Johannesburg

“We may not know for sure, because the news we get is unreliable man”.

In the music business record companies used to employ talent scouts who were called A&R (artist and repertoire) and in the 1970s when Saturday Night Live emerged it was stirring, we felt like it was an underground thing not like today when their musical guests are likely to be someone who is fashionable or rich and famous, in the 70s it was radical comedy and radical musical usually not so known, exotic and probably amazing. In the 70s SNL was the A&R of tv.

When I watched Gil Scott-Heron in 1976 play Johannesburg I didn’t think twice about  joining his army. By the 1980s the Anti-Apartheid movement became an everyday news story and boycotting South Africa, as a way to force change, grew. But in the decade before, in the 70s,  the Anti-Apartheid movement wasn’t getting much mainstream coverage or perhaps I didn’t notice …but  I noticed Gil Scott-Heron. He drove the message home.

Here is a VIDEOLINK TO SEE THE SONG from around that time. Unfortunately the sync between his voice and the music isn’t stellar but you still get the idea. In addition to the message, the most priceless thing about this song is Brian Jackson on the moog synthesizer. NOBODY asks a keyboard player to play like that especially not another keyboard player, it is amazing and beautiful. One other thing I find a wee bit hilarious – the harmonica player. Maybe it is because I’ve listened to this song for 35 years and just noticed there was a harmonica on it. That happens sometimes. Can’t help but think it’s fabulous for that reason and a little bit funny that it’s such a simple part, like an outsider artist harmonica part.

What’s the word?
Sister/woman have you heard
from Johannesburg?
They tell me that our brothers over there
are defyin’ the Man
We don’t know for sure because the news we
get is unreliable, man
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’
but I’m glad to see resistance growin’
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
from Johannesburg?
They tell me that our brothers over there
refuse to work in the mines,
They may not get the news but they need to know
we’re on their side.
Now sometimes distance brings
misunderstanding,
but deep in my heart I’m demanding;
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Sister/woman have you heard
’bout Johannesburg?
I know that their strugglin’ over there
ain’t gonna free me,
but we all need to be strugglin’
if we’re gonna be free
Don’t you wanna be free?

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