Woman of the ghetto
Woman of the Ghetto - Marlena Shaw
Marlena Shaw wasn't apolitical before she recorded "Woman of the Ghetto" in 1969. No black woman could afford to sit on the sidelines as the nation sifted the ashes of the most incendiary decade in U.S. race relations since the end of the Civil War. Martin Luther King Jr. met his violent death the previous year and the urban landscapes of New York, L.A., Detroit and Cleveland bore fresh scars from economically ruinous riots. The nascent women's movement was urging suburban housewives to question their social and legal status, and for the first time since the mortal chill of the mid-century red scare, intellectuals and students began voicing loud objections to class privilege. But prior to recording Spice of Life (US, UK), Shaw was probably best known as a versatile jazz singer who performed with The Count Basie Orchestra, an interpreter of lyrically neutral standards.
There's little that's neutral about "Woman." Even today, its lyrics are provocative, even strident, poking a sharp stick at the white, quivering belly of middle class complacency, and in particular, ghetto tourists--well-meaning, but ineffective politicians, peace activists and academic types:
You're sittin up there in your ivory tower
Sixty stories tall
Now you may have seen one ghetto
But have you lived there at all?
And if Shaw is fierce and uncompromising (channeling you-go-girl R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha), in her "Brave, free, black me/I am a woman of the ghetto" self-assertion and with her blunt naming of material imperatives--jobs, food, schools, goddammit--who can blame her? It's the only reasonable response to those who would posit a theoretical solution to a practical problem. If you won't come to the ghetto to see how we're really living, I'm gonna bring the ghetto to you.
Most political screeds set to music enjoy the shelf life of unrefrigerated salmon. I know I'm not the only one who cringes--fair or not--at the name Joan Baez. (Though not, of course, when I think of ideologically motivated songwriters like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Funny how the civil rights movement produced so many more keepers than the 60s anti-war and early women's movement.) What makes "Woman" a great and timeless song--essential lyrics aside--is its dazzling, sensuous, funky sound. You know you're in for something special from the opening couple of seconds as Shaw improvisationally hmm hmms over a fat, snaky bass line. She's just warming up for some scorching, but always smooth and disciplined (some of today's pop divas could learn a thing or two) vocal exercises, buoyed by Richard Evans' subtly layered arrangement--soulful choir girl back-ups, conga, organ, electric guitar and distinctive kalimba breaks. Its pop appeal just might be the song's greatest (subversive) strength. Everybody knows you catch flies with honey, not vinegar.