There used to be a randomly rotating quote on the E2 homepage, just above the Cream of the Cool section.

The intent was not unlike the old /usr/games/fortune that used to ship on BSD-family Unix hosts. From a recent fortune(6) man page:

When fortune is run with no arguments it prints out a random epigram.

Epigrams are an interesting concept. Single lines of text taken out of context from a larger work, incorporated elsewhere in ways that weren't intended by the original author.

I like to incorporate epigrams into my Google Talk status messages. These epigrams don't mean much when I use them, the same way the output of a fortune(6) doesn't mean much on my SSH terminal when I see it during .bash_profile or .bash_logout. It's a Unix thing; I've seen the same thing incorporated into a guild on NannyMUD, and a shell-out to fortune was the only easter egg I ever found in the old X-Windows] interface to BMC Software's CONTROL-M batch scheduler.

Sometimes using these epigrams can get me in trouble. Once I had it as a rap lyric from the Sole side project So-Called Artists:

bridges are made to be burned / idols are made to fall off pedestals / I'm only here temporarily.

I don't know what to say about why I put it there other than that I liked it and that it resonated with me on some level. I gave that explanation to a friend of mine when she was worried that the quote was secretly a statement about our friendship. The song popped up on my headphones at work one day, I dug what Sole was saying, I quoted him. 'Nuff said, right? The problem is, where I was used to random epigrams in that sort of context, her experience with them was much more limited. She started giving mine deep reading that I didn't think they deserved.

That whole thing was a long argument between us, and we didn't get anywhere we wanted to go in the process. A few months later I quoted Sage Francis from Slow Down Gandhi:

Making you think you're crazy is a billion dollar industry.

It was basically the immediate death of that friendship.

Anyway: The Everything Quote Server. It was different from fortune(6) because the content was often marked up with E2 hardlinks, and some of the text was very E2-specific. The Participate in your own manipulation poster started out with one of those quotes. E2 slogans like Link and Link or Earn your bullshit did their time in the rotation. After dem bones wrote Nathan, This Is Unacceptable, the title of that node became one of the quotes as well.

I saw that writeup as poetry about what how it felt being the sole employee of Everything2, working for someone else who bore more of the responsibility for the code and the backend: being nominally in charge but, due to limited resources, not having much ability to fix deep and structural problems with the site. I don't know that this is what the writeup was actually about; the actual business arrangement between dem bones and Blockstackers Intergalactic could have been very different. I'm just telling you what this particular epigram came to mean to me after the first few times I saw it on the front page of the site.

Around the same time, I was listening to community radio late nights in Minnesota as I did shift work as a Unix administrator for a dotcom-era e-commerce company based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. The zeitgeist of the job was hours of boredom punctuated by short intervals of sheer terror because the site couldn't display a working shopping cart. This was a big deal when all we did was sell shit on the Internet. The stress of being alone on site during those occasional outages aged me prematurely. During the slow time, if I didn't have anything to do, I would read Everything2 and listen to things like Rhymesayers Radio. RSE Radio was hosted by Siddiq Sayers, the head honcho over at the Twin Cities indie rap label Rhymesayers Entertainment.

One Saturday night, Siddiq played a song called Unlimited, the title track off an EP by a hip-hop duo called Soul Position. Soul Position was Columbus rapper/producer Blueprint on the vocals, acclaimed DJ/producer RJD2 on the beats. The song caught my attention immediately when Blueprint said:

People like my music / but they say I talk too much / They used to say the same thing about Flav and Chuck. / Every revolution starts with somebody loud. Somebody gotta throw the first brick from the crowd.

So I bought the EP. It's good. The clear outlier track on the disc is an instrumental called Oxford You Really Owe Me. A rapper/producer combo put out seven tracks and the rapper isn't even on one of them? Damn! The beat sounds almost wistful to me; a four and a half minute song, 1960s soul slow-jam keyboards, guitar solo snippets, and a low BPM drumkit, centered around a 45-second sample of an old blues-man describing the chitlin circuit. The chitlin circuit is a concept from the segregated era of blues, jazz, and R&B; in Jim Crow's America, black musicians who wanted to make a living playing music generally found a subsistence income touring a bunch of juke joint establishments throughout the Midwest and the Deep South.

