music · postwar

honored to teach these students

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Carla Thomas singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

I just graded the in-class reflections for students enrolled in my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Music and Young America” course this semester. I am speechless. They absolutely leave me speechless. They give me hope for the future no matter the headlines.

Yesterday, I shared “Wattstax,” a documentary about a 1972 concert in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles with them. Typically, I let the entire film run. But some of the content was hard to hear given today’s social climate. Given that and the time constraints, I had to show snippets and narrate it a bit. Turns out that approach was perfect.

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Our topic was “community.” I wanted the students to see how the African American community in Los Angeles participated in the so-called “black” Woodstock. Woodstock was a three-day concert in upstate New York that took place in 1969. Like the six-hour concert in Watts, which featured artists from the Memphis-based Stax label, Woodstock celebrated music.  Many of the audience members were young people who figured into the counterculture scene.

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The 1969 Woodstock concert had a predominantly white audience of mostly young people.

Wattstax was about more than music. This concert memorialized the 1965 Watts riots. It was also a vehicle to honor community as demonstrated in the attendance of young and older people.

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Young woman dancing at Wattstax concert.

The students got to see Rufus Thomas dance to the “Funky Chicken” at this concert. An orderly audience got out on a stadium field to dance with him.

All this was on display as the documentary, which won a Golden Globe in 1974, showed African American people in Los Angeles lamenting the difficulties they had experienced as people of color in America. Some had returned from Vietnam, unhappy to see that not much had changed for them. It was hard to hear such stories while also hearing the joy in people who only three years earlier had learned of King’s assassination. It was a pleasure seeing how my students digested the resilience of this community in spite of. Some of the student lamented, too, how we seem to be walking backwards. But most understood how music creates a space to escape our shared pain as also seen in a video featuring improvised gospel singing enjoyed at an Oprah gathering.

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Isaac Hayes, or Black Moses, singing at Wattstax.

I enjoyed, too, seeing how some of the students understood that, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, there is no monolithic black community, or no “single story” one could tell about such people who, as historian Sterling Stuckey has told us, managed to unite on the basis of their shared past to the continent shortly after arriving here in the place we call the United States.

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Political leaders, among them Jesse Jackson who witnessed King’s murder, attended Wattstax, a peaceful concert.

I completed the writing of the Midterm exam today and am excited to administer it next week. I have never said such a thing because it means grading. But I am looking forward to seeing what these young minds have to say about the world around them and how music helps us sort through so much. Roll Tide.

PS Before they saw the movie, they learned more about our messy postwar world. For example, the Stax label was founded by Jimmy Stewart and Estelle Axton, a white brother and sister team. The label is known for helping with the creation of the southern soul sound. Think horns and organ alongside other instruments. I loved juxtaposing this concert with the 1967 Monterey Pop Music Festival, which had a more diverse audience who were touched by many including the likes of Otis Redding. See clip below and walk down memory lane.

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