Monday, October 29, 2012

40 Days and Nights of Techno Hubris: Titanic

It’s 7:30 in the AM this Monday in late October, just before All Hallows Eve, and my thoughts turn to Titanic, not the ship, but a folk poem about that ship. It's a poem about water, lots of it, and that's one reason it comes to mind.

I’ve published it here before, back in May of 2010, but it’s time to bump it up to the top of the list, along with a new introduction. Why?

Here’s why.

Lafayette by the Bay

I live in the Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City, NJ, less than a half-mile from the Hudson Rive and the New York Bay. Sometime in the next 24 hours there's going to be a storm surge in that bay and part of Jersey City is going to be flooded. Probably not my part, but, in those immortal words of Thomas Fats Waller, “one never knows, do one?”

Whatever flooding there is, and there WILL be some, will be driven by hurricane Sandy. Last year it was Irene. Irene wasn't as bad as predicted, at least not in my neighborhood–though Communipaw Avenue had 3 or 4 inches of water near Garfield, just a few blocks from me. But it was bad enough, and inflicted considerable damage inland in small towns and hamlets that were wrecked by raging rivers.

I want to blame this one on anthropogenic climate chaos, aka global warming. But that's tricky. There were hurricaines, and nasty one, long before us industrious industrial humans started messing with the climate. Not knowingly, not intentionally mind you, no more so that those ancient humans desiccated North Africa until it became the Sahara Dessert. Be messing with the environment we did, not doubt about it.

The thing, we can't blame any specific weather even on global warming, because all of the weather, all the time, 24/7/365 (366 in leap years) is affected. It's the general tempo and temperature that's affected, not specific events.

There are, of course, those who imagine techno-fixes for this mess. Let's pump some sulpher into the atmosphere, they say, it'll blot out the sun just enough to set things right. Any maybe we should all hold on to our lucky rabbit's foot while doing it, 'cause we're going to need all the luck we can get.

No, I fear that putting our faith in techno-fixes is just going to make things worse. We're not that powerful, not that knowledgeable. So let's be wise. Let’s listen to the poets of Titanic, which is, among other things, about techno hubris. And water, lots of water.

What's Titanic?


Titanic is a toast, a form of boasting narrative in the African-American oral tradition that is a precursor to rap and hip-hop. If you go to this YouTube video you can hear Rudy Ray Moore recite a version from Dolomite.

Toasts were discovered by scholars in the late 1960s, but they are undoubtedly much older. The Titanic toast is about, well, the sinking of the Titanic. As I say in the final chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil:
After the Titanic sank in 1912, blacks began reciting a narrative poem in which a mythic black boiler man, Shine, escapes from the sinking ship and swims safely ashore. The ship’s captain attempts to keep Shine on board, first offering him money and then offering the sexual favors of white women, including his own daughter. Shine rejects all offers and remains steadfast in his determination to swim ashore. The poem thus rejects white evaluation of black character by depicting a white authority figure as being so depraved as to offer his daughter up to a boiler man for no rational purpose. This obsession, it implies, is a white folks’ problem and it’s about time they dealt with it.
More obviously, Titanic is also about white arrogance, the arrogance that believed the Titanic to be unsinkable, the arrogance that believed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico couldn’t fail or, if it did, failure wouldn’t cause nasty problems.

The version of Titanic I present below is by Afthur Pfister (aka Professor Arturo) and was collected by Louisiana Voices. You can find a more elaborate version at ChickenBones: A Journal.

I'm a weaver of the word, not a maker of rhyme
But I'm going to tell you the story about my man, my main man Shine.
It was a helluva day in the merry month of May,
Shine was the stoker on the Titanic that day
When a big iceberg come a floatin' their way.

Shine said, "Cap'n Charley, Cap'n Charley, there's a big iceberg floatin' our way."
Cap'n said, "Shine, Shine, don't you be no clown,
I got ninety-nine pumps to pump the water down.
I got pumps made of pipes and chumps to pump.
I got a trillion dollar load I ain't going to dump."

