The ghetto revisited – and still it haunts us

By Bill King

Toronto’s Ammoye sings all parts on Woman of the Ghetto.
Toronto’s Ammoye sings all parts on Woman of the Ghetto.

Within large urban areas, the American ghettos of the 60’s and 70’s became tenement prisons housing impoverishment African American families and over time dissolved into ancestral encampments.

The term ‘ghetto’ had its beginnings in the Jewish Quarter of Venice in 1516, a place where Venetians insisted Jews live.

Between 1880 and 1920 America absorbed wave after wave of ethnic relocation from Southern and Eastern Europe. These areas were segregated by language, heritage, culture and economic circumstance.

The most well-known were New York’s Lower East Side, Little Italy, East Harlem, and Chicago’s South Side – every major American city had settlements promising a new beginning for those fleeing persecution, discrimination, war, and poverty.

Album Cover
Album Cover

The Black experience centred on northern cities where there was greater liberty and opportunities as many African Americans relocated from the Old South 1914-50. White America countered with a mass exodus to the suburbs.

Life in the ghetto was at times hazardous, creative, communal, and destructive and most times hopeless.

From this came artists, musicians, poets, writers, entertainers, athletes, professionals, criminals – the voices, the leaders who never forgot their roots, in most cases preserving those memories in art, literature and song.

In the late 60s’ and early 70s’ the ghetto was the story along with the war in Vietnam, police brutality, the love generation – peaceful and violent demonstrations leading to riots in the streets. The nightly news focused the long lens on these neighborhoods, the injustice and the need to properly service and then one day all memory of the areas were erased from the public conscience as TV turned its attention to celebrity worship, automobile carnage and sensationalist stories.

News coverage went blank as the upper class prospered. It was the oral impressions, the rhythm and poetry of those communities summed up in verse and melody and performed by artist like Don Hathaway, Phyllis Dillon, War, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, and others that documented the struggle and delivered the message community to community, one DJ at a time.

Through perilous wars, rising income inequality and the elevation of the one percent the planet has greater swaths of concrete ghettos. The Rhythm Express returns with two profound songs Woman of the Ghetto / The Ghetto) that in their time spoke eloquently of the hardship, danger and futility millions felt tucked out of sight of the well-heeled.

Nearly every country, every tropical island, every region of the planet has constructed barriers shielding the money makers from the underclass. Artificial ghettos flourish and will continue to oppress, diminish and deny unless we recognize the existing hardships and learn to share and care and face this with compassion, education, mediation and universal action.

Woman of the Ghetto was written by American Marlena Shaw and covered brilliantly by Jamaica’s Phyllis Dillon and released in 1971. Rhythm Express’s and Toronto’s own, the electrifying Ammoye, says it in her own voice, succinctly relating a mother’s plea for intervention. Ammoye created the exceptional vocal arrangements and sings all parts.

Woman of the Ghetto:

“How do you make your bread in the ghetto? How do you make your bread in the ghetto? Take from the souls of the dead in the ghetto. Tell me, tell me, legislator?

“Now how do you get rid of rats in the ghetto? How do we get rid of rats in the ghetto? Eat one black and one white. Tell me, tell me, legislator?”

Arrangements / production and keyboard work by Bill King; drums / percussion by Everton ’Pablo’ Paul; guitar /engineer Shane ‘Shaky J’ Forrest; bass / artwork design by Jesse ‘Dubmatix’ King.

Woman of the Ghetto: Marlena Shaw, Bobby Miller, Richard Evans. Copyright: Chevis Pub Corp.

You can hear and watch on Youtube.