Preposterous Universe

Thursday, April 07, 2005
Oscar Brown Jr.

Tavis Smiley is a hard worker, hosting talk shows on both PBS and public radio. (He's no longer doing a daily show on NPR, but will be starting again with a weekend show for Public Radio International.) Tavis can be goofy at times, but I owe him big time for introducing me to Oscar Brown Jr.

Born in Chicago in 1926, Brown is probably most famous as a singer, songwriter, and lyricist. But he has also been active in television, and at the age of 26 hosted the nation's first Black radio news show. His masterpiece is his first album, Sin and Soul from 1960. The songs are a mixture of styles, from the deadly serious to the lushly beautiful to the cheerfully frivolous. The most well-known is Afro Blue, a tune that started life as an instrumental written by Mongo Santamaria. It became famous when John Coltrane recorded it, but became a standard after Brown wrote lyrics for it.

If anything, the flaw in the album is that Brown has too much range, and will juxtapose a jaunty ditty with something deadly serious. An example of the latter is my favorite song on the album, Bid 'Em In. Brown sings it almost a cappella, in the style of an auctioneer, accompanied only by the percussive rap of a gavel. It tells the story of the auction of a slave girl.
Bid 'em in! Get 'em in!
That sun is hot and plenty bright.
Let's get down to business and get home tonight.
Bid 'em in!

Auctioning slaves is a real high art.
Bring that young gal, Roy. She's good for a start.
Bid 'em in! Get 'em in!

Now here's a real good buy only about 15.
Her great grandmammy was a Dahomey queen.
Just look at her face, she sure ain't homely.
Like Sheba in the Bible, she's black but comely.
Bid 'em in!

Gonna start her at three. Can I hear three?
Step up gents. Take a good look see.
Cause I know you'll want her once you've seen her.
She's young and ripe. Make a darn good breeder.
Bid 'em in!

She's good in the fields. She can sew and cook.
Strip her down Roy, let the gentlemen look.
She's full up front and ample behind.
Examine her teeth if you've got a mind.
Bid 'em in! Get 'em in!

Here's a bid of three from a man who's thrifty.
Three twenty five! Can I hear three fifty?
Your money ain't earning you much in the banks.
Turn her around Roy, let 'em look at her flanks.
Bid 'em in!

Three fifty's bid. I'm looking for four.
At four hundred dollars she's a bargain sure.
Four is the bid. Four fifty. Five!
Five hundred dollars. Now look alive!
Bid 'em in! Get 'em in!

Don't mind them tears, that's one of her tricks.
Five fifty's bid and who'll say six?
She's healthy and strong and well equipped.
Make a fine lady's maid when she's properly whipped.
Bid 'em in!

Six! Six fifty! Don't be slow.
Seven is the bid. Gonna let her go.
At seven she's going!
Pull her down Roy, bring the next one on.
Bid 'em in! Get 'em in! Bid 'em in!
The song enjoyed a rediscovery last year, when it was made into a short animated film by Neal Sopata. The film is astonishing and powerful, although I would give most of the credit to the song itself. Hopefully publicity from film will turn a new audience onto the work of this master.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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