If you’re into music and counternarratives to US history, Prior Volumes is the freshest you’re going to get. No seriously, it was born yesterday, and judging by its first episode, it shows a lot of promise. Prior Volumes creator and host, Chris Angotti, interviews author Rickey Vincent about the short run of the Black Panther’s official R&B band, the Lumpen (whose name was derived from Karl Marx’s term, “Lumpenproletariat”). The band was, first and foremost, driven by its politics. Every member was a Panther. They took famous songs by Black artists, most of which we would recognize today, and swapped out the lyrics to substitute it with Black Panther politics and ideology. The classic “Old Man River” became a contemporary critique on the growing presence of cops in and around Black communities with its retitling “Old Pig Nation.”
In my learned history, protest songs of that era were songs like CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” or Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me,” and other songs that bleakly described the state of things while the artists solemnly shook their heads. The Lumpen, coming from a radical party, chose songs already made famous by Black artists, crossing the Black musical tradition with Black Panther revolutionary activism. Their songs were a call to action that now feels distinct from your Pete Seegers and Sam Cookes, and that could be because they had a unique relationship with their music and performance, which came secondary to their politics.
The existence of The Lumpen is almost completely unheard of, to the point that the band doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. I know. Laugh away, old people. But as the Internet is one of the biggest and most accessible archives ever, it did surprise me. And I guess after listening to Prior Volumes, it makes sense that the only evidence of their existence on the Internet can be found with fewer than a half a dozen YouTube videos that have uploaded the Lumpen’s song, “Free Bobby Now” (the Black Panther appeal when Bobby Seale was jailed in 1970), complete with original scratchy record noises. The Lumpen was buried, and Rickey Vincent and Prior Volumes have dug it up.
Prior Volumes‘ has a unique mission, which is to share little-known narratives of music history. So I feel it’s safe to expect more episodes shedding light on those who have had unjustly little visibility. Keep an eye out on it. You can listen to the full first episode here.