As the Internet got going, in the early 1980s, futurological professionals liked to speak of “dead platforms,” archaic media rendered silent and/or invisible by the advent and ascendance of subsequent media. My own most poignant experience of a dead media platform, at that time, had been my discovery, at a swap meet in the early 1970s, of several reels of very thin, oddly brittle steel wire, the precursor to magnetic recording tape. The seller had no idea what might be recorded there, nor indeed whether the wire had ever been used. Neither the seller nor I had any idea where we might find a machine capable of playing them.
Maybe the least expected of the factors that went into making ska in those years, and the one many would argue that most nearly approached it in sound, leading most directly to its birth, came not from Jamaica at all, or even from the Caribbean, but from West Tennessee, and more specifically from South Memphis, and more specifically than that, from the band called the Beale Streeters, and most specifically of all from the right hand of their pianist and sometime singer-songwriter, a Memphis native named Rosco Gordon.
Unexpectedly, Bert asked me to move a little closer to him on the seat. I edged over and waited but he didn’t speak. After a long moment he whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “What do you think of programming for Negro people?”
Pete's banjo plucks the rhythm, Ronnie Gilbert's alto slips into the water, Lee's big bass aches the lullaby. That's all it was to the hit parade, but to Lee, especially, "Goodnight, Irene” was a secret language, "a great notion"—all that could be said for a nation that responded to folk songs with burning crosses, the "drowning" as much of an allusion to Leadbelly's darker words (a junkie's lament, a love gone cold) as Decca Records would allow. For those who could hear, the song was thick with broken-hearted meanings, an elegy for wrong choices and a hope for the sweet, revolutionary bye and bye.