After Arkansas governor Orval Faubus decided to bar the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, jazz bassist Charles Mingus wrote the tune “The Original Fables of Faubus” for his 1959 album “Mingus Ah Um.” The controversial lyrics of the original version were left off the release by Columbia records. Though the liner notes to the 1998 re-release of the album state that the piece started life as an instrumental and didn’t gain lyrics until 1960, when it was released in full form, with lyrics, on the album “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus,” it seems entirely possible that Columbia records barred the lyrical version from being released on “Mingus Ah Um”. “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus” was released on a smaller independent label. The fact that the song caused such controversy in its initial release shows what turbulent times these were and what touchy issues race relations and school integration were.
The purity of the song’s form is striking. It is a distinctly jazzy protest, in that it incorporates many of the ring shout tropes that make jazz music what it is. The exhortation of Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond are shouted back and forth, with Mingus asking a question and Richmond responding with raspy exclamations. There is no argument clearly laid out and broken down. It is not an analytical study, but an exclamation of passionate anger. Yet the lyrics themselves are thoughtful and thought provoking, dismissing the notion that jazz is a bunch of scattered sporadic noise. This is clearly the work of men who value both inspiration and improvisation and deep thought, attacking taboo social issues and pushing the boundaries of jazz while remaining true to a jazz ethos. He is not afraid to call out men of power (Eisenhower, Faubus, Rockefeller), forcing us to think of the struggle in terms that are less simple than Faubus defying Eisenhower and Eisenhower championing integration. Both men got caught in a power struggle that made the whole ordeal about them instead of about the kids who were simply trying to attend school.
As for the instrumentals, the main melodic line played by the trumpet is catchy and dissonant at the same time, never really resolving and leaving the listener with a feeling of unrest, fitting for a song that is meant to inspire indignation in its audience. The vocals follow this line, until Mingus declares Faubus a fool and the melody spins into a wild hard bop run, only to straighten out and return to the original melody, marking the social confusion of the time, especially the confusion that must have been felt by the nine young black students that weren’t allowed to go to Little Rock Central. Here they were told to integrate (which Mingus marks with the opening melody, stable but a bit wary) and then the chaos of being stopped by the National Guard (the part that follows). The Original Fables of Faubus is a 1960’s jazz protest in its rawest form, as it is also a defining contribution by Charles Mingus to the Civil Rights Movement.