Country roads take me home
To the place I belong
West Jamaica, my ol’ momma
Take me home country roads
– Freddie “Toots” Hibbert, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
When I first heard that Toots Hibbert had been hospitalized a couple of weeks ago for mysterious respiratory problems — just a few days after he released his latest album, Got To Be Tough — I own that I thought it might be a publicity stunt to stir souls who’d long written him off and to sell CDs. I playfully imagined Toots tokin’ on a bone back home, waiting for his career to pull a Lazarus, before a sudden planned announcement of his ongoingness broke through dark clouds of sentimental sorrow, and People were forcing themselves to reach catharsis by buying his latest release. Got to be tough to make a buck in the present climate, I thought.
Well, I was wrong; today I learned he carked it, as the Aussies like to say. The question is whether he succumbed to Covid-19 or not. He was admitted with severe respiratory problems that could have been any number of things, including one too many bubbly ganja bong-ulation sessions. But when he was put into an induced coma a couple of days ago to rescue him from a respiratory crisis. it was sounding more like stories I was reading about during my free Covid-19 Contact Tracer course with Johns Hopkins. And speaking of contacts, though Coronavirus tests are still pending, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, “Members of the artiste’s inner circle have self-quarantined and have taken COVID-19 tests as well.” Good on them for being so cooperative, I’ve been told to say.
There’ll be all kinds of tributes now, in mostly esoteric places, where the real aficionados of reggae and ska hangout in Zoom bars across the Trans Caribbean, but, really, no one does such tributes better than Rolling Stone, which has a piece featuring the 15 best songs of Toots and the Maytals, including the embedded hits. So you can listen and get movin’ to the music, between reads of seven RS writers in tribute mode. Look out. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself with the sudden need to subscribe. Remember Dylan’s next and it should be quite a write-up storm. If Toots merited seven writers — the rolling stones will be bringing all back home for Dylan with their long teeth and gathered mosses: Tributes could number hundreds.
Anyway, you’d be fooling yourself if you thought Toots and the Maytals had had much relevance to the contemporary scene in the USA — Trump and his isms, an unresolved fin de siècle, and an era of legalized may-jay. Last time I watched him perform on Youtube, the 77-year old titular father of reggae was on his last vocal legs, and has been going around with a studio-wrap band for awhile now, falsettos filling the gaps of his lapsed passion in his signature song, “Pressure Drop.” Still, his rich, soulful nuances were there. Some have compared him to Otis Redding; I hear facets of Ray Charles. Ears, right?
Still, in 2004 he won the Grammy for the Best Reggae Album of the Year with True Love, and appeared on Saturday Night Live to push the album and demonstrate his continued popularity. It was also the episode where Donald J. Trump hosted the show and first floated the idea of running for president. Back then, nobody took DJ seriously. Now, he’s as serious as the proverbial heart attack American Democracy’s about to have. Is the fib-ulator ready? He told the audience that his people were pushing him to be president. The crowd gleed. A little S & M on SNL. Like when we re-elected Bush that year.
The last time I saw Toots and the Maytals live was at the University of Massachusetts in 1987. It was in the student lounge, some of those heavy-duty dining tables had been put together to form a makeshift stage. It reminded me of a similar set up at RPI in Troy the previous year, when B.B. King visited the campus (fantastic show). Now, Toots and his original band members, Raleigh Gordan and Jerry Mathias, plus studio players, all of whom formed the Maytals were up there belting out the great reggae tunes he’d — splashy drums, lively organ, harmonies, Toots leading the feet and soul in Pressure Drop, Sweet and Dandy, Funky Kingston, Take Me Home, and one of my all-time favorites, Time Tough.
I go to bed but sleep won’t come
Get up in the night
I couldn’t fight my feelings
Early in the morning
It’s just the same situation
Here comes the landlord just a knocking upon my door
You knockin’ upon my door
I’ve got four hundred/month rent to pay
And I can’t find a job
Same situation for so many in 2020; a song right up (or down there) with Bob Marley’s Talkin’ Blues.
There were other things going on in the area at the time. A couple of months earlier Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter, and a few other UMass students, had successfully employed the Necessity Defense to show the “crime” that they had committed in disrupting CIA recruiting efforts at UMass was for the greater purpose of stopping the murderous behavior of the CIA in Central America. The Last Hurrah Abbie Hoffman victory was an invigorating event for Northampton, a small city in western Mass., chock full of feminists (Smith College) and progressives at that time, who saw the trial outcome as provider of new hope that the MIC could be smacked down occasionally with the law. An excellent piece in the now-defunct Boston Phoenix captured the courtroom play-by-play. Toots was even more fun to dance to after this victory.
But I go back even further with Toots and the Maytals (he fronted that group for 57 years — unfathomable) to the early 70s, when I was living in Groton, Mass., and found myself picking apples with Jamaicans in the orchards there. Every fall they’d be brought in on H1-B visas and sweep down from Maine to Connecticut mostly picking apples. We toted long wooden A-shaped ladders up-and-down the hilly orchards, me picking juice, dem pickin fancy. (I lasted two weeks the first year.) After apples, some of them would go to Georgia and pick peaches; many of the rst would head to South Florida, gator country, and cut cane for the sugar man.
Back in Groton, we gathered after work and smoked ganja and listened to tunes, including the big three reggae artists, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Toots and the Maytals. Toots was always the most fun to listen to after a hard day. One morning, all of us gathered, work was cancelled when a surprise blizzard hit, and we all stood around the barn watching the fat flakes fall — most of the Jamaicans had never seen snow before and stood there childlike and in awe. Toots was the least outright political of the three, no Big Tree / Small Axe blues, no pushing for the legalization of weed in Jamaica. Just working class blues, reggay style. Easy skanking.
I suppose we’ll never know who murdered Marley and Tosh. The wee little voice of conspiracy in me (we all have one) is willing at times to consider the fantasy that the CIA took out Marley for agitating political song-writing — Ambushed in the Night, Small Axe, Coming In From The Cold, Zimbabwe, and the resigned blues of Real Situation. For my money, and I don’t have any, Marley was a secular prophet. Maybe local government-paid goons got Tosh. I noted, at the time of my attending live concerts by these three in the 70s, an almost total absence of Black people in the audience.
I don’t know if Hibbert will have any lasting value beyond the hand-wringing over his loss that will fill in the arts section of news cycle for the next couple of days, but I’ll continue to listen, along with a few others, all of us seemingly becoming by the days like those cultural escapees in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, committed to memorizing a great work that the State has forbidden — ballads that broke our hearts when we still had them, songs that warned us (see Dylan: Bringing All Back Home), joyful leaps of faith. No doubt, Fahrenheit 451 would be the first book the State would toss on the bonfire; just in case anyone got ideas. And Hannah Arendt the first one rounded up to be burned at the stake.
This is not the Sixties or the Seventies, and we must take succor in the feast we have enjoyed, knowing that the gravy days of democracy are behind us, and the fires and grim stoned are just ahead. The world belongs to the Z Generation, the first, as Edward Snowden pointed out in memoir, to grow up in the surveillance state created just after 9/11. It remains to be seen whether they have the musical molecules in them to overcome the Orwellian micky that was slipped into their bottle at birth.
The important thing is to get your feet moving before you join a movement or cause. Dance. And let Toots start you out. Don’t “listen” to Sweet and Dandy, dance to it, whirly dervish to the poetry.