lines in the rasx context

This series documents what disappoints many literate lovers of poetry: most of what I consider poetry does not come from poetry books. Instead of hiding my poverty in quiet desperation I am moved to flaunt it public like loud neighbors arguing over the television remote control: I want to see and show you the “lines” that have inspired me. Most of these lines come from the popular music I grew up with—and yes too few others come from books. This first installment of the series looks at snippets as they appeared in my life. We explore the lines of my afterbirth and those from the 1970’s.


Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
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I like the way this sounds. I sang this in church as a child. It refers to water rituals that is both Baptist and of most river-based African cultures. It refers to the Moses miracle before Charleston Heston. Unlike the scene from the movie, The Ten Commandments, the image here is that the people of the Exodus must go down in the water first, before God makes a way for them. The message was relevant for enslaved African Americans fleeing from bondage. Wading in the water keeps off the scent tracked by slave-catching bloodhounds.

I was a very little child singing this and listening to the elders sing it. Now with a little more maturity, I can sing it like the elders (in that soulful Southern accent) and it feels good. I like sounds that feel good. I like the words that make the sounds that feel good. I’m sure this singing habit comes from my grandmother, my father’s mother. We tend to use singing as therapy. It’s better to sing than to raise one’s voice in anger.

Since most of us don’t have North American Spirituals sung at our local place of public worship, I recommend listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock Live at Carnegie Hall. These sisters make it feel good.

It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

This is another church-childhood set of words. From a very early age, I was very sensitive to what I now know as “free association.” What piqued my interest was the question, How do you stand in need? Here is physical action associated with an abstraction: need. I cannot tell you why these things interest me. They make no money for me. They make no friends for me. The pleasure is nowhere but inside me. I have always found these thoughts attractive. How does one stand in need? I visualize my body moving, standing… Now I have lived with these associations so long that I respect fluid motion between the abstract and the concrete. I do not get along with people who I call “industrial minded”—these people only take the concrete seriously. This is where materialism begins. Materialism leads to theft. Theft leads to war. Blah. Blah. Blah.

It should be no surprise now that a lot is going on in my mind. It may not be useful to many people but it’s busy nonetheless. It should follow that the lyrics of this classic, African American song stays on my mind:

I woke up this morning with my mind
Stayed on Jesus
Singing and praying with my mind
Stayed on Jesus

It’s the first line that really stands out to me: I woke up this morning with my mind. The implication to my immature self begged the question, Was it possible to wake up without my mind?


Some people are made of plastic.
You know some people are made of wood?
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This is from a song I probably heard in Tempo Barber Shop on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles somewhere in the 1970s. I had no idea that this was song called “What You See Is What You Get” by the Dramatics. My big head on my little brown body was seriously considering the idea that people were just like my toy army men. By the way, I was not allowed to wear an Afro in the ‘70s. My head was shaved close to the scalp in what was called a covatis (or covatus) as my parents regularly escorted me to the barber. I still don’t know what that word means but I know what I heard. Anyway, I can see what was happening to me: I hear a word and an image would jump into my mind. I am almost certain that this is the earliest example of the use of metaphor in my life.

Love can make you do right
Love can make you do wrong
Make you come home early
Make you stay out all night long
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Al Green could wear an Afro in the 1970s. His song “Love and Happiness” on I’m Still in Love with You was full of Southern comfort. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, would listen to this song over and over. She would recite the lyrics in a laid back rhythm set alongside Al Green’s singing. I’m sure it was this habit of hers that made me listen to the lyrics in music before I heard the music. I understand that this is the opposite of how most people experience music.

You can dance underwater and not get wet.
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This was the promise of George Clinton and Parliament’s “Aqua Boogie” from Motor Booty Affair. Clinton’s genius is staggering. He is one of the few African American artists to make himself relevant to street-minded, party people and the introspective, cultured intellectuals. To “dance underwater and not get wet” sounded fun and full of whimsical playfulness when I was a child. As I grew up and placed these words in the context of slavery (specifically the ocean voyage of the Middle Passage) these words become powerful and sublime.

I did not hear the full lyric until I got older:

For the rhythm it takes to dance to what we have to live through
You can dance underwater and not get wet.

Now force this image into view: an African on the Middle Passage jumping from the slave ship. I wish that somehow she would not get wet. Somehow some funky brother shows up riding two dolphins like water skis and sweeps her up into the mothership. “Can I borrow your spaceship man? I’ll give it right back…”

It took quite a while before I got a better idea about true identity of Sir Nose. I am certain that millions of socially adjusted P-Funk fans are still caught unawares.

Rain clouds will laugh if you try to ask, “Is it cool?”
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This is a memorable line from “Strawberry Letter 23” by Brothers Johnson. I had no idea that these people were on drugs when they wrote this line. I was living in a kindergarten of cartoons and laughing rain clouds were right up my alley. As a person who claims to love language, I can see why I like this line so much. I like the “proper use” of slang: Of course the water in a rain cloud would be cool. Simultaneously, asking “Is it cool?” was the natural street slang of that time. I like it when the voice can be authentic from a street level while still being scientifically accurate—and poetic. This is the real American way.

…when you go to the Laundromat,
you don’t have to wash nobody’s funky draw’s but your own…
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Millie Jackson was the official music of my mother’s late-1970s divorce. I sensed that she delighted in the bad-woman image of Millie Jackson. Such characters were novelties to my mother but oh-so vulgar and common today. This line from her song “If Lovin’ You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to Be Right” on Caught Up always made my mother laugh with a bitterness that burns bras. I consider Millie Jackson one of the original spoken word artists and this song really showcases her abilities as a dramatist and a singer. I am certain that another twenty-something, ex-soap-opera-actress will rediscover Millie Jackson and blow away a future generation of under-informed youth with soulful, grassroots spoken word and music. The young people of that generation will proclaim that they have found an original voice and, if I’m still around, I will remember Millie Jackson.

By the way: just to make things cross-culturally clear, Draw’s is a contraction of the word “drawers.” Drawers is an old-fashioned word for “underwear.”

The next lines in the rasx context are from my early 1980s.