Mary Beth Writes

10/12/2022

“You’re holding them to a past they were never stuck in.”

Credit this quote: On twitter I follow Thomas V. Bona (@tvbona). He’s the only person in my entire life, I think, who has recognized my name from when I wrote for The Other Side, a now kaput magazine of and for progressive Evangelicals. (A niche market, I’ll grant you, but a niche I fit in the 1980's.) Anyway, Thomas Bona’s self-bio includes he’s an “electric Mennonite” which hooked me at hello. I know people who are or were Mennonite and if you think they are about canned beans and prayer bonnets, you don’t really know Mennonites. Right, Hedy?

Bona comments a lot about music I barely recognize, but his remarks are so interesting I follow him anyway. Before he met me Len tutored a woman who said about him, “I never know what he’s talking about but I like the way he says it.” I feel this way about Thomas V. Bona.

This morning, talking about a U2 album apparently some people like and some don’t, Bona advised listeners to listen some more and to not “hold them to a past they were never stuck in.”

Bingo. There’s a novel in ten words.

Like when you go back to your family of origin and they are still expecting you to act the way you did decades ago. When you failed some hard math test an age ago and you are still sure you can’t figure out a tip on a check. When you voted Republican often in your life and can’t figure out what you are going to do now. Even Liz Cheney is talking how to vote American constitution. When we talk abut our childhood decades as being “better and more moral and upright” than this decade we are in now. All the ways we allow others and ourselves to regard success as happy circumstance and failure as the lane we live in.

I’m watching Ken Burn’s Jazz documentary series. It’s 20 hours long and I love it like crazy, so if you didn’t watch it when it was on TV and you are wondering what to do come winter, I highly recommend.

Briefly (because you can read Wikipedia as well as I can) Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, in 1901, into brutal poverty; his childhood neighborhood was so violent it was called The Battlefield. Louis ran the streets, was often hungry, listened to and knew who all the players were. Kind adults, dangerous adults. Adults who sold sex for income. Adults who cheated. Adults who ignored him and adults who saw him and shared a little of who they were and what they had. And there was music everywhere.

By age 6 Louis was working for the Karnoffskys, an immigrant family of Lithuanian Jews. He helped their sons collect "rags and bones" and deliver coal. Mrs. Karnoffsky fed little Louis a good dinner every night before he left to go home. Sometimes she sang Russian lullabies to her kids; Louis hung around to learn those tunes, too.

Louis got into trouble enough that by age 11 he was remanded to the “Home for Colored Waifs” where a music teacher taught him how to play the coronet.

Louis quit school early. As an adolescent Louis kept listening to and doing his best to participate in the non-stop music of New Orleans and the Mississippi River boats. He met people who would become minor and major influences and mentors in his life.

In August of 1922 his mom packed him a trout sandwich and made him wear long underwear because she’d heard it was cold in Chicago. Louis then boarded a train to Chicago where his adult life as one of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century would begin and thrive.

Armstrong and His Hot Five recorded ‘West End Blues’ in 1928. There are no words for the invitation and perfection of this music. Listen right here. 

'West End Blues' pops right up in my phone because I listen to it so much. I realized yesterday the music now brings to mind the trees that line the path I walk along when I’m coming home from the Y. I don’t use earbuds, I just set it loud, put the phone in my pocket, let the music take me home.

“You’re holding them to a past they were never stuck in.”

These two things: In West End Blues you can hear, if you are listening for it, the music wild little Louis heard and breathed into himself. You can hear the pace of a poverty-strapped life in a culturally saturated place. Don’t go frantically, but don’t stop. Life is difficult but it’s also beautiful so keep moving. There are echoes of musicians Armstrong knew that I will never recognize because I’m not that good at knowing music. There’s a world to know and unpack in his music; I know it’s there and I respect it and I keep reading and paying attention because the history and stories are remarkable and fascinating.

But I also hear, and feel, lack of judgement. Armstrong is not trying to be as good as, or better than others. He’s not competing. He’s not in this to win or lose. He’s closing his eyes, leaning back, blowing that horn. He’s listening for the music inside him and aiming without fear to get it out. He’s an artist inventing what his head and heart can invent. He comes from his own story, for sure. But his story is his language, not his tether.

It moves me. There is so much to modern life that is competition. We lose or win. We are scared that others are taking our peace and equanimity.

But at the end of a day, we get to shut off the words and fall into whatever tells us to breathe steady and keep moving.

...

Louis, playing to his wife. 

 

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