Title: The Iron Pot Cooker
Artist: Camille Yarbrough
Label: Vanguard/Craft Recordings
Formats: LP (first vinyl reissue; 180-gram Record Store Day ed.)*
Release date: September 26, 2020
Twenty-nine seconds into track one, “But It Comes Out Mad,” Camille Yarbrough takes a breath. This is not a simple breath, but a deep breath, an exasperated breath. In that one breath, she sets up listeners for the premise of the entire album. The Black community is under pressure, being cooked, and we are tired.
The vinyl reissue of Yarbrough’s 1975 album, The Iron Pot Cooker, is a generational gift. Utilizing the West African griot tradition, this album is both an invitation and an invocation. Listeners are transported to moments, to pauses, that transcend time. From beginning to the end, the expert blend of spoken word and lyricism leaves the listener to ponder if Yarbrough is describing the 1970s or 2020. Her words are timeless because the issues she addresses are still prevalent; the inability to earn a living wage, the commodification of women’s bodies, Black men dying literally and metaphorically, and Black women continually taking up discarded mantles and bearing additional burdens. The brilliance is not solely in the addressing of these issues, but the clever methodology that underpins it. For example, in “Dream,” part of the medley that comprises the second track, Yarbrough uses plant imagery to discuss the growth prospect of the African American community. It is followed immediately by “Panic,’ which creates a stark sonic contrast that awakens listeners from whatever dream state they may have taken refuge in to eloquently alert them to sources of panic that African Americans face. Two impacting examples were, “Ain’t got no breakfast, lunch, or dinner panic. Can’t read the job application panic.”
In “Can I Get A Witness,” Yarbrough takes the sound of Black Church shouting music and turns it on its head. She begins by stating that she needs to testify and asks for a witness before beginning a carefully constructed lamentation, repeating the refrain “Can’t you see.” The Iron Pot Cooker does not waiver for a moment in its intentionality and forthrightness. From the closing track, “All Hid” we glean the gem, “Last night, night before, mind control was for the Black and poor. Now Black, poor, or college bred, it’s behavior modification or you end up dead.”
In the perilous, precarious times we live in, it is often necessary to go back and sit at the feet of the griots, listening to their wisdom. In the griot tradition, griots are heralded as not just storytellers, but as guardians of the truth incapable of falsity. The Iron Pot Cooker tells no lies, and its truth still reverberates today.
Reviewed by Just Duléa
*On April 24, 2020, Craft Recordings also released the first high-resolution audio version of the album; previously reissued on CD.