Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Libyan Lieber King Blues

I’m back in my home of homes. An elementary school gym with a bunch of teachers slapping their bodies, singing, dancing, making stuff up and sharing it—and giving up their last week of summer vacation to do it. This time it’s in Vancouver, one of the most thrilling places to descend to in a plane at dusk and one of the more unique exits from the gate to the baggage claim, walking through a hall with recorded birds and a simulated northern rainforest. This trip brings the double pleasure of combining work with visits to old friends who I have known for over thirty years. And the bonus of sharing one of my favorite themes— the marriage of Orff and Jazz.

Today’s theme will be the Blues and I’ll share my I-Pod playlist of popular songs from the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s that follow the blues form. It’s an impressive collection—Hound Dog, Yakkety Yak, Rock Around the Clock, Shake, Rattle and Roll, Charlie Brown, Rockin’Robin, Johnny B. Goode from the 50’s, I Got You (I Feel Good), Surfin’ Safari, Highway 61 Revisited, Route 66, Money, Boy From New York City. (The above artists include James Brown, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones and Beatles!) And then into the 70’s with the Cream, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Eric Clapton and more. 

After playing this, I step up on the soapbox and rant about E.D. Hirsch’s best selling book Cultural Literacy: 5,000 Things Every American Must Know. Besides having the audacity to try to heal our country’s lack of common knowledge by single-handedly making the list himself instead of forming a representative team (he is a white Southern University professor), he had the gall to include “fugue” and “sonata form” as essential knowledge and omit “the blues.” The blues, people!!! My 8th grade students and I decided that his punishment should be to stay in jail until he has listened to every blues and blues-influenced song ever recorded for 8 hours a day—and then tried to estimate how long his sentence would be! Of course, that’s the kind of natural consequence punishment that not only would cure his ignorance, but be a sheer pleasure as well.

Curing ignorance and telling the stories the schools omit is a major clause in my Mission Statement. When the Beatles landed in New York, a reporter asked them what they wanted to see first—Disneyland? Statue of Liberty? Washington Monument? John Lennon replied “Muddy Waters and Howling’ Wolf.” The reporter asked, “Where’s that?” Astonished by his ignorance, Lennon replied, “It seems you Americans don’t know your own national heroes!” He was right and still is right.

So here’s a good time to test you, the reader. Who first recorded “Hound Dog?” Most might reply, “Elvis.” Who wrote “Hound Dog?” Again, “Elvis.” Who got famous singing “Hound Dog” on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956? You guessed it. Elvis. However, it turns out the first recording was actually by a blues singer named Big Mama Thornton in 1952. The song was written for her by two white songwriters, Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber. And yes, Elvis did get famous on the Ed Sullivan show and Big Mama was never invited to that show. “Why?” I ask my 8th grade students and off we go into the long, twisted, tragic, triumphant story of race relations in the United States. The struggle for freedom, the chance to have one’s own dream instead of being a player in someone else’s nightmare.

Yesterday, Jerry Lieber died at age 78. Yesterday, the news showed people in Libya kissing the ground in their long-awaited moment to be free from the dictator who trampled on their dreams. Yesterday, the Martin Luther King Memorial was unveiled in Washington DC. All monuments to the human struggle to be granted the freedom to define ourselves, follow our own dreams and be released from the yoke of tyrants who use us for their own selfish purposes. This is the trajectory of human culture, celebrated anew in each stunning moment in Berlin or Johannesburg or Washington DC or Cairo or Tripoli.

In light of such big events, it seems trivial to go to a school gym and teach the blues, but really, it’s part of the same energy and momentum. A revolution without guns. And so off I go.

PS You can compare and contrast Elvis and Big Mama in their respective Hound Dog Youtube clips.
PSS If you don’t know who Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were, go look them up.

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