Shine said, "Cap'n Charley, Cap'n Charley, if you look now,
There's a whole lot of ice comin' 'cross the bow.
I ain't never read a book, ain't never been to school,
But Louzeeanna Annie ain't never raised a fool."
Shine said that to himself.

Cap'n Charley said, "Shine, Shine don't you know my might?
Anything I say and do is right.
You work for Cap'n Charley when the sun comes up
You brings my favorite slippers and my coffee cup.
You work for Cap'n Charley, stokin' the coal.
You work for Cap'n Charley and I owns your soul.
You might be a Christian and pray to the Lord,
But on the Titanic, I outranks God."

[Pfister makes a sound to indicate that an iceberg hits the ship]
Then there was a loud, crashin,' smashin' sound
God pulled rank.
Shine said, "You might be the Cap'n on the land and the sea,
You might run the engines, you might turn the key.
You might be Cap'n Charley, well all that's hip,
But I'm gettin' off of Cap'n's stinkin,' sinkin' ship."

Jumped his black butt into the sea, he did.
He said, "I'm going to tell you one thing, and I don't mean maybe,
But I was long and grown when Father Time was a baby.
I done kilt a whole lot of men's way better than you.
Done kilt a thousand V.C. in Dien Bien Phu.
You can be Tarzan and Rambo and Jungle Jim,
But that's one iceberg that sure ain't slim.
Forked is your tongue, I done heard all the lies,
I'm going to ride with the water and make my own enterprise."

Just about then a beggar came on board cryin,'
"Save me, save me, Shine, in the name of the Lord.
I gots money and dollars I can't even spend,
I owns a whole lot of people, got stock in the pen,
I give you fine black women and white ones, too,
because I gots more money than the U.S. Mint do.
I give you big pretty houses and Cadillac cars,
Give you fifty hotels and ninety-nine bars.
I runs all the drugs from Harlem to Watts,
I takes food from the mouths of the tiniest tots,
I buys all the missiles and guns for the planes,
I own ninety-nine ships and three hundred trains.
I give you all the money that a black boy needs,
Give you ten tons of coke and twenty tons of weed."

Shine thought for a while. . . .
"I'm the runner of the world,
The master in the Lord,
I'm going to please her with my Visa and my Bank Americard.
I'll give you money and power and fortune and fame,
Every fine black girl in the world going to know your name."
Shine said, "You can giggle from the weed, you can laugh from the coke,
But get your bootie in the water and cut your stroke.
You can have all your money, your friends and your foes,
You can finance your wars and your G.I. Joes.
You gots more money than a human had oughta,
So get your butt out here in this freezin' cold water.
You rich and you greedy, ain't never been broke,
So get your butt in the water and cut your stroke.
You can call on the mounties and the C.I.A.,
But they going to get their dry behinds wet today.
Sorry, Mr. Banker, I don't need your pain,
because I'll be sittin' with my baby just a listenin' to the Train.
I'm going to swim to New Orleans for some panne meat,
Going to do the Mississippi Mambo down on Claiborne Street.
Going to wear orange and gold and purple and green,
Go runnin' with the Injuns, eat all the red beans.
You might like Chaka, you might like Rufus,
Even Leon Spinks know you lying through your toofus."
Just then the banker's daughter floated by Shine.
She said, "Come over here, Shine.
Save some o'little ole mine.
I got a body like a ballard and cheeks like Gladys,
Butt like Bertha and hair like Alice.
I got legs like Tina and a chest like Dolly,
I can almost sing colored and lilac ollie."

He said, "I like my women's lips red and my crawfish burled
I like the mamas with the boom booms and their hair all curled.
I like hot filÎ gumbo and devilish eggs.
I like them Uptown girls with they big fine legs,
I like Downtown womens with they night dark eyes,
I like Backatown womens with they big brown thighs.
I done lived on the land and on ships in the sea,
And the ladies on land is the ladies for me."

