Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Godfather of Soul - a New Year's Eve reflection on a social landscape


In the Tidbit post of a few days ago I mentioned places that had an emotional and physical impact upon me. This post is about an event that grabbed me by the balls and wouldn't let go.

This morning, as I was having a cup of coffee, I was reading an article in the morning paper about James Brown and the tribute gathering of over 8,500 people in Augusta, Ga. One woman commented that it was 30 years ago that she first saw James Brown in concert, and, WHAMMO, I realized that it was 30 years ago that I first saw him in concert. correction - it was 40 years ago that I first saw him (thanks to Gary Filkins for catching this one).

Actually, I wasn't in attendance as a concert-goer, I was there to photograph the event and that's why my photographs have an on-stage perspective - that's where I was, on stage with The Godfather of Soul. With all of the whirling dervish and raw emotional/physical energy that James Brown put down, being on stage, at times between him and the audience, was a hair raising and spine tingling experience, to say the least. But that's only part of the story.

Those of you who are good with math and have a good memory (or a knowledge of history) will have already deduced that this performance took place during that mid-sixties period of "long, hot summers" when many American black inner-cities erupted with riots. Riots, that for many, seemed rather unreal or Kafka-esque - this was America after all, things like that don't happen here. Well, in fact, things like that did happen, as well as the lynching of blacks, the murder of young civil rights workers, and the assassination of black and white leaders. To say that there was racial divide and anger in America was a vast understatement. And, to say that there were some angry black men (and women) - many, rightfully so - was also an understatement.

So, there I was, a big-target, Levittown-style raised (no blacks here), private school (no blacks here) white boy, sandwiched (figuratively and literally) between two social landscapes and sandwiched between the Godfather and his held-in-the-palm-of-his-hand emotionally-charged audience. There might have been another white guy in the place - a huge packed-to-the-rafters auditorium/gymnasium/plane hanger (on the island of Okinawa, Japan and if memory serves, on an Air Force base) - but, if there were, he wasn't anywhere near my fish-bowl like spot. Safe to say , James Brown was not the only one sweating on stage (another understatement).

Did I feel in physical danger? Kind of sort of, but not really. Was it stupid to feel that way? Kind of sort of, but not really - it only takes one idiot (black or white) in a crowd to start a riot. Did I feel a deep and disturbing sense of ill-at-ease? Oohhh, yes. Was it because I was surrounded by a sea of black people? Yes, but not because they were black. Were there any problems? No, not a single one. Nothing. Nada. Did I come away changed? Yes. Up to that point in my life, the civil rights movement had my complete sympathy and support, but always in a rather intellectual and removed sort of manner. Did I plan to become a civil rights worker in the deep south or urban America? No, but I did resolve to become very actively involved in the Robert Kennedy campaign upon my return to the US - but that's a whole 'nother story.

Thank you and goodbye, Mr. Brown.

addendum - Interestingly enough, years later after moving to Pittsburgh PA, I was regularly given photography assignments (for Pittsburgh Magazine) in the Hill District - Pittsburgh's once thriving, then (and still) decaying prominent black neighborhood - simply because, talent aside, I would go there. When the magazine did a special edition day-in-the-life project, I was, of course, assigned The Hill (the inspiration for tv's Hill Street Blues) as one of my areas to cover. On assignment I was stopped by a cop who informed that I was "insane, stupid and a complete idiot" - somewhat of an overstatement, but, since I was stupid, I guess he wanted to be sure I got his point - to be walking around that neighborhood with all of that expensive camera gear hanging from my neck and shoulders.

Did I feel in physical danger? No. Did I feel a deep and disturbing sense of ill-at-ease? No. Were there any problems? No, not a single one. Nothing. Nada.

3 Comments:

Blogger Gary Filkins said...

''Those of you who are good with math . . .''

. . this performance took place during that mid-sixties period . . .''


Ummm ... I suppose this will strike some as overly picky, but wouldn't that make it 40 years ago?

(or the mid-seventies . . )

1/01/2007 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger scotth said...

There still is a racial divide in this country. Unfortunately, it is a big one.

1/01/2007 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger gravitas et nugalis said...

Gary - thanks - it was early in the morning and my head wasn't awaken and the number 30 just stuck in my head....

scotth - couldn't agree more... and now it's compounded by a class/economic divide as well...

1/01/2007 07:19:00 PM  

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