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Bobby Rush's "Funk Folklore": The Song and Dance of a Modern-Day Trickster, or What You Didn't Know about the Guy on the Road in Scorsese's <i>The Blues</i>

Bobby Rush's "Funk Folklore"
The Song and Dance of a Modern-Day Trickster, or What You Didn't Know about the Guy on the Road in Scorsese's The Blues

by David Whiteis

copyright © 2003 David Whiteis

Blues singer Bobby Rush, born Emmittt Ellis in Louisiana in the '30s, has called what he does "funk folklore." He peppers his ribald fables of lust, infidelity, and romantic mishaps with folksy aphorisms and life lessons -- "A man can give it, but he sure can't take it;" "One monkey don't stop no show" -- laid over funk-dripping rhythmic and melodic lines.

In performance, Rush's persona is unremittingly transgressive: he stalks the stage with his face contorted into a leer of undiluted lip-smacking lechery as three scantily-clad dancing girls writhe and gyrate on either side of him, then bends down close to the most luscious booty on the bandstand and exults, "Look at it! It moves like it got sense!" as the band tears off a series of staccato runs and the dancer obligingly gyrates her derriere in his face. When he's not extolling the ecstacies of sexual one-upmanship ("If you wanna be a hoochie mama, then I can be a hoochie man"), he's romping through slapstick scenarios of erotic misadventure in which men and women alike seem primarily bent on getting what they can behind each other's backs, or even in front of each other's eyes ("She made me hold the flashlight while she made love to another man!"), before the inevitable payback in which the philanderer either gets caught in the wrong ("She said 'What's good for the goose is good for the gander, too!") or witheringly cut down to size ("Your love is like a wet match / You can't light no fire with that!").

As shocking as some of this seems to the white "crossover" audience Rush has recently begun to acquire after years as one of the top draws on the primarily southern African-American "chitlin' circuit," it's solidly rooted in r'n'b traditions that extend back through black vaudeville, medicine shows, and minstrelsy to African-American trickster tales and pre-Diasporan folklore. Rush's longtime audience understands this perfectly: as he told Living Blues Magazine recently, "My whole thing is about a story and a dialogue from the time I walk out on stage until the time I leave. I make them wish and desire in their mind -- 'I want my man to be like him!' Then I put the [dancing] girls up there [on stage], where he can say to her, 'Baby, I wish that was you.' It's almost like two lovers get in the bed and they're watchin' the X-rated movie. It stimulates you. When I see that leanin' too far, I will set it straight, I say, 'Listen, I'm an old man. I'm just a babysitter, and this is all about a joke.' And then we laugh about it. And they kind of catch their breath and remember where they are. And they leave there with joy in their mind."

Especially now that he's been profiled on "The Road to Memphis," director Richard Pearce's contribution to Scorsese's much-hyped PBS series The Blues, Rush has come closer than ever to becoming the kind of "mainstream" [i.e., white-recognized] blues celebrity; he says he's been trying to become one for a long time. But along with crossover comes culture clash: when Rush first appeared in Europe in the '90s, he was almost booed offstage (subsequent Continental appearances have gone much more smoothly). In the week or two since the PBS airing, there have already been some ominous rumblings about his stage act and lyrics among white intellectuals, critics, and even some musicians. Following is an extended version of a sidebar I wrote to accompany the above-mentioned Living Blues article, which attempts to place Rush's onstage persona and his act into the larger historical perspective that I thinks is necessary to consider if his "new" audience is going to appreciate his show, and his art, for what it is.

* * * * * * * * *

"[The Yoruba Trickster deity] Eleggua dressed himself in a garment that was red on the right side and black on the left. Thus attired, he walked between two friends. One of the men remarked to the other on the handsome black suit the Orisha had been wearing. The second man looked at his friend in disbelief. 'Are you color blind? That man was dressed in red!' The argument grew to such proportions that they were soon at each other's throats." [Adapted from Migene Gonzales-Wippler (1985), Tales Of The Orishas, as quoted in Samuel Floyd (1995), The Power Of Black Music]

"Soul star Bobby Rush remembered... three women getting in a fight over Muddy. 'I instigated it just to get them fighting,' said Rush. 'Willie Mabon was playing the piano, his hands never stopped. He said, 'Let 'em fight, me and you will fuck 'em all.'" [from Robert Gordon (2002), Can't Be Satisfied: The Life And Times Of Muddy Waters]

