Two news items struck me this morning: Etta James passed away, and President Obama began an appearance at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater by singing the first line of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
There are many things one could say about all that, but my first thought was that the two headlines, appearing next to each other, reflect how much music is part of our daily life, our national identity. Music in a good way, not scary anthems chanted by jackbooted gangs, or seductive jingles designed by Madison Avenue staff psychologists. Music bubbling up from the people, reflecting what we have in common, rather than what divides us.
I have played in a lot of cover bands over the years. Etta James’ version of “At Last” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” were both so popular that any self-respecting cover band had to know them. Bar gigs, corporate gigs, weddings, birthday parties… people always requested those songs (among other classics like “Mustang Sally”, “Proud Mary”, “Respect”…).
Of course, musicians sometimes get tired of being human juke boxes, but these songs are so good, little gems that almost play themselves if you let yourself be the vehicle for their expression, that I never get tired of playing them (at least when the band can play them well!), and I never get tired of seeing the unifying effect they have on people.
When I saw that Etta James, an ordinary person with an extraordinary voice, had passed on, the sadness was overshadowed by the thought of how much her music follows me around, follows all of us around, and adds to our lives.
This thought was reinforced by the other headline, as I imagined Barak Obama, the President of the United States, launching into “I’m so in love…” as easily as any public figure might quote Shakespeare, Lincoln, or King. Because the lyrics and the melody are so much a part of our national consciousness, that singing a snippet of a song can express beautifully and clearly our shared history, identity and humanity.
So, it was sad to see another musical icon has died, but it was good to be reminded of what the music in us is really all about.