In 1969, somewhere around the middle of November, I heard James Taylor’s song ‘Fire and Rain’ on a late night WIBG radio program called “Americana Panorama”. It was a seminal moment for me, an eclectic black kid living in North Philly, who was going to a mostly white high school across town. The strains of his guitar and voice awakened something in me that I couldn’t explain. But having heard that song, a path to a life in music and an actively engaged citizenship was begun.
It would take years for that awakening to become a reality. That moment was enhanced and intensified as I, inspired by the music of Gordon Lightfoot, Aretha Franklin, Cat Stevens, Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, and countless others, experimented with those myriad influences that stirred the juices of creativity around and around in my body and brain. Murmurs of the spirituals and gospel songs of my youth simmered together with the classical and jazz songs I heard in school as I moved and swayed to the pop/rock classics that filled the airwaves. Together they freed me from what might have been the usual course for a kid of my background. It was a fusion of sound and message that lifted me into the ozone of boundless self-expression. Music, as it so often does, opened new windows of meaning for me and allowed me test my wings in a new atmosphere of artistic freedom. And with joy, my life and career dreams took flight.
And now, so many years removed from that fertile valley of inspiration, I find myself still deeply connected to the central truth of my discovery on that November night…That music heals, transforms and makes change possible.
That knowledge has served me well through years of struggle, challenge, joyful exploration, illness and triumph in the same way that it has fueled movements of social and historic change. And I find myself, with new and renewed vigor, embracing the causes of positive change in old and new ways without fear. And I’m trying everyday to share that light.
“I almost didn’t come here tonight. I’ve been so frustrated, angry and upset by everything in the news. I really didn’t want to leave the house. But when I saw the announcement of this program, I went online and I looked at your Facebook and webpage and what I saw gave me a little bit of hope. Your music spoke to me tonight, and I’m so glad I came.”
If these were the words spoken by just one person over the last few weeks that would be a marvelous thing. But I’ve heard similar statements from person after person in state after state…at intermission and at the end of shows as people go off into the night. I hear it at the end of my solo concerts and at the end of presentations of “Deeper Than the Skin” with Greg Greenway or in my concerts with Scott Ainslie, Kim Harris, Pat Wictor, Magpie, Emma’s Revolution or the many other artists with whom I share the value of song.
We live in a challenging time! Good news in the 24/7 news cycle often feels hard to come by. It’s hard to remember that WE are the good news. If we realize that we still have the ability to open our hearts to honest connections that bind us to each other and affect the shape of our world then the world will change for the better. If not us, then who?
Whether it’s talking to a stranger on a plane or to the young people we love as we try to help them begin to define their dreams or make sense of what’s happening in the world; or when we take a moment to encourage someone to take an active role in our nation’s direction or volunteer an hour or two at a school, soup kitchen or community center. It’s one of the reasons we register and vote or spend time talking with friends and family to help them to regain their perspective and mental balance.
WE must be the change that we hope to see in the world.
Malcolm X said: “We need more light about each other. For light brings understanding, understanding brings love, love brings patience and patience brings unity.”
So just as my forebears set the example in the past, I now try to add my piece to the puzzle at a time when hope seems distant and faint. Every time I open my mouth to sing or I pick up that guitar, I’m back in my room on 17th street in Philly, rediscovering the joy, possibility and hope that music can bring.
This is the song in my heart; this is still very much my work in the world. I am happy and fortunate to have many partners in this work… the musicians and artists who have come to know that fame, money and personal glory are not enough reason to build and sustain a healthy grounded life and career.
As Bernice Johnson Reagon founder of “Sweet Honey in the Rock” said’ “Music changes the air!” Music builds community and heals our hearts. And blessed be… it can also help us change the world!