Various Artists: Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me!: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition

Various Artists
Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me!: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition

SOMETHING YOU NEVER thought you'd see: a CD from Rounder Records, the venerable folk and world-music label, slapped with a parental-advisory sticker? No, they haven't signed the Wu-Tang Clan's newest satellite rapper. But Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me!, a collection of narrative poetry from the African-American oral tradition (otherwise known as "toasts"), is about as close to rap as Rounder is ever likely to get. And what's remarkable about this selection of decades-old rhyme sayin' is just how close it comes to the styles that dominate today's popular-music landscape.

Recorded mostly in the '60s and mostly in Texas prisons--where there's lots of time to kill on memorizing epic poems and plenty of sympathetic ears to hear them--Get Your Ass is the essential aural companion to Bruce Jackson's 1974 book of the same title, a study of the literature and culture surrounding toasts. (Essential, because unlike a written art, toasts come to life only in their theatrical and individually stylized recitations.) Two takes on the popular fable of one-upmanship, "Signifying Monkey"--delivered four years and hundreds of miles apart--are almost completely different, while "Partytime Monkey" and "Poolshooting Monkey" offer further embellishments on the same wily primate. Just as characters in many of these toasts establish reputations through their words, the tellers establish themselves by how well they present these tales.

Though the toasts on Get Your Ass are full of color and folksy wisdom, a hotbed of social issues simmers under the surface. Selections such as "Pimpin' Sam" and "Hobo Ben" are as violent, obscene, and misogynistic as they can be playful and humorous. "Titanic," a tale so bawdy Celine Dion wouldn't touch it with a 200-foot mast, buries deep racial and sexual politics beneath an extended "dumb whitey" joke. And the legendary pimp-joint "Stackolee" puts the continued popularity of gangsta rap in perspective. Though much has changed in the years since the toast evolved into rap, it's amazing how much has stayed the same.

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