isn’t a repertoire of ‘favourites’ or ‘overplayed’ songs in Sydney blues yet. I think dancers need something familiar when they’re only beginning to get into social dancing, and the Sydney blues scene is really only just finding its feet again. Reckless Blues is sung by a woman, about being a woman who takes risks. Romantic/sexual ones by implication (and the feel of the music), but the broader theme is that this is a woman who does as she likes.

Then Rosetta Howard. This is where I really wanted to be. I don’t get to play this sort of scratchy blues here in Sydney much, mostly because we tend to use venues with fucked up sound systems. But this is my blues dancing and DJing happy place. Check out the band in that song. Wowsers!
‘Come Easy Go Easy’ is about having money that comes easy, goes easy – spending money freely, whether it’s your own or your man’s.

Then, finally, I get to play Moanin The Blues for dancers! Best song ever! Of all time! It went down a treat, which was very nice. It is, of course, about a man who’s no good, and gets a good telling off. But it’s also a song about sex. And being really good at it.

Now you talk about the black snake blues,
Well you haven’t heard no moanin’ yet,
ooohhh yeah
aaaall day long
And when you hear this moanin’,
This moanin you will never forget.

aaaaiiiii oooo
mmmmm- mmmmmm
(moaning)
Well I know I can moan,
I don’t see how I lost my happy home.

Well it was on a Sunday mornin’,
I didn’t feel so good
I felt like a cow when she has lost her cud,
I began a moanin’
all day long.

And when you hear me a moanin’
You can bet sweet mama feel good.

aaaaiiiii oooo
mmmmm- mmmmmm
(moaning)
Lord I know I can moan,
I don’t see how I lost my home.

Well I’m the only one in my family
to take a biscuit to pieces
put back just how it was,
Oh, when I’m moanin’,
all day long.
Yes, I can kick my leg high,
and you oughtta see me do the bug.

aaaaiiiii oooo
mmmmm- mmmmmm
(moaning)

After that I had a feeling the dancers had kind of used up their scratch song skills, and would need a change of pace. So I played this last one (I Ain’t No Ice Man), and had considered following up with Butterbeans and Susie then going to C W Stoneking’s duet stuff, but aborted at the last minute. That Stoneking stuff really isn’t very good, and it would look particularly bad next to the Butterbeans and Susie stuff, which is very good.

The lyrics to this song are fairly standard blokey bravado about sexual prowess, but in this context, where I’m focussing on women vocalists and women’s feelings about sex and men, it changes the implication. Less all about men, and just one man’s contribution to a wider discussion about sex:

I ain’t no iceman,
I ain’t no iceman’s son
I ain’t no iceman,
I ain’t no iceman’s son,
but I can keep you cool
until the iceman comes

I ain’t no woodchopper,
I ain’t not woodchopper’s son,
I ain’t no woodchopper,
I ain’t not woodchopper’s son,
but babe, I can chop your kindlin,
until the woodchopper comes.

Baby, I ain’t no stoveman,
I ain’ no stoveman’s son,
Baby, I ain’t no stoveman,
I ain’ no stoveman’s son,
but I can keep you heated up,
baby til the stoveman comes.

Baby, I ain’t no butcher,
and I ain’t no butcher’s son,
I ain’t no butcher,
I ain’t no butcher’s son,
But I can promise you plenty a meat,
baby til the butcher comes.

I ain’t no milkman,
I ain’t no milkman’s son,
I ain’t no milkman,
I ain’t no milkman’s son,
But I can promise you plenty a cream,
baby til that milkman comes.

So I changed it up completely. Sort of. Alberta Hunter is a good transition because she was there in the 20s, singing that sort of old school blues, so her delivery is just right – a mix of extremely dirty and sly humour. But this is a hi-fi song with a bit of a grooving feel. It also feels like the song wants you to move around the floor. Which is appropriate, considering it’s about the Amtrak rail. But that’s a contrast to the previous few songs, which make me feel like standing on the spot working some action.

Amtrak Blues is about a woman whose man has left her, and who’s feeling really bad….mostly:

Some body come here and help me
help me, cause the man I love is gone,
Some body come here and help me
help me, cause the man I love is gone,
I’m so confused and worried,
I can hardly carry on.

Trouble and dark days,
Can’t last always,
So I’ll keep on strugglin’,
I know I’ll see brighter days
(aside: please help me, somebody! Help me!)

My two sisters told me
other people tried to tell me too
(oh lord, yes)
I said my sisters told me

Oh, they said
You don’t change your way of living,
that very man’s gonna be the death of you.

