The Downtown Shimmy Works

It’s been a while since I’ve had an interview with a musician to post, but this one is worth the wait!  Joshua Fialkoff is one of the most in demand musicians in the blues dance community today, playing with both the Fried Bananas and The Downtown Shimmy at many of the best dance weekends going, and here he gives us a really in depth look at how he approaches presenting a jazz standard to us.

A lot of blues dancers have been talking about cultural appropriation lately and how we can really respect the music we love to dance to.  I think what Josh has here is an excellent example of how to go about that.

It’s also one heck of a good song.  Go listen to it on The Downtown Shimmy’s Bandcamp page, and then read his interview!

The Downtown Shimmy

1) What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?

Though the version we play is an original arrangement, the actual song and lyrics were written by Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown Jr. Here it is in its original form. Here it is a little later with Oscar Brown Jr. adding vocals. This song was written post-slavery but is clearly a reference to the work songs slaves would sing to help pass the time. Thanks to folks like Alan Lomax, we can still listen to many of these: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/lomax/.

2) What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song? What is there in the song that communicates that?

Adderley’s interpretation of Work Song is upbeat and optimistic. Brown’s is slightly less so but, much like its predecessors, has the feeling of a song meant for helping the day go by. My arrangement is not these things. I wanted this version to speak of pain and hopelessness. I like to think that this message is clear but, if I had to point out specific elements that communicate these feelings, I would first point to the bass line. This is the first thing you hear when listening to the song, and its droning repeats tirelessly throughout. I would point next to the vocals. They linger behind the beat as though they’re being dragged through the song. And, when we arrive at the climax, the vocals carry the full weight of the silence as the most of the band drops out.

Our performing this song skirts the line with appropriation. Every time we play it, I wonder if we are justified in doing so. That said, I continue to perform it because it speaks to my soul exactly as I want it to – about pain and loss, anger and hopelessness. I also believe that, for those who are truly listening, this song serves as a much needed reminder that blues music is a stolen art form from an oppressed culture. There’s no giving it back at this point though. Blues is too tightly interwoven into the fabric of American music. I’m of the mind that we use it as a tool to remind ourselves of a tragic history, and to honor the struggles of its inventors.

3) What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?

Original songs and arrangements often feel like great reservoirs held back by weak dams. You poke at it, and maybe yank out a brick or two to see what’s behind. Eventually, the dam lets loose and everything comes pouring out. My best songs seem to come out this way. Sometimes though, it’s as though a song is hiding or scared. These ones need to be dragged out, or coerced. Some may take years to be fully realized. Some may never make it to the stage.

The original arrangement of this song (pre-Downtown Shimmy) came together pretty quickly. Once the bassline presented itself, the rest fell into place. The arrangement that you hear on the Downtown Shimmy album is no longer just mine though. It has evolved overtime, incorporating suggestions from my bandmates, or “perfect” mistakes we decided to keep. And this is how songs are truly written. Generally, though they’re conceived by the songwriter, they are children raised by a community, and one in which creativity and inspiration abounds. I’m lucky to have such amazing musicians with me, and much of this song’s credit, any many others we perform, go to them.

4) We’re dancers. We love your music. If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?

Respect the song. I don’t think that translates to specific movement, but I can easily think of movements that turn our collaboration (your dance, our music) into a clear example of appropriation. I can also think of clear examples of our collaboration that honor the past, and show appreciation.

I find it helpful to put myself in a proper headspace before I start the song: calm, heart-open, somber. Being in that space, it feels easier to honor the song – to allow myself the memory of a tragic past, and a struggling present. Perhaps you’ll consider doing the same thing the next time you dance to a piece of music. You might ask yourself: What is this song about? How does it want to be danced to? While questions like these might not make you the best dancer on the floor, I feel strongly that they will push you in that direction. They will enhance your musicality and, more importantly, help bring consciousness and intentionality to your movement.