[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]
Now’s a time for questioning assumptions, biases, and conventional wisdom, and I’m always drawn to songs that make me rethink language that I’ve taken for granted. The beautiful title track to Benjamin Booker’s new album does just that by shining a bright light on that word — witness — from every possible angle.
The electrified gospel tune features Mavis Staples, who repeatedly asks “Am I gonna be a witness?” between verses that describe oppression, injustice, and violence. (“Everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground.”) The repetition of Staples’ question actually reads “Am I/Am I/Gonna be a witness/Gonna be a witness,” which echoes like rumination when you type it out, and it invites you to consider all the ways you can be a witness to something.
A quick list of relevant definitions:
You see something illegal happening that has little or no impact on you.
Something illegal happens, you’re impacted, and you’re able to give an account. (You don’t die.)
You know something illegal is happening but don’t do anything to prevent the situation from continuing.
You’re present during an exceptional time or event and can give an account.
You can validate someone else’s experience.
5 connects beautifully to the gospel tradition the song draws on (“Can I get a witness?”), and I think we can agree we’re all experiencing 4. They all invite and warrant serious rumination. Which have you experienced? Why or why not? Which might you be experiencing without knowing? Now is a time for questioning.
Been gnawing on a bunch of non-bloggy writing, but I thought I’d share one thing I’ve been playing on repeat while I work — “Romeo,” from Ian Chang’s upcoming album, Spiritual Leader.
I’ve gotten to know Chang’s virtuosic drumming via Landlady and Son Lux, and its hard to overstate how captivating he is in the live setting. He’s a show unto himself, which makes a solo album — especially this solo album — a natural fit.
Chang’s using a type of technology that allows him to express a wide range of sounds with his kit — sensory percussion, it’s called. Two things jump out: 1. He really can be a show unto himself this way, and 2. This opens the door to a whole new way of listening — form, tonality, decision-making… you get to think a little differently about all of it given how the music is being created.
And you get to hear Ian Chang play drums, which is always a gift. “Romeo” is below, and the preorder is here.
You know that feeling when a song references where you’re from? That sense of collective pride? These are a few of the songs that give me that feeling. I originally intended to list more, but these five had such interesting backstories, and I couldn’t resist diving a bit deeper. Fingers crossed I get to do another post expanding the list.
With that in mind, I hope you’ll take a look and spread the word — and please share which songs you’d have included. I won’t list all five of mine here, but I will say that there’s a mix of instrumentals and songs with lyrics, that Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved, and that I hope folks take this opportunity to get to know Daniel Bachman’s music a little better. His playing is steeped in history, from his stylistic depth to song titles that pay homage to the region is different ways.
Here’s the song of his I included in the post, the title track from his 2014 Orange Co. Serenade album.
We’re just a few hours away from one of the Friday Cheers shows I was most psyched about when the schedule was announced, and while it was Conor Oberst’s name that first got my attention (big fan of Bright Eyes, never seen him live… been enjoying Salutations…), I’ve been getting more and more jazzed about seeing Big Thief’s opening set.
Just a couple of days ago, NPR posted a new Big Thief tune called “Mary,” and I’m totally in awe of it. The word “perfect” comes to mind. It’s stately but not staid… carefully crafted yet natural… complex in spite of the fact it was recorded in one take… It actually reminds me of the Devon Sproule tune I posted last week, only it strings together the past instead of the present.
Fingers crossed we get to hear it tonight. See y’all on Brown’s Island.
I first started writing this blog in 2011. The decision to do so was fairly spontaneous, and I had no idea that writing about music would change my life as much as it has. I might have expected that I’d learn about bands and albums, and that my world would expand in that way, but I couldn’t have guessed that I’d meet so many people who make the universe seem like a bigger, more beautiful place.
Two of those people play in Afro-Zen Allstars. One is Brian Cruse, the friendly, talented, and in-demand bassist I interviewed for River City Magazinein 2015. The other is the band’s founder, leader, and arranger, George M. Lowe, who is the subject of my latest article for the magazine. A short time back, Lowe and I met up at Addis downtown for Ethiopian food and an interview. As was the case with Cruse, we talked for nearly two hours, and I walked away amazed at Lowe’s warmth, his bravery, and his other-worldly devotion to music. That’s where the title of the article came from (the “Golden” part is a reference to the Ethiopian music that inspired Lowe to form the Allstars). I hope you’ll take a look online or find a print copy. I have a feeling you’ll end up as devoted to Afro-Zen Allstars as I am.
Many thanks, George, for all your help, and for making the world a bigger, more joyful, and better sounding place.