Old Songs | New Meaning

Short Nonfiction

OLD SONGS - NEW MEANING - Short Nonfiction by Dennis LoweryAs I write this—from my Pandora random station shuffle—Joan Baez is singing, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. A song written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by the Canadian-American roots rock group The Band in 1969. It’s a first-person narrative relating the economic and social distress experienced by a poor white Southerner during the last year of the American Civil War when George Stoneman was raiding southwest Virginia.

I had always liked the song’s music and the vocals that came with it but gave little thought to its subject. It had never seemed racist or advocating slavery, so just did not ping me as anything more than a song about a southern man’s perspective, his life toward the end of the Civil War and how harsh it was. This time, the first chords… the first lines sung… were more striking. The suffering in the South was extreme, affecting my own ancestors, but I was fresh—at the moment—in the middle of other context of that era and its repercussions. I stopped writing what I’d been working on—a piece I planned to present to Tamara Lucas Copeland (more follows on who she is), as something she might want to include in the Foreword of her book—and turned to this, what I’m writing now. It’s because of Tamara’s book I couldn’t continue to listen to that song as I have for decades.

As I sit here, still turning this over in my mind, I think of another recent moment, while reading something that moved me as much as it troubled me. It was an NPR article by Corey Turner ‘Why Schools Fail To Teach Slavery’s ‘Hard History.’ An interesting though disconcerting read. Here’s a quote from it:

“Slavery is hard history,” writes Hasan Kwame Jeffries in the report’s preface. He is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University and chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board. “It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.”

And this…

“When you bring up racism, kids start getting really defensive, thinking they’re to blame,” says Katz. “To feel comfortable, you need to have a really good classroom climate, where students feel they’re not being blamed for what happened in the American past, where they don’t feel shame about it. It is 100 percent not their fault that there is racism in this country. It will be their fault if they don’t do anything about it in the next 20 years.”

It resonated with me because little more than nine months ago on (June 10, 2017, @ 07:38 according to the history of its posting on my website), I wrote and shared the following with my readers (and to discuss with my daughters):

The Note to Miss Watson by Dennis LoweryThe Note to Miss Watson

There’s a scene in Huckleberry Finn that brings to a head what Huck has learned about himself, about what’s wrong with the way—ordinary and customary at the time—he’s grown up… and his friendship with Jim. An association deemed wrong at the time (and such judgment—by some—still echoes, to a degree, today).

Huck faces that Jim’s a runaway slave (Jim overhears that Miss Watson plans to ‘sell him down the river’ to more brutal slave owners and flees that fate). Miss Watson was a severe woman—devout to her religion and societal norms of the times—who tried to ‘civilize’ Huck.

As a white person, he (Huck) is expected to turn Jim in. Huck writes a note he plans to give to Miss Watson that will alert the authorities about Jim. Here’s Huck’s inner conflict over what to do:

“It was a close place. I took the letter up and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right then, I’ll go to Hell’and tore it up.”

At that moment—reading his note to Miss Watson—Huck faced all the convictions imprinted on him by a segment of society and his upbringing… and balanced them against facts.

The fact was Jim was a brave, honorable and genuine friend. If Huck had judged Jim on anything else, he would not have enjoyed his friendship, help, and trust. And to violate that—how he felt deep inside—because someone claimed Jim’s blackness made him inferior, that his skin color marked him as property… that it meant a different set of rules and laws applied to him… is a type and level of wrongness that festers and sours a person. Countries, too.

Huck sensed that and made a noble choice. He chose fact and personal experience over hearsay, labels and codified beliefs and fears.

Huck did what was right over what was expected. He thought things through on his own.

Still today, we meet and hear people whose convictions dictate they treat people of different color, race, creed or religion, gender, sex or sexual bias as less than equal. Beliefs fed and maintained by fear, often stoked by those whose agenda is best served by fomenting that fear.

Now, Huck’s a fictional character, and Huckleberry Finn is just a story. But I believe we can—we all should, even today—learn from him in this scene.

And so that little piece ends.

I’m a writer and believe there are few better ways to deliver messages and lessons—the best being a living, breathing example—than in a story. And that’s what I’ve been reading from Tamara. Her book, ‘Daughters of the Dream | Eight Girls from Richmond Who Grew Up in the Civil Rights Era’ is a wonderful, contextually and personally, rich story of growing up confined—but not constrained—by racial inequality. Acknowledging the reality of it and appreciating the sacrifices made by black men and women to enable her to have a successful life, yet knowing we still have far to go in America in treating all as equals. Her sharing that story is a powerful message from a personal perspective that gives me food for thought about my viewpoint.

So, sorry Joan… other songs, other stories now resonate more with me.

I’ll leave you with this from a Sam Cooke song:

Then I go to my brother

And I say brother help me, please

But he winds up knockin’ me

Back down on my knees, oh

There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will…

Sam didn’t live long enough to see the change come all the way through… for it to manifest fully. Some things are yet ‘to come.’ But I hope they do. I hope we all step up and lift those that are worthy of the effort, and the rule of society becomes to judge people by their merits as a human being and not because of race, gender or creed.

You can read more from Tamara and her book at her blog: DaughtersOfTheDream.org

DAUGHTERS OF THE DREAM by Tamara Lucas Copeland

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