I have always been a sucker for a song. One gets in my head, and it rules my day.
My friend, Andy, calls them ear worms, songs that sneak in and won’t let you go.
I am infested. My hippocampus is chocked full of bubble gum songs of the 60s, protest anthems, rock and blues. My piano friend, Tom Greenbaum snuck in some Sinatra and show tunes, and Oscar Peterson claims a top spot on my hit list. And horn bands, Chicago and Tower of Power provide a music bed to my living of these days. My mother accused me of needing a theme song for the background of my life. She was right.
But there are some special songs, logged in with some association with signature times, halcyon days. The Allman Brothers transport me back to high school days, what the Boss called Glory Days. It feels mystical, magical as it happens to me. I am not in control. A song from Idlewild South comes on and it takes control of my soul. Later, it would be Eat A Peach, but in those early days, it was Idlewild that danced in my soul.
From the upbeat rhythm of Revival, to the sliding moves of Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, and the plaintive plea of Midnight Rider, the haunting melody of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, and the slinking tribute to the blues in Hoochie Coochie Man, this album formed the primal beat to my adolescent birth of a soul.
Formation takes time. I listened to that album over and over in the sanctum of my high school bedroom in the basement of my East Point suburban home. But more memorable, it was the constant presence in the red Datsun of my friend, Pat Whaley, as we took the half hour drive to Clayton Junior College the senior year of high school.
Pat, Tommy Elder, and I were enrolled in a Criminal Justice course, thanks to the innovative thinking of my amazing teacher, Mrs. Melvin. Amazing Melvin, breaking the rules to sponsor the learning and curiosity of her students. Oh, for a hundred of her breed. She negotiated with Clayton Junior, Fulton County, and our local administration to get us a “pass” so that we could get this opportunity to learn, to taste the excitement of moving out into to the world a few months before we graduated from our parochial cocoon. Think Jack Black and the School of Rock gone legal. She had sponsored the moot court trials, took us to the My-Lai hearings at Ft. Mac (now Tyler Perry’s studio), and sprung me to go to see F. Lee Bailey try a civil rights case in Clayton County. Amazing Melvin.
Riding in Pat’s car, freshly equipped with an 8 track player in his glove compartment, we listened to a constant stream of the Allman Brothers tunes as we made our escape from the concrete prison of high school to the freedom of a junior college. It was our ticket, our chance, and we knew it and took it, with a smile, wind in our hair, Wayfarers on.
Pat, Tommy, and I talked about our dreams, about things that are important to teenagers, to adolescent boys with a fresh injection of hormones, experimenting in our exercise of freedom, longing to break out of our constraints. I don’t recall the specifics, just the spirit of expectation, of dare, of dreams, of “miles to go before we sleep”, our high school, Briarwood’s Frostian motto.
I do remember going into the college classroom, mingling with the law enforcement recruits who were required to take this class on legal matters. This was in the era of Viet Nam so there seemed to be some tension in the room, with those interested in how we enforce the law, and those of us enamored with this novel view of civil rights. Plus, we cast a bit of a hippie dippy persona as opposed to the crew-cut dudes in the class. I am certain they were thrilled to have three smart ass high school seniors invade their kingdom.
But the thing was, one day, before class, we three started a conversation between us, waiting for class to begin. Pat started it, I believe, talking about an upcoming concert. Suddenly, Tommy, Pat, and I were talking Allman Brothers ALL the time. The police trainees overheard us and joined in. We were talking about the Brothers and their unique style, little did we know at the time, derived from the blues. We talked of seeing them play at Piedmont Park on the steps….for free. And for the excitement of the evolution of what was coming to be known as Southern rock. Music was the horse we rode across the walls that divided us. It was something. We talked about it as we drove back to the southside, in Pat’s red Datsun, with the Allman Brothers playing on the 8-track. Music connected the disparate across the divide. I think that was the first time I consciously recognized is power that music has.
I heard a story of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck, playing a show in Atlanta, that was segregated by race, employing a purple, velvet rope down the middle of the crowd……blacks separated from whites. But when the music started, the spirit of the groove provided the energy for that rope to drop, as the divide, artificially constructed, came down. The fear that drove such separation vanished in the night as the horse they called music once again jumped the barrier.
During my seminary and doctoral work, my roommate was my friend, Eddie Owen. Eddie had been a phenomenal all-around athlete as a kid growing up in Stockbridge. He wound up playing tennis for Georgia State, later becoming a teaching pro out in Stone Mountain. Post divorce, Eddie and I lived together in a large house with a bunch of broken down Baptist ministers, the fabled Menagerie Farm, where Lightfoot and Buffett played continuously, beer flowed, and depression tried to rule. Eddie and I escaped the Farm, moving to an apartment near my work at Emory.
Everyone knew Eddie could throw a football, and had a wicked backhand, but few were aware that he had a gift of a gorgeous tenor voice. I convinced him to try out for a part in a production I did of Godspell, and it was magic. It grabbed his soul, this live music thing, He started a small operation in Decatur during its amazing renewal, morphing into Eddie’s Attic, that became THE acoustic room in the Atlanta music scene. He was a believer, and a promoter of the power of live music, and my sense is, Eddie rode that horse called music, breaking down social barriers, making Decatur the special piece of Atlanta that it is. Now days, Eddie rides the horse out in Duluth at his new venue called the Foundry, where he pursues the mysterious power of live music.
In the middle of this pandemic, in the racially charged present, and the hype of political conventions and the wake of their talking points, I have gone to my private pasture to catch my favorite horse, and ride. I grab some Hiatt, some Lovett, a little Raitt, even some B. B.. And off I ride, looking for the magic, the freedom, the hope.
In the middle of all the political posturing by both parties, I have been thinking about things that unite us, rather than separate us. Surely, our hope for lives of meaning, of living in freedom, and pursuing our passions are common dimensions of our humanity that we share. Those who trade in fear and distrust will do their work to separate us, perhaps not with velvet ropes, but with strains of distrust, with screeches of fear.
I find myself wishing for that old horse of music that I have loved through my years, a horse that can jump barriers, ropes, class, even walls. I enter this time in our country’s common life with a song in my heart, and as the song says, a tear in my eye. That’s a song that St. Willie sings, the Red Headed Stranger, and it puts a catch in my throat and a smile on my face. I know we are united, in spite of all that would divide. I have bet my life on it.
I love the Allman Brothers, but clearly, I have some Texas hidden here in my heart. What horse are you riding these days, partner? My old saddle pals, Pat and Tommy, are gone, but memories linger, and the Midnight Rider rides on.