Somethin’ Slick Goin’ On: The Proletarian Funk of Johnny “Guitar” Watson

In 1976, John­ny “Gui­tar” Wat­son emerged from a stag­nant blues career to release his first gold record, and Mil­ton Fried­man won the Nobel Prize in Eco­nom­ics. The lat­ter of these two events pre­fig­ured a per­ma­nent change in the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic order, a sym­bol of the New Deal’s demise and the sub­se­quent insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of Amer­i­can neolib­er­al­ism. The for­mer bare­ly reg­is­ters as a blip on our cul­tur­al radar. Yet these two fig­ures con­verge in sur­pris­ing, if rad­i­cal­ly opposed ways, as both ded­i­cat­ed their careers to address­ing the great plagues of the late 1970s: infla­tion, unem­ploy­ment, and automa­tion. But while the neolib­er­al econ­o­mists and their polit­i­cal coun­ter­parts sought to con­sol­i­date bour­geois pow­er dur­ing the grow­ing finan­cial dis­cord of the times, Wat­son direct­ed his artis­tic vision steadi­ly towards the tribu­la­tions of the work­ing class.

A most­ly for­got­ten fig­ure in music his­to­ry, Wat­son occu­pies a unique place in the canon of R&B. He learned the gui­tar from his grand­fa­ther, a min­is­ter and church per­former who, as a pre­con­di­tion of giv­ing him music lessons, warned him not to play any of the “devil’s music.” Nev­er­the­less, he found inspi­ra­tion in the work of fel­low Tex­an T-Bone Walk­er, and began his career as a blues prodi­gy, fre­quent­ing the local Texas cir­cuit with Albert Collins and John­ny Copeland before mov­ing to Los Ange­les in 1950. Dur­ing this peri­od, Wat­son claims to have invent­ed the musi­cal and per­form­ing style lat­er made famous by Jimi Hen­drix – teeth-pick­ing, hand­stands, and an aggres­sive, vocal gui­tar tone – respond­ing indig­nant­ly to an inter­view­er who com­pared him to the ‘60s icon, “I start­ed that shit!” Watson’s career is punc­tu­at­ed by these osten­ta­tious (but prob­a­bly true) digs about his stymied fame: in the self-penned lin­er notes of his Funk Anthol­o­gy com­pi­la­tion he also claims to have “invent­ed” rap music on his 1980 track “Tele­phone Bill.” But he deliv­ers these digs not so much with resent­ment, as with the impli­ca­tion that those who real­ly know the roots of funk and rock and roll will rec­og­nize his endur­ing influ­ence.

On some lev­el, his lack of out­right resent­ment is aston­ish­ing. After putting out ten records and tour­ing with the likes of Lit­tle Richard and Frank Zap­pa, he only achieved a shad­ow of a rep­u­ta­tion when he released Ain’t That a Bitch in 1976, two decades after his first blues ven­ture. Watson’s career peak came at an unex­pect­ed moment: his best-known records (Ain’t That a Bitch and 1977’s A Real Moth­er For Ya) saw their release between the pop­u­lar decline of funk and soul music and the rise of the dis­co era. Dur­ing this peri­od, the clean-cut image of his blues-croon­er years mor­phed into a gold-toothed funk fig­ure rem­i­nis­cent of Sly Stone and Boot­sy Collins. Yet despite his new sar­to­r­i­al choic­es, Watson’s music and lyrics nev­er aligned with his new­ly-mint­ed “gang­ster of love” per­sona, nor did he ever reach the lev­el of fame that land­ed Sly Stone a man­sion and a drug-addled inter­view on the Dick Cavett Show. In fact, one of the pri­ma­ry ways Watson’s music dif­fers from his pre­de­ces­sors and con­tem­po­raries is in his engage­ment with the quo­tid­i­an expe­ri­ence of work. Rather than hedo­nism or fan­ta­sy, he took as his sub­ject the issues his­to­ri­an Jef­fer­son Cowie explores in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Work­ing Class.  By the end of the Sev­en­ties,

the attempts to revive post­war lib­er­al­ism became the New Deal that nev­er hap­pened. It all end­ed far from a lib­er­al revival and some­thing clos­er to a requiem for a col­lec­tive eco­nom­ic vision for the Amer­i­can Peo­ple.2

