Sweet Black Angel

Originally Performed ByThe Rolling Stones
Original AlbumExile on Main St (1972)
Phish Debut2009-10-31
Last Played2009-10-31
Current Gap489
HistorianMartin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)


Conventional beliefs would suggest that black slavery in the United States was ended in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The sad truth is that slavery was not abolished, it was transformed, through the Reconstruction Era practice of convict leasing, into "The Prison Industrial Complex" of today. Convict leasing was the means devised by farmers and businessmen of the South to replace the labor force they lost when their slaves were freed. It is no surprise that convict demographics also went through a drastic transformation about the same time. What was once a white dominated prison population rapidly moved toward the present day ratio of approximately 9.1 black prisoners for each non-Hispanic white prisoner. The factor most responsible for this modern day ratio appears to be the "War on Drugs." Hidden within this farcical legal crusade is the ugly truth that for far too many people in our society today, dealing drugs is the only viable source of income. To quote former Black Panther, political activist, Communist Party vice presidential candidate, and professor of social consciousness Angela Davis who coined "The Prison Industrial Complex" moniker for our penal system... "Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages." Slavery wasn't abolished following our nation's Civil War... it was franchised.

Professor Davis is no stranger to the cage herself. In August 1970 a botched attempt to free Soledad Brother George Jackson resulted in the kidnapping and murder of Judge Harold Haley. Haley was allegedly killed by a blast from a sawed-off shotgun that had been taped to his neck. The shotgun had been purchased in the name of Angela Davis. Accused of being an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide, Professor Davis went into a self-imposed Exile, becoming a fugitive from the law and only the third woman to be on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 10 Most Wanted List. After two months of evasion, Davis was captured in New York City and was incarcerated for 18 months. By the time she was acquitted of her crime (June 4, 1972), the Rolling Stones had written and recorded a song of solidarity for her. A few weeks later, on June 24th 1972, during their first of two shows at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas, the Stones performed "Sweet Black Angel" for the first and only time live. This debut performance is played on electric guitar and includes horns and bears only a passing resemblance to the Exile version. 

"Sweet Black Angel" was originally recorded as an instrumental called "Bent Green Needles" in early 1971 on the lawn of Mick Jagger's English country home, Stargroves. The song was completed at Sunset Studios in Los Angeles between December 1971 and March 1972 and features Keith Richards and Mick Taylor on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass, Charlie Watts on the drums, Richard "Didymus" Washington (credited as "Amyl Nitrate") on marimbas and producer Jimmy Miller providing additional percussion. 

Phish performed "Sweet Black Angel" as part of their Halloween Exile set at Festival 8. In contrast to the Stones only live version which featured electric guitar and horns; Phish performed it true to the style of the Exile album version with Trey on acoustic guitar and the guest horns that were featured throughout most of the rest of the set taking a breather. Considering the racially charged nature of the lyrics, "Sweet Black Angel" is unlikely to be played again. 

If the story of Angela Davis, the inspiration for the song, was unknown to the listener, the lyrics of "Sweet Black Angel" coupled with the well-crafted country folk acoustic blues may suggest Mick Jagger was assuming the role of a lovestruck white farm boy lusting after one of his pappy's sweet black slave girls. Instead, knowing Professor Davis is the song's muse, it may well be the Rolling Stones only song that makes an actual political statement and thereby veers from their standard "Fight for your right to party!" mantra.

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