And Shine swam on. . . .
Shine swam down past the Florida Keys,
He was trembling in the arms and weak in the knees.
While Shine was a'swimming, the ocean grew dark,
And he bumped right into a great, big shark,
A biiigggg black one.
The shark he was purty, with pearly white teeth,
He said, "Come over here, Shine, I'm a make you my meat.
You sure look good, swimming in my sea,
Gon' make a right mighty fine meal for me.
I ain't got no chilrens and I don't have a wife,
But one thing I got is your no-swimming life.
I'm a take you and eat you and swallow you whole,
Make you cuss the very day your mammy borned your soul.
I'm big and I'm strong, I takes what I like,
I done robbed Robin Givens and beat up Mike.
Yeah, Mr. Shine, Mack the Knife is sweet,
I can outswim a wave, and I like dark meat.
I rules all the waters, I'm King o'the sea,
Ain't ne'er whale or minnow can get past me.
All the fishes in the water gets outta my way,
From the Rock o'Gibraltar to Barataria Bay.
Ran into a whale, he thought he was slick,
Lil' minnow told me his name was Moby-Dick.
When I tore my teeth into that little ole whale,
I had to hang out a sign saying [high-pitched voice], `Blubber for sale.'
I done wrote with Alex Haley and dunked with Kareem,
Hung with I. W. Harper, got drunk with Jim Beam.
I done ate up the bones o'Gunga Din,
Got Cap'n Bligh's blood on my chinnie, chin, chin.
I done ate up some pirate when they walked the plank,
I done lied with Nixon and sang with Frank.
I done ate German subs and planes full o'people,
Ate the rock from the Hudson and the bell from the steeple.
I done ate up the quail that was hiding in the bush,
Took your grandma to the mountain and gave her a push.
I'm a meeaann shark.
I done ate up Sally, I done ate up Sue,
Start choking, quit stroking, I'm a eat up you!"

Shine said, "Mr. Shark, I'm a tell you, and it ain't no lie,
I taught the Signifying Monkey how to signify.
I done taught Hank Aaron how to hit the ball,
I showed Barbie's mammy how to make a doll.
That ain't really nothing, cause I tell you what,
I done showed Big Bertha how to do the butt.
You might rule the water from London to Selma,
But you ain't no badder than J. J. and Thelma.
My daddy's a poet, my mama's a singer,
I got a uncle out West who's a baaadd gunslinger,
Kilt three white men and lived, he did.
If you wants you some bones and some flesh to tear,
There's a cap'n and a banker and his daughter out there.
If you might chance to think you can catch this man,
You might as well be a tuna in a tunafish can.
Who you out here call yo'self trying to warn?
All you sayin' ain't but talk behind the barn.
You mighta ate a lotta pirates when they walked the plank,
But I likes shark meat, don't you see my shank?
I like red, silky shirts, I done paid my dues,
I like black Cadillacs and shark-skin shoes.
You might rule the ocean, reign over the sea,
But you gotta grow new fins to outswim me.

And Shine swam on.
The Titanic sank and a lotta folk died,
Grandmamas was weepin' and little babies cried.
When the news hit shore about the Titanic that night,
Shine was in New Orleans, high as a kite!
He played him some music with Satcha-moe,
Went to a cemetery party with Marie Laveau.
He was the slickest and the quickest,
He was fine like wine.
He was wicked in the picket, my man, Shine.

They thought Shine was dead, somewhere down afar,
But Shine was in New Orleans,
Hankin' and a pankin'
Glidin' and a slidin'
Honkin' and a tonkin'
Dreamin' and a schemin'
Smackin' and a mackin'
Smokin' and a jokin'
Bammin' and a jammin'
Jumpin' and a bumpin'
Winkin' and a blinkin'
Coolin' and a schoolin'
Juicin' and a goosin'
Hangin' and a bangin'
Skinnin' and a grinnin'
Rappin' and a yappin'
Buggin' and a huggin'
Gigglin' and a wigglin'
Hobbin' and a knobbin'
Peepin' and a creepin'
Maxin' and relaxin'
Funkin' and a junkin'
Chillin' and a illin'
In the neighborhood bar.
Yeah, yeah, in the neighborhood bar–Shine.

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