A tree better weathers the storm when it has deep roots. So too with people.
Growing up, I didn’t have deep roots. I barely had roots at all. My contact with my father’s side of the family was nonexistent for almost my entire childhood all the way through my first few years in the military. Contact with my mother’s side of the family happened, but not often, mostly due to distances. My grandmother and uncle lived in El Paso, and my aunt and her husband lived either out of state or even out of the country for many years. After my mother remarried, I met my stepfather’s family, and we saw them more often than other extended family members, but not much more.
In high school and later in the Army, I had friends from disparate places. I knew people from Pakistan, India, Mexico, and Japan. I served alongside soldiers from both U.S. coasts and all sorts of places in between. I met Koreans, Puerto Ricans, West Virginians, and Virgin Islanders. What a revelation!
Many of these friends talked of something that I didn’t have growing up. They talked of close family, of their ethnic and religious heritages, and, often, of the music and the foods they grew up with, which often grew out of their culture.
I was jealous. I hadn’t had those things. Sure, I grew up listening to music, but it was mostly the popular music of the 60s and 70s. Of course, I had food, much of it processed or fast. My religious upbringing was spotty, and I had no discernible ethnicity other than “lower middle class white kid”. My friends talked about their cousins, nieces, and nephews. I have cousins. I don’t know any of them. I had no nieces and nephews until after I got married.
So, in a conscious effort of self-invention, I sought what I’d not had. The easiest way to do this was through music. If a friend loved a musician or band, I bought the album and learned to love it as well. I prowled through the dustier sections of my parents’ album collection and found the LPs that seldom got played. I discovered the Blues, the works of George Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, blue-eyed soul, and the rock ’n’ roll of the 50s. From my friends, I found funk and R & B, heavy metal, Tejano, hip hop, new wave, and punk rock.
And, following the musical roots of those genres back through time, I found undreamed of treasures, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Tharpe picked up a guitar and started to play when she was four years old. She was born into a musical family, and by age six she toured with her mother as part of a gospel troupe that performed in churches throughout the South. Along the way, Tharpe absorbed the Blues of the Mississippi delta and the jazz of New Orleans, and she joined those uniquely American forms of music to her formative gospel songs.
And, man, but could she play the guitar!
Tharpe’s guitar playing influenced a host of later musicians, including the likes of Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards. The latter two musicians were part of my childhood soundtrack. My stepfather Jimmie is an Eric Clapton fan, and my mother was a Rolling Stones fan. I knew Clapton and the Stones, but I didn’t know that through them I connected to styles of music that originated in the early decades of the 20th century United States.
Jazz and the Blues are distinctively American, and the aspirations and struggles of America’s disenfranchised peoples birthed them both. Along the way, the jazz and the Blues have influenced every other form of American music there is, becoming the first vehicle by which American popular culture spread to foreign shores. In the cities of some of those other nations, American music became the soundtrack of freedom despite various regimes’ attempts at suppression.
This year, I introduce my students to a Musician of the Week each week on campus. Not all of the musicians are from the U.S., but their music usually includes American influences. Most recently, my students met Sister Rosetta Tharpe. They’ve also met Django Reinhardt, Charlie “Bird” Parker, John Coltrane, José Manuel Calderón, and Tito Puente.
Tomorrow begins a new week. Whom shall my students meet next?
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.