Southern California has a wealth of music royalty, but the undisputed Queen of Jazz and Blues is Barbara Morrison. She isn’t just the Queen because of her three Grammy nominations or her experience singing alongside greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James, Ray Charles, Dr. John, and Keb’ Mo, to name a few. Barbara Morrison is the Queen of Jazz and Blues because she cares for her music and arts family in Los Angeles and beyond.
I have been very fortunate to spend time with Barbara as I have helped organize Signifyin’ Blues, which raises money for the CA Jazz & Blues Museum and the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center. Both inspire kids of all ages with regular music and arts programs throughout the year. A typical day for Barbara includes a lot for a woman turning 70 in a few months!
When I get to the museum on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, she is in a hurry bringing out the recycling from the back of the museum to a homeless man she sees and knows by name. He will exchange the cans for some money to get by. She is also telling her guitarist not to leave yet, whispering to me it’s because “he owes me money!” Barbara played a small club with him the night before. According to her manager, Tim Morganfield—Muddy Waters’ cousin—she has been playing a show every night for about a month.
Barbara is excited to see the fliers for Signifyin’ Blues 2019, which I brought to her. She enthusiastically hands one to a visitor whose mother was friends with Barbara in the LA music scene decades ago. Adding to the commotion, there are also kids running around who have just finished up a music lesson at the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center next door. Before her evening performance(s), it’s pretty typical to find Barbara doing just this: speeding around the small neighborhood of Leimert Park, blasting over curbs and swerving between unsuspecting pedestrians in her turbo-powered wheelchair. Barbara has places to be and things to do, so join her or get out of the way!
Barbara learned to sing in church and began singing on the radio when she was just five years old, the same year and age when Stevie Wonder debuted. When she was 23, she moved from Michigan to Los Angeles to sing with jazz, be-bop and blues sax legend, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Johnny Otis soon caught wind of her and launched her career into hyperdrive the same way he did with Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Esther Phillips and many others decades before. Since then, Barbara has traveled the world many times over, and still does, but she has been based in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park for many decades. She not only calls it home, but also cultivates a home for local painters, poets, musicians, and other artists at her museum and performing arts center.
If you don’t introduce yourself to Barbara, she will introduce herself to you. She’ll ask, “Do you recognize anyone famous?” Visitors will laugh and say something like “I saw you in such and such a year at the Hollywood Bowl with so-and-so!” Barbara might impromptu start singing a song she sang that night decades ago, or just make up a song about you on the spot. She is also a rolling jazz-and-blues-music encyclopedia. If you ask her about previous residents of Leimert Park like Ray Charles, the Temptations or, Ella Fitzgerald, she won’t just tell you about Ella, she will tell you about her personal interactions with her. Now I’m one level of separation from the legendary voice on that scratchy vinyl I got from my grandpa when he passed away!
Barbara is equally excited about modern music as she is about music from the past. Good music is good music to Barbara, and it doesn’t matter when it was made or what genre it is. She loves to talk about Kendrick Lamar and her good buddy, Kamasi Washington, who performs next door when he’s not on tour playing the biggest festivals in the world—like Coachella—with his orchestra. When Kamasi released the critically acclaimed “Heaven & Earth” last year, it was Barbara’s CA Jazz & Blues Museum that held the record release party.
Teaching kids how to tell their story through art is why Barbara puts all of her extra time and energy into the museum and performing arts center. As I’ve watched her work ethic and love for the community, I see that she is truly an ambassador of the arts and worth supporting. This is why Signifyin’ Blues exists. We, the organizing team of Signifyin’ Blues, believe in her mission and love her passion, and will continue to support her labor of love by raising money for the California Jazz and Blues Museum and Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center so Barbara and her team can continue to inspire kids of all ages to engage in creating music and art for many, many years to come.
It’s easy when thinking about a social dance, like slow drag, to think of it as more specific and more narrowly-defined than it is. In learning a dance, we want to understand it, and we may look for clear-cut rules of what defines a particular dance.
But to quote dance historian Richard Powers, when it comes to social dances, “no one was in charge of steps or terminology…Often I see beginners in dance history being over-specific, saying… ‘The slow drag looked this way.’ But actually what was going on is many different ways of dancing were called that name and one way of dancing would have many different names… It was the perfect mess.”
And jazz performer Chester Whitmore said, “You could take a step, and then every 15, 20 years, it changes. The step is still the same step but it changes because the rhythm of the music changes. It was a dance and it was a step.”
As we seek to understand the boundaries and definitions of slow drag and other social dances, it’s important to leave room for the variations and differences that could have been part of it. This is particularly relevant for dances like slow drag, which persisted across more than a century, in several different communities, contexts, and to different styles of music.
Since slow drag is one of the more well-documented dances in the blues family, this article explores several examples of slow drag from film, writing, and interviews, to help us more easily understand some of the similarities and differences within slow drag across time and location. The sections of this article are the examples themselves, followed by some analysis by me, and then some concluding thoughts.
What follows is a collection of descriptions and recordings of slow drag. I’m providing the direct quotations and film clips where possible, so you (the reader) can also pick out details and more easily do some analysis yourself.
“While in New Orleans in 1959, we were invited to visit Mrs. Alice Zeno, the ninety-five-year-old mother of clarinetist George Lewis…. ‘As a girl, let me see, back around 1878, I believe I danced the Mazurka, the Polka, the Waltz, and of course, the Quadrille. I don’t remember the Irish Reel, and I certainly never danced the Slow Drag.’ (In a tactless moment, we had mentioned the Slow Drag, which is danced with Congo hip movements.)”