Watson’s trans­for­ma­tion from ‘50s coif to ‘70s gang­ster, far from dilut­ing his inter­est in issues of class and job­less­ness, instead aggra­vat­ed their pres­ence with­in his osten­ta­tious per­for­mances. The result was a fas­ci­nat­ing con­tra­dic­tion: a man dressed like an icon of fame and wealth whose lyrics depict the strug­gle of work­ing peo­ple try­ing to make ends meet in an era of loom­ing eco­nom­ic des­ti­tu­tion. Though he dons a funky get­up, Watson’s bleak expres­sion of work­ing life under eco­nom­ic and social oppres­sion derives from the long blues tra­di­tion dat­ing back to slav­ery and the Recon­struc­tion era. His approach recalls that of the blues singers of the days before Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the wan­ing days of the Great Depres­sion. Songs like Gene Campbell’s record­ing of “Lev­ee Camp Man Blues,” from the ear­ly 1930s, railed against tyrant boss­es. The under­stand­ing of wage exploita­tion that suf­fused ear­ly blues clear­ly pre­fig­ured Watson’s work­ing-class sen­ti­ments:

These con­trac­tors, they are get­ting so slack,

These con­trac­tors, they are get­ting so slack,

They’ll pay you half of your mon­ey, and hold the oth­er half back.

The­mat­i­cal­ly, the “slack­ness” of the greedy con­trac­tors isn’t too far removed from the cor­po­rate “slick­ness” Wat­son would cite, more than forty years lat­er, as respon­si­ble for infla­tion, stag­na­tion, and the threat of auto­mat­ed labor.

Funk music – an amal­gam of Chica­go blues and New Orleans jazz, the fre­net­ic uncle of New York and Philadelphia’s dis­co scenes – has nev­er been grant­ed a “seri­ous” place in Amer­i­can music his­to­ry. “While ‘soul’ [music] pre­sumes to hoard the rep­utable,” James Gui­da writes in the New York Review of Books, funk con­notes “all that’s com­i­cal and dat­ed in urban black music.” More­over, like dis­co, it enjoys a rep­u­ta­tion for encour­ag­ing its lis­ten­ers to turn away from social ills and seek plea­sure in the shal­low­er pur­suits of danc­ing, sex, and drug use.

Gui­da defends funk against against its rep­u­ta­tion as the sil­ly, freak­ish residue of the explic­it­ly polit­i­cal R&B styles that devel­oped in the 1960s and ‘70s from the Black Arts and Civ­il Rights move­ments, such as the rhyth­mic spo­ken-word of Gil Scott-Heron and Mar­vin Gaye’s “con­scious” soul. Even record­ings that chal­lenged the era’s respectabil­i­ty pol­i­tics and estab­lished notions of uni­ver­sal progress, such as Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” or the Marx­ist spo­ken word tracks of Amiri Bara­ka, now enjoy the sta­tus of ana­lyz­able relics from an era of tense racial and eco­nom­ic rela­tions. In reject­ing a reduc­tive view of funk music that has haunt­ed our cul­tur­al mem­o­ry, Gui­da points us to the very real sociopo­lit­i­cal under­cur­rent that inheres in even the most “out there” cor­ners of the funk canon. In his review of George Clinton’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, for exam­ple, he describes the famous­ly un-seri­ous Par­lia­ment-Funkadel­ic as the “social­ly pre­scient” car­tog­ra­phers of “crum­bling of 60s ideals.” Yet the broad­er his­to­ry of funk music under­scores a pol­i­tics quite dis­tinct from that of the rad­i­cal and often explic­it­ly mate­ri­al­ist artists of the 1960s, one almost exclu­sive­ly con­cerned with abstract con­cepts of iden­ti­ty, affect, and mythol­o­gy.

As his­to­ri­an Scot Brown explains, funk emerged in Amer­i­can cities just after the racial ten­sions of the Long Hot Sum­mer and the assas­si­na­tion of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., as well as “just before the rav­ages of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion.” The ear­ly 1970s were a time of tem­po­rary eco­nom­ic sta­sis, dur­ing which the con­tin­ued exis­tence of rel­a­tive­ly high-wage fac­to­ry jobs cre­at­ed in the 1950s grant­ed fam­i­lies enough dis­pos­able income to pur­chase instru­ments and music lessons for their chil­dren. If funk sur­faced dur­ing a peri­od of mod­est eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty in indus­tri­al hubs such as Day­ton, Ohio, it’s no sur­prise that the lyri­cal con­tent of bands like the Ohio Play­ers move away from the polit­i­cal­ly-infused record­ings of the late 60s to reflect, as their drum­mer James “Dia­mond” Williams puts it, “things that were hap­pen­ing on the road” – the exploits of bands from the cen­ters of indus­try whose mild­ly lucra­tive record deals allowed them the free­dom to tour the nation. Williams cites “Streakin’ Cheek to Cheek,” a cut off the Ohio Play­ers’ 1974 album Skin Tight, as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this type of obser­va­tion­al lyri­cism, an ode to the trend of col­lege stu­dents streak­ing naked across their cam­pus­es dur­ing their shows.

