We Need More Ireland

Canada is home. I have enjoyed time in a number of countries but for years was comfortable in my conviction that there is no other in which I would be happy. That no longer holds. Having just returned from twenty days in Ireland, I now have a second country where, if for some reason I was deported, I could quite happily resettle. My wife and I travelled with two other couples, met another friend there, rented cars, and stayed at tremendous Airbnb houses.

We avoided much time in cities and tourist spots, shopped markets for food, wandered small towns and villages, drove the countryside often somewhat lost and exploring, and enjoyed local pubs. I fell in love with the place. It has to do with the intersection of the physical and historical.

The physical begins with the roads – they’re nuts. Getting used to driving on the left and shifting with the left hand comes quickly enough but once outside of Dublin the roads become narrow and curvy goat paths. Every tiny, shoulder-less road is flanked by stone walls making it impossible to give way when a car is approaching. Each encounter with an oncoming vehicle brings heart-to-throat with the screaming imminence of a side-scraping incident or head-on collision. I felt myself involuntarily inhaling to shrink thinner as each vehicle whizzed past with my left mirror skimming the wall and the other narrowly missing his. Every passing was an adventure with many of the insanely blind and tight turns bringing audible gasps.

But then I got it. I relaxed. The speed limit signs are wry jokes. The roads are meant to slow you down. They are a reminder of a gentler then and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the frantic now. The roads remind you that the journey is as important as the destination.

The valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. There is tranquillity in a horizon so distant and shades of green so endless. There is perspective in the walls, stone buildings, churches, and castles constructed hundreds, or in many cases, thousands of years ago. Enormous cliffs and sweeping empty beaches welcome the Atlantic’s cascading waves with a rhythmic reminder that they were there long before us and will be there long after we’re gone; sparing nary a thought for our piddling worries and trifling foibles.

Irish Eyes...

Like the physical, the historical is everywhere. The Irish do not hide and deny their history like Canadians or bleach and commercialize it like Americans – they live it. We visited three memorials to the 19th-century famine that killed thousands and sent millions abroad in a diaspora that changed Ireland and the face and culture of many nations. The blunt and honest memorials spoke of tragedy and loss and hinted, some rather directly, of the damn English landlords who swept the suffering from the land and the damn English government that offered scant help for the starving who remained.

Irish Eyes

We visited Michael Collin’s grave. Collins was the West-Cork rabble-rouser who was jailed for his role in the 1916 Rising and then became a guerrilla fighter, leading the fight for Irish independence. After negotiating a treaty that allowed the Protestant north to become a separate country and the Catholic south to declare itself the Irish Free State, he was assassinated in the subsequent civil war.

Irish Eyes.

The visits added a great deal to books that I had read in advance and the biography of Collins that I read when there. Together, they revealed the major themes of Irish history that I came to know better as I watched, listened, and eavesdropped: tragedy, resilience, strength, pride, humour, community, and the long-held, deep-seated desire to be left alone.

Like every nation’s history, it is lived not just in what they choose to memorialize, buildings they chose to preserve or tear down, and the roads they refuse to straighten. It is more subtly revealed in how people treat each other, relate to each other and strangers, and in song. History is alive in the pubs. The made-for-tourist pubs in Dublin’s Temple Bar district are okay but the tiny pubs in tiny towns are magical. In Sneem, for instance, population 850, the young barmaid told me there were six pubs and believed I was having her on when I said that my village of 2,400 has only two.

Irish pubs are small, low-ceilinged, wooden, with tilting floors and doors that no longer hang quite right. They smell of the decades when smoking was fine, of generations of patrons packed shoulder to shoulder, and of oceans of poured pints. Did you know it takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect Guinness? Signs indicate that the local was established in 1812 or 1759. There are no drunks. Locals gather to tip a pint, yes, but is more about coming together. The pub is their communal living room. A few folks bring a fiddle, concertina, accordion, flute, or bodhran. They sit in a circle, not on a stage but around a table and somehow without discussing the tune or key, play one lively song after another. From time to time it’s everyone else’s turn. The players stop and the pub falls silent when a person stands to sing. A funny, bawdy song or, more often, a long and forlorn ballad about heartbreak and loss fills the pub and hearts. And there, in sad and happy songs, the playing not by professionals but fun-loving neighbours, and in the laughter and stories and tippling together is betrayed the history that defines the culture that fills the spirit.

