Thursday, March 23, 2017

RIP Superharp; An Appreciation of James Cotton

   Last Thursday I was working on this week’s newsletter on my computer at about 10 AM in the morning. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an e-mail pop into my Inbox.  It read, “RIP, James Cotton.” Immediately I stopped working on the newsletter, clicked on the e-mail, and discovered that indeed James Cotton had died of pneumonia in Austin, TX at age 81. Wow! I was shook up and I went through a sea of emotions and memories that I am still experiencing and processing as I sit here listening to a James Cotton playlist covering all different phases of his career. All of Cotton was there coming out of my computer-his amazing 70 year career of inventive and powerful playing, his joyous singing and his sense of straight out fun. From his earliest recordings with Sun Records in the mid-1950’s through his time with Muddy Waters and through his time leading various bands under his own name, James was always “there”! He never just phoned it in. I saw him live more times than any other of my blues heroes, and he always gave it his all. Even in recent times, when his voice was fading and he couldn’t sing, his harp playing seemed somehow better and stronger. And man, could he rock a crowd! Being at a James Cotton performance was to be a member of an instant party. He was high energy, open, and inviting, and watching him you could tell this was a man who flat out loved what he was doing.  It was a blessing and joy to watch the man work.

     Looking back, it amazed me to realize just how long I had been listening to Cotton, trying to copy his riffs, trying to figure out how to get that liquid tone, and using him as a role model for how to be on stage. For more than half a century he has been my greatest influence, both as a harp player and a performer. While it was seeing Howling’ Wolf on TV which got me playing harp, it was James who most affected my playing and performing. So much about him just drew me in and inspired me. In the mid-1960’ I spent a lot of time at the Listening Room in the Main Library absorbing as much electric  blues as I could. I had just started playing harmonica, and of course Little Walter caught me first on those legendary recordings with Muddy Waters. But I also heard James on Vol. 2 of Sam Charters’ Vanguard collection, Chicago the Blues Today. His Cotton Crop Blues, Rocket 88, and West Helena Blues blew me away with his strong singing, raucous and intense harp playing, and Otis Spann’s unbelievable piano fills. That was one of the first LP’s I ever purchased, and I wore it out quickly. I also got his first Verve LP, Pure Cotton, and I was hooked for life. I was a Cotton fanatic; I listened to him over and over. Fortunately for me his band was playing Philly at the 2nd Fret one weekend in1968, and I was there every night. I was just a young teenage kid, and I went upstairs to the dressing room, knocked on the door and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Cotton; I am learning to play harmonica; I was wondering if you could show me some things on the harp.”  To my surprise, he invited me in, sat me down, and he showed me some things about breathing, using the tongue and more. What a weekend that was! I got to sit up front at the Fret for three days, talk with the band after each show, learn some licks from James, and see what is was like to be in a band-a group of musicians all working together to produce a singular sound and a show. That weekend influenced me to this very day.

    That was a great band that I heard that weekend with Sam Lay on drums, the great Albert Giaguinto on keys, Luther Tucker on guitar and Robert Anderson on bass. His bands changed personnel over the years, really clicking when the incredible Matt Murphy became his guitarist, and Charles Calmese and Kenny Johnson became his long-time rhythm section. But no matter who he had in his band when I saw him, James gave me some of the greatest live music experiences I have ever had. I got to see him once more at the Fret, twice at the Fillmore in NYC, at several blues, jazz and folk festivals, and twice on tour as part of the Muddy Waters/Jonny Winter tour following Muddy’s Grammy winning 1977 Hard Again lp. And when I was with the John Cadillac Band in the late 1970’s we got to open up for James at the old Starrs club at 3rd and Bainbridge.  Playing and looking out and seeing James standing at the bar filled me with both pride and fear. And when we finished our set and he came and told us we’d had a good one, I felt as if I was finally really a “musician”. James Cotton had seen and he had approved.

