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Titanic Tales and the Roots of Rap

"Contains lots of dirty words and violent imagery," reads the parental-advisory sticker on the cover of Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry From Black Oral Tradition. And even that mouthful of an album title doesn't begin to tell the whole story, which could - and did - fill a book. Indeed, this most hip disc can be heard as an aural companion to Bruce Jackson's tome of the same title, published by Harvard University Press no less, way back in 1974. However, you don't have to be a road scholar or even a particularly cunning linguist to appreciate these masterpieces of 20th-century English slanguage.

What we have here are 15 jailhouse "toasts" - metered, rhymed tales intended to be told aloud, and so called because of their roots in certain drinking rituals - that Jackson recorded in a variety of mostly Texas jails, mostly between 1964 and 1966. (They're also the forebears of the Jamaican proto-rap style also known as "toasting," popularized by U Roy, I Roy and Big Youth, among many others.)

Aside from being textbook examples of American folk poetry, these toasts are dramatic (the narrators change voice with each character), comic (black humor, in every sense of those words) and - this cannot be emphasized enough - the actual sound of unrepentant criminals bragging.

Not surprisingly, the most famous of these jailhouse toasts have been put to music. Chuck Berry turned "The Signifying Monkey" into "Jo Jo Gunne"; Lloyd Price, Archibald and many others set "Stackolee" (a.k.a. "Stagger Lee") to the tune of "Junkie's Blues" (a.k.a. "Junco Partner"); and I remember hearing Leadbelly's version of "Titanic" on late-'60s FM radio, featuring the following immortal sing-along chorus: "Well, they wouldn't let Jack Johnson onboard/They said this ship don't haul no coal/Fare thee well, Titanic, fare thee well . . ."

Furthermore, many of the couplets and images contained herein turn up in everything from Willie Dixon's blues classics ("Wang Dang Doodle" and "Back Door Man") and Lightnin' Rod's seminal 1973 Hustlers Convention LP, to Rudy Ray Moore's comic recitatives and - of course - innumerable rap records.

The anthropomorphic "Signifying Monkey" echoes an African folktale. The trickster monkey tells the lion that the elephant has been insulting the great cat. When the lion limps back home after losing the ensuing battle, the monkey laughs so hard that he falls out of his tree and into the lion's clutches. Again he fools the lion into letting him go free . . . to whatever fate the narrator can imagine. (There are as many versions of these toasts as there are narrators.) The badass "Partytime Monkey" and the hustling "Poolshooting Monkey" are distant descendants of their quick-witted cousin.

"Stackolee" and "Brock Hankton" are true crime stories of murder - as, undoubtedly, is the returning-serviceman's-revenge scenario described in "Joe the Grinder and G.I. Joe" - while "Pimpin' Sam" and "The Lame and the Whore" detail the real-life wars-of-the-words between pimps and whores. "'Flicted Arm Pete," however, is strictly a fantasy stud, and the "Dance of the Freaks" features famous movie monsters in graphic sexual situations alongside "belly-rubbin' women" and "punks who ate shit from a spoon."

It's not all just XXX-rated sex 'n' violence, though. "Get In out of the Rain" is pure comedy, "Hobo Ben" is simple homily (don't judge a man by his shoes), and "Ups on the Farm" humorously depicts rural race relations.

"Titanic," however, is where all these black and blue issues come together. (The album and the book take their title from the lyric, although that particular line is absent from the version heard on this disc.) And while there's absolutely no historical evidence that the ship that sank on April 14, 1912, carried any black passengers or crew, that doesn't mean there wasn't a stowaway or some otherwise unaccounted - passe blanc, perhaps? - Negro onboard.

In any case, when the ship's passengers attempt to persuade Shine, your basic black Everyman, to save their drowning asses with stereotypical promises of fast money and sex, he responds with these deathless words to live by:

Rich man's daughter came up on deckWith her drawers around her kneesAnd underskirt around her neck . . .She says, "Shine, oh, Shine," says, "Save me please"Says, "I give you all the pussy that your eyes may see"He said, "I know you got good pussy and that's trueBut there's some girls on land got good a pussy as you"

Obviously, the African-American version of the famous maritime disaster differs sharply from that of James "King of the World" Cameron.


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