Paula Boggs Band was at local community radio station KBCS-fm, having just sung “King Brewster,” the true story of my ancestor’s journey from bondage to freedom, when our white DJ, Iaan Hughes, sprung the question to white multi-instrumentalist band member Darren Loucas, “I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable, but how does it feel to sing those lyrics as a white man.”
“Those lyrics” include,
“His [white] confederate [half] brother bequeathed a pocket watch. As if that could compensate for all King Brewster lost by the color of his skin and hum of cotton gin. No escape from breaking back, burning flesh, being tracked down.”
When I wrote King Brewster my focus was poetry, melody and mood, not performance. I wanted to be honest and honoring. I hoped the song would educate and entertain. Most decendants of America’s enslaved realize how rare it is, even in 2024, to document our ancestors’ stories so as someone who, relatively speaking, knows a lot about mine, I felt and feel an obligation to share a rare gift so as to better humanize America’s original sin.
Finishing the song I hoped Grammy-winning folk artist and historian Dom Flemons would sing “King Brewster” with me. Dom said “yes” so when you hear the recording ‘those lyrics’ are sung by a Black man. Our album release shows featured Puget Sound’s veteran folk musician Reggie Garrett, another Black man, whose rendition was so poignant it almost felt like Reggie was taking us back to the 19th century. All of that was great but of course the band wanted to perform “King Brewster” in our regular set list, meaning a band member would need to sing those lyrics if the song was to continue living as a duet.
When I approached Darren, my only advice was to make it “his.” Darren is a veteran multi-instrumentalist well known within Seattle’s music scene. Depending on song, his voice can lean towards Tom Petty, Rodney Crowell or Towns Van Zandt. His singing voice is a storyteller’s and when you hear it, you believe the story. Honestly, that was more than good enough for me and before we arrived at KBCS, neither Darren or I had thought much about the profoundness of him singing those lyrics. Once Iaan Hughes posed the question though, I couldn’t unring that bell.
I now consider it rare, powerful, beautiful, raw and healing when Darren, a white Ashkenazi Jewish man, sings those lyrics. Not long ago Darren had a family emergency so I turned to his sub, Dave Swaintek, a white genial banjo-slinging US Army veteran who sings with an “O Brother Where Art Thou” Appalachian-hollering vibe. My advice to Dave also was to make it his own — no mimicking Dom, Darren or anyone else. I told him the most important thing was to sing so the audience believed hebelieved what he was singing. And that he did…so much so the crowd gasped at the end of our performance.
Not all of us are descendants of people enslaved on American soil but many of us know hardship and resilience. And if we don’t know it personally, we can respect the road traveled by those who do know it. Acknowledging this connection makes us less mean, less jaded, more empathetic, more in community, more human. Thank you Darren and Dave for your vulnerability and authenticity. I now believe, those qualities are not only the most important for singing “King Brewster,” but perhaps therein lies a key to more humans seeing fellow humans as…well just that…human.