“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” performed by Lonnie and Clara Frazier

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Track this song back through its many forms and you will see the legs a song can have when built on the message of resistance. This Frazier Family version, available from the Library of Congress, was recorded by famous ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in Detroit in the winter of 1938. Like many of Lomax’s discoveries, this track so transcends its origins that you have most likely already heard it just by being a person in the world. I first heard a version by Michigan singer/songwriter Joshua Davis, later the Bruce Springsteen cut. Doubtless you have heard Aretha’s take as well. In the Frazier Family version, I was first caught by the main vocal part, which sweeps in over a cracking acetate recorder. Underneath a deeper vocalist adds a ghostly depth, as though someone were singing low harmony from a different room or a different life. A jangly guitar holds the song to earth, simple straight rhythm with only an occasional blue note flourish. I love the song’s rawness, and in the simplicity of production, there is an argument for the song’s greatness. The repeated chorus stands out as a mournful, pleading refrain, while the verses have a certain “reel and rock” to them. The scratchy guitar is often at odds with the voice. The result, for me, is an impeccable dissonance, a blend of the various lives this song has lived.

I came back to this song when reading  recently that a federal judge had overturned a nearly sixty year old copyright on the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” effectively giving the song back to the people. These iconic folk songs, often originating as resistance songs or acts of social singing and often appropriated by white musicians and record companies, do still speak to the power of art to motivate and activate, the power of socially conscious art to lift through the fog. But these songs, haunting and powerful in their original versions, also serve as reminder that even art with the most jagged teeth can be muzzled, stolen, and misused by a system that insists on oppression and appropriation as  modus operandi. One solution? Trace back the roots and meet the ghosts. Sit down and really listen to what those voices have to say.

-Russell Brakefield

IMG_1077Russell Brakefield is the author of Field Recordings, forthcoming from Wayne State University Press in 2018. His writing has appeared in the Indiana Review, New Orleans Review, Poet Lore, Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program and has received fellowships from the University of Michigan Musical Society, the Vermont Studio Center, and the National Parks Department.

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