Irish Eyes....

I love Ireland. I love the stunning views. I love the heartfelt music. I love that when ordering a pint, the barman or barmaid stays to chat. We were not customers but new folks to meet. I love the smiles that come quickly and often, the gentle sarcasm, hilarious slang, and ribbing that simply disallows arrogance or pretention. I even grew to love the crazy roads.

Canada is great. But we could use more Ireland.

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The Important Canadian You Should Know

Denham Jolly is a man we should know. He is a Canadian teacher, entrepreneur, publisher, broadcaster, philanthropist, civil rights activist, and community leader.

Family and Personal Life

Born in Negril, Jamaica, Jolly enjoyed an idyllic childhood, playing on his family’s 300 lush acres and long, natural beach. His father was a successful entrepreneur and his mother was the local justice of the peace. After graduating from secondary school in 1953, he became a clerk with the West Indies Sugar Company but agreed with his parents that a university education was essential for his future.

Jolly was accepted at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Upon entering Canada, he was forced to sign a document pledging that he would leave the country the day that his student visa expired. He later learned that only Black students had to sign the pledge and so he became acquainted with Canada’s subtle, bureaucratic racism. He augmented his studies with two years at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro before completing his Science degree at McGill University. Jolly wanted to remain in Canada but, due to the immigration rules, he was forced to return to Jamaica.

In April 1961, he was finally able to secure the papers necessary to return to Canada. He worked for a few months as a City of Toronto air pollution researcher and then secured a position as a biology teacher at a secondary school in Sault Ste. Marie. In the spring of 1963, he met the young woman who would become his wife, Carol Casselman. After a year in the Soo, Jolly accepted a position teaching Physics and Chemistry at Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate. Carol moved to Toronto to pursue her nursing career, they were married in July 1965, and later had three children.

Entrepreneurship

While enjoying teaching, Jolly earned extra income through the purchase of a Toronto rooming house. He then bought a second one. In 1968, he opened the Donview Nursing Home and six months later the Tyndall Nursing Home. The success of his growing businesses led him to leave teaching and, in 1972, he built a state of the art nursing home that grew to 151 beds. His entrepreneurial spirit was seen when he discovered the astronomical sum spent each month for his residents’ laboratory work and reacted by arranging for the consolidation of two private labs and then the purchase of 51% of the new company. Then, in 1990, Jolly observed that family members visiting his residents had difficulty finding nearby accommodation and so he purchased land and built a 65-room hotel that he called the Jolly Inn. A year later he paid the fee to register the hotel as a Day’s Inn. His businesses became international when he purchased a 120-bed nursing home in Dallas, Texas and began a boat chartering company in Montego Bay, Jamaica. When after only two years the profits from neither justified the headaches of running them from afar he sold them both – for a handsome profit.

Community Engagement

While becoming an increasingly successful businessperson, Jolly never forgot the racist student visa document he been forced to sign and the racial segregation he had experienced in Nova Scotia where, because he was Black, he could not attend an all-white church or enjoy a meal in a whites-only restaurant. Later, Jolly met Toronto landlords who assured him on the phone that an apartment was available but then became suddenly unavailable when he arrived to see it. When Jolly arranged for a white friend to visit the landlord, the apartment was available again. When buying his first house, the unwritten rules about where Black people could live in Toronto forced him to have a white friend pose as the purchaser while he pretended to be a contractor. He also found that some banks had more stringent loan conditions for Black than for white entrepreneurs. Others bluntly refused loans for Black-owned businesses. Jolly believed it was his responsibility to do what he could to help fight for racial equality.

Jolly became the treasurer of the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA). He learned more about racist organizations in Ontario such as the Western Guard Party that worked with the Canadian KKK to harass non-white people, spread racist propaganda, and urge the government to restrict non-white immigrants. The JCA’s headquarters was burned to the ground in a suspicious fire that all assumed but was never proven to be arson.