One of the most widely occurring characters in the folklores of the world is the Trickster. A deity or demigod who usually (but not always) takes a male form, he's a complex and often-misunderstood figure who acts as both challenger and guardian of a society's most sacred values. He may defy authority -- even divine authority -- to bring essential tools and insights to humanity: figures as diverse as Raven (the Trickster of Northwest Coast Native American tradition), Maui (from Polynesia), and the Greek Prometheus (Trickster turned Hero-Benefactor) were all credited with appropriating fire from the gods. In the everyday world, the Trickster presides over festivals and carnivals as Lord of Misrule, symbolizing a temporary freedom from the moral and ethical constraints of the everyday. On the other hand, as the above-cited tale of Eleggua demonstrates, he can also wreak havoc for the sheer joy of doing so -- thus he must be appeased through prayer, song, and ritual.

The Trickster, irreverent and untameable though he may be, is not merely an anarchist. He's both wise teacher and Holy Fool; even when he acts on nothing more than base instinct or an all-consuming desire for self-gratification, he imparts wisdom and life lessons. He deflates pomposity and challenges authority in the name of preserving, rather than destroying, social harmony. The Trickster of the Lakota people of the North American Great Plains was represented in human form by a shaman known as the Thunder Dreamer, also known as Heyoka, or Clown, who had a special dispensation to do things in reverse order. When a fight or some other unpleasantness threatened a community, he would make a dramatic -- and highly comedic -- entrance, cavorting backwards through various burlesques of everyday human activity, until the tension dissipated.

But Heyoka was more than a merry prankster. He could heal sickness, reverse misfortune, even change the weather. He was both revered and feared for his strange visions and uncanny powers. Lakota writer and medicine man Archi Fire Lame Deer has called him "sorrow and laughter rolled into one, sacred and ridiculous at the same time." If that sounds a little like the blues, it probably should.

Nowhere has the Trickster in all his guises been more prevalent than in the cultures of the African diaspora. As Eleggua (one of the many names taken by this rakish shape-shifter), he served in Africa for millennia as Guardian of the Crossroads, the one who commandeered the portal between this world and the world of the spirits. He was also Monkey, direct ancestor of the Signifying Monkey of blues and street lore, the sassy rascal who tied Bush Cat's tail to a tree and then fled to the treetops to avoid the cat's revenge. He inspired dancers and sacred drummers; he opened the passage to visions and insight for those brave and respectful enough to invoke his powers and earn his trust; he cavorted merrily -- and a little ominously -- through life and dream, wreaking his havoc and teaching his lessons along the way.

During the long nightmare of slavery in North America and its seemingly endless aftermath, the Trickster evolved into real-world hero, a necessity for people to believe in -- and become -- in order to survive. In the day-to-day struggle for survival, he (and she) learned to don masks of infinite subtlety and deception, sometimes "playing the fool" with guileful purpose, sometimes remaining concealed behind a facade of ambiguity or inexpressiveness. In the tales of the wily slave known as "John," he outfoxed OI' Massa to win his freedom; in his animal aspect, as Br'er Rabbit, he engaged in Olympian battles of wit with other legendary Tricksters like Br'er Fox. Even nihilistic folk outlaws like Railroad Bill and Stagger Lee (precursors to modern-day hip-hop gangstas) can be seen as humorless, hard-eyed Tricksters, ready to kill the oppressor, even sacrifice their own friends, family, and themselves -- become the sacrificial Goat -- in the name of freedom and defiance. The line between "art" and "life" had never been so malleable and shifting.

As always, such powerful spirits were invoked in story and song; tale-tellers, songsters, and, eventually, blues singers carried on the ritual, as had the griots and shamans of old. This link between ancestral tradition and modern-day blues, jazz, r'n'b, reggae, hip-hop, and other Diasporan forms has been documented well enough to make further exegesis unnecessary: suffice it to note that Samuel B. Floyd, in his landmark study The Power Of Black Music, identifies the venerable folk art of "Signifyin(g)" (so spelled to acknowledge its specific cultural meaning) as the fundamental and enduring impetus behind African-American discourse style, in the arts as well as in everyday life. He defines Signifyin(g) as "figurative, implicative speech" that "use[s] the skills and talents of the Trickster" as tools to negotiate one's way through an often hostile and threatening environment. In Signifyin(g), wit and guile are employed as a substitute for brute force in order to outmaneuver it. The Signifier craftily lampoons and elaborates upon mores, aesthetics, and "truths" -- those of the dominant culture, but also those of his or her own -- in a way that simultaneously mocks and improves upon them.

