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Southern Cultures 12.3 (2006) 95-100

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I'm Talking about Shaft

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"In some ways 'Shaft' is a ridiculously over-the-top song. Those twittering flutes, the heavy drapery of strings, foretold the arrival of dreaded disco and connected the song to first cousins like 'You Don't Have to Be a Star, Baby (To Be in My Show)' rather than the more desirable kinfolk of the mid-sixties Stax-Volt catalog, to which Isaac Hayes lent his brilliant songwriting and production skills. But though there is a direct line from 'Shaft' to the schmaltziest ballads of the Bee Gees, something erupts in my thighs when I hear the high-hat cymbal tick and that introductory wah-wah scratch guitar." Isaac Hayes, courtesy of
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Butterball Thompson's the one forgot to pivot right that fateful night, wedging our lameass squad right up into the foursome of skinny flutists stopped in front of us on the halftime-show football field. Stick girls, their band uniforms turning their slat-thin bodies into boneless black and gold garment bags, drooping from shoulder to spat without a clue of womanly curve. Our uniforms weren't exactly designed to highlight anatomical assets. My own was just as slack, but my squad mates—Butterball on Tuba, Winifred Hammerman on the trombone, and Cedrick Raynor playing, like me, the baritone horn—were all straining in their duds. Cedrick wore where-the-flood pants that crept up his shin with each goose step. Winnie Hammer, when he extended the arm of his trombone to distant position, flashed a good six inches of white dress shirt sleeve. Butterball, got dog, man—he was button-popping, stuffed up in that uniform, his girth calling into question whether he ought to suffer such bodily restraint and be expected to blow big and solemn low-down notes on the tuba. Butter, like most big boys, had this slow, easy, solid thing going—he moved up underwater to a soundtrack by the Chi-Lites—and seeing him bound and trussed, every damn thing, even the spats squeezing his feet, hampering his considerable chops on the tuba, made you want to get all politically active, plead cruel and inhumane, sign some petition demanding: Free Big Butter!

Ours was the worst squad in the Clinton, North Carolina, high school marching band. We were screw-ups who could not cut it in other squads, so the director, nicknamed Belly, after his considerable paunch, put us together, thus quadrupling our inefficiency and igniting all sorts of mid-field "Your Mama" trash talk. Our band was one of the best in the state, despite the fact that our musical repertoire was resolutely lame: the inexplicably titled Chicago hit "25 or 6 to 4," "Theme from 'A Man Called Horse'," "Spinning Wheel." I was the lone white member of my squad and subject therefore to torrents of white-people jokes and cracks about the band Chicago and the exact meaning of a lame title like "25 or 6 to 4," which I relished. Butterball: What kind of clock do he got? Cedrick: Fool need to learn how to tell some time. Winnie: His ass definitely gone be late.

The local schools had only been integrated for three or four years, and though I found my minority status in the screw-up squad slightly uncomfortable at times, I was also thrilled by it. I'd had black friends in grade school, but the screw-up squad was my first full immersion in black culture, which I found far less provincial than my own. The great migration of rural southern blacks to the urban north was still going on in the early seventies, and I found fascinating the mysterious geographical patterns established by the blacks in my town, who tended to end up in the industrial towns of the Hudson River Valley—Newburgh and Kingston and Troy—while blacks from towns just a few miles away migrated to Baltimore or Philly. (Everyone, it seemed, had people in Brooklyn, a fact verified...


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