One of the targets of racist groups and individuals was Contrast, a Black newspaper that had been founded in 1969. Its articles reflected the kaleidoscope of the Black experience in Toronto from the perspective of long-time residents and more recent arrivals from Caribbean islands. In 1983, the paper was in financial trouble until Jolly saved it by infusing much-needed capital. He became its owner and publisher. The paper remained free to readers even as Jolly increased it from 16 to 24 pages, made it more professional looking with new computerized type-setting equipment, broadened its range of articles, and improved the quality of its writing. Under his leadership, Contrast became, according to the Toronto Star, the “eyes, ears, and voice of Canada’s Black community.” He ran the paper for three years before selling it to another Jamaican-born entrepreneur.

Jolly was angry when he saw Black Canadian athletes applauded for earning medals for their country in the 1982 Commonwealth Games but then having to endure racist discrimination when they returned home. He and some friends gathered leaders from Toronto’s diverse Black community and formed the Black Business and Professional Association. He was its founding president. It supported and publicized the success of Black businesspeople and professionals, partly through the annual Harry Jerome Awards and Scholarships. Meanwhile, he personally funded scholarships for even more aspiring young Black people.

In August 1988, Jolly became a founding member of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC). Its goal was to stop the harassment of Black citizens and the frightening regularity of white police officers being exonerated after shooting young Black men. The BADC wrote articles, staged demonstrations, lobbied politicians, and helped victims’ families. The Ontario government responded to a May 1992 Toronto riot that followed a peaceful protest organized by the BADC with an investigation that revealed and confirmed the depth of Toronto’s systemic anti-Black racism.

Denham Jolly

Radio

Jolly observed that among the problems facing Black youth in Toronto were the divisions within the Black community and a feeling of isolation as a minority within a predominantly white city. Part of a response to the problems, he decided, might be the creation of a Black-themed radio station that would play a range of Black music while offering Black voices and perspectives. He gathered other Black leaders and businesspeople and became the founder, president, and chief executive officer of Milestone Radio Inc. He then led the effort to have the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) grant Milestone the city’s one available radio frequency. The first question he was asked by the all-white commissioners was, “What is Black music?” He knew his group was in trouble. The license was granted to another group that proposed a country music station.

A few years later, another frequency came available and Jolly led another expensive and complex effort to earn it. The Canadian government sabotaged its own process by stating in advance that the frequency would go to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Finally, twelve years after first applying to the CRTC, his third application bid was successful.

In February 2001, Jolly’s FLOW 93.5 began broadcasting an energetic mix of R&B, reggae, rap, and stories told by Black on-air personalities about the Black community. Instead of having to tune into American stations, Black youth heard themselves reflected and their tastes respected over the air in their own city. As the station became increasingly successful, Jolly increased the power of its range so that it reached six million listeners across southern Ontario.

While a financial success, the station maintained its broader mission by promoting emerging Black artists, such as Drake. It provided scholarships for Black youth, staged free concerts, and supported Caribana, the annual celebration of Black-island culture. Not surprisingly, given the racial makeup of the region, 60% of FLOW’s listeners were white. This meant that more than just Black listeners were learning of the presence and vibrancy of the diverse Black culture that was a part of the Canadian mosaic. Jolly happily helped other Black music stations to form, first in Calgary and then elsewhere. After five years on the air, FLOW 93.5 was chosen as Canada’s best contemporary radio station.

Legacy

In his 70s, and pleased with the impact the radio station had made and that Black music had become mainstream, in 2011 Jolly sold Flow 93.5. He also sold his nursing homes. Jolly’s first marriage had ended in divorce and he later married Janice Williams. They traveled extensively, including to South Africa, where he had made generous donations to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to support its actions that helped end the state-sanctioned discrimination of Apartheid.

Jolly’s business acumen and community engagement were recognized through numerous local and national awards. Each recognized his dedication to his community and country and to the idea that Canada and Canadians will be better when there is justice for all through and the creation of a more equitable, non-racial nation whose reality matches its international image and the principles for which it stands.

I was invited to write this piece as an entry to the Canadian Encyclopedia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your social media of choice and consider leaving a comment.

 

Statler and Waldorf and the Gift of Now

This is a confession. I have become Statler and Waldorf. Those of a certain age will recall that Statler and Waldorf were Muppets. Watching the show on stage from their private box in the Muppet theatre, they were constantly critical, harumphing and grumping away. I felt like that last Saturday, but with a twist. My band was playing a gig and I was channelling my Muppet friends, an old fart observing, but this time from the stage watching the audience. I’d seen it before, of course, as we all have, but this time, right in the middle of singing and playing Peaceful Easy Feeling, and with only half my brain on the lyrics, melody, and guitar lines, it struck me.

