Six months ago, I began talking painting lessons. It has been fascinating, exhilarating, challenging and more than anything, educational.
One of the fundamental responsibilities of an executive director of a music related non-profit (MusicForEveryone.net) is advocacy regarding the value and impact of music in our schools and communities. As I was a novice in this regard when Music For Everyone was founded in 2006, my learning curve has been steep. And the learning continues to this day.
As a lifelong musician, I certainly experienced and understand the impact of music had on my life. Playing music brings tremendous joy to my life and feds my soul. As Plato wrote, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Music’s value in this regard is very powerful and it rests at the core of the justification of investment in the arts “for arts sake”.
Being that MFE was created to raise money to provide instruments and support to school music programs, it became clear fairly quickly that simply using this “arts for arts sake” as a central narrative to convince people to open their hearts, minds and wallets to MFE’s cause was simply not enough. While musicians “get it”, it is hard to explain to people who don’t. Thus, a wider and more thorough narrative was necessary. That being the case, I immersed myself in the research regarding music’s educational and character development benefits. That was low hanging fruit as there is an enormous amount of evidence of music’s positive impact in these areas. From improved academic skills, test scores and student “engagement” in school to teaching lessons in teamwork, discipline, communication skills and personal responsibility, it’s benefits are very clear. Music is math, music is reading, music is logic, music is language and music requires discipline. And driving all of that is its potential to teach and nurture creativity.
The more I researched and witnessed those impacts through MFE, it became apparent there were other benefits. The most obvious was music’s power and potential to create and build community. Music is the universal language and thus, it’s potential to serve as a bridge of understanding to build community and connections between cultures, races and generations is unparalleled. Music’s power in this regard was made clear to me when MFE created a program that places between 12 and 20 fully designed and painted pianos throughout the streets of Lancaster with 24/7 access for the public for four months in the summer. “Keys for the City”, which will celebrate its tenth year in Summer 2019, has provided a platform for literally tens of thousands of magical musical moments around those pianos where people of all ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs come together to share and experience the community building power of music. Keys is now an important part of the fabric of the Lancaster community and a source of great community pride.
But Keys also opened my eyes to another important benefit and impact of music – economic development. This aspect of music’s benefit as a community investment was not something I had given much, if any, consideration to until we witnessed the community impact of Keys. For the past two decades, Lancaster City has had as a major component of its economic development plan, a commitment to the arts. And the city has been wildly successful in leveraging the arts to build a vibrant, thriving and dynamic economy, making it a “hot” arts community and tourist destination. Keys for the City has contributed to this community-wide success.
But music is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to developing narratives about its positive impact. While I was beginning to feel comfortable and competent in my ability to articulate a broad, cogent narrative regarding the value and impact of music in our schools and communities, I was missing what is fast becoming the next frontier in music’s ability to positively impact our populace and society.
Specifically, it is becoming increasingly clear that the next big frontier in advocating effectively for societal investment in music is in the area of music for healing. There is an increasing amount of research, writing, experimentation and application of music as a broad healing tool. In one sense, music’s potential and power to uplift and inspire as well as to calm and sooth has existed for as long as it has been played. But in another sense, it’s full power as a healing tool seems to finally be beginning to be fully embraced by a wide array of medical and health practitioners. It is being used for everything from managing pain and addiction, to treating dementia, depression, anxiety to improving motor coordination in people suffering from cerebral palsy. And scientists, researchers and medical practitioners are discovering and developing additional ways to utilize music for healing virtually every day.
Following are several quotes relating to music’s power and potential to heal.
“Music might provide an alternative entry point to the brain, because it can unlock so many different doors into an injured or ill brain. Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm and emotion — all components of music — engage different regions of the brain. And many of those same regions are also important in speech, movement and social interaction. If a disease or trauma has disabled a brain region needed for such functions, music can sometimes get in through a back door and coax them out by another route.” Harvard University neurologist, Dr. Gottfired Schlaug.
“Half an hour of music produces the same effect as ten milligrams of valium.” -- Dr. Raymond Bahr
And leave it to musician Bob Marley to bring it all together with one of his simple, straightforward universal truths, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
Music for healing. It’s the next big frontier. And music advocates would be well served to begin to include this benefit, along with music’s educational, character development, community building and economic impact benefits in their advocacy efforts.
