In the spirit of the day, let’s celebrate the Woody Guthrie 1940 classic This Land is Your Land. Many of us believe, for a variety of reasons, that it should be the national anthem. No less an authority than Bruce Springsteen has said, it is “one of the most beautiful songs ever written about America.”
Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land during the Great Depression in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. There’s a wonderful book by John Shaw entitled This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems. As Shaw describes it, Guthrie was hitchhiking his way to New York City when he became upset over hearing the Kate Smith version of Berlin’s song over and over again during the trip. Guthrie sat down and wrote a song in anger, but his revisions over time turned it into one of the most shared and beloved songs in our nation’s history. Here’s the unvarnished recording from Woody, with the bonus of a picture of him playing his famous “This machine kills fascists” guitar. (Note: The song ends about the 2:40 mark in the video)
As with most folk songs, This Land is Your Land has a complicated and convoluted history. Verses were added along the way that fit with Woody’s belief that the vast income inequalities in America repressed the working class and kept the country from reaching its promise. And those verses were changed, sometimes by Woody, sometimes by other singers, over the course of the decades.
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me”
Most of these verses (such as the one about private property) are omitted in the versions sung at school functions and other community gatherings, but singers such as Pete Seeger and Woody’s son Arlo have retained at least some of those verses to ensure the song’s true meaning is understood. Here’s Arlo singing the song with an all-star supporting cast at the 1987 Farm Aid concert.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings have a wonderfully up-tempo soul version that goes all the way with the inclusion of the verses usually left out. Jones commands the stage, and I could listen to this celebration of America over and over again.
To my mind, one of the most moving versions — with an emotion that cuts to the heart of what Woody was saying — is the one by Bruce Springsteen, which he began adding to his live shows in 1980. In this deeply felt and chilling version from a 1985 concert at LA’s Memorial Coliseum, Springsteen notes in his intro that, “What’s so great about (the song) is that it gets right to the heart of the promise of what our country was suppose to be about.” He adds that he sings it with the reminder that “with countries, just like with people, it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away.”
“As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.”
“One Sunday morning, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen the people.
And they were hungry, and they were wondering,
If this land was made for you and me?”
“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.”
In this year of turmoil and challenge, let’s go back to that promise of what America is all about, and work to make it a land for everyone.
Some carry a soul-stirring strength that extends across time and space. They may be so powerful that they aid in protecting the setting, preserving the very places where the story originates. While watching a repeat of the Ken Burns film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea on my local PBS station, I am reminded of how many of our parks include mountains, lakes, and meadows that are part of the origin story for Native Americans. Places that have deep meaning for the soul. Sacred places.
Other origin stories evolve, as the nation, group, or individual comes to a fuller understanding of who and what they are. As is appropriate for a nation built on the shared work of the imagination, the complex American origin story continues to unfold, especially during this era of turmoil and change.
“All of us tell stories about ourselves,” write Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback in the Harvard Business Review. “Stories define us. To know someone well is to know her story — the experiences that have shaped her, the trials and turning points that have tested her.”
Individuals use origin stories to define the people and places that have shaped them from the beginning. Part of mine involves tomorrow’s date, June 30th, when we would celebrate my parents 70th wedding anniversary, were they still alive. And it involves a place near to me that I last visited a little over ten years ago.
Having just arrived after a morning flight in the fall of 2009, I found myself in the lobby of Nashville’s Union Station Hotel waiting for a room and for my meetings to begin. That left me with time to think. And remember.
Union Station is a Nashville landmark. As one approaches on Broadway, it looms alone on the landscape, like Mount Monadnock or a butte in Monument Valley. It is a beautiful old pile of a building in what is known as the Romanesque Revival style, with heavy cut stone, rounded arched windows, and high towers and turrets. With its Italian marble floors, decorative wrought iron, crystal chandeliers, oak-accented doors, three outsized limestone fireplaces, and a 65-foot, barrel-vaulted, stained glass ceiling, the lobby is designed to showcase the power and opulence of the railroads at the turn-of-the-twentieth century.
After settling in to one of those large, overstuffed chairs that are ubiquitous in university and city clubs throughout the country, I took it all in. The building’s history as a key Louisville & Nashville Railroad station is worth remembering. Its architectural and decorative features add to what makes it important. Yet all of that wasn’t enough. By the early 1980s, the building was threatened with demolition. Abandoned and deteriorating, Union Station was just another eyesore from a bygone era.
