Well the world is exhausted
And the wreckage is all around
But the arc of your life
Could still be profound – “Song of Unborn”, lyrics by Steven Wilson
Our current moment is one best described as anxious. Whether in politics or society, in churches, synagogues, and mosques, our military and federal workforce, even in our personal lives, we find ourselves bombarded by crises, with neither leadership nor guidance through a time when even our shared reality seems to be up for negotiation. On a more personal level, I know just this week I have seen three death notices, including a gentleman with whom I grew up. He and I had been friends in elementary school, but as time went on and our different interests had us following different paths, we became less so. Still, his was a presence in my life from early on. Two FB friends have posted the passing of dear ones in the past twenty-four hours. Death, it seems, reminds us it is ever-present.
We are bereft of any sense that things will get better any time soon. Our country and world seem to lurch from one outrage to another, our headlines filled with hate and violence; our discussions on these issues resemble the stories, filled with vitriol, mutual disdain, the absence of any sense we are all in this together. Leaderless, we drift without an anchor to hold us down. Our personal lives, once perhaps a solace in times of strife, are far more angst-filled as we wonder and worry what the next day will bring, or even if there will be a next day. As much as we would all prefer not to pay attention, recent nuclear brinksmanship cannot but leave a residue of horror in all of us.
And yet . . .
In the midst of all this, you wouldn’t believe the number of new babies I’ve seen friends and family of friends announce. One FB friend, experiencing a late-life pregnancy, is sharing her pregnant-life in a marvelous tableau. Another FB friend announced his granddaughter’s entry to kindergarten, a little girl who was born prematurely, whose early struggles he shared and so many of us prayed and prayed. This little light brightens my timeline whenever he posts a photo.
I won’t deny anxiety about the kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit. I look at the world into which my own daughters are soon to be launched by time and tide, and I dread the conditions under which they might well have to live. My children, however, are older now and my worries are specific, because I know what they are or will be facing. With the little ones, however, and the ones almost here, my feelings are very different. Perhaps its a peculiar type of Anglo-American sentimentality that leaves us filled with joy at the sight of a newborn child; whatever the case may be, in these little ones that anxiety and worry passes and I feel something very different.
Steven Wilson is, perhaps, the most creative musician of my generation. In his third decade of writing, recording, and performing, whether in bands like Porcupine Tree and Blackfield, or his solo work over the past decade, his music spans the gamut from psychedlia through heavy metal to prog and, with his latest release, pop music. Of course, as he says in a video in which he reviews his latest album To The Bone track by track, it’s “pop” more in the way The Beatles, XTC, and Supertramp were pop than contemporary prepackaged blandness. One of the consistent realities of Wilson’s song-writing has been . . . how can I put this . . . a fascination with dark, hard, themes – death and loss, loneliness and ennui, that peculiar hopelessness that is so much a part of our current world. To The Bone is no different in that regard. Songs about the loss of love, about a terrorist preparing to strike, a refugee scared and enraged over his circumstances are all stand-outs, with the instrumental break on “Refuge” gut wrenching.
A real bright spot is the song Wilson calls “the happiest song I ever wrote,” called “Permanating”. Upbeat, sounding like something ELO or Supertramp would have released in 1978, it’s also the most “mainstream” song Wilson’s ever performed. For that reason, a lot of his long-time fans aren’t happy about it at all. Nothing at all wrong with a well-written and arranged pop song, however, now is there? Since this is an album all about songs, an upbeat song hardly seems out of place.
The album ends with the song that is the heart of this post: “Song for Unborn”. A message for those to come, it offers not only the possibilities open to those who are yet to call our world home; it also presents the stark reality that our world is hard, cold, with the words “there’s nothing new under the sun” echoing across every attempt at creativity. Yet, “the country lanes are decked with the time to come”; there are roads out there, all sorts of them, that can take a wandering, wondering soul to all sorts of places. Even in the midst of the emptiness of our moment – “the world is exhausted and wreckage is all around” – it is still possible to live a profound life. Live in the absence of fear, both of death and life, and those country lanes might just open up a chance to be and do something wonderful, perhaps even world-changing.