“Charlie Love, born later in 1885…recalled playing a different kind of music—’more raggy’—for less fashionable groups in town, where the Eagle Rock, the Buzzard Lope, and the Slow Drag were the favorite dances. ‘They did the Slow Drag all over Louisiana,’ said Mr. Love; ‘couples would hang onto each other and just grind back and forth in one spot all night.’”
1901, Birmingham, AL:
Coot Grant describes observing people dancing in her father’s honky-tonk in 1901: “I had already cut out a peephole in the wall so I could watch the dancers in the back room. They did everything. I remember the Slow Drag, of course, that was very popular—hanging on each other and just barely moving.”
Early 1900s, Writer Lived & Traveled the South & St. Louis, Before Settling in New York, NY:
Composer Scott Joplin wrote “Directions for the Slow Drag,” which were choreographic notes for the number “A Real Slow Drag,” the final number of his opera Treemonisha:
“1. The slow drag must begin on the first beat of each measure.
2. When moving forward, drag the left foot; when moving backward, drag the right foot.
3. When moving sideways to the right, drag the left foot; when moving sideways to the left, drag the right foot.
4. When prancing, your steps must come on each beat of the measure.
5. When marching, and when sliding, your steps must come on the first and third beat of each measure.
6. Hop and skip on second beat of measure. Double the Schottische step to fit the slow music.”
Early 1900s, Traveling Show:
The main characters onstage, portraying an older couple, towards the end of the show: “That’s when they do the slow drag,” says Pigmeat [Markham] “with plenty of grinds, and after that, the Pull It, leaning back and arching their bodies like the breakaway in the Lindy.”
Era Unknown (Speaker b. 1916), Galveston County, TX:
“Up & down the Santa Fe tracks in those days was known as the barrelhouse joints. They danced all night long…. It settled down to the slow, low-down blues, and the slow drag” —Buster Pickens, pianist
1929, Filmed in Astoria, Queens, NY:
“St. Louis Blues,” short film starring Bessie Smith. Full film viewable on YouTube, slow drag at 3:35-3:41 and 12:23-13:15:
Cited as 1925/Published 1961, Info Likely from Harlem, NY Dancers:
“SLOW GRIND. This movement (1925) which is also known as the Slow Drag is a one-step with exaggerated hip twisting.”
1930s or Later, Likely Refers to Dancing in Harlem, NY:
“A slow drag is…like back in the old days when they made recordings, they would tell—it might say on the recording ‘foxtrot,’ ‘fast foxtrot,’ it might say ‘slow drag’ or ‘slow number’ or something like that…. So you were just doing what we actually called a drag, because all you’re doing is just dragging your feet along the floor.” —Frankie Manning
Around 1940s-1950s, Likely Refers to Dancing in Harlem, NY:
“Now when you started doing the slow drag, a lot of times you might use more body movement in your dancing, instead of this [his hands move straight up & down], it’s this [his hands & body move in curves, smoother]. It’s the body movement. You hear the accent. When you start dancing, you’re breathing. When you dance, you breath.” —Sonny Allen
Era Unknown/Various Eras, Sources from Chicago and/or San Francisco, Possibly Others:
“It’s a mostly sideways, mostly in-place dance through most of its history, with a push to the side and a dragging of the leg. How big that drag was, how big that push was could be anywhere from four inches to a foot and a half. Sometimes the dance traveled around a lot, particularly in more sort of ballroom areas, where you had the space to travel. But in the juke joints and places like that, it was really sort of an in-the-spot dance.” —Damon Stone
Also a dancing example from Damon Stone and Heidi Fite
Referenced Era Unknown, New York, NY:
“The slow drag was a very slow motion, moving, and you drag your partner across. It’s really sensuous and it’s really precision. Now that also come from the bodies, real close together. Like in Ballroom, you lead your partner with your chest. This is really low, really gutbucket down here. It’s with your chest and your whole body, and that’s how you slow drag your partner back. That’s what that was.
“You also hear the slow drag of the dance step going side to side. Now that came out of a thing called ring dances or ring circles, which is really out of the spirituals…
“My first experiences with the slow drag was some of the stuff with the Hessians[spelling unknown]. I used to perform with Jim and Marsha Hessian, and they would play all these slow numbers. I said, ‘Where did you learn all this?’ He said, ‘From my mentor.’ I said, ‘Who was your mentor?’ It was Eubie Blake (1887-1983)…around 70, and I got a chance to meet with him…and he said, ‘Oh no, the dance isn’t slow drag across the floor. And it was really gutbucket, had a bottle of gin in her hand and he’d do all kinds of stuff” —Chester Whitmore
Era Unknown, Mississippi Delta Region:
“This rhythmic source was reinforced by the feet of the couples who packed the steamy room and were performing the blues, also called the slow drag, a name that well describes it…. The couples, glued together in a belly-to-belly, loin-to-loin embrace, approximated sexual intercourse as closely as their vertical postures, their clothing, and the crowd around them would allow. Slowly, with bent knees and with the whole shoe flat on the floor, the dragged their feet along its surface, emphasizing the off-beat, so that the whole house vibrated like a drum.”
1962, Chicago, IL:
“When I was a teenager…at Herb Kent’s Friday night dance party held at St. Phillips High School…While the music made the couples dance smooth and dignified in style giving them a musical personality, as they travel gracefully around, it was a rhythmic tidal wave of faces that had me spellbound and stuck to that balcony railing. I stood there enchanted by a vortex of elegant movement and enchanting music below my feet. The couples in the center danced their Slow Drag Dance, moving ever so slowly, around and around on themselves. Giving the circle a center of permanence.”
