Caterwauling Summertime Babies, PART SEVEN “Crown Wearing”

July 14, 2014

Sublime (altered)

Sublime (altered)

A Jungian analyst friend warned me more than once about underestimating the danger of shadows and types. There is a specific version of stereotype involved in the invention and production of “Porgy and Bess” that was problematic at the time, and continues to be a complicated projection, the monstrous attraction of the “Negro Savage” or “bully”. The plot of “Porgy and Bess” begins with a murderous fight following a dice game between the bully, Crown, and a Catfish Row local, Robbins. It is a conflict that alludes to the legendary battle between Stagger Lee and Billy Lyon. In his folklore studies DuBose Heyward would have heard versions of the tale and adapted it in part to “Porgy and Bess”. According to St. Louis Globe that particular barroom brawl between Mr. Lee Shelton and Mr. Billy Lyons took place on Christmas Night, 1895 at Tom Turpin’s Rose Bud Saloon.

Lee Shelton, reinvented as Stack-o-Lee has been by versions been a levee worker, a bully, a “maquereau”, a brute, but always a he possesses a .44 and a Stetson hat. Billy Lyons is variously an affable pimp, a dice cheat, a family man, who always fatally underestimates the savagery of his opponent. By the 1920s the story of their brawl was known in African American communities all over the Mississippi River and Delta, and east to the Carolinas and Atlantic. Currently as a song “Stagger Lee” has nearly 500 recorded versions (not counting YouTube). Older versions of “Stagger Lee” took the forms of field hollers, ballads, blues, jazz, coon hollers (song sung by whites in blackface), and commonly toasts. Toasts were traditionally male rhyming conversations generally boastful, insulting, scatological, and competitive, commonly their topics involved sex, drinking and fighting. The genesis and the popularity of this murder ballad remain a Jungian shadow singing about masculinity and its shadow fears. Similar shadow songs still flourish today in forms including corridos, country, rock, folk ballads, blues, and most recently rap.

These mythic caricatures engage the singer/song/listener in an iconic relationship formalized to exert some cultural control over dangerous disenfranchised males. They have existed in the Western musical tradition of romanticizing murder, adultery and theft that dates since beyond the chansons of minstrels of the Middle Ages. Their character is essentially rebellious, sexy and willing to operate outside of legal and moral arenas regardless of restrictions of culture, poverty and race. By depicting transgressive figures with formal attention they are subsequently subject to manipulation within the parameters of those forms, i.e., detail, context, and consequence. They can be exaggerated, situationally interpreted and punished. There are traditional examples of songs enduring as poetry, “Don Juan”, “Beowulf”, the “Nibelung Saga”, or even tales of the rounder Odysseus. But by and large they are sung songs existing in the mouths of the singer and the air that holds them. As imagery their popularity depends on predicating events, personal needs and cultural situations, but always they contain an underlying cautionary tone.

I grew up in a small city once called “Murdertown, USA”. It was also home to all the Italian gangster stereotypes epitomized in films like “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas”, sharkskin suits, gambling, flamboyant floral displays at funerals, smoky backroom offices above bars, and a cohort of bookies and prison hardened men with names like “Louis Bad Eye” and “Cadillac Charlie”. The criminals in my hometown were real, people were killed, and violence was part of the day to day relations with gangsters. They did as they pleased with relative impunity and regarded legality as an interference to business, but little more. We learned to recognize their cars, homes, tables at restaurants and lounges, and accepted criminality as commonplace and endemic. They were corrupting and ruinous, but I also developed a subconscious personal utility for these criminals. My genetic bond to the power of their criminality brought me a certain level of cultural respect, or at least prevented open disrespect.

