Mattie May Thomas footnote (2010)

Along with “Dangerous Blues,” “Big Mac from Macamere,” and “No Mo’ Freedom,” Mattie May Thomas’s “Workhouse Blues” appeared in 2005 on American Primitive II—Pre-War Revenants, a collection of 1920s and ’30s recordings by performers about whom almost nothing was known. A few years later, as entranced by Thomas as I’d been when I first heard her, it occurred to me that the general release of her songs might have sparked someone—a relative, a neighbor, a friend of a friend—to set down who she was. I googled her—and there she was, Mattie May Thomas, with her own MySpace page. An anonymous fan had put it up: her four songs and someone else’s face.The fan turned out to be the Greek techno artist who records as Bio­mass, who later posted videos of his reworkings of Thomas’s music. Each takes a Thomas performance and cuts it up, loops it, shuffles words and phrases, repeats them in stuttering echo, adds clicks and hum and whine, and sets it against footage of conflict: a tank speeding through the Iraqi desert; heavily armed police driving back Italian pro­testers; what might be film from the Vietnam War. Most striking is a piece that opens with split-second flashes of people running separated by much longer segments of black screen. As it goes on, the moments of action imperceptibly lengthen, until you begin to realize you’re watch­ing the riots in Paris during May 1968. The glimpses of people and streets accumulate, building a tension to the point of explosion, all to Thomas as if she’s looking back on the event, not forward to it, not on some other plane of being, her voice carrying “No mo’ freedom” as stu­dents throw stones, rush forward, burn cars, are beaten, and even when as a comment on the ameliorating powers of modern capitalism they are replaced by three black women in a nightclub, dressed in furry biki­nis and doing the limbo—one of the women giving Thomas the face she now bears. As I write, you page down to Thomas’s 134 MySpace friends, includ­ing Nina Simone, Pablo Neruda, Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Sun Ra, Jack Kerouac, Alicia Keys, Janis Joplin, Suicide, James Brown, and Guy De­bord, whose 1973 film La Societe du Spectacle is the clear inspiration for Biomass’s “No Mo’ Freedom” video. It’s something to contemplate: What if these people, almost all of them dead, really had heard Mattie May Thomas? What if those living still haven’t? How lucky they are to have that ahead of them.
mattie myspace

Footnote from When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (2010), p. 119
Rough_God_Riding_cover


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