Saturday, December 27, 2008

Porgy & Bess, Mom, Cadillac Records and Obama's Promised Land

"I'm on my way to a Heav'nly Lan',
I'll ride dat long, long road.
If You are there to guide my han'.
Oh Lawd, I'm on my way."

This final chorus from Gerswhin's Porgy and Bess (lyrics by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin), reminded me of my mother, who passed away on Labor Day. She loved music, was a musician herself and would have relished this particular opera, which I saw performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Dec. 19.

This is an opera that everyone should see before they die. It's like a Grand Canyon of human experience. It's all there: Love, death, murder, redemption, passion. As a uniquely American creation, it's a compassionate look at an impoverished African American community in South Carolina in the 1920s. Porgy is disabled -- a "cripple" in the libretto. He falls in love with Bess, a drug-addicted woman who is often a poor judge of character. After a hurricane, two murders and the loss of most of the men in the community to the storm, she wanders off to New York with the pusher of Catfish Row, "Sportin' Life." Porgy follows, hoping to find that "heavn'ly lan'"

Over the years, Porgy has received dollops of criticism over Gershwin's take on Catfish Row. Was he perpetuating stereotypes or simply telling a tale of the human condition? What business did a successful New York Jewish songsmith have writing about poor black people in the south? I think every generation comes to a different conclusion. What's undeniable is the haunting beauty of the music: The soaring lullaby "Summertime," and the love aria "Bess You is My Woman." There's wit, charm, the blues, despair and great hope in this work of art. I knew my Mom would've enjoyed it as she did so many other operas, musicals and concerts in Chicago.

My Mom grew up mostly without a father, since he died when she was young. He was an illustrator who worked during the Depression and by all accounts was a decent, kind and hard-working man. Her mother had to go to work in a bank to support them in their small apartments on the North Side of Chicago. Since she was born when my grandmother was well into her middle age, most of my Mom's cousins were much older than she was and only got to know a handful of them. I suspect that for my Mom, her extended family was her immediate circle of friends, most of whom attended Catholic schools. Nevertheless, with her mother at work and no siblings, I suspect she had to keep herself company quite a bit, which she did with her books and music. She was an excellent pianist, writer and artist, although she gave up most of these pursuits when she was raising her four sons.

When she got to college, Mom aspired to be a speech therapist and attended Mundelein College. She never finished her degree because she got married and had children right away. That's what couples did in the 1950s. They were busy repopulating the earth after the most horrible war in history. They did a reasonably good job, having produced some 77 million new Americans from 1946 to 1964.

I always wonder what and who my Mom would've become if she chose to follow her career instead of immediate child rearing. Having four babies in five years could not have been easy. She had no siblings, so she didn't have any experience to relate to; her mother wasn't around to help when we were young. Our nuclear family was never really that close.

Somehow I think my mother would've gotten involved in women's or civil rights. She may have even gotten her PhD or taught. She never articulated to me what she thought her "promised land" was, although I'm fairly sure it wasn't a vision of George Bush's America.

We've just emerged from this era of unprecedented exploitation. By pushing the American Dream button at every opportunity, the corporate/commercial chieftains have snookered us into believing that we could take advantage of market forces to create a secure retirement, build home equity and provide decent health care. It's all been a lie. The promised land is not a market economy. There were no gentle shepherds in this world, only wolves. As we enter the age of reckoning, we will have to revisit what happened in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in order to rebuild the temple of our civilization.

What will the new promised land look like in Barack Obama's America? Will his "green deal" put enough people back to work to make a difference? Will he save the financial system from collapse? Like my Mom, he grew up most of his life with a working mother and absent father. He turned inward for his most powerful spiritual resources.

We have to move on to discover how great we can become. I also gleaned some insights on the migration of the soul from the movie "Cadillac Records," the story of Chicago's Chess Records. The Chess brothers, Polish Jews, had a talent for spotting great bluesmen and women, who were wandering up north to escape the bleak poverty of the Mississippi Delta and the despair of the Jim Crow South and sharecropping. These men and women were contemporaries of my mother, always striving to share their art, trying to live a decent life.

In the film, we see the blues genius Muddy Waters electrifying his delta blues from an extension chord strung out an apartment window on the South Side. Etta James struggles with heroin addiction enroute to reinventing the ballad. Howlin' Wolf stands up for his own integrity. Chuck Berry invents rock n'roll, is promptly ripped off by white artists like the Beach Boys and goes to prison for violating the Mann Act during the height of his career. Toward the end of the movie, when the African American artists are wondering where their royalties went, we see several lawsuits flash on the screen before the credits that net seemingly paltry settlements for legends like Willie Dixon, whose pieces were purloined by groups like Led Zeppelin.

While I know that my Mom didn't care a whole lot for the blues, rock n'roll and R&B, the fact that there was always music in our house laid the groundwork for the appreciation of these artists. We heard a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Peter, Paul & Mary and any number of crooners. The Beatles and the rockers of the late 1960s and early 1970s weren't especially welcome by my musician father ("anyone can play three chords"), although when I finally got out to hear the blues played in the thriving clubs of Chicago, everything came full circle from Bach to John Lee Hooker.

Music was pretty much a second language in our home. At certain points in our adolescence and early adulthood, my brothers and I were definitely speaking different dialects than our parents. We developed our own tastes. I even played in a wedding/party band for a short stretch in the early 1980s, playing some of the worst ballads and dance music ever written. One memorable New Year's Eve, our band "The Sounds of Distinction" (called the "Sounds of Extinction" by my brother Dan), tried in vain to get some partygoers at a welding company party to dance. They were worse than zombies for two sets. The third set they had enough to drink so that their inhibitions were diminished. We then proceeded to play "Proud Mary" three times and wanted to go home, but their equivalent of lighting cigarette lighters to request an encore -- igniting a blinding oxyacetylene torch -- convinced us to play it one more time.

There are myriad mysteries in life, but no matter how distant we become from our parents, there is always a spiritual thread that binds us invisibly through time to them. For me, it was music and literature to my mom and mostly music to my Dad. I miss my Mom and pray that she is happy and well, hopefully in her own promised land.

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