More than the dozens

This disc has a parental advisory sticker on it that says, "Contains lots of dirty words and violent imagery." For some people that little warning puts this project in the same nasty category as a lot of the reggae, rap and comedy albums sporting the same tag.

OK. There are words slung around here that would give a deacon conniptions, and any time folks start talking about popping people with a .44 or various forms of sexual aggression, the concept of political correctness ain't even in the same room. Still, the difference between the material on this album and the kind of thing soaring up today's sales charts is both generational and huge.

While "the dozens," ribald commentary on an opponent's heritage ("Your Mama!") are still performed today, the longer rhyme riffs known as "toasts" (like the ones on Get Your Ass In the Water And Swim Like Me) are verbal antiques. The vocalists heard here aren't hip-hop gangsters and wannabes telling tales of ghetto life backed up by samples and backbeats. The men behind these stories were prisoners in the Missouri penitentiary, various Texas prison farms and New York prison camps during the mid-'60s. Their material and performance styles form the bedrock upon which rap was built.

Get Your Ass In The Water And Swim Like Me documents such African-American folk characters as the Signifying Monkey, Stackolee, John Henry and Shine, but some of the rhymes purport to use real people as points of takeoff. Pimps, whores, gangsters and grifters are stock characters for these profane, left-handed morality plays.

The toasters heard here are practicing an art that forges tradition and currency into rough-humored, macho posturing, tales of warning and back-alley wisdom. The toasts themselves can offer comfort and solace to listeners and practitioners as they take on male/female, black/white and rich/poor issues from a position of implied power, common sense and/or defiance.

All of these toasts were collected by Bruce Jackson for an academic study of the same title published by Harvard University Press in 1974, but anyone looking at transcriptions of these rhymes on paper will miss the rhythm, tone and vocal inflections. It may be a moot point now, however since the tome has been out of print for years, which makes it all the more amazing that Rounder bills the disc as "a companion" to the book. This makes the "companion" even more valuable for current folklore researchers and anyone interested in historic linguistics.

But the vivid humor and imagery of Get Your Ass ... can provide plenty of interesting listening for the lay person as well.

In "Titanic," Shine, a prototypical black hero, is found working below the decks of the doomed ship. Shine repeatedly warns the foolish captain of water filling up the boiler room; eventually, Shine tells off the officer and wisely decides to swim for land. On his way to shore, the hero passes up an opportunity for hasty sex with a young white woman who was willing to break the color barrier if he would only save her. Shine also intimidates a shark into saying, "Swim, black motherfucker, 'cause I don't like black meat."

The protagonist of "Ups On the Farm" tells a white farmer that he isn't going to work on the farm because of too many "ups." He tells the farmer: "Say, on Saturday there's the man you got to look up, you tryin' to get him to settle up. He tell you you ain't paid for the groceries you got last week and you done already eat up." Finally he sums up his justified reluctance with "... and right there is where you liable to get fucked up."

It is true that spoken word recordings aren't necessarily hit parade fodder, but albums such as this perform a valuable function by sampling elements of the past that have impacted the present. Garaud MacTaggert writes about music and books for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]