Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The King Day of Service



"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" Dr. Martin Luther King 

Yesterday was the 37th national observance of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. There were more events and acts of service this year than during the last two years as the COVID numbers are substantially lower and more people have gotten vaccines and booster shots. So yesterday saw tons of people out in the community doing tons of things commemorating the man and his message, and living out parts of his commitment to justice, acts of kindness, and love for the human race. There were park cleanups, painting and refurbishing of buildings, feeding the homeless, fixing up houses and planting gardens, cleaning up streets, and more. Religious organizations, big and small businesses, community volunteer groups, city and town governments, schools and institutions were all involved in designing and organizing all of these works, and it was a wonderfully massive undertaking. It involved people across all types of demographic lines: age, color, wealth, language, education, etc. Millions of people nationwide were involved in simply helping other people. Of particular note this year were important activities in places where Dr. King had helped lead important demonstrations and protests during the Civil Rights Movement. These communities came together, much as many of them did during the Civil Rights Movement. Only this time they came to help deal with a more current problem. And in so doing, they illustrated the continued importance of Dr. King’s message. 

 Selma, Alabama was the site of two protests central to the long and often bloody struggle to extend the vote to African-Americans. On Sunday, March 7 ,1965 about 300 marchers organized by the Southern Conference Leadership Council (Dr. King's group) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gathered for a march to the state capital of Montgomery protesting the killing of a protester at a previous march and demanding voting rights. They were met at the Edmund Petts Bridge by state troopers and a local mounted police force who stormed into the marchers, beat them with batons and trampled some with horses. TV networks had discovered the Civil Rights Movement by then, and the broadcast went national, shocking many Americans. This led to the introduction of a Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and to the famous 50-mile Selma to Montgomery March led by Dr. King. King had called on “people of conscience”, as he put it, to come to Selma to join in the march to the capital. Many did, including a large number of whites. National TV coverage put the march and King’s words across the airwaves, galvanizing a force for change. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was then passed in August, ending literacy tests, poll taxes, and other methods by which Blacks had been denied the right to vote. Selma had changed the nation. 

This year the Selma community had originally planned a celebration of that March and the Voting Rights Act. But Thursday, January 12 saw tornadoes rip through the town, killing 7 people and doing tremendous damage to the town. And the same forces that mobilized in 1965 and came together joined with other agencies to help deliver aid to the victims of the storms. Community groups, churches, fraternal organizations and more joined together, helping shelter residents, providing food, digging out, and repairing homes and businesses, helping clothe people, and much, much more. We have had many natural and weather disasters recently, and after each one people have come together selflessly to offer immediate and direct service to others. This is truly in the spirit of Dr. King’s words above. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done. This won't be resolved easily or quickly, of course; the work and the workers will be there for a long time. It will be difficult. But the forces will still be there, doing what they can to help. Service is always needed; we all have the capability to help one another. 

Initially, I did not favor a nationwide “King Holiday.” I feared that we would see a parade of “Martin Luther King Day Sales,”  and the country would blow right past the messages embodied by his life and by his actions. But 37 years later, the day is still seen as a Day of Service; a day to give back and to help. Never have I been so glad to have been so wrong.  

Here is a link to ways we in the Philadelphia area can help support some of the groups who are doing such vital work in Alabama: 


(In 2018 I wrote a post about The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and its role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Here is a link to it, should you wish to read it: 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Looking Back In Order To Move Forward


DUKES FANS:        

  January is often thought of as a time for looking ahead and thinking forward. It’s a New Year: we make New Year’s resolutions, new commitments, and those of us who still write checks struggle to remember to write the correct year on them. But January can also be a time to take a serious look in the rearview mirror; to look backwards at what has been as well as forward to what might be. In order to make new resolutions, for example, we need to look back and see what it is we want to change about what we are doing and our lives. We need to look back to do this, and we need to look back seriously. Indeed, all of the many rituals and practices we observe throughout December and early January are as much about looking back as they are about moving forward and welcoming the new. We have to recall the story of the birth of Christ or the ties to the past that each Kwanzaa or Hannukah candle represent, and then we can connect with those things and bring them forward into our current lives. We need to know our past to fully appreciate our present and to look honestly toward the future.  

  One way of doing this for me is to look at lists of who died in the last 12 months and reflect on their impact and influence on me. Of course, that is easy when it is a friend or a family member. There is grief and pain, and we are immediately deeply in touch with what we lost and what it means. But if we are lucky, there are also people outside our immediate relationships who have had an impact on us that we want to acknowledge. For me, these are often musicians, authors, and other artists that have played a role in how I see and experience the world. The arts have had an incredible effect on my life, and they have done a lot to help me become who I am today.  