Places with imposing presence, with designs built for the ages, places that once served noble purposes, are — from my perspective — worth the effort to find a new use in today’s world. But for some, especially among those who control the money and political power, what is seen as the push for progress is worth the loss of the buildings and landscapes that provide continuity with the past. No, Union Station wasn’t going to be saved because of its railroad history and grand architecture alone. It became a landmark in so many minds — providing the motivation behind the effort to save it from the wrecking ball, even in the midst of decay and deterioration — because of the building’s innumerable, varied, and deeply personal connections to people in Middle Tennessee.
Emotions, stories, and memories flow through Union Station like so many trains. Emotions, stories, and memories like mine, for instance, that help tell how I grew to care about the importance of history and place in modern life.
Union Station was incredibly busy in the years before the advent of the automobile, taking men, women, and children to places near and far, creating memories on a daily basis. Many were traveling for pleasure. But others — like African Americans riding in segregated cars during the Great Migration of the 20th century — were looking for a better life or, at least, a different life from the stifling restrictions of the Jim Crow South.
My father had an early encounter with Union Station when he joined the Navy during World War II. The station was never as busy as it was in those years, shipping young men and women like Tom Brown to bases and ultimately battlefields all across the globe. Before the train shed was lost to fire and lack of imagination in 2000, my father and I walked the platforms and studied this engineering marvel as my insatiable interest in history began to morph into a career path in historic preservation.
My parents were part of the post-World War II marriage boom that begat the well-documented baby boom. Both were from the small town of Franklin, a rural farming and commercial center south of Nashville that grew in the early 20th century thanks to the connections made possible by the Interurban Railway, where Granddaddy Brown served a stint as a conductor. My father had just graduated with his engineering degree from Vanderbilt and was enrolled in a training program that led to his life-long career with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Mom, then a couple of years beyond her high school graduation, married my father on June 30, 1950, in downtown Franklin’s First Baptist Church just blocks away from their family homes. Before moving first to Columbia and soon thereafter to Cookeville for my father’s first major position with TVA, Tom and Helen Brown had a honeymoon to take.
Luckily for them, Mary Dixie, my father’s sister who was named after her mother, lived in Chicago. That meant that my parents came to Union Station — like so many honeymooners, soldiers, professionals, laborers, and families before them — and boarded a train bound for the Windy City. There’s a signboard behind the hotel check-in desk today that is from this era. I look up and see the same schedule that my parents saw as excited newlyweds, ready to begin their life’s journey together. The same schedule with those evocative Southern train names: The Azalean, The Humming Bird, Pan-American, The Georgian, Dixie Flyer.
I’ve heard stories my entire life about the theatre shows they saw in the city, the food they ate at the ethnic restaurants that was so foreign to their Southern palates, and their visit to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox. My baseball genes apparently come naturally. Uncle Howard and Aunt Mary Dixie’s next-door neighbors, the Standards, took Mom and Daddy to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the St. Louis Browns. Daddy recalled that it was windy and cold, and that Mrs. Standard made newspaper capes to break the wind. The St. Louis players included a few with immortal baseball nicknames from an earlier era. Names like Ribs, Snuffy, Cuddles, and Stubby. What they didn’t see were many of the best players in the game. For while St. Louis had been the third team to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947 with the signing of Hank Thompson and the first team ever to play two black ballplayers in the same game in that same year, the White Sox were not integrated until 1951, when the famous Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso joined the ballclub. The vast majority of teams still had only one or, at the most, two black ballplayers throughout the early 1950s. Many of the game’s finest players were still relegated to the Negro Leagues.
The facts from the trip have been filled in through the years, but the memories always originate with that train ride from Union Station. It is what makes it such a vivid part of my origin story.
Old places matter because their materials and appearances connect with human souls through emotions and memories. For some, those places may be mountains or streams. For others, buildings, neighborhoods, and streetscapes are involved.
The story of the saving of Union Station, like similar accounts of preservation successes in communities big and small, has thousands upon thousands of personal stories intertwined with the brick, stone, marble, and mortar. Stories hold these places up, literally and figuratively, embedding the connections from the past into our lives today and in the future.
Everyone has an origin story and many revolve around places. On that October day in 2009, I just happened to be sitting in the lobby of the place that launched my personal history. Because of the power of stories, this place remains today as a touchstone for innumerable individuals and families.
Emotions and stories flow through places, like the train leaving Union Station with two newlyweds bound for Chicago and a life unimagined ahead.
Composer, fingerstyle guitarist, and harp guitarist extraordinarie Muriel Anderson celebrated a major birthday earlier this month with a live birthday party / concert…and it was a blast! Along with hundreds of other fans listening to the event, I heard wonderful music, had a tour of Muriel and partner Bryan Allen’s Long Island summer home, and watched the guest of honor open presents.
