Some good soul, and talking about race
by Rob Tiller
This past week we went out to see a movie for the first time since BC (Before Covid). Sally had read about a new documentary, Summer of Soul, playing at the Rialto, our old time neighborhood movie house. There was only one guy there selling tickets, and he also sold drinks and snacks, so it took longer than usual time to get a ticket, popcorn, and a beer.
But it was so worth it! Summer of Soul is about a concert series in the summer of 1969 in a park in Harlem with mostly Black musicians and hundreds of thousands of Black people listening, singing, and dancing.
The musicians included already famous and future legendary performers, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Nina Simone, David Ruffin, Max Roach, Ray Baretto, Mahalia Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. That is, some of the very best gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and rock ever made. The musicians seemed to feel the love, and their performances showed it.
It was amazing that it ever happened, and unfortunate that it never became a cultural touchstone, like Woodstock, which happened the same summer. Fortunately, the producers saved the videotapes, and now, 52 years later, we can get a good look at what we missed. It may be just the right moment to discover and cherish this wonderful moment of Black culture. The film is streaming on Hulu.
As you probably already know, race is multi-dimensional issue in the United States, which we haven’t fully worked through. One indicator of this is the odd new moral panic about the teaching of critical race theory. I learned last week that parents in Loudoun County, Va. and other places are harassing and threatening school board members because they believe their young children are being taught this specialized CRT scholarship.
This notion, promoted by fearmongering rabble rousers at Fox News, is almost certainly untrue. But it’s concerning that these parents, who presumably love their children, seem really worried. They apparently think their children may learn some really bad lessons — ones that run contrary to our traditional narrative of progress and harmony.
It isn’t surprising that being clear and direct about race makes some white people uncomfortable. For one thing, it isn’t how we were taught. For another, it may involve unpleasant feelings, like regret, shame, and guilt. For some, there could be a feeling that their position in the hierarchy is indefensible and threatened. And it isn’t surprising that some react to this discomfort defensively, converting it into anger and denial.
But I still find it remarkable that those who want avoid the issue attack those who would like to address our racial history and problems as racists.
Anyhow, for those who aren’t full of that sort of fear and anger, I recommend a recent podcast series from RadioLab: The Vanishing of Harry Pace. It tells what is known of Pace, a highly accomplished businessman who wrote popular songs, started Black Swan records, led a Black insurance company, and then seemed to change his racial identification.
Part of what’s fascinating is how race can seem firmly fixed, and turn out to be highly ambiguous. Similarly, history that we assume must be well settled can turn out to be full of uncertainty.
Along this same line, remember the Alamo? The way I heard the story as a kid, it was a heroic battle for freedom in Texas. This was not true, according to Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford. In an interview on Fresh Air, Burrough explained that the battle was part of a struggle mainly about preserving and expanding slavery by white settlers in what was then part of Mexico, where slavery was generally illegal.
The supposed idealism and heroism were Hollywood creations. Burrough noted in the interview that contradicting the traditional accounts of the heroism of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, etc. made some people, including militia types, extremely upset.
Getting back to music, I’ve been reading a biography of Claude Debussy by Stephen Walsh. As is usually or always true with music writing, it doesn’t succeed in conveying anything close to the actual music, but it does suggest perspectives for listening. Debussy’s music, some of which I’m capable of playing on the piano, was highly original, but he also acknowledged being inspired by music from other cultures, including the Javanese gamelan tradition of Indonesia.
Inspired by Walsh’s account, I decided to track down some gamelan music, and found plenty on YouTube. The examples I heard didn’t sound at all like they could be Debussy’s model, and I’m inclined to think he drew more from traditional Japanese music. But with YouTube it was surprisingly fun to dip into Javanese and Japanese music. It inspired me to start exploring other traditional world music through there — from eastern Europe, native Americans, west Africans. There’s a ton!
These photos are from Jordan Lake this week. There weren’t a lot of birds there, and those I saw didn’t perform any spectacular feats, like catching a fish. But I liked this osprey.