Today was the first day of my 8th grade Jazz History Class. I started by playing Elvis’ version of Hound Dog with everyone singing along. Unsurprisingly, most of the kids knew it, right down to the machine-gun drum break. And then I asked them:
Where did this song come from? What happened to make this song possible? What was happening at the time it was recorded? What did this song lead to? Who sang it and why and how and where? Who listened to it and what did it mean to them?
If we start from this song and follow it thread by thread, we’re going to uncover an entire world where everything is connected and makes a certain kind of sense. But just because things happened in the past and can’t be changed doesn’t mean that they made the kind of sense they should have. We have to decide to today if the story handed down is one worthy for us to live and for us to hand down.
Hound Dog came from the blues and the blues came from African-Americans and Africans became African-Americas not by choice, but through a systematic ongoing kidnapping and brutal 400 years of forced labor. The past that led to the song is not just the story of brutality by folks with a different skin color, but of the extraordinary survival and spiritual triumph of a people who kept their spirit alive and sang about in music that ended up defining America in the eyes of the world, a music that came to be a mighty river called jazz, with its many tributaries. All of which would baptize the alert listener and offer its healing waters to anyone willing to pay the price. And that price was a willingness to feel, to hear, to see what is happening around us and within us.
It’s the greatest story never told, at least not told systematically by our education system, nor by our radio stations, nor in our daily public discourse. It’s the story that left untold, brings Neo-Nazis and Klansmen to Charlottesville and even to San Francisco. And so I take seriously my responsibility to tell it, not to proselytize left-wing politics, but simply to show and tell and hear the stories that brought us this incredible music. And then to teach the music itself in a way that deepens the healing, completes the cycle by rising from the pain and sorrow to the joy and triumph etched in every note.
Woody Guthrie’s guitar had this inscription: “This machine kills Fascists.” I can say the same about my jazz classes. Not that it literally kills people who are Fascists, but it murders the ideology of Fascism and lives the alternative in the community of music-makers we create. It’s not easy, it’s not always pleasant, it’s edgy and risky and challenging—and therefore, it’s worth doing. Thank you, 8th graders. It’s going to be a glorious year.