1968, Musical Group from Philadelphia:
Among the lyrics from “Slow Drag” by The Intruders, released in 1968: “I like to get close to the one I love, so I slow drag… Hold me close, hold me closer to you”
These next examples are secondary (second-hand) descriptions, or examples where it’s unclear whether they’re first-hand or second-hand.
“Early observers noted the fox trot and one step and dancing to ‘the blues.’ This latter type of dancing would have been marginally acceptable Slow Drag. Based on a very close-hold technique and writhing hip movements, in a private party setting it tended to be stationary with the girls’ arms around the boy’s neck and the boy’s arms placed around her waist, sometimes sliding onto her buttocks. The dance was otherwise known as Dancing-on-a-Dime, or more recently as the Grind, and the Savoy bouncers insisted the couples keep moving.”
[Slow drag was] “a couple dance in which a man and a woman press their bodies tightly together in a smooth bump and grind as they kept the rhythm of the music”
“Slow drag was popular in the southern juke joints and occurred late at night by dancers exhausted from hours of fast-paced dancing. Couples would hold each other tight and slow grind to the slow, erotic music. When moving in any direction, the first foot stepped and the second dragged to join it, illustrating a slow, a delayed sensuality. The couple might move away from each other slightly and then come back in and grind until the end of the evening.”
“…the Slow Drag, which originated in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, where it was danced by couples close together, with sensual hip movements.”
To start with, here are visualizations I created of some aspects described in these examples, and which examples include which aspects. For a table view of the same information, see here.
This first diagram includes examples that specified dancing in one spot:
This diagram includes examples that specified dancing that moved across the floor:
This last diagram includes examples where in-place vs moving across the floor was not specified:
Now to dive into some details that I see and find interesting!
In both film examples, partners are connected torso-to-torso, and many of the written or spoken examples describe it as a “close” dance, leading “with your chest,” and “bodies pressed together.” Though not all examples describe the partner connection, I haven’t found descriptions counter to that. The exception is this: “The couple might move away from each other slightly and then come back in and grind until the end of the evening.” It’s unclear if this is a first-hand or second-hand account, or what locations and eras it’s referencing.
An interesting detail from both film examples is that you can see one partner or the other leaning back with their belly or lower torso pressed into their partner. The instructor in Savoy Ballroom to Blues even instructs the followers to “push forward, lean back,” though their connection is in more of a V (with the follower more on the corner of the leader’s chest) than Bessie and Jimmy’s more straight-on connection. In slight contrast, Chester Whitmore says, “You lead your partner with your chest…it’s with your chest and your whole body,” which could imply a more full-torso connection, though that’s conjecture. So close partner connection is a trend across examples, but with variety in the details.
Interestingly, the Al Minns/Leon James photo from Ebony is of a solo dancer, and it doesn’t mention partnering. The position of his arms could be mimicking an imagined partner, or this could be an example of a solo-step version, versus a partner-dance version.
Hip & body movement
Many of these examples describe or show body movement, hip movement, or use words like “grind” which imply hip or body movement. We see this in the examples from 1890s Louisiana, the Al Minns/Leon James Ebony magazine version, and Sonny Allen’s and Chester Whitmore’s descriptions, and Alan Lomax’s. You can see hip and body movement in both film examples, but to my eye, it looks relatively subtle. It’s worth mentioning that both film examples are not in a fully social context—one is for a movie (though portraying a social setting), and the other is a classroom setting—which could affect aspects of the dance being displayed.
The “Drag” Part
I see variations in what “drags” in slow drag, across these examples. The 1911 Joplin instance, the interview with Frankie Manning, Alan Lomax’s recollection, and the interview with Damon Stone all mention dragging of the feet. With Chester Whitmore, it’s “how you slow drag your partner back” (emphasis added). In the Whitmore and Sonny Allen interviews, the speakers also often lengthened the word “drag” (“draaaaag”) which could imply a dragging of time, a lengthening of the beats.
The Al Minns/Leon James example doesn’t mention any type of drag; in that example the primary name is “slow grind,” though slow drag is given as an alternate name.
‘Across the Floor’ or ‘Barely Moving’
It seems that there were differences in how much the dance moved across the floor. Some versions moved “across” or “back” (Whitmore, Harlem), some were on the spot “barely moving” (Grant, Birmingham), and some “moving ever so slowly, around and around on themselves” (Allen, Chicago).
A nice laying out out of this difference is made clear in Chester Whitmore’s interview. Whitmore first describes a version where you “drag your partner across” the floor and “drag your partner back,” and then also talks about another slow drag “going side to side,” where Eubie Blake told him it “isn’t slow drag across the floor” (emphasis added). This aligns with the differences that Damon Stone speaks of as well, with versions traveling across the floor in ballrooms and more dancing on the spot in juke joints and other smaller spaces.
In these examples, the rhythm for stepping is often not addressed directly. We can see the rhythm in the film examples—St. Louis Blues is a dragged-out (through time) or ‘slow’ step (a step that takes two beats), and Savoy Ballroom to Blues is a drag-step on each beat. There is one moment in St. Louis Blues where Jimmy does a rhythmic variation, with a scoop or loop back, with the rhythm of ‘1 and 2.’
