My long absence on my annual pilgrimage to the North Country has likely prompted some to imagine I've abandoned this outpost of semi-sanity in an otherwise absurd world. Truth is my absence has led me to question whether writing here is worth it.
The answer to that question? Yes, so it's once more into the breech -- only this time I'm going to avoid all the too-obvious political targets. No, this time, I'd like to ramble a bit about what I do when I'm up North.
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Newaygo, Michigan, is a quiet little town on the Muskegon River. In many ways, it reminds me of a quaint European village. It's also the home of my mom, my brother Craig and my sister Sandy. Family is my real reason for returning North; music is my excuse -- it also helps pay for the trip.
Say Michigan, and the first thing that comes to the minds of many is Detroit. But Newaygo is smack dab in the middle of the state, and it is far removed from Detroit culturally and geographically. Indeed, in many ways it's far closer to Tellico Plains, Tennessee, than Detroit.
Newaygo is a place where pubs may outnumber churches. Sister Sandy runs an open mic on Tuesday at the Riverstop Pub and on Thursday at the Riverstop Grille. It was at the Riverstop Grille I first met Nathan Syfrig, the fantastic violinist who's flown in from Seattle four years in a row to accompany me. Nathan inspired one of the songs I wrote for this year's concert, a song called "My Violin Weeps for Me."
My Monday night show at the Riverstop Pub drew a crowd that surprised the owner -- which hopefully means there will be a return engagement for a third year, Lord willin' and the crick don't run dry -- though given the global-warming instigated droughts we've witnessed of late, that may be a possibility.
But I promised I wasn't going to get political -- so back to the show.
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Newaygo is only about eleven miles from Fremont, Michigan, but it's a lot farther away culturally. Fremont is farm country, Amish country, and world headquarters of Gerber Baby Foods. It was once home of the most millionaires per capita of any city in America. In short, Fremont is about as conservative a place as you'll find outside the Deep South. And just as in the Deep South, in Fremont, Jesus is a Republican.
It should be obvious that Fremont is not a place where revisionist history is welcome. But revisionist history is what I do, and I make no apologies for it there or here. Fremont is also the home of the Dogwood Center, where I've played a half-dozen shows, including my four "History in Song" concerts.
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The first of those shows was called Children of Columbus. In it, I argued the treatment of indigenous peoples and the introduction of slavery by Columbus and those who followed him laid a curse on the New World, a curse we are still suffering from.
My second show, Self-Portrait: A Musical Autobiography, exposed my own considerable flaws. The idea was to give some insight into how my mistakes in life provided inspiration for my songs. You might say it had a flavor of lemons into lemonade.
Last year, it was the White Man's turn to face the music. The concert was called Native Sons, and I spared no one, including Thomas Jefferson, in exposing the perfidy of the White Man in stealing the land from its rightful owners. One of the songs I wrote for that concert was called Here Comes the White Man (There Goes the Neighborhood).
There's a lot of talk these days about American Exceptionalism, but those promoting that nonsense fail to mention America's treatment of indigenous peoples. That behavior was so awful Hitler modeled the Holocaust on it, even borrowing the phrase The Final Solution, coined by General William Tecumseh Sherman when he was in charge of dealing with the "Indian problem".
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This year's concert was called Roots - A Biography of the Blues. In it, I paid tribute to the idiom that fathered most American pop music, including jazz and rock'n'roll. Defining the blues is just about impossible, but to my mind, it's a marriage of the field hollers and work songs of slaves and the chords, melodies and instrumentation of mountain music -- which is highly derivative of Celtic music. What distinguishes the blues is an emphasis on rhythm and a unique blending of major and minor scales.
The blues had an unsavory reputation which kept it out of the mainstream. Certainly, during the uptight Victorian Era, no self-respecting white person would admit to listening to "race music". But thanks to the cloak of invisibility provided by the advent of radio and records at the turn of the 20th Century, that began to change.
Certainly, no fair-minded person could deny the virtuosity or inventiveness of an artist like Scott Joplin. And W.C. Handy, the self-described Father of the Blues, added an air of respectability with his erudite and articulate defense of the art form, his musical transcriptions, and his compositions such as St. Louis Blues.
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My show also paid tribute to some of the old bluesmen who labored in relative obscurity creating the blues, men like Charlie Patton, who inspired John Fogerty of CCR. Green River, the title of one of CCR's big hits, was borrowed from a Patton song. Out of respect and gratitude, Fogerty paid for the tombstone that marks Patton's grave.
Lonnie Johnson was another bluesman I mentioned in my show. Lonnie was a child prodigy, a virtuoso on both violin and guitar. Growing up in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th Century, he was exposed to all kinds of music. Listen to his song To Do This You Gotta Know How, and you'll be amazed at his mastery of the guitar and at how sophisticated the blues already had become a century ago.
Lonnie Johnson's playing inspired much more famous guitarists like Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Lonnie never received the kind of recognition he deserved; but to those in the know, he is the father of modern blues guitar.
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Another man who doesn't get the credit he deserves is Sam Phillips. Phillips is known, if at all, as the man who discovered and first recorded Elvis Presley. But he was also the first to record several great black blues artists, including B.B. King and Howling Wolf. Upon hearing Wolf for the first time, Sam said "This is where the soul of man never dies."
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Sam and others, it was still difficult if not impossible in the early Fifties to get airplay for records by black artists on mainstream radio.
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I concluded the show with several songs by and about my musical idol Ray Charles. Ironically, it took a blind man to tear down the wall separating black artists from white audiences. Ray was able to do so because he didn't see music as black and white. To Ray, music only had one color -- blue.
Ray burst through the race music barrier with a song called I Got A Woman that was equal parts gospel, blues and jazz. Critics were hard-pressed to pigeonhole it, and instead, they came up with a whole new genre for music like Ray's. They called it soul music ... and that it was ... music straight from the soul.
Ray not only made black music acceptable to white audiences; he made country music acceptable to black audiences and white city sophisticates, by recording -- against the advice of almost everyone -- an album of country music. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was such a smash hit, Ray recorded a second volume of country songs. Country music would never be the same.
Ray not only changed music; he changed the culture as well. He was one of the first black artists who refused to perform for segregated audiences. In my view, through his music, he did as much as anyone to bring the races together in America.
They called Ray a genius, but in typical self-deprecating fashion, he deferred. Ray said someone like Duke Ellington was a genius, the kind that came along once in a century. I agree, but I beg to differ with Ray's self-assessment. Ray was a genius, too, and there will never be another Ray Charles.
©2012 Tom Cordle