The Sounds of Horror in Black American Music
by J. Malcolm Stewart
Somewhere between screams of torment that came from the Door of No Return and the groaning of the slave ship, between the seller’s cries in the flesh markets and the scorching fields of the American South, came the Blues…
Born of brutality and brutal honesty, the sounds of work gang chants became entwined the twist and the twang of the guitar string, mixing the call and response structure of the West African storytellers with the rhyming couplets of the French and the English languages and coupling the cosmology of the ancient Oriesha with the Apocalypse of Daniel Belteshazzer and John the Revelator.
Chains were broken but oppression was not… So the Blues traveled from plantation to plantation, from work camp to work camp, from roadhouse to roadhouse, until the thumping of wood and string and voice created a roaring tide that rivaled the sea itself.
And Hell came with it…
Charley Patton may have been the first. A man stuck between two worlds, denied and hidden by his celebrated white musician father, forced by Jim Crow to hit the dirt roads between sharecropping plantations to ply his special brand of full contact entertainment.
He was the first show stopping Bluesman in the years after Reconstruction, screaming at the top his lungs for 35 years, giving words to the pain and injustice of a people who, like him, could not claim their rightful inheritance in a color struck world.
Once, when a sharecropping plantation owner asked one Patton’s listeners about the massive appeal of the Blues player’s distinctive howling, the man simply said to the landowner, “Boss, you’ve never been a nigger on a Saturday night…” A statement as starkly insightful to the black experience as it is disturbing.
Around the firelights of those cotton field work camps, the next generation was already watching and learning. Robert Johnson was also an exile of sorts, kicked out by his mother’s second husband at 14 to wander the crossroads of life on his own. In his way, Johnson was living the Blues, following the masters of the form, making great and glorious plans of his own.
In his self-told story, he made up his mind one day to go the crossroads and invoke something that could help him be the best Bluesman of all time.
Whether it was the Leguba of ancient times or the Devil of Christian vintage has always been up for debate. In fact, the story itself may have been the one of the first, best examples negative image marketing.Whatever the source, Johnson became the next sensation, with the Library of Congress trailing him in down in 1936, (before the Hellhounds apparently), as they recorded perhaps the most mysterious 41 songs in American history. His strange death in 1938 is now the stuff of legend and speculation, a story that mixes fact and fiction together in generous amounts.
Johnson also became an inspiration to another generation as a fellow Mississippian took Bad Bob’s sound with his electric guitar to the South Side of Chicago in 1946. Muddy Waters took the folk traditions of the black South along with him, drawing inspiration from its wellspring of enchantments, spirits and ancient artifacts. In his songcraft, the Wise-Women of the Mystery Traditions became the “gypsies” of the modern South, casting spells, granting favors, creating Mojo-hands of luck for worthy adherents.
In his 1957 song “Evil,” Waters imagines himself as a past practitioner of sorcery, walking through the jungles of Africa using his will to tame and rebuke every man or beast he meets. About the same time Waters sang of terrorizing the Motherland, the airways were alive with “Screaming” Jay Hawkins’ novelty hit “I Put a Spell on You.” In the song, the theatrical Hawkins (he, at times, would rise from a coffin during his stage show) describes with loving menace the way he intends to keep the object of his affection by using strange powers of his mind.
Though the result was indeed very scary, it also was masterfully crafted and given Hawkins’ powerful vocals, it remains a favorite of Halloween celebrations to this day.
However, the next wave is always building and one of the musicians on the scene at Muddy Water’s nightclub became the Vanguard of its sonic emergence. James Allen Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix often “sat in on side” (in the musical parlance) at Muddy’s. Or at least, he did during the times he wasn’t being fired by Little Richard for stealing “The Originator’s” on-stage thunder. Muddy gave the talented Seattle vagabond several lengthy discourses about the strange majesty of the Blues. Hendrix took that advice and ran with it… All the way to London, England where he ended up re-writing the rules for popular music.
After becoming an international sensation, Hendrix wrote his ticket back to the States and settled down in NY’s Electric Ladyland studios to record his third album. Perhaps inspired by his lengthy conversations with the electric guitar pioneer, Hendrix decided to make a 15 minute deep blues jam the centerpiece of his upcoming 4 disc “concept album.”
The rock magician decided to borrow the “gypsy woman” trope from Waters, but instead of him “being born for good luck” like the hero of the Blues-player’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the opening stanza of Hendrix’s creeping blues tells us, this time, the prophecy of the Wise-Woman brings death to a distraught mother as the “Voodoo Chile” is born.
