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Sunday, January 18, 2015

James Booker, Classified

'Cause I know
I think I know
How everything is classified
That ain't no lie
I'm so glad someone told me
How everything is classified
That ain't no lie
-- James Booker, "Classified"

Our Garden includes some riotous, explosive outcroppings of sharp crystal, spaces in which light-shadow distinctions simultaneously achieve exceptional sharpness and improbable variability, the two dancing a St. Vitous of refraction at double-digit angles. The human condition offers its own prismatic possibilities, of course; here I want to run some light through the outcropping of James Carroll Booker III (December 17, 1939 – November 8, 1983) performing his fonky original "Classified" (first released on The Piano Prince From New Orleans, Aves, 1976), and investigate how it projects onto the wall of mostly-postwar American music.
Relentless Taxonomy

Our poor puny brains do the best they can to handle everything, but cognitive limitation is axiomatic: the supply of environmental stimulus far exceeds, to put it lightly, and all the time (which is to say even under the best of circumstances), our capacity to process it. This particular manifestation of Original Sin –a scientist once beautifully, if too problematically, poetized it as "traces of Eve"-- means we're drinking out of a firehouse, and life is an ongoing, so long as it's ongoing, informational bucket brigade. Cognitive resources being scarce, we strive to use them efficiently. Among many other tricks of the human trade, we taxonomize relentlessly, constructing mental categories around environmental stimuli or sorting them into available baskets, hastily sketching targets around hits, bucketing under the leaks, re-dealing life's cards into the billions of conceptual containers strewn about the mindscape. All of this occurs preconsciously, the first link in lots of long and interesting causal chains.

Categories help us make our way in the world, and are thus highly adaptive artifacts. In the ancestral environment it would have been useful to know whether that flash of movement you see on the path back from a constitutional is just a moonlit leaf shaking a little in the wind, or a pouncing big cat. It remains useful as ever, wherever people are found, to parse the intent of dangerous looking men in shadowy places. And there's the good stuff, too, a little farther up Maslow's (1943) hierarchy – clean water, ripe fruit, sexual attraction, random consonance or a beautiful view. We have all kinds of reasons to take stuff in; we just have to do it efficiently as possible, aware of the tradeoffs forced on us by our quivering grey matter.

Categorization doesn't just operate at the interface of nature and individual, of course – it's a profoundly social enterprise. I have no idea what convention dictates, but I'll try to reserve use of the term "classification" to refer to social categorization. My thin understanding sees it bound up irreducibly with language (Searle 2009), with concept, language and meaning all co-constituted with and by the other, but I can't go down that rabbit hole; I am more interested in the sociological plumbing and how its issue in terms of power and interest. Because through classification society normalizes, it defines what is to be taken-for-granted (sparing cognitive resources) and what problematic (and thus attended to). It sorts and processes us into buckets and baskets and demographics and statistical portraits. In the aggregate society benefits tremendously from the smooth routing of environmental stimuli out, around and through our brains and out, around, into and through the less tangible but no less real body social.

But, of course, how we are classified has major distributional consequences. Probabilistically speaking, you reading this are likely to be white, male, intelligent, educated (not the same thing), relatively affluent and straight, among other things. Think about what all of that has meant and means for your life! If privilege is a measure of hassle and anguish averted as much as of opportunity presented, we are a lucky bunch indeed. How many legal hassles have our race and class inoculated us against, where a white guy toodling a late model around American suburbs gets a pass from the local forces of order, where a black or brown guy, or a beat-up car might have earned a flashlight in the eyes, an already confirmed suspicion that something's not quite in order? Smarts help, too. And this is to say nothing on the torture inflicted on those hit by the business end of, say, the sexuality stick, or women who never, in the aggregate, enjoy anything close to an equal shot at the good life.