At the same time as funk music espoused this kind of joy­ous sen­su­al­i­ty, how­ev­er, anoth­er brand of funk appeared that blend­ed a ver­sion of the pre­vi­ous decade’s pol­i­tics with black dias­poric nar­ra­tives and extrater­res­tri­al ori­gin myths. This cos­mo­log­i­cal off­shoot, deeply – if per­haps iron­i­cal­ly – root­ed in 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture, found its fullest expres­sions in the dual mytholo­gies of Par­lia­ment-Funkadel­ic and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Mau­rice White, Earth, Wind, and Fire’s founder, describes in true hip­pie fash­ion how his lyri­cal frame­work of cult sci­ence, astrol­o­gy, and world reli­gion could “give you insight to your inner self.”3 Hero­ic self-dis­cov­ery through art is one of the pil­lars of high ‘60s ide­al­ism, and Earth, Wind, and Fire stands in con­trast to The Ohio Play­ers’ hedo­nist-funk by trad­ing in raw sex­u­al­i­ty for a kind of ele­vat­ed per­son­al mys­ti­cism. On the oth­er end of the cos­mo­log­i­cal spec­trum, George Clin­ton, in his lin­er notes to Parliament’s Moth­er­ship Con­nec­tion, syn­the­sizes the Play­ers’ hedo­nism with the philo­soph­i­cal astrol­o­gy of Earth, Wind and Fire, but inverts the self-dis­cov­ery nar­ra­tive into a chron­i­cle of the band’s tumul­tuous “dias­po­ra”: the notes claim that after the rise of “bump­nox­ious empires led by unfunky dic­ta­tors,” the world, “wooed by pow­er and greed,” became inhos­pitable to Funk-based life­forms. The mem­bers of the amor­phous group, as “descen­dants of the Thumpa­sorus Peo­ple,” “fled to out­er speace” [sic] on the Moth­er­ship until they could return to “refunka­tize” the plan­et. Clinton’s lan­guage, musi­cal and par­o­d­ic, inten­tion­al­ly “mis­trans­lates” sev­er­al dias­poric tropes, the most impor­tant of which is the Ship of State.4 This sym­bol, first out­lined in Plato’s Repub­lic, has been invoked by schol­ars of the black dias­po­ra such as Paul Gilroy, Brent Edwards, and Michelle Stevens as an arche­typ­al metaphor of the his­to­ry and image-sys­tem of the Pan-African nation-state.5

In Black Empire, for instance, Michelle Stephens con­nects the dias­poric trope of the slave ship to the desire for a lib­er­at­ed state of “multi­na­tion­al black­ness,” adding that this desire “occurs pre­cise­ly in those colo­nial con­texts in which the state seems fur­thest out of reach.”6 The Moth­er­ship, though, doesn’t sail across inter­na­tion­al seas — instead, it orbits the Earth, bestow­ing grooves upon its inhab­i­tants.  And so it may be help­ful to look at the “Moth­er­ship” less in terms of rep­re­sent­ing a desire for multi­na­tion­al state­hood and more close­ly as a dias­poric ves­sel through which Clin­ton can “speak” and com­ment upon that desire. By “mis­trans­lat­ing” the Ship of State into the Moth­er­ship, inter­na­tion­al dias­po­ra into the inter­plan­e­tary exile of the Thumpa­sorus Peo­ple, Clin­ton sug­gests that the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lib­er­a­tion has become “out of reach”; the only way to express those desires is to “funka­tize” them into par­o­d­ic nar­ra­tives, sent to Earth from some uniden­ti­fied point in out­er space.

