An Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Blue Vervain by Harmony Holiday

The black music of herbs. 

Part of the Spectacular Herbs series.

Holiday Blue Vervain

Gloriously mimetic, James Brown’s “King Heroin” is a PSA about the lethal drug, set to one of the most hypnotizing rhythms ever played. The drums roll and sway lentamente as JB meditates on the allure, the first taste, and the addiction, all with soft allusions to the racial tension that underpins drug trafficking. I came to this country without a passport, but ever since then I’ve been hunted and sought. He openly names the White Horse epidemic while the percussion offers an alternative, a way to relax and get high that isn’t suicidal, that won’t destroy the body it soothes. The recording flaunts Brown’s tenderness and his take-no-mess in equal quotients, while also demonstrating the strength of his reflexes, and the power a soulful soliloquy wields over a subject that is often avoided for its vile reputation, for the risk of guilt by association. The calm fearlessness in Brown’s tone, and the charisma of his delivery, prove the merits of the straight life.

Black music is the nervous system and the saving reflex of America. Spirituals and the Blues made life in the American South bearable and translatable. Jazz swooped in heroic, to restore morale and secularize consciousness. Equal parts elegant and ruff, elegiac and spirited. Funk and soul taught us to fall in love with ourselves again, their tender narcissism made us whole, and hip-hop restates the fractal, the fracture, the brokenness of our feigned assimilation, the anaconda quality of the black spirit, the fact that deep down we know we’re in battle and know how to be cool, suave and creative, even when oppressed. Black music is America’s Central Nervous System because it dictates behavior in the mainstream and on the margins without the nation really knowing what’s propelling it to certain proclivities, what’s helping it both survive and unravel. When we are in love with blackness, America is too, in spite of herself. Despite having all of this resolve and music at our disposal, anxiety, weak nerves, and obliterated attention spans characterize every level of American life. The good reflex has been over-exerted and transformed into an erratic, dispossessed twitch. Anxiety causes us to tense and then sedate our bodies.

We can hear this in the new black music too. Trap music and mumble rap, the next phase, are the comedown, proof that we’ve abandoned the battlefield for the living room, for opiates and tranquilizers. Bellicose beats turned toward total unapologetic decadence and self-indulgence and self-sabotage. What’s happening in the music is the most direct indication of what’s happening to us and our bodies. We too are self-medicated nervous wrecks, synthetic with cool. We can’t hear ourselves think for the hum of machines and war stories and fascist caution at every turn. All a DJ had to do last summer to get a crowd to jump in empowered unison was play Future’s infamous percocet molly percocet hook and a percussive trance overcame everyone from age 17 to 40, revelling together in the abstract disaster. The words program the subconscious like instructions, using the beat to build colonies there, and the union of statement and rhythmic pattern coerces us into condoning anything, especially our own sublimation. Now, an anthem repeating all my friends are dead over and over for its duration, is on the radio all hours of the day, perpetrated by the ruthless savvy of musicians and FCC executives, to sell death back to frightened Americans as a pastime paradise. I think of Gil Scott Heron’s final album I’m New Here as an admonition that this was coming. When he baldly confesses, New York is Killing Me, it’s clear synecdoche for the whole country.

But even as we’ve spiraled this far, the blues sensibility, color spectrum, and frequency, remains dominant within us, exceeds and bypasses even our wills to self-destruct. The more the commercial music tries to defamiliarize us with our value as functional bodies, the more it mechanizes us and our deepest cravings, the more determined we are for new patterning and deeper tones, an annex of mimes waiting for reanimated language. When we are collectively suicidal and the music becomes the rhythm by which we trip and derail as we get murdered in the streets by police and deflect the intimacy of lament with counter-insurgency, when we are sullen and militant and write polemics like James Brown’s “King Heroin” or Nat Adderley’s “Quit It,” or Kendrick’s King’s “Dead,” or Nina Simone’s “Baltimore,” when the FBI is poisoning the fruit the real Black Panther’s feed children in breakfast programs and casually admits it in glamorized memoirs while former members of the Black Panther Party rot in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, we are driven to this mumbled speechlessness. When we are over it, no longer paying attention, back to sex and clothes and self-directed rituals of so what, Drake’s “Worst Behavior” lashes in the background and Miles Davis is everywhere haunting our hysterical objectivity with scoffing whispers.