The number of schools offering music education in Pennsylvania and the nation, is in a steady decline and has been for more than a decade. Reduced budgets and shifting priorities are often to blame. Music For Everyone is a Lancaster based nonprofit working to raise awareness and resources to strengthen the role that music plays in schools and the community in the face of declining music programs.
Music For Everyone has provided over 6,000 instruments to Lancaster country schools since 2006, and there's a lot more going on there. Joining us is Dr. John Gerdy, who is the founder and executive director of Music For Everyone. Dr. Gerdy, welcome to the program.
Great to be here.
Dr. John Gerdy, before we get into the current situation across the country, and across Pennsylvania, and in Lancaster County of music programs in schools, I think that your background and how Music For Everyone was founded and developed says a whole lot. You were an athlete. I don't know if you still are or not.
Not so much.
You were an All American basketball player at Davidson College. You were the schools leading scorer until someone by the name of Steph Curry came along. Played pro basketball for three years. You would seem to be someone that would advocate strongly for athletics in schools, but yet, music is your passion and helping schools to ... I don't want to say maintain, but maintain in some areas, but further expand their music programs in others. How did it all come to be?
Well, I mean, you talk about my passion really is education. Education reform. It's preparing our children to compete in the global integrated world economy, and world community of the future. Education is my passion. After playing basketball, I ended up working in college athletics at the NCAA, and as the associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. I always did that because I viewed athletics as a tool to supplement the educational process if it's kept in the proper perspective.
With the birth of our first child, I left the SCC and was a stay at home parent for two children. As the kids got older, they didn't need dad around as much anymore. I had this wonderful opportunity to reinvent myself. I could've gone back into college athletics, but you know, been there done that. As a lifelong musician, I started doing the research on school music programs are being but, and underfunding, defunded. At the same time, all the research about how effective it is an educational and community building tool, and it just didn't' make sense to me.
You know, trying to think on acting, you know, on the notion of think globally, act locally, I got some friends together, did a small fundraiser. We raised about $11,000 and bought some instruments for the school district of Lancaster. It just kind of ... be careful what you ask you. It just kind of mushroomed. To me, it's not much of a jump because similar to athletics, which is a tool to supplement the educational process, if it's conducted in the right way, music is the same. It's a tool to contribute to the educational process.
I've come to the realization or belief, after being involved very heavily in both, as an athlete, or a musician, or as an administrator in both ends, that music, if you do a thorough honest clear eye data-driven return on educational investment, in dollars spent on, for example, football, tackle football, versus music programs, it's not very close. If you were keeping score, like a football game, you know, the score would be 55 for music and 20 for football. It's just that effective, right on down the line. Everything from the currency of the future's creativity. A lot of the jobs our children are going to have in the future, haven't even been invented yet. Music is the most effective tool in our educational arsenal to teach creativity.
How do you measure that?
Music, at its core, music is about creativity. It's about thinking out of the box. Arts are about being able to color outside the lines without penalty. If you look at a number of other things as well, you look at lifelong learning. One of the most important functions of our schools is to develop and nurture in our children a love of lifelong learning. If you compare football, for example, versus music, 99% of the kid's last football game they play is the last time they'll ever play football.
But music, you can play it until, you know, your last days. In terms of lifelong learning, it's so much more effective. Just a mere fact that half of the student population, I mean in girls, can't play football, for example. Everyone can play music. Music is math. Music is reading. Music is logic. Music is a language. The data backs all that up. Every single day it seems there's a new study coming out about how music programs, involved in music programs, enhances these academic skills and interpersonal skills. The other thing is, you know, you talk about one of the major justifications for sports in our schools is that it teaches this concept of building character, teamwork, discipline, communication skills, personal responsibility. Well, you know, and it's true.
I've been on a five-person basketball team and being required to develop those types of skills, communication skills, discipline, teamwork, all those kinds of things, in pursuit of a common goal, which is winning, okay? But I've also been in a five-person band, trying to work together to achieve a common sound and it's the exact same things, discipline, teamwork, communication skills, personal responsibility. If you really take a close honest look at the data, the return on educational dollars invested in music is tremendous.
