As most people who are aware of me will know, ‘I Hate The White Man’ was written in 1968, and was released on Flat Baroque And Berserk in 1969? I’ve never really written about how the song came about, historically, or what I was feeling during the time that it was percolating in my mind, between 1955 and 1968. So now’s as good a time as any to write about that history.
In this last week I’ve seen added interest in it for obvious reasons. The killing of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a foul deed enough without actually being witness to it on world television. I watch news all the time, because I like to keep up, so as soon as it was there, so was I. I wondered what I was watching when it first hit the screens, but after a few seconds I was as horrified as I’ve ever been about the general crass attitude of particularly the white cops in the USA. I wanted to reach through the screen and push that cop over, but I was being forced to witness a live execution. It was as horrific a thing as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of death and destruction. They blurred it out in later transmissions, but “I can’t breathe”.. will be with me for the rest of my life.
This action took me right back to my first realisation of what was happening in the USA with regard to race and race relations. I began to become aware of the situation in 1954-5 when Lonnie Donegan had a hit with songs called ‘John Henry’, which was basically a song about a chain gang, and a song called ‘Rock Island Line’. Both these songs ……. were about life in the early 20th Century USA. I think that The Rock Island Line was the ‘A’ side, but that was of no consequence. Both songs were dynamite.
By the time that Donegan released his next record, all us kids, (I was 14-15 at the time), were starting to know about conditions that black people faced in the USA. I’d never met a black person at the time. I was intrigued. Here was something I could identify with.
Then the Rosa Parkes incident happened on the Montgomery, Alabama bus, and The Civil Rights Movement kicked off. As we all know, that’s a very long time ago now. So why does it feel like yesterday? Because it’s still going on! Nothing has been resolved in the 65 years since I began to hear about it. NOTHING! There has even been a black President, and a fine President too, and yet resolution seems as far away as ever.
Among Donegan’s releases were one or two Leadbelly songs, so I went off to find out all about this guy called Huddie Leadbetter. Briefly he done time in jail for killing people, and been released because the prison governor had been entertained by his songs!! This fact raised wonder in me. I wondered how the hell a murderer could be released just for singing songs. I spent a whole year at about the age of 16 thinking about this occasionally. Especially when I was singing one of his songs.
Then one day, somewhere in my seventeenth year, it dawned on me that where he came from, in the south of the USA, life was cheap, really cheap. I realised that if you were a white Governor in charge of a jail full of black men, you were not only judge and jury, you were god. I began to really understand the fundamental injustice of what was happening. Basically, Black Lives Didn’t Matter. I’ve never written that down before, but I started to know it in 1956-7.
Leadbelly’s songs changed my life. Goodnight Irene sounds like a love song, and it’s been a hit for a few people, but there’s a verse in it that sings, ‘Sometimes I live in the country, Sometimes I live in the town, Sometimes I have a great notion, To jump in the river and drown’. So there’s more to Goodnight Irene than immediately meets the eye.
The Blues not only denote a cold colour, they describe the colour of a feeling, and often that feeling easily translates into a knowledge of deep depression. ‘Trouble in mind I’m blue, but I won’t be blue always, gonna let that evenin’ train, ease my worried mind’. It’s a mindset. A mindset that’s really difficult to get any release from.
I listened to everyone. Josh White and Big Bill Broonsy were obvious geniuses, Robert Johnson was great. When I was into my early twenties I came across Snooks Eaglin’s first record, which was mesmerising. It was never off the turntable for the best part of a year. It contained the best version of ‘Trouble In Mind’ that I ever heard, but the entire record was riveting for me.
I progressed into a love of jazz after my first encounter with the blues. I loved the songs, the music, the melody, the people, the history. I’d become deeply involved in black culture, from afar, on a distant island. I lived in Blackpool, which was ‘the’ northern holiday entertainment centre. I got to know the Clarke Brothers, black dancers who did a season of shows on the North Pier for a couple of years. They were striking characters from another world. They were athletic, with brilliant timing, and very professional, with a worldly intelligence. I was very impressed by them. Superb men. They came up to the flat I shared with Jimmy Peglar a couple of times. We talked about jazz, their roots, and the USA. They were way above my station at the time. It was an honour to be with them.