I’ve found myself listening to this song quite a bit the past few days. It offers a reminder, at least for me, that while our generation has certainly made a mess of things, there is always hope, that light in the eye of the new ones who come in to our world looking for those country lanes, to be the best they can be. I see the photos of those new babies, and my prayer is they learn that, as bad as the world may seem, it doesn’t have to be this way. In their tiny, sparkling eyes and reaching fingers lies the possibility that, long after I’m gone, the world will have become just a tiny bit better because some few took those decked out country lanes, refusing to accept what was handed to them in our time of despair.
In those unborn and new born, just beginning their wanderings in this life, I am reminded that hope is a very real thing. And I’m grateful to be reminded just how powerful that hope can be when you see it in the flesh and bone.
Last night’s Grammy Awards felt like an advertisement for music that didn’t quite know what product it was selling. Child stars that have turned into raunchy pop musicians seemed to be a product—as did violent-sounding longhaired men playing guitars. (One of them was Johnny Depp. It was weird.) Lady Gaga’s spirited if disorganized David Bowie tribute/medley segued directly into an advertisement from Intel, starring Gaga, on how the Bowie segment was made. (Hint: Intel was inside.) A long Target ad starring Gwen Stefani on rollerskates aired live and was almost indistinguishable from one of the Grammys onstage acts. Adding to the very strong sense of faded glory, every single segment appeared to be a tribute or an in memoriam—for Bowie, B.B. King, Glenn Frey, Lionel Richie (still alive), Lemmy Kilmister, and more. And meanwhile, logistical difficulties plagued the show: Adele’s performance was marred by a microphone error. Beyoncé was late. Lauryn Hill ditched. Rihanna called in sick. Kanye West—who is currently staging one of the biggest and weirdest album debuts in music history—didn’t bother showing up. The camera kept zooming over to Taylor Swift, to see her reaction, as if it would be a) authentic or b) sympathetic. The Grammys weren’t selling or defining music as much as it kept asking, over and over again, like an emo teenager: “What are we?” – Sonia Soraiya, ““Hamilton” saved the Grammys: If you think you hate popular music, a tired, epic-length awards show isn’t going to help,” Salon, Feb 16, 2016
Today, the Grammy Awards’ embrace of popular artists and pop music tends be misguided and driven by precedent or safety. How else to explain 2014 sensation Meghan Trainor winning Best New Artist this year? Or Swift winning Album Of The Year for “1989” ahead of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”? Of greater concern is how few artists seemed willing to take any sort of risks last night. Country act Little Big Town did with a stripped-down, elegant performance of the hit “Girl Crush,” which featured strings and vocalist Karen Fairchild at the forefront. And so did Lady Gaga: Her polarizing, appropriately flamboyant David Bowie tribute medley—which was criticized as being everything from “cruise ship hell” to a bad Elvis Presley impersonation—was messy and exciting, and unafraid to flaunt its imperfections.
But it was Kendrick Lamar, who took home five Grammys and was responsible for the night’s most indelible appearance, who proved that he’s head and shoulders above pretty much everyone else going right now. His two-song performance started with a laser-focused “The Blacker The Berry,” which took place in a prison setting: Lamar and the others with him onstage wore inmate clothes and chains—in fact, the singer kept the latter on while singing the song—in an obvious nod to the racial tension boiling over in cities across the U.S. The scene shifted to the larger stage for the Black Lives Matter-associated “Alright,” as a large fire raged and illuminated a series of warrior-like tribal dancers. – Annie Zaleski, “Taylor Swift is everything that’s wrong with the Grammys and the music industry: Sanitized, self-congratulatory and safe,” Salon, February 16, 2016
Griping about the Grammy awards is as mainstream and safe as the Grammy’s themselves. That there are two such articles just in today’s Salon show just how mainstream such criticism is. I suppose it gives music critics and journalists something to write that makes them look “edgy” – they get to complain about how bland the Grammy’s are, therefore justifying their cutting-edge bona fides, without actually taking a step back and wondering why they should be worrying about the Grammy’s in the first place. This is the award given to Milli Vanilli, after all. Why is anyone surprised that, despite nominating the most interesting, innovative, and exciting hip-hop artist for eleven different awards, he only took home five? Why carry on about performances being safe, stripped down, as if to show that contemporary musicians aren’t all studio creations (here’s a historical fact: most performers in the recording age, stretching back to the 1920’s, have been studio creations)?
