Growing up in Nigeria, America invaded our world largely through fragments of culture: books and music. Indian (Amitab Bachan!) and Chinese films (Bruce Lee!) relegated American films to a distant background. In High School, James Hadley Chase was our most mesmerizing path to America.
The irony of meeting America in the enthralling world of a British author was supremely lost on us. We did not just read Chase, we lived each title and its captivating characters. You boasted to schoolmates that the trouble was finding which Chase you hadn’t read. Confessing to having not read a particular Hadley Chase title was a felony. I learnt the hard way when I owned up to having not read Want to Stay Alive? in Form Two. “Ah, you mean you don’t know Poke Toholo?” My friends’ query came with an instantly acquired air of superiority. None of the hordes of ‘serious’ American writers I would later read, black, white, or native American, ever came close to Hadley Chase in giving me that unique adrenalin version of America. Today, you may raid my personal library and make away with John Dos Passos, Hemingway, Malamud, Steinbeck, Russell Banks, Sherman Alexie, Philip Roth, Jodi Picoult, and Toni Morisson. Just don’t touch my Chase collection! Bernard Madoff, Robert Stanford, and other postmodern American 419 kingpins came a couple of decades too late. They would have provided fantastic material for a Hadley Chase thriller on America.
We escaped the enchanting world of Hadley Chase’s America only to be “arrested” by American musicians. Now, this is where it gets really interesting. Of all the genres of American music that formed part of our cultural consciousness in Nigeria at the time, country music came to acquire a significance that, years later, I would be at pains to explain to my American friends, especially African Americans. More on that later. Kenny Rogers entered Nigerian ears mainly with “The Gambler”. Dolly Parton’s “coat of many colors” resonated with us because so many of us could relate to the lyrics. Nigerian reggae musicians like The Mandators even recorded reggae versions of the song. I doubt if they ever got permission from Dolly Parton to release her song in Nigeria. After all, you just went ahead and recorded your own version of any American song in the postcolony: Kris Okotie did a fantastic version of James Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind”. There were Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, The Judds, and Ronnie Milsap whose “Daydreams about Night Things” signalled the beginning of restless adolescent explorations of forbidden warrens of pleasure that would end up in the ears of white catholic priests at confession.
Then there was Don Williams! How a country musician from Floydada, Texas, became one of America’s greatest gifts to the ears of my generation in far away Nigeria is a matter that should detain students of transnational aesthetic crossings. Perhaps it was that voice? That voice! That deep hickory baritone that comes only once in a generation! For Don Williams’s voice is to country music – no, to music – what Zinedine Zidane’s feet were to the art of football in his heyday. Half way through high school, we had already become mobile libraries of Don Williams’s songs. We did a lot of things to our vocal chords in the vain hope of approximating the malty and textured baritone of the master in “You’re my Best Friend”. Helen Reddy’s “Best Friend” comes close, especially the version she did while playing a nun in the film, Airport 1975, but it is not Don Williams. And nothing did it like waking up first thing in the morning to “Lord I hope this day is good” playing in the radio!
Each song also had its practical, contextual uses. Whenever you were mad at your friends, you whistled “Fairweather Friends” to their hearing in class; when you were down and needed inspiration, “If Hollywood Don’t Need You” was your best bet. For reunions, nothing did it like “It’s Good to See You”. And the love songs! No one does love songs like Don Williams. Pure poetry. The very best. And we went to work, pilfering lines and verses from so many of the songs for use in the little love letters we wrote to the girls we fancied. Most Nigerians of a certain age would remember those secondary school “love missives” that asked the girl if she was “in a good condition of health, if so, doxology”! “Listen to the Radio”, “I’ve Got a Winner in You”, “Senorita”, “Lay Down Beside Me” and so many of Don Williams’s love songs found their way into our love notes. If, God forbid, the girl snubbed or gave you outright isho, you sang “She Never Knew Me” loudly within earshot. For a one night stand gone bad after “social night” which we had every last Saturday of the month, you sang “Rake and Rambling Man”, making sure she heard the part that said “… do I look like a Daddy to you?” To win your girl back after a break up, nothing worked like lines stolen from “If I Needed You”, the Townes Van Zandt song that Don Williams did in a fantastic duet with Emmylou Harris.