I had a dozen Charlie Parker records when I was 18, and when I found Miles Davis, my life changed. Davis inspired me more than perhaps anyone else. At the same time that he always seemed to be sullen, he was one of the most expressive people of my time. He seemed to be in command of every moment he lived through, and determined to convey that to a waiting world. After listening to Miles for a few years, I was impelled to improve on the only instrument I knew, and make my own statement. I’d largely put the guitar down in my eighteenth year, but a year or two later I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
I’d had my own tryst with the blues in any case, and I was ready to start the journey into a serious pursuit of poetic expression.
The journey has been a long one. Suffice to say that it began the first day I heard a man from the USA singing about the circumstances of something deeper and more immediate than I’d ever been exposed to earlier in my life. Effectively, I thought that I was trying to bring what I’d discovered in ‘John Henry’ and ‘Trouble In Mind’, into fusion with all of my other cultural experiences.
I felt confident enough to try to begin to use my other influences, including Keats and Shelley, Beethoven, Kerouac, Stravinsky, Leadbelly, Shakespeare, Whitman, Robert Service and anyone who had ever inspired this hard fought progress through a youth I was too old for into an adulthood I wasn’t ready for. And I was obviously stupid enough to try.
So I began to invent a kind of blues of my own making. Some of the songs were actually called blues, like ‘MCP Blues’ and ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, and others should have been, like ‘October 12th’ and, o yes, ‘I Hate The White Man’. ‘I Hate The White Man’ was a song that wrote itself in 1968. To cut a long story short, I’d been involved in the tumult of that year.
Among other events that Spring, I’d agreed with my friend, photographer Stefan Tyszko to meet in Grosvenor Square for the demonstration against the Vietnam War. I was up late as per usual, so when I got there I couldn’t get into the Square. I tried, but there were thousands crushed in there. The noise was like being in a pitched battle momentarily, and the cops were blocking the streets off, so people were piling up everywhere and being trapped.
I tried to get between people, in my usual manner. I used to think that I was lithe enough to get through anything, but the crowd was completely pressing, and dangerous. Then I got trapped, along with others, against the black painted railings in the street leading into the Square. I was almost injured, so I slowly worked my way out.
I thought that Stefan would have been up there at the business end of the violence, taking photos, but I’ll have to check on that. It was a good lesson in what to try to avoid in the future. It was a riot, and completely out of control when I got there. I’ve never been that concerned about personal safety, but I was reminded that day that the force of a moving crowd is overwhelming.
Then the following month, Martin Luther King was killed. As people might know, I was never a friend of religion. I’ve always felt alienated by religion, and by any thought of a reliance on anything that looked or felt like dippy superstition, but the killing of Martin Luther King was something different altogether. It was an affront to the civilised world, and a crime against humanity, against us all. Civil Rights were the single most important thing we fought to preserve in that moment, and this was amplified when he was killed.
I’d read Black Elk Speaks, along with other accounts of the treatment of indigenous ‘Americans’ by white planet creep. The stories of Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. Of Crazy Horse and Geronimo. The song was beginning to write itself. There was anger in my heart. I was dripping with my own blood.
I thought that I had to own up. Everything in my heart was telling me that I had to speak, because I knew first hand that there were millions of black people in the world who were more gifted than I was, and in particular, as humans. I’d met some of them, and read about countless others.
I thought at first that it might be a song like ‘We Shall Overcome’, but then I thought that that song was owned by the wet and wheedling white middle class. The song was a bit of a puff-ball. I then knew where I was. I knew that I had to deliver a statement. The treatment of Caryl Chessman, who was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin jail in May 1960, reminded me about how institutionally cynical white justice really was. Chessman was no saint, and he wasn’t black, but he fought for his life for about twelve years before the California Supreme Court apparently !unwittingly!, filled the execution chamber with gas while his latest stay of execution was ‘on its way’! I went for it, I transferred the hate I had for the countless betrayals of ‘due course’ I’d witnessed over the years. It was going to have venom.
The record was reviewed by the Joan Bakewell in one of the broadsheets, at the end of her review she said, “It is to be hoped that he doesn’t believe in some of the things he’s singing about”. I’ve never trusted her opinion since that day.
Ten years later, I began to realise that the song was far too long, that for best effect it should be cut down to the two verses in which the real meat of the song is to the fore. So a little later than that, I was singing just the first verse and the last verse. The long version edges on esoteric/trance because of my overuse of coded prose/rhyme. Every line in the second and third verses has a direct relation to the ethic/meaning, but perhaps it’s too flowery for the later roy. The point needs to be made succinctly, and quickly.
