Sunday, April 26, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "An American Epic" (on Poor Dog Group's performance of Jelly Roll Morton's The Murder Ballad (1938)"

an american epic
by Douglas Messerli

Poor Dog Group The Murder Ballad (1938), performed by Jessica Emmanuel and Jesse Saler, with music by Jelly Roll Morton / the performance I saw was on Friday, April 24, 2015 at Los Angeles’ Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in the Walt Disney Concert Hall

We have music historian and archivist Alan Lomax to thanks for the recording by the legendary self-declared “creator” of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Murder Ballad,” a raunchy, salty, tale of a woman’s love and her murder of another woman who has taken “her man,” and who is later jailed for life, describing a heated lesbian sexual encounter within a prison bed.

     Jelly Roll (born Ferdinand LaMothe) first sang the song within a New Orleans Storyville house of prostitution where we worked as a piano player and singer in his youth. Lomax found him in a small Washington, D.C. bar, where we worked as bartender, piano-player and bouncer in the late 1930s, a low point in his career, a few years before his death. Plying the now alcoholic jazz legend with liquor and friendly conversation, Lomax had planned for a short recording session for the Library of Congress, which grew into over eight hours of talk, singing, and playing by Jelly Roll. In those sessions, the singer was convinced by Lomax to perform the violent, sexually vulgar song the way it was originally performed, a piece in such questionable taste that the Library did not release it until 2005. Today it’s recognized as a masterpiece of early American jazz.

     The immensely talented Los Angeles-based theater-performance Poor Dog Group took the song, just as Morton had recorded it, and set it to a riveting dance performance by Jessica Emmanuel, along with occasional interactions by Jesse Saler. If it appears to be a simple theatrical convention, the way Emmanuel twists and turns her body in ecstasy and horror throughout gives the work a new sense of urgency that has to be seen to be appreciated. Let me just say that the 45-minute The Murder Ballad (1938)—first performed by this group at Redcat in the New Original Works festival in 2012 and revived this past week at the same theater—was utterly revelatory.
     The work, as originally performed by Morton, places itself in a strange situation with regard to gender, in part because its story of a powerfully sexual woman is sung with a steady metronome-like accompaniment—which only reiterates the inevitability of the narrative it relates—by an assertive, yet time-worn voice of a male singer. 

                   If you don’t leave my fucking man alone
                   If you don’t leave my fucking man alone
                   You won’t know what way that you will go

                   I’ll cut your throat and drink your fucking blood
                      like wine
                   Bitch, I’ll cut your fucking throat and drink you
                      blood like wine
                   Because I want you to know he’s a man of mine

       Emmanuel uses the occasion to wring out her soul in whirling, leaning motions forward and backwards. Dressed only in a pair of scanty panties and a loosely-fitting white top sheath, she becomes the personification of simultaneous threat and regret, a forceful ogre who is at the edge of desperation for her man’s neglect, reminding me a little of the position of the jilted Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, the opera I saw a few hours later. But while the betrayed Sicilian woman causes the death of her former lover, the woman of Morton’s ballad actually shoots the other woman dead, for which she is sentenced to life in prison.
     What’s interesting is that the narrative, at this point, shifts from the first person to the more objective third. The “I” is transformed into a “she,” which further isolates the wronged woman:

                  She said, open your legs, you dirty bitch, I’m gonna
                      shoot you between the thighs
                 She said I killed that bitch because she fucked my man
                 She said I killed that bitch because she fucked my man
              She said I killed that bitch because she fucked my man

—the trinity of reiteration driving the home both the cause and effect, “Policeman grabbed her and took her to jail.” And for several more stanzas the work remains in the third person, as she is brought to trial and sentenced.
      It is only when she returns to the subject of sex that the first person returns, creating an even odder relationship to the male-telling of her story:

                  I can’t have a man, so a woman is my next bet
                  I can’t have a man in here; woman is my next bet
                  She said to be a good-looking mama: baby, I’ll get
                     you yet

It shifts back to the third person immediately as the sex actually occurs, but changes soon after, creating an even deeper sense of sexual confusion as the poem recounts those very issues arising in the woman herself:

                 She said, I could learn to love you like a did that boy
                 She said, I should learn to love you like I did that
                 To play with my thing like that is pleasure like a

                 Every morning I want you to give me some of this
                    good cunt you’ve got
                   Every morning I want you to give me some of this
                    good cunt you’ve got
                 Because it sure is fine, it is good and hot.

     Presumably, this purposeful confusion of gender here is why the company decided to bring Jesse Saler, a male dressed in a jockstrap, on stage, as a somewhat effeminate surrogate, in opposition to the tall and statuesque Emmanuel, to symbolically play the other woman of whom the ballad now sings:

                  I want you to screw me, screw me like a dog
                 Screw me behind, sweet bitch, screw me like
                     a dog
                 When it gets good, I want to holler out like
                     a hog


And from this point on, the narrative voice returns to the first person, as the murderer declares her sorrow for her acts (“I’m sorry, sorry, sorry to my heart.”) and finally turns to prayer (“I pray and pray and pray and pray and pray.”), facing her final destination: “a box in the prison yard.”

     It is the very crudeness of the repeated words that creates the intensity of the ballad about a woman who sees sex from a point of view which was then stereotypical that of a man, and sung by a man (almost a boy when Morton first sang it). In the end the narrative encourages us to be both enchanted by its honesty and disgusted by the events it describes, while finding ourselves somewhat seduced by the fierceness of its sexuality if appalled by its lurid details. In short, it has everything than an epic American work has to have: innocence, sex, revenge, violence, guilt, regret and personal salvation! I had a great time.

Los Angeles, April 26, 2015