Hendrix’s version of the Bluesman’s fantasy extends beyond the boundaries of the terrestrial as he travels in his spirit from this life to next, present both in the far reaches of outer space at the same time he sits watching from his lover’s picture frame. The screaming, crashing crescendo of the piece sends the impromptu audience, who stuffed themselves in the recording studio that Friday night in 1967, into a frenzy, cheering and clapping while Hendrix, Buddy Miles, Mitch Mitchell and Steve Winwood riff and roll until the tape runs out.
It may have been that enthusiastic response to Hendrix’s cosmic voodoo that inspired him to bookend his sprawling album with a thunderous coda. “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” is as short as its predecessor was long and as aggressive as the first song was ponderous. In it, the lyrics imagine Hendrix as a giant of Creation as he retells the ancient formation myth of the Canary Island chain.
“I stand up next to a mountain,” he sings. ” And I chop down with the ledge of my hand….” His guitar explodes and growls as he proclaims “If I don’t see you no more in this world, I’ll see you in the next one.. Don’t be late…”
Hendrix’s untimely death in 1970 ended the Age of Aquarius before it started, making him, along with Robert Johnson, a member of the now legendary 27 Club. In the decades after his death, the sound of black America went from the mind expanding psychedelic music of the 1960s to the angry boom and thud of Hip Hop and Rap during Reagan’s 1980s.
Those years brought political anger, racial confrontation and soaring disenfranchisement to the black urban communities of America. Many of the Nation of Millions, whose grandfathers and grandmothers heard Charley Patton howl and scream, now had different horrors to consider. But even the mega-cities and sprawling ghettos of the North and South could not divorce themselves from the terrors of the past. The evil things of days past changed and morphed, emerging again into the light altered like Frankenstein’s Monster .
No greater example of this musical mutation between old and new is found than in the 1987 song “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by the Houston based rap group, The Geto Boys. In the song, each member of the group, caught up in some form of street crime, describes being chased by a relentless evil, which in turn could be either supernatural or psychological in nature.
The final verse of the song, rapped by Bushwick Bill, sums up the fear and paranoia of the theme as he describes a Halloween weekend spent bag robbing and terrorizing the neighborhood. Suddenly, a terrifying figure of the night appears behind them, causing Bill and his companions to attack in self defense. The following violence ends up with Bill coming to realization that the whole incident had been a hallucination, and in reality, he had been pounding his hands to bloody shreds on the concrete by himself.
This new reality of crime, unjust policing and poverty changed the sounds of fear again by the 1990s. Tupac Shakur, between his prison terms and diss-raps, oft described being driven and pursued by demons in his music. Shakur’s great rhetorical rival, The Notorious B.I.G., reminded his fans that “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You,” before being shot dead himself in the streets of Los Angeles. NYC rap duo Mobb Deep entitled their third album “Hell on Earth,” as a reflection of the concrete inferno of their native Queensbridge neighborhood. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA started and then rejected a rap school of expression some dubbed “Horrorcore.”
The turn of the calendar to the 21st Century brought with it even more terrors and madness. The Twin Towers fell and the Orwellian reality of the deep Security State emerged. The horrors of the day also took a more pleasing shape as artists began exploring the Faustian bargain of obtaining fame and wealth by all means, perhaps even at the cost of one’s eternal spirit.
Whether it be metaphor or magik, Bahamian pop sensation Rhianna explores this topic in depth on her 2016 video-album offering, “ANTI.” Where some see the alchemical triumph of a descendant of slaves becoming a trans-humanist superwoman, others see the mark of a Luciferian pact, literally mapping out for her viewers an occult game plan on how to sell one’s soul to the forces of the Abyss.
Maybe she met Robert Johnson on the way there…
Regardless, music has served as a mirror to the souls of Black Folk in this land far away for nearly four centuries. In it, good or ill, we see the concerns of the day and our fears for the future. Whether we are mastered by these terrors or we rise above them depends on how we respond to what we see in that aforementioned image.
If we do not find they way to that higher path, the howl and scream of history may just be beginning…
J. Malcolm Stewart is an author, journalist and media professional who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His short fiction has appeared in the Pulp Empire Series, Heroes of Mars, Twisted Tales, Temptation Magazine as well as on the Smoke and Mirrors podcast. His novel-length thriller The Eyes of the Stars can be found at Double-Dragon-ebooks.com in ebook and paperback. His short story collection The Last Words of Robert Johnson and Other Tales is also available now on Amazon.com along with his non-fiction collection of horror film essays , Look Back in Horror: A Personal History of Horror Film.