When I first came back to Canada from New York City, I was shocked by audience's reaction to performers. They just sat there and then, at the end, they would clap, sometimes politely, sometimes very heartily, but just clap. Nobody moved to the music. Nobody grooved to the music. They just sat there and, at the end, they clapped.
In New York, on the folk scene in the 60s, those were our people up there on stage and we were listening to them and watching them make mistakes but hearing what they were doing. It was a creative period happening with people we knew personally up on a stage and singing songs that we were familiar with. It was part of our subculture, I guess you could call it.
I had the good fortune to attend several performances at New York City's Apollo Theatre up in Harlem and I saw there an audience like you would not believe. The black culture there was embodied in the music. Embodied is a good word for it. What was going on there on stage was reflected in the body movements of the audience. I don't mean they were dancing. They were sitting in their seats but were they ever grooving to the music. They knew every note, every nuance. They knew what was good. They knew what was bad. The musical language was totally familiar to them.
When the comedian came on it was Redd Foxx telling scandalous stories about 'fried chicken'. I can't repeat it on the airwaves. It was pretty blue. Redd was famous for his naughty 'party'records. Onstage, he started talking about 'blue gums' and his whole audience burst into laughter. It's a Southern black thing that is you're dark enough your gums are blue, instead of pink, for goodness sake. He knew all of those buttons and he knew just how to push them. The audience was right with him.
Then Pigmeat Markham, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, came on and did his "Here come de Judge" routine. There were screams and roars of laughter because these people had been through the court system, so seeing it parodied on stage, with black folks playing judges and cops and so forth, was just a real hoot.
Tito Puente came on. Tito was a native of Spanish Harlem in New York, so he was from the 'hood as it were. The audience liked his music just as well because, golly, it had the rhythm, it had the beat. So, they were with it. They were really, really with it.
Ruth Brown came tripping out on to the stage in a gold lamé gown so tight around her legs and feet that shelooked like a mermaid. She could could barley tippy-toe, waddle up to the microphone but once she was up there and started singing.
"Mama! He treats your daughter mean....."
Everybody knew the song. Everybody was with her.
Now, if you didn't perform up to standard and there was a very high standard, you could be in a mess of trouble, particularly on open stage night. There was a guy with a long waist high hook who would come out from the wings. I may be remembering this from another performance. It might have been a clown-like figure with a noise maker. Performers who were not up to audience specifications would try to duck the hook or noisemaker and eventually it would haul or drive them still gamely singing off the stage into the wings. You don't really find that sort of thing in, say, a polite folk club nowadays.
When I moved back to Toronto, Ontario I found a somewhat similar reaction to a performer who was expressing the culture. A friend of mine who was from Madras in south India, a Tamil would go out to hear performances by Tamil musicians and entertainers. This would be a huge occasion because, just for the moment, their culture was it. Everybody there was part of it and knew it and understood it and reacted to it. It was 'home'.
I guess the Apollo Theatre was sort of like that. In a white would, before the civil rights movement took hold, you could step into a theatre and hear your talk, hear your people talking about things that concerned you. Making fun of it. Making music out of it. The rhythm carried it and it was just total immersion in a vibrant culture.
People up here in Canada are really nice but, sometimes, they're too polite. Sometimes, the absolute best thing is to get down and dirty with that performer. Yell when you like it and say when you don't and maybe even get out the hook. Both audience and performer will be better for it.
© Sonia Brock 2005