Sunday, 1 May 2011

Sam Cooke Didn't Approve Of Comic Books; Comic Books Where You Least Expect Them (No 3)

Scan From The Splendid GCD
1.

Abacus Crume joined the Soul Stirrers in late 1956, the latest member in the somewhat fluid ranks of a gospel group which had been first put together in the September of 1929. For a short while, one of Crume's fellow members of the Soul Stirrers was the group's lead singer Sam Cooke, who was then quietly and ambitiously preparing himself for what he knew might be a contentious move from gospel into pop even as Crume was committing himself to sing beside him.

In Peter Guralnick's utterly fascinating "Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke", Crume is quoted touchingly discussing how important Cooke quickly became to his development both as an individual and as a professional singer on the gospel circuit. Cooke, who'd joined the Soul Stirrers as their lead singer at the age of 19 in 1950, then occupied a role in Black American culture which it's hard to grasp from a modern-day secular perspective, for he was both a singer of deeply religious songs and yet also a charismatic focus for the romantic and sexual longings of many in the group's audience. Cooke walked what seems like the most contradictory of lines, between displaying an intense and moving measure of religious conviction and inhabiting a more sensual and exciting role more commonly associated with a successful, mainstream pop star.

         
The Gospel circuit existed, as of course did the overwhelming majority of Black American society, as something of a parallel universe where white, mainstream culture was concerned. Occasional recording sessions were part of an often exhausting schedule of travel across the then-fiercely segregated America to play to the Black community wherever an audience could be encountered. It was a hard living in many ways, and yet, for those who reached the degree of success that the Soul Stirrers had, a far more lucrative and satisfying one than those which most Black Americans were permitted to access in the USA of the day.

Sam Cooke was, Crume recalled, "an educational-type guy", a intensely ambitious, hard working, and gifted man who wanted not just to succeed as a performer, but also as a writer and as a businessman controlling his own destiny too. Crume recalls how the autonomy-orientated Cooke "made me grow up", and of how, in doing so, the group's star expressed a withering distaste for the comic books Crume often read; 

"When I came into the group, I liked to read comic books - Superman, Dick Tracey, Captain Marvel. And Sam was always in the backseat with a magazine or some kind of book. And he said, 'Crume, dammit, you're with the Soul Stirrers now, you got to read something educational, you got to put those damn comic books away."

Scan taken from GCD
What I love about Crume's memories here is how much they tell of the everyday, and almost-lost, detail of both men's lives. I adore the way that Crume, for instance, recalls Cooke blaspheming constantly in his everyday speech, for of course that was something which a Soul Stirrer couldn't be heard to do in when occupying their professional role. And I'm fascinated by the strict hierarchy of values which Cooke ascribes to the printed media, with comic books anchored right at the bottom of his scale of approval and disdain. That Cooke regarded comic books as a waste of time and a barrier to Crume's intellectual development reflects the thinking of a man who was deeply, deeply motivated to take his own life under his own control, a man who regarded the world around him as, at least in significant part, a collection of resources to put to use to increase the measure of his own autonomy. In a stratification system purposefully designed not just to deny Cooke and his community their rights, but also to prevent their ever conceiving of practical ways in which to fight to win them, Cooke stands out not as a man of rebellious gestures and self-limiting attitudes, but as an individual engaged in fundamentally revolutionary thinking and action.

Posted by patford at the Comics Journal Board

And yet popular culture, and for our purposes here comic books, obviously had a keen appeal to Crume, regardless of the absence of Black faces beyond odious stereotypes in these books. If Crume's memory serves him right and he's recalling the comics he read during one or more of his travels with Cooke, then it also reminds us that reading comics wasn't a question of simply consuming what was fresh on the newsstand. Captain Marvel hadn't appeared in a new comic since Fawcett stopped publishing comic books in 1953, although of course DC's Superman and Dick Tracey from Harvey were published throughout this period. As so many memoirs of the time tell us, comic books were hoarded, swapped, piled up in barbers and secondhand stores, and passed on in all manners of ways. It's worth thinking of, to take a single example, the young Roy Thomas in the Missouri of this period in

                
this context, searching out old copies of his beloved All-Star Comics in the years following that book's shift from super-hero to western adventures. Thomas was of course from what was in many ways a fantastically different background to that of Cooke and CrumeCrume was a young Black man, from a community largely ignored and yet often specifically insulted by the very comics he so enjoyed reading. Each found entertainment and meaning in material specifically designed for far younger, and distinctly white, audiences, and their experience shows us again how nuanced and unexpected the impact and influence of comic books can be.  

Scan from GCD
          
Arthur Crume appears to have never lost his admiration for the man he shared those wearying car journeys and church and festival stages with in 1956 and 1957. But that didn't mean that he managed to abandon his love for those "damn comic books". As so many of us did with our parents, teachers and sundry role models, or at least would-be role-models, Crume bided his time and then;

"... when I'd get into the hotel, I'd curl up on the bed, man, and get my comic books out until there was a knock on the door, and then I'd hide them under my pillow until he'd leave!"

I adore the image of the man who was to write "A Change Is Gonna Come", who was to be so culturally central to an entire community's re-casting of its own own identity in the seven or so years to come, keeping an eye out for those time-wasting four-colour comic books in a fellow group member's hotel room.

