#65 This is Crackersoul- Reflections on race and music. Also were the Flinstones black?

Cracker Soul. Perfect song to come up next in the cue. Especially after the previous two posts touched upon race and ethnic identity in the music business.

I think there is a misconception that the music industry is very “integrated”. That it must be more “advanced” than the rest of our society. It has always been at the cultural vanguard so it must surely be much farther ahead of the rest of america in marching towards some post-racial society. It isn’t.

There are black record labels. There are “Normal” labels. Under the multinational conglomerates? Black and Latin imprints or sublabels. Our old label Virgin records didn’t really have a separate black imprint, but did have a “urban” department. In a completely different part of the Foothill Rd complex! I remember the offices and cubicles seemed to have been set up by a different interior design firm. There are completely separate sets of publicists, radio promoters and concert promoters for black and latin music.

No one ever talks about this. It’s like some dirty family secret. Racial and ethnic Identity is actually heightened in the music industry.

So i’ll be the first to admit that it is weird that I never really thought much about naming the band Cracker. We chose this name almost on a whim. Although we were aware of the socio-economic/regional/racial connotations of the word, we also enjoyed the fact the word had a host of other meanings. Some well known like Cracker as in Ritz Cracker. Some very obscure like Cracker as a perforative for scottish or (gaelic speakers) in 17th century England. There was also the fact that in the early 1990′s there was a sudden trend towards one word band names, oftentimes words for everyday objects such as food e.g. Sugar, Cake etc.

But the main reason we named the band Cracker was because we had a song on the demos called This is Crackersoul. There is a simple story behind the title to this song.

Each night after we finished working on our demos we’d walk down from Oregon Hill over to one of the bars that lined Grace street next to Virginia Commonwealth University. One of our regular stops was Marvin’s. One night sitting at the bar in Marvin’s we were discussing our new project with our multi-racial bartender. Johnny was describing how our demos varied from the Camper Van Beethoven sound. That they were based more on country, bluegrass and good dose of “White boy blues-rock, southern rock, and soul influenced rock. Things like The Band, Little Feat even Lynyrd Skynyrd”.

“Cracker soul music” our bartender helpfully interjected.

Exactly. Here were several meanings of the word jumbled together. First Cracker as in “Southern Rural White”. Second to specifically refer to residents of Georgia and northern Florida (Little Feat and Lynyrd Skynyrd) and third the murky Scots-Irish roots of appalachian and southern white folk music. There was fourth meaning that also applied although our bartender could not have known given that he hadn’t heard any of the lyrics: Boasting or Shit-talking. Cracker’s narrative “voice” was noticeably cockier and trashier than Camper’s.

Notably absent was any reference to the word as a racial insult.

In 1990 very few white people on west coast, in the north or even the urban centers of the south would have been very familiar with this word. Conversely I had heard this word from a young age. My grandfather would often use it to refer to himself and his buddies who were all from the piney woods of southwestern arkansas. They all now lived in the Coachella valley in California. They did this to distinguish themselves from the native Californians. Around this time Senator Lawton Chiles would openly refer to his rural white supporters as his “cracker voters”. It wasn’t till much later in the 1990′s that this began to be popularized as a racial slur. I’m not saying it wasn’t a racial slur in 1990 but it was relatively obscure term in white america.

So Johnny had this neat little riff that maybe evoked Little Feat or something. It was catchy and bouncy and as I didn’t have any words for the song so as a working title it became Cracker Soul. Thank you very much mr. bartender. Later once I developed words to this song it changed to This is Cracker Soul.

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Speaking of Crackers….

And then there was the fact that Cracker became a shorthand for a certain distinction between the public persona of Cracker versus that of Camper Van Beethoven. This is of course greatly exaggerated but the members of Cracker (Johnny and I) were more rural “southern” and working class in outlook and upbringing. My father was from Arkansas. Both Johnny and I were raised on military bases. Anyone who spends much time around military bases realizes much of the military is drawn from working class, rural and especially southern families. I was born in the south. If San Antonio Texas counts as The South. (It’s really more part of the southwestern borderlands.) Our experiences going to high school in The Inland Empire also seemed to bolster our working class credentials.

Conversely Camper Van Beethoven was seen as solidly upper middle class and a college band. Chris Pedersen’s father was a doctor. Victor’s family owned pharmacies. Not quite a doctor but solidly upper middle class. Jonathan’s parents were both college professors at UC Davis. Camper Van Beethoven also seemed to be very much a product of the culturally sophisticated Bay Area. Not a working class ensemble with roots in rural america. Of course this was also an extreme exaggeration.

Case in point: Jonathan Segel. His parents were college professors, but his mother was a microbiologist that had a detailed knowledge of sewage treatment plants. Jonathan once spent a summer touring Warsaw Pact sewage treatment facilities. She was like the honeymooner’s Norton with a PhD. Jonathan grew up in a college town , but this college town was Davis. It’s an Ag college. In the early days of Camper Van Beethoven Jonathan chewed tobacco, fished, camped and occasionally shot guns. He hung out with bluegrass players and generally qualified as a country boy. His credentials as a “cracker” are actually much better than either Johnny or I.

