Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Roots Of African American Braggadocio Blues, Rap, R&B, & Children's Cheers (Southern Culture journal article excerpt)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is part of a continuing pancocojams series that presents information about and examples of bragging in songs, chants, and children's cheers.

This post presents excerpts from the article "Playing Chicken with the Train: Cowboy Troy's Hick-Hop and the Transracial Country West" by Adam Gussow, in Southern Cultures: Winter 2010, Volume 16: Number 4, edited by Harry L. Watson, and Jocelyn Neallyn Neal [Google books].

Southern Cultures is published quarterly (spring, summer, fall, winter) by the University of North Carolina Press. The journal is sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South.

Cowboy Troy (Troy Lee Coleman III) is an African American country rapper and songwriter. Click for more information about Cowboy Troy.

This excerpt provide theories about some of the roots of African American braggadocio Blues and Rap. I have extrapolated that those same roots also apply to African American Rhythm and Blues and children's foot stomping cheers, since those music and text genres also have their sources in Blues and Rap.

The content of this post is presented for socio-cultural purposes.

Click for a companion post that showcases Cowboy Troy and his Country-Rap song "I Play Chicken With The Train".

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Adam Gussow and the editors of Southern Journal.

Hat tip to pancocojams commenter Anonymous who shared comments on May 9th & May 10th 2016 about Prince's bragging song "My Name Is Prince" in the discussion thread for the pancocojams post Those comments motivated me to research online information about the roots of bragging in African American songs, chants, and rhymes. And that research led to the article that is showcased in this post.


[Pancocojams editor- the beginning of the first sentence that is quoted isn't available in the Google books edition]

..."through southern-born boasters and toaster like H. Rap Brown, Shine, and Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) and into the arms of blues boasters like Bo Diddley (“I walked 47 miles of barbed wire/I used a cobra snake for a necktie”) and Willie (Hoochie Coochie Man) Dixon. The blues boasters, according to folklorist Mimi Clar Melnick, “dreams of personal greatness,… brags about his accomplishments, and in no uncertain terms, establishes himself as a hero… There is also a strong identification with objects of power and speed-trains, weapons, cars, even large cities-which sometimes perform the hereo’s feats for him or which lend him, through his intimacy with them, the attributes of a kind of superman.” The black blues boaster in turn takes cultural energy from earlier black badmen such as Railroad Bill, Stagolee, Aaron Harris, and Two-Gun Charlie Pierce, all of whom achieved iconhood in a series of turn-of-the-century ballads in which the admiring black community-rather than the badmen themselves-brag of their exploits, often against symbolic representatives of a larger (white) world understood to be oppressive: “Railroad Bill was a mighty mean man/ He shot the midnight lantern out the brakesman’s hand”/I’m gonna ride old Railroad Bill/…Buy me a pistol just as long as my arm/ Kill everybody ever done me harm,/ I’m going to
page 57

Ride old Railroad Bill”. The braggart here, to repeat, isn’t the badman himself, but the singer who has been inspired by his exploits...

As we venture back into the period of antebellum slavery the trail grows more faint. Cultural historian Lawrence Levine and others tell us that the cocky, boastful, self-affirming black voice was not common on the plantation, and not simply because such self-foregrounding would have incited severe reprisals from the master. Secular slave heroes, according to Levine, “operated by eroding and nullifying the powers of the strong; by reducing the powerful to their own level,” and it was only with emancipation that African Americans fashioned
their own equivalents of Gargantuan figures that strode through nineteenth century American folklore. Indeed, the presence of such figures in black folklore [i.e., badmen] was, along with the decline of religiosity and the rise of the blues, another major sign of cultural change among the freedmen.