The other examples that do specify rhythm are the Ebony magazine, Damon Stone, and Alan Lomax. Ebony magazine calls it a “one-step,” which could mean either a one-beat step or a two-beat step, based on my encountering that term both formally and colloquially. Damon Stone specifies that the dance keeps one rhythm. Alan Lomax specifies that the off-beat is emphasized (which I’m assuming means the second and fourth beats), but he doesn’t specify how or with what part of the body.
Overall, these don’t seem particularly contradictory. My interpretation is that either there are different versions, some that are always one-beat steps and some that are always two-beat steps, and/or each version could be one-beat steps or two-beat steps varying from song-to-song or partner-to-partner.
In the various descriptions, there are several alternate names offered, including “drag” (Frankie Manning, Harlem), “slow grind” (Ebony article), “Grind” and “Dancing on a Dime” (Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake). It’s also interesting to note than in both Jazz Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns and Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake, the index includes a reference to “the Drag” listed in the index under Slow Drag.
Overlap with “Grind”
In addition to the naming overlap with “grind” and “slow grind,” another interesting observation comes when Frankie Manning is describing grinding. During the same interview referenced previously, he says, about grind, “You know what’s so funny, I remember when I was a… youngster…I was at least 15 years old… I remember we used to, when the music started playing slow, first I remember you’d be dancing with the young lady and you’d be trying to get close to her, you know…and she would bend over you, you know. So we were bending back as she was bending over you. And I remember gradually, the dance started straightening up and you was almost bending over her.” You can actually see the first part of this type of interaction happen in St. Louis Blues with Bessie and Jimmy as well, which I find really interesting.
Even when “grind” or “slow grind” isn’t offered as an alternate name, the descriptions sometimes contain the word “grind,” “grinds,” or “grinding.”
A lot of the examples—particularly in party or juke joint settings—depict this as a couples’ dance, romantic or sexual in nature. Both contexts of slow drag in St. Louis Blues are certainly of that nature as well. Anecdotally, I’ve also heard some elders describe slow drag as romantic or sexual couple dancing, grinding, even a type of foreplay. Now, how we apply this when we’re in a different dance context (if we’re dancing with people with whom we don’t intend to be sexually or romantically entangled) is a separate issue. But these examples show that multiple people who danced slow drag did so with sexual or romantic overtones. This is a statement of ‘was/is,’ not a statement of ‘should.’
We also have some implications of this being less ‘proper,’ based on Mrs. Zeno’s tone while mentioning the slow drag (“certainly never danced”), the description of it being “marginally acceptable” in the early days of the Savoy, and Charlie Love’s description of this being for “less fashionable” groups.
I do see a slight difference in the descriptions from Whitmore and Sonny Allen—both New York dancers, it might be worth noting. From them, it’s not explicitly stated as a sexual or romantic dance, but Whitmore does describe it as “sensuous” and his addition of “precision” brings a tone of skill-displaying as well, in my read. Manning, another New York dancer, doesn’t address the vibe of the dance at all or give any clues with his tone of delivery.
Overall Thoughts, Impressions, Conclusions, and Open Questions
So how do I, personally, fit all these pieces together in my mind? At a high-level, I think of slow drag as a range of things, from grinding hips slowly with a partner, to sweetly shuffling across the floor while close to someone, to sensual and rhythmic body movement with a partner dragging back or in place–maybe with a touch of showing off rhythmic prowess to a partner. To me, the group overall involves dancing close, some degree of body movement, a range of pulses & ways of connecting to the rhythm, a simple stepping rhythm, and dragging of the foot more as a result of not thinking about it than as an intentional feature. I would not be surprised to find exceptions to these either. Across the group, it seems that many close embrace connections are in scope, as well as many varieties of pulse.
The Scott Joplin example is most different from the others, but also had a very different context, being choreography directions for a stage show. My assumption is that the choreography was more adjacent to the social dance, rather than being a more direct representation of the social dance.
Since there are so many examples that also use the words “grind,” “grinds,” or “grinding” in the description (or as alternate names), I’ve also started thinking of slow drag as overlapping with other dances called Grind. For example, it seems possible that if some people were doing what they would call slow drag, particular a variety with lots of hip-to-hip movement, someone from another place might look at it and say, “that’s grind.” That’s how I’ve started to frame it in my mind, but this is also somewhat of an open question, to me.
I also have a theory on the development of across-the-floor slow drag, specifically at the Savoy. As described by Hubbard and Monaghan, couples dancing slow drag on-the-spot were made to keep moving around the floor by the Savoy bouncers. This seems that it could have lead to some later versions of slow drag at the ballroom, where traveling across the floor was built into the dance, as we see in Savoy Ballroom to Blues and as described by Chester Whitmore, especially since those examples seem later in history. I’d be interested to find examples of across-the-floor slow drag from locations other than New York or from earlier in history.
It’s out of scope for this article to discuss what ‘accuracy’ means when we’re understanding or executing a social dance like slow drag. What is clear, however, is that we’d be missing out if we were to flatten out the variety that is obviously there across time and place. A more flexible model of thought allows for conflicting or seemingly-conflicting information, offering breadth within our definitions.
If you hear conflicting information about slow drag, dive deeper. See where people are getting their information. It could be that different people have different interpretations of the same information, or they could be learning different styles from different times or places. Or it could be the inevitable game of telephone where information changes as it’s repeated farther and farther from the sources. Whenever you can, go to the sources.
It does not escape me that some people who dance slow drag would find it absurd that I’ve given this level of analysis to a dance that, to them, was slow dancing with your honey. And I heartily acknowledge that point of view. I do think the details are interesting as well, and there is a lot of richness in these details. Since we have multiple examples here, it was also an easy example to show a general framework for understanding social dances—that they have variations, different versions, and can sometimes feel contradictory. For understanding social dances in general, I encourage everyone to look at the details, look at the contexts, talk to people who do or did these dances originally, but to embrace the “perfect mess” as well.
