Blues

'Strange Fruit' to 'Hey Jude': Music Protests Large and Small

the-beatles-john-gerdy-min.jpg

For my money, WBGO, which airs out of Newark, NJ, is the world’s finest jazz station. Founded in 1979, WBGO is “a publicly supported cultural institution that preserves and elevates America’s music: jazz and blues.”

Due to the wonders of the internet, you can livestream WBGO anywhere in the world. In this case, I was at the Sun Gate at end of the Inca Trail in Peru. Looking down upon Machu Picchu, at an elevation of over 9,000 feet, a wild thought jumped into my high altitude addled brain. “WBGO? Up here?” So I dialed it up on my iPhone and was soon listening to WBGO deep in the heart of the Andes Mountains. What an amazing world we live in!

As our tour group was getting ready to move on, I heard only a snippet of an in-studio interview with a young jazz musician. I didn’t catch his name, but heard loud and clear him explaining the responsibility of artists to tell the stories of what goes on in society or culture. “As an artist”, he explained, “it’s part of the deal. You have a powerful platform. But you must wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.”

There has been a lot in the news recently about athletes using their platform to advocate for civil rights and social justice. Similarly, artists and musicians have a rich history of doing the same. Their music or art provides them a platform to shed light on social norms, beliefs and attitudes.

Nina Simone articulated it well, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

John Lennon also referenced this responsibility. “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try to express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher. Not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

Or, in the words of Trent Reznor, founding member of Nine Inch Nails, “I have influence, and it’s my job to call out whatever needs to be called out, because there are people who feel the same way but need someone to articulate it.”

It reminded me of the time, long ago, when I participated in a musical act to protest and to comment on the times and express what we, as peers, felt.

The year was 1971.

Granted, our little act of activism wasn’t something that led to the kind of cultural change spurred by the arrival of Elvis, the Beatles or Chuck Berry, but within the halls of Little Falls School #1 it reverberated. It’s been argued that it drove Ms. Haynes, the school’s music teacher, to an early grave.

Rather than music class being a joyous and creative experience, Ms. Haynes wielded music like a club, virtually bludgeoning us into submission, all while primly perched behind her piano. She taught the school chorus “her” way, made us sing “her” songs that “her” chorus had sung forever. Songs like “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” Nothing against either of those songs, but did they have to be on the song list every show, every year?

It all came to a head during rehearsal for the spring concert. After the third run-through of “Waltzing Matilda,” we were restless. The times they were a changin’ and we wanted in on it. We wanted to sing at least one song that was timely and relevant. And to us, that meant The Beatles. And Ms. Haynes represented what needed to change.

I raised my hand. “Do you know Hey Jude by the Beatles?”

“Of course, I know the Beatles,” she snapped, eyes piercing over wire spectacles. No matter how hard she may have tried to deny them, those long-haired lads from Liverpool managed to slip through the side door of Ms. Haynes’s musical domain. “I am, however, unfamiliar with the song.”

“It’s a great vocal song with a cool ending. We’d like to sing it” I replied.

“I don’t think the Beatles would be appropriate for the spring concert,” she responded.

But we were dead set on singing it. At the next practice, we asked again. Again, she refused.
So we walked. Five of us, including Skippy Brask, her prize student. We quit the chorus. Our demonstration caused quite a stir in our small suburban elementary school. A group of eighth graders walking out on Ms. Haynes? Quitting over the Beatles? Maybe it wasn’t Woodstock , punk rock or Chuck Berry, but it was our own little rock ’n’ roll revolution. We drew a line in the sand at “Hey Jude.” We had no clue at the time, but we were using music’s transformational powers to make a statement to spur change.

Yes, I know. It wasn’t Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit”. But it did shake up our little grade school in our little corner of our world for a couple of days.

This comparison is by no means meant to trivialize the power of an artist or a song to shake up the world. To the contrary, it is to illustrate the broad, far reaching power to do so.

There is no better song to sharpen that point than “Strange Fruit”. Written as a protest to the inhumanity of racism, it was penned and arranged by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish man from the Bronx after seeing a picture of a lynching.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This is one of the most powerful and haunting songs ever written. In 1999, Time magazine named it the “Song of the Century”. Clearly, it made an enormous difference in raising awareness and shaping the dialogue around the issue of racism in America.

Sadly, athletes and artists continue to face blowback and criticism for using their platforms to raise the collective consciousness of our populace regarding timely and relevant issues of the day. Far too many continue to believe and say that athletes, artists, entertainers and musicians should, “Shut up and play, paint, or sing”, and not comment on the important social, cultural or political issues that impact their lives in profound ways.

But the fact is, perhaps now, more than ever, we need artists, athletes, entertainers and musicians to continue to “reflect the times.” It’s “part of the deal”. And we will all be better off if they continue to meet one of their most fundamental responsibilities to wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.

Reflections on a Return to Vinyl (Side One)

My daughter handed me a large box.

“Dad, it’s time you returned to vinyl.”

I quickly agreed.

Then I heard the whisper from that dark spot deep in the back of my wounded psyche. I’d heard that whisper before. This wasn’t the first time I’d considered returning to vinyl.

She had been doing vinyl for a few years. My son soon followed suit. Being only 21 and 19 at the time, it was their first foray into the world of record collecting.