   The last four times I saw James he was not doing a lot of singing. He had developed throat cancer and he gradually stopped singing altogether. But his band was strong, tight, high energy as usual, and his harp playing was sounding even better than it had during the 1980’s and 1990’s. I last saw him at TLA doing an XPN show. He was seated in a chair the whole night, but nobody in the audience was still. People danced, shouted, laughed, sang along, smiled, and basked in the wonder of his playing and his band’s performance. I am glad that is my last memory of seeing James-his strong playing, his still playful and powerful music making, and him still being able to untie a crowd of different ages and bring them great joy.  I owe him so much. Hats off to you, Superharp. You were and remain one of the all time greats. Thank you for so much for all you taught me, gave and still give to me. It has been an honor to have heard and seen you play.
(Here are some of my favorite James Cottons recordings and appearances:
  Back to Old St Louis -
The Creeper-
Sweet Home Chicago and more: 
James Cotton website

Friday, February 3, 2017

Telling Our Stories: Black History Month


 “Someone will have to tell my story; I guess it will have to be me.” poet Langston Hughes

   I have been a history freak since, well, since forever. I can recall being a young child, looking through the World Book Encyclopedias that my mother sold, and being fascinated by people, times and events that had happened a long time ago. In elementary school I was likewise fascinated by what had happened years ago and by famous historical people. I memorized a lot of names and dates, was captured and intrigued by time lines, and fell in love with the 300 and 900 stacks in the Free Library-the stacks that by Dewey’s system contained most of the historical material. I knew that if I was interested in subject “A” and the book I was looking for wasn’t in, I could look to the right or to the left of where that book should be and there would be something as interesting as what I had been looking for originally. All this fed my insatiable curiosity, made me hungry for knowledge, and turned me into someone who looked for connections between ideas, times and people. That interest continues to this very day. Whenever we travel somewhere new and are walking around my wife can often be heard to say, “You never met an historical marker you didn’t love!” It is no surprise that for some 40 years I taught history and English in middle and high school.

   The ideas about history that I encountered in my official education were initially cursory and spotty. We were taught the names of famous people, largely white, and we looked at events through the lens of great accomplishments; things that made the United States great. But from all the reading I was doing before I even started school, I knew I wanted more. The Philadelphia Free Library was a place where I could satisfy part of that desire. I grew up during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there was an explosion of new ways of looking at history happening then. New sources were being found and explored. New interpretations of time periods and events abounded. New theories about history were being put forth, and different people’s stories were now being included. The library was an important gateway to all of that for me; I was able to find out things I had little knowledge about due to the wealth of information in those stacks. What I found in one book led me to still others. The more I found, the more I wanted to find out.  For an insatiably curious kid, it was an information smorgasbord.

  We also had the wonders of Negro History Week when I was growing up-a week during which special emphasis was given to studying the stories and history of Negro people, as we were then called. My church and my school provided some books, told us some stories, and put on some plays that got me exposed and interested in the lives of men and women who were generally not in the school's history books. Negro History Week was an endless source of discoveries; it was a joy to uncover so much that had been missing or hidden. The joy of that "uncovering"  has stayed with me. I still love finding out “new” information and new ways of looking at the past.

  Part of the beauty and power of that week for me was that it had been started by us-we were starting to tell our own stories publicly and officially. Negro History Week was started by a Black historian in the mid-1920’s. Carter G. Woodson, the son of slaves, had received a doctorate from Harvard in 1912, and he realized that in most history books Blacks were either depicted in stereotypical and inaccurate ways or not mentioned at all. To counter this he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1915, and he started publishing The Journal of Negro History, a publication that featured historical research about Blacks and their lives. The Journal published research articles by and about Blacks and was distributed to schools and people who educated Blacks. Interest in the publication and topic soared, and it became a central repository for historical research about Blacks. In 1926 the Association established Negro History Week, a time for black churches, students, communities, colleges, and more to focus on the history of Blacks in this country and the world. He set it in the second week of February because that was between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) and Frederick Douglass (believed to be February 18th). For decades it was something that Blacks observed on their own with essay contests, plays, research projects, special sermons, articles in the Black press, and more. Eventually some cities began to issue proclamations recognizing the celebration, and it came more into public view. The Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave it a new emphasis, and it became more of a regular part in many school curricula, especially Black colleges. By then it had been renamed and had expanded to Black History Month, and it was much more visible. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to coordinate with the bi-centennial of the country. It has been officially recognized by most schools and communities since then. Newspapers, TV networks, and radio stations do special programming, and cities host special breakfasts, award ceremonies, essay contests, and more. It is pretty much in the mainstream now.