Finally, as our artifact, classification can never be perfected, and in consequences some folks are always falling through the cracks, obscured by conceptual shadow (a "grey area"), spinning toward taxonomical limine, running along interstitial lines, and flat out, hold-the-barbwire crossing boundaries. If conceptually induced negative distributional consequences might be called "disfit", these might be referred to as "misfit", between square individual pegs and round social holes. Being a misfit can be massively beneficial in certain times and places, with respect to certain categories, and all that. It can also be a huge bummer, as mis-fitting stuff draws society's not-always-tender gaze, which prefigures its inevitable effort to bring the wayward unit into conformity. Across this distributional span, marginality can just be a flat out wild and combustible ride.

Why don't we play Everybody's Favorite Fun-Game – "Let's … Classify!"

James Booker, Classified

Society classified James Carroll Booker III (December 17, 1939 –November 8, 1983), as it does everyone, in myriad ways. Let's start with an area in which, given the alternatives, Booker won the stratification lottery: gender. Being classified "male" confers privilege in every known human society (Brown 1991).

Socioeconomics is a rather mixed bag. His father was a Baptist minister, a gig which, while far from lucrative, could probably in principle sustain a family in the 1940s. So much for the "objective" class situation into which James was born – what else do we know? We know his sister had a music teacher (All About Jazz), a whiff of the middle class. Not much to go on here.

Domestic Circumstances. Whatever his "objective" employment status, James's father didn't keep his family intact: "Papa Was A Rascal".
There was a sweet white woman down in Savanna GA
She made love to my daddy in front of the KKK.
She made love to my daddy ya know in front of the KKK.
She made my papa move to Boston
He took a gangster gal
She stole away with my papa
The whole Italian affair.
She stole away with my papa, a way the Italian affair. Yeah.
A recent report says merely that "his childhood was troubled [and he was] raised by an aunt in the Mississippi town of Bay St. Louis" (O'Hagan 2013). (In rehearsals with the Jerry Garcia Band on1/7/76, Booker dedicates "Slowly But Surely" to his "Aunt Bessie down in Bay St. Louis", attributing that song's words to her.) From reading around it seems he spent a chunk of his childhood down there, returning to New Orleans maybe as a young teen. Again, though, things are a little blurry. If he came from a somewhat "broken home", he seems to have had plenty of church time, which can sometimes help compensate homelife difficulties, and he enjoyed access to elite cultural materials, such as Rachmaninoff, Bach, Chopin, Liszt and untold other composers' scores. The fact that he was a classical music prodigy just smacks of access to relatively rarefied air, though whether it was as more than just the entertainment I can't really say. Overall, here, another rather mixed bag, but shaded toward disadvantage, once we control for the door-opening effects of Booker's musical talents.

Education is the social sorter par excellence, and young James seems to have steady access to what appears to have been a good education. To take one indicator, documentarian Lily Keber posted some of Booker's handwritten lyrics, and his penmanship is delightful. He speaks with great fluency, and just gives evidence of a certain level of schooled refinement. I read something about him attending catholic school as a kid, implying in his early child, but in any event at some point he attends Xavier Academy, a black catholic college preparatory school. He later matriculated at Southern University before dropping out in order to go pro (and thus be able to pay for drugs) (McDermott 2013). Overall, and controlling for the fact that he had faced some domestic instability, Booker seems to have had considerable access to educational opportunity, almost certainly driven by his prodigious talent.

So much for relative privilege. Let me move to Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, a.k.a. The Night Tripper as his canonical praise for James Booker as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced."

Race: James Booker was born black in New Orleans, Louisiana in a dangerously martial year, 1939, and he grew up in coastal Mississippi. Discrimination is expected, and alluded to in materials around the documentary Bayou Maharajah, though I know of no specific instances. Let's just say I feel safe in asserting that he would have faced a great deal of racism, structural, behavioral, and every other kind, visible and invisible, in this place and time (a characterization which includes not just the deep south, but "mostly-postwar America" more broadly).

Gender and sexuality: If James won the gender stratification sweepstakes, his homosexuality probably wiped out any most of the masculinity premium. Society demands and subsidizes conformity, while deviance is generally taxed. Now, insofar as the prices line up right in general equilibrium, when people are willing to pay more to engage the artist's art than it costs to supply that commodity, net of the nonconformity penalty and the transaction costs and all the rest of it, then to that extent deviance can be tolerated. The "Black Liberace" was flamboyant and outlandish, even by the standard of land's end New Orleans, represented in some iconographic, Village People style, leather and briefs 1970s imagery, all wigs and hairpins.