Beyond their jagged rhythms and their uncon­ven­tion­al song struc­tures, the hedo­nis­tic and mytho­log­i­cal expres­sions of funk con­verge in their imper­a­tive to escape from the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions that fed the lyri­cal con­tent of the Black Arts Move­ment, the late-Six­ties syn­the­sis of Black ver­nac­u­lar cul­ture with lit­er­ary at forms led by fig­ures like Amiri Bara­ka. They traf­fic in cre­ation myths and rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of  transna­tion­al dias­po­ra. While there are cer­tain­ly nar­ra­tives of strug­gle that inter­ro­gate both indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty, what con­tin­ues to be absent from most of the funk canon, even into the late ‘70s, is a con­scious­ness of the genre’s work­ing-class ori­gins. The music of the ‘70s, Cowie explains in Stayin’ Alive, “attempt­ed to fill the emerg­ing cul­tur­al void […] with the glit­ter of a mul­ti­cul­tur­al indi­vid­u­al­ism, the shim­mer of aris­toc­ra­cy, the promise of phys­i­cal ecsta­sy, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of for­get­ting.”7

As if address­ing the ide­al­ism of his musi­cal pre­de­ces­sors, Watson’s 1976 track, “Ain’t That a Bitch,” opens with an omi­nous, descend­ing chro­mat­ic horn line and the lyri­cal pre­am­ble: “Every­thing is out­ta pock­et! / Some­body do some­thing! / The present sit­u­a­tion is abstract!” Over a chug­ging back­beat, Wat­son describes a broke and over­worked labor­er: “I’m work­ing forty hours / six long days / and I’m high­ly embarrassed/every time I get my pay.” But, far from lament­ing some ahis­tor­i­cal con­di­tion of pover­ty, in the sec­ond verse Watson’s lyrics take a strik­ing turn to fash­ion a fig­ure spe­cif­ic to the late 1970s econ­o­my: “Let me tell you about my qual­i­fi­ca­tions,” he pref­aces, before explain­ing: “I pro­gram com­put­ers / I know account­ing and psy­chol­o­gy / I took a course in busi­ness / And I can speak a lit­tle Japan­ese.” The speak­ing sub­ject, then, is not mere­ly the exploit­ed work­er, but the edu­cat­ed and hyper­skilled labor­er who’s stuck per­form­ing menial work for min­i­mum wage. With char­ac­ter­is­tic humor, he applies the term “poor folks” lib­er­al­ly, both to those who must shop “in the baloney sec­tion” as well as to poly­glots with sev­er­al diplo­mas. His lyrics here allude to the dis­so­lu­tion of the Amer­i­can work­ing class and the myth of the “qual­i­fied” work­er by man­u­fac­tur­ing an absurd­ly skilled mem­ber of the work­force who, despite his abil­i­ty to code and speak mul­ti­ple lan­guages, finds the promise of wealth and steady income to be as mytho­log­i­cal as Parliament’s “Thumpa­sorus peo­ples.”

The burst of pros­per­i­ty in the ear­ly 1970s turned out to be a fluke of the high­est order, the last gasp of  the New Deal eco­nom­ic poli­cies whose col­lapse was pre­fig­ured in the 1950s and ‘60s. The growth rates that pro­vid­ed those upward­ly mobile work­ing class jobs in Day­ton and Detroit began to dis­ap­pear in what David Har­vey describes as a “finan­cial coup… a rev­o­lu­tion­ary trans­for­ma­tion” to neolib­er­al finan­cial strate­gies.8 The influ­ence of the Mont Pelerin Soci­ety, the think tank formed in 1947 by Mil­ton Fried­man and Friedrich Hayek, was the intel­lec­tu­al well­spring that result­ed in the even­tu­al dis­en­fran­chise­ment of the work­ing class. The Mont Pelerin econ­o­mists aspired to renew 19th-cen­tu­ry argu­ments about the sanc­ti­ty of the free mar­ket and the dan­ger of state inter­ven­tion and eco­nom­ic plan­ning, pro­mot­ing mas­sive gov­ern­ment cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion and vicious skep­ti­cism toward labor rights and labor­ers. At a time when the Cer­berus of infla­tion, stag­na­tion, and unem­ploy­ment had already descend­ed upon the nation, the last thing Amer­i­can work­ers could have want­ed was for the two major polit­i­cal par­ties to become behold­en to busi­ness inter­ests and averse to their own demands.

