Pieces of a Man

Eugene Coles Winter in America

During the final week of classes this past spring, I hosted my first guest-DJ on Instrumental Voices Radio at WKNH (91.3 FM in Keene). The illustrious, inimitable Dr. Don Geesling earned his PhD from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where his dissertation project, and now book manuscript focuses on the poet, novelist, singer, song-writer, teacher, activist, and master-griot Gil Scott-Heron.

Tony Bolden’s essential article, “Blue/Funk as Political Philosophy: The Poetry of Gil Scott-Heron,” notwithstanding, there has been shockingly little attention paid to Scott-Heron’s work in the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies. Marcus Baram’s Pieces of Man (St. Martin’s, 2014) is a worthy contribution, though not without it’s issues. Which is to say that Dr. Don’s book will be a welcome, urgently needed scholarly treatment of the life and art of Gil Scott-Heron in the context of the Black Arts Movement and beyond.

What’s more, Dr. Don leads the New Africa House Ensemble, the house band for the Department of Afro-American Studies. I first saw the New Africa House Ensemble accompany Abiodun Oyewole (of the Last Poets) in October, and caught their next performance with Sonia Sanchez in March. The following month, they returned to the Augusta Savage Gallery to perform their tribute for Gil Scott-Heron and Terry Callier.

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When Dr. Don visited the WKNH studio later that same week, we attempted the impossible: to honor the fullness of Scott-Heron’s work and vision–the politics, humor, poignancy, spirituality, and the poetry. In doing so, I sought to remain attentive to a crucial statement from his posthumous autobiography, The Last Holiday (Grove, 2012). Scott-Heron writes, “When people picked ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ to decide what kind of artists we were, they overlooked what the hell the whole album said. We didn’t just do one tune and let it stand, we did albums and ideas …” (159-60).

Although I led with the classic second version of “The Revolution…,” it was perhaps appropriate that my recording didn’t start until mid-way into the next tune. When Dr. Don joined me in the second hour, he led an insightful discussion of the profound depth and breadth of this major practitioner and theorist of the Black Aesthetic.

Thanks to Dr. Don for his knowledge and commitment to teaching us all about the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron, especially as a writer, intellectual, and activist. Be sure to check out his important interview with the man himself, published in the Brooklyn Rail, and to keep a lookout for his forthcoming book.

Writing Diaspora at Keene State

Keene State College hosted a diverse, ambitious, and accomplished group of scholars and artists on campus this semester. Their innovative, visionary work provoked extended discussions about home and belonging—but also ancestral memory and lost homeland. Our intellectual community coalesced around issues of historical disruption, geographic dispersion, and diasporic kinship.

Through poetry, music, dance, film, memoir, and fiction, we examined how art and imagination influence strategies of resistance and deepen our understandings of social justice. We considered how new technologies connect us instantly to distant points in space and time, propelling the fragmentation of everyday life. Such a constellation of ideas brought into focus new insights about the displacement and recovery of memory, of voice.

The first few weeks of 2015 set the tone for the semester. The American Studies department sponsored a film series for Black History Month, including Baraka’s Dutchman, the documentary Take this Hammer (featuring James Baldwin), and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. An encore screening of Paris is Burning was shown by popular demand. On the radio, I played four single-artist shows—J Dilla, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday—tracing a vanguard lineage from hip-hop to the blues.

This year, we celebrated one hundred years of Lady Day and fifty years of Black Power. We marked the golden anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and King’s march from Selma to Montgomery. Keene State’s office diversity and multiculturalism, led by Dottie Morris, hosted events each week recognizing our radical history and reflecting on current crises of systemic injustice and state violence.