Leaving aside these Gargantuan figures for a moment, it seems clear that Levine’s several claims, problematize any argument for the exclusively African American origins of rap braggadocio. Brown herself skirts both the antebellum plantation and minstrelsy, preferring to deep-source rap’s tall-talk with some scholarly justification, in the African praise-song tradition. A tradition of self-foregrounding praise songs orijala has long flourished among Yoruba hunters. “I am physically sound and in great form.”, declaims one such hunter at a thanksgiving feast. “I will speak on, my mouth shall tell wondrous things.” In the Mandingo epic Sundiata, drawing on the warrior side of this tradition, contending princes exchange lines such as “I am the poisonous mushroom which makes the fearless vomit” and “I am the ravenous cock, the poison doesn’t matter to me”. According to Brown, such songs of praise persisted in African American culture, presumably enduring a forced latency period on the plantation before flowering after Emancipation as stylized braggartry or self-introductions” in the various forms described above. Cowboy Troy’s claim that he is “big and black, clickety-clack and [makes] the train jump off the track”, in other words, is deep and multiply sourced in the African American cultural past.

The problem with this genealogy isn’t that it’s wrong, is that it’s incomplete. It constructs a “well -bounded, organically unified race tradition” by leaving out the other great American tradition of “self-affirming voices” with their “annunciatory’ “I am’s“ from which Cowboy Troy and rap as a whole, also draw their inspiration: Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, and the ring-tailed roarers of the old South-western frontier. In 1831, James Kirke Paulding fictionalized Davy Crocket as the frontiersman Nimrod Wildfire in his play The Lion Of The West and voiced his

Page 58
larger-than- life persona with memorable concision: “I’m half horse, half alligator, a touch of the airtquake, with a sprinkling of the steamboat”. This mode of exaggerated self-presentation was intimately linked, as historian Elliot Gorn and literary scholar Christian K. Messenger have shown, with the evolving practice of rough-and-tumble fighting in the backcountry and the “temporary play communities” such practices established. “By the early nineteenth century”, according to Gorn. “simple epithets evolved into verbal duels…Backcountry men took turns bragging about their prowess, possessions, and accomplishments, spurring each other on to new heights of self-magnification….[A frequent] claim [is] that one was sired by wild animals, kin to natural disasters, and tougher than steam engines.”...

Although we might be tempted to code such frontier bluster as “white”, if only in an attempt to establish it as parallel to, and distinct from, the African American tradition just outlined, the truth is that both cultural streams have long intermingled. After trading threats and insults, we might remember, Twain’s raftsmen and their crew “[get] out an old fiddle, and one played and the other patted juba and the rest turned themselves loose on a regular old-fashioned keel-boat breakdown.” African American cultural material-the juba rhythms, but also the plantation inflected fiddling tradition and the breakdown itself, named after a popular plantation dance- are essential constituents of cross-cultural exchange on the frontier. “The backswoodsman and the Negro danced the same jigs and reels,” maintained cultural historian Constance Rourke; “the breakdown was an invention that each might have claimed.” Davy Crockett himself was a proficient fiddler and blackface performer....

Whatever contributions African Americans may have made to this transracial country West, this brag-talking breakdown-driven culture of the frontier, prior to Emancipation, Levine and others agree that freed slaves and their children and grandchildren embraced that culture and the rhetoric of self-aggrandizement and self-assertion it enabled in various ways, including the badman persona. “I’se Wild Ni&&er Bill/Frum Redpepper Hill”, sings one “Negro youth” sitting near the railroad tracks with a banjo on his knee, in a post-Reconstruction tale related by folklorist H. C. Brearley. “I’se never did wo’k, an’ I never will. / I’se done killed de boss. / I’se knocked down de hoss. / I eats up raw goose widout apple

page 59

Even H. Rap Brown, self-styled as the sweet peeter jeeter the women beater”, drew on the language of the frontier in his signature rap, calling himself “[t]he deerslayer the buckbonder, …known from the Gold Coast to the rocky shores of Maine.

What is most “black” about H. Rap Brown’s pronouncements, in other words, is simultaneously, what is most “white” about him: like Bo Diddley, Wild N&&er Bill, Davy Crockett, and [Mark] Twain’s blustering raftsmen is drawing on a multi-sourced, all-American tradition of vernacular self-aggrandizement.”

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