Endnotes  [Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Richard Powers. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.]
 Lindybeige. “What Is Slow Drag?.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Aug 2018.
 Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21-23.
 Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21.
 Hubbard, Karen and Terry Monaghan. “Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor: Social Dancing at the Savoy.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. pp 129-130. Print.
 Perpener, John O. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. University of Illinois Press, 2001, p. 37.
 George-Graves, Nadine. “Just Like Being at the Zoo: Primitivity and Ragtime Dance.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. p 58-58. Print.
 Haskins, James. Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People. Thomas Y. Cromwell Junior Books, 1941. p 155.
 George-Graves, Nadine. “Just Like Being at the Zoo: Primitivity and Ragtime Dance.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. p 58-58. Print.
On July 28th 1917, nearly ten thousand African-Americans marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to protest the feral violence unleashed on the African-American community during the massacre in East Saint Louis, Illinois on July 2, 1917. Led by the children, followed by the women, and backed by the men, those who participated in the March moved as one, to the rhythms of “muffled drums,” while “20,000 negroes lined Fifth Avenue and gave silent approval of the demonstration.”[i] Referred to as the “silent protest march” by the contemporary newspapers and later historians, not one word was uttered by the marchers throughout the demonstration.[ii]
Perhaps still reverberating in the minds of many of the marchers was the crackling fury of destructive fires, the dull blunt thwack of metal, stone and brick against black flesh, the screech of quickly advancing shoe leather against pavement, the tinkle crash of breaking glass, the explosions, the gunfire, the laughing and jeering of white perpetrators, and the torturous screams of pain, horror, fear and grief emitting from the throats of men, women, children and the aged, who, in one night, were hunted and ruthlessly slaughtered like prey.
While explanations for the cause of the massacre ranged from white reaction to the “influx of undesirable negros,” who were perceived as threatening white jobs and homes, to black veteran discontent, the desolation remaining in its wake was uncontestable (“The Massacre of East St. Louis” 221). The East Saint Louis carnage resulted in “nearly two hundred Afro-American [deaths] and six thousand [being] burned out of their houses” (Lewis 10). “Men, women and children were beaten, stabbed, hanged and burned” (Schomburg Exhibit). It was “the worst race riot in American history” (Lewis 9).
The Collective Response
Beginning in 1916, thousands of African-Americans had fled from the South to the North in an effort to escape the lynchings, the town burnings, the segregationist laws, and the manifold economic and social oppressions prevalent in the South. They had hoped for a better life in the North. They had hoped that they were “going to the Promised Land” (Trotter 72). The butchery in East St. Louis reinforced the reality that they had merely changed locations without substantially ameliorating their situations. What could they do? Where else could they go when the North, too, was filling with their blood, exploiting their labor, and defiling their personhood? The Silent Protest March tacitly shouted their collective decision and their answer to the massacre which had occurred: We will stay. We will stand. We will fight.
Toni Morrison’s Jazz
Jazz Rhythms and Silence
In Jazz, the second novel of Toni Morrison’s historical trilogy, Morrison enumerates many historical facts without explication.[iii] As Peterson notes, “the novel opens in 1926, the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, but it offers for full view almost none of the artistic, cultural, or political milestones that African Americans achieved in those years” (201). Morrison’s approach highlights the significance of the one extra-textual historical event explicated in some detail: the Silent Protest March of 1917. Reading Morrison’s novel through the dichotomous, imbricated tools of resistance evident during the March, jazz rhythms and silence, provides the reader with an understanding of some of the agonizing collective and individual incidents which drive the rhythms in jazz music and lie beneath the lyrics. This discussion will briefly explore three of the novel’s main characters, Alice Manfred, Joe and Violet Trace.
Alice’s sister and brother-in-law were killed in the East St. Louis Massacre. They were survived by their daughter Dorcas, who was visiting a friend when her father was “pulled off a streetcar and stomped to death” (Jazz 57). Her mother “had just got the news and had gone back home to try and forget the color of [her husband’s] entrails when her “house was “torched” and she “burned crispy in its flame” (Jazz 57). Since Alice lives in New York and not East St. Louis, she is depicted as a grieving family member deeply impacted by the type of brutality which was rampant during the massacre. Alice does not actively participate in the March but she joins the observers on the side lines.
Alice Manfred stood for three hours on Fifth Avenue marveling at the cold black faces and listening to drums saying what the graceful women and the marching men could not. What was possible to say was already in print on a banner that repeated a couple of promises from the Declaration of Independence and waved over the head of its bearer. But what was meant came from the drums. It was July in 1917 and the beautiful faces were cold and quiet; moving slowly into the space the drums were building for them. (53, emphasis added)
It is significant that a distinction is made between “what was possible to say” and “what was meant” (Jazz 53). The words that were stated to explain the March, and the protestors’ external response to the violence in East Saint Louis did not express “what was meant” (Jazz 53). The drums said “what the graceful women and the marching men could not” say (Jazz 53). The drums spoke what was meant.
Jazz Music: Revealing and Concealing
Morrison, in her 1981 interview with Le Clair, states that she uses the “standard English” language “to help restore the other language, the lingua franca,” “the language that black people spoke” (124). She views this lingua franca as analogous to jazz music: “It is open on the one hand and both complicated and inaccessible on the other” (124). The openness of jazz refers both to the product of the performer and to the response of the listener. Something within the nature of the music itself allows a space and an opening for the listener to enter emotionally even while recognizing its complicated inaccessibility.
