As a child, my mother rocked me to sleep in a rocking chair and sang a song about ‘going to tell Aunt Dinah.’ It went on…. “the old grey goose is dead… the one she’s been savin’…. to make a feather bed.”
Who was Aunt Dinah, and where did this song originate? I have no clue, but I remembered it, and sang it to my children, and again, a generation later, to my grandchildren. These are the arts that live in the everyday; they are the family recipes, the songs, the music we listen to even now, I believe, that tie us to the stories of where we came from, even when there is no written history.
Jack McCray, author of “Charleston Jazz,” wrote a piece in the Charleston Post & Courier about James Jamerson, the legendary bass guitarist, who lived from 1936 to 1983. On March 19 of ’09, largely unnoticed, at the State Capital, State Rep. Wendell Gilliard presented Charleston musician Anthony McKnight, a South Carolina House of Representatives resolution honoring McKnight’s late cousin, James Jamerson, an American music innovator.
To borrow from a tribute written by Allan Slutsky, his biographer, “James Jamerson was a jazz musician born on Edisto Island and grew up in the city of Charleston. Before he finished high school he moved to Detroit, Michigan. Like many other jazz players, Jamerson, a bassist, took to playing pop music to earn a living and he ended up a charter member of the Funk Brothers, the legendary house band for Motown Records, the sound of young America, as it called itself, during the 1960s and 1970s. That period was its prolific heyday. He took the rhythm and aural textures of the Lowcountry to Detroit and made major contributions to one of the greatest phases in the evolution of American music. Jamerson played on virtually all of the hits by acts such as the Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Martha and the Vandellas. He played on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys combined.
This story is long overdue.
Jamerson began playing music as a little boy on Edisto Island, with one string in the sand, “to make the ants dance.” John Michael Vlach, professor of American Studies and Anthropology at George Washington University has written much about American Folk Art, and he reveals the interesting history of many instruments that owe their history to “Afro-American instrument makers….one of these is called the “one-string” or “one strand”.
Early African Americans made this into a banjo, which was built from a gourd. He goes on to say, “It is clear that the banjo as it was first known in America was an African instrument. It remained a black instrument until the 1840’s when minstrel shows took it on as part of their black face farces. Only then did the banjo become a badge of ridicule for Afro-Americans; they generally gave it up, allowing white southerners to claim it as their own invention.” For an in depth discussion of this and many other traditional folk arts of the Lowcountry I highly recommend Mr Vlach’s book, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, University of Georgia Press.
The one string instrument that James Jamerson played as a child was one his ancestors most likely played. This was his Aunt Dinah song. Music heals and soothes us, and her history in the Lowcountry is a large part of her soul. I can only imagine the sounds of the boatmen who sang in rhythmic time, during long travels over these waters, and the metaphoric music of work songs, and spirituals, songs that often spoke in secret codes. The music worked ingeniously to communicate one message to the master and another to the slave, yet all along it continued to be music, to soothe and heal the spirit. How many more stories like James Jamerson’s exist? Do you have songs passed down in the family whose roots may tell you something about your ancestors?
To borrow again from Jack McCray, “The next time you hear the soulful bass introduction to “My Girl,” the thunder-and-lightening licks to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” or the rollicking romp of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” remember Jamerson and the pulse of the Lowcountry.”
Now, this is pretty close to church, I say. Amen, brother.