With very few exceptions, particularly as music has become both a visual as well as auditory medium, the Grammy’s have eschewed anything risky, handing out awards as much as to honor long careers as any singular achievement in music (read Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana here). The fact that it’s been over a quarter century since Metallica debuted heavy metal at the Grammy’s with their performance of “One” in 1989; that the edgiest hip-hop artist they’ve featured was Eminem, a white rapper who had passed his sell date by the time he appeared on prime time; that there’s been no televised jazz performance in years; that the classical awards aren’t even televised; all this shows just how frightened the music industry continues to be by the realities of today’s music market.
Or rather, markets. While pop music certainly continues to dominate the top 40, such music owes most of its sound to hip-hop, a musical genre that, in its more pure forms, continues to exist in some weird netherland between acceptability and alternative in the minds of the music industry. Never mind it’s the single most influential musical style not just in the United States but around the world; like rhythm and blues when it first rose to prominence and for years after, at its best hip-hop just isn’t white enough for the Grammy Awards. That Kendrick Lamar’s performance was greeted with stunned faces in the audience, at least according to Sonia Soraiya (linked above), shows just how far the music has to go to be accepted for what it is.
And let’s not even get in to how the Grammy Awards treat country music. Country and hip-hop are the two most popular musical genres, often with the same people liking both. Yet neither receives either the respect or attention they deserve. Rather than America’s mainstream music – which it is – country music continues to be relegated both to the radio and sales ghetto, having to hold separate award ceremonies in order to give artists and songs the recognition they deserve. Unlike the LA-based pop music industry, one thing you can say about the Nashville-based country industry is they know what their fans like, but are also willing to invest in a variety of artists, keeping alive long careers while also introducing exciting new performers.
The biggest problem facing the Grammy Awards, however, isn’t industry tone-deafness, racism, or the ongoing ghettoizing of different musical genre and styles. The biggest problem is how the music industry, quite simply put, knows nothing about music. There is so much good, I dare say even great, new music out there. It’s available so easily through internet radio and music-streaming services; bands can write, record, produce, market, and sell their music without needing the music industry at all. Digital technology from recording and production through paid download increasingly both democratize and Balkanize the music markets. Even pretending there’s such a thing as “pop” music, as distinct from what’s actually “popular” through streaming-service information, digital sales, and other means that exist outside the music industry’s traditional control, demonstrates just how out-of-touch it is. Of course, there continue to be small labels that help distribute new music to listeners. Just as both heavy metal and hip-hop, back in the 1980’s, did all their experimentation first through listening to others through tape-trading, then recording exciting, experimental music on small labels; just a punk and new wave, before them, had used small labels and the whole DIY music culture of the late 1970’s to challenge the behemoths of the music industry; so streaming services, with greater access not only to major-label back catalogs but also new releases from up-and-coming labels and artists, offer a greater variety of musical choices, very often choices that simply defy industry-approved marketing niches. Quite simply put, if you either don’t know or refuse to listen to new music, you’re missing out on all sorts of interesting, creative, exciting music that’s available for the taking.
The Grammy Awards function to solidify the music industry’s definitions of various musical styles; they’re conservative, even reactionary, by design. While there are certainly moments where all that gets tossed to the side – it seems both the Hamilton performance as well as Kendrick Lamar’s performance were the big attention-grabbers precisely because they broke that oh-so-safe mold – to act surprised or hurt or even offended that the Grammy’s did exactly what they’re supposed to do, i.e., celebrate blandness and mediocrity, is to forget that is what they’ve always done. The best choice is to set aside the whole idea of industry-approved awards, do some exploring on the Internet, and discover all sorts of new music that challenges industry norms. Whether it’s music in the tradition of 70’s stadium rock, the newest in hip-hop or house, or an up-and-coming metal act like MYRKUR, turn off corporate-sponsored radio and check out all sorts of new and exciting music.