Physical disability: Booker had one eye, though how this came about seems lost in the mists of time, something about a drug deal gone bad, selling it to a tourist, other vague and perhaps mobbish criminality, Jackie Kennedy, or maybe a simple infection (Rubien 2006; Chilton 2013; van Syckle 2013). When, in "Classified" Booker sings "I know it's real | what this one light lets me see" he alternately owns his incomplete fenestration and, courageously, minimizes it as a limitation. Adorned in a dashing array of eye patches, James Booker's problems had little to do with a physical disability, though it seems unlikely that it could have helped.

"Junkie": James Booker was a heroin addict. Filmmaker Lily Keber discovered that "when Booker was a kid, he was hit by an ambulance and dragged down the street; he broke his leg. They gave him morphine for the pain, and he always pointed to that to being the beginning of his addiction". Now, personal responsibility is a linchpin of society, but a little kid getting hooked on opiates via the medical system of the late 1940s doesn't sound implausible to me, and if true would represent just one of those lovely random fuckings over that life administers. Bad luck, kid.

I was a young boy about the age of 9.
I found a sweet russin' woman.
You know I made her mine.
I found a sweet russin' woman, you know that I made her mine.
-- James Booker, "Papa Was A Rascal"
If he had a particular taste for heroin, Booker's embrace of the old New Orleans roller "Junco Partner" -- a prize contender in the long line of great American drug songs – allowed him to testify to a broadminded pharmacological ecumenicism. Anything that'd twist him up a little bit, or rather as much as possible, suited his taste and appetite – liquid, pill or powder; by no account was he choosy. Unsurprisingly, this all didn't play out very well, with James all too frequently not "making good choices", as the euphemism has it. David Torkanowsky:

I remember there was a regular Tuesday night Booker solo at Tipitina's. Finally, the lights dim and Booker walks out to the middle microphone on stage. He was wearing nothing but a huge diaper with a huge gold pin holding up the diaper, and from behind the diaper he pulls out a .357 magnum, puts it to his own head and announces to the audience, 'If somebody doesn't give me some [expletive] cocaine right now, I'm going to [expletive] pull the trigger'.
"His addictions — heroin, cocaine, alcohol — got the better of him" (NPR 2012). Promoters would "book him, shovel cocaine up his noise, feed him Crème de Cacao or Seagrams 7, and make money off his performance" (O'Hagan 2013). Booker recorded his final album –Classified xxx—in a single troubled four-hour session.[1]  "By that point drugs and alcohol had taken over his life. After downing a mixture of Antabuse and gin, he had a seizure during the photo session for the album, which was recorded in his home town of New Orleans in October 1982" (Chilton 2013). Just over a year later, on November 8, 1983, James Booker "died alone of renal failure in a wheelchair waiting for help at Charity Hospital in New Orleans" (Chilton 2013), done in, proximately, by drugs and alcohol.

Bonus Round! Topic: Stigmas and the Institutions that Wield Them.

Here are a few that Dr. John neglected to enumerate.

Mental Health: Booker strikes an exasperated, sarcastic, slightly indignant tone in expressing how glad he is to be informed of how things are classified. He's clearly had this conversation before, and society, or rather society's minions, definers and defenders of the normal, were his interlocutors. Booker was arguably mad (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, manic depression and paranoia have all been advanced), and I presume (only!) that at some point he brushed against normality's A-Team, the psychology profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of which is a crowning achievement of taxonomy. "Classified" progresses interestingly on this dimension. Booker first asserts his sanity ("I know it's real | What my mind is telling me"), but later he allows as how "I may be crazy" and, later in the song, having been classified ("Some say I'm crazy"), he seems to accept the premise, but plead for compassion: "it [his premised craziness] doesn't mean | that you know where I'm coming from".

