It’s a peculiar combination of skills I’ve crafted together in my life, that’s for sure. But they’ve proven useful in all sorts of situations—officiating weddings, speaking at funerals, lecturing in education conferences, singing with seniors at the old folk’s homes, playing piano with kids on cancer wards, performing with my jazz band at schools and giving family workshops at Jazz Centers, leading music workshops for businesspeople, Zen Center monks, community food store workers, behavior learning analysts, women in prison, piano teachers, classroom teachers and of course, music teachers.
Last night, I led a song at the end of a political fundraiser called Swing Left, a group of folks dedicated to educating voters for the 2018 election. I made up new words to the song Swing Low Sweet Chariot and prefaced it with a spontaneous talk:
The issues before us have to do with power There are at least three kinds of power and each is necessary to the others to make truly effective—and needed—change.
Political power. That’s mostly what we’re dealing with here. Politics are real and they matter. No matter how lovely you think your life is, people far away have the power to hurt you. Take away your health care when you need it, make your food dangerous, ignore the severe crisis of climate change and then not help when catastrophe hits, make your marriage illegal or make you illegal and send you away, take away your choice about children and then dismantle the education they will receive, allow policemen to kill you for driving if you’re black, get leaders far away as crazy as ours to consider nuclear strikes. It’s a long list. So I don’t believe that anyone can afford to be casual or naïve about politics. We all need to get our hands dirty and do the grunt work—phone calls, letters, protests, meetings, canvassing, voter registration, making deals, supporting candidates, speaking out every opportunity we can to make this ailing and failing democracy work. Take back the hope and promise of true justice.
Educational power. But votes alone won’t do the long-term work of changing the narrative that makes people think, feel and vote the way they do. A narrative carefully-crafted by crafty privileged groups who want to protect the unearned privileges of being white, “Christian,” rich and male. Through right-wing talk shows, real fake news on Fox, Tea Party euphenisms and more, they control national discourse through spreading fear, lies and ignorance. The willful perpetuation of an ignorant population is death to democracy. The narrative that depends on not knowing the truth must change and the only meaningful change is to hear the real stories and develop the capacity to think about them and care about them. When our population knows as much about the Nicholas Brothers, Chick Webb, Big Mama Thornton and Muddy Waters as it does about Fred Astaire, Benny Goodman, Elvis and the Beatles, as much about Emmett Till as about John F. Kennedy, as much about Rachel Carson as about Kim Kardashian, then we can begin to grow an educated population that deserves the name “citizen.” Without the power of knowledge to begin to change the story of what democracy really means, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.
Spiritual power. Politics and education is about defending life, spirit is about living it. Doing the things that bring beauty to ourselves and others, feeling the things that are the beauty and wonder life constantly offers. Whether it be art or hiking or meditation or cooking, living fully, living artfully, living joyfully, living well, these are radical act that makes the necessary politics and knowledge come wholly alive to serve life. They give us the strength, courage and the reason to keep working, give breath and muscle to our hope. The deep paradox of knowing things are perfect as they are while they desperately need to change completes the triad of power.
In the courtoom, in the classroom, in the community, that's where the necessary battles are being fought and when all three work hand-in-hand, the victory will come.
And now the song. (see next blog)