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John Brown’s Booty

March 29, 2012

this was my submission for the zine Make the Wind Blow

Every free moment i could scrounge during middle and high school was spent studying political movements, especially the counterculture of the amerikkkan nineteen-sixties. Counterculturalists were creating a new world, many with the express belief that their world could one day supplant the existing one. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is the most convincing example, with their cop watch and breakfast-for-kids programs, but there were others like the Diggers and other communal initiatives that refused to wait for some vanguard before they’d start living the lives they deserved.
The EZLN has re-popularized this tactic as “dual power”, but they can mean the same thing. Developing a power base not after “the revolution” but as the revolution, developing tools, practices and resources that leave the existing authorities weaker and irrelevant. Dual power is often discussed in conjunction with fundamental re-structuring like community security solutions that don’t involve police or courts, free schools to protect youth from indoctrination or alternative healing practices for which we don’t need insurance.
This concept is applicable to every facet of our lives, every skill and profession. Radical plumbing, fair trade blowjobs and anti-authoritarian data entry, even creating art that is community-focused, anti-oppressive and anti-colonial. This does not necessarily mean propaganda production. As there are many ways to perform childcare–for instance–with generosity, care and respect, so too can art be politically challenging in a million ways. Who makes it, how is it made, who has access to it…there is no end to the tactics we can employ when creative and motivated.
We can think of art as cultural production, as creating culture bit by bit. Art helps to define a culture, how it identifies itself and speaks to the world. The dominant culture in north america, then, would talk with an autotuner and wear overpriced clothes made on the other side of the world. As members of this culture, we must admit to looking tacky and superficial by international standards, pampered beyond belief. Take a look at modern country music stars and you’ll see tacky turned into a competitive sport, and, yet, it’s what we have to work with.  With few cultural artifacts to draw from, we must simply make the best of what is available and take it as far as we can.  Country music, resplendent in shortcomings though it may be, has the potential to take us far down the path of dual power, wherever that road may lead.

Developing a white (european or of european descent) culture that is fundamentally anti-racist is crucial for many reasons. On the purely self-interested level, we need this for our own long-term health and survival. As much as people refuse to talk about white supremacy and how it continues to guide our governments and society, we all know it to be true. The way the biggest homophobes often tend to be closet cases, it’s possible that the nastiest racists have the most sublimated guilt inside of them, eating them from the inside out. We cannot learn about colonisation or the slave trade without understanding the genocide implicit in these policies and therefore the foundation of our countries. We need to own this history and trace it through to the present, or we can never begin to heal our collective psyche.
Beyond the here and now, we must also look to the future. This might be an even bigger challenge than clearly seeing the past. With evangelicals and other end-of-days religiots on the rise, in addition to FTW anarchists who want to burn everything down to start fresh, it is tempting–so very tempting–to write us off as a failed experiment. [It is a constant battle for me to not give in to the Nothing, so i won’t bother trying to convince anyone here. Let me just say that i haven’t found it useful to cling to any kind of hope. Hope is a luxury that we cannot afford at this time. We have to imagine, pretend, that the world can be a better place, simply because there is no other option. For the sake of today, we need to fool ourselves that another world is possible and have as much fun playing make believe as we can.] Maybe we are a dead end, but, to quote a dear friend, “you just can’t know what you imagine until you make it come true (bizou Moohk!).” We cannot know what lies in the future, where we could cause things more wonderful or terrible than we could even dream. If we are going to have a chance, though, we need to deal with our shit now, now, now.
This taking of accounts can look lots of different ways, but, for the sake of this article, i will focus on country music. I see lots wrong with this music, with the culture around it, but i also see so much potential. For one, it has a history that is mostly traceable back to europe. This makes it part of our tradition, unlike so many other musical forms that we have appropriated and warped over the years. Folk music, country, polka, yé-yé, classical music and any of the other music styles that originated from europe would fit into this category as well. This is not to say that they have any of them developed in a vacuum (as Kerri, one of the editors of this zine has pointed out: “i dont think of country music as being just white, i mean today it really mostly is, and it has its roots in europe (mostly, but the banjo comes from africa i think) but the creation of old time country music was a mix of white and black communities, many of the techniques picked up by country were from black musicians ( the blues etc..) sometimes via appropriation and other times, from what i understand, possibly less nefariously and more collaboratively, although…“), only that these are contributions to the world that we can be proud of and to which we can trace a lineage. This music has made us who we are today.