There's little doubt the man was troubled. Charles Neville "links his mental decline to the deaths of his mother and sister in 1970, and remembers Booker becoming increasingly obsessed with "plots" and "threats" against him at that time" (Chilton 2013). (Note that this would be a pretty direct read of Booker's "Papa Was A Rascal": "You know my sister and my momma | They both begin to say | You know we all better watch out | for the CIA | I said we all gotta watch out | watch out for the CIA | We all better watch out | watch out for the CIA." [Speaking of things being classified ...]) John Parsons, who employed Booker at the Maple Leaf bar in the last several years of his life recalls "One person once asked me if James Booker was crazy. I thought about the question for awhile and I couldn't think of any way he wasn't crazy" (O'Hagan 2013).

Criminal Record: And the cherry on top: as his mental health teetered, struggling emotionally over the recent loss of his mother and sister (Chilton 2013), in 1970 "Booker was arrested for possession of heroin outside of New Orleans’s famed Dew Drop Inn and was sentenced to serve two years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola." Angola is a terrible hard place full of meanness, fear and sweat --the Central Convict Sugar Plantation kept slavery alive in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana (Szwed 2010, 44) long after the Emancipation Proclamation. Booker was there during a more recent bad spell, just before the federally-mandated reforms took shape, a time when it "garnered the reputation for being the 'bloodiest prison in the South'. Stabbings were common: forty inmates were murdered between 1972 and 1975. In the early 1970s, four inmates sued the state for violation of their civil rights due to the barbaric conditions and poor supervision of the inmates and facilities" (Tolino 2013). Men still cut sugar cane on the prison grounds at this time (van Syckle 2013), though Booker apparently "worked in the prison’s library and developed a musical program for inmates" (McDermott 2013) – hopefully he worked up some killer renditions of "Junco Partner" for his "boys in Angola" (wiki). It was fitting work -- Leadbelly himself had done time there.

Having put himself to good use, and on good behavior, he was paroled after six months – "ain't no sentence", he sang in "Junco Partner", but of course it was. In all of society's taxonomical arsenal, few things classify quite with quite the overt violence of the penal system, and he said he was locked up "long enough to feel the iron in the bars getting into my head" (O'Hagan 2013). This is some of society's most aggressive institutional work, a special alchemy by which it seeks to transfigure its most disfit and misfit subjects. The experience permanently marks the institutionalized brain, and worst of all, conviction often begets further criminality. Upon his release Booker couldn't find enough work in bust-cycle New Orleans; "he violated his parole by leaving the state" (McDermott 2013).  I don't know what other run-ins with the law he might have faced, though in his work with Garcia he says he wrote "United Our Things Will Stand" in the New Orleans Parish Prison, Angola's municipal cousin. Either way, and above and the damage done by doing time, "convict" is one of those classifications that you really, really, really don't want - it hurts, and it sticks.

Social Transgressiveness, Musical Transcendence

The most consistent observation from the foregoing is how socially transgressive James Booker was and this, like that flash of light-in-shadow, draws our attention.

Piano Genius: But it's because of how we must classify him musically, where transgression refines to transcendence, that he keeps our attention. And, in this bucket, the Piano Prince of New Orleans scores as one of the finest who ever lived. I could multiply the testimonials ad nauseum, but let me just drop a few.

Pianist Jon Cleary: "He had grounding and fingering techniques that he got as a kid from classical music. Coming from rhythm and blues and soul music and blues and jazz … gave him a style that was very distinctive. It’s hard to play. Very clever. Very clean. He could get great chords and tones, but he also could really hammer it out too” (Kunian 2013). "Sometimes," the same article continues, "Booker sounds like he has three hands", a theme that arises frequently in evaluations of Booker's brilliance.

