Dialogues on Race Volume One  Is The Emmett Till Story Set to Unforgettable Music

As I reached my home the other day after an early morning run a neighbor pulled over in his car and asked how I was doing. I said, “great, under the Covid-19 circumstances”. Noting my Biden/Harris lawn sign he said “The Democrats have been taken over by the progressives. Doesn’t that bother you?” I said “No, I’m fairly progressive myself. The GOP has been taken over by Trump, who isn’t sure he’ll hand over the reins of power if he loses the election, doesn’t that bother you?”

And so it went until he brought up BLM and began reciting all of the Fox News talking points he’d absorbed. I asked him if he knew who Tamir Rice was. He didn’t. I asked if he knew who Rod Carew was. He said “Yes, great baseball player, love him.” I asked him if he knew Carew’s story about driving a nice car and being hassled in Minnesota by white cops and fearing he’d get shot if he reached too quickly for his wallet. He didn’t. I told him. It’s a pretty scary story you can read here.

I didn’t tell him that we’d bought our home in the very nice and mostly white Township of Wyckoff, NJ from a Black couple (who then moved to the even tonier ‘burb of Franklin Lakes) who told us about how their son was regularly hassled by the local police and asked for an I.D. because he looked like he “didn’t belong”. When he later became an athletic star in town the hassling finally stopped.

My neighbor really didn’t know any of the various incidents of Black people or children being shot, sometimes in the back, by police or by vigilantes, but he said he’d read that all were resisting arrest and that it was all about nothing and what about Black on Black shootings in Chicago?, which of course is a “look over there” tactic and a different subject entirely.

Bassist Gregg August, who is white, composed Dialogues on Race back in 2009 shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, shelving it shortly after its premier and not recording it until February of 2019—ten years later, hesitant that “…not everyone would be in accord with my setting the tragedy of Emmett Till to music.”

When you hear August’s heartbreaking and deeply felt arco bass solo on the second of three versions of “Your Only Child” you’ll be sure of its appropriateness. The others feature male (Frank Lacy), and female (Shelley Washington) vocalists.

Would my neighbor know the name Emmett Till or what tragically happened to the young man back in 1955? Probably not. Bob Dylan wrote a song about the lynching, but it didn’t appear on any Dylan studio album and was only known to bootleg fans (which is how I heard the name) until it was released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 9-The Whitmark Demos 1962-1964.

August built the often hard driving, churning, occasionally brooding and/or angry, sometimes violent-sounding, sometimes resigned to sadness, pieces around poems, some familiar like Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” and others not, orchestrating the dozen pieces for soprano, alto and tenor saxophones bass clarinet trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, euphonium, tuba, plus a rhythm section of bass (August), drums and piano, plus on a few pieces strings.

Side three includes the somber “Mother Mamie’s Reflections” that includes, backed by a tuba, bass clarinet and bass improvisation, a recording of Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, describing what had been done to her 14 year old son’s face and body. She chose to leave the coffin open at his funeral so the world could see the awful damage that had been done. The final version of “Your Only Child” a devastating, cinematic, string drenched version follows.

The raucous, heavily syncopated closer “Blues Finale” is a visceral, powerful, proud, angry and defiant summation topped with Frank Lacy’s exuberant scat singing. It’s a beautiful, optimistic anger. Unfortunately, as August writes in his annotation, “I suspected deep down that ‘the progress’ we had supposedly made as a country might prove to be fleeting. After all, this is America. We are not known for knowing history, especially our own”.

It took Louisville police how long to investigate the Breonna Taylor shooting? All over Twitter you’ll find ugly comments like “her thug drug dealing boyfriend killed her, not the cops.” As it turns out no drugs were found in the apartment, Kenneth Walker was not a drug dealer or a “thug” and was a licensed gun owner doing what the NRA always supports, unless, of course, you are black. The truth about this case is still in question even after the case was submitted to a Grand Jury. According to one juror the summation by the A.G. was not exactly accurate so now a judge has ordered the transcripts released.

Leaked evidence obtained by Vice News and not independently verified by The Washington Post, suggests that Louisville SWAT members sounded alarms about the raid before it was carried out, that police department procedures may not have been followed after the shooting and that a witness who said he heard police announce themselves before entering Taylor’s apartment may have changed his story.