With the murder of George Floyd, the song has relevance again. Not that it didn’t, ever, but it’s again witness to the fact that this principle, this truth, that all humans are born equal, is a torch that needs to continue to be carried by all of us who have been aware of the injustice meted out to people who have a different colour of skin than Cecil Rhodes. Actually, a different colour of mind.
We had someone at my old school who won a ‘Rhodes Scholarship’ to Oxford. I’d have been about fourteen at the time, and about as close to that kind of an achievement as I would have been to Pluto. I’m very lucky. I’ve been guided by my heart, all my life, to put the underdog first; and I Hate The White Man is part of that. But I had to go further than that, and I knew as much at the time of writing the song.
I knew that writing another ‘We Shall Overcome’ type of drone was just useless. The word that follows ‘Overcome’ in that song is ‘someday’, and someday was too late, even 51 years ago. So as you can imagine, my intent at the time was to cut through ‘someday’. ‘Someday’ is cynical, and the worst way to be trying to educate people. How much notice of ‘someday’ are you going to take?
I almost understand black frustration at not being understood AT ALL, perhaps because I fall into that bag for some of the same reasons. At the age of four I was continually put down, and it became a recurring theme. But I can’t put myself in the same class as being racially repressed, even before you get up in the morning.
I’ve gone through racial abuse. I was spat on twice in France in 1959 for having blue eyes and blonde hair. I was threatened with a knife in New York in 1969 for being English, by an Irish American ‘patriot’. I had to stand my ground. He had to be pulled away. In San Antonio, Texas, where I sang I Hate The White Man on the radio in 1969, they received a phone call which was handed to me. It was a guy who said,
“Are you Roy Harper?” I answered him in the affirmative. Then he asked me whether I’d written the song. Again I said ‘yes’, to which he said,
“Man, I’ve got a gun here.. I’m gonna come down there an’ put you out your misery”… in a Texan drawl.
I was raced out of the door within a minute. The radio guys drove me back to my hotel. We were there in what seemed like seconds. From talking to interested people about writing and music one minute, to being rushed back to a hotel room the next is a headless human moment. I still had the momentum being generated by the interview in my mind and body, but in the next moment, I’d suddenly been teleported into a silent hotel room. I was still in the middle of a sentence.. that was never delivered. Off the cliff, but never landing.
I’ve had a thousand of such moments, but that’s not in the same class as being dulled every day by a glance into the mirror. Knowing that the alien culture/society sneaking through into that mirror, the mirror that’s telling you, with every breath, that you’d like to be someone else, somewhere else, must be soul-destroying. To want to be someone other than the person that you are, or worse still, other than the one that you ‘could’ be, has to be a living nightmare. Ignorance is bliss, but not a lot of black people are ignorant.
In some ways, at times, we all want to be someone else. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but I was twenty years too late. But that’s a white boy talking about a youthful fantasy of his own, in his own culture.
In the real world, institutional racism is everywhere. It’s written subliminally into the law, sometimes by mindlessly not recognising that law has to be re-written to be inclusive. Society is lazy about itself, especially in ‘good’ times. And the law is more often a sloth than an ass. And it’s absolutely no good using a by-law about damaging public works, to stall the removal of a public work, when it’s been clearly obvious for a long time that this particular ‘work’ is well past its use by date. It should have been put into a museum an age ago, and not become the focus of social unrest. Or for a clandestine attempt to discover whether a virus is as virulent as the last time the young public were all shouting in the streets together.
It’ll now go into the local museum, bashed and battered by its recent dive off the dock. It’ll be in a case with banners and memorabilia from the demo. And all the locals will go to see themselves now and then, and they’ll wonder at what times were like in the early 21st Century. Or perhaps the museum will be under water in fifty years time…
But it’s wrong of me to be taking my focus off the job in hand, which is to try to make this count a lot more than it did last time round. It’s a shame that Rentamob turned up to loot and burn, as they usually do, but this time must be made to count. There are a lot of young black people who will change this society for the better if real change is now put in motion.
They might help us all to help ourselves. Society is only as good as it’s weakest constituent, so let’s begin to try to allow the perceived weaker to begin to enjoy the strength they have. There is no other way. There is no alternative.