"Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim like Me" -- the Classic Collection of Black "Toasts," the Daddy of Hip-Hop -- Is Resurrected

Release Date: April 16, 2004 This content is archived.


"It is the story...that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence." ~ Chinua Achebe, "Anthills of the Savannah" (1987)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry From Black Oral Tradition," a book collected and compiled by SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson of the University at Buffalo, is back for a second go 'round.

It was originally published in 1974 by Harvard University Press and had been long out of print, but Routledge issued new hardcover and paperback editions of the book last month. They are welcomed by many, including Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates, who calls Jackson's book "a seminal work in both the collection and analysis of African American oral culture, indispensable to all students of American popular culture."

The book collects a popular form of African-American literature and folk poetry known as "toasts." For 30 years, it carried the reputation of a "stone cold classic," mightily praised by critics, cultural historians, musicians, poets and general-interest readers alike. The book includes a new CD of Jackson's original field recording of the toasts in the book.

"Toasts are just one aspect of a rich tradition of verbal arts in black culture," Jackson says. "Public performance of rhyming verse has ancient African roots. And we see it now in rap and hip-hop, which are a mix of African American, Caribbean and several other traditions.

"Toasts are the starting point for rap," he says, "both in the poetry itself and the way it was used and performed in public situations. As the novelist and former Buffalonian Ishmael Reed says, if you want to understand rap and hip-hop, you've got to understand toasts."

The toasts featured in the book, says Jackson, come from various sources, including street corners, barber shops, bars and jails -- "places young men hang around without much to do."

Although Jackson says the stories told in these works can be personal and intimate -- and he has heard blues lyrics and Robert Service poems recited as toasts -- they generally celebrate a number of folkloric figures from African-American culture like "Stackolee," the famed bad man said to have murdered a guy over a Stetson hat, and the celebrated "Signifying Monkey," who regularly outsmarts stronger forest opponents by using his native wits.

There are stories here, too, of the loss of the Titanic, famed in black folklore and music, Jackson says, because it signified a horrific failure by the era's powerful white establishment. There also was a story, he says, possibly apocryphal, that the ship's owner had refused to sell tickets to famed blacks, including prize fighter Jack Johnson.

"Nobody knows how long ago these toasts began," Jackson says," but they are an entertainment device that go back at least to the beginning of the 20th century.

"It is likely that the reason that they never were published before is that, unlike gospel music lyrics and other works by African-American writers, toasts are profane, misogynistic, violent and use language that violates propriety," Jackson says.

"Toast figures," noted one critic, "suffer degradingly, take their revenge cruelly and perform supernatural sexual feats in the common vocabulary of anal-genital idioms and vivid slang."

"It's important to realize, however," says Jackson, "that this violence and vulgarity arises out of the fact that toasts are a form of swapped story exchanged by men living in a world of violence and betrayal, where they always had to watch their backs, where no one could be trusted."

For 30 years, "Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me" has delighted students of African-American culture and folklore and anyone who enjoys the double entendres and hidden meanings found in the oral tradition that has continued from ancient times to the tales of the West-African griots, from blues narratives to contemporary rap.

Last year, University of Georgia Press published a new edition of "Wakeup, Deadman: Hard Labor and Southern Blues," Jackson's classic collection of African-American convict work songs. The book originally was published by Harvard University Press in 1972 and the recorded version of the prison song field tapes received a Grammy nomination.

Jackson, Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB, is a member of the faculty in the Department of English in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. He has been the director of the university's Center for Studies in American Culture since 1972, and is the author of more than 20 other books on folklore, criminal law and fiction. His many awards and honors include his 2002 award of a Chevalier, l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, from the government of France.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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