Yet, Cowie describes, that is exact­ly what hap­pened: In 1974, for instance, “there were 201 pro-labor PACs (Polit­i­cal Action Com­mit­tees), com­pared to only 81 cor­po­rate PACs.” By 1978, a series of post-Water­gate cam­paign pol­i­cy reforms allowed that num­ber to sky­rock­et to 784 cor­po­rate and 500 trade asso­ci­a­tion PACs, with labor inter­ests rep­re­sent­ed by only 217. Labor’s last gasp, the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, sought unsuc­cess­ful­ly to steer the coun­try away from encroach­ing busi­ness inter­ests and towards full employ­ment, what Cowie calls “noth­ing short of a social demo­c­ra­t­ic Amer­i­ca.”9 What this required was a faith in the work­ing class, in the notion that uni­ver­sal employ­ment would in fact reduce infla­tion and kick­start the Unit­ed States as a Euro­pean-style social democ­ra­cy. How­ev­er, those “priest­ly fig­ures of post­war pol­i­cy,” neolib­er­al econ­o­mists like Fried­man and Chair­man of Carter’s Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Advi­sors Charles Schultze, were com­mit­ted to crush­ing that faith in the inter­est of cap­i­tal.10 They seized the moment, Cowie explains, “to recast the mid-cen­tu­ry work­ing-class hero from the pro­tag­o­nist of post­war the­ol­o­gy into the bib­li­cal scape­goat of the sev­en­ties.” And, once again in 1976, the Busi­ness Round­table Lob­by, empow­ered by neolib­er­al and cor­po­rate tac­tics, dealt its final blow to orga­nized labor and set the U.S. on a path to becom­ing, in AFL-CIO pres­i­dent George Meany’s words, a “low-wage coun­try.”11

The fluke that defined the late 1970s is a phe­nom­e­non known as “stagfla­tion,” a port­man­teau of eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion and price infla­tion. Mil­ton Fried­man, who thought that rid­ding the for­mer would take care of the lat­ter, argued vehe­ment­ly against the tenets of Humphrey-Hawkins and warned that the Unit­ed States would have to steel itself for a steep rise in unem­ploy­ment and a decline in wages in order to res­ur­rect its stale econ­o­my. Wat­son him­self com­ments on infla­tion direct­ly on “Tele­phone Bill,” and alludes to com­modi­ties’ bloat­ed prices on “Ain’t That a Bitch,” quip­ping that “Abdul Jabar couldn’t have made these prices / with a sky hook.” How­ev­er, far from resign­ing his work­er-fig­ure to impov­er­ish­ment and feal­ty to the laws of the free mar­ket, Wat­son impugns the boot­strap log­ic of Fried­man and his ilk, blam­ing a vague specter pulling the economy’s strings at the expense of the work­ing class: as he intones through­out the song’s cho­rus: “Ain’t that a bitch / Some­body doin’ some­thin’ slick, down­town.”

Watson’s mate­ri­al­ism doesn’t end at doc­u­ment­ing the rise of unem­ploy­ment due to wage sup­pres­sion and price infla­tion. He employs the rhetoric of orga­nized labor prac­tices to tack­le the grow­ing prob­lem of automa­tion on his 1984 album, Strike on Com­put­ers. Strike’s cov­er depicts Wat­son in his sig­na­ture hat and sun­glass­es, but his out­fit, though unbut­toned to reveal his chest and gold chain, is that of a fac­to­ry work­er. While a gen­er­a­tion of retro blues revival­ists of the day, like Ste­vie Ray Vaugh­an, were hear­ken­ing back to an ide­al­ized pre-auto­mat­ed era, Wat­son is sur­round­ed by a drum machine, a print­er, and sev­er­al pick­et signs bear­ing the album’s name. He is joined by three women dressed in more mod­ern fash­ion, befit­ting the mid-80s con­text.  Their pres­ence along­side Watson’s dis­tinct­ly blue col­lar fig­ure alludes to the broad­er cul­tur­al shift away from the roman­ti­cized image of the male man­u­al labor­er to an often gen­dered ten­den­cy toward cler­i­cal work. The blink­ing drum machine loom­ing mas­sive­ly over these work­ers sug­gests that the tech­nol­o­gy that gives way to new forms of labor also pos­es a dan­ger to that labor’s very exis­tence.

The title track, record­ed in his own garage, is Watson’s most overt engage­ment with the Rea­gan era’s tech­no­crat­ic neolib­er­al­ism, explor­ing the threat of automa­tion in terms of job­less­ness and cre­ative decay after the end of the Sev­en­ties. As Jef­fer­son Cowie notes, “despite a com­plex revival of labor issues that res­onat­ed from Detroit to Hol­ly­wood to Wash­ing­ton, by the end of the decade, work­ers — qua work­ers — had eeri­ly been shak­en out of the nation­al scene.” He con­tin­ues:

The sev­en­ties whim­pered to a close as the labor move­ment had failed in its major ini­tia­tives; de-indus­tri­al­iza­tion dec­i­mat­ed the pow­er of the old indus­tri­al heart­land; mar­ket ortho­doxy eclipsed all alter­na­tives; and promis­ing orga­niz­ing dri­ves proved lim­it­ed.12