Muriel is one of my guitar heroes, and I’ve written about her work several times in the past. Like here. And here, when I tell the world that I’m in love. And here, when I tell the story of sitting in the baggage claim area at BWI airport so I could here her play a brief concert.
And one of my posts with the most views — Be Present When Serendipity Strikes — was about finally waking up on a flight home from Nashville one summer evening, only to realize that I was sitting next to Muriel and Bryan. From that point on, it was a magical flight.
I had hopes of hearing Muriel play live at a house concert this summer, but her tour — like those of all musicians — was cancelled. However, she has been on Facebook Live each Monday with a short concert (because, she said, Chet Atkins and Les Paul used to play on Monday evenings). And that Wednesday evening birthday concert was an extra special treat which is still available for viewing.
Her website bio reminds us that Muriel is the first woman to have won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship. Her CD, Nightlight Daylight — with its wonderful cover artwork by Bryan — was chosen as one of the top 10 CDs of the decade by Guitar Player Magazine, and her “Heartstrings” recording accompanied the astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery. She has performed/recorded with Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Victor Wooten, Tommy Emmanuel and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.
So let’s listen to some music! Muriel played her beautiful composition Two Shores during her birthday concert, noting the appropriateness given their location on Long Island.
A live version of George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun from the Eclipse CD is certainly worth a listen. And let me encourage you to dive into the song Dandelions, which Muriel wrote for the Nightlight Daylight CD. Last month she posted this video which gives some of the context behind the tune. It is a beautiful story, based on her childhood, that reminds us not to worry about the whole world, but instead encourages each of us to do something good for one person today. That is a timely lesson in our year of pandemic and political chaos.
And we’ll end with another tune played for the birthday concert, the Greek-flavored 13/8 time tune A Baker’s Dozen played on harp guitar and sure to get your blood moving! Bravo!
Happy birthday, Muriel! May you enjoy many more in the years to come.
More to come…
P.S. – Aw shucks, I couldn’t pass it up, because I love this version so much…so I’ll really end with Muriel explaining the thought process behind how she put the arrangement together while she plays her wonderful version of the Beatles song Day Tripper.
It doesn’t get any better than the Muppets – with help from the Beatles (the song) and Joe Cocker (the arrangement) and Reggie Watts (the singer) and the Late Late Show Band (the music) and James Corden (the show). At this time we live in, we all definitely need a little help from our friends.
It was an era when those protesting for civil rights had moved from nonviolent techniques to more confrontational stances, and the nightly news carried stories and photos of clashes in cities across the country between the police and protesters. The tribal nature of our communities was coming into focus for everyone to see. While we lived on Main Street, our neighborhood was mixed both economically and racially. And here I was, playing pickup basketball on a local court, when a player on the opposing team asked me that question.
He wanted me to acknowledge that I was the only person scuffling around on the asphalt, shooting at hoops with torn nets and battered backboards, who was not African American. The question insinuated that I should feel out of place and uncomfortable and was followed by another: Don’t you feel scared?
Playing on the local courts as a young teenager with whatever group of neighborhood kids came along was just what I did. “No,” I replied. I knew most of these guys, and several were in my classes. Yet somehow the question arose and I was pushed to confront it. While I thought, my opponent blew by me for an easy layup, and my education in both privilege and sports continued.
I’ve thought about that conversation many times since the late 1960s. It came to mind briefly in 2008 when Business Week magazine included my hometown, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as one of the best places in the country to raise children. My initial response to the Business Week article was that if they’d just asked me, I could have told them about Murfreesboro’s attributes a long time ago. But that 2008 response has become more nuanced with reflection and time. And that basketball court conversation has come up again during the current protests, including in Murfreesboro, over racial injustice and the symbols of privilege and white supremacy,
I had a pretty idyllic childhood, and Murfreesboro’s history — which was very real and very present to me as a child — is one reason. It was also a history that challenged me as I grew older, and continues to challenge me today.
I’m challenged by the fact that I could walk four blocks to the town square and visit the 1850s courthouse, which had a plaque affixed to the wall that served as a reminder of the notorious Nathan Bedford Forrest and his 1862 raid on the city, and not give a great deal of thought to what that history meant to my basketball teammates and their families. Yes, Forrest’s brutal military tactics, including war crimes at Fort Pillow, made him an unusually harsh model of the great but flawed Southern leaders who were part of the air I breathed. I preferred to read Douglas Southall Freeman‘s biography of the noble Robert E. Lee and listen to my grandmother and her friends in the United Daughters of the Confederacy talk about the Lost Cause. But Lee and Forrest were all part of the same rebellion working toward the same goals. It wasn’t until I was into my high school years that I began to face facts and shake free of that hagiography.
