Scott Pryor’s ballads of Klan and labor organizer
To a Friday night reveler rounding the corner of Washington and Elm streets, the resonant sound of Scott Pryor’s voice and acoustic guitar suddenly fill the air, echoing through the downtown canyon with bracing rhythm and melody played in counterpoint, and the songwriter’s thoughtful words piercing space and time.
Then the rumble of bikes revving their engines in front of Elm St. Tattoos & Body Piercings interrupts the music. Across the street, on Aug. 12, Pryor plies his songs on the brick patio of Cheesecakes by Alex as friends sit around the shop’s cement-top tables listening intently. The patio takes up a portion of a parking deck, and behind Pryor stretches the expanse of Greensboro’s east side: NC A&T University, Bennett College, the Lorillard Tobacco plant and the former Morningside Homes.
Between the bikes and all that history, Pryor seems pretty comfortable. As a matter of fact he has a song for the bikers called ‘“No One In Particular,’” in which he sings: ‘“He can hear the hogs call his name/ They say don your leather and tattoos boy and ride away.’”
As they roar down the street, he nods approvingly.
‘“Hopefully next week I’ll be done recording my album,’” he says. ‘“All proceeds of my record will go to the Scott Pryor Needs a Motorcycle Fund.’” Then quietly, almost as an afterthought, he introduces the next song as being ‘“about Greensboro.’”
The song, which tonight features martial-style drumming by Naman Hampton that gives it the feel of a Pogues number, calls up both biting social observation and aching humanity. In about three minutes, it encapsulates Greensboro’s most horrifying and incomprehensible moment of social cataclysm, the killings of Nov. 3, 1979.
The verses lay out several sets of seemingly irreconcilable experiences:
‘“I am a resident of Morningside I lived through the guns,’” he sings. ‘“They come here and then leave us to die/ I am a Klansman defending the Confederate sons/ And in America, sir, that is my right.’”
Then: ‘“I am a textile executive I’ve got money in the bank/ To keep the profits up I keep the wages low/ I am a labor organizer, a job with little thanks/ But the worker’s revolution will surely grow.’”
Then the chorus, with these bitter words: ‘“I have covered up the truth and laid it all bare/ I have choked down the dirt and not even cared.’”
‘“The Great I Am’” is part of a song cycle about Nov. 3, 1979 that Pryor, who turns 26 on Thursday (8/18), wrote for his senior thesis at Guilford College. He researched and analyzed how the event has been represented by the news media and artistic productions, and then, with Woody Guthrie’s Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska as his inspirations, he set out to write a collection of songs that would lend understanding to the roles of all the participants in the Nov. 3 tragedy.
‘“Nebraska was such an incredible piece of work, how he was able to humanize serial killers, and provide a small window into people’s humanity who we tend to deny as having any,’” Pryor says later that night, as he sits on the front porch of his Glenwood Avenue house eating poultry and drinking whiskey around midnight. ‘“November third was such a complex and ultimately human story. So the question was, how do I honor the humanity of everyone involved?’”
His immersion in the complexity of Nov. 3, 1979 inevitably led him in March 2003 to join the staff of the Greensboro Community Truth and Reconciliation Project, the initiative by survivors and civic leaders to pursue those two difficult and somehow controversial aims. When an independent panel was named to collect testimony and sift through the many versions of the truth of the killings in Morningside Homes, Pryor jumped over to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and helped it set up its offices in December 2004.
Now he splits his time between playing his music and organizing a benefit concert for the commission at New Garden Friends Meeting on Sept. 1. He’ll perform with poet Amaris Howard, songwriters Laurelyn Dossett and Riley Baugus at the concert, which will be headlined by Si Kahn, whose marriage of songwriting and activism is something of a model for Pryor.
One of the most challenging and ultimately disarming compositions in the Nov. 3 song cycle is written from the perspective of a Klansman who travels to Greensboro to confront the communist labor activists. The song contains the chilling line ‘“we cooked those commie bastards like a cast-iron stove,’” but otherwise meditates on quieter images: the wife who makes her husband coffee but refuses to kiss him before he goes off to do the killing, and chastises him later when she visits him in jail for not considering the needs of their children.
‘“I took it from a newspaper article that gave me the bare outline,’” he says, ‘“about how the November third event brought them closer together.’”
He admits that putting oneself in the shoes of a Ku Klux Klan member is an artistic risk.
‘“It is a tightrope walk,’” he says. ‘“How do I sing that song and not trivialize it? At the same time you also don’t want to excuse it. I ask myself, how do I illuminate the humanity of people, but also hold them accountable? That doesn’t only go for songwriting; that goes for a lot of things.’”
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