Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ladies & Gentleman- The Congo Square Players!

As mentioned in previous posts, Congo Square was a New Orleans gathering place where plantation owners allowed slaves to united on Sunday afternoons. It was during the musical performances, on these Sunday outings, that the foundation of today's pop sound was formulated.

The name, Congo Square Players, is given as the stage name to the group of emancipated former slaves that begin performing at Benson's House during the years immediately following the end of the Civil War. Their appearance in the novel formulate the genesis of pop music. They are symbolic of the initial musical acts leading to the creation of Rock 'n' Roll.

Their sound is an adoption of spirituals, with foundations in the call and response songs sung by slaves while working in the plantation fields. It is from this style that a certain metaphorical composition is created. From the fields of slavery came the implied meaning of songs- speaking for the working class- with a voice that would challenge oppressive domination for generations.

A call and response is also referred to as a field holler. One individual would begin by singing a verse that was responded to by the others in the field. It allowed them to preoccupy their minds from the monotony of their activities. The verses often derived from the words taught to them through gospels and the epistles. Slaves found The New Testament filled with the promise of freedom. A faith of reaching the Promise land would often be emphasized by the reminder of the caller and the agreement then came from the response.

However, aside from the style that transcended pop music, the call and response became the precursor of the spiritual. On the surface, the words of the spiritual spoke of a promise of freedom. It seemed an innocent performance of an early type of Kumbayah, but the metaphoric lyric was also speaking to the counterculture of the day.

Songs like Wade in the Water suggest a cleaning of the soul through baptism, but the words were used to warn the runaway slaves to take routes through streams so to obstruct the bloodhound's scent trail. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot appears to be a spiritual about one day reaching heaven, but the words spoke of the underground railroad: "coming for to carry me home." It was sung to provoke slaves to become fugitives; to defy the dominance of their captivity and run. The spiritual is the earliest Songs of Freedom.

The music of the Congo Square Players were rooted in this tradition, but as the characters develop during the story, their expressions allow unique separations to occur. TJ Hardy, the elder of the ensemble, becomes a blues man when he's given a Spanish parlor guitar as a gift. Mary T. Covington, a young runaway house slave, adopts the spiritual and alternates the meanings to lament the loss of those she had abandoned when she fled. Her music leads to a creation of songs of loss love or Torch Songs. Another member of the group, Sonny Boy Hanks, gives concern to the melodies and originates a piano sound known as Ragtime.

This music blossoms and provides the soundtrack of our lives. It becomes Jazz and Rhythm 'n' Blues, and speaks against the exploitation of labor during the turn of the century. It became Folk Music protesting the treatment of migrant workers during the Depression, and demanding civil rights in the 50's and 60's. It became Rock 'n' Roll: the music of the common man.

The stories of the loves and tribulations of the people responsible for this saga evolve in a place called Benson's House, where the upstairs art gallery and basement tavern become the center of an artistic universe shaping modern day pop culture.

My next post will provide a look at the art that directed the trend towards our modern pop culture. A traditionalist approach was discarded, and a post-impressionist movement was introduced at The Armory Show in 1913, leading way to an expression of independence personified in the culture of Paris during the 1920's.

People get ready, there's a train comin'
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
You don't need no ticket you just thank the lord

Curtis Mayfield

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dawn of Democracy

My initial intent for the novel, Benson's House, was to construct a historical fiction with each chapter a separate vignette standing independently, but when compiled together, documenting the evolution of pop culture. I deviated from that idea somewhat in the later chapters, but the first few can be read as individual sketches. This is especially true with the first chapter. It was written more with a desire to illustrate a conceived concept than to direct the plot.

I thought it would be interesting to develop a character who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg and then returned to his former combat location on the day of the ceremony to consecrate the grounds as the Civil War Cemetery. His presence on the day of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address needed to be coincidental; it could not be preordained.

The chapter introduces the protagonist, Justin Benson, who meets the profile. His is a young, illiterate, naive, wander, who allows spontaneity to dictate his course of action. He serves in the Thirteenth Independent Battery during the three day Battle of Gettysburg and is positioned in the Union Army's infamous “fish hook” formation on the high grounds known as Cemetery Hill. The chapter depicts his regiment's successfully held rank in preventing General Lee's Army from forging an advance leading to the roads for Philadelphia.

