Singing the Blues

I like many forms of music, but the blues is my favorite. In 2007, I saw B.B. King play at the Fred in Peachtree City. He was playing that weekend at a large venue in Atlanta, and workhorse that he was, he added the small outdoor concert to his schedule. He talked as much as he played. I’m not sure he knew what to make of the crowd. Peachtree City is a mostly white, relatively wealthy, planned community. The culture in PTC is unique. The competitive displays of wealth are sometimes a little hard to take. The pit area is reserved for season ticket holders who sit at eight person tables. The patrons bring tablecloths, candelabras, wine, and gourmet food to the shows. I doubt that BB, in his wildest dreams, while growing up in Mississippi, could have imagined playing the blues in such a venue.

One of the gifts of the Internet is the ability watch past performances by musical greats. I watch some music videos, mainly to interpret and talk about them in class, but I prefer to watch musical performances. I like to see how musicians performed with various guests and watch how bands performed in different eras. From the first time I heard Layla back in 1972, in Clem Caraboolad’s geometry classroom, I was hooked on Eric Clapton. I’ve seen him play at least a dozen times since, and I still enjoy watching him play with The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, Cream, and other groups. He’s collaborated with just about everyone (including B. B. King) and a group you may have heard of called the Beatles.

I’ll watch a performance and then read the comments to see if any insights are provided by the fans. I used to read the comments and find out a good deal. A few people would write claiming to have attended the concert. They’d share their reflections about what it was like to have been there. Cool. Musicians write asking questions about the chords or the kind of guitars being played. Some would point out flaws in the performance or start arguments about whether another performance was better or whether another guitarist was more skillful. Okay. I usually stop reading when the threads become irrelevant. Nowadays, I stop reading more quickly than I used to. I see increasing numbers of comment sections filled with hate. Someone will say something provocative, minimally related to the music or musicians, then the vitriol begins. Soon, the posts become personal, with people trading insults back and forth using politics, race, age, and religion in ad hominem arguments. The attacks are personal, but they occur in an impersonal forum, where no one knows each other and no one suffers any consequences for their posts.

I’ve been reading for months about how Donald Trump’s rhetoric is a new phenomena. More recently, others have pointed out similarities between Trump’s style and politicians from the past. However, by comparing Trump’s rhetoric to George Wallace’s or Adolph Hitler’s, we may miss the point. The tactics Trump uses are found in everyday discourse. They really aren’t unusual. They are posted on the Internet every minute. The comments don’t have to have any substance. They need not be relevant. They simply have to attract attention and evoke emotion. The more outrageous, the better.

There’s a part of us that enjoys a frank, unfiltered verbal exchange. We like one-upmanship. Perhaps ugly comments release some of the tension we feel when we perceive our group is being treated unfairly. Few Democrats want to admit it, but Trump represents a desire we all share. We want to be rich and powerful and be able to say whatever pops into our heads, without any consequences. But, society teaches us that we need a censor. The id needs the ego and the superego.

Neither Trump’s language nor his vision will make America great again. An example of what makes America great is the poor son of a sharecropper from Mississippi becoming a hero to a young British guitarist and millions of others. BB King being welcomed and able to share his music and insights in a rich person’s enclave is a learning opportunity. While BB King’s health was failing, he continued to play, his passion remained strong. He was an inspirational leader.

Our greatness occurs when people come together, not when they are being torn apart. It takes passion directed toward the common good and sometimes years of effort, to bring people together. It takes a few thoughtless words to tear people apart. We have to learn how to listen for our common humanity when people sing the blues. We must try to understand people’s suffering. We need to do and say positive things to enrich everyone. We have to join the choir.

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