SUNY Press publishes a new edition of classic work on African American toasts, predecessor of rap

Release Date: February 23, 2024

Bruce Jackson, SNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at UB.
“Reading the toasts is to be aware of an important part of the American folk poetry tradition. ”
Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – In August of 2022, an article in “Rolling Stone” accused guitarist Jeff Beck and actor Johnny Depp of stealing lyrics for a track on their album, “18,” from a toast included in a 1974 book (Harvard University Press) and 1975 album (Rounder Records) edited and recorded by Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture in the Department of English.

Beck and Depp in turn filed suit against Jackson for making the accusation. They asked a federal judge to declare them the authors of the toast.

The toast — attributed to a man identified in the book as Slim Wilson — was among the many, from a variety of sources, Jackson transcribed from audio tapes for his book and album, both titled “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Narrative Poetry from Oral Tradition.”

SUNY Press has just released a paperback edition of the book, long considered a classic, with a new introduction for 2024. Henry Louis Gates has described the book as “A brilliant groundbreaking work in both the collection and analysis of African American oral culture. Indispensable.”

“I was doing research at the Indiana State Penitentiary in 1961 the first time I heard toasts,” says Jackson. “I had never heard anything like it before.”

The next year, conducting similar research at the Missouri State Penitentiary, Jackson encountered one man who shared about a dozen toasts during a conversation.

“Over the course of those two years, I became aware of toasts as a genre,” says Jackson. “I knew it was something, but I didn’t know what. Gradually, over time, it took form.”

A toast is a narrative poem from the African American oral tradition. Some are brief. Others unfold over the course of several hundred words. They could be polite, but often were not. Toasts were also performed, more than recited, with some people assuming different characters in a single toast, changing voice, mood and personality. Toasts are a critical part of a body of folk poetry that includes sermons, work songs, spirituals and the blues. 

How the poems came to be called toasts is unknown. And though some toasts are datable, based on specific internal references, it’s impossible to determine when the tradition began.

“People weren’t writing down toasts,” says Jackson. “If they did, their content made them impossible to publish. Remember, you could be jailed in the U.S. for mailing a Henry Miller novel in the 1950s.”

The book’s updated edition lands in the 50th anniversary year of hip-hop. Its timely arrival provides a revealing look into one of the major folk-narrative streams feeding into hip-hop’s development and the creation of rap music, now the most listened to genre of popular music in the U.S.

“Reading the toasts is to be aware of an important part of the American folk poetry tradition,” says Jackson. “We see how toasts are placed in historical relation to rap, but also how they’re placed in regard to the spectrum of Black musical and poetic performance that provides so vital a part of American popular and formal culture.”

Much has changed in the decades between the book’s original publication and the new paperback. New York’s Wooster Group recently performed a stage adaptation of Jackson’s work that explores the tradition of toasts, but aside from that dramatic portrayal, the kind of performance that goes on during a toast no longer occurs. The tradition had even started to wane when the first edition was published decades ago.

Moveable sound, first from boom boxes, and later by even more portable devices, is now present where toasts were performed.

“The same kids who were once performing toasts are now more likely to be doing rap,” says Jackson.

Attitudes surrounding gender roles, gratuitous violence and perceptions about language have changed as well. 

Harvard University Press, in fact, rejected Jackson’s original title, “Dance of Freaks,” on the grounds it might be offensive.

“If that title offends somebody think what will happen when they open the book,” Jackson said at the time. “They’ll die.”

Harvard proposed an absurd alternative. Jackson countered with the book’s current title, being certain Harvard would find it more offensive than his first idea. He also added that Yale University Press was willing to publish the book, should Harvard pass.

“Yale’s interest was a lie,” says Jackson. “I hadn’t spoken to anyone there. Harvard responded that I could have any title I wanted. By that time, I was comfortable with ‘Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.’”

Toasts may be an extinct art form, replaced by the music it helped make possible, but they have clearly had a powerful effect on American culture, according to Jackson.

“Much of it we’re unaware of, but it’s there.”

Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me” is one of three books by Jackson being published by SUNY Press this spring. The other two are “Folklore Matters: Incursions in the Field, 1965-2021” and “The Life and Death of Buffalo's Great Northern Grain Elevator.”

As for the lawsuit filed by Beck and Depp?

“We worked something out to our mutual satisfaction,” says Jackson.

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