• Sam Baker

Call and Response

I opened my third record with a rendition of Dixie. That record was Cotton. My sister, with her prairie church choir voice sang the song. We looped it. Like a rondo. Row row row your boat kind of thing. Dixie represents slavery. Enslavement. Jim Crow. An economic caste system based on skin color. An abomination. Dixie is also a beautiful melody. Wistful. A wish for a different time. Out of context the song itself is well, a song. Music. Neutral. Lovely. In context, it is an abomination. Saying that - context is everything. I was a kid growing up in a segregated town, a Jim Crow town, a cotton culture town, and as a musical family, we knew the song. We didn’t sing it much. About as much as the Battle Hymn of the Republic with its frightening power of violence and destruction. Foreboding. God is justice and justice is coming with a terrible swift sword. Truth is marching!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword His truth is marching on Glory, glory, Hallelujah! Glory, glory, Hallelujah! Glory, glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on

I put Dixie on the record as a two part piece called Cotton, about a field worker named James Martin. An African American. Descendent of the enslaved. As a skinny teenager I worked in the field beside him. He taught me how to hoe cotton. Not that there is much to learn. There are weeds. You have an eye hoe. Put the two together. Don’t whack the growing cotton stalks. The only thing I needed to learn from him was how to keep going all day long doing the most boring hottest endless work in the world for almost no money. No health insurance. No retirement. It was brutal. It was for forever. For him.

He had to have the job. Otherwise he would have starved. Really. He would have starved. That is not an exaggeration. I would go back to high school at the end of summer. We had plenty of food. We were ranchers till the drought in the 50’s broke us down as cattle people, but still we always had plenty of hamburger and steak and roasts. For me to write a song, I am given an emotional trigger. The gift of a starting gun. Something like a strong wind that moves acres of prairie grass all at once, or an earthquake (like in Guatemala) that changes the angle of every hanged picture of Jesus. The trigger is just that - a trigger. There are always other emotional currents at play. In Cotton, the trigger was our blackland cemetery where my father now lies buried. That was the trigger. James’s deceased mother could not be buried with white people. She had to be buried with people of her own race. Blacks were buried on the south side of a caliche road. Whites on the north. As if was not enough to be segregated in life - the dead must rest apart too.

James is the speaker in the song Cotton. In the chorus of the song he sings:

somebody help me sing hallelujah somebody help me sing hey hoe hard some body help me sing that’s enough cotton somebody help me sing praise the Lord.


In my family, my town, my church, and all the other white churches - we may not have sung Dixie, but we lived by its chorus.

Look, look away

If we looked away we would not see the shoeless kids starving, the shacks without running water, the field workers with sun stroke or caught in grain augers… That I think is the only way that we could accommodate the cruelty and the horror that is apartheid. In southern churches there is a beautiful song style in worship. It is called lining. Or call and response. Where the lead singer says a line or sings a line then the congregation responds in unison. Everyone has a place in the melody. Everyone has a place in the harmony. It is I think, one of the most lovely moments of song. It brings a completeness to a hymn. An unmatched organic magic. When James Martin the field worker called:

Somebody help me sing that’s enough cotton

Our response should have been:

Somebody help me sing that’s enough cotton

Instead we sang:


look look away

look look away

look

look away

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. -James Baldwin



lines and the color purple