At the time of the track’s release, the 1982 reces­sion that defined Reagan’s first term had tak­en full effect, infla­tion had risen from three to five per­cent, and the for­mer strong­hold of the work­ing class, the auto­mo­tive indus­try, had suf­fered the con­se­quences of heavy labor automa­tion.13

Rife with vocoders and com­put­er­ized drum machines, “Strike on Com­put­ers” adopts as a tool the tech­nol­o­gy it sub­jects to cri­tique, sug­gest­ing that, much like the actu­al labor efforts of the ‘70s and ear­ly ‘80s, this strike, too, was pre­des­tined to fail. The track begins with a spo­ken pre­am­ble clar­i­fy­ing Watson’s the­mat­ic pur­pose:

As my research will show

The music busi­ness and all the busi­ness­es are slow

and one thing I didn’t real­ize––

All them reg­u­lar jobs

That you and I do

Have all become com­put­er­ized!

He then moves to the track’s cho­rus, call­ing for a strike on com­put­ers “before there ain’t no jobs to find.” Again, as in his ear­li­er sin­gle “Ain’t That a Bitch,” Wat­son refus­es to ascribe blame for this new specter of unem­ploy­ment to the work­ers them­selves, opt­ing instead to impli­cate cor­po­ra­tions and their ques­tion­able labor prac­tices:

Unem­ploy­ment is at an all time high

And you’re won­der­ing why

You lost your job

You might think it’s fun­ny

But the com­put­er gonna save the com­pa­ny mon­ey

And it’s gonna be doin’ your job before you start!

Watson’s warn­ing about the men­ace of automa­tion echoes those found in Detroit autowork­er and intel­lec­tu­al James Boggs’s 1963 book The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Note­book. In his chap­ter titled “The Chal­lenge of Automa­tion,” Bog­gs chron­i­cles the ham­string­ing of the U.S. proletariat’s pow­er against a rul­ing class that increas­ing­ly auto­mates its labor force, spawn­ing a “new gen­er­a­tion of work­less peo­ple.”14

Like pre­vi­ous rev­o­lu­tions in the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, automa­tion is unre­lent­ing and bar­barous, strip­ping work­ers of the only com­modi­ties they have to sell – their bod­ies and their labor-pow­er. But Bog­gs points out that automa­tion dif­fers from pre­vi­ous eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tions, in that it offers no high­er lev­el of advance­ment for new­ly dis­pos­sessed labor­ers. Bog­gs writes,

where­as the old work­ers used to hope that they could pit their bod­ies against iron and out­last the iron, this new gen­er­a­tion of work­less peo­ple knows that even their brains are being out­wit­ted by the iron brains of automa­tion and cyber­na­tion.15

“To tell these peo­ple that they must work to earn their liv­ing,” he adds, “is like telling a man in the big city that he should hunt big game for the meat on his table.”

Watson’s assess­ment of the con­se­quences of automa­tion also includes the mech­a­nized destruc­tion of human life. Decades before the arms con­trac­tor Hal­libur­ton made mil­lions off the Bush-Cheney administration’s war in Iraq, Wat­son had been lev­el­ing most­ly-ignored accu­sa­tions towards the cor­po­ra­tions that dig­i­tized the mil­i­tary. “There is a com­put­er,” he describes, as if he’s yelling at you from inside a bunker, “that is con­nect­ed to the nose of a mis­sile / That’ll seek out a tar­get / And blow it up any­where.” Then, to add absur­di­ty to what is essen­tial­ly the pre­cur­sor to drone war­fare, he notes, “And there’s a brand new mis­sile / that’s got a com­put­er that will seek that mis­sile out / And blow that suck­er up in midair!” Watson’s humor, though, reveals a sober­ing truth about this tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment to which Bog­gs alludes in The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion:

Up to now it had been pos­si­ble to spec­u­late about what atti­tude the work­ers… might or ought to adopt toward a war once it had been declared or start­ed, e.g. orga­nize a gen­er­al strike or rise in protest and bring it to an end.16

Bog­gs goes on to sug­gest that the advent of the nuclear tech­nol­o­gy, whose dev­as­ta­tion makes no dis­tinc­tions among race, class, or gen­der, pre­sent­ed an omi­nous threat to orga­nized anti­war resis­tance. The decades after Boggs’s writ­ing saw a wider pro­lif­er­a­tion of auto­mat­ed labor and war­fare. By the time Wat­son nar­rates these trends through­out the ear­ly 1980s, their gut­ting of work­ing class pow­er makes a strike on com­put­ers, how­ev­er nec­es­sary, seem far out of reach.

