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Song of the Day: Ray Scott, The Prayer

Ray Scott, “The Prayer” – from Change Is Gonna Come: The Voice Of Black America 1963-1973

I first heard this track at a now-defunct record store in the Berkeley mudflats. It was one of those places with “listening stations” where one could hear the albums that were “on display”—and any album not featured on one of their listening stations could be taken to the front counter and listened to on headphones there.

These listening stations, which were big for a while here in the States but now seem to be disappearing, were a throwback to the record store experiences of my youth. When I was a kid, living on Potrero Hill, there was a great record store a few blocks from my house, on Connecticut Street. We’d go over there after school pretty regularly and sort through the hits and hot new singles—45rpms in those days. And we’d take a single up to the counter, The Jackson 5’s latest or something from The O’Jays, and the owner would play it for us. And we’d shake our groove things, a little group of black and white kids, friends, dancing in the dusty aisles of a neighborhood record store.

Those days and that record store have other powerful connections to this strange, terrific track. The neighborhood I lived in back then was predominantly African American, poor and working class, a mixture of small, older homes and housing projects, and the church was a powerful center and focus of the African American community in the area. Walking though my neighborhood on a Sunday morning, I would pass families going to church in their Sunday finery, the women in impressive hats, and from the churches would emanate the voice of preachers, call and response, the rhythms and cadence and force that is recreated in “The Prayer.”

Some background

Redd, Ray and Andre’s Prayer: Redd Foxx had a comedy routine called “The Prayer” which found Foxx taking on the tones of a black preacher to wish a litany of disasters upon Alabama governor George Wallace, then one of most prominent faces of segregationism (he of “segregation now, segregation forever” infamy). Legendary singer/songwriter/producer/”Black Godfather” Andre Williams hooked up with comedian/singer Ray Scott to record a version of the routine, in which Scott put all of his fervor into the presentation with appropriate church organ accompaniment and background vocalists adding a “church” feel. The result had a 1970 release as a Checker 45 (backed with the countrified novelty “Lily White Mama, Jet Black Dad”), which led to an LP the following year. (via Get On Down With The Stepfather Of Soul!.)

What is there to say about the song? It’s a superb evocation of the style of preaching in black churches, wildly inventive in the disasters it prays to the Lord to inflict on Wallace. It goes on and on, piling one thing onto the other in an increasingly giddy fashion. The specific details—14 possums, 22 freight trains—are particularly effective and appealing. But while it may raise a smile, it never exactly becomes funny. The anger is always right there on the surface.

The greatest moment in the song is the final line: Let him have nappy hair and be black like me. After the stupefying chain of disaster, pain and violence depicted in the song, it ends by saying, if that’s not enough, then make him black. It’s a shock. The song has been so powerful and in its way celebratory up till then—celebrating the anger and sense of purpose and solidarity in the black community. But what that final line says, in a suddenly quieter, no longer preaching voice, is that it is still a matter of violence and suffering to be black in the United States of America. Combined with the immensity of George Wallace’s fear and hated of African Americans, that makes being black the worst fate we could wish for him. It’s bracing.

A number of the cultural texts I’ve looked at recently have a twist at the end, that propels them in a new direction, or changes the way you see everything that has gone before, or introduces some powerful nuance to the discussion: the “long swim” at the end of Dobyn’s “Rain Song” (here) that brings in the seriousness of love at then end of what otherwise seems a lighthearted poem, or the final line of Dar William’s “It Happens Every Day” (here) that finally acknowledges the lost love that has haunted the song all along. It can be very effective, that twist at the end, but I think it can also be an easy way out, a shortcut to producing (a semblance of) profundity, particularly in poems.  But it’s not always the easy way, and sometimes it is completely earned—and it is seldom more powerful than here, where it is like the floor dropping out from underneath you.

For more info…

Lyrics

Ray Scott, “The Prayer”

And now, ladies and gentlemen,
If you’ll just bow your heads in prayer
We shall now pray for the governor.

Oh Lord
Let the governor have a 17 car accident
With a gasoline truck
That’s been hit by a match wagon
Over the Grand Canyon.
And if that’s not bad enough for the governor,
Let the ambulance that’s taking him to the hospital
Four flat tires
Let the motor crack
Let the block bust
Let the windshield crack
Let the driver have a stroke
And a hemorrhage
And run into a brick wall, Lord,
That’s housing nuclear warheads and TNT, Lord

And if that’s not bad enough for the governor
When he get to the hospital
Let the doctor be a junkie
With a gorilla on his back
An orangutan in his room
And let the hospital catch on fire
And let the hospital ceiling cave in on the operating table
And let the doctor have a rusty scalpel in his hand, Oh Lord.

Oh Lord, if that’s not bad enough for the governor,
Lord have mercy,
Let him be stranded in the Sahara desert
10,000 miles of dry sand
Eyeballs bulging
Tongue swollen
Lips cracked
Crawling on his hands and knees
And let him come up on a cool running fruit stand
Of frosty fruit juice in that hot desert
And let them have a black waiter back there, Lord,
Like they always have

And if that’s not bad enough for the governor
Lord have mercy
Let lightning strike him in the heart 38 times
Let muddy water run in his grave
And let possums, 14 of ‘em, suffering from hydrophobia
Eat through the casket looking for some new meat
and make him so ugly
Until he will resemble a gorilla, Lord,
Sucking hot Chinese mustard
Lying across a railroad track with freight trains,
22 of ‘em, running across his kneecaps

And if that’s not bad enough for the governor,
Lord, let him suffer
Make him live in agony

And when he wake up tomorrow morning,
Oh Lord,
Let him have nappy hair and be black like me.

Filed under: Song of the Day, , , , ,

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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