Wikipedia on the chitlin circuit:

The "Chitlin' Circuit" was the collective name given to the string of performance venues throughout the eastern and southern United States that were safe and acceptable for African-American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform during the age of racial segregation in the United States (from at least the early 19th century through the 1960s). The name derives from the soul food item chitterlings (stewed pig intestines) and is also a play on the term "Borscht belt" which referred to a group of venues (primarily in New York's Catskill Mountains) popular with Jewish performers during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

These chitlin circuit venues were by-and-large frequented by people that didn't much care who was performing. The audiences were there to eat, drink, dance, laugh, love. People in those clubs were fans of the scene, much more than they were devoted followers of any given performer on any given night. Musicians would labor on this circuit for years before developing a following, and in some ways it was a real boon to the era's corpus of recorded work: playing your ass off for years for live audiences who don't know who you are turns out to be a great way of establishing a deep proficiency in performance.

Robert Johnson didn't just hatch with one great blues record and an early death already planned out for him, stories about devils and crossroads aside. He picked up those skills by playing until his fingers bled every night, going home with the girls who watched him play, and drinking their liquor. The same subculture that fed him strychnine aged 27 years old also managed, just barely, to put him into a working recording studio. Producers and engineers set him up and told him to play. When he played, something almost supernatural came out. Scholars have spent whole books trying to describe it. I'm not up to the task and so I won't even try. I'll just say that, whatever it was that they captured during those sessions, the thing that came out of him had been refined and distilled by years performing on the chitlin circuit. Incidentally, something very similar happened to The Beatles during the years they spent playing every free hour in seedy European music clubs prior to being "discovered" by George Martin.

Why do I find these circuits so interesting, anyway? Why are RJ and Printmatic devoting a huge chunk of their debut recording to a chill, bluesy instrumental about the chitlin circuit?

I think they're making a point about paid dues: the Midwestern indie rap circuit in the late 1990s and early 2000s has in some ways been a chitlin circuit of its own. The racial segregation is over, but the economics of the regional entertainment circuit haven't really changed: the scene is bigger than the majority of the performers. For independent hip-hop, it was a long grind of open mic nights, rap battles, shitty cross-discipline festivals like Scribble Jam, no distribution, 4-track recordings on tape and CD-R, dedicated fans filling small clubs, and performers traveling cross-country in rented vans, couch surfing, playing for beer and chicken money, just trying to establish a following.

  • Just like it did for the blues men who preceded them, these indie rappers found that life on the chitlin circuit informed their music. Brother Ali can blow the fucking doors off a thousand-seat club, and he picked up 80% of that skill-set on the road, opening for Atmosphere. Atmosphere in turn toured for years off self-funded recordings and consistently won press about a DIY ethic comparable to that of the 1980s DC hardcore scene.

  • That scene produced Black Flag and a famous tour journal called Get in the Van about the exhaustion that comes from earning a subsistence living playing punk rock for live audiences that fought with the bands as much as they did with each other.

  • Before I got into Midwestern independent rap music of the kind Siddiq used to play on Fresh Air, and before my dad, Ken Burns, and Martin Scorsese each started teaching me about jazz and the blues, I was already a pro wrestling fan. Professional wrestling is a storied history of feast and famine on the American road, a direct descendant of 19th century carnivals. In some ways it's the most brutal and unrewarding chitlin circuit of them all.

  • Doug Stanhope did a bit about a suicidal road comic on the second season of the excellent Louis CK sitcom Louie which talks about yet another chitlin circuit: being a touring feature act in American comedy clubs. One of my favorite diversions for the last few years has been listening to L.A. standups like Joe Rogan and Ari Shaffir sit on podcasts talking about road life.

