When poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron and pianist/arranger Brian Jackson entered DB Sound in Silver Spring, Maryland to record Winter in America in October of 1973, the world outside the studio doors was in turmoil. Despite the fact that the U.S. had signed the Paris Peace Accords, declaring a ceasefire and signaling that the Vietnam war was nearing its eventual end, bombings and military aggression would continue, putting a bloody period on the horrific conflict. Stateside, the war had taken a particularly devastating toll on the Black community. Black soldiers made up 23% of Vietnam combat troops, despite African Americans as a whole only accounting for 11% of the total U.S. populations. A violent and brutal war whose aims were in direct opposition to the interests of Black folks and oppressed people everywhere, Vietnam left a bleeding wound in a community that was already struggling to get free.
By 1973, Martin Luther King had been dead for 5 years, shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel while he was in Memphis in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers. Malcolm X had been dead since ‘65, shot dead in front of his wife, children and community in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Bobby Hutton, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. By 1973, there was already a long and terrifying list of activists that had been assassinated. It seemed as though the extension of true equal rights and a relief of the daily indignities that Black folks suffered, was a promise that America never intended to keep. The hope and optimism of the Civil Rights era had transformed into the fiery, revolutionary spirit of the Black Power movement, a fierce climax of a nearly 400-year struggle for freedom.
In many ways, Winter in America is a detailed and panoramic look at the state of Black America at the time. A gifted poet and singer, by the time the album was being recorded, Scott-Heron had already established himself as an important young voice capable of pinpointing the political and cultural nuances of Black life through song. Scott-Heron’s previous albums, Small Talk at 125th & Lenox, Pieces of a Man and Free Will were popular, with each release showcasing the growing complexity of Scott-Heron’s musical aesthetic. A key component of Scott-Heron’s artistic development would be his relationship with pianist/composer Brian Jackson. This musical partnership would blossom beautifully on Winter in America.
The album opens in a somber and reflective mood with “Peace Go With You, My Brother (As-Salaam-Alaikum)”. A near-universal greeting in the hood in 1974, here, the salutation feels heavy, and weary, delivered under the weight of centuries of pain and dreams deferred. Scott-Heron wails as Jackson plays alternately bitter and sweet electric piano motifs all around him. More than anything “Peace Go With You…” hints at the tenuous nature of Black Male fraternity in America. Scott-Heron, like many Black Men in America, struggle to hold space for ourselves and the people around us. Scott-Heron sees us as we are, trapped behind literal and figurative walls that keep us from loving each other fully and freely. Scott-Heron addresses his brothers in the struggle specifically;
“Peace go with you, brother
Though I ain't so proud anymore
Peace go with you brother
Recognition don't come cheap anymore
You're my lawyer, you're my doctor
Yea, but somehow you've forgot about me
And now, now when I see you
All I can say is: Peace go with you brother
Peace to you, brother”
Scott-Heron goes on to say:
“You're my father, you're my uncle and my cousin and my son
But sometimes, sometimes I wish you were not
But I manage to smile and I say: Peace go with you brother
Peace go with you brother….All of your children
and all of my children are gonna have to pay for our mistakes someday”
A world-weary, but revenant opener, the song presents a unique aesthetic space where the blues and jazz exist interdependently in the context of contemporary soul music. It’s an ambitious first shot that sets the thematic and sonic tone for the rest of the album. “Rivers of My Fathers” opens with Jackson soloing beautifully over a minimal rhythmic bed. Relaxed and slightly behind the beat, Jackson’s dense piano chords jut in and out between rich, lyrical motifs. When Scott-Heron enters his voice is strained and his lyrics are abstract and stunted. Lost and longing for home, Scott-Heron’s words could speak to the despondency and alienation that Black folks found in the city in the wake of the great migration or they could be hinting at some deeper, lost ancestral connection.