Both Bog­gs and Wat­son under­stand automa­tion to be more than a tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion; it has, in effect, inau­gu­rat­ed a decades-long exis­ten­tial cri­sis that chal­lenges the very abil­i­ty of Amer­i­can labor­ers to derive val­ue from their lives. With­out a “mode of pro­duc­tion into which they can fit,” Bog­gs con­cludes, these work­less work­ers are forced to find “a new con­cept of how to live and let live among human beings.”17 The cri­sis automa­tion pos­es is at its core a social one, implor­ing us to fun­da­men­tal­ly recon­sid­er the human rela­tions that have under­gird­ed the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion since the ear­ly days of indus­tri­al­iza­tion.

Final­ly, Wat­son brings his analy­sis to bear on his own mode of pro­duc­tion. He con­cludes his list of obso­les­cences by iden­ti­fy­ing the effects of this social cri­sis on the cre­ative work­er who faces the threat of music’s dig­i­ti­za­tion, a devel­op­ment tan­ta­mount to unem­ploy­ment and unmanned war­fare. The song’s last verse recounts a gui­tar shop own­er who shows Wat­son “just the gui­tar you need to see.” To his hor­ror, “the damned thing played by itself!” The instru­ment that had made Watson’s career becomes a kind of hideous­ly mech­a­nized play­er piano, the prod­uct of a force as pow­er­ful as the mar­ket or the mil­i­tary, hell­bent on keep­ing him and the rest of the work­ing class in the throes of pover­ty.

The punch line to “Strike on Com­put­ers” turned out to be prophet­ic: Wat­son has all but dis­ap­peared from record­ed music his­to­ry, left unmen­tioned in impor­tant works of blues and funk schol­ar­ship like Fran­cis Davis’s His­to­ry of the Blues: The Roots, The Music, The Peo­ple (1995) or the essay col­lec­tion The Funk Era and Beyond (2008, ed. Tony Bold­en). Today, most peo­ple who expe­ri­ence the music of the man who “invent­ed rap” have done so through the var­i­ous hip hop artists who have sam­pled him. In this sense, tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment has pre­served Watson’s lega­cy as much as it has erased it.

Musi­col­o­gist Richard J. Ripani notes in The New Blue Music that the art of sam­pling has been fraught with con­tro­ver­sy ever since the 1980 release of the E-Mu Emu­la­tor sam­pling key­board made it read­i­ly avail­able and afford­able. “Some crit­ics,” Ripani explains, “believe that using sampling…is not only eth­i­cal­ly wrong but also a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in an over­all lack of cre­ativ­i­ty in R&B.”18 But Ripani sees a line of con­ti­nu­ity run­ning from the oral cul­ture of the blues to con­tem­po­rary forms of black music. Sam­pling is an “exten­sion” of the blues mod­el of repeat­ing fig­ures and phras­es, repack­aged in “a mod­ern con­text.” Few walked this his­tor­i­cal path more direct­ly than John­ny “Gui­tar” Wat­son.

Red­man, Mary J. Blige, Big­gie, Kanye West, and Wiz Khal­i­fa, to name just a hand­ful, have all lift­ed, flipped, and chopped Watson’s songs in myr­i­ad inven­tive ways. Most of these appro­pri­a­tions, for instance Redman’s “Day of Soop­er­man Lover,” or West’s “No More Par­ties in L.A.,” from 2016’s Life of Pablo, use either Watson’s libid­i­nal­ly-charged funk or his love bal­lads, leav­ing the source material’s orig­i­nal con­no­ta­tions intact. Oth­ers, such as E-40’s 1996 “Ring It,” take on Watson’s more class-con­scious efforts. E spits blis­ter­ing, dex­ter­ous vers­es over a bare­ly rec­og­niz­able loop of “Tele­phone Bill” – the track Wat­son him­self cit­ed as the har­bin­ger of hip hop.

Though “Ring It” is undoubt­ed­ly a trib­ute to a funk fore­fa­ther, E-40 reframes “Tele­phone Bill” with­in the late 90’s hip hop tropes of wealth, sta­tus, and sex­u­al brag­gado­cio. He picks up on an aspect of Watson’s lyrics, which, even while telling a sto­ry of eco­nom­ic hard­ship, take the time to call out his con­tem­po­raries for engag­ing in com­par­a­tive­ly inad­e­quate forms of expres­sion. Watson’s ear­ly rap­ping on “Tele­phone Bill” might well serve as a mantra for the unique, blues-root­ed class per­spec­tive he brought to funk and, indi­rect­ly, hip hop. While E-40 begins his track “high­er than a bird,” Wat­son was report­ing his hard­ship from “down on the ground.” The dif­fer­ences between Watson’s lyrics and E-40’s involve a more gen­er­al dialec­ti­cal ten­sion between the devices of hip hop and those of the blues, the way the two gen­res can coex­ist in musi­cal har­mo­ny but seman­tic dis­cord.

