Sunday, February 20, 2022

Rumble; Native Ameridcan Influences on American Popular Music



“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato 

“How is it that music can, without words, evoke our laughter, our fears, our highest aspirations?” ― Jane Swan  

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”  Albert Einstein 

   It is winter and it has been cold and super windy for much of the last few weeks. Yes, we have had several unusual days with temps of 50 and 60 degrees, but for the most part it has been a series of very cold and very blustery days.  

 The blustery winds now bother me-the older I get the more it seems to just cut through me. I still love winter night skies-the moon and the constellations last week were spectacular. But I get tired of winter around mid-February, and I spend a lot more time indoors. And a lot of that time I spend watching streaming movies, especially about music.  

    A few months ago I wrote about some of the movies that I had seen and loved-Muscle Shoals, about the Fame Studios and the band that backed many of the soul greats that I grew up listening to, The Last of the Mississippi Jukes, about juke joints trying to survive in the modern world, and Harlem Street Singer, a wonderful biography about the amazing guitarist and singer Rev. Gary Davis. To that list of favorites, I have to add two more: Rumble, and Two Trains Running. For this newsletter I will introduce Rumble and will talk about Two Trains Running for the next one.  

   Rumble, subtitled, “Indians Who Rocked the World,” is about Native Americans whose guitar playing, singing, rhythmic approach, and cultural outlooks had a strong influence on much of American popular music. The film starts with Link Wray, the guitarist whose 1958 tune, Rumble, changed the sound of the electric guitar in American music about as much as Chuck Berry and B.B. King did. It was Wray who introduced what is now called, “the power chord” to rock, and guitarists all over the world have been paying homage to and making use of that for years. His instrumental, Rumble, brought distortion, ringing chords, and loud, hard rhythms to the world. It was a totally new sound, and its effects have been used. There is a stunning split screen early on in the film where Peter Townshend of the Who and Wray are shown playing. It is clear where Pete and The Who got so much of their approach.  

     Wray also brought a new type and level of showmanship to the genre with his leather jackets and leather pants, sunglasses, long black hair, and dramatic stage presence. He would stalk the stage, hitting chords, holding them, and strolling  around the stage as those chords rang out. Both musically and stylistically he set the stage for much of what rock has sounded and looked like ever since.  

   The film then travels back in time and looks somewhat chronologically at other influences Native American cultures have had on American music. A lot of that surprised and enlightened me. I was always fascinated by the weird mix of rhythms in some songs by bluesmen such as Charlie Patton and Howling Wolf and in New Orleans music. These bluesmen and other musicians had Native ancestry, and some of their relatives are in the film, pointing out how those Native influences can be found in the music. There is also the historical record of how Native music merged with black music in a fascinating section featuring Carolina Chocolate Drops banjo player Rhianna Giddens. These cross-cultural influences make up that delicious gumbo that is so much a significant part of American music. It is a fascinating musical and musical history lesson.  

 There are also sections on the important roles played by Mildred Bailey, the great jazz singer of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and folksingers Peter La Farge and Buffy St Marie, both as musicians and social activist. And there are loving sections on two of my all-time favorite guitarists, Robbie Robertson of the Band, and Jesse Ed Davis, who I first heard with Taj Mahal's first band. The stories of how they learned to play, their early experiences, and especially who they both influenced are moving and memorable.   

Rumble is an amazing and important film. Both musically and historically it presents us with so much that makes amazing connections and allows us to see what was long there but beneath our gaze for so long. It is available on Amazon Prime, and I highly recommend it.   

Monday, February 14, 2022

Valentine's Day And Different Expressions of "Love"



 “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. – Kahlil Gibran  

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the universe deserve Love” -Buddha    

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr 

Monday, February 14th is Valentine's Day, one of the most celebrated and observed traditions in the United States. Odes to it can be found in just about every cultural form and genre in the United States. Most musical traditions have songs about it. There are endless television sit-coms or scenes in romantic movies where one member of a couple forgets the day or does something screwy on that day. And observance of the day is an all-ages affair. Elementary school kids often make Valentine’s Day cards for their parents and relatives, choose a special person to be, “their Valentine,” and make cards in class. Some religious institutions feature rituals where young children present hearts to senior members of their congregation. And of course, romantic couples buy tons of flowers and sweets, exchange cards and gifts, go out to dinner, go to the movies, and more. This day adds a 23.6-billion-dollar jolt to the US economy. All of this on a day devoted to a romantic notion of "love."  