The something which allows jazz, though complex, to provide an emotional space for its listeners, is perhaps found in the impulse of the performer. As Charlie Parker is quoted as saying, “music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn” (qtd. in Cone 5). If we heed Charlie Parker’s insight, and accept that what “comes out of the horn” of the performer expresses his/her experiences, thoughts and wisdom, then some aspects of the performance will be emotionally accessible to the listener and other parts will not, as the performer alone knows the full extent of his/her experiences. Jazz music then is open and closed, revealing and concealing, simple and complex.
The Drum Rhythms: Accessible and Inaccessible
While the banners held by the marchers disclosed their open protest of the savage violence of the East St. Louis massacre, with questions and statements such as: “Mother, do Lynchers go to Heaven?,” “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Give Us a Chance to Live,” the banners did not express the inexpressible.[iv] The drums both conveyed the “love and the hate, hope and the despair” felt by the marchers and created an emotional space for them to move into, a silent, unutterably complex space where speech was inaccessible (Cone 5). What could possibly be said to express their anger, their fear, their hope, and their despair over the brutal display of violent depravity that comprised the massacre?
The Printed Word: Overt and Covert
Without the inclusion of the music from the drums, the words of the banners which waved over their heads and “the slippery crazy words” printed on the explanatory leaflets the Boy Scouts distributed to those observing the March, “seemed crazy” and “out of focus” (Jazz 58). Although Alice was a part of the assaulted community en masse and a sharer in their grief, the words of the “explanatory leaflets” in particular, merely served to cause a “great gap” to “lunge between the print” and Dorcas, Alice’s newly orphaned niece. “Alice had picked up a leaflet that had floated to the pavement, read the words, and shifted her weight at the curb. She read the words and looked at Dorcas. Looked at Dorcas and read the words again” (Jazz 58).
Some of the explanations offered on the leaflet seemed to be readily apprehended, “We march because we want to make impossible a repetition of Waco, Memphis,[v] and East St. Louis, by arousing the conscience of the country” (The Negro Silent Protest Parade 2). Yet the statements were also difficult to conceive as a full response to the overwhelming dissolute violence many of the marchers had survived.
As Alice Manfred stood “crushing” the hand of her newly orphaned niece, Dorcas, watching the “cold,” “beautiful faces” of the marchers, she was “struggling for the connection, something to close the distance between the silent staring child and the slippery crazy words” (Jazz 58). Into the space and “spann[ing] the distance” Alice heard the drums “like a rope cast for rescue…which gathered them up and connected them” (Jazz 58).
Responses to Jazz Music
Reflective Hand Gestures: Open and clenched
The drums, muffled during the March, have the rhythms of the jazz music Alice hears all around her. When played without accompanying melodies or lyrics during the March, the drums serve as a connective, traversing the distance between the slippery words and Dorcas, as representative of the traumatized survivors. While jazz music made Alice “aware of its life below the [dress] sash and its red lip rouge,” it also had “a kind of careless hunger for a fight or a red ruby stickpin” which made Alice “hold her hand in the pocket of her apron to keep from smashing it through the glass pane to snatch the world in her fist and squeeze the life out of it for doing what it did and did and did to her and everybody else she knew” (Jazz 58-9, emphasis added). Alice uses the two different hand gestures to try to balance herself, the open hand reaching for the “safe gathering rope thrown to her…on Fifth Avenue” and the fist clenched in anger when she hears “some [jazz] phrase or other” (Jazz 59). Her hand gestures represent the two contradictory and concomitant realities of jazz music in the text: “open” on the one hand, reaching for the connective rope, and “inaccessible” on the other, closed into a fist.
While Alice views the drum rhythms as an “all-embracing rope of fellowship, discipline and transcendence, her niece Dorcas views them as a “beginning, a start of something she looked to complete” (Jazz 60). Severely restrained and closely watched by her aunt, Dorcas “thought of that life-below-the-sash as all the life there was” (Jazz 60). The drums for Dorcas were the “first word(s) of a command” (Jazz 60). Thus, by the time Joe Trace propositions Dorcas, she is eager to satisfy her sexual hungers, even with a married man several decades her senior (Jazz 67).
Joe and Dorcas form a strong physical and emotional connection, bonding both through intercourse and through the sharing of their respective painful experiences. They reveal the open aspects of their hearts as well as the parts inaccessible and complex. In contrast, Joe and his wife Violet do not share the inaccessible parts of their hearts with each other in the early or the latter stages of their relationship. Initially, they are consumed by and focused only on their sexual relationship. While their libidinous response is typical for new lovers, when their physical relationship wanes, they do not mature past the superficial into a deeper knowing of each other which matches their initial physical ardor. Hence, Violet is ignorant of the reasons for Joe’s migration to the City after fourteen years of refusal and resistance to its lure. “Violet never knew what it was that fired him up and made him want…to move to the City” (Jazz 107). Joe, in turn, is unaware of what causes Violet’s eventual silence and sexual withdrawal. “Over time her silences annoy [him], then puzzle him and finally depress him” (Jazz 24). The roots of both their responses stem from what I call a central trauma.