Italians, as well as other ethnic groups, had been victims of discrimination since their arrival in America. There was a language of epithets, jokes, caricatures and a full history of media exaggerations. Since the Depression there had been a steady supply of gangster stories that were staples in the film and media industries. On the other hand, briefly consider “Chico” Marx, of the Marx Brothers. His movie dialog was a conglomeration of dialect jokes, he carried around salamis, was constantly larcenous, and clownishly dressed. Leonard Marx developed that character and employed it on stage and screen to international popularity and fortune. Although I still maintain affection for Marx Brothers films, “Chico” remains an embarrassing depiction created at the expense of my grandfather’s generation. In my youth I learned to endure similar “dago” jokes as one more indignity in the dominant culture’s imaginary rite of assimilation. At least in daydreams mobsters were something like shadow heroes for the more primal energies that I was forced to either deny or repress. Even if I didn’t want to wear suede and knit cardigans, or cream loafers I shared some pride in their refusal to obey, in their capacity to thrive as outliers. The same distortions that bound me to Chico Marx’s family, also bound me to the brutal Trafficante Family. So it has been with Stagger Lee, Crown and the gangster rap stars who continue that tradition.

In his essay “The American Negro in Art” DuBose Heyward describes the genesis of the character Porgy as a newspaper article describing the arrest of Samuel Smalls, a Charleston beggar arrested for aggravated assault. It was his second arrest for shooting someone. Although Porgy is the nominal hero of the opera, he arrives in a goat drawn wagon congenitally injured. He represents what is dependent, abused and tamed. In Porgy Heyward describes him “with totally inadequate nether extremities” and”black with the almost purple blackness of unadulterated Congo blood.” He possesses “like a stagnant pool of flame… an atavistic calm. And would doze lightly under the terrific heat, as only a full blooded Negro can.” His pleasure comes from listening in the late afternoon to the piano playing of a white woman in a white-clad gown as her music drifts down from a second story window. His single vice is gambling. Heyward could have been describing a neutered tomcat.

Crown, by contrast, is described during the fight following a dice game “Miraculously the tawny, rigid bodies tore through the thin coverings. Bronze ropes and bars slid and wove over great shoulders. Bright, ruddy planes leaped out on backs in the fire flare, then were gulped by sliding shadows. A heady, bestial stench absorbed all other odors.” Moments later as Crown kills Robbins after holding him with “one mighty arm” then “…he dropped his victim, and swaggered drunkenly toward the street.” Crown is a dimensionless stereotype of the savage “buck”, preternaturally strong, ignorant and instinctively impulsive. Like a lower evolution of Caliban he proudly battles God and both the natural and human worlds.

Later Porgy kills Crown with the “prodigious strength he has gathered from being a beggar”, yet he becomes disconsolate and even more subservient. His inability to negotiate a path outside of the law costs him the titular relationship with Bess. By contrast Crown lives and acts in a transgressive world. He abuses Bess to his own ends. He’s free, empowered and untroubled by conscience or consequence. DuBose Heyward set those social-psychological forces in motion in both the novel and libretto. He had a rich subconscious bank to draw upon to set up that dynamic.

The Heyward family descended from one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence; they were slave owners who in a few generations of landed aristocracy had fallen to ‘decay’. He was a writer who earned his living in insurance. DuBose Heyward had a lifelong affection for African American music, language and the life he observed in Charleston and the Gullah communities. Like any artist he was an alien intimate in both the worlds he observed and created. He had also endured bouts of polio and debilitating illness. Regardless of the exaggeration in the depictions of his male characters, he was capable of interacting with manifestations as if they were genuine emotion and part of a common reality. Like other white artists during the period Langston Hughes referred to as “…when the Negro was in vogue” Mr. Heywood, Eugene O’Neil, or Vachel Lindsay successfully wrote to the market for racial stereotypes, but perhaps with less malicious “racist” intent than some. Their work would have been shelved and reviewed alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jean Toomer’s Cane , or James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones.

Shadow types like Crown and Stagger Lee, continue to give rise to hundreds of rap figures characterized by street names like Master, Ice, Big, Boyz, Gangsta, Young, Lil’, who understand the attraction of the appearance of criminality. They utilize AKAs as DBAs to allow their artistry to try wearing Stagger Lee’s infamous $5 Stetson Hat. A rap persona who could be easily cast in “Porgy and Bess” with minimal transformation, might be the persona created by Calvin Broadus, “Snoop Dogg”. In a YouTube selection he’s mixed into “Summertime/Doin’ Time” recorded by the ska, punk, hip hop, party band, Sublime. [http://youtu.be/qrRQ3Yf_40s ]

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