Out on Highway 61


The thing that was different for kids who started school in 1968 in Mobile Alabama, compared to those who started a year or two earlier, is that their education began from Day One without segregation.  Step away from the broader social implications of the Civil Rights Movement for a second and think about THOSE KIDS. Boys and girls raised in the same neighborhoods and even houses, separated in age by only a matter of months or a few years—some of whom started in segregated schools and some who never experienced that. White kids and black kids. Think about how much this affected their views about race and social justice for the rest of their lives, solely through a small quirk in their birth dates.

I was one of the white kids who started elementary school in 1968. My parents were not by any stretch of the imagination overtly racist, but I remember the look on my mom’s face when I wanted to give invitations to my sixth birthday party to two very cool African-American twin brothers who were in my first grade class. The white kids in my first grade class weren’t the ones that allowed the civil rights train to proceed, of course—there was plenty of real, dirty, hurtful racism all around us—but through the dumb luck of time we were the first generation in the South not to stand up when the calls for segregation and worse came. Many of us, most of us didn’t exactly fight for our brothers and sisters of color either. We just sort of didn’t get involved. And somehow that was a great step forward.

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All this has less than 1% to do with the entirety of the ongoing civil rights struggle, but I think of my own frame of reference whenever I’m contemplating race relations in the U.S, which is a lot lately in our Stand-Your-Ground Nation.  And thus I turn to music.

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I have vinyl copies of Stoney Edwards’ Mississippi You’re On My Mind (which I played a bit in the ‘80s) and Blackbird (still in the shrinkwrap but cute little title, huh?), but I never thought deeply about him until stumbling on a copy of Razor & Tie’s 1998 compilation Best of: Poor Folks Stick Together recently. And why should I? Stoney Edwards barely existed. He recorded over a 10+ year career during the 70s and early 80s, but his tunes only scratched the lower reaches of the country charts —the magnificently monogamous “She’s My Rock” charted highest at #20 in 1972, but I have no recollection of that song on the radio until George Jones covered it in 1984. And Jones’ cover is just about the last trace of Edwards, who died a few years later of stomach cancer.

So Edwards just disappeared from the country music consciousness. Which has nothing to do with the fact that he’s black. Oops, that last sentence fragment was by Bob Christgau, but Bob was referring to the front end of Edwards’ career, the difficulty he had breaking into the recording industry. So it went for the back end as well. But Charley Pride made it, right? Of course he did with his genteel country urbanism, which papered over the Nashville racial schism. And in fact, Edwards had more in common with the R&B artists who (naturally) sang in the country manner (heard well on Kent’s pointed Behind Closed Doors: Where Country Meets Soul). Not because Edwards was crossing over to the R&B charts—he didn’t have soul in that sense. But because Edwards, like Al Green, Clarence Carter, Ann Peebles etc, wasn’t about to get an invite to Ryman Auditorium in the 70s.

In fact, one of the oddest things about Edwards is his voice. An Oklahoman by birth, he was all over the country map. If you read the Amazon comments to Poor Folks Stick Together, you’ll find him compared to just about everyone—Lefty Frizzell, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard. Heck, sometimes I think he sounds like Randy Travis, who didn’t even exist then and who possibly has never heard of Edwards.  What Edwards doesn’t sound like, even remotely, is anyone who is black. Going on voice alone, he could have passed for white, and given how great songs like “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul” are, it’s maybe too bad for us that he didn’t.

The other point to make is, well, the lyrics to “Blackbird”. I’ll leave it to you to track them down. Because, in your face Nashville. It’s like he’s saying, “Pass for white? Not on my precious studio time.” A little bit of Public Enemy was born right then.

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I took my first foray out in NYC since moving up in January. I went with my wife to Minton’s, the renovated former birthplace of bebop (as if there was only one). I noticed the place because their website listed James “Blood” Ulmer playing that evening, but that turned out to be an error I’m grateful for. Minton’s is now a dinner club with a traditional jazz stage and a kitchen that serves upscale soul food. (My brook trout over hoppin’ John was outrageous.) Instead, Nat Adderley Jr.’s quartet played, occasionally fronted by a young male singer from Atlanta who did a decent Donny Hathaway turn. Adderley Jr. has both serious chops and credits, having arranged his high school buddy Luther Vandross from “Never Too Much” onward. The richness of a second-generation hard bop musician in a resurrected jazz temple was not lost on us. Nor was the fact that we were the only customers who were not people of color most of the time we were there, and were warmly welcomed. Which did not keep anyone on stage from making occasional remarks about the Struggle either. What it’s all about.

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