Like most of this dominant culture, modern country music is tainted and toxic. Up until a few years ago, i wanted nothing to do with “those hillbillies”, their pick-up trucks or any of the other white trash stereotypes. This partly had to do with growing up poor and white, partly with loathing that geographical region i associated with country music: the south, the west, the violent and ignorant, bible-thumping conservatives who ruined the world for the rest of us. This was before i learned that country music is the most popular music in anglo north america, that it is everywhere. Therefore, it has potential to communicate with a large audience. This leaves us with music which is the least problematic, geneologically speaking, but severely problematic in the way that the rest of white culture is. It could be difficult to see a way out of this mess if there weren’t already artists that have taken up the challenge.
As far back as the mid sixties, there were artists imagining a new path for country. Gram Parsons was a brilliant musician. Very country, very hippie. As part of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and then as a solo artist, he re-interpreted traditional country songs through a psychedelic filter. Jerry Garcia was another who, as leader of the Grateful Dead but especially with his band Old & in the Way, brought this music out of the rodeos and into the counterculture. This is significant because, at the time, the counterculture was the closest whites had been to injecting anti-racism into society at large. By translating country into the language of potentially critical and politically active masses, they were simultaneously recuperating a popular and reactionary form (similar to the french Situationists) and making counterculture more palitable to country music afficionados that may not have had an entry point before. From there, we have Ray Charles and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dolly Parton and Arthur Russell and many many others expanding the possibilites of the genre and making it accessible to people historically alienated by it.

Today, this tradition is carried on by artists like One Hundred Dollars and Rae Spoon. One Hundred Dollars write songs about domestic abuse and working class strife, fairly typical country topics, but they take those discussions further by naming the underlying causes for our problems. The genius of One Hundred Dollars is their poetry, talking about systematic oppression without saying the words. In “Paris is Burning,” we have the familiar scenes of mother and child in a tug-of-war and of two lovers who are worn out from arguing. The fuel for the fights, so the chorus goes, is that the powerful continue to thrive and wreak destruction despite our every effort.
“I am not well.
The world is not right.
I am not well,
cuz they are not well,
but they’re alright.”
At least in “Hell’s A Place,” we can find some satisfaction. Two ladies in love run off to a promised land where they can live together, safe from judgement and violence. On the way, they have to kill a man to protect themselves. They may die together, may spend an eternity in hell together, but the only alternative would be hell on earth, alone.
Rae Spoon writes about queer love and heartache, country living and hating. Significantly, he also writes explicitly about colonisation in the song “Come on Forest Fire Burn the Disco Down”:
“We’re all standing our parent’s shoulders.
Boats across the ocean.
They’re standing on their parent’s shoulders.
Missionaries that never went home.
They’re standing on their parent’s shoulders.
Wagons in a row.
And they stand on their parent’s shoulders.
Churches built from bones.”
With this song, Rae tells us exactly who we are and where we come from, what we’re made of: pirates, priests and settlers. At the end of this album, the song “Strength From Within” tells us what to do with this knowledge. Ethical purity is not enough, it seems to say, for we must also deal with the world outside ourselves.

In addition to writing deep and beautiful music, One Hundred Dollars and Rae Spoon both donate time to play benefit shows. Rae has shared his music making skills with a variety of community organizations, and Simone, of One Hundred Dollars, has been involved for years with anti-colonial organizing. Artists in every way and deeply rooted in communities of struggle, they are my inspirations for writing this article. They make country music look good and community organizing look fun.
As a non-musician, it feels awkward to suggest that white people look to traditionally white or european music for inspiration. I know that the creative process doesn’t always work that way, but i also know that white people can be pretty lazy when we let ourselves. Without belaboring this point, i ask that white people consider the importance of making art that speaks to their own traditions, that makes people feel good about who they are, that inspires people to build a world worth fighting for.
“Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day.”

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