Anyone who knows BB Wolfe’s cd Heart Worn Sleeve well, will have come to appreciate the genius of “Winthrop’s Lament” – a song that is as beautiful as it is profound. Lyrically, this is as good as political song-writing gets, and musically it is a triumph. No matter how many times I listen to it, it still has the capacity to move me. A personal homage to the history of American civil rights, to Emmet Till and to Martin Luther King, it belongs on the shelf next to Billie Holliday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” or Howard Zinn’s, "A People’s History of the United States." The images it conjures up could serve to illustrate an alternative American iconography, supplementing Zinn’s alternative history of America. Perhaps BB Wolfe’s brilliance at evoking haunting images with his lyrics is related to his other life, as a visual artist. Wherever it comes from, it comes into its own in this song, which matches in this respect the words of the poem by Abel Meeropol/Lewis Allan that became the lyrics for “Strange Fruit.”
I had the privilege of witnessing BB Wolfe’s appearance on a local TV station on Friday, 30th July, just prior to his performance at the Jackson Coffee house, Jackson, Michigan. I am uncertain as to whether Bart Hawley (or his team) had done his homework properly when he (or, to be more accurate, his receptionist—his wife?) invited BB Wolfe to participate in the show, or if they just weren’t paying attention during the warm up session, but either way, “Winthrop’s Lament” seemed to catch Bart off guard. I am sure Bart is a perfectly nice fellow, and I am sure that Arlene is perfectly nice too. Arlene called in just a few minutes prior to BB Wolfe’s appearance. She was the lucky winner of a multiple choice trivia quiz (what was the first toy to be advertised on tv? It’s Mr. Potato head.) Arlene clearly tunes in every day to hear Bart, whose red shirt she made a point of complementing him on—I think she has a bit of a crush on Bart, and let’s face it, who can resist a man that sits at a desk every day with the American flag proudly displayed behind him, for all to see? Anyway, I am sure they are both perfectly nice people. I am sure the show does a great job of promoting local events, and so on. I am just not sure that Bart was fully prepared for “Winthrop’s Lament.” Whether it was the line attributed to BB Wolfe’s adoptive father when he heard of King’s murder that caught him off guard, or whether it was the sentiment behind the song that he didn’t consider suitable for his day-time viewers, it’s hard to say. But the look that passed between him and the receptionist was a stony one, to put it mildly. The look was followed by a good deal of frantic hand signals to people on the set, people who were not, apparently, paying attention. Who knows if they were too intent on witnessing BB Wolfe’s incredible performance, or maybe the tech guys were in cahoots with the receptionist. I am not well versed in the signs that tech people make on TV sets, but even I could tell what they meant. Wrap this guy up, get him off, fade him out, CUT! Slow fade to a light-hearted, all American cartoon, whatever—something! Bart’s attempt notwithstanding, the song played out to its worthy end. And the addendum to the story is that there is absolutely no trace of BB Wolfe’s appearance on the JTV Bart Hawley show’s website. It’s as if he never appeared. Be that as it may, the good people of Jackson, including Arlene, I am sure, are much better off in every way, for having been exposed to BB Wolfe’s “Winthrop’s Lament.” And for that, Bart, unwitting or not, you deserve the credit.
-T. M. Chanter, Head of Humanities, Kingston University, London, UK