Then it happened! Somewhere between 100 and 200 Level in the University came a devastating urban legend: “una don hear? Don Williams na racist o!” Don Williams a racist? We were crushed. In our young minds, it was simply unthinkable that our hero could be a hater of black people. You see, country music came to us in Nigeria without the baggage of America’s race demons and ghomids. We were all high on the Don William’s cool ‘aid’. Who among us was going to be the first to declare that he no longer liked those fantastic songs? That would have been as felonious as renouncing James Hadley Chase. Years later as I taught Zola Maseko’s celebrated film, A Drink in the Passage, in a graduate seminar at The Pennsylvania State University, it was easy for me to get into the perplexed sentiments of those South African racists in the film who admired the genius of an art work produced by a black man in an apartheid context that predisposed them to deny the existence of any such thing as a black genius. How do you love the art and hate its creator on account of his colour? How do you admit that a work of art by a black artist is pure genius while believing that black people have no genius? A curious version of that central problematic of Zola Maseko’s film had confronted us in the urban legend of Don Williams’s alleged racism. How do you love the songs of a country artist who hated your race and who you are now supposed to detest in return? Somehow, Don Williams survived that terrible urban legend. Suspicion of racism wasn’t enough to dampen our enthusiasm for his music.
Then I went to America after graduate school in Vancouver, British Columbia. As I packed, the Nigerian friends who frequented my apartment in those last Vancouver days made away with my Don Williams Cds. After all, I was going to America, the ancestral home of country music: the home of Don Williams. It was only natural to expect that I would have my fill of Don Williams in America. Why carry coal to Newcastle? Wrong! The first shock Americans give the Nigerian is that they know nothing about country music! Let me explain. Country music, for the contemporary American, is Tim McGraw, Brad Paisely, Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, George Strait, and a few Canadian sprinkles. Americans who are really into country music may know a thing or two about older generations of country artists. But rare is that American who has ever heard of Don Williams! In the reckoning of a Nigerian, if you don’t know Don Williams, you don’t know country music. Period!
Country music and Don Williams became site of contested cultural discoveries and encounters between my new American friends and I. I still recall those occasions when friends would call to welcome the new African faculty and discover, to their pleasant surprise, that I was “into country music”! Worse, I wasn’t just collecting CDs and following the ‘Opry’ closely, I also had a respectable library of books on the history of country music. My own pleasant surprise was always about how little they knew about country music. And there was the inevitable heartbreak they gave me: where they knew country music at all, they’d never heard of Don Williams. Some rubbed salt on my injury: “you mean Hank Williams?” Then came the torrent of questions: country music in Africa? Who would have thought of that? And I would think how odd it was that Don Williams enjoyed the super stardom denied him at home in Nigeria. Friends from Ghana, Zambia, and Tanzania would later confirm that Don Williams was not the “exclusive property” of Nigerians. They also grew up listening to the master. This only added to the amazement of our American friends.
By far the most delicate situations came with my African American friends. What the heck was this African ‘brotha’ doing? What’s with him and the music of southern White racists? That was pretty much the situation the first time I hosted some African American graduate students who had graduated and were leaving town. They couldn’t get over my investment in country music. Not even the evidence of my no less passionate investment in jazz, rap, and R & B helped. The fact that my collection of the musical masters of the Harlem Renaissance was almost complete made matters worse. One of them wondered, albeit jokingly, how I could defile the masters by stacking country music ‘trash’ so close to them in my collection. Only one of them had heard about Charley Pride, one of country music’s greatest masters, an inductee of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, who happens to be an African American like them. I told them that we also listened to Charley Pride “when we was young ‘n growin up in Nigeria”, trying my dysfunctional ebonics. I told them jokingly but truthfully that my humanism was expansive enough to accomodate Satchmo, Salawa Abeni, Rossini, Kassav, and, most certainly, Don Williams!
Today, as I look at the American musical scene from Canada, I wonder what those African American friends of mine would make of the fact that the hottest name in country music at the moment is as black as they are. The name is Darius Rucker and his last two albums have been chart busters, what with hits like “Don’t think I don’t think about it” and “It won’t be like this for long”. The thing about Darius Rucker for me is not that he is an African American singer rocking country music at the moment. It’s just that his voice is the closest anybody has ever come to Don Williams, my Don Williams!