Many programs were offered in memory of the Civil Rights activist and seminary student Jonathan Daniels, born here in Keene, who participated in the Selma march. Daniels was murdered by a deputy sheriff (another unpaid volunteer, it’s worth noting) in the summer of 1965 while protesting segregation and black disenfranchisement in Alabama. The local historical society currently features an exhibit of religious art by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy praising the heroes, and especially the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

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In March, I journeyed with a colleague to Amherst, MA, where Sister Sonia Sanchez, herself a veteran activist and prophetic poet, performed with the New Africa House Ensemble (look for video, hopefully, coming soon). After their set, Sanchez, John H. Bracy, and James Smethurst gave talks drawn from their recent co-edited Black Arts anthology. The book is an instant classic. Sister Sanchez, as ever, brought fire to the mic. The seven-piece band, in a tight pocket, laid down standards like “Naima” and “Maiden Voyage” as a point of departure. Stunning artwork by Brenda Jones hung in the Augusta Savage gallery, contributing a visual dynamic to the inter-arts collaboration.

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The following week, Keene State hosted the Jamaican critic, novelist, poet, and filmmaker Imani Tafari-Ama, who spoke on Rastafari theology, race and slavery, gender identity, reggae music, and the postcolonial evolution of Jamaican culture and politics. Her recent novel, Up for Air, deals with the 2010 Tivoli Incursion—in which at least 73 civilians died during a police manhunt for Christopher Dudus Coke. Her emphasis on historical trauma and gendered violence makes her work an essential counterpart to Marlon James’ celebrated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which deals with masculinity, gang violence, and geopolitics in a similar fictional/historical mode–in his case revolving around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley. Tafari-Ama give riveting lectures and also performed her work alongside students who rapped poems penned in her honor.

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Around the same time, the Keene is Reading program held a lecture by our resident jazz impresario and musicologist, Julian Gerstein, an expert on diasporic percussion—especially that of Martinique. He gave an incisive reading of the thematic role of music in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah (the Keene is Reading text for the year) and spoke about Fela Kuti’s radical politics and postcolonial philosophy, forged in part through his family’s leftist affiliations and emboldened by his experiences with the Black Panthers in California. For additional context, we watched and discussed the film adaptation of Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Nigerian Civil War. That conflict remains divisive; the film’s release in Nigeria was delayed by the government.

Following a short recess for spring break, our campus rallied with several more standout performances. Choreographer Robert Moses and his Kin troupe presented the New England premiere of Nevabawarldapece (Neva-B-A-Warld-A-Pece) at the Redfern, our vibrant performing arts center. Moses’ work, composed in collaboration with Carl Hancock Rux and Laura Love, explores collective action and social movements across the twentieth century. Leading a discussion with students and faculty, the choreographer explained that he was particularly inspired by the difficult moments—the low points—in these struggles. He pinpointed the frustration that drew student activists to the Black Power Movement.

It was only two days later that poet Afaa Michael Weaver visited the English Department to lead classes and read from his profoundly transforming work. Recently published, City of Eternal Spring fulfills a trilogy that includes The Government of Nature and The Plum Flower Dance. Weaver also read from A Hard Summation, a suite of thirteen poems that covers African American history from the Middle Passage to the present. He spoke about discovering his genetic heritage and the conscious impact of his working-class roots in Baltimore. He emphasized rootedness in place, but also travel and worldliness. Weaver talked about his spiritual practice and the importance of cultivating mindfulness, but cautioned, too, that the pursuit of peace necessitates painful confrontation.

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The same week, the poet Peter Balakian spoke and read from his memoir, Black Dog of Fate, which tells of his coming to awareness of his family’s escape from the Armenian Genocide. The book reckons with historical trauma and explores what it means to create and inhabit diasporic identity. This month marks the centennial of the beginning of that atrocity, reminding us of the political stakes of memory.

The weekend presented an essential opportunity to unwind at the Vermont Jazz Center. Chilean tenor player Melissa Aldana and the Crash Trio (bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela) lit up Brattleboro’s best music venue. The group’s intense beauty was fueled by their fierce improvisational chops and cohesion, complemented by more meditative grooves and freer tangents.

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April brought us to the culminating event for the Keene Is Reading program, which featured two major Nigerian fiction writers: E.C. Osondu and Helon Habila. I first read Habila’s work during graduate school; we met just after I returned from Nigeria and discussed literature, music, and Lagos. His latest novel, Oil on Water, is an environmental thriller about the devastating ecological, cultural, and political impacts of oil extraction in the Niger delta. The novel achieves a remarkable balance between narrative momentum, aesthetic innovation, and political imperative.

