"Baltimore Song" (Essay)

Music gets us through good times and bad - what songs do we need to be able to hear those whose lives are so different from our own?

I was part of a showcase at a great mini-conference last weekend in Ohio. I walked away floored and astonished by the great quantity of really good songs and sounds. People upholding and/or reinterpreting traditions, as well as people blazing forward into new sounds and ideas. I followed a tremendous rock-styled Americana trio on stage (Shivering Timbers, from Akron OH - check them out!). I guess when I am lucky enough to be part of a tapestry of great music in an event like that, it gets me fired up to bring the absolute "A Game" and not let the quality bar down. It was an amazing evening.

Music is such a powerful tonic. Long ago someone made up a lullaby or beat a hollow gourd in anger. Blew into a piece of hollow wood, or strung a gut-string tight and twanged it. Whatever its humble origins, this combination of sounds and rhythm is an essential part of being human. We create sound, we find sound, we imagine things, and within the complexity of notes and beats, we seek ways to translate our singular experiences and inspiration into something universally accessible.

Music has been part of every step of our American history too. From the lively strains of "Soldier's Joy" momentarily easing the misery in the camps of General Washington's American army, to the disenfranchised and oppressed joining hands and marching to the anthem "We Shall Overcome", there has been a soundtrack through good times and bad, and times monumental and mundane.

One other thing music does better than just about anything - it opens our door to empathy. Through that mysterious mix of melody, lyric and backbeat we find access to the unknown and unseen. We find our own common ground within the song. What teenager past or present hasn't had some album or playlist to get them through life's tough spots? Who could hear David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and not imagine the plight of Major Tom, or in turn contemplate the last moments of the space shuttles Challenger or Columbia?

As we have lurched and careened into this new interconnected and instantaneous world, I am wondering what soundtrack we need to feel empathy with people of other experiences, particularly after these past couple of weeks in Baltimore. We divide ourselves into sides and tribes, and consume most of our information and narrative from trusted sources within those. And that makes it easier for "us" to look at "them" as the problem. "Those cops are bad." "Those welfare leeches are bad." "The government is bad." Painting with a broad brush on a tiny pinhead.

There are a few bad apples in every bushel, no matter the source. And thus, most of the apples are good. We all have blemishes. It is easy for us to look at something that we see on the TV, and scream that we have to do something about that bushel of bad apples.

The music we need right now is to create empathy for the people caught up in these societal convulsions. Because I am confident that most of the individuals in these situations are good people trying to do the best they can in the hard world they live in.

It's often said that if you want to get to know a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes. I've never worn a badge, or been harassed for "driving while black", or been someplace where I had to fear the consequences of not having the proper papers. What is hard is for us to sit and listen to that soundtrack, that one person's cry against the hopelessness of their life, or that dangerous night on the streets behind a badge.

We need to hear each other's stories, to feel the weight of wearing their shoes, to find some empathy for each other even if we don't agree on the details of solving our problems together. It starts with empathy, and we're getting way overdue for making that start. After our evening showcase concert ended, several dozen people wound up singing and playing around a large bonfire, more typical of a festival than a conference. The songs passed around the circle for hours, from rousing familiars like "Wade in the Water" to songs that I'd never heard before. Two thirds of the rock band were there too. They brought a hauntingly beautiful song on cello and resonator guitar, and we all joined in singing as we learned the refrain. It was magical. A totally different setting than the stage of a couple hours earlier. So preciously human.

It's so precious to be human. And so prescient to be reminded that we need to learn each other's songs, and to sing together more.

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