I’m also challenged by the Johnny Reb statue, erected in 1901 next to the courthouse in the first wave of Southern restoration and Jim Crow resistance and known – with no sense of irony – as the “Guardians of Peace” memorial. It was almost invisible to me as a child, such was my privilege and superficial understanding of the messages being sent by this sentinel, gazing to the north, ready to battle our nation’s government and repel the next invasion.
And notwithstanding the light anti-war sentiments in the statue’s official history, if you don’t think those who erected the monument were prepared to fight another invasion as they did in The War of Northern Aggression — the preferred name for the Civil War in many a white Southerner’s heart during my childhood — then you’ve missed the nearby tablet teaching readers about “The Square During Occupation“: a tablet that refers to the American military as an occupying force in Murfreesboro, which was bravely defended by the Confederates.
So how do we deal with the challenge of the proposed removal of Confederate memorials and iconography, especially those that were not erected to honor the dead but that exist to glorify and reinforce white supremacy, put in place a full generation or more after the end of the war?
I have some sympathy with those who worry about the “erasure of history” with the removal of monuments. Some sympathy, but not much in this case.
The history portrayed by those monuments of the Southern restoration period told a false story. As a result, the erased history isn’t what is happening today with the removal of the monuments; instead, the erased history is what happened more than 150 years ago, beginning shortly after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The whole Lost Cause narrative was to change the story from the South’s defense of slavery — of owning other human beings and treating them as property — to one that puts forward the Southern cause as noble, in defense of states rights, and with leadership that stood as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry. Those noble southerners, so the changed and false story goes, were defeated by the Union armies through numerical and industrial force that overwhelmed the South’s superior military skill and courage. Defenders of keeping the Confederate monuments today often add that they are about “heritage, not hate.”
But that easy slogan is just not true. The groups that erected the monuments and the Southern historians who wrote during this period simply erased the history of slavery from the record books. They erased the story of hate. If you look at the words of those who led the secession movement, it is clear that it was all about slavery. Don’t trust me, read what they said:
Mississippi, not to be outdone, said in their declaration that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.
And, of course, the Constitution of the Confederacy — which was ratified by Tennessee and the other 10 CSA states — explicitly stated that “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, made one of the most explicit ties between slavery and secession when he told a Savannah, Georgia, crowd in 1861 in what’s now known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” that,
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [as those of slavery foes]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
He went further: the battle over slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis didn’t really appreciate Stephens saying the unspoken reasons out loud, but there it is.
The serious scholarship and records show that the Confederacy was formed to protect slavery, and the leaders knew they were committing treason against the United States. And if the statues that were erected after the Southern restoration of the late 19th century were about something other than white supremacy, then why are there three times as many Confederate monuments as Union monuments in Maryland, which was a Union state and sent three times as many men to fight for the Union as for the Confederacy? Why was there — until recently — a Confederate memorial in Montana, which did not even become a state until 1889 some 24 years after the Civil War ended? These monuments were part of a systematic movement to change the national narrative, erase history, and make the case for white supremacy.
And I’m fascinated by the strange monument career of James Longstreet.
Delaware historian Kevin Brown asks, “Why isn’t Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet chiseled into Stone Mountain, Georgia rather than two Virginians and a Mississippian?”
“Longstreet won the greatest Confederate victory in the west in Georgia at Chickamauga. Longstreet was a Confederate hero, Robert E. Lee’s second-in-command, and actually a Georgian for most of his life. Why does he have so few statues (Longstreet has two statues, one at the site of his home in Gainesville, Georgia and one at the Gettysburg battlefield) when Lee, Jackson, Forrest, etc. have dozens?”
Well, the answer is obvious if you know the story. Longstreet — who was a friend of U.S. Grant and actually attended his wedding — supported civil rights for Blacks after the war and led mixed race forces against the white supremacists at the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans in 1874. Longstreet sought to heal the wounds of the Civil War through his actions, Professor Brown notes; something that Lee is often given undue credit for, but that Longstreet actually did.
I think about all this as I reflect on my childhood in Murfreesboro and how I came to face that question when I was suddenly in the minority, and staring — if only for a brief minute — at the situation that was reality for those who weren’t so lucky to be born white, Southern Baptist, and straight in the 1960s South. They were often scared and afraid, for good reason.
As I’ve think about my hometown, I see Johnny Reb on the courthouse square and know that my friends and teammates on the playground understood the message his presence was sending, even if I remained clueless for much too long. And I listen today to those who did understand that message and lived with the consequences.
