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On Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson's “Rivers Of My Fathers”

By Mtume ya Salaam

In the last passage of one of Toni Morisson’s best-known novels, a young Black man named Milkman Dead steps off of the side of a cliff and either does or does not fly.

It’s been 20 years since I read Song Of Solomon and at this point, I don’t remember much about it. The one thing about the book I’ve never forgotten is the final image: that of a Black man flying home.

 

Not only have I remembered the image all these years, I’ve internalized it in a way. Sometimes I dream about flying, usually across open water, and I have friends and family who have had the same dream.

 

In African-American culture, the image of a man or woman flying away to some far-off land is as common as it is archetypal. Given the way most Black Americans arrived here in the Americas, it’s easy to understand where and how the myth originated. It isn’t as easy to understand it’s persistence.

For me, Gil Scott-Heron’s “Rivers Of My Fathers” captures the essence of ‘the flying dream’ better than anything else I’ve seen or heard save the dream itself.

 

 

The lyrics, the melody, the arrangement—all of it gives me the same feeling I get whenever I think of Milkman standing high above everything, waiting for weightlessness to spirit him away.

 

“Rivers” begins with drummer Bob Adams’ swing-style rim shots and pianist Brian Jackson’s wide, blocky chords, as the two play in a style that even non-music aficionados will recognize as ‘the blues.’

 

Brian comps over the groove for nearly two minutes before Gil begins to sing: “Looking for a way out of this confusion.” Though “Rivers” evokes feelings of flying, Gil never mentions the sky, mountains or wings. Instead, Gil uses a water motif—another archetypal metaphor in African-American culture.

 

For African slaves in North America, water evoked both feelings of home and the promise of freedom. The reason water evoked feelings of home is obvious—slaves arrived in the Americas only after being packed (toe-to-head, like cargo) onto ships at the Western shores of Africa and shipped thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Water also held the promise of freedom: escaping slaves used the rivers both as markers of direction (most run North/South) and as a way to hide their scent from the hound dogs.

 

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In “Rivers Of My Fathers,” Gil taps into the depths of these centuries-old feelings to express the frustrations of a modern urban dweller. Gil sings of “looking for a way out” out of the cold, hard city; he wants to “lay down by a stream” that is “miles away from everything.”

 

But he’s too far away from home, there is no way out—instead of warm, open fields and flowing waters, there is only brick, asphalt and mortar. “The concrete is my smile,” Gil sings. “I’ve got to change my way of living. Got to change my style.”


Several times during the eight-plus minutes of “Rivers,” Gil lays out for whole choruses at a time, letting the dark-blue groove carry us along, unhurried, uninterrupted.

 

Eventually, Gil addresses the river directly. “Please,” he beseeches the water, “Please, point my way home! Could you carry me home?”

 

Fittingly, it isn’t until the last moment of “Rivers” that Gil finally names the place he wants the waters to carry him: “Africa".

 


With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer, voracious reader, dedicated father, professional truck driver and degenerate poker player whose homeowner’s insurance policy has a separate rider for ‘music CDs,’ ‘vinyl record albums,’ and ’stereo equipment.’ He lives in New Orleans and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

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