by John Sinclair
A Soledad Brother is, generally speaking, an African-American man doing time in Californiaís maximum-security Soledad Prison, and, quite specifically, one of three convicted felons -- John Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson -- who were incarcerated in the maximum-security cellblock at Soledad when they were charged with killing a guard in retaliation for the murder of three black activists at the prison on January 13, 1970.
These Soledad Brothers made sensational headlines on August 7, 1970 when George Jacksonís 17-year-old brother Jonathan burst into a Marin County courtroom with a machine gun, freed three San Quentin prisoners and took Judge Harold Haley as a hostage to demand freedom for the Soledad Brothers. Haley, prisoners William Christmas and James McClain, and Jonathan Jackson were killed by police fire as they attempted to drive away from the courthouse.
Suddenly in the public spotlight although still locked down in his prison cell, George Jackson published a pair of best-selling books, Letters from Prison and Soledad Brother, which brought him world-wide attention. But on August 21, 1971, Jackson -- brandishing a 9mm automatic pistol alleged to have been smuggled into the prison by Angela Davis -- was gunned down in the prison yard at San Quentin in what officials characterized as an escape attempt.
Jackson was buried with full honors as a Field Commander of the Black Panther Party and mourned as a revolutionary hero. He was immortalized in song by Bob Dylan ("They Shot George Jackson Down") and his books remained well into the '70's.
Itís been a long time since the Soledad Brothers captivated the nationís attention -- damn near 30 years -- but now theyíre back, this time in the guise of a rough two-man acid-blues duo from Toledo, Ohio thatís burst onto the contemporary scene with a series of kamikaze tours, a couple of primitive 45s and this, their first full-length recording.
Guitarist and vocalist Johnny Walker and drummer Ben Smith pay serious tribute to the three legendary black revolutionaries, not only assuming their name but honoring the black liberation struggle with a stripped-down, seriously raucous blues attack deeply rooted in the rawest idioms of the African American musical tradition.
These Soledad Brothers offer an impressive program of original songs composed in the mode of classic country blues and its tougher urban outgrowth, augmented by homages to the music of John Lee Hooker ("Wanna Take You Higher") and Hound Dog Taylor ("Gimme Back My Wig") and a faithful rendition of the old Toledo blues favorite, "Loviní Machine."
Walkerís terrific songs are immediate and full of life, from the cocky challenge of "Come on Down to Broad Street" ("Donít come íround here talkiní your shit / Sooner or later you gonna step in it") to the fast-moving "Take You Away From Here" and "Wonít You Ride Me Slow." The fiercely emotive "Prepare Yourself (Like a Soledad Brother)" may well be Walkerís reading of a text by George Jackson; in any case it echoes the feeling and rhetoric of the revolutionary movement of yore while speaking clearly to the conditions under which we live and suffer in America today.
Somehow, against all odds, almost inexplicably, these two young men of the Caucasian persuasion have reached out to embrace our long-obscured revolutionary legacy of 30 years ago and the almost equally obscured root music of the African American experience. They sing and play the hell out of the music and -- whatís most important -- make it completely their own. The Soledad Brothers are no cornball blues revival act but make a fresh, idiosyncratic, soulful extension of the blues into their own life experience and out into the world at large. Now thatís something to write home about!
(ED NOTE: The Soledad Brothers record is available from Estrus Records)
© John Sinclair, New Orleans
March 29, 2000
All Rights Reserved.
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