Scales Funeral Home was three-to-four blocks from our house on Main Street. I went to high school with the children of the owner, Robert “Tee-Niny” Scales, who was also the first African American to be elected to City Council in Murfreesboro. Councilman Scales went on to serve as Vice Mayor, his wife Mary was the first African American faculty member at Middle Tennessee State University, and his daughter Madelyn now fills the Vice Mayor’s seat.
There’s always been a harshness that I just didn’t see.
I wonder how much thought the editors of Business Week gave to what it feels like to raise a child in a community where the seat of government is still guarded by a symbol of the soldiers who fought to keep one class of citizens enslaved. Did they think about how, a century later, white men still felt it was okay to spit on black children? Did they consider the ingrained racial injustices in our communities, systemic injustices that we are now facing following the death of George Floyd and so many others? I look at controversies over Confederate statues and consider how I would respond if I was in the minority, beyond for just an hour or so on a blacktop basketball court.
I’ll admit that it took me too long to come to this conclusion, but like other preservationists, I “support the removal of Confederate monuments from our public spaces when they continue to serve the purposes for which many were built — to glorify, promote, and reinforce white supremacy, overtly or implicitly.”
We more than owe that to our fellow citizens who have walked in the suffocating shadow of Johnny Reb for far too long.
In thinking about a good place to raise a child, Business Week may have gotten it right…but maybe only for part of us. Children need to live in places that foster a sense of community and fairness. Places that foster and support a sense of real conversation. Places where everyone has a chance to earn a living with a fair wage. Places where all are valued and everyone’s story is worthy and worth telling. Places where Black Lives Matter as much as other lives. Places for everybody.
What if you held a comeback rally and nobody came? Or, to be more specific, what if you selected a venue that holds 19,200 people for that rally to “kick off” your campaign, and slightly less than 6,200 people — or just under one-third capacity — show up?
A political satirist I enjoy recently said, “You’re like a Wizard of Oz trifecta. If you only had a brain…and a heart…and courage.”
Guess who she was talking about. And yes, it is the same person who held that anemic comeback rally.
There are so many actions from the president and his enablers where one can turn for illustrations to fit that Wizard of Oz description. The botched coronavirus response now resulting in the deaths of more than 120,000 Americans; the unconstitutional reaching out to foreign governments for help in meddling with our elections; the economic recession; and the tone-deaf response to racial injustice and the murder of black men, women, and children at the hands of police officers around the country are just the most recent. To pile on, it has been a busy two weeks with tell-all books and Supreme Court decisions that were made — in part — because of the incompetence of the administration. I don’t have time to go into the president’s call for credit for making Juneteenth “famous.” Which was accomplished, you’ll remember, by the president scheduling the comeback rally to excite his overwhelmingly-white base of supporters at the site of a race massacre on the same date. And don’t get me started on Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts threatening to withhold coronavirus relief funding from any local governments in his state that mandate masks inside government buildings. That’s an American state punishing their own citizens for fighting a pandemic. Punishing them for protecting their own health.
The list is endless and mind-boggling and the news moves too fast to stay current. But let’s narrow it down and see what a few pundits and observers are saying about each piece of that trifecta, beginning with the brain.
“Bolton joins an unprecedented group of former top-level advisors who have turned on their former boss. The list includes John F. Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff; James N. Mattis, his former Defense secretary; Dan Coats, his former director of national intelligence; and Rex Tillerson, his former secretary of State. Like Bolton, they were quickly labeled losers, liars or worse by the man who once lavishly praised their qualifications and counted them among ‘the very best people.’ The record of retrospective insult raises an obvious question: If they were such incompetent dolts, why did Trump hire them in the first place?”
Noah Bierman, Eli Stokols, Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2020
“This past Saturday, former President George W. Bush released a brief video whose subtweeted message was unmistakable. It recognized the suffering of those who had lost family members, or economic prospects, or hope itself; it emphasized the all of us rather than the us and them response to national crisis; and it appealed to the generous rather than the resentful in human nature. In short, it was the kind of message that leaders of any nation have been expected to transmit, as part of their duty, in time of national hardship. And it highlighted by contrast the signals of “empathy and simple kindness” that Donald Trump himself had never managed to convey or even feign.”
James Fallows, The Atlantic, May 4, 2020
And finally, do we have to go anywhere other than the Senate Republicans to find a lack of courage?
“Anyone outside the Trump cult will be unsurprised by Bolton’s allegations. We knew Trump was willing to sell out to any foreign country. He invited foreign interference from the White House driveway. The ones who really will suffer, deservedly so, from Bolton’s account are the Republican senators who refused to hear his testimony and then voted to acquit (for lack of evidence, some said). Bolton’s book confirms how much harder it would have been for them to let Trump off the hook had a longtime conservative known for copious note-taking been called to testify.”
