Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Notes: Talking 'Bout Your Mama by Elijah Wald

I first heard "The Dozens", courtesy of Blues pianist Speckled Red which was featured on a compilation LP I picked up as a teenager. It was a 'Best of Blues, Barrelhouse and Boogie-woogie' selection featuring the likes of Champion Jack Dupree, Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim, Pinetop Smith and Meade 'Lux' Lewis. Speckled Red's "The Dirty Dozens" stood out on the LP as being..... well a bit odd actually. While many of the other tracks on that old album were instantly enjoyable, I just didn't "get" that 'dozens" song. While many of the other songs on that LP were duly played on my Dad's turntable - and recorded from vinyl onto cassette tape so that I could play them in my room - and then later take them off to University; the dozens remained inaccessible to me. It is perhaps, on reflection, more surprising that a suburban white-kid from London was listening to Roosevelt Sykes in 1985, than that I didn't understand "the dozens"! However, when I saw that OUP had published a book entitled, "Talking 'Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps and The Deep Roots of Rap", I was intrigued. That odd song had stuck in my mind for decades, and the prospect of a cultural study tracing the inter-generational developments of African-American music sounded highly promising. My interest in such cultural links was lit by Martin Scorcese's "The Blues" DVD box-set. The series had many wonderful highlights, and plenty of surprises -  Ray Charles messing around on a grand-piano with Clint Eastwood being but one. The disc I was perhaps least interested in was one which promised to look forward (rather than back) onto music which had been influenced by Blues, rather than on The Blues itself. Never really appreciating rap, I wasn't expecting much from the film. It was, however, a revelation. The Electric Mud band were re-formed by Leonard Chess, and jammed with a series of young contemporary rappers in Chicago. In that exciting and informative session as they explored the musical threads which drew them together, I had my eyes opened to rap. Much to my surprise, and delight, some of my kids watched it with me and seemed to find something in The Blues for the first time too.

Elijah Wald's book on The Dozens promised to link that Speckled Red song I had never understood, with the rap tradition; and so I was naturally fascinated. On reading the introduction of the book, I immediately understood why I didn't get the Specked Red song. For a start, it was a song, loosely based on a verbal tradition. It was referencing a form a spontaneous verbal street combat to which I had had no exposure. Furthermore, while Red had later recorded an uncensored version of the piece, what came crackling from the Vinyl I had, was a highly bowdlerised version, which made oblique references to highly inflammatory jokes/rhymes which African-American audiences in the mid-20th Century would have immediately got. There is a strange parallel with Spike Milligan sneaking obscene WWII Army jokes into The Goon Show, under the noses of the censors - by simply missing out the punchline that half the audience knew already knew; or only saying the punchline - and missing out the joke!

Wald's book is enormously detailed, and covers vast terrain in its exploration of this fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) cultural phenomenon. The fact the book begins with six varying definitions of the dozens, shows how varied both the dozens are themselves, and how wide the interpretive literature has been too. Wald doesn't really attempt a simplistic explanation of the phenomenon - but rather accepts that most of the offered perspectives have something useful to say, because the thing itself is so varied. "To 'slip in the dozens' is to disparage one's family", says one definition from 1928, while another from 1968 intones:
"Dozens, playing the - A contest to see which young brother can remember or make up the greatest number of obscene, rhymed couplets reflecting on the opponent's parents. Sometimes called 'signifying' or 'mama talk'. Sometimes done with finger-snapping accompaniment. Though it may start in fun, it often attracts a crowd of admirers, and it can easily end in a fight. Not approved by parents." (p.xi)
And so Wald begins his book, "The Dozens can be tricky, aggressive, offensive, clever, brutal, funny, inventive, stupid, violent, misogynistic, psychologically intricate, deliberately misleading - or all of that at once in a single rhyming couplet" (p3). It is, by far, the most obscene book I have ever read. This is a fine read, about a cultural phenomenon which is worthy of respect - but not one with which I am entirely comfortable. Which is almost entirely the point. Some of the cited insults are crude, some are unsubtle, while others are very witty and funny. His explorations into the way in which rhyme can make the speaker almost portray himself as being disarmingly compelled to say the appalling last word in his couplet - is part of a great series of observations. The insults aimed at the hearer's Mama are especially interesting, particularly in the African-American context where many families are matriarchal, he notes. Your Mama is so ugly.... is so fat, or is pre-disposed to unusual or obscene sexual deviations are standard stuff. But what is disturbing is when dozens players would say, "Your Mama is so.... black", and mean it as an insult. It is perhaps an important reminder of why the African-American community needed their Black-Pride movement in the 1960s, and that so many of these dozens date from before that significant change.

Wald looks at street dozens, locates dozens play within the specific conditions of African-Americans in the early 20th Century, before going on to examine the dozens in literature (where it surprisingly pops out all over the place), and in music. It was here I that I finally understood what that strange Speckled Red song I had heard all those years ago was actually about! Wald looks at links between different styles of dozens, both within the USA and around the world. Fascinatingly, he finds significant links between West African verbal games and dozens, as an almost perfect parallel of what musicologists (and performers like Keb Mo) have discovered about Blues and African music. Wald is exceptionally careful not to overplay these links, and to stress that such correlations do not prove lineage - but the patterns he notes are important nevertheless.

Concluding with a set of observations about the dozens, but not limiting his explanations to just one thesis, Wald notes that The Dozens is: "a puberty ritual", "a cathartic form of group therapy and a valuable social outlet", "misogynist hate speech", "a retrograde expression of African-American self-hatred", "an art at the heart of African American expression" (pp171-80). 
"One can be disturbed or angered by the dozens, but one cannot deny the talent it has honed. African American comedy has been almost as central and influential in American culture as African American music, and much of its improvisational speed and biting edge comes out of th[is] verbal duelling" (p180)
This is a profoundly helpful paragraph when assessing the impact of rap - especially in evaluating the furore surrounding the 'parental advisory' stickers on many rap cd's, because of the extreme language - much of which is distressingly misogynistic. Understanding the links between this and the dirty dozens that Jelly Roll Morton heard in the first years of the 20th Century, helps the hearer to understand and culturally locate the difficult rap lyrics - even while wishing that they had been left behind in 1918. It stimulates a more respectful, and appreciative critique - even where strong opposition to the lyrical offences remains.

Wald has written a large, detailed and thorough analysis of this intriguing phenomenon. It is a highly engaging read, but not one for the faint-hearted if obscenity and sexual insults are not what you want to read. It leaves me wanting to go back and play that old Speckled Red song again, and see if this time I actually "get" it. Then perhaps some Champion Jack Dupree, or some Jimmy Yancey!

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