There have been unexpected benefits from them doing so. For example, selecting presents has become less stressful, more fun and infinitely more meaningful. When your children begin collecting albums, you want to be certain you help them get off to a good start. You provide the basics – the cornerstones – The Allman Brothers “Live at the Fillmore”, Hendrix “Are You Experienced?”, Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, along with some Stones, Dead, Doors, Carlos Santana and Rickie Lee Jones. Fatherhood is about providing your children with the basics to give them a firm foundation from which they can create their own path forward.

Vinyl records were projected to sell 40 million units in 2017. According to Deloitte, that represents a seventh consecutive year of double digit growth. Clearly my kids were not alone.
I had been lead to believe that the crisp, clarity of digital music reproduction and music streaming services had relegated the vinyl album to the dustbin of recorded music.  Apparently not.

Why the migration of music lovers to vinyl?

Some claim that the faint sizzling sound flowing from the speakers validates vinyl’s authenticity and back to the roots credentials.

Others love the album covers, which are pieces of art with or without the music contained inside: the Andy Warhol “Banana Art” that graces the cover of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and then there is the iconic 1972 Carly Simon “No Secrets” cover, which made a lasting impression on teenagers too numerous to mention.

Others love the liner notes. Dissecting the lyrics can take on the feel of deciphering an ancient Buddhist Sanskrit tome in an attempt to discover the true meaning of Life. An age-old function of music and musicians has always been to tell stories about what’s going on around them in the culture of their time. The poetry of Dylan and Springsteen or the revolutionary calls of Bob Marley will be referenced and interpreted centuries from now by scholars intent on placing ancient events into historical context. And many simply reminisce regarding the practical utility of the two-panel album being the perfect tool to clean pot.

There are no simple answers to what’s driving an increasing number of music lovers, young and old, to discovering or returning to vinyl. Perhaps it’s a reaction to a world that seems less personal, more disconnected and increasingly artificial. Maybe it’s a quiet call for a return to more authentic, ritualistic experiences. Or, in an age of automation, Artificial Intelligence and technological advancement, it could be a siren call for a simpler time. When people feel disconnected, real, authentic experiences assume more meaning and can be nourishing for a shaken soul.

In such a world there is value in the act of holding an album and fully experiencing not only the sound but the texture, weight and feel of it. And there is a greater connection to the music in the physical act of having to change an album or to flip it over to experience Side Two. Or, in the case of Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day”, to flip  from the “Day” side to the “Night” side. This, as opposed to punching a button to listen to a play list determined by a Pandora algorithm.
Regardless, my daughter’s gift forced me to confront the musical demons residing in that dark spot in my psyche for what I did was shameful.

Fifteen years ago, I gave away my 600 plus record collection.

I have no excuses. I was told that in the digital age, the album had become obsolete. And I believed it. But I take full responsibility. Most disappointing was that I had been unfaithful. I didn’t trust the time tested beauty and authenticity of the vinyl album. With every new story of another music lover raving about their return to vinyl, I’d experience another moment of well-deserved depression.

As children often do, my daughter taught me a lesson and did me a favor. She recognized that it was time for me to embrace albums again and intervened accordingly. And as is often the case, out of the rubble of pain and shame, comes a chance at rebirth.

It’s often said that you have to hit rock bottom before taking your first step on the path to salvation. Fortunately, I had, without realizing it at the time, laid the groundwork for my personal musical redemption.

I didn’t give all of them away.

There were several that I simply couldn’t bear to part with, regardless of whether they would ever spin on a turntable again. Out of the ashes, there were remnants upon which to rebuild.

Among the handful of survivors was Tom Wait’s “Nighthawks at the Diner”, Woodstock, the collection of Robert Johnson’s original songs, recorded in hotel rooms in Dallas in 1936 and San Antonio in 1937, Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam”, Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and the Kansas City Blues Shouter, Big Joe Turner’s “Greatest Hits”, with a cover photo that perfectly depicts just how big Big Joe Turner was.

I’d also kept a personally inscribed copy of Koko Taylor’s “From the Heart of a Woman”. “To Gerd: With Love, Koko Taylor”. Give away a love note from the Queen of the Blues? I may have been foolish in giving away over 600 albums, but I wasn’t delusional.

Experiencing the depths of despair can also open your eyes to new opportunities. I began to look at my Father’s album collection in a new light. In cleaning out my parent’s home after their passing, we came across a couple of boxes of albums. I stored them in a back room and didn’t give them much thought. But when you are back in the record collecting business, boxes of 100 or so slices of vinyl suddenly become of great interest.  Regardless of how old or the fact that some were recorded in “mono” or “DynaGroove”, was an entertaining bonus. According to the liner notes, “DynaGroove is a product of research and development assuring that this record is as modern as the latest advances in engineering and science.” And I imagine that back in the day, it was very comforting for listeners of another disc to know that is was “Electrically Recorded.”

Talk about a gold mine!

Lot’s of Al Hurt to scratch my New Orleans jazz itch, a few choice slices of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass for a Latin fix and some Benny Goodman Big Band recordings. Throw in a few choice tidbits like Jimmy Smith and Count Basie and the result is the making of a small, but solid foundation upon which to rebuild. It made me realize that maybe the “Old Man” was a bit more hip than I had imagined.

The path from my daughter’s gift and instructions to the boxes of my Father’s old records made me appreciate something far more important than the warm sound of vinyl. While my Dad is long gone, he did what Fathers do. He provided me with some basic building blocks – a good foundation upon which I can recreate my own musical path forward.

Despite having to once again experience the pain of the loss of a lifetime album collection, I am thankful to have been provided a wonderful opportunity to do the same for my children.