Up until May 1959, no jazz composition recorded by Charles Mingus had been as controversial or as politically charged as Fables of Faubus. The song, first recorded 50 years ago this month on Mingus Ah Um, was meant to be a condemnation of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus. In 1957 Faubus had ordered the state's National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African-American teenagers. With the reissue of Mingus Ah Um by Sony Legacy yesterday (along with Mingus Dynasty), I am struck yet again by the boldness of Fables of Faubus' breathy, lumbering indignation. [Photo of Charles Mingus in 1959 by Lee Friedlander]
Along with Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite in 1958, Mingus' composition courageously raised the ante among jazz artists, insisting they become creative agitators for change rather than just concerned bystanders. Interestingly, Louis Armstrong played a role. I spoke to Nat Hentoff and Sue Mingus yesterday about the significance of Fables of Faubus and the Civil Rights Movement. More from them in a moment.
Contrary to most fans' impressions, Mingus wasn't a political protester, per se. He was first and foremost a composer who was vocal from the bandstand about all things unfair and unjust—from noisy ice in glasses to Jim Crow. As Mingus told Brian Priestley in Mingus: A Critical Biography:
"I just write tunes and put political titles on them. Fables of Faubus was different, though—I wrote that because I wanted to."
More than a year after Mingus Ah Um, Mingus recorded the Original Fables of Faubus on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid Records), this time with a brazen set of lyrics. The words were talk-sung by Mingus and shouted by drummer Dannie Richmond and other band members, who function as a Greek chorus ferociously condemning racism and racists.
Why the song's lyrics weren't recorded the first time around on Mingus Ah Um isn't clear. Most likely the omission came at the behest of Columbia executives, who at the time didn't want to overly inflame the label's Southern markets. Writes Gene Santoro in Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus:
"[The group recorded] Fables of Faubus, but Columbia, Mingus said, wouldn't let them record the lyrics."
When Mingus wrote the song in late 1957, the Little Rock standoff had been the most shocking and dramatic episode to take place in the Civil Rights Movement. The event marked the first time that Southern racism was exposed on network television, and the news story unfolded slowly in September 1957. The sight of armed National Guard soldiers preventing nine students from attending a public school and the federal government's slow reaction was harrowing. The month-long televised drama deeply affected jazz musicians and people throughout the country who had heard about unjust conditions in the South but had never seen them in action.
Ultimately, the Justice Department sought and was granted an injunction against Faubus' order, and the governor had to withdraw National Guard troops. But the move offered little protection for the students or assurance that the community wouldn't riot or bar them from the school. So on September 24th—20 days after the incident's start—President Eisenhower finally federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent the army's 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock enforce integration and safeguard the African-American students.
To gain insight into Mingus' strident recording of Original Fables of Faubus in 1960, I spoke briefly yesterday with Nat Hentoff, who produced the Candid session:
"The Little Rock standoff in 1957 had been extraordinary. The Supreme Court's decision three years earlier [Brown v. Board of Education] had made integration possible. The decision was unanimous and had been signed individually by each justice. Never before had that happened. Little Rock was an attempt to put the decision to test.
"During the Little Rock standoff, President Eisenhower dragged his feet, which angered Louis Armstrong. Louis made uncharacteristically heated comments about Eisenhower during a newspaper interview that belied his cheery disposition. I'm sure his unrestrained public statement partly motivated Mingus to write Fables of Faubus. Louis simply said what many in the jazz community were thinking and feeling at the time.
"I remember the recording session. I think I sent out for sandwiches and that's about it [laughs]. You didn't have to manage a Mingus session. The lyrics? They didn't seem controversial to me. They were as natural as sunlight.
"The one thing about [Candid owner] Archie Bleyer is I never knew what he thought about any of the recordings we made. He never interfered and he stood by his word. I had total freedom, and I approached the Mingus date with that frame of mind."
The comments Armstrong made to a newspaper reporter on September 17, 1957, two weeks into the Little Rock standoff, were widely reported at the time:
"It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," Armstrong said. President Eisenhower, Armstrong charged, was "two faced," and had "no guts." For Governor Faubus, Armstrong used a hyphenated expletive that was unfit for print. So the reporter and Armstrong came up with a safer expression: "uneducated plow boy." The euphemism, the reporter recalled years later, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong's.
I also spoke yesterday to Sue Mingus, who met her husband in 1964:
"Mingus, as you know, was outspoken. He used the bandstand as a soapbox to communicate what was on his mind—about the ills of society, the inequities and the social injustice. He spoke out at all times, not just about people making noise in clubs during performances but also about political and social issues.
"This was a musical communication about his feelings, not to be confused with political protest. Mingus only wrote six or seven political compositions with lyrics, but he was not didactic. His purpose with his music wasn’t to confront social injustice. He was too much of a composer for that. But he did vent on the bandstand vocally about anything he felt was wrong or unfair. Back then, that took courage."
Finally, what are we to make of the odd LP title Mingus Ah Um? According to Sue Mingus, it has nothing to do with the bassist's proclivity for minimalist responses. Instead, Sue said, "Mingus was treating his name like a Latin noun declension—Ming-us, ah um—with his own private spin. Latin entered his sphere of reference at some point, and he was always very Joycean in his manipulation of the language."
Like Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit in 1939, Mingus' Fables of Faubus must be viewed both as a masterful composition and a powerful folk expression that helped give voice to the Civil Rights Movement.
JazzWax tracks: The Sony Legacy reissue of Mingus Ah Um includes the original album, six alternate takes and bonus tracks, as well as Mingus Dynasty and bonus tracks. The two-CD release can be found here. The Original Fables of Faubus with lyrics can be found as a download at iTunes and Amazon off of Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. You'll also find longer versions with lyrics at both places. It's fascinating to play several versions one after the other and compare the energy.
JazzWax lyrics. I've noticed that people in web chat rooms often request the call-and-response lyrics to Charles Mingus' Original Fables of Faubus. Here they are, courtesy of Brian Priestley's Mingus: A Critical Biography:
Oh Lord, don't let them shoot us
Oh Lord, don't let them stab us
Oh Lord, don't let them tar and feather us
Oh Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone ridiculous, Dannie
[Dannie:] Governor Faubus
Why is he sick and ridiculous?
[Dannie:] He won't permit integrated schools (Mingus: Then he's a fool)
Boo! Nazi fascist supremacists/Boo Ku Klux Klan!
Name me a handful that's ridiculous. Dannie Richmond?
[Dannie:] Bilbo. Faubus. [Unintelligible]. Rockefeller. [Unintelligible]. Eisenhower.
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
[Dannie:] Two, four, six, eight [All:] They brainwash and teach you hate!