Fables of Faubus was written in response to the events of September 1957, when Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus called in the National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from attending previously all-white Little Rock Central High School, supposedly to prevent violence from an anti-integration mob. This was three years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional. Interestingly, Faubus had supported moves toward integration in the past and he had defeated a segregationist candidate for governor. Critics have maintained that Faubus manufactured the situation and stirred up racial tension in an effort to appeal to segregationist voters and guarantee his re-election. As is usually the case, even today, maintaining power won out over taking a moral stand.
Charles Mingus recorded many versions of this piece. I arranged the second version, actually called “The Original Faubus Fables” (on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, 1960, on the independent Candid label). This version has a more immediate and visceral quality than the more widely known version on the album Ah Um (1959, Columbia Records). This urgency is a result of the sung lyrics (by Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond), the players (particularly Eric Dolphy), and the circumstances of the recording (small vs. large studio and label). I hear a sense of urgency, purpose and an intentional looseness that serves (rather than detracts from) the music in the second recording of Faubus that I don’t hear as much in the first, slicker major-label version. I am aiming for a similar sense of urgency with String Power.
I was inspired to arrange this piece because it has multiple layers of meaning. Unlike a parody, which is a one-dimensional imitation, usually for humor value, Mingus’s Faubus is a satire, a commentary on society that works on many levels. Faubus does have humorous elements. The very corny and square way the second theme (to the words “Name me some one who’s ridiculous”) is presented is (to my ears, anyway) making fun of Faubus and people like him. Also humorous is the way Eric Dolphy articulates his portion of the theme with over-the-top slides and vibrato. Trumpeter Ted Curson’s responses, after the words “Boo Nazi Fascist supremists,” sound like someone literally booing and perhaps making fart noises. But the message of course goes way beyond humor. The song is Mingus and his band members’ response to the shocking events of the Little Rock crisis, and to the racial prejudice they had to face every day of their lives. While it would make no sense for us to actually sing the lyrics, I wanted the arrangement, and our performance of it, to reflect our frustration that not nearly enough has changed in the 55 years since Mingus recorded it.
from Tom Swafford's String Power
released September 10, 2015
composer: Charles Mingus arranger: Tom Swafford
performed by: String Power
soloists: Mark Chung, Frederika Krier, Tom Swafford (violin), Dan Loomis (bass)
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