Stace England and the Salt Kings' The Amazing Oscar Micheaux is a high concept album, a musical analysis of the first African-American director of all-Black films. To understand the disc, you have to understand a little about the "Great and Only" Oscar Micheaux. Indulge me, gentle reader.
Oscar Micheaux (1884 - 1951) made films that addressed racial issues from the Black perspective. In direct contrast to many mainstream films of the day, Micheaux sought to present Black characters that didn't fit the stereotypes. Most notably, Micheaux countered the perspective of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which portrayed Blacks as brutes driven by sexual desires being kept in their place by the righteous Ku Klux Klan. Micheaux mimicked and mocked some of Griffith's cinematic techniques and camera angles as well as borrowing thematic elements. Within Our Gates presented the opposite view, showing the injustices that Blacks endured in the South, while The Symbol of the Unconquered told the story of a Black man riding with the Klan, ultimately foiling their efforts.
Not all of Micheaux's work was so didactic. Several of his films were about light-skinned Blacks passing in white society (a topic that's been of recent interest as well); Body and Soul told the story of Black criminals who embezzle money from a church. Throughout his work, the theme of interracial love is frequently revisited, and fictionalized versions of events from his own life are common. Prior to his film career, Micheaux farmed three hundred acres in South Dakota - the only Black homesteader living among Whites. His experience became the basis of his first silent film in 1919, The Homesteader, a story about a Black Dakota homesteader who finds true love in the arms of a White girl. He told this story again in the 1931 talkie, The Exile, and once more in his final movie, 1948's The Betrayal.
While Marcheaux is lauded as the first major Black filmmaker, his work received mixed reactions in his own time. Given the divisive nature of race relations, particularly in the pre-Civil Rights era, Marcheaux was regarded both as a hero and a troublemaker. Some of his work was so controversial that even the Black press turned its back on him. Although he was certainly among the most prolific directors from the period, with forty-four films to his credit, fewer than twenty of his films survive, some so lost that no artwork even remains.
Enter Stace England is an alt-roots rocker who's no stranger to conceptual albums and who expertly tells tales without using a narrative. With his band, the Salt Kings, England has released two previous historical concept discs: Greetings from Cairo, Illinois tells the history of "a southern city in a northern state," while the follow-up Salt Sex Slaves is about salt production in antebellum Illinois. It's worth noting that the "Little Egypt" area of southern Illinois is the primordial soup from which England draws his material, as Oscar Micheaux also hails from the region, born in Metropolis, Illinois.
England is a self-described farm boy from central Illinois but has made his home in Little Egypt for many years. It's an area he calls "an odd place where north and south meet east and west." England stumbled upon the Micheaux story "quite by accident" when he came across a biography in the library. "I was blown away by this guy's story," he says. "And this was decades before Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Spike Lee's movies."
Although it may seem an unlikely project for the Salt Kings, four white guys from the midwest, England doesn't see it as a Black story, but as an American story. "The fact that we're asked about why we would do it speaks to the journey our country still has to take," he points out. "A hundred years from now, I don't think people will ask that. We should be color blind to our heroes."
Along with the disc, the Salt Kings have scored the Micheaux film Within Our Gates, which they've accompanied live. They've also developed a multimedia show that incorporates the music and clips from Micheaux films. England sees the band's efforts as part entertainment and part education. "Pop music is capable of so much more. Sure, we can be entertained for two hours, but we can also learn something."
All but one of the tracks on The Amazing Oscar Micheaux is an homage to a Micheaux film of the same name. The odd-man-out track is "Vendome," a tribute to the ornate Chicago movie house that premiered The Homesteader. It's a grinding rocker that brings out the delight of seeing "folks like us up on that silver screen." Remember, in 1919 there were no Black movie stars, and for the first time, here was a film that not only starred an all-Black cast, but also presented a Black story, flew in the face of stereotypes, and was written, directed, and produced by a Black man. England captures the delight and excitement of that prospect for Black audiences.
Here you'll also find the best guitar work on the disc, starting and ending with Charlie Tabing's loping leads, and David Brown adds a layer on keys that evokes the old time Wurlitzer organ that often accompanied silent films. Wrapped up in this tune is the excitement of the world's first all-Black movie premier, with a musical mise en scene that echoes the experience, and yet is fully modern. See what I mean about England's skills as a conceptual storyteller?
The remainder of the disc interprets Micheaux's films through a midwestern roots rock lens with a show tune flair. Body and Soul featured Paul Robeson's film debut as a pair of brothers, one good and one evil. The corresponding tune carries this theme of duality not only in the lyric, but in the harmony vocals. "Lying Lips" eases along as a '70s-styled country rock ballad, with lyrics that seem to have little to do with its movie counterpart.
Finally, "The Betrayal" references the Micheaux's last film, wrapping up the ironic end to an otherwise stunning career. His first film to gain the attention of the mainstream press, The Betrayal unfortunately only attracted negative attention. According to England, the movie was universally panned, even by his one-time supporters, ending his career in financial ruin. England's lyrics ring true and once again pop with the lament, "Take refuge, high fliers, when fame becomes fleeter than you."
There's a quote from Micheaux on the back cover of the disc explaining that his goal was to show the "colored heart from close range." England's effort seems to run parallel, showing in these songs the heart of the films, and indeed the heart of the filmmaker.