Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Look Back at People We Lost in 2017

One of the things people do leading up to and just after the start of a new year is to look back at the year just passed and at the events that had an impact on us as a nation, as members of a group or groups, and as individuals. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and podcasts of all sorts do this as a regular part of doing what they do. It is a necessary attempt, I believe to “sum up;" to do that human thing of trying to make sense of what has happened and acknowledging certain things as ‘important’ or “vital” and to construct a narrative. We need to put things in some sort or order and find meaning from that. It is important that we do that.

It also, at least for me, reminds me of the effects of certain people and how what they said or did influenced me. So much of who I am, how I think, and what I do I owe to other people who encouraged me, provided an inspiration, gave me a new idea or new way of looking at things, or helped me see things in a new way. And in 2017, as in all years, I had the opportunity to think back on a number of people who played such a role in my life. I may not have known them personally, but they had an enormous impact on me and my thinking.

Dick Gregory was one such person. His scathing satire and on time stand-up comedy first caught my attention in the 1960’s with his TV appearances, records, and civil rights work. I got to see him live twice, and his pointed humor helped me develop some new ways of looking at this country. Two of his books, nigger, his autobiography, and No More Lies, his correction to the standard high school US history book, both influenced
how and what I taught over my long career in secondary education. While I certainly did not agree with all his positions, reading and listening to him taught me the importance of standing clearly for something and the importance of being willing to go beyond the accepted narrative. That is something that is still with me today, and I owe much of that to Dick Gregory.

Poet, essayist and playwright Derek Walcott introduced me to Caribbean culture and history with the play, Dream on Monkey Island. This allegorical play from the 1970’s found me right at the time I was looking at African and African-American history, and it expanded my research to include Black Caribbean culture as well. His epic poem, Osmero, was shown to me by a friend when we were discussing how ancient the use of poetry as metaphor was. In its use of themes and characters from the works of Homer it opened my eyes to how one could appropriate ideas from another culture and time to talk about what YOU wanted to talk about and say about the present. That struck me as a wonderfully freeing and powerful idea. And when I later taught Homer in some of my classes, I used Osmero to help kids find the relevance in his works to today’s issues. Thank you, Derek, for that.

There were two other major influences on my life whom we lost in 2017: rock and roll inventor Chuck Berry and harp player and singer James Cotton.  I wrote about James in a newsletter last March after hearing about his death. James has influenced me more than any other bluesman, and I was fortunate to meet him many times when I was just starting out as a musician. His willingness to teach, his playing and especially his joy in being on stage are things that are still with me today. Thanks, Superharp.

I came late to Chuck’s work, I am sorry to say. In the late 1950’s when he was breaking out, I was still mostly into old-style blues and soul music. Radio was more segregated and genre-specific then, and I listened to WDAS and WHAT. They were Philly soul stations, and the saxophone was the big instrument in such music. Those stations did not play any guitar-driven rock. But when I got to junior high school, Chuck started to speak to me. It was the cleverness of the rhymes and lyrics which caught me first; I thought it was so cool that someone could put lyrics together like that and do it so fast and in such a rocking way. Then I got into the rhythm and the guitar playing, and when I saw him on TV shows I was knocked out. Again it was the sheer joy of the performance that held me. Music has always been joy to me, and I always loved folks who could put that joy across from the stage. Chuck and James both did that; what a gift.

So as we move on with 2018, I have to tip my hat to these and several other people we lost in 2017. It is good for me to look back and acknowledge how much I owe to these people and to be grateful for their influence. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be me.  So I thank them for helping me be the me I am and the "me" I am still becoming. I could not do it without them, then or now. Thanks to all of you.
(Here are some links to pages about these people:

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