Few blues artists have worn the mantel of Trickster Incarnate with more panache than Bobby Rush. He's said that his penchant for costume changes dates back to a late-'50s gig where he emceed a show in a fake moustache and tramp costume, disappeared for about thirty seconds, and re-materialized as a front-line entertainer. Not only did he have the audience fooled; he insists that he managed to draw two paychecks from the club owner as well. "I was two-guys-in-one," he told Juke Blues in 1996. "He never knew it was the same guy." To this day, his quick-change routines remain among the most popular elements of his act.

But it's not just the clothes. Rush onstage is fluidity in motion -- at any second he may or may not be the character he was just an eye-blink before. He'll dart from one side of the bandstand to the other, mugging and rolling his eyes as he ogles his dancing girls, both inhabiting and burlesquing the persona of the incorrigible roue who can't quit even though he knows that eventually he'll be caught in the wrong. He'll play the role of the Signifier, teasing and provoking his audience -- sometimes, as he tells us in this issue of LB, even stirring up the passions of a particular couple whom he's identified as having relationship problems -- shifting their attention from his own studly persona to the luscious sensuality of his dancers then back again, never allowing anyone's attention or energies to remain focused long enough to become dangerous, until the tension is gone and everyone has "joy on their mind." He's Heyoka the Clown, aping our quirks and foibles to diffuse our anger and keep peace.

Then he'll return to the stage and shift identities again, becoming a tough-talking street poet who throws down challenges to a would-be rival -- "I ain't studdin' ya!" -- even as his sly grin and quick-darting eyes playfully acknowledge the inevitability of defeat. Ands it's this defeat that represents the core of Rush's act. Despite the unabashed carnality that characterizes his show, Rush's routines are, at their heart, morality tales. Like the Signifying Monkey who gets roundly trounced for his hubris, Rush's philandering character inevitably gets his comeuppance, whether at the hands of a cuckholding buddy ("my best friend Paul") or his long-suffering wife ("She made me hold the flashlight while she made love to another man!") "A man can give it, but he sure can't take it" he acknowledges, reminding us that in the world outside this ritual ("this is all about a joke"), actions have consequences. The Trickster thus offers himself up as Goat, paying the price so we don't have to.

It's one thing, though, for the Trickster to get out-tricked by a rival in ritual combat; it's quite another for his very persona to be misunderstood by people who lack the cultural frame of reference to understand what he's about. At least since the days of minstrelsy, black performing artists have found that their Tricksters' masks have been cruelly misrepresented by whites. As Mel Watkins documents in On The Real Side, his 1994 history of African-American humor, when performers like Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit found themselves performing outside the context of indigenous African-American humor, they became typecast as "coon entertainers," accused of perpetuating racist stereotypes. Rush, with his hipster's wit and funk-propelled rhythmic impetus, probably doesn't have to worry about being typecast as a modern-day Fetchit; he may, however, find that his onstage presentation -- especially his routines with his dancers -- garners a very different reaction from the "mainstream" white audience he's wanted to capture for so many years, than from his longtime fans.

Certainly it might be argued that to use "girls" as "decoration pieces," as Rush has somewhat disingenuously put it in the past, represents an archaic approach towards showmanship -- to say nothing of life itself -- that's best relegated to the dustbin of history, even though one seldom hears Madonna criticized for using men in pretty much the same way. And maybe Rush will compromise a little, at least to the extent of allowing his dancers to face the audience as much as they showcase their booties, or even giving them a few spoken lines of their own -- perhaps during his "Henpecked By The Right Hen" routine, where he plays an aging womanizer who leers foolishly at the "young hen" before finally admitting that the older woman is more appropriate and pleasing for him.

But that kind of compromise may not address the real problem at hand. One senses that it's not the particulars of the Bobby Rush show that have already begun to cause controversy, as much as his eloquent continuation of a venerable tradition that continues to be misunderstood by many (including too many blues fans) in so-called "mainstream" American culture. There's little place for Eleggua and his raucous band of troublemakers in the boardrooms and suburbs of corporate America, in the empirical universe of science, or in the repressed moral landscape of modern Christian fundamentalism.

