America’s greatest gift to the world is our music.
An iconic, original conception; a polyglot of many cultures—a paradigm for our ongoing democratic experiment.
And at this critical juncture in our history, when a group of embittered wing-nuts and evangelical know-nothings seem grim and determined to reenact the Civil War and to bypass the Constitution and the electoral process in favor of the Articles of Confederation and half-baked notions of nullification and insurrection, it is consoling to steal a few backwards glances and reflect upon what we are capable of when compromise and commonality of purpose are the order of the day, and we can thus rejoice in the fruits of our diversity and shared aspirations.
And so, for your consideration, some thumbnail sketeches of the grace and greatness we’re capable of manifesting when the tributaries of our cultural and spiritual waters surge together into one mighty river of soul.
From July 16, 1930, in Hollywood, a colloquy in black and white, between the jazz and country traditions, coming together in the shared vocabulary of the blues: “Standing On The Corner” or as it is better known, “Blue Yodel #9.”
This remarkably soulful, borderless collaboration features Jimmie Rodgers, known in his salad days as The Singing Brakeman—who along with The Carter Family, endures as one of the Founding Father Of Country music—yodeling his way through the blues, in the company of pianist Lil Hardin and her husband at that time…
Her husband was a young man from New Orleans who’d come up to Chicago with King Oliver in the mid-1920s, a free carbon atom in that combustible confluence of broadcast radio and modern electrical recordings that birthed the modern media epoch.
Not for nothing are the 1920s known as The Jazz Age, in large part because of this young man, who always claimed to be born on the Fourth Of July, 1900 (actually, August 4th, 1901).
He became a lightning rod for change, the progenitor of a joyous, freely inflected new style of instrumental and vocal phrasing, a swinging testament to a sense of new opportunities for growth, a can-do spirit that came to be synonymous with America itself–vocalist and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.In both the literal and figurative sense, these scion’s of poor Mississippi and New Orleans roots, embody the reality of social and cultural cross-pollination that bubbled beneath the surface affectations and restrictive covenants of the Jim Crow South for poor whites and blacks alike..
As both groups sought to stake their claim to a piece of the American dream in the first part of the 20th century, between the years 1925 and 1933–when The Singing Brakeman succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 35–there were no bigger nor more influential figures in American music than Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.
In the parlance of the day, their records sold like hotcakes, as did those of innovators such as Bessie Smith and The Carter Family, which in turn led some enterprising one percenters to have a brain wave. Boing. There’s gold in them thar hills out among the downtrodden of the working undrerclasses–there’s an audience for race music and hillbilly music.
There’s money in the truth. Who’d have thunk it?
Then some 40 years later, in October of 1970, Armstrong was invited to reprise this historic performance in a moving duet with Johnny Cash on The Man In Black’s network TV show.
The degree of love and mutual respect these two giants bring to this performance is quite extraordinary.
It speaks volumes not only to Cash’s own power, originality and vision as a dynamic tributary of the folk, country and blues traditions, but of his generosity of spirit, which manifested in the sense of outreach and inclusion that distinguished his groundbreaking 1969-1971 prime time network TV show,
Cash not only put out the welcome mat for country-legends such as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters (including his beloved wife, June Carter), Merle Haggard and Carl Perkins, but for sixties movers and shakers the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ray Charles and Eric Clapton (then fronting Derek & The Dominoes). Not to mention championing a then unknown songwriter, Kris Kristofferson (and standing up to the network censors in the bargain).
This encounter between Cash and Armstrong is all the more moving because Satchmo was in failing health.
As you can plainly see from this video, he’d lost an enormous amount of weight, and was physically a shell of his former self–but you wouldn’t know it from his ebullient humor, burnished trumpet breaks and joyous vocal interplay with Cash.
Brother Cash himself passed away within four months of his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, on September 13, 2003, at the age of 71.
This is emphatic testimony by the real ambassadors of our musical and spiritual culture as to the actual, factual, non-fractious reality of The Real America.
Sound Signatures that speak to who we actually are and what we are capable of being, at our very best, when celebrating what it is that we–we the people–share…
Instead of fomenting some demagogic balderdash about a ludicrous frontier mythology that never existed, while bloviating about our differences and seeking to demonize those with whom we might respectfully disagree.
These colors don’t run.