  One of the things I’m reflecting on is that we lost two R’n’B masters in 2022. I don’t normally play a lot of funk and straightforward R’n’B with the Dukes, but I incorporate some of it in my playing and singing, and it is something that I regularly listen to. And in 2022 we said, “Goodbye” to a couple of my favorites.  

  One of the masters we lost was Calvin Simon, the co-founder of what became the group Parliament-Funkadelic. This was the group the brought to the fore bassist Bootsy Collins and master songwriter singer, stage and dance director George Clinton. Calvin came along in the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s-a time when Black popular music was going through big changes and venturing into new sounds, different instrumentation, and bolder arrangements. He played everything from straight up R’n’B dance tunes and ballads to funk, to protest music, to psychedelia, to gospel, and more. He always found a way to mix things up with wah-wah on guitars and organs, strong horn arrangements, background singers, incredible bass lines, outrageous costumes, and characters such as Dr. Funkenstein. The musical changes he and Funkadelic developed have been sampled thousands of times in hip- hop and rap, and The Mothership stage shows Parliament-Funkadelic put on are legendary. Suffice it to say, along with Calvin, there are 15 other members of that group who have been inducted to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Wow!  

We also lost Syl Johnon. I had heard Syl on songs such as Dresses Too Short, Different Strokes, and Is It Because I Am Black. His version of the Al Green song Take Me To The River is a classic; even Al said he preferred Syl’s version.  His, Could I Be Falling In Love is one of my favorite romantic ballads with a great arrangement and wonderful vocals. Love it.  

   So as I am heading forward into 2023, I am also taking time to look back and re-listen to some other folks I haven’t listened to in a while. We lost several others, of course-the great Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, and Luther Guitar Johnson, to name a few. My remembering them and what they did is a good reminder of how things can come to influence me and matter to me, often without me necessarily looking for it or realizing that it is happening at the time. I think we are all lucky to have that experience. It is good to take time to stop, look back and be grateful for it. It takes at least one village to raise anyone, and if we are lucky, we have a number of great villages around us. For that I am eternally grateful.   

(There is also a lot of Syl Johnson on You Tube:  

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=syl+johnson+ )

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Something Borrowed, Something New



Something Old, Something New; Something Borrowed: New Year’s Eve Then and Now  

   (This is one of my favorite posts. I received a number of comments when I wrote it in 2018, so I decided decided to run it again. I hope you enjoy it) 

   New Year's is not "new". Some form of it has been celebrated for thousands of years on every continent and probably for as long as there have been human communities. The first recorded celebrations come from some 2,5000 years ago in Mesopotamia-Iraq. This is the place most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes, when days and nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the planting season and the harvest season as days of renewal for the cities,  the surrounding areas, and of the earth itself. “Akitu” was the name of the festival, and historians look to those week-long celebrations as the first recorded instances of celebrating what might be called a “new year.” Of course, such celebrations are really much older that that; people did things long before humans invented writing and keeping records.  But once farming and agriculture became mainstays of human activity people simply had to know the when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons became essential to city survival.  We also realized that what happened in the sky influenced and heralded what would happen on earth, so we kept track of what we now call equinoxes, solstices, moon phases and more.  And to attempt to have these occurrences benefit us, we developed rituals, celebrations, and practices to try to influence the force or forces that controlled those things. We were literally hoping and praying for outcomes that would benefit us in the future. New year celebrations were originally a part of this process. And like most human celebrations, the observances involved ritual foods, ritual actions, ritual music, ritual dancing, and ritual prayer and introspection. Humans tend to meet the same realities of life in pretty much the same ways, and ritual, religion, symbol, and music are all among the ways we signify that something important and special is taking place. It is simply what we humans do.  