On the evening following the second day of combat, Benson is given a lantern, and wanders off the ridge onto the vast battlefield below. He stumbles upon a dying Rebel soldier and comforts him during his final moments of life. Just before his demise, the soldier apologizes for his treatment of his fellow man.

“Man is God’s finest creation." He states. "It seem a shame, we treat his works, with such reckless abandon.

Benson never learns the boys name and becomes convinced that somehow his existence on earth is preventing him from passing onto the afterlife. He stands alone with the body as the howls of wounded soldiers echo in the night.

I initially wanted to create this scene, allegorically, as a metaphor to the insensibility of war. I also intended to illustrate a disturbing setting that seemed plausible of convincing the Benson character to spend the remainder of his life in support of humanity.

Justin Benson becomes one of the originating promoters of the music that became Rock 'n' Roll. Through stories describing the lives of future Benson generations, music stands the course of time in championing a defiance against human suffering and abuse. It serves as a fanfare for the common man and develops as the sound track of our current pop culture.

When a friend read one of the first drafts of the first chapter, he commented on how unrealistic it seemed for Benson to return to Cemetery Hill, during the twilight of morning, and falling immediately asleep at his former post. I argued the journey had kept the young protagonist awake for over a day and he was exhausted from the long march, but agreed that something was missing.

I was certain the scene was to have effective impact with him arriving at the former battle station in the dark of night, sleeping, and then awaking to find the stage for the ceremony had been placed above the spot where the Rebel soldier died. I felt it compelling to have Lincoln recite his ceremonial speech above the ground where the boy had perished. However, I agreed something needed to be added.

One day, while still struggling with a solution to the void, I was sitting at a bar, conversing with a stranger sitting beside me. I'm not sure how the topic was breached, but the person told me he had recently read an essay that claimed the concepts of political theory and the origin of democracy had more than likely been conceived under the intoxication of wine in a Athenian symposium. He enthusiastically ranted on with how euphoric inebriation had defined the ideals of a Utopian society, and how debauchery lead to Plato's principals in The Republic.

Being much less erudite, and not completely understanding all the references to Platonism, I instead heard elements that allowed me to imagine a surreal hall serving as a way station between life and death. I came up with an image of both Benson and the Rebel soldier wrapped in linen, lying on separate couches in a cavernous hall cooled by a surrounding wall of rigid stone glistening in cascading waters. Between the two former soldiers laid a large clay vase filled with wine. A young steward poured wine into the goblets they were holding, while a semi- nude courtesan entertained them with music she played on her flute.

The image was much more appealing than the boosterism for Athens coming from the man sitting next to me.

This became the setting for a dream Benson has while sleeping before the ceremonial dedication at Gettysburg. I felt the scene effectively filled the void and brought the chapter in line with the plot of the story. Benson would dream he was in a symposium, during the dawn of democracy, and would learn from the Rebel boy that he was destine to create a similar place on earth. This place was to become the center of a artistic universe, and the Rebel boy was to serve as his guide until he reaches his destiny. The symposium on earth would serve the common man and provide the songs of freedom; of the people; by the people; for the people.

This becomes the premise of the novel. Chapter 2 begins to tell the events of how the symposium on earth was established, and begins the portrayal of the role it played in developing music and art for over one hundred years. Justin Benson's destiny is brought to a brownstone building on Bleeker Street, in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1865. The activities in that building are what shapes pop culture for decades to follow.

My next post will concentrate on the origin of the music. It came from the elements of slave songs, sung in the fields to distract from the toils of arduous labor. The lyrics spoke of optimism; of hope. The songs of freedom; of one day reaching the Promise land found in place called Benson's House.

Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We forward in this generation
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Bob Marley

Monday, November 1, 2010

Meet the Benson's

Okay. I concede!

I succumb to the pleas demanding I cease my deviation from the intended purpose of this blog and return to promoting interest in the novel: Benson's House.

My apologies.

I changed direction thinking my concealment of project details would entice curiosity. While deliberately exposing surface references and descriptions of randomly chosen characters in my earlier posts, recent entries have not contained the same devotion to the content of the novel. I instead attempted to share essays allowing glimpses of the author's voice so apparent in much of the novel's theme. The move has not been as successful as initially expected.

