Why I Drink My Coffee Black

Must be the music…and a fear of

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dilution.

In my ongoing search for everything Robert Farris Thompson, I came across this nugget from Michael Ventura (see link below for more):

“ROCK ‘N’ ROLL” is a word from the depths. As a word, there is no modern word that can compare to it. It’s as resonant as a Chaucer word. First, each of its parts is both a verb and a noun. “Rock,” the noun (Rock the noun!), is a most basic object. Hard. “Upon this rock I will build my church,” said Jesus. An object-word that defies scale — it can fit into your hand, a rock, or it could be the whole planet. While as a verb, it leaps from the sturdiness of its noun-definition into movement, back and forth, oscillating, going from yin to yang and back again, rocking.

“Roll” is sweet, as a noun. Lush. Soft. Eschewing every traditional Anglo-Saxon word for the female organ, recently freed New Orleans slaves were calling it a “jelly roll” over 100 years ago. So juicy did they find the expression that it came to mean [the male reproductive organ] as well as [the female], both genders singing about “my jelly roll.” The first great jazz composer called himself Jelly Roll Morton. Then there’s “roll of fat,” “roll of bills” — that kind of roll. And as a verb (Roll the verb!), it can move and it can move and it might never stop, end over end over infinity. Oceans roll.

Putting the two together, “rock’n’roll” was a term from the juke joints of the South, long in use by the forties, when a music started being heard that had no name, wasn’t jazz and wasn’t simply blues and wasn’t Cajun, but had all those elements and could not be ignored. In those juke joints “rock’n’roll” hadn’t meant the name of a music, it meant “to [have sex].” “Rock,” by itself, had pretty much meant that, in those circles, since the twenties at least. “Rock’n’roll” was a juicy elaboration on the old usage. When, finally, in the mid-fifties, the songs started being played by white people and aired on the radio — “Rock Around the Clock,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Reelin’ And A-Rockin”’ — the meaning hadn’t changed. The word was so prevalent that the music began to be called “rock’n’roll” by disc jockeys who either didn’t know what they were saying or were too sly to admit what they knew. The term stuck.

But it had a meaning with yet another root. For since roughly the turn of the century, and possibly much longer, in the singing churches of the blacks, when the songs were yelled and sung and the hands were clapped and the sweat was pouring and people were testifying, fainting, speaking in tongues, being at least transported and often saved, which meant to be overwhelmed by the Holy Ghost–that was called “rockin’ the church.” “They made the church rock.” Upon that rock their church was built, more than on the stone of Peter. And the screams of rock that go right through you high pitched screams that aren’t joy and aren’t agony but sound like both together, and sometimes like the human equivalent of microphone feedback, screams that yet are beautiful in their raw and naked and utterly committed flight out of the throat the screams of Little Richard and Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin and James Brown and Bruce Springsteen — those screams came straight out of those churches. You can hear them on virtually any recording of black church music — either field recordings from the little shacklike rural churches, or more sophisticated gospel recordings by people who sing the music as professionals. Such a scream. What can we call it but a holy scream? Unlike anything in Western music before it.

We will try to enter that scream, insofar as an essay’s prose can, and to enter the scream is, first, to contemplate Africa. To be precise, the west coast of Africa.

4 comments

  1. I didn’t write it. I found it online. Click the link for the rest. It’s not a perfect piece, but it is very good at capturing some critical connections in our culture. Enjoy!

  2. Yes! I saw that link right after I posted my compliment…that writer goes REAL DEEP! (maybe too “south” for my tastes…LOL) He correlates voodoo & music and the irony in that (from a Christian perspetive) is that once the Angel Lucifer was cast out heaven, he didn’t lose his “gift” after the “fall”…he simply took what he was created to do whilst in Heaven (usher in the morning of God with song/psalms/melodies)…down to Earth. So..I can see how the evolution of such “spirit sounds” are intrepreted throughout human history as…bad “juke”/JuJu and/or good “funky”/positive.

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