Let’s a take a break from Whitman’s attempt to embody everything in his poetry and turn to a Dave Moore written piece where two Americans become one. Dave might comment here later and bring more insight into his composition, but for now I’ll speak as myself.
I encountered Slim Harpo and Harpo Marx at roughly the same time, somewhere in the early 1960s. Slim Harpo then was a part-time bluesman (full time job: ran a trucking company) who was able to occasionally get records saturated with a humid southern feel onto pop charts where I could hear them.
I was young, and I knew little about where music came from. I also knew little about how it could be separated out into bins with labels stuck on the front of them, like “blues.” So, I didn’t know Slim Harpo was “blues” until sometime later. I’d never heard Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, BB King, Memphis Minnie, Bo Carter, or even any of the jazz-tinged blues divas like Bessie Smith—but I had heard Slim Harpo. He was right there on the Midwestern teenage radio in the early Sixties, just like Bobby Vee or the Shirelles. After dark, when the lone local teenage station would fade out by law to allow “clear channel” stations to bounce off the stars and the wire I’d run out my window to an apple tree, I’d hear KOMA in Oklahoma and WLS in Chicago spin records as late I could stay up.
Harpo Marx and the Marx Brothers came in via another late-night broadcasting practice: the late movie. TV stations then would run old movies at the end of their broadcast day, after the local news. The Marx Brothers movies were only around 30 years old at the time, but they seemed set in another century. In the Marx Brothers movie-world fresh off the boat European immigrants mixed it up with society matriarchs dressed like empresses, and leather helmeted varsity football players and professors in Victorian beards were collaged together.
Which was farther away: the Marx Brothers 1930s or Slim Harpo’s Jim Crow Louisiana happening in my time?
Somehow it didn’t matter that Slim Harpo was a near 40-year-old Louisiana African-American, or that the Marx Brothers were steeped in a disappeared immigrant vaudeville culture, or that either of them were ambassadors from the country of adult sexuality that I had yet to visit.
Did a poem ever speak to you before you could understand it? At night, Harpo Marx and Slim Harpo spoke to me, and neither exactly needed words to say what I heard.
Dave Moore’s piece “Slim Harpo Marx” fuses those two characters. Let me be clear, I realize this is a dangerous melding. In the course of “Slim Harpo Marx” an Ashkenazi German-American imitating a mute Irishman becomes one with an African-American born into a region retaining French colonial overtones. Is that harp Celtic, or a Germanic Hohner harmonica, a “Mississippi Saxophone?” Dave thinks that’s funny. If cultural appropriation is evil, well…
As Americans, we largely came here from pogroms, poverty, thwarted revolutions, and refused authority. Those here first from Europe got to rob the native peoples—and worse. Those here first got to declare the foundational republic of the modern world—and establish an economy buttressed with human slavery. Those here later got to both benefit from the appropriations of these tragedies—and suffer the disapprovals of those who were here sooner. That lesser Marx brother, Karl Marx, said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Karl, Karl, you say that like it’s a bad thing.
The words and music this time are by Dave Moore. He usually performs the words too, but for reasons to embarrassing to recount, this version has my reading. To hear “Sim Harpo Marx” click on the gadget that will appear below.