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The Black Bottom Where Levee's About to Break

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The Black Bottom Where Levee's About to Break

by John Kendall Hawkins

"The sadness will last forever."

- Vincent Van Gogh's deathbed words to his brother, Theo.

'Black bottom' has all kinds of connotations. One thinks of ragtime mommas in the Jazz Age waggling their tails on some vaudeville stage, early precursors to the Black Eyed Peas ("Get you love drunk off my hump"). One thinks of abysses, black holes where no light can escape, where all is gravity. One thinks of the Black experience in America ("I'm Black alright, they'll never let me forget it." -Miles Davis, Tribute to Jack Johnson). One things of the bottom, down and out, nowhere lower to go this side of the manufactured Inferno. Black the palette of all colors, except white.

Black Bottom also refers to a section of Detroit, along Hastings Street (Paradise Valley) that, beginning in the 1920s, saw Jewish residents flee their neighborhoods and be replaced by Black families. I recently watched on YouTube a local TV special, Detroit Classic, in which author and historian Ken Coleman explains the origin thusly,

The African-Americans that came from the American South, and other places around the country, settled in the lower east side community, just outside of Detroit, known as Black Bottom. And many people would believe that Black Bottom was named for the African-Americans that lived there in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, but that's not so. The name Black Bottom comes from the fertile top soil that is in that community...In the 1800s, that was largely farmland....

The 20-minute segment, that includes interviews with musicians, is well worth a watch, as it provides a pre'cis of the loamy loam origins of Detroit blues and R&B.

In August Wilson's play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, black is all those things and more, combined into a soulful "stew" called the blues. The Black Bottom makes its way into song by way of Jelly Roll Morton, who had a popular 1925 hit with "Black Bottom Stomp," which still holds up today. It was a hit at the time in Black America's home away from home -- Paris -- too. Wilson's play actually helps depict the transition from self-reflective blues to get-up-and-dance, that helps one understand the difference between Dylan and Marley, and comes together in, self-consciously, in Bowie. It answers the question: What am I gonna do with all this baggage I carry around? Put it down and dance, hopefully with musical accompaniment.

(I recall for a minute, David Bromberg's great take on the song, "Mr. Bojangles," during which he takes time (still strumming) to explain the origins of the song:

This is a true story... This guy, Bojangles, he was a street dancer in New Orleans,. He'd go from bar to bar ... put money in the or pantomime to the tune, right? [P]eople would buy him drinks... get him pretty drunk. Then he'd go on to the next bar and the next... After a few nights of this, he'd end up on the corner, where the cops would pick him up and take him to the drunk tank, which is where Jerry Jeff [Walker, Bromberg's bandmate] met him. Jerry Jeff wasn't there on a research project. The way I got it, he propositioned the right woman at the right time in the wrong place, and her husband, the bartender, called the cops, and they took him to the Parish jail".

R&B. Let's dance. White Man's burden.)

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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