Wednesday, Ann Powers gave the first annual Jane Scott Memorial Lecture Honoring Excellence in Rock Journalism at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The talk was streamed on the Hall’s website, and I was hoping I could link to it here, but as of now, as far as I can tell, the speech has not been archived, nor can I find the text for the talk. Hopefully one or both will turn up. Ann (I’ve had some discussion with students about how it’s not appropriate to use first names when writing about authors, etc., but I’ve known Ann Powers for 20+ years and it’s hard to get out of the habit in her case) does have a blog post on the site where she suggests some of the areas she would eventually discuss in her lecture. She embarks on a “quest to understand how rock and roll, and really most of American music, became the main metaphorical space where we pursue ideas about sexuality, and flesh out our emotions.”
I don’t want to be too specific about her lecture, because of the odd way I experienced it. We had the live feed going, but I was also making dinner, going in and out of the room, and so I didn’t always get specific points she was making (although I did enjoy when she tried to get the audience to shimmy). The feed was also interrupted on a couple of occasions by advertising videos. These popped up unannounced, and as far as we could tell, they didn’t pick up her talk where it left off … whatever she said during the commercials was lost to us. Point being, I don’t trust my initial take, because I didn’t get to experience it fully. But I did get a lot of out of what I heard, most notably that dance, as well as music, was crucial to the beginnings of rock and roll. As she writes in the above-mentioned blog post:
Rock and roll, as I see and hear it, began more than a century before Elvis sang “Hound Dog,” in the sung dances of African slaves working to preserve their culture under the oppression of industrialized labor. There was a seed of sensuality, of hips and shoulders connecting with spirit, in those ring shouts. It cross-pollinated with other secular celebrations of the mind-body connection and lived on in social dances and the music invented to serve them. Music and dance together formed a new lexicon; lyricists found the words to help it along.
She provided a Spotify playlist of the music she featured during her talk, and it’s a good one:
The most amazing song for me was “Shave ‘em Dry” by Lucille Bogan. Bogan recorded as early as 1923. As the website Red Hot Jazz Archive explains, “While many of the Classic Blues singers of the 1920s tackled risqué and controversial issues in their songs, Bogan almost exclusively focused on explicit sexual themes, like prostitution, adultery and lesbianism, and social ills such as alcoholism, drug addiction and abusive relationships.” Here are some sample lyrics from “Shave ‘em Dry”:
I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb,
I got somethin’ between my legs’ll make a dead man come,
Oh daddy, baby won’t you shave ‘em dry?
Want you to grind me baby, grind me until I cry. …
Now if fuckin’ was the thing, that would take me to heaven,
I’d be fuckin’ in the studio, till the clock strike eleven,
Oh daddy, daddy shave ‘em dry,
I would fuck you baby, honey I’d make you cry. …
A big sow gets fat from eatin’ corn,
And a pig gets fat from suckin’,
Reason you see this whore, fat like I am,
Great God, I got fat from fuckin’.
As Ann noted, the Rolling Stones certainly heard this version of Bogan’s song (think “Start Me Up” with the fade-out lyric, “you make a dead man come”). I’m reminded of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” (“The stuff I got'll bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it'll make you lose your mind”).
You can hear “Shave ‘em Dry” on the Spotify playlist, or you can watch this YouTube video: