Driva Man Original

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“Driva Man” tells the story of slavery through its devastating lyrics, instrumental accompaniment and powerful vocals. Written by Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr, “Driva Man” blends jazz with American civil rights politics. You might remember Alabama Shakes’ version from the 2013 album 12 Years A Slave (Music from and Inspired by). If you’re an English mod, you might remember Manfred Mann’s 1966 version. Or if you’re an Aussie rocker, you might recall the Beasts of Bourbon 1988 song named “Driver Man”. But the “Driva Man” original, released in 1960, is an avant-garde jazz classic performed by Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Coleman Hawkins.

We Insist on the Driva Man Original

The “Driva Man” original version appears on the 1960 album We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite). Roach and Brown started work on the suite in 1959 with the intention of a 1963 performance to mark the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Considered a pivotal work in the early 60s African-American protest movement, We Insist! features five movements that explore African American history. “Driva Man”, which focuses on slavery, is the opening track. The album’s cover photo of three black men being served by a white man in a cafe (something we might think nothing of today) would have been considered controversial in 1960.

“Driva Man” conjures up images of slavery in several ways. Throughout the track, Roach plays in 5/4 time (a deviation from the typical 4/4 blues time signature) with a percussive hit on the first beat of each measure. The hitting sound is actually a tambourine or a rimshot, all too closely resembling the sound of a cracked whip.

Roach’s then-girlfriend Lincoln opens “Driva Man”, singing a cappella in C minor and accompanying herself with the tambourine. Hawkins joins in, playing the melody on his tenor saxophone, supported by three horns. Although the song is played in blues form, with six bars, the sound is far more modern jazz than blues.

Max Roach

Roach was an American jazz drummer and composer born in North Carolina. Along with Kenny Clarke, he’s considered a pioneer of bebop drumming and is one of the jazz scene’s most widely respected drummers. In fact, Roach may be one of the most important drummers in history. He was one of the first musicians to overtly blend jazz with civil rights. In his time Roach worked with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Abbey Lincoln, Dinah Washington, Charles Mingus, Billy Eckstine, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. He played a part in the American civil rights movement throughout his life, and was inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1992.

Oscar Brown Jr

Brown was an American singer, songwriter, playwright, poet, civil rights activist and actor born in Chicago. He wrote 125 published songs, 12 albums and over a dozen musical plays. Brown’s first major contribution to a recorded work was the collaboration with Max Roach, We Insist!. Brown released his first LP, Sin & Soul, in 1960. The album was held in high regard, both for its musicality and for openly addressing the experiences of African Americans.

Abbey Lincoln

Lincoln was an American jazz vocalist, songwriter, actress and civil rights activist born in Chicago. Influenced by Billie Holiday, Lincoln was known for her powerful interpretations of jazz standards and for her own material. Her lyrics often explored the civil rights movement, exposing her audience to new ideas. Lincoln also appeared in movies like The Girl Can’t Help It. She remained professionally active until well into her seventies.

Coleman Hawkins

Hawkins was an American jazz tenor saxophonist born in Missouri. He became well known in the swing music scene during the big band era, but also played a role in the development of bebop during the 1940s. Hawkins is one of the first prominent jazz musicians who played the tenor sax. He influenced a great many tenor players, including Chu Berry, Charlie Barnet, Tex Beneke, Ben Webster, Vido Musso, Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate, and Don Byas, and through them the later tenormen, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Ike Quebec, Al Sears, Paul Gonsalves and Lucky Thompson.

Collaborations & Arguments

Brown met Lincoln when she was performing at Chicago nightclub the Black Orchid in 1957. Lincoln introduced Brown to her then-boyfriend Roach. The two men struck up a friendship talking about music and began collaborating together. They differed in opinions when it came to politics and argued about it constantly, finally parting ways over their differences.

Brown didn’t even know about We Insist! until Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff contacted him. Brown was disappointed that the music from his collaboration with Roach had been rearranged (without his permission) to lean towards Max Roach’s political vision.

However, despite their differences, Roach and Brown’s collaboration resulted in some ground-breaking music. “Driva Man” brings home the effects of slavery more than any song I’ve heard. It’s an example of modern jazz at its best. The beat of the tambourine will make you go cold. Lincoln is majestic, her voice ranging from plaintive to sneering. Hawkins’ saxophone is ominous. The lyrics are simple, but tell all the story you need to know.

Ain’t but two things on my mind, driva’ man and quittin’ time.”

Manfred Mann Version

Six years later, English rock band Manfred Mann released a cover of “Driva Man” that appeared on their 1966 US album Pretty Flamingo. The tempo in this version of “Driva Man” is sped up but with the same crashing note to symbolise a cracked whip. The sound is more rock or prog rock than jazz. I like this version, but not sure you could call it a seminal work like the original.

Beasts of Bourbon Version

Australian blues rock band the Beasts of Bourbon released a version called “Driver Man” that appeared on their 1988 album Sour Mash. Tex Perkins sings (and sometimes snarls) with such emotion he almost sounds out of breath. Like the other versions, instrumentals are stripped back although there is an electric guitar solo. I think it has quite a hard rock sound to it.

Malkin Zany Version

Danish acid jazz band Malkin Zany included a version of “Driva Man” on their self-titled 2004 album. I thought this interpretation was really cool, kinda trip hop.

Alabama Shakes Version

And then came possibly the most well-known “Driva Man” cover, blues rock band Alabama Shakes’ 2013 version. This is probably the most powerful cover and the one that sounds most similar to the original. The story of slavery is once more at the forefront of the song. It was an excellent choice for the album 12 Years A Slave (Music from and Inspired by). The song opens with piano, then Brittany Howard comes in singing a capella, accompanied by a tambourine. Her voice is strong and emotional.

Jerry Granelli Version

Another version of “Driva Man” was released in 2017 by Canadian jazz drummer Jerry Granelli on the album Dance Hall. This version is played in a jazz rock style, and a funky-sounding electric guitar replaces the vocals.

And so we see that the “Driva Man” original was one of the first jazz songs to explore civil rights, a song that inspired many cover versions in a variety of genres.

AllMusic - We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite
Max Roach: Drums, Front And Center
Max Roach We Insist: Freedom Now Suite Review
Revisited! The Freedom Now Suite
Wikipedia - Abbey Lincoln
Wikipedia - Coleman Hawkins
Wikipedia - Max Roach
Wikipedia - Oscar Brown Jr
Wikipedia - We Insist!
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