"Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me!" is the essential aural companion to Bruce Jackson's 1974 book of the same title, a study of the literature and culture surrounding narrative poetry, or "toasts," from African-American oral tradition. More than simply poetry, toasts come to life only in the theatrical and individually stylized way they are presented. Just as the characters portrayed in many of these toasts establish their reputations through words, the tellers themselves assert identity by how well they present the tale.
Just beneath the colorful, folksy surface of the toasting tradition simmers a hotbed of psycho-social issues. Toasts like "Pimpin' Sam" and "Hobo Ben" are as violent, obscene and misogynistic as they are playful and humorous. "Titanic" -- a tale so bawdy Celine Dion wouldn't touch it with a 200-foot mast -- veils racial and sexual politics behind an extended "dumb whitey" joke. And "Stackolee," an age-old tale that is part horror show and part reality-based, puts the continued popularity of gangsta rap in perspective.
Though so much has changed in the years since toasting evolved into rapping, it is both amazing and tragic how much has stayed the same.
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