Friday, February 16, 2018

Edwin Starr - Twenty-Five Miles

This is a song from a bygone era in black music, and probably pretty bygone in white music, too. This song came out in 1969, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the song's point of view is that of the hardscrabble life out in the countryside. Black Americans lived that life for a long portion of their history in the New World. It was forced on them, but that aspect of it has no bearing here. They lived it, for better or worse, and in 1969, it was a recent enough memory to embed itself unbidden into the narrative of songs like this.

"Songs like this;" that would include, at least, "Patches," by Clarence Carter.

This phenomenon is not limited to black artists. As a demonstration, I offer Tony Joe White's "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," a lovely and sincere appreciation of the friendship between two families of sharecroppers, one white and the other black, who had been neighbors on somebody else's property, working their asses off in the identical way for next to no money. That's the south in a nutshell. Most southerners, of whatever race or creed, lived that hardscrabble life, more or less.

I was a city boy, myself. I, my father, and his father before him, grew up in New York City. While my father, at the age of ten, thought nothing of running the six or seven miles from Flushing down to Woodside to visit his friends in the old neighborhood, neither he, nor my grandfather, would even have considered, as adults, walking twenty-five miles to anywhere at all, no matter what awaited them there. But it would, not too long ago, occur to a countryside person, not surrounded by public transportation opportunities. It would occur especially to a black country person, who was accustomed to keeping his head down, more or less out of sight, for fear of being overtaken by the whole "Strange Fruit" thing.

So Edwin Starr walks twenty five miles, and sings a fine song about it. It is well that we wonder: why would he do such a thing? It's a window onto a period in our history that is quickly being forgotten by some, revised by others, and ignored by almost everybody. It's nice to take a moment to think about it.

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