Read 'Em John

Rhiannon Giddens

Hubby Jenkins

Dom Flemons

Leyla McCalla

The chronology of blogs is always a little strange, so I'm going to jump to the end first.

The Drops closed the show with "Read Em John", which is on their latest album, 'Leaving Eden'. I was planning on just using this post to show all four members (although technically, cellist Leyla McCalla is a long-term guest) without their various instruments. But in checking to make sure I had the title right – I never know where apostrophes go – I found a couple of other details.

The song is performed as a call-and-response number, in the style known as a "ring shout". According to Smithsonian Folkways, "[t]he ring shout has African origins, but as the tradition formed during slavery, it also contains strong elements of Christian belief." Dom Flemons would start the call, and the others would respond, while clapping in a complex and layered rhythm.

Calwell and Ivory writes in their notes about the song (PDF):

"Read ‘Em, John is from a body of historic repertoire known as ring shouts, which was in use on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia during the time of slavery. Traditionally, the form was characterized by call-and-response singing, polyrhythmic percussion (canes striking wooden floors and hand clapping)…"

"Read ‘Em, John has its own interesting textual history. For years, the assumption was that “John” referred to the biblical figure John, author of the book of Revelation. Recently, another theory has surfaced. “John” represents a select group of slaves who had somehow learned to read. The “letter” which “John” places on the table is actually the Emancipation Proclamation. The community commands John to “read ‘em” simply because he is the one who can. The ability to read therefore becomes a vehicle for the delivery of freedom."

Not a bad way to end the show.

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