This absolutely hair-raising, ultimately rousing and optimistic record, skillfully arranged by Mr. August and equally skillfully recorded, is the soundtrack to an ongoing American tragedy. You won’t regret listening and bearing witness. I’ve been playing this repeatedly over the past week and each play brings new pleasures, outrage and hope.

Mr. August gave permission to digitize and present a track here. He suggested “Letter to America”, inspired by Fransisco Alarcón’s poem, narrated by Wayne Smith with solos by Ken Thomson (bass clarinet) and Marcus Rojas (tuba). It pleasantly drips with sarcasm, disgust, resentment and pride. Open it. You'll also hear how well recorded is the production.

Letter to America

According to August, the best place to buy a copy of the well pressed at GZ Media double LP set is Bandcamp. Also, watch the YouTube videos.

Big Star's picture

wish all cable news was toast. It's entertainment - and it's garbage.

Your conversation was a dream. Where I live you get your windows busted or tires slashed if you have a political sign. Not matter the party. You don't walk or jog in my area. You get to the car or bus stop and keep your head down. We need the police desperatley yet we need reform desperately. The police isn't our biggest problem but it IS a problem. We live in different worlds (not just with 100k turntables lol - not different countries, but maybe things get better in the next four years! Hope is on sale again.
Looking forward to listening to this. I am totally unfamiliar with it.
Enjoy the debate. Go Yankees.

PeterPani's picture

we suffer from the political choices of the former positive role model the people of US represented to us. Up to shortly we lived in a fairly social-democratic peaceful place with our immigrants from all over the world. But your president is also a blueprint, how to get votes by blaming other races. And our own moderatly conservative politicans jumped on that bandwagon, too. And yes, they are incredibly successfull. Hatred fills the countryside. Against foreigners. And the conservative elite uses it to enrich their friends in the background, while the Austrian people started to look down on foreigners. The people of USA forgot that their example is followed all over the world, because you are, no have been, such a great country full of promise and hope. I know, political debate is not wished on this pages, but again, this is a phenomenon that came with the division of the people. In the past we argued a lot, but knew, we all live in a better place by staying together. Today we get silent and stare at the politicans that bring hate to the people.
Michael, I thank people like you, that we still can hope that people can find together again. Would be nice, when US can start such a wave. Maybe in four years, when people get tired.

I will definetely buy this record!

isaacrivera's picture

We have to open our hearts to these dialogues and realities if we are to be agents of positive change. Even if I end up hate the music, I will cherish owning this record and I very much look forward to listening to it!

Thanks Michael

Michael Fremer's picture
You will like the music and sound. If you can, listen to the track included in the review..
Flatbubba's picture

Thank you for the story and more importantly making me aware of this artist and album. Sold...listening to it now on bandcamp...vinyl on the way.

RinziRadio's picture

Love the extract. Definitely going to investigate. If you do not know it already, you might care to investigate Laura Karpman's "Ask Your Mama". Not on vinyl, but sounds great, and the piece itself is that rare thing, a cross-genre success. A true original. I was lucky enough to commission music from Laura for a couple of NPR radio dramas, including "Art" (with Brian Cox and Bob Balaban), and she gave us something equally original and apt. You can currently hear her scoring on HBO's "Lovecraft Country". Here's the link to "Ask Your Mama".


StonedBeatles1's picture

Rabbi Mikey:'
Thanks for the history lesson regarding Emmett Till's tragically horrendous story. I'm looking forward to hearing this recording.

How's your neighbor? :)

timware's picture

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on issues of race. I appreciate your being willing to make a stand and always being a real straight shooter (if you know what I mean) ...

DODGE's picture

Just an aside. The GREAT folksinger Sammy Walker wrote & performs another Emmett Till tribute 'The Mississippi Delta Cried' on his 2008 recording Misfit Scarecrow on Ramseur Records. It's worth searching for!

JoeESP9's picture

One of these days all the Trump supporters are going to see how bad his style of government is for the country. He hasn't changed one bit of his "robber baron" philosophy. All you have to do to find this out is to talk to any of the multitude of small business firms he has refused to pay.

He claims bankruptcy and offers to pay them 20 cents on the dollar. His presidency is run exactly the way. The difference is we'll all have to pay for his slash and burn politics.

IMO the real problem is Republicans who go along with him because they're to wedded to partisan politics and actually care little about the average working stiff.

stillyawning's picture

I want to learn about good recordings,not being lectured to. Please don't get triggered and ban me

Michael Fremer's picture
Nor lecture you. Just the facts related to why this record came into being.