Sunday, May 01, 2011

Kat's Korner: You're no Emmett Till

Kat: Emmylou Harris used to have a one-of-a-kind sound. That's not really true anymore. Not because she's lost her voice or the years have stripped it of its power, but due to the fact that Nanci Griffith emerged some time ago and the two have very similar singing voices. Nanci's spent a great deal of time on recent albums recording songs written by other people and, honestly, I think she would have been better off performing her own songs. Or I thought that.


Hard Bargain, Emmylou's latest album, contains an album ruining track. I was hoping that it was written by someone else. But even that wouldn't have saved it, after all, she still would have selected it.

I knew we were in trouble before track three played, just looking at the title, "My Name is Emmett Till." There have been plenty of good and plenty of bad songs written about the young teenager whose murder/execution was among the events that helped start the Civil Rights Movement. In the song, which (again) Emmylou wrote, she feels the need to self-present as Emmett Till.

There's a whole discussion about whether a woman can voice a man (or in this case, a young teenager), about one about people attempting to speak for other races and one about cultural appropriation. And all those discussions float through your head as the song plays.

I don't doubt Emmylou's intentions. I'm sure they were noble and filled with love.

It's a pity those around her didn't have the same love. Anyone playing on the album could have pulled her aside and advised her to change the lyrics -- at least a little.

Emmett Till, for those who don't know the basics, was a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who went to Mississippi to visit with relatives. While in Mississippi, he spoke with a 21-year-old White woman named Carolyn Bryant at her grocery store. Her husband, fueled by jealousy and racism and hate and who knows what else, teamed up with his brother to kidnap, beat, maim and then brutally kill Emmett Till. The brothers would escape criminal punishment and later brag about their crimes to a national magazine (Look).

I have no idea whether he spoke with the woman, joked with the woman, whether they mutually flirted or what. Whatever did or did not happen, of course, did not warrant or excuse what was done to Emmett Till. But I feel the need to stress the unknown aspect because Emmylou feels the need to tell us what happened.

And what she chooses to tell us matters because, early on, there were plenty of justifications for the vile crimes committed. People offered all sorts of explanations which were supposed to make 'right' what was done to the young man. For example, Emmett Till's father had some charges against him which, when they came out after the murder/execution of his son, were sometimes used to say, "See!!! See!!!! He deserved it!" Because of that earlier 'defense' (which some people bought into at the time), I would hope that today people would take care when 'dramatizing' the story.

So when Emmylou sings, as Emmett Till, that he was a bit "cheeky" with Carolyn Bryant, I recoil. Not just because I don't hear a 14-year-old American in the fifties speaking like a Brit in the swinging sixties, but also because who's to say he was (or wasn't) "cheeky"?

Emmylou seems to believe she's the one to say and that she's got a right to speak for Emmett Till. I think anyone paying attention to the song would feel the need to pull her aside and tell her frankly that she's got no right to speak.

If the "cheeky" doesn't offend you, how about this: As Emmett she repeatedly sings about how (apparently had he not died), he'd be bringing up his own "Black boy." Now Emmett might have wanted to have a son and he might have called him a boy. But I would assume Emmett wouldn't have the need to add a skin color to that description. (Also true, "Black" is not the term Emmett Till would have been used in the fifties.)

There's nothing authentic about the song. I wish she hadn't recorded it. I wish someone had pulled her aside and told her that, good intentions not withstanding, the song is peculiar at best and offensive at worst.

Elsewhere she's got a solid album. "The Road" owes a huge musical debt to Carole King's "Tears Falling Down On Me" (Colour of Your Dreams) which Emmylou's improved on by more or less turning a sigh into a chorus. "A Lonely Girl" continues the sigh motif and is probably her best performance since the mid-seventies when she emerged as the queen of bluegrass. "Six White Cadillacs" (co-written with Will Jennings) and "Big Black Dog" are just fun songs and "Darlin' Kate" (her tribute to Kate McGarrigle) is among the album's strongest gems.

But, for me, track three destroys it. And I tried to think of a nice way to write that -- actually write around it. C.I. knows Emmylou (and likes her). I usually get editing help from C.I. on these things because I'm writing them in bits in pieces on the road, a hotel here, a campus auditorium there, a plane ride . . . I end up with 15 scraps of paper and trying to figure out how to fit them all together; however, this time I really just wanted her opinion.

And I was surprised when she handed it back to me and asked, "What aren't you saying in this?" I explained about track three. I explained that no one had called it out, that I read 15 reviews looking for someone who called it out (my plan being just to note that track three didn't make it for me and "refer to ____ for criticism of it" with a link). C.I. said, "No, no, no. You're not going to post a review on this if you're not going to be honest about it. This is your opinion and if someone -- if anyone -- doesn't like it, that's their out -- 'Well that's Kat's opinion' -- but if you're not going to be honest, there's no point writing a review."

I love twelve of the thirteen tracks on Emmylou's album. And I would love to give a thumbs up But the song about Emmett Till ruins the album. Emmylou Harris is a huge talent. And she's a woman who approaches life from a point of love and acceptance. That's always been the key to her music. But another song like "My Name Is Emmett Till" . . .

Let me just put it this way, she's very lucky the people reviewing her album are White. I don't imagine that too many people, other than 'well meaning' White people, could enjoy the lyrics to that song. And anyone coming to her work via that song, meeting her music for the first time, might form conclusions that would be less than flattering.

And my own conclusion at the end of all this? Maybe Nanci Griffith spending so much time in recent years recording songs by others wasn't a bad thing after all.