    However, when we think of New Year’s Eve celebrations today most folks are not thinking about global cultural history and/or how what we do today links to what humans have done for thousands of years. Most folks are instead thinking about Times Square, New York City, the countdown, and that big shiny ball dropping down. Even if we are not planning to watch it, we are all aware of this event happening. I used to love to watch it on TV when I was much younger, begging my mother to let me stay up so I could watch it. The crowd, the colors, the noise and the outlandishness all amazed me. There was the confetti, the movie and music stars, the noise, the big ball and the drama of thousands of people counting down all together, me along with them. It was a secular ritual, I realized as I grew older and understood it more. And I was and am still fascinated by how so many aspects of it connect to some of our most ancient ways.  In normal, pre-COVID times, some 1 million people would crowd into Times Square for this celebration-1 MILLION people. The thought that 1 million people would willingly want to stand together in freezing cold weather in New York City for hours is mind-boggling. And many of those people there are quite possible drunk, high, and almost out of control. What sense does that make?? No one in their right mind would suggest doing that as a fun way to spend time in New York City.  But of course, we are often “out of our minds” in the midst of a ritual. Ritual can transform us and take us to a totally different state of being in which the irrational makes perfect sense.  

     It is estimated that over 1 billion—1 BILLION- people watch the show on TV around the world, even in places where the time differences mean it may already really be past midnight and a new year where they actually are.  Who knows how many people watch it on the web or YouTube or Facebook Live. It is truly a worldwide phenomenon-one of the very few things that universally and temporarily unite us as a species. Whether we watch it or deliberately avoid it, we are all aware of it. It is that universal. But how did this come to be? How did this place and this particular ceremony come to symbolize the coming of a New Year to so many people of so many different nationalities, colors, religions, and cultures?  Well, it all started with one businessman and some unique things about the early part of the 20th century.  

  Adolph Ochs was publisher of the New York Times, for which Times Square was named. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the advent of new technologies that could seemingly conquer heights, hold up the new “skyscraper” buildings, light up the whole night sky, create vehicles that did not need animals to move, and much, much more. It seemed as if something new was being developed every day. Ochs and the Times were spearheading the northern and western growth of New York City beyond its Lower Manhattan starting point by the rivers and the ports. He wanted to call attention to and spur this uptown growth; he saw it as essential to the economic growth of the city. Ochs liked to throw lavish parties, and he was one of the early promoters of “grand spectacles” that the 20th century would so regularly produce. To that end he started staging New Year’s Eve parties that filled the air above the Times building with fireworks and bright lights. These events became immensely popular, and they drew thousands of spectators uptown to view them and to think about the area. But fireworks above meant hot ashes falling to the ground below. This was clearly dangerous, so the city banned the fireworks for 1907 going into 1908.  

  Ochs’s flashy fireworks display had started drawing Manhattanites uptown and away from the traditional New Year’s celebration at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.  There worshipers and celebrants listened to the tolling of the church’s bells to signal a new year. The bells were amplified on sound trucks and they were still a popular draw. But it was still somewhat “old school.” If Ochs was going to continue to draw people uptown and away from Trinity, he needed a new big draw: a new spectacle. He found one a few blocks away from his office by doing what we now call “re-positioning" or "repurposing.”  

    “Time balls’ were an answer to the problem of keeping accurate time at sea for ships. Developed in the early 1800’s, most port cities had them by the turn of the century. They were huge colorful balls that would rest atop high buildings. They would descend exactly at noon every day so that Maritimers could know the exact time. They could then use that information to set their chronometers, measure longitude, and navigate more accurately.  As the telegraph developed, coastal cities with time balls in place began to telegraph the exact time to other cities.  Humans had managed to figure a way to precisely measure and standardize time in a huge way, just in time for the new factory age of mass production that was to come. Most cities had time balls by the early 1900’s, and most people knew what they were. Philadelphia had one atop the Bourse Building for several years. Western Union, the major telegraph company, had one at its New York office near the Times. It would descend every weekday at noon to let people know exactly what time it was. Ochs had found what he needed; he had a large time ball built, and on December 31st, 1907 thousands of people gazed up at the New York Times building and spied a big, shiny, 700 pound ball atop a flagpole on the building that was awash in huge multi-colored electric lights.  

    As midnight approached, workers began lowering the giant ball by ropes and pulleys. On top of the Times building a giant electric sign counted down the seconds until the ball reached the bottom. At the precise moment it landed, the number “1908” lit up the night sky. People went nuts; there were shots fired, people kissing each other, trumpets and noisemakers going off, and these new things called “automobiles” honking their horns. It was a smash hit, and both a tradition and a new ritual were born.  

    The ball drop was immensely popular. Promoting and covering it quickly became a staple of magazine and newspaper articles, and when radio came along it went national. It and Times Square eventually became some of the signature things about New York City. When TV came on the scene, it became a big draw for network TV, pulling in millions of viewers and eventually billions of advertising dollars. It is now an international phenomenon, and I cannot see that stopping anytime soon. The ball has been re-designed several times, it has been made of different substances, and it is now run by a computer timed to the atomic clock. It is not the same 700 pond ball that started the tradition.   