   To me one of the things this month can do is allow us to pause, slow down and take a deeper look at a lot of our assumptions and collective knowledge about who we are as a country. Yes, we have many renditions of the, "I Have a Dream" speech,and we talk often in generalities about different parts of the African-American experience. But if the month can be seen as an opportunity to expand our knowledge and better understand where we as an entire culture have been, the month can give us ways to deepen our understandings about this place and ways the past influences the present. We know some things about slavery, for example, but for most of us slavery was something that happened on plantations and in the South-it was about picking things and working in the fields and the “Big House.” The reality is far more complicated than that; there was slavery in each and every colony before the American Revolution and in each and every state after the Revolution. And all the activities and structures needed and developed to support slavery were at the very heart of US economic growth throughout the 18th and 19th century-shipping, banking, the stock market, trade, and more. Slavery fueled much of the growth of the country. The New York Historical Society had a monumental exhibit in 2005 and 2006 on Slavery in New York City, and the history it revealed blew people's minds and totally changed many people’s ideas about what the 19th century was about and the role of the Big Apple during that time. People had not realized that New York had been a slave state and that its role in banking, shipping, and trade made it the actual center of the entire United States slave system. No NYC at that time, little or no slavery in the country.( ) Likewise, there was a website developed in 2003 by historian Douglas Harper called, “Slavery in the North” that examines how each colony and state north of the Mason-Dixon line carried out their involvement with the “peculiar institution.” ( Looking at these sites and other books, films, etc.  deepened my knowledge and unearthed moving and amazing stories about which I had known little. And it can do that for all of us. That is one of the wonderful things about history-there is usually so much more beneath the surface of any one thing than we see at first glance. There is always much to be uncovered and brought forth, but we must be willing to look, see and to dig.  I love that digging.

   I hope this Black History Month finds you looking in new places for new things and discovering and uncovering new facts and new people. There is a universe of largely unknown, people whose lives have amazing stories to tell and whose accomplishments are astonishing. If I may jump start that for you, let me toss out some names with whom you may not be familiar: Benjamin Banneker, Bass Reaves, Miriam Benjamin, Daniel Hale Williams, and Valerie Thomas. If you are curious, look them up and see who they were and what they did, and how they are connected to so many things we take for granted. Dig, uncover, and enjoy!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Stories Beneath the Story

                         The Stories Beneath the Story
“There are so many men and women who hold no distinctive positions but whose contribution towards the development of society has been enormous.”    Nelson Mandela

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”  Nelson Mandela

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people working consistently can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”  Margaret Mead

   Last week was a week of celebration and thoughts about change and courage for me. Last Monday was the Reverend Dr. King’s birthday, and his life always brings a focus on people displaying courage to make change and make things better. There were King Day breakfasts, service projects, religious and political meetings, and I took part in a march from Independence Hall to Mother Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard, which rests on the oldest piece of property continually owned by Black people in the United States. It was both a day of reflection and action. Last Tuesday we saw the film, Hidden Figures, about Black women who worked for NASA in the 1950’s and 1960’s and were a vital part of the space program. There were some 33 black women who were the “computers” of the time, and these women had to deal with both the racial and gender issues of that time.  Their lives and experiences, about which I knew nothing, were eye opening to me. The film focuses on three women very specifically, but there were a lot of scenes of the group of women together that clearly made the point that this was about more than just 3 exceptional people. Scenes showed the important roles family, church and community played in the women’s lives, and I was again amazed at the beauty and power in showing the courage of ordinary people in some pretty extraordinary circumstances. 

