One look at the album insert and I knew I had in my hands a CD of classic New Orleans jazz or twenties or thirties swing, so when I dropped the ol' laser on it I was knocked on my ass. My head did the typical whiplash-inducing double take and I checked the disc to make sure there was no mistake in packaging. Nope. Disc said Stace England…package said Stace England. I had to look again, though, because not only was this not the kind of music one might expect even after reading the inserted booklet front to back, I could not shake the initial feeling that something was amiss. It turned out someONE was amiss, that being me, and here's where things get interesting.
You see, Stace England is this guy from the Midwest (with this very impressive band from the Midwest, of the Salt Kings variety) who stumbled upon a story of an early African-American filmmaker named Oscar Micheaux and became so captivated by the history that he sat down and wrote the story in music. So that you don't misunderstand, England is not new to the process. He and the band had released two previous albums of historical roots/rock opera content—the critically acclaimed Greeting's from Cairo, Illinois and an exceptional followup titled Salt Sex Slaves—so the structure was nothing new to them, but the idea and the music…
The story of Oscar Micheaux is one peppered with race at a time races were separated, seasoned by a cinematic spirit (Micheaux's) which refused to be swept aside by a White-dominated industry, and doused with a life lived in virtual obscurity. This incredibly talented man, stomped on and kicked to the curb by the mere circumstance of place and time of birth, had vision and a tenacity to make that vision happen. He made films. He recorded history. Paul Robeson's first film role was in Micheaux's Body and Soul. Micheaux countered D.W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation with Within Our Gates, his portrayal of innocent African Americans terrorized and lynched by what can only be described as the United States' version of the "Master Race". He had more courage than most of us can dream of and fought to the end to make his vision seen. He made at least twelve films, some of them lost to eternity, or so it is believed. A few have amazingly been found and preserved. This is a story of both sad loss and joyous discovery. It is the story of Oscar Micheaux, filmmaker.
The music? Stace England and the Salt Kings crank out a collection of roots rock songs worthy of note, each inspired and attached to one of Micheaux's films. It is cinematic rock opera strung together by succession of films rather than a life, unless you accept the premise that Micheaux's films were his life. Twelve films, to be exact, each the subject of music straight out of early Grant-Lee Buffalo and Crazy Horse and Will Kimbrough and the host of other roots-rockers of note. Brash rhythm guitar, raw leads, power chords, in-your-face vocals as well as lighter country- and folk-oriented fare. All put together as well as White Mansions or The Legend of Jesse James or any of the other concept albums of note. It is good music, solid. And it is a strange way to present a story of Oscar Micheaux. Strange, but so well done that it jumps to the top of my list for gift-giving. This is thinking man's music. This is concept music of a unique nature.
The package deserves a word, too. The 16-page insert is an artistic wonder, containing pictures gleaned from the films of Micheaux with shots of a few movie posters included. Each song/film has its own liner notes, a rundown of the film or an explanation of its history. The cover page itself says it all—"THE MOST REMARKABLE AMERICAN STORY EVER TOLD!"—and is put together to reflect it. It is half album cover, half movie poster with one-line grabbers and a picture of a dignified Oscar Micheaux, I assume, as anchor.
Chances are, if and when you pick this up (I highly recommend it to all the thinking roots rockers out there), you'll want to look back at the other Stace England albums. I haven't had the time to research them completely, but I did sample tracks from Greetings and Salt Sex Slaves. I'm impressed. Hard not to be. And I'll be back.
The Virgin of the Seminole, and The Girl From Chicago by England/Tabing.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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