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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

FREE THE WEED 29 A Column by John Sinclair

I love writing for this publication, edited and assembled in my home town of Flint. I’m sure I’ve mentioned here that I was born in Flint, where my dad worked for Buick Motors on Hamilton Avenue, and grew up in Davison, where my mother taught 8th-grade English at the public school.

Like the Paul Butterfield song says, I was born in 1941 and I grew up during the 40s and 50s—a whole different world than the one into which we have been thrust here in the 21st century.

The two greatest things about this period for me were that [1] television didn’t really establish itself until around 1952 as a fixture in all American homes and controller of public consciousness, and [2] when it did, radio was transformed from the primary source of popular entertainment of all kinds into a specialized transmitter of music both popular and obscure that could be heard nowhere else in its many recorded forms.

Music on television then—as now—was indescribably lame, and the programming in general—then as now—was impossible to sit still for. But the radio was something else altogether, especially after the advent of black-oriented stations beginning with WDIA in Memphis in 1948. All of a sudden there was a way for anyone with ears to hear the dynamic, hard-hitting music of Black America, then—as now—the product of a rigidly segregated social order otherwise totally barred from access to the mass media.

Black music on the radio was a window into a world basically invisible to the mainstream of American culture but, for the young music-hungry populace, a world of infinitely greater interest. All you had to do was find a 50,000-watt powerhouse of rhythm & blues like WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee, with its infinitely hip deejays like Gene Nobles, Hoss Allen and Jumpin’ John R, or—closer to home—CKLW in Windsor where Ron Knowles beamed out the pure-D R&B every evening.

In Flint we enjoyed one of the greatest disc jockeys in the world, Frantic Ernie Durham, who rhymed nearly everything he said and played the most exciting music you could possibly hear every night from 9 to midnight—or as the Frantic One would say, “We start at 9 and don’t put the twister to the slammer until the chimes chime 12 times! Ooohh-Wee! We got that jumpin’ jive that’s truly alive, and the musical sounds to caress your ears, my dears. Nothin’ but the best, and later for the rest.”

I was 11 or 12 years old when I discovered Frantic Ernie D on WBBC in 1953 and stayed tuned in assiduously until I graduated from high school in 1959 and started listening to jazz when I went away to college. Ernie was especially hip because he had a pair of little record shops called Ernie’s Record Rack #1 at 943 Leith Street near Industrial & #2 on St. John “at the corner of Easy Street,” where you could cop the sounds he was spinning almost as soon as you heard them.

These were records by then-obscure artists called Ray Charles, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Wynonie Harris, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, The Clovers, Big Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Roy Brown, Billy Ward & The Dominos, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, the “5” Royales, Ruth Brown, LaVerne Baker, and scores more, issued on 78 and 45 rpm singles by exotic labels named Atlantic, Apollo, Federal, King, DeLuxe, Specialty, Imperial, Chess, Checker, Modern and RPM.

As the mid-fifties rolled in these fantastic artists were joined by new stars like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Little Willie John, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, James Brown, the Moonglows, the Flamingos, Lloyd Price and Larry Williams. And you didn’t have to wait to hear the music: Every week 5 or 10 of the greatest records of all time were released and played repeatedly on jukeboxes and over the airwaves for everyone to hear. 

Only teen-aged citizens of the Caucasian persuasion and Black Americans of all ages were tuned in to these particular frequencies, because white people over 21 had no idea that this music even existed and would have been seriously appalled if forced to confront it. They lived in a whole different world from the one we inhabited with our treasured sounds and they were welcome to it. We just wanted to hear the records and dance to them and listen to them over and over again on the little record players in our rec rooms and bedrooms, over the jukebox in the little joints where we hung out after school, or on our car radios as we drove around at night with “Long Tall Sally” or “Maybellene” blasting out the windows on our way to the dances at the Flint Armory or the Mt. Morris Roller Rink.

We didn’t have reefer then when I was growing up, just beer, cheap wine, sloe gin and rotgut whiskey, but the weed began to seep into our consciousness from the fall of 1957 when Jack Kerouac issued On The Road and we gradually became aware that most of the music we were listening to was created by marijuana smokers and drug users of all kinds.

And the music was moving forward too: Ray Charles, James Brown and Sam Cooke ushered in the sounds of Soul Music, followed by the vast outpouring of music from the Motor City spearheaded by Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha & The Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Temptations, then the soul sounds of the South out of Memphis with Booker T & the MGs, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Al Green, Albert King, and Ann Peebles, plus Solomon Burke, Percy Sledge, Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams and a multitude of singers and soul shouters who kept the airwaves lit up with their glorious sounds.

Man, I could go on forever singing the praises of American popular music from the 50s and 60s, but my point is that this music was the soundtrack for everyday life and informed everything one thought and did for 10 or 15 years. It was always there on the radio, surrounding us and driving us forward into what we know as The Sixties, informing our emotional life and providing us with feelings and forms of rhythmic intelligence and sheer poetic information like nothing else before or since.

This is the music that made America great and brought on the incredible concatenation of social and political and cultural action that was America’s last attempt to perfect its ideals and its founding principles before Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and the CIA took over our national life and began to cut the heart out of our country.

This is the music that people were listening to when we first started smoking pot and trying to make a better world—genuine blues and jazz and rhythm & blues and soul music and funk of all sorts—and its absence from daily life in our brave new world is certainly one of the key reasons why modern times are so hard on our hearts and minds.

Of course we fight back the best we can, and in my case I’ve carried on a personal crusade for almost 10 years to keep this music alive and presented in an intelligent way by means of my little internet radio station at If you tune in and LISTEN NOW you can enjoy hour after hour of stimulating programming filled with the music that made America great, and it’s up there 24 hours a day, courtesy of the John Sinclair Foundation and our sponsors at Hempshopper and Ceres Seeds in Amsterdam.

Hook us up to your playback system and like the old-time vipers used to say, “Light Up and Be Somebody!”

July 16-18, 2013

© 2013 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.

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