Blues

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

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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.

Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.  Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.
Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

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.


Billie Holiday Performs the Song

Life Lessons From the Blues: CeDell Davis

It’s not often that an obituary sticks in your head for more than a week, let alone six months.

I can’t get the life story of CeDell Davis out of my head. Davis was a Delta bluesman from Arkansas who used a knife for a guitar slide to create a sound, described by New York Times  music critic Robert Palmer, as “a guitar style that is utterly unique, in or out of the blues.”

He passed away on September 27, 2017 at age 91. It always saddens me to hear of the passing of a Delta blues musician as it represents another lost link to the soul of America. Not only does it represent a lost link to an original American art form, but in the case of CeDell Davis, a loss of a living example of the fundamental American ideal that if you work hard and persevere, despite facing many obstacles, you can make a life for yourself and add to the wonderful cultural mosaic of our society. 

Davis was one of those many blues musicians who, for many years, toiled in relative obscurity. According to Jon Pareles’ obituary in the NY Times (Oct. 12, 2017), Davis performed around the South in juke joints and house parties before a broader audience got a chance to hear his electrified rural blues in the 1980’s.

That sounds like a fairly standard story for Delta bluesmen of that era. But as I read about the life he lead, my jaw dropped. While there are all types of colorful stories recalled when remembering blues musicians, never had I read a more inspiring story about the human will to persevere in the face of one daunting challenge after another. He was a model in sheer determination in pursuing his passion for music.

If curious, YouTube him. I’d suggest “CeDell Explains Boogie Woogie”. There’s no word to accurately describe how this cat approached, created and performed music. In fact, I went to the dictionary and a book of synonyms to find one. There is no word. You’ve simply got to see and hear him.  
 
Born in Helena Arkansas on June 9, 1926, he learned to play guitar and harmonica at an early age. But at age 10, he contracted polio leaving him with partly paralyzed arms and legs, requiring crutches to walk.  The polio crippled his right (natural) playing hand to the point where he had to turn his guitar around and play left handed. As if that wasn’t hard enough, his left hand, while less crippled, would still not allow him to play chords with his fingers in the traditional way. He improvised and began playing with a knife, sliding it along the strings.

As a teenager, he played street corners and juke joints in and around Helena and began appearing on live blues radio shows on KFFA such as ”King Biscuit Time” with Sonny Boy Williamson and “Bright Star Flour” with Robert Nighthawk.

So there here we was, challenged with the affects of polio, but making the best of it by adjusting his playing technique to where he was making a living as a musician. If the story ended there, it would be a great one.

But the story doesn’t end there. And in a nod to the time-honored lore of Blues history, the next chapter began with a gun being drawn in a nightclub.

(A side note: My personal favorite Blues story of a gun in a nightclub was recounted by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman in their 2004 biography of legendary Bluesman Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf.” Wolf’s drummer at the time was Sam Lay, an eccentric sort, who was quite a “ladies man”. Lay always carried a snub nosed .38 pistol in his front pocket as “insurance” in the event that a jealous boyfriend or husband entered the club looking to settle a score with him. The story goes that one night, in the midst of some particularly aggressive drumming, the gun discharged and he shot off his own testicle. Talk about hitting the down beat!)

That gun in that nightclub in East St. Louis in 1957 started a stampede. Davis and Mr. Nighthawk were playing that evening and by the end of the night, Davis had sustained multiple fractures to his legs left him confined to a wheelchair.

But once again, he refused to let that stop him from playing his music. He continued to work the juke joint circuit and eventually was “discovered” by Palmer, who befriended him and championed his music. Shortly thereafter, Davis began working the national and international blues circuit. Mr. Palmer then brought him to the Fat Possum record label where he recorded his 1994 debut album, “Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong”.

Along the way, musicians such as Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, guitarist Peter Buck from R.E.M and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam became admirers and/or collaborators.

So there you have the makings of a wonderful story of perseverance.

But that’s still not the end of his story.

In 2005, Davis had a stroke, which by most any standard classifies as a major set back.  As a result, he lost the ability to play the guitar. All he had left was the ability to sing. So that’s what he did.

By then, he was living in a nursing home. Apparently, that didn’t slow him down either as he returned to performing in 2009 and released two more albums “Last Man Standing” in 2015 and “Even the Devil Gets the Blues” in 2016.

His story is worth recapping. He was debilitated as a result of polio, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a bar room stampede, unable to play the guitar after suffering a stroke, moved into a nursing home, and with only his voice to draw upon, still found the drive and courage to continue to perform concerts and record albums.

If I ever have to stay in a nursing home, I hope whoever is in the next room is some cat as inspiring as CeDell Davis.

CeDell Davis simply refused to give up. He lived a remarkable life, exhibiting the tremendous power the human will to persevere, to move forward and continue on the road ahead. It also illustrates the power and allure of music. He refused to let difficult circumstances or events keep him from playing his music and moving forward with his life. He not only left us with his music, but he also provided an inspiring life lesson and example of how to persevere in the face of profoundly difficult challenges.

That’s a powerful Life lesson from the Blues.