I happened to be listening to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross today, when her guest, songwriter Mark Mulcahy, busted into a kick-ass version of the theme song for the 1970s sitcom Maude. As I listened, I realized what a cool feminist anthem it is:
I love old-fashioned social dancing to swing and blues music, but sometimes the music we move to with passion and joy has its roots in true tales of tragedy and sacrifice. What do you expect from the blues? On Tuesday night I was hanging at Denver’s Mercury Cafe when I watched the dance floor fill to a soulful blues song I’d never heard before. The singer repeated a name over and over: “Viola, Viola…”
A girlfriend sitting next to me asked, “Do you know who this woman was? I’ve done some studying of the Civil Rights Movement, but I don’t remember hearing about her.” I felt kind of stupid, because I had been so focused on the music, I didn’t even realize the song had anything to do with civil rights.
Here’s the chorus of the song, Color Blind Angel, by Robin Rogers:
Viola, Viola, you laid your young life down.
From Selma to heaven, 3 Ks took you out.
Color blind angel battled bigotry.
Viola, Viola lives on in history.
For non-professional dancers, dancing is typically an occasional social activity, but for me it is the axis on which my whole social life turns. When I’m simply listening to music, I prefer alternative and acoustic rock, but when I dance, it’s all about swing and blues. Last weekend, I danced into another era, at a Denver event called Lindy Diversion. Swing dancers took classes all day, and danced to a live band or DJ all night — until 4:00 a.m. if they could stay awake. For those of us who dance the Lindy hop, obsession “don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
When I dance, it’s all about swing and blues.
I grew up with my grandmother, and she and I used to enjoy watching old movies together, especially the musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly and anybody. Whenever the music was swing, I wanted to jump up and jitterbug, though I had no idea how. I cut my teeth on big band music by the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glen Miller. My tastes later expanded to the bad-ass swing, jump-blues, and rhythm-and-blues of artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ray Charles. My grandmother used to sing the songs of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday while doing housework. So, for me, the music of that era hits the same emotional note as the smell of Grand-mom’s homemade apple pie. It’s the soundtrack of my childhood, though it was recorded before my time.
“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…” Jack Kerouac.
My girlfriend and I came to Chicago because we plan to drive Route 66, and it would seem wrong to hit that storied road without slipping into Chicago’s notorious past. That means jazz. If you’re going to jazz it up right, late night’s the ticket. It’s almost 10:00 when we grab a cab to take us to the oldest continuously operating jazz club in Chicago, an old speakeasy called the Green Mill.
In winter, I think of Colorado resorts in terms of skiing. In summer, I think of the Rocky Mountains in terms of hiking. If I crave outdoor music, sometimes I buy a ticket to a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater. But this cost-cutting year, I’m re-mixing my seasonal favorites into new combos. On this Sunday, I mix Copper Mountain with world class guitarists with “free.” Through dumb luck, I find myself at an event that prompts me to tell my husband, “Ten years from now, we’ll tell people, ‘We were there when…'”