You see, the crowd was good and with a line up at the door. Everyone looked like they were enjoying a good time. The band sounded tight and, like usual, we were having more fun than should be legal for grown men in public. The Canoe and Paddle pub is a gift to our community, run by great folks; it’s a gathering place for neighbours and friends and those who soon will be. But then, near the end of the first set, I noticed it.

Statler and Waldorf

At one table were two couples and all four were staring into phones, swiping the screens. I scanned the room. There was another young couple ignoring each other and the fun of the room, tip-tapping away. At a table with six obvious male and female friends, four were staring at phones. I counted four other people ignoring friends or spouses, intently concentrating on Steve Jobs’ gift to us all.

Why?

Are we information addicts? Is it not interesting that we can be out with friends or family, with good food and drink before us and engulfed in music and laughter, and yet be distracted by a vibration, buzz, or ding? When we tap the button to investigate are we not saying, “I have no idea who or what this is, perhaps a friend who just posted a picture of her dinner, or maybe a bomb blew up in Caraccas, but whoever or whatever it is, and I have no idea, I already find it more interesting than you and so I am going to ignore you now and check this out.” It seems to me that unless there is a babysitter back home or teenage children on the town, what can possibly be more important than the people with whom you have chosen to share this sliver of time?

Are we public diarists? Diaries used to have locks. Now they have megaphones. Psychologists often recommend that people keep diaries, or journals, to slow the pace and allow the rich rewards of reflection. Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, on the other hand, invite us to reflect by reflecting a mirror on our lives outward. We post what used to be private to the whole world. We then keep track of how many noticed and liked our latest entry and, indirectly, how many people like us. Psychologists agree that those who regularly post and read Facebook are more likely to experience angst and depression for they compare the ordinary of their lives with highlights of others. And there at the pub on Saturday were all those good folks more concerned with recording and sharing what was happening rather than truly immersing themselves in what was happening.

Do we need a witness? American soldiers moving through Italy and Europe often stopped to paint a crude cartoon of a man peering over a fence and wrote, “Kilroy Was Here”. A drive just north of our community takes you through the stunning Canadian Shield with tremendous sheered rock faces. It is tough to drive long without seeing that someone has spray painted their name, usually along with that of their true love. When our life ends, we have our name more permanently recorded, this time carved in stone. All three practices seem to be about the same thing: we have a need to let others know we are here. Our phones allow us to instantly summon witnesses to our existence without fighting a war, climbing a cliff, or dying. All those people on their phones last Saturday, while I was singing an Eagles song, were like the Whos on the clover held aloft by Horton the elephant yelling, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”

The song ended. Lots of fine folks applauded. I said thank you and glanced at those on phones. Three had put them down and were smiling and laughing with others. Good. But I noticed three new victims of our times ignoring the now. The now is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present. I may be a Statler and Waldorf grump from the wrong generation but it seems to me that the present is something that won’t last and so it’s worth savouring, for just a moment, without distraction.

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Rule One at the Men’s Book Club

I have always loved reading. I recall my Mom telling me to put the book down and go outside and play, and my sneaking it out with me. I was an active, sports-loving kid but she later told me that, despite being a voracious reader herself, she was sincerely worried about me reading so much. My first job was delivering 139 Burlington Post newspapers every Wednesday for which I was paid $1.39. (It was a while ago.) I used to save up, and every two weeks buy a bottle of coke and Hardy Boys book. It is my fascination with reading and books that led to my becoming a writer and, lately, to forming the Men’s Book Club.

I have always liked the idea of book clubs. To get together once a month to discuss a book seems like a grand idea. My dear wife belongs to a book club. I see her reading away, we talk about her current project, and she always arrives home from her book club meeting invigorated by the discussion; whether she particularly liked the book or not. But there were a few problems, in my estimation, with most book clubs. Around here, anyway, they involve only women, hosting meetings at your home with carefully considered drinks and snacks, and the reading of novels. The first left me out and the next two left me cold.