A nervous system is a harvest of potential and kinetic intentions, an inevitable coherence. Here’s where Blue Vervain comes in. This indigo plant, also called Swamp Vervain, Simpler’s Joy, and Verbana hastata, retrains impulses by targeting the autonomic central nervous system and the muscles therein, along with the heart, the brain, lungs, large intestine, stomach, uterus, and prostate, muscles we exert without realizing and whose optimal functionality depends on the unhindered flow of bodily energies. The nervous system can make or break that flow. A well-functioning nervous system is the difference between a body that feels galvanized by unseen electric forces, and one that is short-circuiting and enervated. We want our hearts to beat and our food to move through the digestive system and assimilate into usable energy but we do not want the impulses fueling these actions to become obstructed in the body’s delicate order of operations and cause mixed-signals and burdened organs and muscles as a result—we want balance.and the liberation of sensation, the natural high that comes with it. We also want bodies that do not reflexively turn to lethal drugs to alleviate daily stressors when that natural high is missing, we want better relationships with our own internal resilience so that habitual abuse of the body grows repugnant.

The endocrine system is the direct link between our nerves and the rest of the body. Our hormones are the chemicals that tell all of our cells how to behave, what to hold onto, what to eliminate as waste. The bitters in Blue Vervain relieve tension that inhabits proper function of this system. When we are full of nervous tension our moods change because hormone release goes awry in response, trying to soothe us with feel-good dopamine or the overdrive of pure adrenaline. The adrenals help switch on the kidneys, yet we often ignore them until they’ve atrophied with fatigue. When we’re stressed out, not only are we depleted by negative thought patterns and mood swings, we’re also holding on to toxins and waste that the body would release through the kidneys in a state of well-being. This combination of stressors can create migraines, stiff necks, indigestion, and cramps, a combination of stressors with cumulative effects. When you have a migraine, you’re more emotionally drained, more tension builds, more pain in the head or back or neck, it becomes cyclical and seemingly impossible to emerge from it.

With Blue Vervain used as a tea or tincture, the hormones can release on their natural schedule, overriding the hyperactive nerves that overwork them, which is why this herb is often suggested for menstrual cramps and prostatitis, for headaches and kidney stones. The Iroquois used Blue Vervain (native to the Americas), to drive away obnoxious personalities by soothing and calming nervosa. As with many herbs, and unlike with most pharmaceuticals, Blue Vervain adapts to specific conditions of the body it’s in and seems to have its own keen and active awareness of what to target upon consumption. Like its fellow adaptogenic herbs, Blue Vervain inspires the body to be more of its natural best self, wrests the nerves from their habitual and learned dramas. The physical is always responding to the emotional but the emotional is always responding to the etheric, the unseen and uncanny powers that electromagnetic energy has over the body. Blue Vervain knows how to finesse and invite pleasure back into bodies that have become overly-dependent on restraint in the face of internal turmoil.

Blue Vervain is the black music of herbs, it gives us our code back. It’s so good and reliable you almost forget you took it when you wake up joyful and inspired and less concerned and more capable of paying attention to the state of things external without letting it overcome your own well-being. Makers of our music, as well as listeners, deserve this plant in our cohort, deserve a bitter purple chance to invent new chants for freedom.

Harmony Holiday is the author of Negro League Baseball, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues and most recently Hollywood Forever. She is also the founder of Mythscience, an arts production house devoted to cross-disciplinary work that helps artists re-engage with their bodies, the Mingus School, its first series of events, and the Afrosonics archive of jazz and everyday diaspora poetics. She worked on the SOS, The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka, transcribing all of his poetry recorded with jazz accompaniment that had yet to be released in print. Harmony studied rhetoric and at UC Berkeley and taught for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She received her MFA from Columbia University and has received the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a NYFA Fellowship. She is currently working on a book of poems on Reparations and the body, a collection of essays on the same topic, and a biography of jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.

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