I know he’s ornery, he’s selfish
He’s the type of man that just don’t care,
I know he’s ornery, he’s selfish
he’s the type of man that just don’t care
oh, he’d pawn the holy bible, just to get his Amtrak fare,

I love him, yes I love him
Oh I love him, and I don’t mind dying
I love him, yes I love him
love him, and I don’t mind dying,

I ever run across him,
Gonna crack his head and drink his blood like wine

In typical Hunter style, if she ends up finding the man who’s left her, she’ll have her revenge. The song is really good because Hunter adds lots of ‘help me, help me’, and ‘oh lord, lord, help me!’ so you really feel her suffering. The tension builds, until the final line, which is perhaps doubt a Hunter addition. But the musical tone is a bit higher energy – this isn’t a slow, dragging dirge. We feel her suffering, but then the final line tips it all on its head, and we realise it was actually a song about how horrid he is, so that we feel for her, and when, in the final, climactic moment, she declares she’ll break his head and drink his blood like wine, we want to yell out “YES!”


Back Water Blues was perhaps not quite right here. I think I was too deep in my headphones and previewing to properly judge the mood in the room. But people were into the hi-fi, the more modern sound, and they were ok with the more intense feeling of the song. This picture of Dinah Washington is perhaps the least appropriate possible for this song, but it’s a great pic…

Back Water Blues is a Bessie Smith song, about the flooding in the south, and how it affected the poor and black folk of the area. There are quite a few songs about flooding, and they really took on greater significance after Hurricane Katrina: things hadn’t changed much in a hundred years. This one really is a sad song, despairing. It’s a woman singing about the awful things that have happened to her:

When it rains five days
and the skies turn dark as night,
When it rains five days
and the skies turn dark as night,
Then trouble’s takin’ place
in the lowlands at night.

I woke up this mornin’,
can’t even get out of my door,
I woke up this mornin’,
can’t even get out of my door,
There’s been enough trouble
to make a poor girl wonder where she want to go.

Then they rowed a little boat
‘Bout five miles ‘cross the pond,
Then they rowed a little boat
‘Bout five miles ‘cross the pond,
I packed all my clothes,
throwed them in
and they rowed me along.

When it thunders and lightnin’,
and when the wind begins to blow,
When it thunders and lightnin’,
and when the wind begins to blow,
There’s thousands of people
ain’t got no place to go.

Then I went and stood upon
some high old lonesome hill,
Then I went and stood upon
some high old lonesome hill,
Then looked down on the house,
were I used to live.

Backwater blues
done call me to pack my things and go,
Backwater blues
done call me to pack my things and go,
‘Cause my house fell down
and I can’t live there no more.

Mmm, I can’t move no more
Mmm, I can’t move no more
There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go

Then I played that neat version of Cherry Red, which I should have played after Amtrak Blues. Same ‘moving’ feeling, a little higher tempo, hi-fi. Brilliant musicians: Big Joe Turner, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Pete Johnson, etc. I like the way Turner invites his woman:

Now you can take me,
Pretty mama,
Jump me in your Hollywood bed,
And eagle rock me baby
‘Til my face turns cherry red.

The eagle rock is a dance step, but I like the way it also works as a metaphor here. And I like it that he’s inviting a woman to take him; he’s inviting a (sexually) assertive woman.

Anyway, that song went down really well.

Then I changed it up again with that version of Sweet Home Chicago, which has a nice guitar sound, and again, that walking feeling. It’s a familiar song, but not a version most people would hear. I like the way the vocals match Joe Turner’s: big, shouty, kind of intense.

By now people were kind of getting tired. So I chucked in Knock On Wood to change things up. I love early Ike and Tina Turner. Tina’s shouting matches the previous two. I could perhaps have gone with something a little less soul and a little more blues from their repertoire, but this one has the familiarity factor. It went down well, upped the energy in the room, and got all the women standing about up and dancing together.

Hound Dog. Even I’m a bit sick of this. But it’s a good transition. More shouting women. This time, a bit slower, and more in that proper blues vein.

Backlash Blues, because this is a good transition from soul to blues. It has that same walking feeling. I almost went straight to this from Knock on Wood. I think I should have. But it’s a bit lower energy than Hound Dog, so we would have dropped down too quickly. And I wanted just a bit more fun/familiar/energy stuff before I switched gears down to more intense, slower blues.

I also love this song because it’s hardcore 60s politics. I remember some guy in Melbourne once telling me that this song isn’t political at all. Dickhead. I mean, a) Nina Simone, hardcore activist, and b), the title – Backlash Blues! Here are the lyrics (which I think were co-written with Langston Hughes, or at least borrowing his lyrics):

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do think I am
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam

You give me second class houses
And second class schools
Do you think that alla colored folks
Are just second class fools
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash
All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just what do you think I got to lose
I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues
You’re the one will have the blues
Not me, just wait and see


Then something new for me – Barabara Dane, singing seriously hardcore 60s politics. I LOVE her voice, and play one of her songs for lindy hoppers a lot (with Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band). This song from the album ‘I Hate the Capitalist System’ is a perfect transition from Backlash Blues. Almost exactly the same rhythm/beat, but a bit lighter and more humorous with some cool organ action in there. It’s a proper blues song, with serious politics, but also that 60s folk music politics. And Dane’s voice. YES. This song went down really, really well, which is very pleasing, as I like it a lot.