Popular music has recently lost four important figures, each leaving differing legacies. Surely no one will argue that both Lemmy Kilmister and David Bowie will continue to influence everything from rock star attitude to musical and persona presentation for decades to come. Both leave vast libraries of music that will be mined for ideas, perhaps even riffs to quote, as rock continues its mostly underground existence. While not a fan of The Eagles or Glenn Frey, it’s hard to argue they weren’t an important part of how music evolved through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Then yesterday came news that Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner had died at the age of 74.
I have to say that of the four, I think Kantner’s death had the biggest impact on me. Because, you see, I started listening to Jefferson Airplane in high school. While I certainly heard The Eagles at that time, I was far more attracted to the music the Airplane produced. A group of strong personalities and varying musical styles never quite reached the point of creating “a” sound, except perhaps for the vocal harmonies of Kantner, co-founder Marty Balin, and Grace Slick. They were not only unconventional (in much the way Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s vocal harmonies were unconventional) but Balin’s thin tenor seemed to go so well with Slick’s powerful alto while Kantner could lead or fall in, adding a different texture. Whether playing a straight ahead blues-inspired rocker written and led by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen or one of their more adventurous songs inspired by psychedelics, however, the music never failed to be different than you would expect.
This was not “pop” in the least. Despite the popularity of their songs “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, this wasn’t a group that would churn out hits. I think what I appreciated when I was younger was that this was a group of adults making music for adults. Young adults, sure, but there was nothing teeny-bopper about them at all. There was a seriousness about their song writing and arranging that I found very appealing; these folks weren’t fooling around. I think that’s true enough of the other San Francisco bands like Santana, The Grateful Dead, and Canned Heat. This was a musical atmosphere where people both had fun, yet didn’t shy away from taking their music seriously enough to create something new and interesting. And I must admit both their “Fuck you” attitude – Volunteers is one great big middle finger to the rising conservatism in California and America – and the simple attraction of Grace Slick were also a big part of why I liked the band. What teenager doesn’t like a bit of rebellion with sexiness?
So, thank you, Paul Kantner for walking up to a stranger (Marty Balin) and asking him if he wanted to form a band. Thank you for wanting to do more than three-minute love songs, or at least traditional three minute love songs. Thank you for being serious even while having a great time. Thank you for making rock something for adults. I know that last is heresy; it’s supposed to be music for teens, both early and late. It’s supposed to be unserious and fun. It’s supposed to be done with insouciance toward the details of production and arrangement – if it has a good beat and can dance to it, that’s supposed to be enough. The Jefferson Airplane produced revolutionary music for the mind, for the ear, and for a different audience than most groups at the time.
Much time, energy, and emotion is expended in mainline and evangelical church circles over what is known as The Worship Wars. Challenges to traditional hymnody and styles of worship have been ongoing for more than a generation now, yet the conflict continues precisely because, as I noted yesterday, there is still much emotional baggage attached to the old hymns churches have been singing for generations. Much of the discussion surrounding matters of worship styles and music rests firmly within those binary categories about which I wrote yesterday: the sacred and profane. Categorical statements about the organ being the preferred instrument for Christian worship, and traditional hymns the only proper songs to be sung.
Visit a historically African-American Church, however, and you will see little to no evidence of the worship wars. Carrying their own tradition of home-grown worship and their own history of hymns and spiritual songs, regardless of denominational label, more than likely a visitor will hear “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” alongside a Gospel song like Andrae Crouch’s “Jesus Is The Answer” or The Winans’ “Everything You Touch Is A Song”. Piano is often accompanied by a drum, perhaps other instrumentation as well. There is little to no fuss about what is and is not proper, not because the African-American churches are immune to the sacred-profane dichotomy; rather, as Wynton Marsalis has said, to be black in America necessitates improvisation. In order to survive in a hostile legal, social, and cultural environment, African-Americans have had to make it up as they go along, to use what was at hand or to create their own ways of doing things because so much of what passed for “religion” in America spoke only to white America.