Bolton’s testimony would have highlighted how deep in the tank Republicans were for Trump and how uninterested they were in defending the Constitution….They must have hoped — and likely still do — that by now no one will care, that the passage of time will have dimmed our memories of their political cowardice….I come back time and again to House impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif. ), who brilliantly summed up the stakes in his closing remarks to the Senate:
‘We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again. He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.'”
Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post, June 18, 2020
The perfect Wizard of Oz trifecta says it all. If they only had a brain…and a heart…and courage.
Vote like your life depends on it. Because it does.
More to come…
* Linda Greenhouse at The New York Times wrote a long article about Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent in the recent Supreme Court case protecting LGBTQ people against workplace discrimination. It is another example of an enabler’s lack of heart, and I recommend her perspective.
With words by James Weldon Johnson and music by his brother John, Lift Every Voice and Sing was written at the turn of the 20th century, a time when Jim Crow laws were beginning to take hold across the South and Blacks were looking for an identity. In a way that was both gloriously uplifting and starkly realistic, it spoke to the history of the dark journey of African Americans. “It allows us to acknowledge all of the brutalities and inhumanities and dispossession that came with enslavement, that came with Jim Crow, that comes still today with disenfranchisement, police brutality, dispossession of education and resources,” Shana Redmond — author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora — says. “It continues to announce that we see this brighter future, that we believe that something will change.”
Lift ev’ry voice and sing
‘Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on ’til victory is won
I came to Lift Every Voice and Sing later in life. But when I did I had the privilege of learning the song and its history directly from one of the foremost scholars in African American gospel music, the late Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, at a 1992 music conference in North Carolina. Dr. Boyer was the general editor of 1993’s Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal for the Episcopal Church. I was fortunate to be a part of a group that he led in his week-long workshop on African American gospel music. It was life-changing.
The version I learned is the one from the hymnal that you hear in churches and concerts, such as seen here from late November 2016 — an especially auspicious time — at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast
There are many popular arrangements of the song and I’ll only highlight a few. An all-star version from 1990 with Melba Moore features Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, The Clark Sisters, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Bobby Brown, Howard Hewett, Take 6, Stephanie Mills, BeBe & CeCe Winans and Jeffrey Osborne.
Beyoncé famously sang the anthem’s first verse in her 2019 Beychella concert.
For an earlier generation, enjoy the great Ray Charles from 1972.
And finally, in a recording uploaded yesterday in the midst of the pandemic and with the heightened focus on racial injustice and the celebration of Juneteenth, Nicole Heaston gathered 65 Black opera singers accompanied by Kevin J. Miller and conducted by Damien Sneed to sing Roland Carter’s arrangement of the Black National Anthem. As Ms Heaston says, “This song expresses the strength and resilience of the Black spirit during this time of turmoil and reflection.” It is one of the most moving versions I’ve ever heard.
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land
I’d vote tomorrow to have The Star Spangled Banner replaced as our anthem by This Land Is Your Land along with Lift Every Voice and Sing. Until that glorious day arrives, listen or sing along and remember that Black Lives Matter.
I recently dove into two books on aging. It wasn’t because I felt old, aged, infirmed, or any of those descriptors we often use when talking about the elderly. However, I can read a calendar, and I recognize that I can’t claim to be middle age when no one lives to be 130 years old.*
My study began just as the global pandemic struck, with the coronavirus focusing so much of its potency on the vulnerable and those 60 years of age and older. I finished the second book as the nation roiled from both the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression and the injustice that was highlighted in the grotesque and brutal deaths of black men, women, and children at the hands of the police. Whether I liked it or not, I was forced to think about aging in a time of turmoil.
Talk about your inauspicious timing.
In light of current events, I quipped to some friends that these book choices could be interpreted as:
a sign of naiveté,
a sign of optimism, and/or
a sign of resistance to those suggesting that the elderly should be willing to die to boost the stock market.
Whatever your interpretation, I made it through both books with my optimism intact and, frankly, without having given serious thought to silly notions spoken by politicians who, as one satirist noted, have hit the Wizard of Oz trifecta — if they only had a heart, and a brain, and courage.
Let’s be clear: no one signed up for this tumult. Among the incalculable impacts of these times people are going without sufficient food, graduations have been upended, job searches have been dropped, careers have been stalled, babies have been born only to be isolated from their grandparents, relationships have flourished, and relationships have floundered. Most grievously, many have died and more have lost friends and loved ones. Needlessly. We are all trying to navigate the phase of life where we find ourselves at the moment.