Central Traumas: Hidden and Exposed
Morrison chooses to depict both Violet and Joe as wounded souls with, “sadness at [their] center…the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home” (Beloved 140). The “desolation…at [their] center” stems from the impact of a central trauma, which I define as a devastating incident or series of incidents which cause lasting emotional and psychological turmoil or damage. Often occurring when the character was “too young to say No thank you,” he/she is initially unable to control its impact (Jazz 211).[vi]
All the other life episodes that are rooted in the pain of this trauma, or somehow remind Joe and Violet of it, continually serve to debilitate them throughout the novel, eventually leading to Joe’s murder of Dorcas and Violet’s attack on Dorcas’ corpse. Thus, while seeking to hide their central traumas from others, the actions which result from the impact and aftermath of the traumas end up exposing the depth of their pain. “Joe’s murder of his young girlfriend and Violet’s stabbing of the corpse as it awaits burial indicate the powerful eruption of their unresolved pasts into the present” (Matus 122).
The core of this trauma has no sound. It has a resonating silence, similar to the participants of the Protest March. While the marchers’ silence was their chosen response to the massacre and used as a tool to counter the volume of the violence which precipitated the protest, silence also surrounds Joe and Violet’s central trauma and is their initial response.
Joe and Violet fill their lives with needful activity and work while actively seeking to suppress the impact of their respective central traumas and hide the pain from each other. The central trauma leaves emotional devastation in its wake. The “inside nothing,” which Morrison describes in Jazz, is the desolating emotional aftermath which results from the impact of the central trauma (Jazz 38).
Joe’s Central Trauma
Abandoned at birth by his mother, Joe is adopted as an infant by the Williams family. Although Joe is loved and well treated by the Williams, his stepmother “never pretend[s] that [Joe] [i]s her natural child” (Jazz 124). When Henry Lestroy, a man known for his hunting skills, selects Joe and his stepbrother Victory, to be his apprentices, Joe is indirectly told the truth concerning his parentage. His mother was the local wild woman whom Joe and Victory “were speculating on what it would take to kill…if they happened on her” (Jazz 175). Henry Lestroy ended their banter with “low fire galvaniz[ing] his stare…then he looked right at Joe (not Victory)…You know, that woman is somebody’s mother and somebody ought to take care” (Jazz 175).
Joe then connects and seeks to connect with his mother, Wild, three times. Since she lives in the woods and does not interact with people in a normative way, he only hears her or finds evidence of her presence in each instance. She does not speak with him or reveal herself in any of the encounters. Each interaction deepens his frustration and solidifies his perception that she is deliberately rejecting him. After their first accidental encounter, Joe deliberately tracks Wild. The second interaction occurs after he locates Wild and attempts to connect with her. Although she continues to remain hidden, the nearness of her audible breathing encourages his request, “Is it you? Just say it…You my mother?” (178). Wild’s response, “indecent speechless lurking insanity,” infuriates Joe and drives his maniacal work habits (Jazz 179). During Joe’s third and final attempt to connect with Wild, he locates and enters her burrow finding her things all “mixed up” with Golden Gray’s[vii] and solidifying in Joe the inside nothing he carries from then on (Jazz 182). It is Wild’s “rejection of him…that marks Joe for life” (Mbalia, 626).
The Personification of the Inside Nothing
Wild is the personification of the inside nothing. A living picture of the assault on African-Americans in general, and women in particular, Wild bears on her body the “traces of bad things; like tobacco juice, brine, and a craftsman’s sense of play” (Jazz 171). Yet her untamed lifestyle, her visible presence yet absence, her wordless communication with the outside world, her selection of a living space, are all decided upon and controlled by her. Although she is perceived as deranged, and more than likely is, it can also be argued that she has taken what others have inflicted upon her and chosen to shape it, living in her own way and by her own terms. Like the marchers, she uses her silence as a tool to turn the controls. She instills fear on those who surround her as they never know when she will appear or what she will do.
As the visible presence of the inside nothing, she bears externally the tacit internal scars that Joe and Violet carry. She can be seen as conveying to the reader much of what remains unsaid concerning the feelings of the inside nothing that both Joe and Violet have. Silent but saturated with experiences, present but ignored as if absent, larger than life but unable to be confronted, the effect of the inside nothing in both Violet and Joe’s lives becomes wild. Joe seeks to suppress his own “speechless, lurking insanity” by working manically after his second encounter with his mother (Jazz 179); but he also “bust(s) out just for the hell of it” by “shooting his unloaded shotgun at the leaves” near to where his mother was (Jazz 181).
Violet’s Central Trauma
Dark silence pervades both Violet and Joe’s central traumas. While the searches Joe conducts for his mother conclude in the dim light of late afternoon, Violet’s discovery of her mother’s twisted body at the bottom of a well, occurs in the darkness of early morning. The wide darkness of Joe’s wood blend into the narrow, confinement of the well Violet’s mother, Rose Dear, chooses for the site of her suicide. Since during their first meeting Violet and Joe talk from evening into early morning, they unwittingly help each other through the most difficult portions of their day. “Never again would she wake struggling against the pull of a narrow well. Or watch first light with the sadness left over from finding Rose Dear in the morning twisted into water much too small” (Jazz 104).
While Joe’s inside nothing drives him to maniacal work, the emotional devastation resulting from Rose Dear’s suicide, Violet’s inside nothing, drives her to increasing depression and withdrawal. Insomnia, spurred by her resistance to the pull of the well, drained Violet’s emotional resources. Though surrounded by family, only her grandmother, True Belle’s, urgings to earn money picking cotton during an abundant harvest, shook her from her home. It is during her time away from home picking cotton that she meets and latches onto Joe. Violet then becomes, literally overnight, the aggressive, vocal, determined woman that Joe believes he knows. However, just as Joe pours himself into work to distract him from the pain that he carries, Violet pours all of herself into Joe determined to do and bear anything to be with him. While Dorcas temporarily fills Joe’s inside nothing and he fills hers during their brief affair, neither Joe nor Violet ultimately transcend the inside nothing which haunts them within the course of the novel.