“Looking for a way
Out of this confusion
I'm looking for a sign
Carry me home
Let me lay down by a stream
And let me be miles from everything
Rivers of my Fathers
Can you carry me home
Carry me home
Rub your soul against the concrete
And the concrete is my smile
Got to change my way of living
Got to change my style
Let me lay down by a stream
Miles from everything
Rivers of my fathers
Could you carry me home
Carry me home”
Scott-Heron and Jackson round out the first side of the record with the whimsical love song “A Very Precious Time” and “Back Home,” a breezy, nostalgic tune that expands on the themes of home and city life Scott-Heron explored on “Rivers of My Fathers.” “Back Home” finds Scott-Heron lamenting “I never thought I’d be lost and searching for one warm, friendly smile. I never thought I’d be running through them city streets like a newborn child.” and reminiscing on eating cornbread and collard greens.
The warmth and melancholy of “Back Home” closes out Side A on a soft, reflective note before “The Bottle” kicks off Side B with a renewed sense of purpose and intensity. A bouncy, jazz-funk burner that’s still lighting up dancefloors four and a half decades later, “The Bottle” is by far Winter in America’s most accessible composition. With its driving 4/4 beat and spirited flute solo from Jackson, “The Bottle” lays down a groove that is perfect for Scott-Heron’s reflections on the impact that alcoholism had on the Black community at the time.
“See that Black boy over there, runnin’ scared.
His old man’s in a bottle.
He done quit his 9 to 5 to drink full time
So now he's livin' in the bottle
See that Black boy over there, runnin' scared
His ol' man got a problem
Pawned off damn near everything, his ol'
Woman's weddin' ring for a bottle.”
As the rhythm section of drummer Bob Adams and bassist Danny Bowens heats up, Scott-Heron sets his sights on the various figures in the neighborhood, running down a listing of preachers, doctors, everyday working folks, and the ways in which their lives have been hindered by addiction. The album’s intensity relents for a moment in the form of a two-song suite that serves as a lovingly tribute to childhood. “A Song for Bobby Smith” is a delicate ballad written for a young boy that Scott-Heron and Jackson had befriended, and “Your Daddy Loves You” was written for Scott-Heron’s daughter Gia. Beautifully written and performed, both compositions are imbued with the profound sense of hope and optimism that elders place in children. “Your Daddy Loves You” and “A Song for Bobby Smith” are two of the most emotionally rich and deeply human pieces in the Scott-Heron and Jackson catalog and their placement, back to back on the album, is a stroke of genius.
On the morning of June 17, 1972, over one year prior to the start of the Winter in America sessions, several burglars were arrested while breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, which were located in the Watergate building in Washington D.C. The suspects were connected to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign and had stolen documents and wire-tapped phones in the offices. Eventually, the incident would build into a huge political controversy and in the wake of the scandal. Nixon would resign from office on August 8, 1974.
Scott-Heron would target this subject with snide humor on the poem “H2Ogate Blues.” After a brief explanation of the nature of the Blues, the band launches into jaunty, juke joint groove. Delivered at a rapid clip, the precision of Scott-Heron’s critiques are only matched by the scope of his vision and encompassing disgust for American society. Scott-Heron touches on revolution, the war in Vietnam, economics, the ecology and more, his words and the images they conjure spinning together into a firestorm of righteous anger. Scott-Heron’s words here are shockingly prophetic as he identifies American racism, capitalism and attacks on the press as forces signaling the looming spectre of fascism.
“How long will the citizens sit and wait?
It's looking like Europe in '38
Did they move to stop Hitler before it was too late?
How long, America, before the consequences of
Keeping the school systems segregated
Allowing the press to be intimidated
Watching the price of everything soar
And hearing complaints ‘cause the rich want more?”
Winter in America ends as it began, with a version of “Peace Go with You, Brother (As-Salaam-Alaikum).” Delivered at a more urgent pace than before, the song closes the album on a tense and remorseful note. With all its violence, hatred, vice, oppression and hypocrisy, America is a hellscape of our own making. A prison that we’ve all had some hand in building and maintaining. Knowing this, Scott-Heron sends us back out into the night with a salutation of “peace” but can only offer one assurance; that reckoning will come, and the time for that reckoning is near:
“Time is right up on us now, brother
Don't make no sense for us to be arguing now
All of your children and all of my children are gonna have to
Pay for our, pay for our mistakes someday
Yes, and until then, may peace guide your way
Yeah, peace go with you, brother
Wherever you go, peace go with you, brother”