A lot of people talk about, is music a core course? Is it core? Is it co-curricular? Is it extracurricular? I kind of view it differently because of the universal nature of music, it's a universal language. I think music is more like the glue that can hold the entire core curriculum together. You can use music and apply it, and use it to teach science lessons, history lessons. Music is math. All of those things. The value of music as an educational tool is just astounding. The data coming out every single day reinforces that point.
Most educators, maybe I shouldn't say most. I won't make a judgment there, but I would say many educators would agree with you with what you just said. But yet, if they said, "All right, we're going to cut ... we have a tight budget here and we have to cut some extracurricular activities." If they said we were going to cut the football program, or in some way cut back on that, compared to the music program, and not cut any funding from the music program, they would have people up in arms.
Yes, they would. That's something that I think as a ...
By the way, I'm not saying that's right. I'm just saying, yeah, just an observation.
No, well, first of all, the football or athletics lobby, for a lack of a better term, is very well organized, very vocal. The music and arts community isn't quite as effective in its advocacy. I do think a lot of that is changing, particularly on the football side, driven by the, you know, revelations about head trauma. I think we're slowly changing. Again, we simply ... educational leaders and community leaders, we simply cannot continue to fund programs simply because we've always done it that way.
The world is changing too rapidly. We have to look at the data, look at the research, and ask an honest question, what is more effective, in terms of educational return on investment. We're operating ... the expectations of our schools and our teachers to instill in our children an education worthy of the 21st century, are rising dramatically. At the same time, in an environment of declining resources. That begs the question, we have to be more effective and efficient with every single educational dollar we spend. If you're honest about looking at it, take an honest look at it, the data is just irrefutable about how effective music is.
You know, let me get back. I mean, we were kind of talking the broad picture about music, and athletics, extracurricular activities, but we didn't talk specifically about what Music for Everyone does.
Right. Our mission is to cultivate the power of music as an educational community-building tool in Lancaster County. What we do, basically, is we go to schools, we ask them what the gaps are, what their needs are. And then, we turn around to the community and we say, "Hey, does any of this interest you? If so, invest in us." And then, we will turn around and strategically, effectively, and efficiently invest those resources in schools, and in community arts groups throughout the county.
To date, we've been around for 12 years and we've invested, or I think we're closing in on close to I guess $1.7-million in total investment. Everything from an annual instrument grant program. Last year, for example, we awarded over $112,000 in grants for instruments. We give to all 16 schools districts in the county. The thing about it is, the gaps still exist because we received about a quarter of a million dollars in requests. If you provide instruments, then you know, you can provide a class of 30 kids or an orchestra of 30 kids, everyone a brand new instrument, but there's only one instructor. What's the point?
Next, we're underwriting music mentors, professional musicians, music education majors. That was the instruction component. We've just announced about two weeks ago or so, three weeks ago a third component, the third leg of the stool is a program instrument repair program where we are going to catalog and repair every single instrument, of every single public school in Lancaster County on an ongoing basis.
That's our next big thing. We've secured some seed grant money from the Stimmen Foundation and Clark Industries to get that up and going. For example, we did a pilot program at Colombia last summer where we repair 50-some odd instruments, something like that. Yeah, you got to take care of them if you're going to give them away. There's no room in the budget for repairs for schools.
What about student participation? I mean, you're in a position to see okay, maybe there have been some schools that have cut back on their music programs, but are there fewer students, the same, more, that actually want to participate in music programs?
We believe that if you build it, they will come. One of the best things I've heard from a teacher just recently was talking about how their string program, it was in the school district at Lancaster, was expanding, and more kids being involved. When you pay attention to them, you give them instruments, you give them instruction, you make them feel important, it suddenly becomes cool. She said, you know, "The kids are starting to think, hey man, it's cool to be a part of the music program."