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Osondu’s book of short stories, Voice of America, navigates Nigerian and American consciousness and culture in the context of transatlantic migrations. His characters cross and re-cross borders, face cultural alienation and systemic oppression, and yet remain true to their personalities, humor, and ambition. The British edition of his recent novel, This House is Not For Sale, features an original painting by Lemi Gheriokwu, who designed album covers for Fela Kuti.

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Many thanks to Keene State’s English and American Studies departments and the entire Arts and Humanities faculty, especially Mike Antonucci, Emily Robins Sharpe, and Bill Stroup. Dottie Morris and Sharon Fantl deserve vast credit for their programming and community outreach. I am thankful for students’ serious engagement with these pressing issues of cultural difference, creative expression, and political change. And I write with profound gratitude to the many artists and scholars who contributed to the intellectual life of Keene State College this semester.

Bringing the Beatles Back Home

Everybody knows (or ought to) that the Beatles drew heavily on black American music as source material for what became their signature sound. Particularly Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, the Isley Brothers, and—perhaps most importantly—“girl groups” like The Chantels, The Supremes, and The Shirelles provided a blueprint for harmony and arrangement.

The relationship between the British Invasion and American blues, soul, and R&B exposes the racially charged genre system of American popular music. White artists were able to sell reinterpretations of black music to white audiences—an old pattern, as old as any American music. Yet the Beatles were more than a blue-eyed-soul act, as illustrated by the fact that many black artists eventually reclaimed a piece of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue. Pat Boone certainly never had that sort of cross-over appeal.

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Although singers often used Beatles tunes to capitalize on their popularity, some chose the songs for their musicality and lyricism. I would argue that Wilson Pickett’s transcendent revision of “Hey Jude” with Duane Allman playing guitar at Muscle Shoals studio is one such case. Perhaps another—though it may offend purists—is Aretha Franklin’s fully amped rendition of “Eleanor Rigby,” especially performed live.

In addition to “Eleanor Rigby,” Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West includes covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Bread’s “Make it With You,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.” These choices amount to a deliberate gesture bridging racial and generic boundaries—musically integrating the usual Fillmore crowd, which Craig Werner describes as “accustomed to hallucinatory light shows and the psychedelic blues of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane.” According to Werner, the “love crowd” found themselves “side by side with Black Power radicals” during the recording of Franklin’s album in March, 1971.

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It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the greatest R&B lineups ever assembled backing her: Bernard Purdie (drums), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Jerry Jemmott (bass), Billy Preston (organ), and King Curtis and the Memphis Horns transform the material and, therefore, the audience. Preston had already earned the unofficial title “the fifth Beatle” or, alternatively, “the black Beatle” for his important contributions to Abbey Road and Let it Be. His playing in both groups illustrates the pedaltone of black innovation underlying pop forms.

In the early-80s Eddie Murphy cracked wise about this cycle of appropriation and re-appropriation. In a Saturday Night Live sketch, his character, Clarence, claims the Beatles stole everything they knew from him. Murphy’s own ill-advised singing career even includes the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” (disclaimer: click at your own risk).


Other highlights of the playlist include the stripped-down gospel feel Bill Withers brings to “Let it Be” and Esther Phillips’ aching version of “And I Love Him.” These two songs, along with “Eleanor Rigby,” reappear most across the many soul, jazz, and R&B versions of Beatles songs. Stevie Wonder also brings a dose of psychedelic soul and a potent political subtext to “We Can Work it Out.” He urges: “life is very short and there’s no time / for fussing and fighting my friends / I have always thought that it’s a crime / so I will ask you once again / try to see things my way.”

I end the set with a music nerd’s tribute to Abbey Road, featuring covers of nearly all the songs on the album played mostly in order. George Benson and Booker T. & the M.G.’s each recorded full-length tributes to the iconic concept album, helping here with some of the transitions and medleys that give the album its epic contour.

Instrumental Voices Radio 1.29.15–Brining the Beatles Back Home