. . . Sammy Davis

. . .

The Hero with a Thousand Pages

And a related note on Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, courtesy of Michael Richard on the rec.arts.books newsgroup:

"I was just thinking this would make a great Survivor/BigBrother kind of tv show. Go rent out some burned out city like Grozny, or maybe get a better deal with Kisangani, stuff it full of cameras, and sell tickets to get inside."
Back in the late '70s, me and my college friends used to discuss our dream cast for a movie version of Dhalgren -- Donny Osmond as the Kid, Marie Osmond as Lanya, Mason Reese as Denny, Charles Nelson Reilly as Bunny, and Sammy Davis Jr. as George Harrison -- but I gotta admit, this miniseries idea beats it.
Mason Reese

. . .

Willie McTell

Genre is the kind of second-hand tourist guide that gets you excited about a place, then gets you completely lost once you're there.

I remember Peter Guralnick saying somewhere that when he first started researching the blues he liked Willie McTell a lot, but then sort of didn't, he wasn't sure why.... And John Lomax seems to've been put off by McTell's bend-with-the-wind facility and refusal to complain about oppression, like he was some kind Sammy Davis Jr. or something....

Trouble is, as fans get to know a genre, they start to think of their generalizations as rules instead of descriptions and start to think of the genre itself as some sort of honor that has to be won, instead of what it is. After all, they worked hard to learn those generalizations, and the least the artists can do is follow suit. This gets specially nasty with genres like blues, folk, and hip-hop, where built-in assumptions about race and class invite the question of "authenticity" in to murder one's nearest and dearest.

  Willie McTell

. . .


... later he will tell the story, upstairs in Elvis's private "superstar" suite. Sammy has taken the night off from his own show at the Sands to party with his third wife, Altovise, a handsome black dancer who was once a member of Sammy's troupe, and with Donald Rumsfeld, President Nixon's aide and director of the Cost of Living Council, who is staying at the Davises' with his wife, Joyce.

Tonight is the finale of the Rumsfelds' Western swing that took them from the Republican National Convention in Miami to Los Angeles, to attend the Republican-sponsored party there for prominent entertainers, and then to Las Vegas, to lounge around Sammy's private pool and play a little tennis....

Outside the superstar suite, Sammy pauses in the corridor to do an impersonation of Elvis on stage, mimicking Elvis's catatonic stance and what Donald Rumsfeld calls his "weird" smile. The impersonation is successful; Joyce Rumsfeld takes him by the shoulders, shakes him playfully, asks, "What are we going to do with you, Sammy?"

"Well," he says, "you're stuck with me for the next four years."

- from "Sammy Davis, Jr., Has Bought the Bus" by James Conaway, The New York Times Magazine, 1974,
quoted in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader ed. Gerald Early

. . .

Since the biggest problem with biographies are the biographers, why not just get rid of 'em?

In an email message a while ago, Jessie Ferguson fantasized one approach to erasure: "I still want to write a biography that passes no judgments at all and raises no questions it isn't equipped to answer." And I imagine something like the "Chronology" in a Collected Works, except busting out all over with source documents like a microwaved popcorn bag....

That sounds nice.

An easier approach, which could be said to be even more honest, being even less interpretive, is just stringing the blatantly heterogeneous source material together, like in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, 500 pages of Gerald Early's selections from memoirs, interviews, and journalism.

Which is nice.

Having an actual example brings on a couple of new thoughts, though, which just goes to show that examples are worthwhile:

  1. If you don't rush into things, secondary sources eventually turn into primary sources. Back in the 1950s, the astonishingly nasty Confidential pieces were just destructive gossip; now they're essential to understanding what the heck was going on.

  2. There's an awful lot of repetition. With variation. Me, I enjoy tracing slight changes from one retelling of an anecdote to another as it rots into accepted history, but I don't know how many others share that rarefied pleasure.

  3. To quote Jessie Ferguson again, "you can't apply the work-as-mirror-of-life analysis to someone whose life is lost to history, that being the negative lesson to take from the case of Emily Bronte."

    You need a fairly wide variety of voices and publication genres for a biographical compilation to work; else all you've got is a reprint of someone else's book (not that there's anything wrong with reprinting someone else's book). For some biographical subjects, you might be able to get sufficient variety out of letters and diaries. Outside such knitting-brow circles, the approach will skew you towards the kind of people who get talked about in memoirs, interviews, and journalism: that is, to show-biz celebrities. And performers just don't tend to be very interesting. Their work can be interesting, but as people, with few exceptions, they fall within a pretty narrow range of affection-craving self-dramatizing technique-obsessed personalities.

    Sure, there are noticeable differences between performers. Those more-or-less unique aspects are what passes for interest in memoirs, interviews, and journalism, and what incited Early's hard work on Sammy Davis, Jr. But there are even more similarities between performers, and the constant background noise of those shared aspects starts (to me, anyway) to get numbing after a while.

