Thursday, July 23, 2015

"finally, white people can play!"

I stumbled back upon lightintoashes' excellent Latvala tribute page and noticed an excerpt from this interview about his own musical beginnings as a fan.  Here's the full quote about how he started off listening to R&B and gospel:

I started going to gospel concerts at Oakland Auditorium, which became Henry J. Kaiser.  Every year, they would have all the best gospel groups in the country: the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Swan Silvertones, the Soul Stirrers, the James Cleveland Choir.

You'd go into the auditorium, and there would be all black people in their Sunday finest, bright colors, and hundreds of ushers in white gloves.  You'd wonder what that was about - and then you'd see people get the spirit, and go into epileptic seizures.  These ushers would pick them up, carry them out into the hall, fan them, and carry them back in, when they came back to their bodies.  I saw this one guy run from the back of the auditorium straight down the center aisle, and dive headfirst into the stage.  I said, "That's what music is supposed to do - move you."  Gospel music did it.

Music became my life.  Then when I was in my fifth year of college, about to graduate, wondering what I was doing, I went to my first Dead show, the Trips Festival in January of '66, and I knew that that's where I was supposed to be.  Thereafter, more music started happening, and I thought, "Finally, white people can play!"

Not sure where I want to go with that just yet -- lots to think about regarding race, performance, response to music as an experience, and more.  For all I know, some Dead scholar may have plowed this field already, and I haven't bothered to look yet -- but I'm always interested at thinking about the Dead as an "American phenomenon" specifically in terms of race, and I might as well use this blog as a journal of my thinking about this.


  1. Garcia talked about the racial issue in an interview with Ralph Gleason in early 1967:
    "We've played some pretty hard-edged places - we played the Job Corps, where it's all spade kids. We played in a spade show, in fact, like a rhythm & blues show. And we were received - I think we were a shock to them, because the music we were playing was heavy blues, certainly heavier than any of the spade guys were doing; they were doing all the lighter stuff...
    There are certain guys who are into the whole black nationalist thing about spade music and about jazz and so forth, and they say things like, 'Oh, why don't these white boys stop trying to play colored music?' And so forth. But I don't feel that that's my orientation. And the ideas that I've pulled from blues musicians and from listening to blues are from my affection for the blues, which is since I was a kid. And I've been listening to rhythm & blues as long as there's been rhythm & blues around here, you know. That was one of the first kinds of music I was turned on to...
    I don't feel unnatural - I don't feel uptight about it, somebody might. But the stuff that we're doing, if you look it at, it's got those blues ideas and spade kinds of dance ideas and stuff like that, but really musically, in as far as moving yourself goes, those are some groovy ideas and they turn us on. But a lot of other things turn us on as well. Any kind of well-performed stuff - whatever it is."
    (Grateful Dead Reader p.32)

    (Pardon the '60s language - other musicians in those days used the term "spade" as well, not intending to demean.)

  2. Y'know, I don't know if Garcia ever talked much about going to see gospel or R&B groups in the '50s - the only comment I found was when he said, "Me and a couple of friends used to go out to black shows, not only at the Fillmore, but also at Roseland over in Oakland. I'd usually hear about the shows on the radio."

    I'm not sure what the "Roseland" was (a mistranscription? an actual theater, now closed?), but it's quite possible Garcia was going to see the same shows Latvala did!

    Garcia later became quite a student of gospel music on records. For instance, here's an excerpt from his interview with Swing 51 in 1983:
    "Rhythm & blues and the vocal groups of the '50s that Atlantic recorded, I grew up on those records and that's the folk music of the day, it really is. It comes from the church a lot. The gospel style, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, the Soul Stirrers. Sam Cooke was the lead singer in the Soul Stirrers when he was about 19. The guy who was the lead singer before him was 'Pops' Harris - DH Harris or something like that. He was the Charlie Parker of the voice! The Soul Stirrers recorded from the '40s. You hear him do things that you later hear in the '50s. You hear everybody from Sam Cooke to Little Richard copping licks that this guy first sang in the '40s, and people weren't singing before him. That's my most recent excursion into the world of folk music, if you want to call it that: gospel music of the '40s and '50s. It's influential; it's more influential than you'd imagine."

    A couple examples of RH Harris with the Soul Stirrers:
    And an unfortunately brief film clip of one of Harris's shows (with the ladies all dressed up as Latvala describes) -

    And an example of Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers in '55, more in the "hard gospel" dual-lead style - the kind of thing that had people passing out in the aisles (you can hear them growing hysterical in the second track) -

    The early Dead, of course, had a direct link to this type of thing in Pigpen, with his Lovelights & Midnight Hours, though filtered through more of an R&B style. But, though the subject matter's different, there's a straight line in style & influence from the gospel shouters to the R&B singers Pigpen emulated; and many audience members in the '60s recognized the connection between Dead shows & hollering church services, with Pigpen as the preacher.
    Garcia would pursue a more relaxed gospel style in later years with the JGB, which is probably a topic worth a whole post of its own.

    1. (To be strictly accurate, Garcia may only have been interested in seeing R&B/doo-wop groups in the '50s. Possibly he didn't get into gospel til later years, through records. So the idea of him bumping into Latvala at some gospel show in Oakland is a fanciful one.)