Friday, February 19, 2010
The Night Shadows
Music is a conversation with history. Its provenance has so many facets: when was it composed, who for, when and who first performed it. What instrumentation was used, what style, where did I hear it, who played it then. Why did it have the power to change my life?
Last month I found a CD compilation of a memorable local band from my high school days. It was 1963, forty-six years ago; I was a senior at Marist Catholic military school in Atlanta. Judy Argo and the Night Shadows played for our Homecoming dance. They were white. The men in the band, clean-cut, dressed in dinner jackets, but Argo’s leather-punked look was a tipoff. The CD confirmed my memory; they had done their homework. Their music was very, uh, . . . black.
The priests at our school had a laissez-faire attitude toward those we hired for school dances. The nuns at Atlanta’s parochial high school shunned the black rhythm and blues styles, so the St. Pius girls trolled the Marist boys for dates if they wanted to hear good music and avoid the “phone book rule.” (Ask your mother.) There was a serious recession in the early ’60s and great black blues and R&B music was a bargain in Atlanta. How lucky I was to be growing up then!
In addition, bands like the Shadows led anyone with an ounce of curiosity to discover the—often locally available—black musicians upon whose shoulders they stood. I had by that time already found, and experienced live, many black performers. Underage, I snuck into a Jimmy Reed New Years Eve party. He still is an avatar for me and many others. Baby Hughie and the Baby Sitters, with their enduring hit, “Messin’ With the Kid,” played for our Catholic Youth dances. We all knew Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, with their double-entendre song, “Hot Nuts, Get ’Em from the Peanut Man.” The immortals, now, were only stand-outs then, but destiny had bigger plans for them: James Brown performed a show-stopping “rubber leg” dance at one of our school mixers; Ray Charles, on piano and sax, with a small band and the Raylettes, was driving crowds to a frenzy at the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue with his hit, “What I Say.” More than anything, I wanted to do that.
Soon I would recognize the cynical exploitation of black musicians by some record companies. But for the Shadows, and later myself when I came to Notre Dame and brought that music north, we respectfully rooted our music in their history; if we got real lucky, we talked and played with them. I took full advantage of the Notre Dame Blues Festivals, and later met, and sometimes got to play with, many blues people I could have only revered from afar. Only then, if it mattered to us, could we white kids put out respectable versions of their material.
I did a similar thing when I began to perform social movement music, and later the Irish traditional music I discovered and embraced up here. It’s one thing to sing “Solidarity Forever” in a coffeehouse; it’s another to lead dozens of laid-off auto workers singing it on a frigid wet street in South Bend. Only then can you feel the power of the song’s birthright. Play the “Foxhunter’s Reel” in a south Chicago Irish working-class pub on Paddy’s Day with a sixty-year-old tradition-bearer from Sligo. That’s a conversation with history.
A person can learn a lot about life, connections, and generative growth from listening and participating with traditional musicians in many genres. With an ear to the past, I live today with centuries of blues singing, of marching, cheering working people, of old Irish, fiddling, filling the air behind me. It steadies my feet and lifts up my heart, and I want to lead you to feel the same way. Honest, I do.