A Blue note written all over the soul of this Land.
|First, we stole the people from the slave traders in or close to their ancestral homelands, and brought them here, and worked them to death. Only not all of them died. The ones who lived found great comfort in what they knew and remembered of their ancestral culture, and applied those idioms and rhythms to the sounds they made in order to not forget that they were humans, too. And those beautiful sounds were the gifts they gave to each other and all who heard. Until that was stolen, too.
I write this in response to some idiot who chided me online, that this was a false narrative, and that all these sounds, the ragtime and the jazz, the gospel and the blues, and those deep, deep rhythms that eventually grew into rock & roll – were somehow, all born of white experience (and attempted to prove his point in some half-cast desultory, lame kind of way…)
But yes indeed, I was really and truly inspired to sit down and write this out after listening to a fascinating conversation between Coleman Hughes and Chloe Valdary, both of them young, Black, American, educated, interesting and interested, vital, full of curiosities and energy, taking me straight back into that time of my own life when a lot of truth and beauty was opening up to me –
But it was something that Chloe herself mentioned, in passing, on the way to something else, in a conversation with Benjamin Boyce, that grabbed my ear and wouldn’t let go. Something about how the history, the culture, the art, the music, and the human evolution through these American ages, between the black and the white and every other color, were so inextricably interwoven and mingled together, that something else emerged, and could never be rent asunder, the most intimate of knowledge and passion within all of it, makes it so. And I do believe her. I believe her because I have felt this thing in my bones since I was a child. And it is a good thing, a righteous thing, a thing so powerful and magnificent that it can never bow down to some political purpose or persuasion.
It's bigger than all of that.
And I cannot rightly imagine being born into a world that could have been bereft of this gift. For nowhere else, and in no other circumstance, could it ever have been born at all. Its very conception, though hardly immaculate, was the result of two very different passions slamming together. Some other kind of human lust, that created ecstasies out of pure sound. With strings, and keys, and wind, and voice. With instruments that were hardly born at all, or very new, and demanded the ingenuity of invention.
The world had never heard this before. We can argue all day long about how there might have been something like it somewhere, slightly similar perhaps. But whatever that was, it wasn’t soaked in that great pure ache that flowed up and down the Mississippi, that seeped into the very soil beneath the cotton, that did not drip down along the strands of Spanish moss, that did not ferment inside that southern heat. Because its birthplace after all, was the plantation, from where it traveled those long journeys into New Orleans, and then St. Louis, Davenport, Chicago and New York. Much of it stayed behind for quite awhile, and the rest roamed and wandered away with the restlessness of a kind of freedom at least free enough to shelter out of sight. Until white America woke up and began to realize what it had been missing.
Which is the second half of the grand narrative. The one we’re far more familiar with (musical historians first, and pop culture enthusiasts, after that.)
I find it still a curious thing, that a Black American entertainer is almost a stereotype, in our times. Why should this be? As if it is a reductionist construct or concept, as if we have evolved in some way that this represents a kind of human failing? When I was a child, the music that caught my ear and held on fast, held on because of the sound of the pain I heard. That is what reeled me in. And I know now, that we have not solved that pain at all, in this world.
The reasons for it might be quite different. But the expression of it still hugs my soul. For that reason I cannot turn away, and would never give it up. My response is almost Pavlovian. I can even laugh at that, but that’s laughing at myself, not at what brings the laugh. How is it that we know things we’re not supposed to know, anyway? When ownership is claimed of a thing that can’t be owned. I received my education in it, for free.
Because what my child’s ear caught was the sound of a longing for freedom. I heard it. I felt it. Because the stamp upon my young life was to learn how to dream of freedom. And this was the very sound of that dream. And it was a good dream, a sweet dream, a brave sound that called out from a land of the free.
Freedom is sweet, but it is also a dangerous and fearful thing. So dangerous and fearful that I wonder at many who do not appear to want it. Do they fight so hard now to keep themselves free from freedom? How crazy is that. For freedom of course, always had a price. We hope in this life we never have to pay it, unless duty calls. And if it does, we hope to be able to answer with courage and conviction.
And what sound does it have, this freedom? Does it sound like a million voices gathered in Washington’s great Mall? It could, I suppose. Or twice that number in Central Park? Or can it even be just the sound of the sweetest blue note imaginable, echoing across a heartland, emanating from the bell of a black-blown horn?
And would my head snap up, ears quiver, back straighten sharply at that sound? Why not? I would ask. Because it is the sound of the familiar, the sound of home, and of longing, the sound that embraces the humanity that staggered through a long history, but never fell.
So how do I go about giving thanks for this priceless Gift? With some public proclamation, or confession of my worthlessness? With some desultory gesture that reduces respect and dignity down so low that my fellow humans could not bother to reach and grasp my hand, if for no other reason than the fact that I get it?
For if one so vile loves so much, then what could that love be worth?
I’m a musician (among other things.) I know how hard this stuff is to play. I spent a lifetime struggling to learn how. My small results were never to steal. But to honor, in the best way I can think of. Besides, it feels downright holy, to play it. As well it should, because it is beautiful.
And above all, the things it taught me, were always human things. And that is the ultimate value of the Gift.