Of course, the idea of romantic love can be special and wonderful. I was very fortunate to have met, loved, and married this person who was very right for me, and we had a long, loving and wonderful life together. And of course, we loved special foods and special places on Valentine’s Day. But the idea of what Valentine’s Day is for and can be has been evolving in recent years; it has come to embrace a larger definition of “love.” We are no longer a culture where the only acceptable things for an adult to do to be "successful" is to marry and have a family. What love means has expanded. Looking at the idea of “Love” in a non-romantic and larger way, there have been several developments in how Americans think of this day and celebrate the idea of “love”.   

Valentine’s Day itself is also National Donor Day, a day in which people are encouraged to register online or with their state Department of Motor Vehicles in order to be organ donors. There are currently some 120,000 people on waiting lists for organ transplants in the US, and a webpage urging people to register calls registering, “a more concrete way to show love than candy, roses, or teddy bears.” It can save a life and create a legacy. It is fitting that it is observed on this day.  

The days after Valentine’s Day have also gained new purpose and visibility. February 15th is Singles Awareness Day, a day devoted to celebrating self-love, friendship, family love, and seeing being single as a good thing. Begun in 2003 by high school student, it started as a backlash against people not in relationships being isolated on Valentine’s Day. Copyrighted in 2009, it has grown into a popular international holiday, especially on social media. As over 40% of the US population describe themselves as single, the growing popularity of a day celebrating all the different types of non-romantic love makes sense. It can also help us see and appreciate the types of love that are all around us and that we sometimes take for granted.  

February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day, another day that celebrates non-romantic love and calls on us to practice and demonstrate it in ordinary, practical ways. Initiated by a Denver non-profit in 1995, the day is a day that calls for people to do small acts of kindness, friendship, help, and compassion for other people-especially strangers. The hope is that this causes people to feel better and to spread that good feeling to other people-sort of a “pay if forward” type of idea. Obviously, this can ideally be done on any day, but Random Kindness Day is designed to highlight kindness and bring it to the fore. I know I am in a much better mood, say, when I am on a crowded bus, and someone offers this old man a seat. That makes my day and the days of people around me on the bus. And I pass that on to other people.  

 And February 20th is National Love Your Pet Day. This is one that is no surprise, since  60% of US residents own at least one pet. Dogs are #1 (40%) and cats are #2 (25%), but there are also folks who own birds, lizards, hamsters, and more. Humans keep pets; doing this is one of the things that separates us from other animals. And the COVID crisis has increased the numbers of folks who do this greatly over the last two years. Clearly, we as a species need a lot of 'pet love.' 

  So on this Valentine’s Day Week let us look forward to more and ever-expanding types and expressions of love. There is a lot of love in the world around us to be seen and to be known. We just have to slow down enough to be aware of it and open to it. There is a lot of love we can all receive and, most importantly, a lot we can all give. Happy Valentine’s Day to you in any and all of its manifestations.  


Monday, February 7, 2022

The Meaning Power, and Importance of History


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

 “We should not emphasize “Negro History,” but “The Negro IN history.” Carter Woodson, historian   

 “The incredible thing about history is that there is always more to discover; it is never” finished.”    Anonymous   

“Black History is not just about the oppression and roadblocks Black Americans have faced    Tim Andrews, attorney   

 As readers of these missives know I am a history freak; a history freak who loves to ask questions, look for new ideas and connections, find out why and how something happened, how something works, what that word originally meant, and more. If you have been reading these missives for a while I have written about the origins of our current calendar, the construction of bridges, things found in downtowns, and multiple events, issues, developments, people, processes, and many other things connected to world and American history.  History is an endless and ever-deep well from which we can draw inspiration, amazement, fear, horror, revulsion, joy, commitment, connection, delight, sorrow, pain, and so much more. Keeping, creating, and telling histories is, to me, one of the most purely human things we do.   

I am saying all of this because February is the start of Black History Month, and at the same time the country finds itself fighting over the stories it wants to tell or hear, learn from, not listen to, think about, not think about, silence or let breathe free.  One of the things civilizations have done since the beginning of civilization some 5,000 years ago is to have the powers-that-be trying to control, encourage, limit, expand and/or erase certain ideas and stories it tells itself. All civilizations-ALL civilizations-have been faced with this same question and tension at different times. That is why civilizations have either pushed for universal education or limited it; opened libraries and museums or burned them, or tried to control what could be in them. It has been said that, “He who wins the war writes the history books,” and that is true to a large extent.  And a version of that old tension is playing out right in front of us all over this and other countries.  Because of that, I decided to look back at a couple of missives I wrote in recent years during Black History Month, combine and change them a bit. I think this may be fitting to the time in which we are living.   

