Int’l Conference on the Blues Presentation:
The Uplift Boogie
In order to view the Blues as a specialized communicative form it is helpful, indeed necessary, to view the form in terms of James Scott’s hidden transcripts. In short, according to Scott and others who have followed his interpretive lead, there can exist two layers of simultaneous discourse going on in human communication when it is among the subaltern or, more pointedly, when it is between the subaltern and the dominant, hegemonic force; these are the public transcript (the agreement which is demonstratively “heard” in the communication) and the hidden transcript (the counter-argument against power forms which is the coded, underlying message); here there is the message for the oppressor, the public aspect which on the surface meets the social/political/administrative requirements of language while at the same time, in the same words and actions, communicating an obscured message of resistance, factiousness, and rebellion. Scott sees in the relationship and interaction of slave and slaveholder the presence of concurrent texts, one meant to placate the slaveholder, being ostensibly in agreement with the requirements of the slaveholder, and a second coded subtext that serves as a counter to those requirements. The hidden transcript is a critique of power performed openly while coded such that it is spoken “behind the back” of the dominant, even when in the presence of the dominant.
Certainly, a location where the hidden transcript expands and ramifies is in song, just as it is in story, sermon, and saying; as to our focus here, the hidden discourse is racially aligned, consisting of messages counter to hegemonic discourse of racial inferiority and paternalism; taken as a whole, the hidden transcript is language used to subvert dominant paradigms and legacies, such as those of imperialism, colonialism, chattel slavery, and oppressive plantocracy. A powerful example, even before we consider the distinctly American hidden discourse of the Blues, can be found in Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and his signature Afrobeat sound. Fela combined a big-band, big-beat, infectiously danceable sound with coded criticism of the dominant political and economic realities of his country which are direct outgrowths of imperialist legacy, the point being that the celebratory sound of Fela’s music obfuscates the underlying polemics. This was done with acronyms (VIP, vagabonds in power, or ITT, international thief thief), traditional mythologies (as in “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am” which conflates local legal authorities and economic powers with images of traditional, devilish evil), and outright humor (for example, the title of a song which criticizes the post-colonial requirement of English language education, “Mr. Grammarticologyisationalism is Boss”).
But what about the Blues? It is important, when considering the potential for hidden transcript, to recognize that in many ways the development of the Blues, right down to the fact that it is a sound that sustains and expands African musical and lyrical traditions, was resistance to plantocratic discourse, an overt musical expression that carried in its musical and lyrical style a covert message and created settings of opposition to oppressive dominance defined along racial lines. The Blues are political and have political use, both as discursive critique and in defining new political spaces, as Julia Simon stated in Time and the Blues:
“Blues performance in and of itself creates a certain kind of resistance by opening a social space for the recognition of the common experience.”
and, I would add, expanding that recognition to include resistance to the oppressor. Note that this places the hidden transcript not only in the realm of the performer but also in the realm of the audience: listening to the Blues (applied at least to the original historical audiences) is not a passive act insofar as it is itself a hidden transcript, a minor rebellion, and a moment of actualization.
The hidden transcript of the Blues is comprised of direct, coded messages as well as a more universal coding presenting and representing the voice of the precarious. Thus we can point, for instance, to examples of synecdoche in the Blues and note that there is both a particular and universal application, as in Charley Patton’s “High Sheriff Blues”, which warns of particular persons in a particular place (Mr. Purvis and Mr. Will, in Belzoni, MS) while also advising listeners of threatening forces in a larger, general way, here legal and plantation authorities. Thus, also, the flood songs that followed the 1927 deluge, although they speak of a particular event expand to have a generalized application wherein the river allegorically becomes the myriad oppressors of the plantocracy. Again, going to Patton with his “High Water Blues”, the line “I would go to the hilly country, but they got me barred.” is both a protest of a particular instance in time (when African American Mississippians were relegated to refuge on the levees) and a protest of the intractability and injustice of planter class rule in general. That songs like these appeared on race records, intended for African Americans but on labels owned by whites, emphasizes the idea and the necessity of the coded message, the hidden transcript, in those recordings.