Musicologist Josh Paxton, whose painstaking transcriptions provided keys to unlock many of the mysteries of Booker's music:

He figured out how to do things no one had ever done before, at least in a rhythm-and-blues context. The way that he played derives from classical music and other things and techniques that he picked up from playing the organ that he used on the piano. Basically he figured out ways to do a lot of stuff at the same time and make the piano sound like an entire band. To me that’s his major contribution, making it sound like there is so much going on with just one person doing it that he is turning the piano into a one-man band (Kunian 2013).
As another player and Booker collaborator, bassist Reggie Scanlan put it, notes flowed "like gems dropping off his hands faster than you could pick them up" (Rubien 2006).

That technique is best which expresses most, and Booker's dripped with powerful emotion. Rubien (2006) saw him play a few times:

With a left hand like a piston with a heart and brain in each finger, Booker more or less hypnotized me. His right hand, fanning runs that didn't seem humanly possible, engendered a feeling I'd never experienced. I can't really explain it, but it was as if he cracked open a portal in my soul and poured all his world of pain and wisdom directly in. I looked around the room, and people were weeping.
“It’s Ray Charles on the level of Chopin," elaborates musicologist Paxton, continuing,

It’s all the soul, all the groove, and all the technique in the universe packed into one unbelievable player. It’s like playing Liszt and Professor Longhair at the same time. I can now say with certainty that it’s a pianistic experience unlike any other. He invented an entirely new way of playing blues and roots-based music on the piano, and it was mind-blowingly brilliant and beautiful.
The legendary Allen Toussaint, who knew and played with Booker in childhood, strongly concurs:

There are some instances in his playing that are very unusual and highly complex, but the groove is never sacrificed. Within all the romping and stomping in his music, there were complexities in it that, if one tried to emulate it, what you heard and what excited you on the surface was supported by some extreme technical acrobatics finger-wise that made his music extraordinary as far as I’m concerned. And most of all, it always felt wonderful. If it was a slow piece, it wasn’t just a slow piece as opposed to a fast piece; it has all the meaning that it should have instead of being a slow piece that just went by. When he played the romping, stomping stuff, it had all the funk that it should have but with those intricacies that Booker invented for them. He was an extraordinary musician, both soul wise and groove wise (Kurian 2013).
James Booker, Sui Generis

The Latin phrase sui generis means "of its own kind", and connotes that the generic set is really a singleton, Pop. 1. Colloquially, we'd say "one of a kind", and if it's true for everyone to some degree, that we are each square individual pegs confronting round social holes, it's manifestly true for James Booker, transgressive in life and transcendent in music.

The hardest parts of Booker's classified life hang together as a syndrome – being black, from a broken home, gay, disabled, crazy, (heroin-, cocaine-, alcohol-, and whatchoogot-) addicted, penalized– a lot of this stuff is of a piece, a tightly woven tapestry of dis advantage. But what about the good stuff, the irresistible, undeniable brilliance of Booker's artistry, his genius – is that of a piece, too? It's an age-old question are genius and madness to some extent co-constituted?

Very, very tough question. I don't know the science here – I have heard skepticism expressed, but plan to read around it a little more myself – but, in Booker, they certainly coincide, and it’s hard not to think the tonic of his musical brilliance and the demonic poisons that did him in were fruit of the same tree. Socially transgressive and musically transcendent, Booker demands his own classification. If he thereby deprives us of cognitively efficient inferential leverage, he more than compensates us with the sheer sensory exhilaration he provides, well outside the standard channels and utterly impossible to take for granted.