All the Sturm-und-Drang over worship in our white churches could be avoided if we looked to our African-American sisters and brothers. Their rules for what is and what is not sacred largely hinge upon what is and is not useful. Even in traditionally black denominations such as The Church of Christ, in which no instruments are allowed, hymns and spirituals are still sung, sometimes lined by the pastor, sometimes in a call and response style. Each tradition has adapted to its environment in order to serve the needs of the people without surrendering theological or musical integrity. Rather than adhere to a rigid ideology of sacred/profane, black churches, by forcing constantly to adapt have become comfortable with the variety that is their worship and musical environment.
Which is not to say that historically African-American churches are immune either to the consumerist ideology of our capitalist society or the sacred/profane split. On the contrary, Gospel music is a multi-million dollar music, making stars of its performers who become little different from “secular” performers. Many African-American secular performers, from Sam Cooke through Whitney Houston to Snoop Dogg grew up singing in their church choirs. Some, like Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin, began their professional careers singing Gospel music. When they made the switch away from gospel to soul and rhythm and blues, it caused more than a little controversy. The sacred/profane line was as less about commercial or stylistic questions – so much of soul music is embedded within the history of the Gospel music, thanks in no small part to Ray Charles turning popular Gospel tunes in to popular song by changing the lyrics – than it was what they were singing about. Many African-American singers and performers have included recordings of Gospel or sacred music in their repertoire, much as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded music from their Pentecostal childhoods.
By and large, however, we could learn so much by listening to and talking with historically black churches and how they have continued to adapt music and worship within changing historical circumstances yet always against the background of white supremacy. We could do far worse than to silence our categorical demands and learn that even here and now in our midst is evidence that what we white mainline and evangelical Protestants insist is timeless and true is nothing but our own blinkered preferences gussied up for God.
Music is a way to order chaos. – Me, “Sermon Thoughts I”, What’s Left In The Church, May 16, 2010
If you read any book on music – and I’ve read dozens over the past few years – the first thing you’ll encounter is a definition of music as “organized sound”. Unpacking those two words lead to things like rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and so on. The thing is, for me, sound can be chaotic. I know there are musicians who hear harmonies and rhythms and even melodies when standing and listening to the world around them. From the sounds of vehicles on roads through birds singing and dogs barking to the rustle of branches and leaves in the breeze, there are people who take this mass of sound and find something more there. For the most part, however, such sounds are just noise.
Before there were things like musical notation or theories of harmony there was music. Music is as ubiquitous as human societies, older than the first settled human communities, and as varied as the places and people who create them. As necessary to human existence as food and shelter, music organizes the chaos of life, whether recalling a community’s founding in song or in singing divine blessings upon a couple getting married, music recognizes the chaos that is the most basic threat to our existence and demands it submit to our order. It frames and shapes and directs human action, calling forth divine participation when necessary, and subsumes both our joys and fears under its insistent demand for order. More than speech, more than any other human action, music encompasses all over activities and creates a whole that is larger than any particular parts.
We in the west, at least since the beginnings of the capitalist era, have relegated all art to the periphery of life. Focusing the proletariat’s attention on the need for survival (and Lord someone could do a whole book on the survival ethic in modernity), thinkers beginning with Immanuel Kant have insisted that art is a nonessential part of the human common life. These ass-kissers of the rising bourgeoisie insisted that it is possible to life an entire human life without concerning oneself with beauty. For over two hundred years, art and beauty – and particularly music – has been taught as if it were not an integral part of human life. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, we are all raised to believe we can take it or leave it when it comes to art. Artists are viewed as odd, strange, outsiders; their products are either risible or dangerous but in either case they have nothing to do with everyday life. There are many out there who have been taught this so well, they actually live without painting or sculpture, music or architecture as part of their concerns in life.
A quick survey of the world outside the West, however, a world still resisting the hegemony of our ideology dehumanizing not only humanity, but that which humanity produces, can only lead one to the exact opposite conclusion. Life is more than survival; a lived life includes not only the consideration of but the active participation in what we in the West call “the arts”; whether in the weaving of cloth and the sewing of garments, the construction of buildings both for use and appreciation, or the representation of the world in the plastic arts – all accompanied by music – that which we relegate to “the arts” and the periphery of existence is at the heart of day-to-day life. Even a glance back at our own history, or at our own social practices teaches us the human need for music to mark our most important activities. Whether it’s worshiping God, heavy-beat dance music in clubs for people to seduce one another, or a funeral Mass, all of it happens precisely because music is present. The lies of our educators, at least on this point, is offered up in our everyday life.
