Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Federal Filth

The artist is a light-skinned, lower-middle-class, notoriously boastful African American who made his dreams of glory come true by immersing in black street culture. The music is basic, almost crude. And the lyrics are filthy. One song is about a whore with an attitude: "She pulled out a pistol and shot her right in her eyes/She said, `Open your legs, you dirty bitch, I'm gonna shoot you between your thighs.'" "I could take a great big prick just like a great big mule," she claims, but in jail she just takes what she can get: "They went to sleep that night th' other gal crawled in her bed/She says, `I'm gonna get some of this cunt, you bitch, I said.'" The whore enjoys it, too: it's a fellow inmate she asks to "screw me like a dog" so she can "scream out like a hog." On other tracks, though, the sexual actor is predictably male: "Come here, you sweet bitch, give me that pussy, let me get in your drawers/I'm gonna make you think you fuckin' with Santa Claus," or "I set my bitch right on the stump/I screwed her till her pussy stunk."

As you may have figured from bucolic touches like "hog" and "stump," however, the artist isn't Luther Campbell, Snoop Doggy Dogg, or any other critically disparaged, legally overextended survivor/exploiter of the inner-city hood. On the contrary, he's a certified national treasure--none other than New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, who was persuaded to include the 30-minute "The Murder Ballad" and the 15-minute "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" among the eight hours of music and talk he cut with Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax in 1938. Edited by Morton scholar James Dapogny, who recorded an album of the pianist's compositions for the Smithsonian in 1976, four skillfully pitch-adjusted CDs worth of Lomax's recordings--everything Dapogny felt stood as an integral piece of music as opposed to an illustrative fragment--are now available on Rounder as Kansas City Stomp, Anamule Dance (which closes with "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" and "The Dirty Dozen," a blues-piano dozens keyed to "Your mammy don't wear no drawers"), The Pearls (which leads with "The Murder Ballad") and Winin' Boy Blues. It's the first commercial release for any of this music--which consists mostly of Morton playing celebrated and obscure compositions on piano--since a '50s LP series on Riverside, and the first time the sexual material has been sold to the public at all. The sexy stuff is by no means the strongest musically--as Dapogny notes, Morton's self-accompaniment is very simple. And although "The Murder Ballad" tells a surprisingly complex story, "Pallet" is mostly braggadocio. But hip-hoppers have always protested that the obscenities for which they're vilified are part of African American culture, and these records stand as federally authorized proof that they're righter than they knew.

There are three more hours of interview-heavy material still out there. Dapogny says the Library of Congress is interested in releasing it, too. It remains to be seen, however, whether in the end the government will prefer to censor itself.

Village Voice, Jan. 25, 1994