A poet with soul: The ballads of Gil Scott-Heron
The late Gil Scott-Heron was many things -- poet, activist, icon, cipher -- but it’s easy to forget: He could sing, too. Following his passing on May 27, a parade of accolades have lauded his achievements as a cultural figure, drawing attention to his powerful, incisive spoken-word pieces. No doubt, they inevitably mention “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Scott-Heron’s best-known work (and rightfully celebrated) but it was originally recorded in 1970, early in his career, when the poet only had the slap of congas to accompany him. Even though he re-recorded the song a year later, this time backed by jazz sessioners, it was still the same spoken-word piece.
If that song is all you know of Scott-Heron’s work, you might assume he was like other radical black poets of the ‘60s and ‘70s, rapping spoken word over sparse percussion. That style typified seminal albums of the era, such as New York’s Last Poets and their self-titled debut, or "Rappin’ Black in a White World" by Los Angeles’ own Watts Prophets. Scott-Heron’s first album from 1970, "Small Talk at 125th and Lenox" (which opened with “Revolution”) was no different except for one, notable exception.
On “The Vulture,” Scott-Heron first plays a rolling piano riff and then sings -- not recites -- his lyrics. Suddenly, the audience is made aware of a mesmerizing voice with a quiet growl and knack for flipping notes off a rumbling low end. By 1971, partnered with the (inexplicably under-credited) composer Brian Jackson, Scott-Heron began putting that voice on full display, and while he never stopped being a poet, he also blossomed as a singer.
For me, Scott-Heron’s baritone falls somewhere between the soaring, polished grace of Bobby Womack and steely chill of Rakim, but there’s also something distinctively mournful to his vocals. Turn on 1974’s "Winter in America," the first (and arguably best) album credited to both Scott-Heron and Jackson, and practically every song carries a deep strain of melancholy. My favorite track on that album, “Rivers of My Fathers,” borrows subtly from Horace Silver’s standard, “Song For My Father.” However, with Jackson’s downbeat piano and Scott-Heron reaching for the lower registers of his voice, the song actually makes me think more of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” in how both riff on the spirit of the blues (indeed, in his later years, Scott-Heron identified himself as a “bluesologist”).
On their best songs in the 1970s, Scott-Heron and Jackson brought a sonic gravitas to bear on topics that tackled everything from apartheid (“Johannesburg”) to urban neglect (“We Almost Lost Detroit”), cultural disillusionment (“Peace Go With You Brother”) to drug addiction (“Home Is Where the Hatred Is”). Intellectually, they were certainly part of black nationalist/artistic movements, raising consciousness alongside Amiri Baraka’s noisy, squealing "It’s Nation Time" and "Don’t Play Us Cheap," a jazz/blues musical written by the brilliant, eccentric Melvin Van Peebles. But musically, Scott-Heron and Jackson also stood apart from these contemporaries.
Like Baraka, Peebles or the Last Poets’ Umar Bin Hassan and Alafia Pudim, Scott-Heron could hoot, holler and screech with the best of them, and most of his albums always included at least one spoken-word piece, as if to remind the listener of his literary roots. Yet, as humorous and biting a poem such as “H20Gate Blues” was on "Winter in America," you’re more likely to remember “The Bottle,” an unlikely proto-disco hit in which Scott-Heron sings about the ravages of alcoholism over a swirling, funky groove built around Jackson’s Rhodes piano.
That booming voice is what made Scott-Heron so unique as an artist. His songwriting was undeniably trenchant, but his singing is what also made it elegant. Those inflections lent his words layers of meaning that, at times, conveyed more than any literal reading of his lyrics could yield.
It’s that baritone that inevitably haunts me in these days, especially on “Rivers of My Fathers.” When Scott-Heron hits the chorus, crooning, “rivers of my fathers/could you carry me home?” he speaks to a multitude of desires: for political liberation, cultural emancipation and personal redemption. The song aches with the yearning to be free of shackles and burdens, whether from the world or those self-imposed. Especially this past week, in reflecting on Scott-Heron’s life, its triumphs and struggles, I keep returning to that chorus. As his voice trails off on it, I imagine the poet, with his perpetual, playful smirk, surrendering himself to the water’s flow, finally at peace as he disappears downstream, floating toward a distant home.
Photo credit: Mischa Richter