"Reviving James Booker, The 'Piano Prince Of New Orleans'," National Public Radio, March 30, 2012, URL, consulted 1/17/2015.
Chilton, Martin. 2013. James Booker: revival of a genius. Telegraph, November 30, URL, consulted 1/17/2015.
Green, Paul E. 2014. African-American Catholic Schools: An Enduring Legacy of Faith, Leadership and Literacy for Freedom. In Catholic Schools and the Public Interest: Past, Present, and Future Directions, edited by Patricia A. Bauch, 21-43. Information Age Publishing, accessed via Google Books at URL, accessed 1/17/2015.
Maslow, A.H. 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50, 4 (July): 370-396.
McDermott, Tom. 2013. James Booker. In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published June 21, 2013.
O'Hagan, Sean. 2013.  2013. Cocaine boogie: James Booker, the tragic piano genius of New Orleans. Guardian, November 20, URL, consulted 1/17/2015.
Paxton, Joshua. 1997. James Booker: A Pianist’s Perspective. Offbeat, May 1, URL, consulted 1/17/2015.
Rubien, David. 2006. Booker's Mad Muse. SF Gate, URL, consulted 1/17/2015.
Searle, John R. 2009. Making the Social World: the Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tolino, Vanessa. 2013. Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published July 30, 2013.
van Syckle, Katie. 2013. James Booker, the 'Black Liberace,' Celebrated in New Doc. Rolling Stone, March 21,, consulted 1/17/2015.
Votaw, Melanie. 2013. Exclusive Interview: Director Lily Keber On Her Documentary ‘Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker’. reel life with jane, August 14, URL, consulted 1/17/2015.


  1. The act of sorting continuous variation into discrete buckets is known as "categorical perception",

    "Categories are important because they determine how we see and act upon the world. As William James noted, we do not see a continuum of "blooming, buzzing confusion" but an orderly world of discrete objects. Some of these categories are "prepared" in advance by evolution: The frog's brain is born already able to detect "flies"; it needs only normal exposure rather than any special learning in order to recognize and catch them. Humans have such innate category-detectors too: The human face itself is probably an example. So too are our basic color categories, although one implication of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (Whorf 1956; also called the "linguistic relativity" hypothesis) might be that colors are determined by how culture and language happen to subdivide the spectrum.

    But if one opens up a dictionary at random and picks out a content word, chances are that it names a category we have learned to detect, rather than one that our brains were innately prepared in advance by evolution to detect. The generic human face may be an innate category for us, perhaps even the various basic emotions it can express, but surely all the specific people we know and can name are not. "Red" and "yellow" may be inborn, but "scarlet" and "crimson"?"

  2. On variation: "static vision does not exist; there is no seeing without exploring" Koestler 1975 [1964], 158.

  3. More (close, anyway) on why we are drawn to variation: "either biological legacy or social learning has endowed us with knowledge processes more sensitively tuned toward the perception of discontinuous ... changes" (Caporaso and Duvall 1972, 24).

  4. Vanderbilt, Tom. 2016. The Psychology of Genre. New York Times Sunday Review, 5/29/2016, p. 7.

    Argues that we don't like genre-bending music (inter alia) because it frustrates our relentless, ongoing taxonomizing enterprise.


    We listeners are endless and instinctual categorizers, allotting everything its spot like bins in a record store. The human brain is a pattern-matching machine. Categories help us manage the torrent of information we receive and sort the world into easier-to-read patterns.

    When we see a rainbow, note the psychologists James Beale and Frank Keil, we see it as distinct bands of colors, rather than the “gradual continuum we know it to be.” Even though two colors may be the same distance apart in terms of wavelength, we can distinguish them more easily when they cross a color category.

    This “categorical perception,” as it’s called, is not an innocent process: What we think we’re looking at can alter what we actually see.


  5. Which lead me to the wiki page for categorical perception (xxx), which lead me to this:

    Harnad, Stevan. 2005. To Cognize is to Categorize: Cognition is Categorization. In Henri Cohen and Claire Lefebvre, eds., Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science (New York: Elsevier Press), pp. unk (ch. 1). Text accessed via URL, 5/30/2016.

    Totally fascinating - Harnad's essay beautifully captures much of my thinking, much better than I can express it.

  6. Borges: "To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions" (in "Funes the Memorious")

  7. I'm watching Bayou Maharajah on Netflix right now. It's absolutely fantastic.

  8. I need to watch that!

    On madness and creativity, see Jamison, Kay Redfield. 1993. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press.

  9. "Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people--less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of molds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character ... If they are of a strong character and break their fetters, they become a mark for society which has not succeeded in reducing them to commonplace, to point out with solemn warning as "wild", "erratic" and the like -- much as if one should complain of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal." (Mill 1956 [1859], 79.


!Thank you for joining the conversation!