Nevertheless there must have been some subtle difference apparent to others. For when we began touring for Key Lime Pie we hired a new crew member. His name was Bobby Bell. He was an African American and he was from Texas. He immediately pegged me for being a little different than the other Santa Cruz/Berkeley/Bay Area indie rockers he’d worked with. He started calling me MC Cracker D. (Yeah I know it’s a little cheesy now but Hip Hop culture was new to all of us then.) He’d write it on my passes and laminates. It became my Nom de Tour.

So in this way calling my new band Cracker was simply a way of differentiating it from Camper Van Beethoven. I wasn’t trying to say Cracker was an authentic country-roots-southern rock band. Just that it had a little more of that in it than my previous band. So Cracker Soul got shortened to Cracker and Cracker became the temporary project name for our new band. It just ended up sticking.

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Was I was punk’d?

My friends father, an African American, once told me that the modern racism was no longer based on white people thinking they were superior to blacks. It had been replaced with a more subtle bias, the fact that Anglos thought they were the Normal people. Everyone else was to varying degrees not normal. Like being Anglo put you at the center of some pre-Copernicus universe. Being a WASP was neutral and everyone else had small co-factors and properties that did not read a perfect zero. You might be a perfect zero on skin tone and hair kinkiness but the +3 Irish and +2 catholic variation from the ideal pushed you away from the center. Although readily accepted by white people poor Sammy Davis had an incredibly complex variation from the norm. +4 Black +3 Jewish +1 Italian Mob for association with Frank Sinatra plus he was in show business.

So the logical conclusion: If Anglos came to think of themselves as just another quirky tribe from a foggy, poor and cold island; a people of strange music and customs;a tribe noted for their spotty skin, bad teeth and overcooked vegetables; Then at last we would all co-exist as equals in a relativistic racial/ethnic universe.

Calling my band Cracker was also me doing my part to achieve this Utopia.

“Yes I am from a quirky Scots-Irish tribe of red-headed rural southern people who pretty much fry everything and are inexplicably born with innate ability to parallel park a vehicle hauling a trailer.”

But before you go all crazy with this concept due diligence requires that I tell you my friend’s father also told me that The Flinstones were actually African Americans. When I pointed out that I couldn’t recall a single non-white character on the show he became agitated and told me that All the characters were black. Further Hanna-Barbera had carefully filled the show with subtle cultural cues and flags. They didn’t need to draw the characters as black. I was white and therefore I didn’t catch these cues. It was one of the more amusing arguments i’ve had in my life. Still I’ve googled this and haven’t found anyone else who shares his opinion. In retrospect I think the erstwhile professor was taking great delight in pulling my leg.

Please make some donations

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This is Cracker Soul

[G]
[G]-[C]-[G]
[C]-[G]-[D]-[G]
[D]-[C]-[Bm]-[Am]-[D]

Hey hey it’s okay to make
a little mess out of your life.
‘Cause you don’t need a diagram
to show you how to have a good time.

CHORUS:
I said hey (hey)
Don’t mean to frighten you away.
This is Cracker soul, it comes so easy.
I said hey (hey)
Don’t get your head a mess.
This is just the best, it comes so easy.
It comes so easy.

Hey hey it’s okay to never know
the answer but ask why. (why oh why?)
‘Cause you don’t need another burden
come and party with your spirit guide.

I said hey (hey)
Don’t get your head a mess.
This is Cracker Soul
It comes so easy.
I said hey (hey)
Don’t get yourself distressed.
Love is just the best
when comes easy.
It comes so easy.

REPEAT CHORUS


3 comments

  • Julia Smedley

    Julia Smedley Portland, OR

    I was just watching the video for "King of Bakersfield" and I noticed a confederate flag very prominently displayed in the background. Do you not see this symbol as a fundamentally racist symbol, expressing the hatred of white Southerners against African-Americans of all kinds. The murders/act of terrorism that just happened in South Carolina were committed by a man who made a big issue about displaying the confederate flag on the front of his truck.

    I was just watching the video for "King of Bakersfield" and I noticed a confederate flag very prominently displayed in the background. Do you not see this symbol as a fundamentally racist symbol, expressing the hatred of white Southerners against African-Americans of all kinds. The murders/act of terrorism that just happened in South Carolina were committed by a man who made a big issue about displaying the confederate flag on the front of his truck.

  • Feather

    Feather Mendocino coast, CA

    To Julia Smedley: Please provide a link to such video? I've searched high and low and still cannot find a video with a confederate flag in the background on any of the videos of "King of Bakersfield" that I have watched. I am sure that Cracker has no affiliation whatsoever with anything that would be construed as racially offensive in any way, shape or form. Having their own 'racial pride' is not the same as being racist :)

    To Julia Smedley:

    Please provide a link to such video? I've searched high and low and still cannot find a video with a confederate flag in the background on any of the videos of "King of Bakersfield" that I have watched. I am sure that Cracker has no affiliation whatsoever with anything that would be construed as racially offensive in any way, shape or form. Having their own 'racial pride' is not the same as being racist smile

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