My dear mother, the Honorable Anne Marie Forrester, Ph.D., a scintillating and adventurous Brass Ankle descended from Virginia's Powhatan Confederacy, went to Glory last weekend. As Africa and its people were her abiding, lifelong love, I rather suspect ma-the-dark-feather is partying -- drinking palm wine and swaying with the drums in the underworld of Amenta -- alongside our Anu ancestors from aeons ago.
Not too many hours later, I lay where my own maman expired, watching the Black Crowes' recent DVD, Freak 'N' Roll ... Into the Fog (Eagle Vision; ***), which records the Atlanta-bred band's reunion shows at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium from fall 2005. I had put off this screening purposely; the saison en enfer I'd endured from my 15-years association with the neo-classic rock scene that orbits the Black Crowes -- and, for a brief while, the band itself -- had already left me bitter. Even the disc opening with the sometime Southern rockers' greatest, most challenging song -- the psychefunkadelic "(Only) Halfway to Everywhere" -- does not provide enough redemption. I have good reason to regret the hours, days, years I spent in thrall to this band, especially since my mother always resented my devotion to the Brothers Robinson and their songs (something I've written about at length elsewhere).
Between the age of 18, when I moved to Manhattan and happened to catch the video for "Jealous Again" on MTV late one night, and New Year's Eve 2005, when I eschewed a trip with my mother to Zinc Bar to see an African band and instead saw the Crowes at the Garden, my adult life has been bound by a quest for primal experience that I (perhaps mistakenly) located in the grooves of the band's alternative nation, Amorica. Back in the day, while my mother resided in Ghana finding succor in hi-life and Anu tradition, I looked for Afrofuturism on Manhattan's mean streets and black pride in Chris Robinson's oft-times brilliant synthesis of Otis Redding, Sly Stone and Brother Ray.
Of course, even as my immediate family remained upset and suspicious about my interest in the Crowes, I found a good deal of life between sets at such rooms as NYC's venerable Beacon Theatre and the Supper Club: joy, understanding, fellowship, sonic ecstasy and the career that's led me to Charlotte. In fact, a story I wrote for Atlanta's edition of the Loaf is what ultimately engaged the band's organization, although I'd been chronicling their progress for some years -- much to the chagrin and derision of my rock crit colleagues in New York.
It must be stated here that one of the greatest pop-culture ironies of the 1990s is that even as Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson and his fellows increasingly dissociated themselves from the Southland, much of the critical establishment's dislike of the band rested upon America's unresolved loathing of the redneck. The band's members are hardly of that class, but gatekeepers waging culture wars in the previous decade were too self-righteous to know the South and its people. Or, some of these critics were Dixie compradors too ashamed to reckon with what the Crowes' current tourmate, Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, calls "the duality of the Southern Thing." The Black Crowes' presumption in enjoying classic rock's spoils when they were supposed to be forever atoning for the South's brutal legacies in Sisyphean manner was as criminal in certain quarters as my race treason for supporting their work.
I, however, being an uppity colored gal, a Brass Ankle of southeastern provenance, was no more taken to the bosom of these Northern arbiters than the Crowes were. So, I called on the strength and example of my great Georgian mentor, Stanley Booth, jutted out my jaw and kept taking a rebel stand on paper, even as it cost me everything. They dubbed me the Redneck Negress because I found something else all those nights jooking to the band in Little Africa-on-the-Hudson and out on the highways of the southeast: a soul-deep reconciliation of the New South.
Having been so long away, perpetually tripping to Africa, Europe, Asia and the coasts, my mother could scarcely ken the so-called New South during her first and last visit to Charlotte last fall. She marvelled at the easy interchanges between blacks and whites, the influx of diversity and the boom-town quality of the city. Just as she could not fathom Chris Robinson or Patterson Hood as great thinkers of this region's post-Civil Rights era on par with legendary SNCC-member friends of hers and her former boss Andrew Young, the South had stayed somewhat static in her mind, the place where she changed train cars en route to see the relatives who'd remained behind in Auld Varginny's green and not-so-pleasant land. Yet I have believed in these composers, this music, the scene's potential precisely because I am the beneficiary of a new day my parents fought for. When my mother was 23, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, ending the limitations Jim Crow had placed on her horizons; at the same age, I was terminating a degree no one in my family had ever before possessed and discovering a trenchant investigation of this nation's heart of darkness in the Black Crowes' masterpiece, Amorica.
And so, when the band celebrates 15 years gone of cosmic rock & roll on July 11, with the Truckers and Robert Randolph's Family Band in tow at the Verizon Amphitheatre, the hope is that it will be a true, Dixie-fried revival. If Chris Robinson and his brers can manage at least one performance as fine as the DVD's closer, a cover of The Band's lachrymose and beautiful "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down," then we shall all be inspired to keep our embattled Southland crunk and ever-ready for change to come.
If it's the consistent aim of all Negro people who are free that their children do better than their forebears, then I must be the Redneck Negress no more. With my mother resting in peace, I now have a lot of hard work to do, cultural and otherwise. Anyway, I am of an age where youthful follies must be put away in favor of sobriety. Next Tuesday night, though, I'll pour some out for my Ancestors and the boogie down, baby, that was. Don't count me out yet, y'all -- this li'l light of mine will still find a way to shine.