I spoke with a number of men in my Village who felt the same way. Hosting seemed like too much work and we agreed that we are fundamentally lazy. Like me, they read ten non-fiction books for every novel. Don’t get me wrong. I think novels are important and great and there have been many that I have truly enjoyed – springing to mind are The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Lottery, and my John Grisham junk food. But non-fiction is different. Non-fiction books feed my insatiable curiosity. To me, non-fiction books are like speaking with the smartest people around about the most fascinating events, people, and places. Others agreed and so we made a decision.

Rule One at the Men's Book Club

(Photo: www.123rf.com)

Our first Men’s Book Club met in February. Eleven showed up. We met at our local pub, the Canoe and Paddle, on a Sunday evening. No one had to tidy up their house and if you wanted something to eat or drink, the bar was right there. (We agreed that if there is beer involved, men will do just about anything, even read.)

After the pints arrived, we discussed the rules we should play by and it was established that the first rule of book club was that there were no rules. Perfect. Our second decision built on the first. Instead of us all reading the same book each month, we established themes. Our first month would be music, then the environment, and then, for the 100th commemoration of Vimy Ridge, war. Near the end, one gentleman said that he loved the idea of meeting for beer and chatting once a month but wondered if he really had to read a book. He was referred to rule one.

Our first Monday in March meeting was terrific. I had enjoyed Robbie Robertson’s Testimony. Others read books about or by Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, Bruce Coburn, Sting, and more. It was fascinating to learn how many talented singers and songwriters came from parents either physically or emotionally absent or abusive. It was revealing to see how long and hard they had all worked to become successful. It was also interesting to see that behind the sensitive lyrics, some are not really nice people. We wouldn’t have been able to make the connections if we’d all read the same book.

For our next meeting, I am now reading Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders. It is not really about the environment. It’s more cultural anthropology. But it’s close enough to the theme. If anyone complains, I’ll refer them to rule one.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more at http://www.johboyko.com or even some of my non-fiction books, available online through Chapters and Amazon and, as Stuart McLean used to say, at sensible book stores everywhere. (Miss you Stuart.)

 

The Guitar That Reminds Us Who We Are

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

It was 1995 and Canada was coming apart at the seams. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had decided that because Quebec had not signed the constitution when it was finally brought home from Britain in 1981, that he would seduce the signature by transferring a host of federal powers to it and the other provinces. The provinces loved it, of course. Then the whole package, called the Charlottetown Accord, went to the people in a national referendum. That’s when the arguments began. Revolutions had been fought about such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War deciding whether dominant power should rest with the federal or state governments. But Canadians are different. We reached not for guns but gavels. We debated in public meetings. We argued at kitchen tables, and over backyard fences. It got ugly.

Jowi Taylor reacted differently. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had worked as an auto worker but had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) that was sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the sacred tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on. Voyageur would be made from a piece of the sacred Golden Spruce.

The tree was an important and inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Gretsch at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the fragments had been collected and incorporated and the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later it was in Ottawa where preparations were being made for the Canada Day celebration. Renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need whether suffering the aftermath of World War Two, or the Vietnam War, or the Syrian War. We all know, and most of us recall, that we are nearly all from away and at one point we were the aliens on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada, after all, is less an entity than a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. Please consider sending this column to others.

Place and Change: Memphis Changes the World

A shy, skinny, eighteen-year-old truck driver walked into a tiny recording studio and asked to make a record for his mother’s birthday. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, asked if he was a singer. He looked down and mumbled that he was. She asked who he sounded like and he glanced up, grinned, and said, “I don’t sound like nobody.” And he was right. The world was about to change.

The ramshackle recording studio was in Memphis, Tennessee and that mattered. It mattered because place matters. Place has always been a catalyst of change. Memphis had become the continent’s largest inland port a hundred years before because it lay at the intersection of the mighty Mississippi that flowed from Minnesota, past Memphis, to the Gulf of Mexico and the Illinois Central Railway that tied the city to Chicago and New Orleans. Its serving as a vortex for people chasing a buck and a dream was rendered even more significant with the building of Highway 61 from New Orleans through Memphis to Canada. The river, rail, and road both fed and consumed post-WWII prosperity with a vibrancy that could be felt and, even more, heard. A new, angry, joyful, scary music raged as if the place inhaled surrounding sound then exhaled a hurricane.

place-and-change

The cotton fields that had ringed Memphis ensured that generations knew of the music African-American slaves sang to pass their sunup to sundown work days. Their songs were mournful melodies, chants, or call and response rousers that bled spirituality while expressing justifiable despair and inexplicable hope. From slave songs, field hollers, negro spirituals, and country-gospel, came the blues. In 1912, Memphis songwriter W. C. Handy was commissioned to pen a tune for a corrupt Memphis mayor and he called it Memphis Blues. He wrote a number of similar songs and, despite others claiming the title, became the father of the blues.