These times of turmoil can give us the chance to “change the status quo” about how we see the roles older people play in daily life, even as we consider ways to support new generations and new perspectives. Encouraging younger generations is part of my core beliefs. From climate change to social injustice, from historical scholarship to politics — in just about any field one cares to consider, much of the forward-looking energy and leadership comes from the young and from those who have too long been marginalized when it comes to power. But that doesn’t give those of us who have decided to step down from full-time careers the license to slink away and decline as circumstances change.
It has been my experience that the elders in our lives can be critical to guiding us through both calm and tumult. “Elders are so comforting and healing,” author Krista Tippet notes, but “not everybody becomes an elder; some people just get old.”
A major piece of the research about the changing nature of aging is understanding neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change itself. Some form of neuroplasticity is with us throughout our life spans, so Levitin makes the case that older adults’ brains “are plastic, capable of great feats of rewiring and adaptation.” He uses the science to show that neuroplasticity does not seem to slow down “nearly as much for older adults who have been making demands on their brains to think differently and rewire for many years.” In a recent PBS interview, Levitin noted, “You can change yourself at any age. That’s the good news. You can look at your life when you’re 75 and say I’m going to do something different and do it.“
Levitin’s work assures us we don’t have to wait to learn how to heal and grow up. All of us can begin right where we are.
The other book in my rite of passage reading was 2002’s Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Lifeby George E. Vaillant, M.D., based on the oldest, most thorough study of aging ever undertaken. Dr. Vaillant’s description of the key findings to emerge from the study include several thoughts that relate to the idea of successful aging in a time of turmoil “It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us,” he notes, “it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.” “Healing relationships” — as in Menakem’s admonition to heal and grow up — “are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, for forgiveness, and for taking people inside.”
What did I learn from those who have successfully navigated the next third? To find the power and potential of our lives, we should:
Maintain a future orientation that provides the ability to anticipate, plan, and hope. Learn something new every day.
Stay engaged with meaningful work.
Exercise, but don’t worry about getting a gym membership.
Spend time with younger people.
Build the capacity for gratitude and forgiveness and focus your perspective around empathy for how others see the world.
Get enough sleep.
Do things with people, as opposed to doing things to people.
Oh, and as Levitin reminds us at the end of his book, don’t forget to laugh. “Whatever’s going on around you, remember to laugh.”
That list, I would suggest, is not a bad prescription for successful aging in the midst of turmoil.
*I subscribe to the division of a life into thirds, roughly divisible by 30 years. Both my grandmothers lived to be close to 90 or beyond, and my father was just a month or two short of 91 when he passed away. I realize nothing is given, but I’m trying to be intentional about my possibilities.
Sturgill Simpson is the hard-to-classify, but always intriguing singer and songwriter who sounds like Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard (take your choice, as both were great singers); writes about topics not often heard on contemporary country radio; has outspoken progressive politics sure to rub many country music fans the wrong way; and who has a gift for surprise…as you’ll find at the end of this post. (Bluegrass fans who can’t wait should just jump there first!)
A native of Kentucky, the son of a secretary and a Kentucky State Trooper, Simpson is the first male on his mother’s side of the family to not work in a strip mine or deep mine. Nonetheless, that blue collar, hard working sensibility comes through with every song he writes and every note he sings. He is a Navy veteran who speaks up in his songs and in interviews about the dangers of the military industrial complex. In a famous Facebook Live post outside the 2017 Country Music Association awards show, Simpson said,
“Nobody needs a machine gun. Coming from a guy who owns quite a few guns. Gay people should have the right to be happy and live their life any way they want to, and get married if they want to, without fearing getting drug down the road on a pickup truck. Black people are probably tired of getting shot in the streets, and getting enslaved by the industrial prison complex, and hegemony and racism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you very much.”
Simpson started making a name for himself with his 2014 debut album High Top Mountain which featured from-the-heart country songs — most written by Simpson — such as Railroad of Sin (as in, “On that railroad of sin I was a high balling train”). Here’s a great version with his “big band” at 2016’s Farm Aid:
He took his work to the next level with 2016″s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, which won Best Country Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. It ended with the powerful Call to Arms, with its lyrics sure to inflame the Love-It-Or-Leave-It crowd.
I done Syria, Afganistan, Iraq and Iran
North Korea tell me where does it end
Well the bodies keep piling up with every day
How many more of em they gonna send
Well they send their sons and daughters off to die for some war
To control the heroin
Well son I hope you don’t grow up
Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man
Simpson tore down the house with his raucous version of Call to Arms on Saturday Night Live in 2017
Another shift in style came with 2019’s Sound & Fury, which was, by Simpson’s own description, a “sleazy, steamy, rock ‘n’ roll record.” He was out touring for this album (which was to include a performance at the Anthem in Washington on May 17-18) before the entire tour was cancelled and Simpson came down with COVID-19.