The strategy switch also failed to appease the required instruction from agents. They seem determined to guard preset standards on how to be enticed into requesting further project details. This is not good! My insistence to explore alternative procedures is failing my project, and I must adjust to provide the necessities for a successful evaluation. I've received sufficient rejection to prove divergence from standard procedure will not be tolerated.

I accept all responsibility.

Understand, although I acknowledge my faults, I'm neither the professional editor or publicist in this arrangement; it is why I seek representation. I'm just a rebel male writer: spontaneous, adventurous and oblivious to "cookie cutting" formulas. Please bare with me. This is my first endeavor with the process. It is awkward and reminds me of asking a girl out on a blind date.

If the courted lady began to express predate inquiries- insisting a need to know all specifics before the purposed occasion- I'm certain I would also be hesitant with responses to that process. I'd ponder whether an explanation of details would distract from the real experience. I might, furthermore, be tempted to purposely offer a formulated reply with hopes of attracting a positive reaction. I'm certain there would loom the threat of insincerity: a fabricated response offered to advance to the next stage of the dating process. I would much rather avoid the risk of pretense and have her agree to meet with an understanding that the social engagement would end abruptly unless interest was prompted in the first thirty minutes of the encounter.

I believe experiences are best left to fate and events are often more memorable when spontaneity is not jeopardized. Precautions distract and contribute to perceived mistrusts. However, I do understand the essence of time and the necessity to avoid wasting it. Still, much of what is demanded in the content of a query letter can be more effectively gathered by a limited amount of time offered to reading segments of the project.

These are a few of the things I had in mind when I changed course from the initial introductions of Benson's House. I was hoping more agent's would have chanced a reading, affording me the oppurtunity to surprise the potential representative's unprepared perusal, but I now accept the need to provide details to inspire a mutual acceptance and willingness to direct this project to the platform of excellence it deserves.

So, lets get on with it!

The story is a somewhat surreal, often subjective, account of history as it pertains to the evolution of contemporary pop culture. It begins in the early 1860's, when a group of emancipated slaves migrate to a shack in the shanty town known as Seneca Village. The town is located in the heart of the projected expansion grid of Manhattan, and the shack is owned by an older run away slave named Thomas Jefferson Hardy.

He has opened his home to those former slaves brought together with a mutual passion to play music. When the village is destroyed to begin development of the Greensward Project- a development project designed to form the grounds of what became Central Park- the troubadours moved inner city, returning on weekends to perform jubilees in the newly landscaped fields that once held the village of their homes.

Jubilee's were traditional outings that originated in the area of New Orleans, when on Sundays, plantation owners allowed their slaves to spend time in a city square. Food was served, music played, and dancers danced at a place that became known as Congo Square during the 1850's.

No one knows where the boy came from or what his real name was. He wandered into a recruiting camp for the Thirteenth Independent Battery of the Union Army in 1861. When asked his name by the recruitment officer he responses that he was "Just Ben's son."

His name was entered on the rooster as Justin Benson. Through his life encounters, he becomes the patriarch of a family responsible for promoting the music that became Rock 'n' Roll.

The name Justin Benson becomes his slave name. Slave names refer to the monikers given to those slaves not born into captivity. They were called motherless children: taken from their African tribes and brought to a new world to exist as plantation laborers. Plantation foreman often gave them new names to replace their African identities.

I use the slave name as a symbol of an independence from ancestral affinities. It is used to mark the separation from all conformity with conventional standards. The ones possessing slave names are outsiders looking in; separatists. They feel detached from families, communities, religions and municipalities and create or establish counter cultures as their institutions.

It is from this rebel spirit that pop culture began.

Justin Benson- like Thomas Jefferson Hardy- both come from the wilderness and redefine their identities. While in the process, the adaption of a new sound in music, and a new direction in art occurs. Their transformations begin the origin of pop culture, leading to the age of another person who came from the wilderness and accepted a slave name: Bob Dylan.

Although Justin is solely responsible for shaping his social identity, he feels obligated to fulfill a destiny that came to him in a dream. He believes his fate is to create a place on earth that will serve the principals of democracy by creating a center of an artistic universe.

I will explain all that in the next post.

Stay tuned!