Guest Article

 

“Early Volley”

by F.C. Lawrence



   It must have been the fall of ‘53, I had a three day pass and come

up from Ft.Dix Over-seas Replacement Center to the city to see a blond

I knew, but by evening was walking up West Broadway, way uptown,

looking for some jazz joint. In those days live bands or “combos" were

all over town, not yet replaced by rock & roll or crooners. There were

just a few instruments, usually a horn, piano, bass, and whatever else

could be got, maybe a singer.


   
I almost passed an old brownstone, no doubt once a residence but

then a rooming-house, at least upstairs. There where many in those

days, the post-war housing boom hadn’t much then  sprawled out into

rural life. In front of the brownstone a sandwich-board gave notice:

“Jass Combo Inside” -- no names listed, and then in smaller print:

“with singer”


   I went up the front steps, and inside, followed tacked up paper

arrows left. I entered a large, wood-paneled, double living room with

the old separating doors removed and sat down at one of those small,

blacktop formica tables with the 10 watt lamp centered to see your

drinks, a set-up found in many city lounges. The room was dark and the

little band on a short stage faced less than a dozen patrons. It was

already whining away at some old chestnut. After a couple of numbers,

the players sat back, sipped their own drinks, and didn't stir until a

slight female figure came in from the shadows and stepped up to the

little stage, the singer I sup-posed. There were a few whispers

between her and the players and then a dim light lit the stage, only a

bit better than before.


  Earlier that day on the bus to the city, I’d read in the papers some

ugly news about a Klan lynching somewhere in the South I’d only left a

few days previous. It’d been an eye-opener for me to see the old

social stratas still operating whenever, as a young yankee G.I., I’d

venture into some small southern town in search of entertainment,

mainly jazz. Being from Gloucester, I hadn’t thought much about racial

matters or the possibility of lynching anyone other than stringing up

to our fishing schooner’s yardarm my wicked skipper, or our bad cook

But right then I was just weary from Ft.Gordon signal training, train

travel from Dix, and apprehensive about being posted next for duty in

Korea.


  The singer had turned to the audience and I realized she was a

colored gal  (terms used by mostly whites at that time, although I

often heard southern whites use the term ‘darkie’)

  The combo started up with chords and a melody I’d not heard before.

Then the woman began to sing. At first I couldn’t hear her well. Her phrasing was

soft, running before or after the instruments’ bars, but soon got more

firm and seemed to grow in passion. The voice had a slight trill in it

which gave it strange power.


  There had been some chatter in the room, but as the intensity of her

delivery grew, all talk ceased. Everything seemed to become soundless

even traffic outside on Broadway. Yet her sound, her lyrics, were

something else, like nothing else. It was more than poetry. There was

no other sound in the room but her voice, the instruments seemed part

of it.


  “Strange fruit, hanging from ...“ At first those in the room, or

anywhere, might have assumed her song to be about horticulture. It

took a some lines before I got it. ”Scent of magnolias, sweet and

fresh ... Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”

   Something went thump inside me.

   It brought back thoughts I’d had while in the South. Thoughts I’d

pushed from my mind.

  Although then just twenty, I’d heard a lot of torch songs, mostly on

the radio or the odd clubs in in any town. When younger I’d often

listened to my older sisters’ 78rpm ‘Hit Parade” records, or my

father’s piano version tunes from his First World War army days in

France.


  The singer and her song went on. I could sense that others in the

room were as stunned as myself. This “colored gal” had veered off

course from what was always expected. Songs about love, romance,

personal tragedy, or comic tunes with witty lines, maybe a few about

the Depression or the War and loves lost, but not about racal

violence. Not in the Jazz idiom. That was more likely found in folk

songs. This woman had brought the notion of cultural crime into the

entertainment business, into the Art of Jazz. Of course the rhythms,

syncopations, use of drums, sound and scale combinations, had come

from Africa with Slavery. It was originally the Negro music. It was

theirs, but of course had been appropriated along with their lives,

into “The American Experience”whatever that was supposed to be. And it

was still mostly “white” but I’d begun to see it to mean whatever

anyone wanted to make of it. There had long been the “Blues” but that

was sung in a style that, though sympathetic, was personal, relatable,

but removed from the listener, and mostly remote to most whites.


   This woman had brought in something different. A painful

difference. It wasn’t really entertainment. It was social commentary.

A condemnation of a culture and an entire society. It was just a song,

but more, poetry, about an ugly racial stain on that so-called

“American Experience.”

   And in its quiet, deliberate delivery, it shocked.


   When she was done and the combo had played the last chord, she just

walked off the stage. I noticed no one moved. No one clapped, and no

one spoke. And these were New Yorkers!


   I’d had enough for one day, my head swam, I finished my drink and

headed for the door. A guy smoking a cigarette was standing on the

front stoop. I caught his eye, just as an older woman brushed by me.

“Say, who was that!?” I said. “Yeah, who, ya know?” the woman echoed.


  “Sure,” said the guy exhaling smoke. “That’s Billie ... ya like

her?” He looked curious, like he wanted to know.


   “Billie?” said the woman. “Naw, I mean the singer-gal!”


   “Yeah, that’s her name: Billie ... Holiday, like her?” he repeated.


   “Funny name for a colored gal. Yeah, she’s different. That last

piece, now that was different.

     Know what I mean?”


   “Yeah, I know what you mean.  ... You, fella?” he said looking at me.


    I said. “She’s sure something else!”


    I listen to her still, and often, and get the same thump.



                                                       -- F.C.Lawrence