The other cool thing about now that we're around for 12 years, things are really starting to become full circle. For example, there's a young man in our program who's been a part of our MFE Strings, which is an after school program, and our summer camps since fourth grade. Just graduated McCaskey High School, and now he's coming back to serve as a mentor for the younger kids. A lot of it's starting to come full circle now. Again, if you build it, they will come. If as a community, or a school board, what you fund, what you prioritize, has an impact.
In other words, if you say it's important and then you fund it accordingly so that people see evidence, oh, this is important, then the community will follow. That's what we plan to continue to do with music education.
You know, Lisa Sepsy said something that struck me. She was talking about Colombia and she said, "We are an artsy town, that art is important." The city of Lancaster, let's face it, the city of Lancaster in the last ten to fifteen years, has become an art's destination.
That would seem to say that the message is passed on to young people is the arts, including music, is important in this city.
Absolutely. You know, you talked about why ... I talk about sometimes the art community is not as effective as it needs to be as an advocacy. One of the reasons is because we've too long, we've just used the argument when fighting for funding, when fighting for, you know, for priorities in the school budget, arts for art's sake. Yes, arts for art's sake is important, it feeds the soul, it does all of those great things. But, we've also got to talk about the practical impacts. Impact on test scores, impact on reading skills, impact on kids wanting to be engaged in school.
Also, the economic impact of music and the arts in our communities. The argument needs to be more, it's not just arts for art's sake. That's just, you know, a fluffy thing to do. It's important because it's driving our economy in a lot of ways. Lancaster is a tremendous example out that, about strategically investing in the arts to build a community for economic vitality. We've been very successful at doing that.
You've been successful in doing it. Again, I kind of go back to that, what we had discussed earlier, that getting society as a whole to understand how important this is. How do you do that?
You pound away. Day in and day out. Again, it's data. The data is out there for you. If you look at the data, in terms of music's educational impact on all of this wide area. For example, when we went to school, the idea of international learning opportunities, exchange programs, tours, and stuff like that, were nonexistent, right? In today's interconnected global economy and world community, our schools are expected to provide some sort of international flavor, international opportunities. Music is a tremendous platform to do that because it's the international language or the universal language.
We only have a minute or so to go, but I want to thank you very much for being with us. I do have a quick from a lister says, "Has several musical instruments from his father's estate." Do you know where he can donate them for this cause?
Well, we could contact us and we could help him, musicforeveryone.org.
Okay. What are you looking, I mean, in 30 seconds or less, what kind of message would you like to leave with your guests? What do you need?
Anything and everything. I mean, we are every day out there scrapping, and trying, and trying to generate resources, and then turn ... whether it's volunteers, whether it's cash, whether it's instruments, to then turn around and invest them strategically to enhance our music programs in our communities.
John Gerdy is found and executive of Music For Everyone in Lancaster County. You know, this is something that can spread beyond the Lancaster county borders, I'm sure. John, thank you very much for being with us today.
Sometimes you can repeat a phrase or articulate a theory or belief so often that it begins to become simply background noise or, if repeated enough, irrelevant. I am referring to my ongoing use of the metaphor, “another brick in the wall” as it relates to the future of tackle football in America. It seems as if no sooner do I write an essay identifying a trend or incident that, coupled with the larger trends of declining television viewership, declining numbers of participants at the youth league level, increased public and media scrutiny, contributes to the steady, drip-by-drip and brick-by-brick evolution of our society’s relationship with the sport of tackle football.
These past few weeks offered another couple of bricks to add to the building of that wall. We’re accumulating so many bricks that we’ll soon have enough left over to “build that wall” on our Southern border. In fact, I’m sure Mexico will appreciate those excess bricks as it will reduce their building costs when they pay for it.
The addition of these bricks in the wall relate to two recent events that, once again, demonstrate how the culture surrounding the sport of football continues to reveal itself to be increasingly out of touch with rapidly changing American values, attitudes and norms. It is significant that the culture surrounding the game and its coaches is receiving such increased scrutiny as it is safe to say that for far too long, the football community has gotten a relatively free pass relating to the negative impact and influences of the culture surrounding the game.
