“Call and Response”

Call and Response, our massive anthology, sets up texts of African American traditions in such a way that pieces begin to function as questions and answers to each other. This clever formation allows for conversations between and within said traditions. The metaphor is thus rich and literary, but it also carries with it a helpful reminder: that many of the included texts are to be read aloud. To call and, to a lesser extent, to respond are verbal, audible actions that are conducted in human and animal communication. No more has the sonority of Call and Response been obvious than in the work, badman, and prison songs we read for class (3/4). One thing about the spoken word, though. It’s tricky to anthologize. When I got to “Po’ Laz’us,” I logged on to Spotify and began listening to the version from the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000). Here’s where it got tricky: it was one of many versions, all riffing and remixing the words on the page before me. Without saying one version is the right one, I would argue that something is lost when editors take songs of a particularly oral quality and pin their content down to one reading as is done in our own anthology. Accompanying my reading with sung renditions on Spotify and supplementing it with Lawrence Lessig’s thoughts on “remix culture” (another useful source from Dr. Schacht), I began to develop questions of ownership and feelings of uncertainty about interpretive possibilities.

My first question came when reading “Stagolee” while also listening to a live version by the blues artist Mississippi John Hurt and it was, “why don’t the words on the page match what he is singing?” I repeated the question to myself when I played Pete Seeger’s cover. Additionally, Seeger’s cover matched neither the words on the page nor Hurt’s lyrics. I cannot say with any sort of certainty that the words to this song were written down before they were sung, but I could see from this first example that the text has no one place, despite the editors’ attempt to create one for it. The same event kept happening as I tried to pair the texts with different sung versions. I became excited by the creative ways in which artists took a song concept and contributed their own artistry to it to make it anew.  In other words, to quote Bernice Johnson Reagon, “the songs have their meaning placed in them by the singers.” The texts were recursive in this way. At the same time, I became unnerved by the realization that culture became property right before my eyes. Even the songs, when contrasting live and studio versions, were subjected to the influence of commercialization.

Lawrence Lessig, in the introduction to his book Free Culture, which you can download for free here, credits the law with regulating the otherwise fluid space of culture by creating “exclusive rights” and commercializing the telling and retelling of stories (8). The unfortunate word property again rears its ugly head. However, in the context of the work, badman, and prison songs, it takes on new complications. Bound by the institutions of work, reputation, and prison, the songs themselves are stories of proprietors and the property-less. Stagolee himself gets into a deadly dispute over a Stetson hat. More importantly, though the anthology flexes authority on the songs. It shifts their context, ascribes them new meaning, and most importantly, it silences them. This silencing is two fold: first, the sounds become letters and words on a page; second, their multiplicity is reduced to singular readings. So, while the standardization we discussed in class and the codification Lessig describes in his book create spaces for creators to work in, these spaces can often be, to use Suzan-Lori Parks’s word, containers.

I additionally asked of my anthology “where do I find these works and why?” In fact, I had to ask a fellow classmate for help in finding the section “Work, Badman, and Prison Songs,” because there is a section titled “Bad Man and Prison Songs” on page 811 which I mistook it for. By way of its mighty paratext, the book has interpellated me (in the Althusserian sense) to believing that the structure and history of African American literature is internal to the way Call and Response present, when in fact this act of standardization has many external factors coordinating it. If it weren’t tricky enough, the Bad Man and Prison Songs section I first flipped to were only two pages previous to “The Signifying Monkey,” one of our assigned readings for class.

The one banal or cliched (though important) question that gets asked every time we investigate anthologies and anthologizing is “why do some works make their way in/why are others left out?” The prison songs might offer us a good answer. To publish texts on the prisoners condition is to both acknowledge that condition and to reify it in such a way that the words take on the condition of their speaker. The numbered sections make the graphical appearance feel  antagonistic to the inherently dialogical nature of this sort of call and response. The carceral tone of a song like “Po Laz’us” is reflected in its content which describes a pursuit, a fleeing, and an arrest. If we take up the idea, as James Baldwin does in his fiction and Ta-Nehisi Coates does in his journalism, that the history of America and its democracy are predicated on the plunder of black people, then it would make sense to include such prison songs in a corpus of African American literature. In other words, the restrictions at work in standardizing otherwise fluid literary works can inform the anthology reader of the existential  nature of these same works. That these songs “call out” to the reader is, then, also not a mistake, but an affect of the condition in which these texts lay. At one level, the responses in Call and Response are embedded in the book itself. On another level, it’s the classes responsibility to think critically and respond to the question that began this paragraph so that it does not remain banal or cliche, but instead revitalizes the culture alive and aloud on the page.

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