Christian theology roots itself in our particular profession of faith, that Creation began with God speaking the words, “Let There Be Light!” Yet the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with song declaring God’s glory! Psalm 8 is nothing more than a sung Creation story. The prophets offer words from the LORD to be set to music. The angels declare the birth of the Christ child in song. No, it seems to me that, when God decided to put the primordial chaos at bay through the act of Creation, those words weren’t spoken. I believe there was a whole musical score that accompanied it all.
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ – Isaiah 40:3-5
—–People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers
From coast to coastFaith is the key
Open the doors and board them
There’s room for all
Among the loved the most – “People Get Ready”, music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield—–
Depending on when you counted the real start of the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement in America, by 1965 great legal strides had been made while socially and culturally things were hardly changed at all. The movement really peaked in 1963 with the March on Washington. Thousands still marched, still organized, still protested, still got arrested, still pushed and pushed the social and cultural boundaries.
That year The Impressions, a vocal group from Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project, released a song called “People Get Ready”. Similar to a slave spiritual lyrically, using the metaphor of a “train to Jordan” to talk about the need to continue to fight for African-American equality, it featured Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto reassuring people they “don’t need no baggage/Just get on board.”
Instantly this song became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. King would play it at rallies. The Impressions were invited to sing at various Civil Rights meetings, protests, and marches. The song’s greatness, usually missed, lies in the mixture of a sweet, easy-going melody, Mayfield’s clear falsetto, both of which mask the militant insistence of the lyrics. This is no “nice” song. This is a song for people facing cops with guns, dogs, and fire-hoses, people who won’t stop because they can’t stop. This isn’t a movement. This is a locomotive that will run over anyone who gets in the way, trying to prevent people from reaching their destination.
This fourth week of Advent is a time we recognize our waiting is coming to an end. There is still preparation needed, of course – isn’t there always? – but we should remember that when the moment comes, when the Day to remember the birth of Christ; the day to celebrate the presence of the Savior; the day to look forward to our fulfilled hope of the promised return; that day comes as a thief in the night. Whether we are fully ready, the Christ-child comes, God enfleshed and living among us.
This Christ is the one who travels the straight highway in the desert. This Christ is the God With Us who makes all things new. This Christ is the one who insists we need bring nothing with us except our faith and being along with Him, who can oppose us? At Christmas we do so much more than consider a babe being held by his loving mother and father. At Christmas we do more than welcome the risen Christ in to our homes yet again. At Christmas, we renew our pledge to climb aboard the train and head to the promised land.
And that promised land, like the one at the end of the desert highway; like the one King spoke of his last night; the destination of that train is the promised land of peace, where the wolf shall lie down with the kid, the child shall play over the adder’s den and not be afraid, and swords shall be beaten in to plowshares. We are on a train not just to racial equality. We are on the train that delivers us to the Kingdom, a place where the infinite worth of each and all is more than recognized; it is celebrated. We are on the train that delivers us to freedom, real freedom, the only freedom that matters: The freedom to be fully human, to be the people God created us to be.
This Christmas, as you sit and watch your children and grandchildren unwrap gifts; as you sip a glass of wine in the evening; as you hug your family; remember that baby whose birth we celebrate isn’t just “some baby”. This baby is the engineer on the greatest ride of all time, the Train to The Promised Land. We’ve been getting ready for three weeks, and here it is. You don’t need a ticket, so just hop on board.
N.B.: I had this idea last spring, actually, and worked through some ideas. I thought I’d offer these Advent thoughts here, just to see if and how people respond.
We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We’re just good for nothing they all figure
A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?