Media and academic critics have long questioned certain aspects of that culture as it relates to the brutal nature of the game, its’ anti-intellectualism, the corrupting influence of the win at any cost culture and the sense of entitlement that athletes and star coaches often exhibit. But for the most part, the scandals that have lead to increased scrutiny in these areas and the attention paid to them, generally fizzles out over time and we find ourselves resorting to our traditional treatment of coaches and programs as being too important and too big to seriously challenge.
But like a wall that becomes stronger as more bricks are added, increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny. As the light of sunshine begins to spread wider and penetrate deeper into the culture of football, additional areas of concern begin to reveal themselves.
The first is the case of Ohio State University where the university suspended its football coach, Urban Meyer, for three games – a mere slap on the wrist – after he apparently lied about and deleted emails relating to his mishandling of domestic violence allegations against one of his assistant coaches. There was a day when there would be little initial scrutiny, much less dogged follow-up and investigation, into issues at the intersection of the culture of football and domestic violence. For far too long, in such cases, it has been the woman who has been shamed or pressured to quietly bear the scars and pain in the name of “protecting the coach and program”. Often such accusations and claims never saw the light of day. But in the #MeToo and social media age, those days are gone. And as increased light is being shed on the “boys will be boys” culture of football, what the public is beginning to see more plainly, is a culture that is increasingly out of line with America’s rapidly changing social norms and mores regarding treatment of women and domestic abuse.
The second incident is the tragic death of the University of Maryland freshman football player, Jordan McNair, a freshman lineman who died of heat stroke after running a set of 110-yard wind sprints. The first question is why lineman, who hardly ever run more than 20 yards on a play during games are running 110 yard sprints. Beyond that, apparently Maryland either did not have in place or did not follow commonly accepted treatment procedures for preventing and treating heat stroke.
But in the “increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny” category, in the investigative process of McNair’s death, according to an ESPN report, several current football players and people close to the program described a toxic coaching culture under head coach D.J. Durkin based on fear and intimidation. Belittlement, humiliation, extreme verbal abuse and embarrassment of players was common. According to ESPN, one player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill. Coaches also used food punitively as it was reported that a player said he was forced to overeat to the point of vomiting.
As a former all-American and professional basketball player and son of a high school football coach, I have both witnessed and been on the receiving end of intense, profanity laced tirades. Highly competitive sports are intense and emotionally charged. As a player, you understand that a certain amount of that comes with the territory. But there are limits. Coaches don’t get carte blanche to humiliate, belittle and berate young people. No one does. And in particular, anyone associated with an educational institution. Athletes deserve the same opportunity as all students to learn and experience college life in an environment that is safe and one that treats them with dignity and respect.
There are two salient issues as it relates to this particular situation and the culture of football in general. The sad reality is that far too many coaches and athletic administrators don’t think of football “student-athletes” as students at all, but rather as hired guns and dumb jocks. As a result, they are denied the same rights as other college students, that being the right to have a quality educational experience and earn a meaningful degree. In short, it is clear to everyone, and in particular to the players themselves, that they are on campus, first and foremost, to play ball.
The second relates to the most fundamental justification used by the athletic establishment for athletic programs and their coaches to a part of the educational institution in the first place. Specifically, that athletic programs supplement the academic mission of the institution and that coaches are in fact “teachers”. If coaches justify their place on campus in that they are educators and teachers, why aren’t they held to the same standards of decorum and behavior as all other faculty members? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t justify your place and role in an academic community by claiming to be an educator while engaging in abusive practices that create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. An atmosphere where students are verbally abused, belittled, berated and humiliated is hardly a nurturing educational environment.
The fact is, while there may have been a time when it was widely accepted that screaming, berating and intimidating players was simply a part of how coaches “made boys into men”, those days are over. While such behavior and methods might be acceptable for training Marines for war, intercollegiate and interscholastic football is not war. Such behavior has no place within an educational institution.
Granted, these two incidents, in and of themselves, will not bring the American football industrial complex to its knees. But make no mistake, slowly and surely, things are changing as it relates to the role, influence and impact of football in our society. Consider these as another couple of bricks in the wall in America’s reassessment of the role of football in our society.
An old friend called recently. We were catching up on news of kids, recent travel and various body aches and pains when he announced he had something to tell to me.
“I’m quitting football.”
