Sunday, 11 July 2010

Martin Luther King and Blues Music

I recently read Strength to Love, a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King. I was blown away by his eloquence, the coherence of his vision and by his passion. There are quotable quotes on every page. I'll give you a few to whet your appetite.

God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace. (from "A Tough Mind and a Tender heart")

The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a non-comforming minority. (from "Transformed Non-conformist")

Never must the church tire of reminding men that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent. (from "Love in action")

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. (from "Loving your enemies")

If an American is concerned only about his nation, he will not be concerned about the peoples of Asia, Africa or South America. Is this not why nations engage in the madness of war without the slightest sense of penitence?...The good neighbour looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers. (from "On being a good neighbour" - I'm sure this applies to Australians too!)

King is known as an activist, not as a thinker, and his gift was to present ideas in a way that moved his listener and reader to action. A lot of these sermons deal in one way or another with the issue of racism and racial segregation which was his special mission. Yet his concerns were much wider - with theology, war, greed, all the evils which beset both his time and ours.

He had plenty of emotion, but he was also highly educated, and built his arguments carefully and thoughtfully, appealing to the mind as well as the heart. This is perhaps one of the reasons he was able to unite black and white opponenets of racial secregation. He could speak both languages, and speak to everyone. He lived what he preached, responding to people as people.

Last night I watched something else that reminded me of this - a DVD called Red, White and Blues, one of a series produced by Martin Scorcese. It tells the story of how blues music crossed the Atlantic and was taken up by white British musicians. In the USA, racial segregation meant that few white people heard this music, and the likes of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and BB King were relatively unknown in the 1960s. However, in the UK (even though racism was alive and well) there was no such segregation, and the white boys who fell in love with this music - people like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the original members of Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones - were often hooked before they even realised it was played by black people.

Eventually these musicians became famous enough in the UK to try their luck in the United States. Of course they were allowed to play white venues, and white kids who enjoyed their music soon learned where it came from and went looking for the originals - the black bluesmen still plying their trade in small clubs around the country.

Music has no race. White men get the blues in just the same way as black men. Neither Mick Jagger nor Muddy Waters was a saint, but there they are on the cover of Red, White and Blues, sharing a stage and even a microphone as they indulge in their common passion. They've looked beyond the external accidents, and discovered their common humanity through their music.

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