Accordingly, considering the hidden transcripts of the Blues, it becomes apparent that the Blues, far from being limited to expressions of lament or celebration, is inherently a form (at least in part) of political expression. That this aspect of the Blues is not always recognized, particularly among today’s more cosmopolitain audiences, serves as indicator of the quality of the code and the abilities of Blues performers to communicate with their socioeconomic cohort while not raising the ire or suspicion of the public transcript audience. Indeed, it is arguable that those outside the cohort, even when they choose to inquire into the Blues, will inevitably fall into misreading. Author Jon Michael Spencer, in his book The Blues and Evil sees this played out on a grand scale — he avers that the hidden transcript codings in Blues songs collectively form mythologies, theologies, and theodicies with an intended audience, namely the oppressed rural African Americans living circumscribed plantation lives; what, he argues, has become the exegetical trend to identify “evil” in the Blues, as in the case of the Robert-Johnson-sold-his-soul mythos, is a misreading of those mythologies by persons whose ability to attend to, much less understand, those mythologies is limited by the “outside” listener’s not being the intended audience. In this case, we see a misinterpretation of message, a sort of sublimation on the part of the (essentially) white listener, contemporary and otherwise, which sees traditions of diabolical influence while remaining deaf to the underlying social critique.
The name of this presentation is “Uplift Boogie”, so we need to connect these hidden transcripts to the spirit of African American self-determination and self-actualization that is associated with the term “uplift”. The point here goes back to the idea that the Blues are political, which indeed they are, although we have to ask for a more precise version of what those politics are. Historically, we know that with the recognition and assistance of figures such Lomax and Fahey, events like the sixties’ Newport festivals, and the appropriation of African American musical forms by contemporary white performers, the Blues became a public face of the dominant narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. In this, the sound of the Blues was brought forward, but (I would aver) not the complete hidden transcript, which can be just as closely identified with the thread of African American history that culminated not in the inclusion-centered heroic period of the long march for rights but rather in traditions of resistance that can be generally termed “uplift”, following other tracks, from Booker T. Washington through Marcus Garvey and into the Panthers and beyond. (BTW Mound Bayou here) In order to recognize this secondary (or perhaps primary in meaning) thread of African American political activity, which, while not necessarily separatist is at least “exclusive”, meaning that the goal of the resistance is not inclusion in the white world. This reading requires an ear attuned to the revolutionary qualities of the Blues and the revolutionary qualities of what the Blues calls for and communicates.
For example, what appears to be the language of the sexual dalliance in the Blues, “the fore dawn creep” is an instance, becomes the transgressive and purposeful rejection of Judeo-Christian “white” behavioral norms on a scale that transcends the personal, using the same synecdoche mentioned earlier to expand the expression of individual lustiness to a universal truth of self-determination/self-expression. To address a frequent motif of the Blues, the railroad, with this ear toward uplift recognizes the revolutionary qualities of calls to escape and migrate; indeed, in this view, the Great Migration itself is less a product of political and economic history than a conscious action that rejects, disarms, and indeed disables white hegemonic circumspection of African American life. When Robert Johnson sings about “riding the blinds”, saying “I been mistreated/And I don’t mind dying.”, it is not a lament or an expression of resignation; it is instead a revolutionary cause, thus the “don’t mind dying” has the implied predicate of “for a cause”, as one would expect in a revolutionary situation. Yes, as the history of the Great Migration played out in mid-20th century it seems as if the Southern African American played further into the hands of racist forces in the North, in the form of population concentration, restrictive covenants, and violent race riots. Nonetheless, it is important to note that, for the sharecropper and tenant farmer, migration was not mere flight; migration was active rejection, a factual physical rejection, of Southern societal strictures and requirements. “Walkin’ Blues” is thus more revolution than lamentation, more rejection of the world that has made the man than resigned threnody of what that man has been reduced to. The Blues, often identified as the music of the powerless, can instead be heard as the music of alternative political power, a protesting voice of the subaltern. And, insofar as self-determination and self-actualization provide the voltage of the hidden transcript’s factious message, the Blues can be identified less with the inclusive, nonviolent “freedom now” vision of King (which, after all, conflates “freedom” with participation in and recognition from the white world) and more with the separatist, uplift-rooted message of “Black Power” arising from Carmichael. I concede that history used the Blues to carry inclusive non-violence on its shoulders; Black Power and later manifestations of uplift had the sounds of Memphis, Motown, and Philly Soul. However, I would argue that this was an appropriation (if not to say a misappropriation) of the Blues tradition to support a particular public transcript, the nonviolent message communicated by King and many contemporaries, while the hidden (and largely, in this view, ignored) transcript of exclusive self-actualization, uplift of the race in the face of and in spite of white counter-pressure, remains obfuscated, confused, and separated from the intended listeners.