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

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