African American Memphis businessman, Robert Church, Sr., purchased land and supported the building of clubs, bars, and the Church Park and Auditorium along what became Beale Street. It offered every known vice and a few it made up. Beale Street became home to a number of African-American owned businesses and where bands and singers played the blues. It attracted performers from Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans and every time they came they taught, learned, and went home to spread the news.

The music industry was as segregated as the city. White record shops would not stock “race” music and white radio stations wouldn’t play it. By 1949, Billboard magazine writer Jerry Wexler had developed an appreciation for the new African American music and decided that instead of “race’ music, he would call it rhythm and blues (R&B). It worked. The new name seemed to make it less offensive to white audiences and some white radio stations began to play it. In popularizing the new sounds, Memphis radio stations joined Beale Street clubs where laws were broken and highway 61 honky tonks and juke joints where it was ignored altogether.

White society could segregate everything but radio proved that the air didn’t care. White and black folks in Memphis could hear the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, with its lively bluegrass, Appalachian folk ballads, and proud and corny country and western based on three chords and the truth. On other stations, they could hear blaring big bands playing quick-tempo jump and swing along with smooth pop epitomized by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But at the same time, Memphis radio station WDIA was among America’s first to risk R&B records and it even hired African American disc jockeys to play them, including young blues singer Rufus Thomas and Riley King, an exceptional blues guitarist who everyone called B.B. Dewey Phillips at WHBQ was the city’s most popular disc jockey. While he was white, his nine to midnight Red, Hot, and Blue show played black and white music to a black and white audience. The air over Memphis was desegregating sensibilities below.

Among the R & B records played were 1948’s Good Rockin’ Tonight by Wynonie Harris and Rockin’ At Midnight by Roy Brown. Everyone understood that rock and rockin’ were thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. Sex was absolutely taboo in a society where pregnant teenagers were exiled, sex education was unthinkable, and birth control could not even be purchased by married women. Pile atop that the racist terror of oversexed black men with designs on white women, then the sexed-up “race” music, no matter what it was called, and all the radio stations, clubs, and honky tonks popularizing it, meant that something was both degenerate and dangerous. But it was as unstoppable as the Mississippi.

Among those attracted to the growing Memphis music scene was Alabama disc jockey Sam Phillips. Phillips moved to Memphis in June 1945. His Saturday afternoon WREC radio show became as daring as Dewey Phillips (no relation) in mixing black and white records. While working for the radio station at big band shows at the swanky Peabody Hotel, he spoke with white musicians who claimed to play differently when they came to Memphis and having to convert back when they left. He was told of black musicians who played Beale Street bars as well as Highway 61 juke joints and honky tonks who also played and sang differently when in or near Memphis.

Phillips saw that the supply of R&B records was unable to meet demand and recognized an opportunity. He rented an old radiator shop in downtown Memphis at 706 Union Street and had it renovated. In January 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Studio. With primitive equipment, he recorded anyone with the money to rent time. Most left with nothing but their wax souvenir. Those with a unique song or style, though, found themselves signed to a deal that had Phillips license recordings to established companies that manufactured and distributed them. Through Phillips, independent companies along the rail, road and river lines in St. Louis, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Chicago’s Chess Records, began spreading the Memphis sound.

Among those Phillips recorded was B. B. King. King played a version of the blues that wrenched emotion from lyrics and, while still developing his style, defined songs with crisp guitar runs and riffs. Following King into the Memphis studio were bluesmen who honed their talents on Beale Street and whose music bled the amalgam of styles for which the city was becoming known: James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, Walter Horton, and the man who would become as legendary as B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf.

A Clarksdale, Tennessee disc jockey heard that Phillips was recording black singers. Ike Turner gathered his band and headed north. At first hearing, Phillips knew he had something special. Saxophonist Jackie Brenston sang the lead on a Turner composition called Rocket 88. The lyrics reveled in double entendre in equating a fast car to faster sex. The drums were relentless and the sax inventive. An amp had fallen off the car’s roof on the trip to Memphis and the resulting damage distorted the guitar, making it growl menacingly.

