Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Boss Herenton

With apologies to A. Jackson, J. Winchester, and J. Overton, sometime in the twilight of the twentieth century W. W. Herenton, a black man born in Memphis, passed E. H. Crump, a white man born in Mississippi, as the most significant figure in Memphis history.

Or maybe not. I don’t know what to make of the legacy of W. W. Herenton, who, on October 3, 1991, received 122,596 votes to incumbent Dick Hackett’s 122,454—a difference of a mere 142—and thereby became the first black man elected mayor of the most racially polarized of racially polarized American cities.

The hopes among black Memphians were high by the end of that day. Many thought they were finally going to get their piece of the pie. But two things are now certain. White cronyism, which the white establishment, beginning with Boss Crump, had practiced with perfection, was simply replaced by black cronyism, and blacks are just as poor today as they were then. Memphis was not to have an enlightened government under Willie Wilbert Herenton.

In their 1996 study of that 1991 election, Racial Politics at the Crossroads: Memphis Elects Dr. W. W. Herenton (University of Tennessee Press), Marcus D. Pohlmann and Michael P. Kirby claim that the election of W. W. Herenton was of “considerable social and historical significance.” Their claim—perhaps reasonable at the time but more and more dubious in retrospect—rests on the fact that Herenton’s election was made under circumstances that differed from the usual circumstances attending the election of black mayoral candidates in other major cities. For one thing, Herenton ran against only one white candidate: there was no second white candidate to split the white vote. For another, Memphis’s only major newspaper endorsed not the black candidate but the white. Indeed, the newspaper ran a series of articles criticizing Herenton’s private life and his tenure as superintendent of the city schools.

In addition, Herenton won with virtually no white support—and it was white support that had already enabled many other cities to elect black mayors, starting in 1967 with Carl Stokes in Cleveland. By 1991, Memphis was one of only two major cities (the other being St. Louis) with a sizable black population that had not elected a black mayor.

In short, Herenton won, write Pohlmann and Kirby, without having to concede anything to the white community. To Pohlmann and Kirby, that was significant—and troubling. It meant that Memphis had reached what the authors call the point of “racial reflexivity.” When a city has come to that point, a black politician will lose the trust of black voters if he appeals to the concerns of white voters; likewise, if a white politician appeals to the concerns of black voters, he will lose the trust of white voters. The result is a thoroughly racialized politics, and the loss of trust will show itself in a lower turnout at the polls.

Pohlmann and Kirby end their book on a slightly optimistic note, suggesting that Herenton, who was reelected in 1995 and would serve as mayor until 2009, had begun to develop a “progressive” black-white governing majority.

As for Pohlmann, his assessment of Herenton’s legacy has grown only more positive over the years. In a 2009 article in the Commercial Appeal, Pohlmann, who is a professor of political science at Rhodes College, stated that Herenton was “the most significant mayor in the history of the city” and suggested that Herenton had done a lot to advance race relations in the city.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Jennifer Ryan’s 2008 dissertation, “‘Can I Get a Witness?’ Soul and Salvation in Memphis Music,” offers a window onto the Memphis blues scene of the mid-2000s. I say blues, but I could have easily said soul or rhythm and blues or rock or even rock and roll, for as the writer discovered in her interviews, musicians play fast and loose with the terms they use to identify the genre of music that they play.

Ryan, who completed her dissertation as a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that there are essentially two kinds of clubs in Memphis in which soul (or blues or R&B) music is played: “juke joints” and “tourist clubs.” For her fieldwork, she spent a lot of nights in one of each: the Blue Worm, a juke joint in Orange Mound, a black, working-class neighborhood in Memphis; and B. B. King’s, a popular tourist club on Beale Street. She reports that the songs the house bands played at both places “overlapped to a significant degree” and that many musicians played in both clubs.

Her fieldwork also involved visiting a number of black churches in Memphis, including several COGIC (Church of God in Christ) churches, and interviewing musicians who are active in the Memphis blues scene. We learn about some of the most important Memphis-based musicians playing today: saxophonist Lannie McMillan, who, in addition to playing in churches, juke joints, and Beale Street clubs, has worked as a studio musician for B. B. King, Al Green, and Aretha Franklin; Preston Shannon, a guitarist who is the front man for the B. B. King All-Stars, who perform at B. B. King’s three nights a week; Jackie Clark, a bass player with perfect pitch; and Renardo Ward, a drummer with a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Memphis.

The stated topic of the dissertation is the way in which present-day soul musicians in Memphis, most of whom, Ryan reports, have a religious worldview and attend and often perform in church, negotiate their faith with respect to the secular music that they play and the secular venues in which they perform. Fifty years ago, musicians played either gospel music or secular music—but usually not both, at least not without paying a price. (Ryan opens her dissertation with a story about Sam Cooke, who began his career as a gospel musician but who was shunned by the gospel community when he recorded the secular “You Send Me.”) What about today? How do musicians explain or rationalize the fact that they play at the Blue Worm or B. B. King’s on Saturday nights and at church on Sunday mornings?

Perhaps not surprisingly, each musician copes with the tension between the sacred and the secular in his own way—Lannie McMillan is perhaps representative when he says that “God’s everywhere,” in the juke joints and in the churches--and the level and degree of censure from their church communities vary. Yes, there are ministers and other church leaders and family members who refuse to step foot in nightclubs and who disapprove of those who do; but even if some of the musicians in Ryan’s study feel that “the path to secular music” has to be traveled alone, none has apparently been disowned by his church or his family. Perhaps for that reason, it is not clear to this reader just what is at stake for the musicians. How delicate is the balance between the secular and the sacred? What do they stand to lose if they mismanage it?

One thing they gain from having to manage it is a deeper personal relationship with God and an opportunity to be a light in the darkness. As Renardo Ward explains, his faith teaches him that his musical talents are not just for his benefit but for the benefit of others. God has “entrusted” them with him, “and with that entrusting of that there’s also some accountability.”

One can find many interesting details and elements in Ryan’s dissertation, including a discussion of the meaning of soul and the origins of soul music. This very secular white boy learned that black churches provide to children from an early age (sometimes as young as two) formal training in music, training that more or less follows a certain procedure. Youngsters who are learning to play an electric instrument, for instance, are not allowed to plug the instrument in “for several years,” and even then the volume is only “slowly turned up over the course of years or months as young musicians gain skill and independence.”

Given the tremendous fieldwork and research that Ryan did, it is all the more unfortunate that her advisers did not insist that she draw any grand conclusions from her study. Perhaps the last two paragraphs of her final chapter, which examines the fascinating relationship between soul music and the Sunday sermon by way of Otis Redding, Al Green, and the late J. Blackfoot, will suffice:
            Throughout my fieldwork in Memphis I found that religious musicians returned over and over to the same questions as they negotiated the role their faith should play in secular music. “What repertoires and venues are appropriate for a Christian?” “How can I be an example of a Godly person in a club?” “How do I avoid negative influences?”
            The answer for some is to embrace the secular—even carnal love—as part of God’s creation. They bring the trappings of worship to the club, but they carry along with them the meanings of worship, of sermons, and of the whoop [a preaching technique in which speech and song come together]. Religious musicians—and some of their audience—can “have church” in the most secular of places. 
Today, Jennifer Ryan is an assistant professor of music at Indiana State University, and judging from her CV she appears to be preparing her dissertation for publication as a book. I look forward to reading the book and seeing how her understanding of her complicated topic has deepened over the years.