Then some slower, more intense Ike and Tina Turner, because I wanted to bring it down a bit again. And then I closed with Sugar Blues, which is slower, and quite intense, but a bit funny as well, so the next DJ could go anywhere, really.

Overall, it was a fun set. It’s a pleasure playing blues, because the music can be so subversive. Women singing about sex, men singing about finding assertive women attractive, labour politics, race politics, being poor, being angry, the effects of flooding on the poor…. It’s the sort of stuff that blues music does well. It’s the emotional balance to swing, which is all about partying. Blues songs are about feeling shit, and then singing a song (and telling a story) to share your feelings, garner support from your friends, and then stomp those blues til you feel better.

pop culture, jazz and ethnicity.

NB: I’ve done some edits on this post for the shocking grammar/mistypes. Apologies.
In the 1930s and 40s – most particularly the 40s – jazz was mainstream music. It was popular. Though it had been discussed in a range of specialist magazines and periodicals (including Down Beat and Metronome) for years, the mid-40s saw mainstream publications like Life, Look and the men’s magazine Esquire publishing stories and photos about jazz and hiring writers to produce jazz reviews. I think it’s worth noting the point that Esquire was a men’s magazine, that almost all the jazz promoters and managers were men, and that almost all jazz instrumentalists were male.
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(Norman Granz from the Verve site)
This mainstreaming of jazz is interesting. It was also a challenge for jazz afficianados who were committed to raising the profile and status of jazz musicians as artists. Reading about Norman Granz, I’ve come across this discussion:

Beginning with the first jam sessions he organized and extending through two decades of JATP concerts, tours, and records, Granz applied three rules. The musicians he hired would be paid well; there would be no dancing at his events; and there could be no segregation on either the bandstand or in the audiences. The first of these rules responded to exploitative club owners and promoters. The second institutionalized a trend that was already familiar from other attempts to establish jazz as an art, a concert music. The third rule was most important, because it recognized the limitations of previous efforts to mix the look of jazz- efforts that had relied on an optimistic trickle-down theory of cultural-social change. Granz’s third rule attempted to ensure consumption as an act of resistance to racist conventions; it tried to direct attention both to the relation of individual consumers to the producers of the music they consumed and to the relations between individual, and perhaps different consumers of the same musical product (26).

It’s interesting to see how Granz’s efforts to raise the status of jazz as art coincided with his anti-segregation and anti-racism efforts. The popular served as ‘low’ culture, and low culture is where black musicians were situated. It’s this equating of segregation with popular culture which I find really interesting. I’m also paying attention to the way jazz is ‘artified’ by various discourses.
Today jazz in Australia has been thoroughly canonised, stuffed into the ‘elite’ or ‘art’ category. It is not popular music. ‘Modern’ jazz is ‘difficult art’, ‘classic jazz’ is daggy and something for old white people. The issue of race works in a different way: there are no black artists in the jazz bands I see at Australian dances, besides the occasional female singer. This is in part because Australian multiculturalism works in a different way to American. But I also think that these efforts to ‘artify’ jazz has effectively distanced it from anyone other than white musicians and white jazznick fans.
This is just a first thought, so please don’t take it as any final argument or position. But it’s making me wonder about ethnicity and class in Australian jazz. We were, after all, segregated as well. And we did have a White Australia immigration policy. I haven’t begun any work on Australian jazz, but I’m wondering how the contemporary jazz landscape looks, in terms of race and gender?
It’s also important to note that there’s a general undercurrent in much of the critical work on jazz that I’m reading (critical in the ‘theorised’ sense rather than ‘reviewing records’ sense) that bebop was far more challenging and engaged with race politics in America than swing. There’s also some provocative stuff about masculinity and black masculinity in the literature on bebop).

(another Gjon Mili photo from his Life magazine series)
Additionally, I’m noticing that the ‘jam session’ is acquiring mythic status throughout all the jazz literature. This is where jazz musicians (regardless of colour or class) could come together and just play, for hours or days, in ‘safe’ clubs or back rooms. The implication is of course that in jam sessions musicians were ‘free’ and in staged performances they were ‘caged’ by social convention.
My spidey sense is tingling. If these jam sessions were so free and liberal, where are the sisters? Who’s home looking after the kids or grandmothers so these uncaged tigers can jam the blues all night? You know, of course, that this brings us back to the role of gender in jazz, and in jazz journalism. And to my central research interest: the relationship between different media within a community… or in constructing community.
Knight, Arthur, “Jammin’ the Blues: or the Sight of Jazz, 1944”. Representing Jazz, ed. Krin Gabbard. Duke U Press: Durham and London, 1995. 11-53.
An earlier post on magazines and jazz
An even earlier post on magazines, jazz and masculinity