Jazz gives the reader a glimpse into both the collective and the individual traumas which underlie some early jazz music. The significance in the text of both the response to the East St. Louis massacre and Joe and Violet’s respective response to their central traumas help the reader to glimpse some of the inaccessible aspects of jazz music.
And yet the inaccessible openness of jazz music continues to have resonant relevance today. While the widespread feral violence on display during the East St. Louis massacre has not recurred in the recent past, the antithetical dichotomy of recent racial incidents and the inappropriateness of official responses ad judgments, continues to drive both open and inexpressible reactions. Simultaneously, the expanding continuance of the #MeToo outing of predators and exploiters is bringing to light the ongoing impact of central traumas and their prevalence. Although no specific musical form can fully express the inexpressible, Jazz reminds us of some of the depth and scope of the impetus for the creation of and the need for listening to the music which opens a space for the inaccessible. Jazz music plays on.
[i]“Negroes in Protest March in Fifth Av.” New York Times, July 29, 1917.
[iii] Morrison lists, mentions but does not expand upon some of the facts which convey to the reader the racial hostilities and barriers of the contemporary manifestations of racism for the period. “A&P hire a colored clerk” (7), “the hair of…colored nurses was declared unseemly” (8), “green as poison curtain separating the colored people eating” (31), “welts given me by a two-tone peckerwood” (96), “stores doubled the price of uptown beef and let the whitefolks’ meat stay the same” (128), “the everyday killings cops did of Negroes” (199).
[iv] Many of the banners noted in the New York Times article seemed to have simply stated the truth of the events and the situation in general while also, perhaps, raising the consciousness of some of the onlookers. They did not, therefore, express the inexpressible feelings of the marchers; they were for the benefit of an extra-communal observer. “Your Hands Are Full of Blood,” “India is Abolishing Caste America is Adopting It,” “Memphis and Waco, Centres of American Culture.”
[v]Both Waco and Memphis refer to incidents of particularly brutal lynchings. While many other lynchings had also occurred in 1916 and 1917, these two cases were remarkable in the excessive depravity of the mob and the large numbers of perpetrators and observers.
On May 15,1916 Jesse Washington, a 17 year-old farmhand, was accused of raping and killing a 53 year-old white woman, Lucy Fryer. Following his brief trial in Waco, Texas a mob waited outside the courthouse to capture Washington. A chain was tied around his neck and he was brutally stabbed and beaten as he was dragged to a prepared tree. He was covered in oil and slowly lowered over the fire beneath. More than 10,000 onlookers watched this two-hour horror. His remains were then placed into a sack and dragged to Robinson, Texas where his mangled and burned body was hung on a utility pole. http://wacohistory.org/items/show/55
On May 22, 1917 Ell Persons, an African-American woodcutter, was accused of raping and decapitating Antoinette Rappel, a sixteen year-old girl. Though detectives surmised that a white man killed her and a white man’s handkerchief was found at the scene, Persons was repeatedly arrested for the crime and eventually beaten into making a confession. After a speedy trial in Nashville, Persons was to be escorted back to Memphis by two deputies. However, when the train arrived in Potts Camp, Mississippi, the deputies handed Persons over to a waiting mob. He was chained to a log and burned to death. His body was mutilated after death with many persons taking “souvenirs,” his ears, his heart and his head, which was photographed and then thrown at a group of African Americans. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rhetoricraceandreligion/2016/04/burned-alive-the-lynch-murder-mutilation-and-mayhem-of-ell-persons.html
[vi] I argue elsewhere that each of Morrison’s novels have at least one character who has a central trauma which impacts their present circumstance and situation.
[vii] Golden Gray is the mixed-race son of Vera Louise, a white woman, and Henry LesTroy, an African-American young man. When her parents discover that Vera Louise is pregnant through a “Negro boy,” she is given a “lingerie case full of money” and encouraged to leave home (140-1). Golden Gray is raised both by his mother and Violet’s grandmother, True Belle, the one slave Vera Louise wanted with her when she departed. Light skinned enough to pass for white, he is raised as a white male and never informed of his African-American lineage until he is a young man of eighteen. Once informed of his father’s identity, Golden Grey sets out to find Henry LesTroy and encounters a pregnant Wild on the road. Though initially terrified of her, after she gives birth to Joe and refuses to nurse him, they evidently end up living together in Wild’s hideaway. Joe comes upon their home after his third and final attempt to connect with his mother.
Dr. Caryl Loney-McFarlane is an independent scholar, a Higher-Education Diversity Consultant and a Diversity Fellow at Princeton University. Originally from New York City, she attended Queens College, of the City University of New York (CUNY), where she earned her undergraduate degree in English with a Pre-Med. minor. She continued her studies at Rutgers University, completing her doctoral degree in English in 2007. Her graduate work focused on 20th Century African Diaspora literature with a concentration on the novels of Toni Morrison. Currently, her independent scholarship focuses on racism in American history and its intersection with and impact upon our present-day interactions and relationships. She is the former Senior Program Officer of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, where she directed six higher-education programs for underrepresented populations. Both in her current work as a Diversity Fellow with Princeton and as a diversity consultant, she seeks to aid her clients in their efforts to diversify their institutions and address barriers in racial progress.