Saturday, July 25, 2020

Soundscapes

Driving a car while listening to music is a treasured American pastime. Any movie with “Road Trip!!” will include folks bopping down the highway dancing in their seats to the required rhythm ‘n’ blues songs from the 50’s or 60’s. And so with the help of Spotify, I would start the mornings with Hit Tunes of the 60’s and set off singing along with Kathy’s Clown, Cecilia, Daydream, It’s in His Kiss, Stop in the Name of Love and another 50 or so tunes that marked my adolescence. What would America be without them? They accompanied our teenage longings, first sexual experiments in the back seats of cars, spoke our physical exuberance expressed in dance, sang our joy and confusion about being pimply social beings trying to find our way in the pack, gave language to the feelings we didn’t have words for yet—Born to Be Wild, My Girl, Light My Fire, Sounds of Silence, All You Need Is Love. Like I said, a long, long list. And because we are layered like onions, that 16-year old still alive inside the 68-year old, it takes just a few licks of a guitar to be transported instantly to that starting version of the self that was just beginning to blossom. Yeah! 
In the afternoons, I switched to the folk material that sang some of the landscape, even if it was from another bioregion altogether. Doc Watson singing Appalachian ballads, Mississippi John Hurt singing some gentle blues, Hank Williams belting out the country Your Cheatin’ Heart. From the electric rock ‘n’ roll to the acoustic guitars, banjos and fiddles, it brought the passing landscape alive in grand mythological ways. 
And then in the few nights of driving after dark, it was jazz—Miles, Ella, bossa nova, Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington. The more urban rhythms didn’t jive wholly with the wide open spaces and distant mountains, but at night, they evoked the “round midnight” world of the underground jazz club, low lights, the night wrapping around you—minus the smoke. 
And thus, the soundscape and landscape merging (and away from the newscape!) to give a shape and color and sense of belonging, of being part of some grand cultural embrace that has the name America. An America now torn apart from the machinations of the greedy, self-serving and ignorant, where our government-sanctioned police beat down peacefully protesting mothers, tear-gas mayors, club senior citizens, kill our black citizens, all sanctioned by the shameless Trumpublicans. 
And here’s the irony. The things in the soundscape that define us as Americans, that have given us so much joy and happiness, that have invited admiration from cultures all around the world, were all created by the very black folks we enslaved, segregated, marginalized, beat down and murdered. The rhythm in Rhythm ‘n’ Blues is an African heartbeat, the blues is an African-American response to the brutality, the grand sweep of jazz was all set in motion and carried along by American Aristocrats—King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lady Day, Bessie Smith (the Empress of the Blues) and Lester “Prez (President)” Young, for starters.

And listen to Doc Watson. Definitely a Scots-Irish strand, but there he is playing the banjo invented by black folks, a guitar that developed from the Middle Eastern oud through the Moors to the Spanish guitar and playing ragtime pieces and blues as well.
We all so casually enjoy this rich legacy of American music without a single word of thanks to the creators—or even knowing who to thank. On behalf of all Americans, I thank them all here for making my trip—all our trips— so damn fun and enjoyable. 



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