I Hear America Singing (Sometimes It's the Blues)

I heard America singing on Sunday night. Bluesman extraordinaire* Buddy Guy's music rang like the flip-side of Walt Whitman's famous poem. Whitman is considered one of America's most important poets. Those white workers of whom he sang are woven into our national psyche, perhaps because, as William James observed, Whitman was the "supreme contemporary example of ... an inability to feel evil." The blues provide some balance. Sunday night, as part of the enthralled audience sitting at Buddy Guy's feet, I felt as though we were hearing long suppressed verses of our national anthem. America's "had the blues" since 1619 when the first enslaved African arrived in Jamestown.

Buddy Guy's reputation assured that the evening would be entertaining. I'd also looked forward to seeing Spokane's Fox Theater restored to its former beauty. But the sense of epiphany as the evening unfolded was a jolt. It felt like a long forgotten inheritance.

No doubt, I'd been primed years ago, experiencing jazz mega-master Wynton Marsalis' astonishing, Pulitzer Prize winning Blood on the Fields at Atlanta's Fox Theater. Blood ... is Mr. Marsalis' "epic oratorio on slavery and freedom...mov(ing) beyond a preoccupation with personal power and learn(ing) that true freedom is, and must be, shared." His ode to freedom is the consummate companion for Buddy Guy's constant reminder: hatred debases us, love liberates.

I'd read Buddy Guy's 2012 book When I Left Home, anticipating recording a conversation with him that got scuttled by schedules. But the best book can only hint at authentic power. It came to life as he told stories of a sharecropper family in Louisiana: no running water or electricity into his teens, Jim Crow never mentioned but ever present and personified by the man in town who never, not once, called Buddy Guy by name. "Now my name is known all over the world, but all he ever called me was 'boy'." There is simply no separating the blues' sound and their indispensable lyrics from injustices and abuse that are -- finally -- gripping our headlines and, necessarily, our consciences.

Of course the Blues is/are not alone in evoking profound responses. Writer Jill Suttie describes how music hooks us and the thrill of being thrilled in the company of others. She recounts her response to a Peter Gabriel song with which apparently I, alone, was unfamiliar. Not having that shared experience explains why my universe did not shake when Mr. Gabriel spent an afternoon at our home in Atlanta where he had come to examine the possibility of music in bonobo culture. Spur of the moment, we invited him to join us at a friend's Christmas party. It was in experiencing other guests' reactions -- "Peter Gabriel?!?" -- that I grasped the power of his music and, more generally, the enduring impact music often has.

Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, R&B, Soul, Hip Hop ..., these are the quintessential American forms of music (with deep roots in oppression, Africa, the Caribbean and, later, South America). Perhaps they are America's most reliable gift to the world. Here at home, they reflect and express the challenges we continue to face.

On Friday night (Aug. 26th), Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra close their week at The Chautauqua Institution. Earlier in the day Mr. Marsalis will be joined by Geoffrey C. Ward, author of Jazz and Ken Burns' longtime collaborator. Topic? "The rich musical heritage of the American soul." Of course. Hatred debases us. Love liberates.

That our brains appear to have a distinct region specifically dedicated to music might further elevate the conversation for those seeking "proof" of music's profound social and emotional power. Today, I'll settle for having been 5 rows back when the great Buddy Guy beautifully balanced American history. And, lest the memory fade, I need only touch the guitar pick he -- grinning broadly -- tossed into the audience. I caught it. No foolin'.
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*-- Mr. Guy's phenomenal guitar playing is still mesmerizing. Look no further than Jimi Hendrix, awe-struck by Guy's mastery in 1968. Or perhaps you saw the amazing guitarist Jeff Beck fall to his knees before Buddy Guy at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th Anniversary celebration.