Human beings and human society still need an outlet, a place of illumination and release, where the suffocating boundaries of everyday reality and moral restrictions can be transcended, even if only for a time.. This is one of the most important and ongoing gifts of the blues tradition and all it represents, and Rush embodies it. But to really appreciate this, and to avoid confusing Rush's sexual clowning with some kind of manifesto or statement of purpose, his newfound audience needs to understand something that most of his longtime admirers have had no problem in grasping: the liberating role and social function of the Trickster -- the Lord of Misrule -- is ritual in nature. To become truly empowered by the liberating poetic spirit of the blues, we need to re-acquaint ourselves with both the solid foundation of morality and faith -- newly defined, based on humanistic, life-affirming principles -- and the ritual abandon of the bacchanal. Bobby Rush himself personifies this understanding as he effortlessly segues from his onstage persona to his real-life role as man of faith (for years he's worked closely with a local prison ministry in Jackson), dedicated husband, and tireless worker for good causes (in 2000, the state legislature of Mississippi passed Senate Resolution 43, commending "Mr. Bobby Rush" for his "career and humanitarianism," citing his work for sickle-cell anemia research, his participation in Blues In The Schools programs, and other honorable deeds). One can only hope that his newfound audience will be able to keep up with him in this, the final -- and most important -- in his armamentarium of Trickster's transformations.

Sources and Quotes:

Haralambos, Michael. Bobby Rush. Juke Blues 36 (Winter 1996/97)

Floyd, Samuel A., The Power Of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa To The United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Lame Deer, Archi, Fire: A Gift Of Power. Santa Fe, NM, Bear & Co., 1994

Watkins, Mel, On The Real Side: Laughing, Lying, And Signifying New York: Touchstone/Simon & Shuster, 1994

Writer-bluesman David Whiteis can be reached here.

C o m m e n t s

David's Apologetic for Bobby Rush 1 of 9
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October 15, 03

David Whiteis, as always, has written another well-constructed, researched, and thought-provoking piece.

However, I think his analysis of Bobby Rush, his various "performance personnas," and his assessment of the importance of understanding the cultural context from which these characters sprang is slightly skewed, and misrepresents the very real social problems that can be caused by such shenanigans. (Not to mention that I didn't hear Bobby playing much that sounded like Blues to me-- I have to admit, I had only heard a few tunes by Bobby, like "Hoocie Mamma/Hoochie Man," and was mostly unfamiliar with him before the film, but he is certainly no B.B. King... He seemed to be playing 70's/80's Funk, plain and simple).

Bobby seeks approval and recognition from a "mainstream" audience after his years on the road (he said so himself). I don't think he'll get it, and I hope he won't (unless he finds the need to radically revamp his entire stage show).

As a musician, teacher, a student of history, religion, and ethnomusicology, a "repressed Christian fundamentalist," and someone who has spent nearly 15 years working with young people in a variety of roles, I feel I have a broad enough background and a pretty decent handle on the cultural context in which Rush's antics occur. However useful the "trickster" personna has been for African-Americans in the past, it does now, and will continue to cause more social harm than good (misguided concepts of vicarious cathartic therapy notwithstanding).

Not only should thinking men and women of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds be concerned with Bobby Rush's use of women as "decoration," but they should also be concerned about those described in the article thusly:

" It's one thing, though, for the Trickster to get out-tricked by a rival in ritual combat; it's quite another for his very persona to be misunderstood by people who lack the cultural frame of reference to understand what he's about. At least since the days of minstrelsy, black performing artists have found that their Tricksters' masks have been cruelly misrepresented by whites. "

The problem is, it's not only "whites" who misunderstand and misrepresent these archetypes. Youth of today (of all colors and cultural backgrounds) have no idea they are tapping into the legacy of Elegua, Brer Rabbit, and most importantly, Stagolee. This ignorance does not diminish the fact that they are. Interesting as that may be from an academic standpoint, it is dangerous and problematic, in that the Stagolee anti-hero has metamorphosed into Eazy-E and Eminem, and whether we are talking rapper turned real-life gangster (a la Tupac), or real-life gangster turned rapper (a la 50 Cent) we _do_ have a problem vis-a-vis young people not being able to differentiate between fact and fiction (as so eloquently documented in rapper Jeru the Damaja's almost-hit "Playin' Yaself"), and the all-to-real fallout from that fatal flaw (gang activity, rampant sexual promiscuity, drug use, violence, murder, school shootings, etc., etc., etc.)...

Any discussion of the appropriateness of Bobby's antics in a Post-20th Century, Post-Columbine, Post-LA Gang Wars/Bloods infiltrating the LA Police Dept., Post-Tupac, Post 9-11 world must be taken seriously, and not excused on the basis of "cultural context," regardless of any validity that context may once have held. Robert Johnson made a deal with the very same "Elegua" that Bobby Rush appears to be commiserating with. Hopefully, his story, and ours, will have a happier ending than Johnson's.

Gregg Juke

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