One of the better parts of my job is to attend classes that are bi-continental. In short, I’m a disk jockey of technology support. I work in classrooms around GU campus and perform maintenance and support tasks all day. One part of this job involves classes with our sister school in Doha, Qatar. Every morning I sit in on classes that are being taught using an RPX room. This week, there is a class called Jazz, Civil Rights, and American Society taught by one Maurice Jackson. Love this Prof. He is someone I feel I grew up with. Great pride in his culture, great love for everything his culture has struggled for and has devoted his life to understanding the ins and outs of it.
When I was a kid, high school specifically, I spent a large amount of time devoted to the study of Detroit. I was born and raised there, and still to this day would LOVE to go back. But I’m sure if you know anything about Detroit, it’s that its been hit hard, harder than most anywhere else, because of the economy. In other words, I can’t find employment there. (major sad face). Any way, in thinking about all these music posts, and how music has always come to affect me, I have but one influence to place the blame. Detroit. What this has to do with Prof. Jackson will become clear in a minute (I hope). Now Detroit is/was/will be the center of Motown sound. In my mind, Detroit invented the 1950’s and 60’s rock and roll sound that is so popular today. Many hours were spent by Quincy Jones and Chuck Barry to perfect the songs you and I know as the hits of those two decades. In fact, it was one of the first know instances of a QC panel for music hits.
What Detroit also is, is black. Unless you live under a rock you already know this. 90% black to be correct. Why is this important you ask? If you know anything about this culture, you know there are three things of great importance, that while can be stereotyped for all sorts of bad, are still true from my growing up in it and are truly good:
God, Music and Barbecue.
1. God means EVERYTHING to this community. As Steve Harvey once said, “We love ourselves some God, don’t we? Ain’t nobody love God like black people.” In terms of this post, think mostly of the hymnals and the power of music in a church.
2. Music is a way of life. Music is involved in almost all aspects of being, which I think is reflexive of the first in this list.
3. BBQ. Now this is not in the sense of eating fried chicken and ribs and watermelon.. Please get that image out of your head right now… Lets all grow up shall we? No. This is more of a sense of community. While media will often portray this culture as being one without male figures and mothers having babies out-of-wedlock, the truth of the matter is, community is the core of their values. Again I think this is reflexive of the first in the list. BBQ is just a means to get people together.
Back to Prof. Jackson….
While setting him up for his class he pulls out the PBS special Let Freedom Sing. I have the soundtrack to this as it is just AMAZING. It documents the history of music in the civil rights movement and its influences on the movement. One song in particular has stuck out and that is called “Change is Gonna Come” written by Sam Cooke, but performed by Otis Redding (Sitting on the Dock of the Bay fame). If you don’t know this song, I highly rec checking it out here. Listen to the way Otis strains with the third chorus. honestly, if you knew nothing about the movement, this song and his voice will tell you all you needed to know.
Originally (according to Wikipedia) this song was written by Cooke after hearing Dylans “Blowen in the Wind”. It moved him so greatly to hear a song written by a non-black about racism that he basically went home and said, ya know, there’s nothing that’s gonna stop this change from happening. The song was born.
The song, very much a departure for Cooke, reflected two major incidents in his life. The first was the death of Cooke’s 18-month-old son, Vincent, who died of an accidental drowning in June of that year. The second major incident came on October 8, 1963, when Cooke and his band tried to register at a “whites only” motel in Shreveport, Louisiana and were summarily arrested for disturbing the peace. Both incidents are represented in the weary tone and lyrics of the piece, especially the final verse: There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/but now I think I’m able to carry on/It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.
The truly sad part of this story, Cooke never heard the song recorded. He died before it was ever put on tape. But it changed the movement. Aside from “We Shall Overcome” this is the single most widely recognized song to represent the struggle of the civil rights movement.
Sitting there, watching the film again in class, made me want to just rant about how awesome it is. One song. One song among many, but one song stood out and changed the movement. CHANGED THE WHOLE MOVEMENT. How incredible is that? Remember when the sheriff down in Birmingham released all the “disturbers of the peace” freedom riders from jail? He said he did it because the singing was driving him crazy. That’s right. People would sing as they were being beaten in jail cells. Sing as people poured milk and trash all over their hair at sit-ins. Sing when they were being hosed with fire hoses. Sing sing sing.
Film’s make me leave my living room and games transport me to other worlds, but ONLY music makes me feel invincible. Unstoppable. Hopeful.
All I have to do is listen.