While it's well known how popular music has changed throughout the years, it's not often that popular music is used to document the changing of the years or figures in history. Popular music is usually considered far too frivolous a thing to deal with the weighty matters of history. History books are always about the rich and powerful and the decisions they make affecting the type of people who listen to popular music – so what kind of contribution could it make to recounting the important events of the past?
The thing is, when history is only about the wealthy and powerful, it ends up being only told from their point of view. As a result people like Carnegie and Rockefeller become heroes while the union organizers who fought them and their thugs for things we now take for granted, like the forty hour work week and child labour laws, are still depicted as villains. For the longest time it was only through the songs of those eras by people like Joe Hill, framed on a murder charge and shot by Salt Lake Police, that versions of events aside from the ones in the history books existed. Recently there have been moves towards more populist versions of history as people like Howard Zinn try to recount events from different perspectives.
So, not only is there a tradition of popular music giving us a different perspective of history, there's now also more of an interest than ever in finding out more about when on "behind the scenes", so to speak, of the big events in history. Over the last few years Stace England and his band the Salt Kings have put out two albums, Cairo Illinois and Salt Sex Slaves, which have been done just that by recounting events that you won't find a record of in most history text books. With their latest album they've moved into the twentieth century in order to give us not just a glimpse of events but a person. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, available for download now and being released in the new year on Rankoutsider Records, introduces listeners to America's first major African-American film director.
Between the years of 1919 and 1948, Oscar Micheaux was the only black homesteader in South Dakota; published seven novels; and wrote, produced, and directed forty-four movies staring and about African-Americans. His first movie, The Homesteader, was based on his experiences in South Dakota, but if a movie about a black homesteader dealing with racism wasn't bad enough, Within Our Gates his second feature, depicted whites raping black women, attempting to lynch black families, and showed the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and vigilantes. While that may sound like a pretty accurate depiction to us, you have to realize that D. W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation released in 1919, depicted just the opposite; black men trying to ravish delicate white beauties, and the Klan heroically preserving white honour.
It wasn't only whites that Micheaux managed to upset, various black civic groups were unhappy with his rather unpleasant habit of attempting to always show the truth on screen. Some of his movies dealt with the very contentious issue of passing; where fair skinned black people attempted to "pass" as white people and not suffer the same discrimination as the darker complexioned members of their community. In fact God's Stepchildren, his 1933 movie on that subject, was picketed at its premier in Harlem by black community leaders and members of the communist party for being racist. However it was more usual for white communities to be unhappy with his work, whether from their depiction of a drunken and lecherous reverend in Body And Soul (which featured Paul Robeson's film debut), or his continuing to challenge Griffith's stereotypes by having African-Americans standing up to the Klan and running them off.
Each of the twelve tracks on England's release either deals with one of Micheaux's movies or provides us with a glimpse into the world in which these movies were released. While track one, "The Homesteader", taken from the name of both the novel and film based on Micheaux's experiences in South Dakota as the only black homesteader, talks about the struggles of settler to eke out a living, track two takes a somewhat different approach. "Vendome" was the name of the theatre in Chicago where Micheaux's film The Homesteader was shown and it brings to life the excitement African-American people must have felt about seeing themselves depicted accurately on the big screen. "Folks like us up on that silver screen/Two reels in we're going to be celebrating".
Appropriately enough the final song on the disc is taken from the final movie of Micheaux's career, The Betrayal. While the director had hoped to create one last epic to cement his legacy, the three hour plus movie made in 1948 was universally panned. For the first time he received mainstream press attention, The New York Times, only to see them cut the movie to shreds, and even papers that had been his staunch allies turned on him. The song's lyrics reflect both how the director, by sticking to his guns, burnt a lot of bridges and alienated people during his career, and the results of those actions. "What will do when they have forgotten/All is forsaken and friends you have none/You can't go home over smouldering bridges…
As is usual for England and his band, with help from friends on some tracks, they employ from a multitude of genres to help tell the story. While the music might not be from the era represented by the disc, what they've chosen for each song has the appropriate feel to deliver the emotional message they are trying for. It might not have been the music that Micheaux would have chosen as the soundtrack for his silent movies, but it sure works as an introduction to it.
Once again England has taken an overlooked piece of American history, this time a person, and opened our eyes to what we've been missing. Intelligent and musically as interesting as ever, England and the Salt Kings make another convincing argument that popular music has a role to play in helping us tell our histories. With The Amazing Oscar Micheaux they have not only done the great service of ensuring a remarkable man is not overlooked, but are doing their best to rekindle interest in the work that makes him important. Aside from the CD, the band is also doing multimedia performances featuring clips his films (Micheaux clips accompanied by tracks from the CD are on line as well) and live performances of an original score to the movie Within Our Gates – a performance which won them praise at the Rome International Film Festival in 2009.
In the future, when they go to write the history of our times, we should hope the equivalent of Stace England And The Salt Kings are around to help ensure the complete story is told. Without people like them who knows what or who might be forgotten or overlooked.