The 8-bar blues with the driving back beat sat perfectly at the core of the Venn diagram linking the pop, R&B, country, and the blues that Memphis musicians inhabited and traveling bands imitated. Phillips licensed the record to Chess Records and within weeks it was number one on the nation’s R&B charts with many pop stations and even country stations daring to play it. Rocket 88 was the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.

The success of Rocket 88 and other licensed recordings encouraged Phillips to launch his own record company. He called it Sun Records. Starting in February 1952, Sun enjoyed moderate success but Phillips grew increasingly frustrated by the persistent, racist resistance to R&B and blues records. He said to Marion Keisker, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” A little while later, on Saturday, June 26, 1954, the shy, skinny Memphis truck driver walked through his door to make his mama’s record. His name was Elvis Presley.

Phillips did not hear Elvis that day or a few months later when he returned to pay another four dollars to record again. When Phillips was again complaining about not being able to find the right singer to blend black and white, Keisker suggested the kid with the sideburns. Elvis was called and he ran to the studio, arriving panting for breath while Keisker was still on the line. Phillips had a couple of talented session players, guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, work with the kid. But that rehearsal and then a recording session revealed nothing particularly impressive. They were on a break when Presley spontaneously launched into an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup R&B song called That’s Alright Mama. Black and Moore jumped in, all three laughing at the loose-limbed, ragged sound they were making. But Phillips heard what he’d been searching for.

That’s Alright Mama was quickly pressed and a copy taken to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ. A couple of spins brought phones calls to hear it again and again. The record was played on Memphis radio stations and its local then regional success put Presley on the road. He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers, a black shop on Beale Street. His on-stage gyrations were variations of the black performers he had seen in Beale Street clubs. He sang, and then soon would record, more black, R&B songs. But with equal conviction, he wore his hair and sideburns in a defiant, white-trash truck driver style and also sang white ballads, gospel, pop, and the country numbers he loved. He was, in short, the embodiment of Memphis, the meeting place, with its new music absorbing influences from the lines that connected it to the world, synthesizing them, and sending them back with the challenge to question the barriers of class, race, age, and gender, and concepts of right and wrong, and fun and indecent.

Presley’s growing success afforded even more allure to Memphis. Carl Perkins grew up in grinding, rural Tennessee poverty. He took his guitar and dream to Memphis where he consummated the marriage of country and rock ‘n’ roll in a new variant called rockabilly. His second Sun Records release, Blue Suede Shoes, became a national hit for him and then Elvis. Hoping to become a gospel singer, Johnny Cash, moved from Arkansas to Memphis where Sam Phillips encouraged him to sing his own compositions including his second Sun release, Folsom Prison Blues. It contains music’s nastiest line: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Roy Orbison was enjoying little success in his native Texas but knew of the musical mecca that Memphis had become. He impressed Sam Philips with his three-octave range, was signed to Sun, and soon Ooby Dooby was a national hit. Jerry Lee Lewis attacked more than played a piano. He was drawn to Memphis from Louisiana and after a stint as a Sun Records session player, recorded Crazy Arms and then the blatantly sexual Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Lewis, Perkins, Cash, and Presley, Sun Records, December 1956. (Photo: The Commercial Appeal)

By 1956-’57, the new music that Memphis had been central to creating was topping national charts, being heard on TV, and filling juke boxes, theatres, and arenas. Parents were yelling upstairs to turn that noise down. Rock ‘n’ roll had become a central element in the transformation of first America and then the western world from old to new. It provided an impetus and soundtrack for the move from the white, patriarchal, sexually repressed world of segregated people and ideas to what would become the more liberal, modern era. Rock ‘n’ roll was the voice of the baby boom, the gigantic demographic whose power was its numbers and a determination to be heard its creed. Rock ‘n’ roll was the notification that the generation that had survived the Depression and war and now yearned for things to be calm, controlled, and predictable, was losing its existential battle for cultural supremacy. It was the bridge from the composed assurance of Eisenhower to the audacious vibrancy of Kennedy.