   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 and that more was there. The Philadelphia Free Library was a place where I could satisfy part of that quest for knowledge. 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 public and school libraries were important gateways 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, and the more I found, the more I wanted to find out.  For an insatiably curious kid, libraries were 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. That joy of that "uncovering" has stayed with me. I still love finding out “new” information and new ways of looking at the past, present, and future.  

  Carter Woodson helped found Negro History Week in 1926. The son of former slaves, he had graduated from Berea College in KY in 1903, earned a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, becoming the second African American to do so.( W.E.B. DuBois was the first, but Woodson is the only offspring of former slaves to receive a PhD in history from an American institution). The celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1915 brought thousands of people to the Chicago Coliseum to see exhibits and displays on Black life. Out of that, Woodson got Black schools, churches, organizations, and newspapers to include ways of getting information about Black history to Black people and others interested in this. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and their publication, The Journal of Negro History, They supported and encouraged research into the history, culture and accomplishments of Negroes, as we were then called. He was particularly interested in educating young Blacks about their history. "If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated," Woodson wrote in "The Mis-Education of the Negro." He sponsored research, worked with other historians, conducted interviews with hundreds of Blacks about their personal and family histories, and more.   

     Negro History Week caught on, went across the country, and eventually moved into the regular school curriculum of more and more public elementary schools. When I was in elementary school in the 1950’s we had Negro History Week observances at Dunlap Elementary School. Of course, these observances had become mostly about famous Black people who had accomplished things, and not Woodson’s desired look at the Negro IN history. But while I overdosed on George Washington Carver and Phillis Wheatley in school, I had Ebony and Jet magazines and the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper at home. These were Black owned and Black themed publications, that had listened to Woodson and provided that wider view. And I had open public libraries that were sources of more and more information. 

   Things have changed over the decades. The organization Woodson founded is now called The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), we are now not called, “Negroes,” and there is now a Federally recognized “Black History Month” instead of just a week. There have been much more scholastic and scientific published research, many more books and films, many more newspaper and magazine, articles and much more. There are numerous Black-life centered museums and official Black Heritage sites across the country, including museums looking at Black WWII fighter pilots, Black firefighters, cowboys and pioneers, a Great Blacks in Wax Museum, and much, much, more. There are also webpages turning up interesting and previously hidden or unknown aspects of how Blacks have been a part of this culture.  

    This is particularly relevant now in the wake of all that happened in 2020. One of the effects of the outrage over George Floyd is that it became clear that there is a lot Americans do not know, see, or recognize about Black life. There has been a more conscious effort to change that and that is good. And that has also been met with intense resistance-banning books, firing teachers, legislatures taking control of curricula, and more.  As mentioned earlier, one of the things studying history can sometimes lead to is fear, and that is playing out in school board meetings, legislatures, elections, and websites all across the country. I have looked at a lot of ways civilizations throughout history have handled the question of what stories are “OK,” and it seems to me that when folks are taking radical actions to limit knowledge and stories, they are afraid of something. As a life-long learner and a teacher for 40 years, that deeply saddens me.  

   I invite each of you to spend some time doing some investigation of places, web sites, museum sites, and more to look for and see some stories with which you may be unfamiliar; to see what you can find out about aspects of Black life with which you are/were unfamiliar or unaware. I invite us all to make this a month more in line with Woodson’s goal of discovering, Blacks IN history-exploring, and looking at who we as Americans are in as broad a sense as possible. There are plenty of places to uncover these things, both within the Philadelphia region and nationwide. Surprises and new learning await, sometimes painful, sometimes wonderful and amazing, and sometimes simply fun. Let’s make this Black History Month a month of wonder and discovery. Thanks.  


The Philadelphia Tribune Newspaper:   

Philadelphia African-American Museum   

The National Museum of African-American History:   

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History:   

The African-American Firefighter Museum   

List of African-American Centered Museums Nationwide:   

The Legacy Museum:   

Black Inventors Museum: Black Inventors Matter   

(And if you know of other sites, sources, etc. please forward them to me.)