We people who are darker than blue – “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
Come to earth to taste our sadness; – “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, lyrics by Charles Wesley
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-4
If Bob Dylan and Joan Baez made white folk feel good about themselves in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles, Curtis Mayfield, both with his group The Impressions as well as a solo artist, gave voice not only to the hopes of a people; he offered African-Americans the simple message that they were a great people, deserving of legal and social equality. His power as a musician is best exemplified by the fact that his songs were used as soundtracks both by Martin Luther King and the Black Pride/Black Power movements. Here is a man who really could speak for his people through song.
As the Civil Rights struggle withered and the Black Power movement was choked to death by official conspiracies, however, African-American urban life took on darker tones. No longer confident they could assert their full humanity and be accepted, the realities of official neglect and a variety of social pathologies created conditions in which hopes and dreams died at the end of needles or disappeared up people’s noses. This, too, brought Mayfield’s prophetic witness to life. Most clearly in the soundtrack to the blacksploitation film Superfly but through much of his work in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, he refused to remain silent while urban communities were ravaged by drugs, poverty, crime, and neglect. The always-present shadow of the criminalization of black life – something the United States has done well even before we were an independent country – left fewer and fewer options or free spaces for action.
That didn’t hinder Mayfield, however. As courageous as he was gifted, he preached through song, offering the picture of a life that had become the epitome of racist fears and bigoted stereotypes. In “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, he held a mirror up to life in African-American urban communities and asked a simple question: Is this who we want to be? Really?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the first season of the Christian year. We all seem to know it’s our time to get ourselves ready for Christmas. Too often, we slide quickly through Advent, ignoring our need for real preparation because Christmas, now no longer solely a religious holiday, has come to embrace much of our national life from early November through the beginning of the New Year. We think preparation means decorating our houses and churches. We prepare cookies and pies. Moving through crowds at large stores and shopping malls as we prepare to buy-buy-buy, we seem grateful only that the stores are open later so we can shop. Preparing for the birth of the Son of God is something toward which we nod on Sundays; the rest of the time we’re preparing for the stockings and wrapped packages and parties and relatives we just saw on Thanksgiving.
Curtis Mayfield, however, offers a different vision of the meaning of preparation. Before we can even get ourselves ready, we need to be clear about why preparation is necessary. It is never easy to admit just how lost we are, how in need of saving from our own blindness, our missplaced sense of self-sufficiency, and the need for our communities to see just how broken they are. If we are to bow down before the Christ-babe, however, we must see who we are. It’s true that God knows the truth, that little baby understands us better than we do ourselves. Yet if that remains the case, how is it possible to receive the blessing that lies cooing in rags in a cattle’s trough?
“We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, like Psalm 137, expresses anger. Unlike Psalm 137, however, this song doesn’t misplace the anger on some Other. Mayfield takes the measure of his people and asks a simple question: Do we want to become someone else’s worst nightmare? African-American communities seemed unable to sing their songs in this foreign homeland of theirs. Not that there weren’t artists like James Brown and George Clinton and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock who still told their tales. Their musical witness was washed away in the promise of drugs and violence and sex that too much became the soundtrack of urban life in the 1970’s. Mayfield, already present when the dreams and hopes and pride and power seemed poised to tell a different story was now demanding that people see who they were. Only then could they be clear about what was needed.
The music of Curtis Mayfield was always a music for his people. Precisely because of that specificity, however, others, too, can hear in his words and sounds, his unique guitar playing and clear falsetto voice, the demand we be honest with ourselves. How can we make ourselves ready for freedom, for power, for equality when we are a sinful, broken people? The brokenness of our affluent white communities is no less real than that of others. The hurt, the sin, and the anger is as much a part of working class white folk as it is urban African-American communities. Violence as an expression not only of social pathology but of that fundamental brokenness we call sin is ubiquitous; it knows no color line, no socioeconomic class, no neighborhood boundaries. Until and unless we are able to hear in Mayfield’s song our own song, we aren’t ready even to get ready.
By voicing this prophetic call to repentance, however, Curtis Mayfield offers all our different communities the opportunity for real preparation. When we acknowledge just how broken, just how hurting, just how much in need of salvation we are, then Advent can really begin. First, however, we have to say yes when Mayfield asks “Now we can’t hardly stand for that/Or is that really where it’s at?”.