Memphis was the place of change and the change could not be contained. Up Highway 61, in Hibbing Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman heard the news and would soon change his name to Dylan and immortalize the highway in song. Across the Atlantic, sailors smuggled American records into Liverpool and Manchester where kids named John, Paul, Mick, and Keith studied them and then helped England lead rock ‘n’ roll’s second wave and, with it, inaugurate a new phase in the generational revolution. Place would matter again in causing change. And the change began in Memphis.

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Change and the Occasional Value of Celebrity

The grocery store often surprises me. It’s not the prices or odd stuff masquerading as food but the checkout line’s celebrity gossip magazines. I’ve never understood why we should care about the personal lives of those good at hitting a ball or note or at pretending to be someone else. But I know I’ve passed a certain milestone when I don’t recognize the pretty faces or even many of the names of those blessed with good cheekbones, talent, or luck. But don’t get me wrong. There is value in some celebrity.

Let’s consider Johnny Cash. Really, stick with me. Johnny Cash is not just a celebrity but also an existential hero and as such he’s among the few celebrities who offer important lessons for us all. Think for a moment of what we can learn from his contradictions and lives, yes, plural, his lives.

Life One: Gospel. Johnny Cash walked into Memphis, Tennessee’s Sun Records and demanded to be heard. Owner and producer Sam Phillips was unimpressed by a half dozen gospel songs. “I’ve got a hundred people that sing gospel and most better than you.” he said, “What else ya’ got?” Cash glanced at his guitarist and stand-up bass player and whispered, “Follow me.” He launched into a tune he’d written in the army: Folsom Prison Blues. The gospel singer had written: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” That’s nasty.

Life Two: Rockabilly. Cash was soon on the road with a package show that included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. They all sang rockabilly – a Mississippi Delta marriage of blues, bluegrass, country, and pop. Cash enjoyed a string of regional and then a few national hits with his unique rockabilly style and booming baritone. It wouldn’t last.

Life Three: Country. The uppers they were all given to keep them on the road and stage tore him down. They ripped his records from the charts. They nearly killed him. The Grand Ole Opry fired him. Falling in love with June Carter saved his life and career. She wrote him Ring of Fire and he wrote a bunch more. Cash was was reborn as a country singer.

He gathered songs he had found or written for the hurt, forgotten, and unredeemed and performed them for inmates behind the slate gray walls of Folsom Prison. The concert recording crossed him to the mainstream and won him a weekly television show. Ever the rebel, he insisted on guests like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. By the 1980s, though, country had become slick and corporate and Cash had become old-fashioned. He was dropped from his record company.

Life Four: Folk. Cash returned to drugs. Once again he was saved by June and Jesus and this time by an eccentric producer who challenged him to dig deeper and do better. Rick Rubin stripped Nashville from Cash’s music and tore it down to the rudimentary strumming of his big Gibson guitar – three chords and the truth. They made a series of albums called the American Recordings. Each was better than the last.

Johnny Cash At Central Park SummerStage

(Photo:Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

So what? Well, Johnny Cash’s lives were all about contradictions. He proves that there is enough bad in the best of us and enough good in the worst of us that it hardly suits any of us to speak ill of the rest of us.

But there is more. He didn’t mean to but he ended up proving that we are capable of re-inventing ourselves. We can be knocked down and disappointed. Unearned riches or stupid luck can embarrass us. We can suffer demoralizing failure or our lives can be radically altered by something we didn’t see coming and never deserved. But no matter what is tossed at us or whatever hurdles we create and throw before ourselves there is always a chance to invent anew.

That is existentialism. Put simply, we create our own meaning. We create ourselves. For whatever we’re not or without, we can’t blame our parents or God or the stars or anything or anyone else. The flip side, for those old enough to recall what a flip side used to be, is that we can take justifiable pride in anything at which we succeed. There is no arrogance in that. We know about accidents of birth and teamwork and flukes. Existentialism, though, says that we are the art and artist and should sign our work. Our best work is us.

So next week at the grocery store when I look at the made up, poofed up, botoxed faces about whom I am apparently supposed to care, I’ll recall Johnny Cash’s craggy mug. I’ll know that sometimes there are celebrities whose work and lives are valuable for the lessons they provide. And for that reason, sometimes, just sometimes, celebrities may matter a little after all.

(Watch this American Recording video and try not to be moved by a folk singer at work and with contradictions and reinventions on his mind.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FywSzjRq0e4

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