Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is a record by the poet Sarah Webster Fabio. It was released on Folkways Records in 1976. Sarah Webster was an African-American woman, who lived from 1928 to 1979. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee and married Cyril Fabio. This record was released only three years before her death from colon cancer. Ms. Fabio reads her poems over a blues-funk band (leaning more towards funk—despite the album’s title) with heavy and frequent use of “Shaft”-era wah-wah pedal. It’s a fun record. Put the album on the turntable, and it will pick you up and place you down smack-dab in the middle of a 1970s episode of “Soul Train.”
Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is a spoken-word record, but not a rap record. Honestly, I only know two things that I can compare this with. The first is “If Dogs Run Free” by Bob Dylan on New Morning. It’s nothing like “If Dogs Run Free.” (I’m not sure if anything is like “If Dogs Run Free”.). The second is Jack Kerouac’s Blues and Haikus album. However, the music on the Kerouac album is much more sparse. It’s hard to say why this is not a rap record. Maybe because it doesn’t have the percussive vocals of most rap songs. Also, Sarah Webster Fabio declares herself a poet, and she is. I don’t know that any rapper has ever proclaimed himself a poet.
Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is all about community. As the album title declares, alchemy is definitely present. Something brews up out the mixture of the funk the band is playing and the poems Ms. Fabio is reciting. The musicians address each other as “Brother” or “Sister.” (This isn’t simply ‘70s-era revolutionary diction—four people on the album have the last name “Fabio.”) When the members of the band are introduced, even their astrological signs are given. (As I mentioned earlier, this is 1976—many of us wore mood rings at the time.) You can be as cynical or dewy-eyed optimistic as you want about this album and this era. Revolution was (still) in the air. It was then was snuffed in the cradle a few years later. So I would say that cynicism should not be the order of the day.
The poet, Ms. Fabio, has a cool-sounding voice like Clydie King, Bettye LaVette, or Merry Clayton. She sounds like she could let loose and wail with the best of them. (She doesn’t, but she could.) The musicians are all good. They’ve learned from their predecessors. How many funk-blues bands do you know that name-check Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington in their songs? The backing group consists of a guitarist (with extensive use of a wah-wah-pedal), Wayne Wallace; a very funky bassist, Ronald Fabio; a drummer, Lawrence E. Vann; and a multi-instrumentalist, Denianke (Leon Williams), who plays flute, sax, and piano, and whose solos are halfway between King Curtis and hard bop.
It’s hard to find the relationship between the rhythm of the recitation of the poems and the rhythm of the band. I’m not saying this is bad; I’m partly just wondering what should be the relationship between the two on a poetry/backing-musicians record. A funk band certainly can’t play ‘programme’ music.
Poems with an instrumental background are neither fish nor fowl. They peaked in the 1950s when beat poets enlisted bebop musicians to back them. They’re rarely seen nowadays. Is there a reason for that? People are still writing poems, although fewer and fewer people are reading them. Both jazz and the blues are yet being played, although both have become mainly institutionalized, codified, and historicized. (You can argue with me about that, but I’m not going to bother arguing back.). On a weekend evening, though, I could probably find several bars in my neighborhood featuring a blues band and maybe, even, a small jazz combo. If I searched a little bit harder, I could probably find a poetry slam or a poetry reading. But, unless I listen to a record from the beat era (or an album from 1976, in this case), I’m probably not going to find a poet with a backing band playing anywhere in town. (Okay, there’s Andrea Gibson, but I don’t know much about her.)
What do we expect to find in such a record that a written poem or a blues or jazz tune alone can’t give us? With traditional songs, as opposed to written poetry, a lot of the sentiments of the lyrics can be offloaded to the melody. This is true of even the best lyricists. But this doesn’t seem to be the case with poetry backed by a musical combo. You get the feeling that the poems were written first without any or much thought about the musical backing. The music isn’t an afterthought, but the poem is fundamental. Of course, with songs, the lyrics are often written before the music, but always with the idea that they will be set to very structured music (verses, choruses, perhaps a bridge, and so on).
Of course, poems have their own rhythms. And many poems are considered “lyric.” If you remove the backing music from an album like this, you’re left with recitations of poems. Recordings of recitations of poems were also once common. Sometimes the recitations were by the poets themselves, and sometimes by actors, such as Alec Guinness (who could recite T.S. Eliot much better than T.S. Eliot could) or Laurence Olivier. Then, of course, some poems exist strictly on the page. This is the most abstract form, but is it in some sense the most “literary” form? Well, yes, a poem existing strictly on the page is obviously more literary than, say, a pop song. But does that make the naked poem that succeeds on its own terms, without melody or musical backing, somehow more of an artistic accomplishment? (But I don’t want this to devolve into the should-Dylan-have-won-the-Nobel? argument.)
In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s (and Gertrude Stein‘s) poems and Bob Dylan’s songs succeed in different ways. Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues also accomplishes its goals in its own way. You can concentrate on the poems, or you can focus on the music, or you can concentrate on some convex combination of the two. In all cases, you’ll be satisfied. Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is more than the sum of its poems and its music, because, well, because there’s just more there (if that makes any sense).
[This is a ‘blind’ review in that I had never heard this record before this week and had never heard Sarah Webster Fabio at all. You can buy a copy of Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues from Folkways Records. Cheryl Fabio made a film, Rainbow Black, about the making of this music. This record is also available through Vinyl Me, Please.]