I found this a bit confusing because at age 60, his playing days are long over. Besides, he played basketball in college and professionally overseas.
We’d always bonded over sports, discussing and pontificating regarding matters both on the fields of play and off. For a period of time, we both worked in college athletics. We consider ourselves pretty knowledgeable, having played at an elite level, studied sports as scholars and worked in the field.
He also loves watching sports. In particular his, beloved Boston Celtics and New England Patriots. He hadn’t missed a televised Patriots game in years .
“I’m quitting football,” he repeated. “I can no longer watch with a clear conscience.”
He went on to cite several reasons, from the brutality of the game and the brain trauma it inflicts on players, to the NFL’s treatment of its cheerleaders, to the leagues handling of their players’ acts of “taking a knee” as a form of civil disobedience to highlight their concerns about police brutality.
“I can’t justify it anymore.”
I’ve long been where he is now arriving. I do, however, periodically check in to watch a few plays to gauge whether the game is changing as it relates to player safety. As has been well-documented, the “football industrial complex”, lead by the NFL and its “Heads Up Football” campaign, has engaged in a widespread public relations campaign aimed to convince the public, and in particular, mothers, that the various changes in rules and teaching techniques have made the game suitably safe for children. It is important to note, however, that they have waged this campaign with little empirical data to back their claims. Yes, there are many well-meaning people who are attempting to make the game safer. But I am sorry. From what I see, the game is not being played in a significantly different manner. It simply doesn’t pass the eye test. It remains a gladiatorial sport – brutal and barbaric. Players continue to lead with their heads, using their helmets as spears. Meanwhile, research regarding tackle football’s devastating impact on brain health and function continues to mount.
The following day, I read an article about the growing movement to bring 'esports' into the high school sports arena to meet what is a significant and growing demand. Esport leagues are being created to meet that demand. One league, the High School esports League (HSEL) has partnered with 850 schools and has more than 16,000 users. Another company (Play VS) has partnered with the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) to begin varsity level esports leagues in at least 18 states. And this year, Indiana’s Munster High became the country’s first high school to allow students to letter in varsity eSports.
And there’s money in it.
Colleges are beginning to offer esports scholarships. Once substantive scholarship money is dangled in front of participants, high school eSports are going to explode. While the demographics of those attracted to esports versus football may not overlap completely, it will have an impact around the fringes. Kids who may not be the best athletes but who participated in football to feel a part of a team or to participate in an activity with their friends or simply to please a parent, will have another, far less violent alternative.
Esports, offers many of the same benefits and attractions as football. It is a team sport and in many schools will soon be a varsity sport. It is a fun activity that can be played with friends as teammates and even provides the possibility of earning a scholarship. That will be an attractive package for a growing number of kids.
Further, an increasing number of parents will likely ask, “Why sacrifice my child’s brain and body on the football field for the non-existent chance at a college scholarship?” Inasmuch as football is a game of numbers, losing a handful of players here and there, will make a difference.
And for colleges, recruiting kids who are strengthening their minds through eSports as opposed to scrambling them with football will be increasingly attractive.
And if you think esports is simply a passing phase for geeks and freaks, live eSports events are beginning to sell out professional arenas.
The most striking story told in a June 14, 2018 article in Bleacherreport titled “Forget Friday Night Lights, Esports is Becoming the Next Varsity Obsession”, was about Chris Chapman and his two sons. Chris grew up attending football games with his father. Apparently when Chris offered to take his two sons to a New York Jets game, they asked whether they could go to the CS:GO tournament instead. GS:CO stands for Counter-Strike:Global Offensive, which is the esport world championship that was held in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Clearly, the loss of my friend as a devoted television viewer or the fact that a father who offered to take his kids to an NFL game wanted to be taken to an esport event instead will not bring the NFL to its knees. Football remains a powerful cultural force. But small stories and actions such as these, coupled with the larger trends of declining television viewership, declining numbers of participants at the youth league level, increased public and media scrutiny, begin to add up.
Make no mistake, slowly but surely, drip-by-drip and brick-by-brick, our society’s relationship with the sport of tackle football is changing. Football is a numbers game. And the fact is, those numbers are steadily decreasing.
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.