Which brings us to June 2020, where one can find a video of a live-streamed one-hour Simpson concert held on Friday, June 5th, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — the mother church of country music — with an all-star bluegrass band.
And I’m here to say it is wonderful!
Simpson recruited some of the best stars and session players of bluegrass in Nashville and has been recording an album with them over the past couple of weeks. As a “reward” for his fans hitting a $200,000 fundraising goal he’d set for three charities, they then performed a live concert, to a completely empty Ryman. But Simpson live-streamed the show and you can find the video on YouTube. Most of the songs are from Simpson’s back catalog, played — as he says — in the bluegrass style for which they were originally written. So we get Living the Dream (8:18 mark), Life of Sin (14:17), Long White Line (21:17), Sitting Here Without You (28:17), Railroad of Sin (50:00) plus more, including two great Stanley Brothers songs — Pretty Polly (45:38) and Sharecropper’s Son (54:16).
And the band is made up of some monster players. The incredibly talented Sierra Hull plays some silky smooth mandolin licks and handles a number of the backup vocals. Her bandmates are banjo player Scott Vestal (longtime member of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Sam Bush Band, and more); former bass player for the Del McCoury Band Mike Bub; guitarist Mark Howard; long-time Simpson drummer Miles Miller; and top session (and Nashville Bluegrass Band) fiddler Stuart Duncan. They rip through these tunes like the professionals they are, with smooth changes, adventuresome solos, and tasteful backup to Simpson’s unique vocals.
I loved the entire concert, so I encourage you to pull up a chair, crack open a cold one, and listen to some great bluegrass players perform a terrific set of songs that only Sturgill Simpson could have written. I’ll be “sitting here without you / And with you on my mind.”*
This past week the nation reached an important inflection point in our 400-year-old history with race and racism. The horrific murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while he was lying face down handcuffed on the street, touched off nationwide protests and confrontations with the police and the Trump administration. The photo showing Chauvin on Floyd’s neck while casually looking away, hand in his pocket, hit like a punch in the country’s collective gut.
Pictures can both reflect and change history. The iconic May 1963 photographs of Bull Connor’s police dogs and officers with fire hosesattacking peaceful protesters in Birmingham depicted savage assaults that, in civil rights historian Taylor Branch’s words, “struck like lightning in the American mind.” The 1968 photos of sanitation workers, with their “I Am A Man” signs, remind us of why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis on that fateful April day. While I have no idea if it will have the same impact, the video footage and photo of a white police officer’s almost nonchalant pose while snuffing out George Floyd’s life following a complaint about a $20 counterfeit bill shows the casual nature of racism and injustice in a way that is impossible to ignore.
For those who choose not to ignore it, how we respond now and in the future will determine if change takes place.
A number of very smart commentators and activists, people of color who have worked to combat injustice their entire lives, have made various recommendations for those of us of privilege. First, while we should stand up in the moment for an end to racism, white people like me need to listen, listen, and then listen some more. Second, we need to educate ourselves about the systemic nature of racism, the ties to implicit bias, and how we can train ourselves to be anti-racist. But listening and learning, without action, will not change history. And as the first African American presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, counsels, our actions should come as we walk a path of love.
“I have been wild about (Robin) DiAngelo’s book since I read it last year because the associate professor of education at the University of Washington at Seattle is a white woman writing unflinchingly to white people about race. DiAngelo forces white people to see and understand how white supremacy permeates their lives and to recognize how they perpetuate it. More importantly, she shows them what they can do to change themselves and dismantle this pernicious system.”
For a short introduction, take a look at this four-minute video with DiAngelo talking about the paradigm shift necessary to combat racism.
Understanding how the concept of race was developed can be beneficial in understanding the context of this moment. This podcast may be helpful. Here are other works that may also be illuminating.
Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s powerful book Biased (2019) looks at the hidden prejudice that affects us all. Her reports on trainings she has held through the years for various police departments are especially illuminating in this moment.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness(2010) by Michelle Alexander is an important and disturbing book about police brutality and mass incarceration that contends that “what has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it.”
Michael Eric Dyson, in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (2019), argues that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains “so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” because he “spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”
When Ta-Nehisi Coates sees hope in this current moment, as he stated on Friday in an interview with Ezra Klein, then perhaps we really are at an inflection point. And when the District’s Black Lives Matter mural can be seen from space, the social injustice that is all around us on the ground becomes harder and harder to ignore.
More to come…
“I Am A Man” image of Memphis Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)