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The Crafts and Cross Dressing among the Dead and Wounded

These here blog posts are homes on the range. In focal realism I roam over a range of brambles and thickets having to do with culture, history and philosophy. But here, the range is stranger, for we move into the mythical, aesthetic and symbolic, here we are among the dead and wounded. I take that orienting phrase, among the dead and wounded, from an old English folk song, titled variously, Jack Monroe, Jack the sailor or, as the Dead have it, Jack-a-Roe. Songs, as Bob Weir likes to say, bring us into another reality, no less real than the reality we analyze and dissect through words, data and senses; in straight and linear easements of understanding. Songs are always happening, our ears and hearts catch up to the story that always and already is. The story of Jack-a-Roe goes like this. Young Jack leaves behind his love to go to war. His lover, a young woman of high pedigree, is disconsolate at the absence. So, she signs up for war service by getting men’s clothing (this is the 19th century remember) and reporting for duty on the ship. The lyrical poetry gives the story the pathos it deserves and it sounds like this:

There was a wealthy merchant, in London he did dwell He had a beautiful daughter, the truth to you I'll tell Oh, the truth to you I'll tell

She had sweethearts aplenty, and men of high degree But none but Jack the sailor, her true love there could be Oh, her true love there could be

Jackie's gone a-sailing with trouble on his mind He's left his native country, and his darling girl behind Oh, his darling girl behind

She went down to a tailor's shop and dressed in mens' array She climbed on board a vessel to convey herself away Oh, to convey herself away.


First performed by the Grateful Dead in 1977, the Vietnam fiasco swells and sweats through the pores of the performance. Not only did young men go off with trouble on their minds, some stayed, burned their draft cards and wandered the land, still with trouble on their minds. A year earlier, as we celebrated the revolution and 1776, Bob Marley released Rastaman Vibrations and the song "War":


Until the philosophy which hold one race

Superior and another inferior

Is finally

And permanently

Discredited

And Abandoned

Everywhere is war

Me say war


Holding together any kind of love, and perhaps especially erotic love, in the midst of violence and war, is tricky business. When Jack’s love reports to the ship the authorities say:


Before you get on board, sir, your name we'd like to know She smiled all in her countenance, "They call me Jack-A-Roe." Oh, they call me Jack-A-Roe.

I see your waist is slender, your fingers they are small Your cheeks too red and rosy to face the cannonball. Oh, to face the cannonball.

I know my waist is slender, my fingers, they are small But it would not make me tremble to see ten thousand fall Oh, to see ten thousand fall.

The risk, the courage, the creativity. In love something is always possible. In love we find a way. In love we enter the theatre of war. Here’s the Jerry Garcia David Grisman version of Jack-a Roe, from their album Shady Grove:




The war being over, Jack- a -Roe finds Jack the sailor among the dead and wounded. And, like the Samaritan, takes him up in her arms, takes him into town and takes him to a physician who quickly heals his wounds. Three takes. What is it going to take to love the dead and wounded in a time of violence and war? The Dead have always shared this question, “God damn, well I do declare, have you seen the like? Their walls are built of cannon balls their motto is don’t tread on me.” (Uncle John’s Band). See, here are the options, enter the collective of a violent society, or come, hear the song, the song of love and creative resistance.


In 1848, Ellen and William Craft, slaves of Georgia, found their way to freedom, landing in Boston at the Church of transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker, where other fugitive slaves found community. Boston was the headquarters of the abolitionist movement and “vigilance committees” surrounded freed slaves to protect them from professional slave catchers who persisted through 1850. Ellen and William Craft were not home free, as it were, since slave catchers continued to pursue them. Rev. Parker apparently kept a revolver on his desk as a message to southern slave catchers who came “investigating.” What is it going to take? When Ellen and William first escaped, they did it in plain sight and did not have to go “underground.” They went to the railroad station, and to get on board, Ellen dressed as a man. She was light skinned and passed for white. She cut her hair and conveyed to the railway conductor that she was very frail and sickly, so she had his/her “servant” (William) travel back north with him/her.[1] It worked, a happy ending like Jack the Sailor’s but not really because there had to be white abolitionists to surround the Crafts, that is what it took. Think of the courage of Ellen and William Craft; the creativity, the acting, the outward personas betraying the depth of their love and commitment to each-other. As a slave couple, they could easily have been separated at any time, as so many men and women in love had been so traumatized in both the north and the south. Now think of black culture, how outward performance has often determined the rate of survival. Think of performing for your livelihood and your right to love and be loved, nothing more.

1850, 1977, 2022, its all the same. How now creative resistance? Ponder that while you listen to Jack-a Roe, 1977. Nineteenth century lyricism, black disco overtones, Dead beats; and the creative symmetry among the Dead and Wounded. Why not you and me?



[1] This account taken from James McPherson’s magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom (New York, Oxford: 1988), 81. Jack -A-Roe “from the Phil Zone” was performed at the University of Alabama, which, for me, accounts for the ominous sounding introduction to the song---Tuscaloosa, a chocktaw compound word, literally “black warrior” was the site of bloody Tuesday June 9, 1964; black civil rights activists were tear-gassed and beaten, not to be confused with Bloody Sunday, its all on Wikipedia. Sorry if there are ads on the links---The whole show can be found on the Grateful Dead Archives https://archive.org/details/gd1977-05-17.121485.mtx.dusborne.flac16/gd77-05-17s1t08.flac

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