Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Roots and Stems
Alex Haley's attempt to channel the lives of his African and African-American ancestors in his semi-historical novel "Roots," and especially the TV serialization of the book which followed its publication, spontaneously generated a mass movement among Americans of all races and ethnicities to connect with their forebears. Thirty years later, this trend, which rises almost to the level of a mania at times, shows no sign of abating.
The latest manifestation of it is the highly commercialized (and highly successful) series of concerts known as the "Celtic Woman" tour. Both the music and the production values in this show fit into the general category of what has come to be called "roots music."
I don't know about anybody else, but I have an extremely hard time relating to my Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, or Scandinavian ancestors. Their religion and ethical values seem as strange and devoid of charm to me as their rhythmically uninteresting music. Most of the disparate family branches among my forebears have been in the New World for so many generations now that it has become impossible for me to build a bridge to those distant inhabitants of the auld sod.
My spiritual ancestors are all Americans, and so far as I know none of them is a blood relative. These are the people in whom I find the roots of my being, or maybe more precisely, they are the stem from which I am sprouted:
*Mark Twain, who stripped back America's thick layer of self-righteousness and sentimentality to reveal a rotten hypocrisy embedded in a morass of provincial idiocy, using the voice of a semi-literate, adolescent truant and vagabond to accomplish his task. When you think about it, Huckleberry was way too smart and way too articulate for a 13-year-old, badly-schooled kid. But most readers never notice that on the first reading, as they are usually hypnotized by the perfection of the vocal tone Twain crafted for his protagonist, especially in the first 16 chapters.
*Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, short-lived bluesmen, guitarists, and poets extraordinaire, who sang the sad soul of America in three-line rhymed couplets, repeating the first line each time:
I got ramblin', I got ramblin' on my mind;
I got ramblin', I got ramblin' all on my mind;
I hate to leave you here, babe, but you treat me so unkind.
*Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood, who fought for the right of ordinary people to work for decent wages and live decent lives under the rule of a predatory and implacable "gilded age" capitalist plutocracy, which took everything from workers except the air they breathed. In the end both were framed, double-crossed, quarantined, and hounded out of the country. Remembering them today, at a time when justice has been banished from our shores, is especially appropriate and evocative of earlier times similar to our own.
These are my spiritual ancestors, and in them I discern my own roots, even though I share my own race and ethnicity with only two of the five.
I have intentionally not linked to any of the persons named here. Each of them has a complete and accurte biography at Wikipedia.com, and they're all worth knowing.