Wat­son him­self embraced such unre­solved ten­sions – in fact, his art depend­ed upon them. Even on its own terms, “Tele­phone Bill” rich­ly exem­pli­fies the pos­si­bil­i­ties con­tained with­in gener­ic cross-pol­li­na­tion: a pro­to-rap nar­ra­tive imbued with work­ing-class blues that ends with a jazz-tinged gui­tar solo in which Wat­son quotes Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop stan­dard “Salt Peanuts.”

There is, of course, an immense archive of rap music that recounts eco­nom­ic and social strug­gle sim­i­lar to Watson’s. It is not just musi­cal form and method that links hip-hop to the blues, but also the insis­tence on doc­u­ment­ing the day-to-day exis­tence of ordi­nary peo­ple. In the last chap­ter of Stayin’ Alive, Jef­fer­son Cowie cites a lamen­ta­tion from lit­er­ary crit­ic William Dere­siewicz: “First we stopped notic­ing mem­bers of the work­ing class, and now we’re con­vinced they don’t exist.” Watson’s pro­le­tar­i­an funk reminds us that the work­ing class did more than just sur­vive this attempt­ed polit­i­cal homi­cide. His music con­tains what Wal­ter Ben­jamin calls in “The Author As Pro­duc­er” a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary use val­ue.”19  By nam­ing the struc­tur­al antag­o­nisms that threat­en us with star­va­tion and extinc­tion, Wat­son demands that we acknowl­edge our own role in the class strug­gle and, in Benjamin’s terms, “dis­cov­er our sol­i­dar­i­ty with the pro­le­tari­at.” This strug­gle is and has always been a dif­fi­cult one. But it will con­tin­ue, as Wat­son did, for as long as some­body is doing some­thing slick down­town.

  1. David Evans, review of A Guide to the Blues: His­to­ry, Who’s Who, Research Sources by Austin Son­nier, Jr., The Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of African His­tor­i­cal Stud­ies 28, no. 3 (1995): 705-06. 

  2. Jef­fer­son Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Work­ing Class (New York/London: The New Press, 2012), 262. 

  3. How Ancient Egypt Influ­enced Mau­rice White and Earth, Wind & Fire,” Pub­lic Radio Inter­na­tion­al. Accessed Sep­tem­ber 24, 2017. 

  4. Brent Hayes Edwards, The Prac­tice of Dias­po­ra: Lit­er­a­ture, Trans­la­tion, and the Rise of Black Inter­na­tion­al­ism (Cam­bridge, Mass: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003), 42. 

  5. Tsit­si Ella Jaji, Africa in Stereo: Mod­ernism, Music, and Pan-African Sol­i­dar­i­ty (New York/Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014), 216 -229. 

  6. Michelle Ann Stephens, Black Empire: The Mas­cu­line Glob­al Imag­i­nary of Caribbean Intel­lec­tu­als in the Unit­ed States, 1914-1962 (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005), 10. 

  7. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Work­ing Class, 319. 

  8. Sasha Lil­ley, ed., Cap­i­tal and Its Dis­con­tents: Con­ver­sa­tions with Rad­i­cal Thinkers in a Time of Tumult (Oakland/London: PM Press, 2011), 46. 

  9. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Work­ing Class, 271. 

  10. Ibid., 221. 

  11. Ibid., 232. 

  12. Ibid., 365. 

  13. See “FDIC: His­tor­i­cal Time­line,” accessed Sep­tem­ber 24, 2017. David Rot­man, “How Tech­nol­o­gy Is Destroy­ing Jobs,MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review. Accessed Sep­tem­ber 24, 2017. 

  14. James Bog­gs, The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, Sec­ond edi­tion (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2009), 51. 

  15. Ibid., 51. 

  16. Ibid., 63. 

  17. Ibid., 51. 

  18. Richard J. Ripani, The New Blue Music: Changes in Rhythm & Blues, 1950-1999 (Jack­son: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2006), 139. 

  19. Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Reflec­tions: Essays, Apho­risms, Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Writ­ings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jeph­cott (New York: Schock­en, 1986), 230.  

Author of the article

is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University. His Twitter handle is @pastelcathedral.