  4. All theoretical speculation aside and against, a highlight of the book is Early's still-young-enough-to-be-a-secondary-source introductory essay:

+ + +

When we were children, my sisters and I were often ridiculed by our black schoolmates for "talking like white people" or "sounding white." Some of this was purely in jest, some was motivated by envy and some by sheer malice and ignorance, but whatever the cause, I could never reconcile myself to it. First, I was never trying to imitate a white person's speech. At the time, the only white people I knew well were the Italians who lived in the neighborhood, and I recoiled from their ethnic expressions as much as I recoiled from "talking colored." I was imitating the speech of my black schoolteachers, of movie stars like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Woody Strode, and James Edwards. I had heard the so-called vernacular of actors like Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best, and Stepin Fetchit, and I wanted no part of that. Indeed, I thought black vernacular was an aberration: I assumed that most black people spoke standard English or wanted to. I heard James Baldwin give an interview on the radio and he spoke standard English. So did Martin Luther King and so did Malcolm X. I once yelled at some boys who were needling me for "talking white," "I don't know any white people who talk like this." That wasn't quite true, for like all the black people around me I watched television, and like all the black children around me I read comic books, and whatever one might say about the deficiencies of the literary quality of this genre, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and the like all spoke standard English. But what I said to those boys was very near the truth, for I was never inspired by any white person to use standard English. And I hated black vernacular speech, even though I could perfectly replicate it as a youth, when it suited my purposes to do so. I hated it because it reflected an experience that was narrow and provincial, because its vocabulary was so limited and so heavily reliant on profanity, particularly variations of the word "fuck." And, of course, the word "nigger" was used all the time by blacks, a word I utterly loathed. I hated the vernacular because it was a language with no ability to grow, a language that could not encompass what I felt, what I wanted to express, and I was as black and as poor as all the others in my neighborhood. Indeed, I was poorer than most of the black kids I grew up with. What good was this language to me, if it could not envision or accommodate my emotional or psychological existence? Here, I thought, even as a boy, was a language, this black vernacular, that was meant to be as limiting as the experiences that black people were permitted in this society, and what was even more defeating, more tragic, was that the people who spoke it exclusively had decided to accommodate themselves to those limitations. It was the language of oppression and accommodation. The vernacular could, in a meager but sometimes very affecting, even passionate way, convey anger, resentment, self-pity, the humor of cynicism, a spirituality mixed of hope and frustration, disappointment and hatred -- all the emotional preoccupations of the powerless and the confined. But it could not express the ideas of power or the power of ideas, the necessity of meaning, nor could it even express the idea of itself or of the meaning of itself. I knew instinctively why Davis spoke the way he did. I knew what drove him because some variation of that drove me, too....

.... Davis's speech was a kind of elegance and grace, a dignity, sometimes a bit forced and self-conscious, but all the more affecting for that, that said to me as a young black kid "English is my language, too" and "I may be other things but I'm as American as anybody else." As Davis knew, despite the racism in America, where else could he have had the outsized success he did except in America. I learned from Sammy Davis, Jr., that there was nothing wrong with a black wanting to be an American, with wanting to acknowledge that, with wanting to adopt white forbears and influences as well as black ones, with seeing oneself as interracial, not simply mixing with two races but as a link to bringing two races together. So his speech was not antidemocratic but the fullest personal expression of the democracy in which he lived and for which he tried to live. His speech was, to use a popular word of today, "inclusive."

- Gerald Early, from The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader

My memory is that the race-traitor routine kicks in solid during the junior high years. And that it was substantially more direct and heart-breakingly destructive than any gender divides introduced by puberty.

When they see themselves as a group, humans act as if their main job is to maintain the group, and, members of the group having consciousness and all, internal variations of behavior and thought are seen as a more present danger to group solidarity than any threats from the outside could be. It's an often demonstrated problem with few known solutions, 'cause for obvious reasons there's not a huge amount of pressure for it to be solved.

This particular variation, which has the desirable side-effect of keeping a underclass persistently under, isn't uncommon among colonized peoples. It's one of the complaints the more skeptical Irish made against Irish nationalists at the previous turn of a century, for example. There are many other examples.

The ray of hope for most colonized groups is the one that's directed back and down at the land behind them. There's always the dream of reclaimed soil, re-established traditions, and reborn language. Anti-assimilationist pressure is justified by hope for a regained (if mythical) glory.

What helps keep American racism such a stable system is African-Americans' near unique status as an imported colonized people: Europeans, finding North American natives more suited for extermination than colonization, kidnapped and relocated an entire nation's worth of labor. The backwards gaze is drowned in the Middle Passage. There's nowhere to retreat to but where we're at, and we're all in the same place. The only glory we can hope for is still, nerve-rackingly, to be sought in the future.

+ + +

2015-12-19 update from Josh Lukin:

"Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, 'with her feeling for the folk idiom,' had been its author, 'it would probably be a quite wonderful book.' Baldwin, however, 'over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them' in what finally was 'an "art" book about folks who aren't "art" folks.'"

. . .

Johnny Cool (1963)

Warmhearted Sicilian becomes savage hitman in the New World, pre-Puzo. Appropriately pulpish (cheap, grimy, badly edited, high acid content), with a rarebit-dream cast and an ending worthy of both Antonioni and Sammy Davis Jr. I'll have to be in a vile mood to watch this again, but if it was French or Japanese it would be a cult item.


Johnny Cool sounds like Mafioso, which was good. And has some surprising singing.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.