Bartees & the Strange Fruit is the recording project of Bartees Cox from Oklahoma. After playing guitar for Lizzie No (whose Hard Won we liked a lot) and being part of the band Stay Inside, Cox has recorded his debut solo album, Magic Boy, which came out late last year on Pineapple Record Co.
As his moniker suggests, Cox uses his songwriting to explore the black experience, with a special focus on the rural south where he grew up. As such, Magic Boy fuses the intensely personal with the societal and historical, creating a record that manages to be both intimate and sweeping in its commentary, and it’s a testament to the Bartees sound that such a balance is so well achieved. The main emotion of this style is a deformed nostalgia, a kind of wistful sense of heartbreak that shifts momentarily into anger or despair without warning. As on the troubled love song opener ‘You’re Here’, where a failing relationship is viewed not just with the usual melancholy but flashes of violence too. ‘Going Going’ takes this a step further, crafted out of the unforgiving culture and Christianity of the south, the racist soul of a town lingering well past the Civil Rights Act. Worse, the the narrator finds they cannot escape this spirit, even when fleeing.
“Black folks who dance when we’re glad on the tight rope
The women that loved me whipped me with switches
Back in them ditches, dodging tornados, hoping the calvary come
Come on down and get me, Come on down and get me
Now ya gone, (how you left for the coast by yourself)
Now ya gone (when you screamed you don’t need no one else)
How’d you know that I always won
Now I’m gone”
‘Count it Back’ is a soulful folk song that would be at home on any mainstream radio station, the anger and fear that the track communicates is all the more pressing for it. Here, Cox cleverly plays the white expectation against itself, co-opting the gentle pop-folk style that is so often used to tell banal stories of love and loss. The racial violence then comes as a shock to those of us outside of its daily impact, and jarring too, as though such topics should only be told in furious anger or sombre retrospect, or else packaged with a neat redemption or concluding freedom. This stylistic choice, and refusal to play into the set narratives whites deem suitable for such stories, ends up saying so much more than any single lyric ever could.
“They burning crosses from west Texas to Memphis
I seen em burning out there by the lake
No one gives a fuck when they up there burning.
They hit you later like hey blood you OK?
I call my mother every morning for power
And if I didn’t I’d have died or wrecked
I count it back so I can stay with my people
Count it back so I can be there for Mijo”
Featuring the aforementioned Lizzie No, ‘Get Over It’ is a love duet concerning the ability (or lack thereof) to move on from a situation, when “Patience and virtue go off to the wind like embers” and the burden of it all gets too much to bear. ‘Best of You’ is similarly exhausted and beaten, before the dark nostalgia returns in ‘Little Brother’, where the past haunts the present once more, though the bond between brothers shines through despite the failure in communication. The is followed by ‘Eat Your Heart Out’, a track which pushes right into folk-punk territory, Cox’s frantic refrain the opposite of a solution or salvation, rather just the catharsis of airing his frustration and committing it to tape. This is followed by an outro from jazz singer Donna Mitchell-Cox, Bartees’s mother, her gentle croon sounding over slightly off-kilter instrumentation, again evoking the souring of the past, where fond memories are distorted by outside forces.
Magic Boy serves as a lesson, making the point that racial trauma permeates every aspect of the black experience, so that even tender songs about family and friends and lovers are haunted by the chronic spectre, and a constant sense of exhaustion lingers. I think, as a white audience, we’re predisposed to expect protests about racism to end with some final victory. We like the fury and trauma to be backed up with perfect examples of the unbreakable black spirit, as though there might be some value or romance within suffering. In portraying something closer to reality, Bartees & the Strange Fruit refuses us this—with the hope more focused on survival than triumph, and prone to serious lapses—and instead gives a snapshot of the genuine black experience.
Magic Boy is out now via Pineapple Record Co., and you can get it now from Bandcamp.