And who's to say that Cooke wasn't in so many ways quite right to feel contempt for the products of an industry which, albeit often unthinkingly, displayed so much contempt for Black America?

Peter Guralnick's "Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke" is published in paperback by Abacus, 2006 and is, of course, well-worth your time.

Scan from GCD
2.

Sam Cooke was born in 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, though his family left for the less-segregated and more economically promising city of Chicago just two years later. As Sam's father the Reverend Charles Cook explained, the move was "to educate my children. It was a better chance up here. In Mississippi they didn't even furnish you with the schoolbooks." 

I don't know anything of when, or even whether, Sam Cooke returned to Mississippi to perform. I presume that he must have. But any visit to perform with in particular the Soul Stirrers, before Cooke began to generate the income and power which would have allowed him to sidestep some of the worst of his country's racism, would have involved his staying carefully within the imposed, proscribed boundaries of the Black American community. Travelling as they did from the relative safety of one Black area of a town or city to the next through what must have often seemed to be cruelly occupied territory, where their security couldn't ever be guaranteed, I imagine that the Soul Stirrers may well at times have stayed in the kind of boarding house partially illustrated in Henri Cartier-Bresson's photograph "Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1947".

         
Whenever I've read something of the travelling blues and gospel singers and players of the post War period, my mind always turns to this picture, although such is the paucity of my knowledge of the detail of the time that my imagination may very well be leading me into a quite historically inaccurate assumption. Yet, regardless of my ill-informed and sentimental speculations. the truth is that Cartier-Bresson's laudably respectful photograph captures what appears to be a landlady of a small and understandably hardly four-star hotel reading a cowboy comic book. She has a quite beautiful face and carries the sense of a relaxed but very real authority, and as such it's easy to see why Cartier-Bresson might have been moved and inspired to juxtapose her and her apparent sense of belonging with the circumstances in which she and many of her fellows were expected to live. The presence of that comic-book, its spine bent over, its subject matter so apparently inappropriate to the circumstances of the situation, serves as one more tiny example of the Black communities ill-recorded experience of the then-new medium.

           
The photograph, taken some three years before the young Sam Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers, presents a mature adult woman who's apparently unconcerned about being photographed reading a Western comic book, let alone being seen to do so in public. Again, and in combination with Abacus Crume's recollections, this is evidence of how the comic book appealed to some varied Black men and women of the time, and it presents us with something of how comics were a part and parcel of their everyday life. Sitting as I am in the East of England of 2011, I'd never have been able to imagine that a Black American woman of the South in 1947 would have chosen to read comic books about White cowboys, even in order to while away an afternoon, but what a beguiling conundrum the photograph presents us with.


How I wish we knew more of the role these books played in the Black community. Were comics books disdained and even at times feared, as they so often were elsewhere in White America? Was it typical for a grown woman to be seen in public reading them? How did Crume regard Captain Marvel and Billy Batson, to take but one instance, and to what degree was he aware and concerned that his own race was largely absent from their stories beyond the presence of incredibly unfortunate stereotypes such as that of Batson's valet, Steamboat? (*1) How was this almost-entirely closed system of racism perceived as it manifested itself in tales of superheroes, cowboy adventurers and super-cops? Was it all largely so ubiquitous that it was invisible, was it rationalised away, did it ever cause comic books to be thrown across rooms in anger and despair? Did the woman from Vicksburg re-cast those cowboys as Black in her mind, given that Black American cowboys are a well-documented historical fact, or had she been so effectively brainwashed by the majority culture that she never expected her own community to be represented in such entertainments in anything other than supporting and essentially derogatory roles, if at all?

*1:- I believe - believe - that Steamboat had long disappeared from Fawcett's pages by the Fifties, but his appearances from 1943, for example, may well have been in secondary circulation in Vicksburg in 1947.

Posted originally on  'What Were They Thinking'

The truth, I suspect, though the social scientist in me recoils from making any such a generalisation without the evidence to back up the contention, is that the situation was always far more complicated than it's possible to deduce from the here and now. Yet I do find it fascinating to note how this largely ignored popular medium appears as a commonplace fact of typical people's lives in these historical records. In particular, I'm intensely curious about the manner in which the heroes of White America were understood by the underclass of such a cruelly segregated state. One day, perhaps, someone with a great deal of knowledge and training and a substantial amount of funding may collect these stray glimpses into a single historical record, a great hefty coffee table book for example, that presents us with more of not just the information of who created what strip and of what particular stories were told, but with something more substantial of how the lives of individuals and communities were informed by such a young, consistently socially irresponsible, oft-dismissed and regularly despised form. For all that we can discuss with respect and a measure of amazement the few publishers and creators of the period who didn't simply swallow and regurgitate the racism of the era, the truth is that on the whole, comic books were not part of the solution at all. (*2)

It's a truth which certainly makes me wonder what it is that will be said of the mainstream books of today in such a context in sixty or so years time.


*2:- KB's Out Of This World blog is always a good place to visit to read about the history of representations of race and comic books.

"Photographing America 1929-1947" by Henri Cartiet-Bresson and Walker Evans is published by Thames & Hudson 
     
         
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