   But in many important ways it really is the same ball. Beneath all of this technological change and modernization and improvement we can see the age-old human practice of meeting important events the world regularly brings to us with ritual, symbol, and as a group. Yes, it started out as a publicity stunt, a smart business move, and perhaps just as a way of showing off. But it has since become something all its own. It is a worldwide, collective ritual now.  It belongs to the world. And for just a little while, that world becomes one big village when it happens. That is the power of ritual taking place, and I think that is a good thing.   

 So however you celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s, know that you are standing with countless generations of humans who have gone before us; who have collectively looked at what was going on around them and figured out ways to respond to it. Yes, we are digital and modern and “civilized,” whatever that means. Essentially, though, we are just humans navigating our way through the world and trying to cope, survive, and maybe do a little better. We make resolutions and celebrate re-birth. We meet the world with renewed hope. Thus it is, and thus it has always been. Do have a very Happy New Year.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Solstice And What It Means To Be Human



“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus 

“December has the clarity, the simplicity, and the silence you need for the best fresh start of your life.” – Vivian White 

Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in our hemisphere. It is a day surrounded by important holidays, rituals, and ceremonies in many religion and national/cultural groups. Hindus celebrated Danhu Sankrati last Friday, and Hanukkah started Monday. Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve and Christmas are still to come, and Kwanzaa is next week. The Solstice itself has been celebrated for centuries in many ancient cultures, and several Wiccan groups celebrate it still. Most of these observances focus on light-coming out of the darkness-and rebirth- new growth and a new beginning. Out of our shortest day grows the possibility of more light, longer days, and a chance to start over, both literally and, just as important, metaphorically. It is a time that unites and brings joy to the celebrants across the globe. 

As a history teacher and cultural observer, I have always loved this mix of observances and celebrations. To me this mix provides a chance to connect with all of human life and history. It is a chance, should we allow it to be, for us to connect with what unites us; our history and beliefs as humans.  

When I taught my 8th grade ancient civilizations class, one of the first questions and themes we examined was, “What does it mean to be human?” We looked at how different cultures organized themselves, expressed themselves, and gave themselves a way of looking at the world and the universe. This time of the year makes me realize that in a real and powerful way. All of us, regardless of where and when we lived and what groups we most identify with, respond to and adjust to what nature presents us with and we pass that down. We come up with patterns to find a way to make it “work” for us and to have “meaning,” to and for us. And just about every culture or group does this in similar ways, recognizing and believing certain common things. 

One is that individually, we are not the center of the universe. We have always needed groups to survive, physically up to a certain point of course, and mentally also. We simply have to work together. One of our major identities has always been a “group identity.” And we have always used rituals of some sort to manifest and confirm that identity. A second belief is that we have to respond to the actual world around us in ways that can allow us to survive, thrive, and establish places for us to live. That is why the vast majority of human rituals are centered around what the physical universe is doing. We have to incorporate that reality into our belief systems. A third thing humans have always believed is that there is more going on than humans have control over and fully understand.  We have almost always been in groups that believe in a power or powers beyond our full knowledge, understanding, and control. We call these things by different names, but we acknowledge them. Fourth, humans all seem to believe that there is constant rebirth, development, and transformation; places to get to beyond where we are. We all make resolutions, go through rites of passage and have some version of “growing up.” We all have this sense of life having some sort of meaning and heading somewhere. We are in motion. 

So when I think of what we as a species do at this time of the year, I can be joined with all that we humans have done and continue to do since forever. I can see myself as part of the eternal human family and really recognize that we have far more things in common than not. Yes, I have my own beliefs and ways of living those beliefs. I have my own terms, rituals, etc. But in so doing I am just joining with the billions of humans who are on the planet with me, have been on the planet before me, and will be on the planet after me. We do the same things, and that is what links us together. We do not have to believe the same way or ritualize the same way, but we do have to do these things in some way simply because we are human. And at this time of the year, seeing all the ways these human things play out renews my hope that we can find our way beyond our petty, unimportant differences and link ourselves to our basic and real universal humanity. That we can go into the longer days and discover ways to share this planet in peace and with love and compassion. I believe such things are possible. After all, I am a human.  

Do enjoy this time of the year and know comfort, joy, good food, good company and the making of new and good memories. Humankind; be both.