    Stand-up comedy is the hardest, easiest thing you'll ever do.
       -- Joey Diaz

The highs and lows of the profession are built directly around the chitlin circuit ethic: art in the name of drink sales. In real life, Stanhope essentially never even plays comedy clubs any more. As a headliner in the era of Facebook and Twitter, he can just book his own shows at music clubs, and pack in appreciative audiences who already know who he is. More money, less bullshit, standing room only.

All those stand-ups I mentioned talk about what a privilege it is to have those followings. All of them spent years living hand-to-mouth on the stand-up circuit paying their dues. They look at people like Charlie Sheen and Conan O'Brien, packing in stadiums on the strength of fame and notoriety from an unrelated profession, almost like they're cheating.

Blues, punk/hardcore, wrestling, comedy, rap music. All fed by traveling entertainers performing in front of audiences who care more about the scene than the performers. point? Being on a circuit like that is partly a labor of love, but there's eventually a certain amount of bitterness that builds up around it: every night you're practicing your craft in front of audiences who have no idea who you are and may have no appreciation for what it is you actually do. To me, Oxford You Really Owe Me has become a shorthand for bitterness toward a formative youth that didn't prepare you for the humility and slow grind needed to perfect your profession. It's about paying dues you didn't expect to have to pay, that you don't expect to ever be recognized for paying. It's about charting a course through life that seems obvious and indispensable, in spite of the exhaustion and the small and steady indignities.

The life of entertainers on the road is a crucible, savage and terrible and beautiful.

Nathan, This Is Unacceptable.

Sitting on isolated overnight shifts a decade ago, I was paying my own kind of dues. RJ and Al and dem bones were making a point I hadn't heard before and I was ready to run with it. The song title and the node title have become synonymous to me, and now at the end of several paragraphs I'm hoping you get where I'm coming from.

The thing is: I had to take you painstakingly through it. In the process of slowly and exhaustively drawing the connection for you, I've robbed you of the part of that connection which was the most important to me: the sudden and beautiful moment I had, in the privacy of my own head, languishing at 3:00am on a Saturday morning, packed into my tiny cubicle but alone in a large building, when I made that connection. I just don't have the mad bonsai/haiku skills necessary to give you the context you need to understand where I'm coming from while still leaving you the moment of surprise you would have to have to feel what I felt.

It's the paradox of unique context: I am who I am because of the continuous synthesis of unrelated ideas, and I can't share the product of that synthesis with you. The more clear I am in the intent of my writing, the less clear the purity of the outcome in your reading. This is what I mean when I say that art isolates us all.

In my opinion the attempt to reconcile this basic conflict between context and emotional content is the basis of all art. An artist attempts to make the audience feel the right thing without explaining to them why they should feel that way. Successful connection with the audience means never, ever showing your work. The worst part is that even when the artist gets it right, the audience still gets it wrong: we swarm over the work and its author looking for details about the context surrounding the piece, and in the process of discovering the context we destroy the sublime, perfect moment we encountered when we consumed the work in the first place.

I'm sure those comedians and wrestlers and blues singers would all tell you that mostly they're on the road because they're trying to get laid and to get money for food, rent, and drugs--but the reason we pay them in the first place is because we want to receive the exquisite shock we get from their rare and coveted breakthrough performances. Trying to make the breakthrough and failing is one of the most isolating feelings there is, and trying to receive the breakthrough and failing isn't much better. Actually breaking through to the audience is, I'm told, intoxicating. As an audience member having felt that breakthrough, I can say that the reason I keep going back for it is because it makes me feel like part of an indescribable larger whole.

I went off on this same rant to my dad and his brother a couple of years ago. In stereo, they both gave me the what, are you stupid? look that all men in my family develop after a certain age. This, they told me, is the entire point of a classic liberal arts education. Now you tell me. Is there a chitlin circuits 101 class I can make you all pass before you read my next node? No?

Oxford, you really owe me.

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