    Experiencing the two things so closely together deeply moved and affected me. I was glad for both experiences. And it also made me aware again of one of the things that sometimes bothers me about our historical celebrations and observations. Without necessarily meaning to, we leave a lot of people on the sidelines that were important parts of the stories we are honoring, and we miss, I think, an important part of the story when we do that. Too often we are guided by the “Great Person” way of looking at history, and we miss some very important and wonderful things.  When I taught American and world history I often told students that history is about story-what happened, why did it happen, how did it happen, and most importantly, who were all the ordinary people involved.? How were they affected? What did they do leading up to the big event  or just after it. To me, that is where the power and beauty of history rests. As the Margaret Mead quote states, it is the actions of groups of people and not just 1 great person that makes history and makes change. We may symbolize or personify the story through a great person, but it is the work of groups and of the "ordinary" that also played a huge role in making it possible.

    I love Dr. King; he is and has been an inspiration to me for decades. His quotes move me, the way he could strategize and plan for the future were amazing, and his courage was formidable in the face of great danger and even of the face of his own great fear. And the more I came to learn about him the more I realized that he was a person who was able to do extraordinary things in very dangerous circumstances only with the help and support of thousands of other people. Those folks were the “ordinary people” who made things possible, and when we look at them we can see that they have important and fascinating stories as well. We have endless quotes from and renditions of the “I Have A Dream Speech, every year, and it is thrilling and moving. I weep a little every time I hear it. But way before that moment in Washington, there were the actions of hundreds of ordinary people consistently doing things that led up to that moment and made it possible. I would love to see their stories told as well; they deserve it, and we need to see it. 

  One of the reasons I loved the film, Selma, was because it showed both King and the movement more fully. It showed him as a real person, with foibles, fears, and occasional confusion, and bad actions. He wasn’t just an icon. It also showed the ways some people disagreed with him, challenged him, and were the infrastructure of the movement that allowed him to accomplish so many of the things he did. He was great, yes, and for many he was the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.  But it was not him just by himself.

   Take the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. People know about Rosa Parks’ refusing to sit in the back of the bus and being arrested on Thursday, December 1, 1955. But most people do not know that she had worked with the NAACP for years, was not the first black woman arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, and that she had set out to get arrested. Most people also do not know that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was not really associated with the people who helped organize the initial meeting which led to the famous boycott.  It was labor leader E.D. Nixon who tricked King into hosting the first meeting because King was new in town and the powers that be in Montgomery did not know him and therefore had no plans on how to deal with him. And the first boycott meeting happened, in fact, not because of King, but because of the actions of one of my all-time favorite unknown heroines-Jo Ann Robinson. A long-time member of the Montgomery Women’s Council, a black group that had been advocating for change in the Montgomery transportation system for several years, she and her family hand mimeographed-not XEROXED or photo copied-hand mimeographed some 52,000 fliers Thursday night that were placed in churches, given to high school students, and placed in barber shops and other places on Friday, December 2, calling people to that first meeting on that Friday evening.  That initiated a one day boycott of the bus system on Monday, December 5, and it was the success of that Monday boycott that led to the full- blown Montgomery Bus Boycott that we think of today.

   So behind every great or important person and event, then, there are hundreds of ordinary people without whom the story of the great person/event would not have been possible. Yes, the Reverend Dr. King was a phenomenal and charismatic speaker, had wonderful ideas, and  said many wise and inspiring things. But without E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks and so many others in the early days of the boycott, he would never have emerged as a leader of the boycott. And then, without the hundreds of maids, cooks, shoeshine boys, chauffeurs, mechanics, students, teachers, volunteers and others who later marched in other rallies for years and were willing to be beaten and arrested, the movement and King’s emergence as a force for change would simply not have been possible. It was these groups of ordinary people that sustained the movement and helped bring forth change. That is important to me, for it says you and me, we all have a role to play in affecting and moving society. We are not all great thinkers or planners. We are not all great speakers. Most of us are “ordinary.” But being “ordinary” is not a deficit, and it doesn’t mean we have to be regulated to the sidelines. We all can be part of the change we want to see in the world. We can all be a part of making it happen. That is what has made things happen in the world and will continue to do so in the future. And that is one of the legacies of Dr. King’s story and of the women in Hidden Figures. All of us have roles to play if we are willing; the times for us to act will definitely be there.