By Katherine Johnson
August 09, 2019
There comes a time in life when you are compelled by a failing biology, sometimes slow and sometimes sudden, that tomorrow may be the final sunset and if not, that you most certainly have one less to live. I have reached that place and found it populated with joys and regrets, things fulfilled and things undone, of time wasted and time lived in completeness, an indelible sum of my loves and my hatreds, debts long due and unpaid, and my memory of people that came and went, but to name just a few of what is there.
Rarely is one afforded the luxury to be able to revisit matters, that if were adjudicated cases would be denied this luxury because they are no longer timely. What follows is one of those moments where failing biology compelled me to go to that place and attempt to reopen matters long, long, gone by paying a debt with words that I should have said long ago but never did.
I have withheld the names of these two teachers who, unbeknownst to them, had a profound impact on my life that played out over its decades. The calculus of withholding their names is out of respect for their privacy. Finally it must be said that without them and one more, my titan, B.J. Rolfzen, I would never have found my voice, a mute for the ages I would have been. In my regrets is that I never took the time to let Mr. Rolfzen know of my enduring love and equally enduring gratitude to him before he his last sunset came, a fact that put a certain urgency to make timely a time that only exists in memory. This is a difficult debt that can only be repaid by using their gifts to me by using my time well.
Mr. [Name Withheld],
I do believe we spent some time together at [Name Withheld] High School. The years would have been 1970, 1971 and 1972 though you would never remember me as I was beset by more than my fair share of youthful angst. I do believe I was more of ghost than a person at times.
Now decades later much has changed and now, I barely understand who and what I was at that time in my life. Still, you and your comrade, [Name Withheld], have stayed stuck in my head all these years. Though I was an academic and personal mess then, what both of you imparted to me about language and the language of my youth, rock and roll, turned my blood indigo and set the stage for an ever deepening love of American music, its poetry, and an equally deepening love of the American West.
The only soil that I still grasp from our time together was you bringing to class various musical recordings that I mostly misremember as being exclusively from the first half of the 20th century. I am sure you brought a broader range for us to study but it was the Race Records that lit up my soul and sustained me. It is in those I found what constitutes America’s voice, a voice that with each passing year becomes more perfect in how it not only expresses the essence of being human but it captures the essence of life itself – that we live as long as we have things that move us. And good God, does this music demand that we move.
It took me some decades to grasp that this music utterly halted the 1000 year arc of Western music and obliterated, a de novo recasting if you will, its entire language. This music invented its own instruments and those that it borrowed it made sing American and that once heard in that voice rendered them useless to the old order of sound. The tyranny of the paper score died and allowed those with profound talents to be captured in recordings – this change moved the essence of the music to something approximating a pure democracy rendered by raised voices whose unique nature reached breathtaking levels of artistry. And in the final analysis captured the deepest expression of America; no matter how flawed it can be, somewhere in that sound was a hope of something better, that maybe, just maybe, that America was not East of Eden but much closer to being within its earthly limits.
Still I was not happy with these revelations as I hungered for a way to explain all this using a single idea for this. What I hit on is that American music can be understood in a moment by stomping a foot down and counting out loud each beat, 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. Once that raucous pounding is rolling along, a mighty river of time, a Mississippi of music, we take an arm and swing it from down low to the heavens and exactly at the apex moment, at what we call AND when counting, as in 1 AND 2 AND 3 AND, we snap our fingers. Instantly your body is raised in an uplifting motion, a hosanna, fully alive, – that is American music, that is America, that is life. It is right there where those 1000 years died – it is the backbeat that slayed it. Praise be given.
A few years short of 50 years later, I thought you might want to know what you caused to happen in me. Sometime later I stopped being a ghost, became educated, lived a pretty good live so far, and now I find myself living in New Mexico, a most profound land that can bring you to your knees weeping overwhelmed by skies that reach all the way to that place where Chuck Berry flies immortally. These days, besides my enduring love of 20th century American music I spend my time with two other loves, photography and words. Driving To Lava Land is a relevant sample from my blog Una Voce Sola.
What triggered all this was I came across the [Name Withheld] High School yearbooks from my years there online and I immediately looked up the two of you to see if my memory of your faces matched the photos. Remarkably they did, a detail which I found comforting. Odd we are. I must say I was delighted that I was able to find you and have the opportunity to say these things; age makes us care about, maybe demands, that we take time for such matters.
Copyright 2019 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved