Niagara Gazette — During Monday’s presidential debate, I got that old familiar feeling again; it definitely felt like I had been there before.
Having witnessed and participated in quite a few elections since I arrived three days after Christmas nearly 65 years ago, another political debate was nothing new to me, yet there was something very different, and at the same time, very familiar about this one.
No, it wasn’t just the fact that two very different, very passionate candidates were squaring off, staring each other down with icy glares, and slicing each other up with spirit piercing words, nor was it the fact that the campaign was about to devolve into an ear-splitting fever pitch battle royal, making it the most expensive, and in some places, the dirtiest, most disingenuous campaigns ever; it was something else.
When the debate was ended, I turned everything off and lay quietly in the welcome silence thinking, trying to put my finger on it. Eyes closed, but wide awake, I rewound my mind’s memory all the way back fifty years to October, 1962.
Somewhere in the background of my mind I heard the soundtrack to my early teens, it was the music that accompanied the events that impacted the rest of my life.
It all began with Jimmy Reed.
I was probably introduced to his music by WJJL’s George Lorenz, better known as The Hound Dog who played some of the best blues music available this side of the Mason-Dixon line, east of the Mississippi.
I took a liking to that music from the moment I first laid ears on it. The music introduced me, not only to the Blues, but to the stories behind it. I’ll never forget my father telling me that I was “too young to listen to it, and way too young to understand it”, but somehow, I did, and for some reason, I could relate to it.
Young as I was, I associated Jimmy Reed and his Delta style music with what I was reading about in Ebony and Jet magazines and hearing about late at night from my nine volt transistor radio, which, on a good night could carry me thousands of miles from home. I had begun following reports of the voter registration drives going on in Mississippi and the hell that people were going through just to be able to cast their votes in the national and local elections.
One such registration drive was taking place in McComb Mississippi. With all their might, the local political machine was doing everything they could to suppress black voter participation, and when I say everything, I mean everything.
People were forced to take so-called literacy tests, fired from their jobs, beaten, and murdered that year. I remember it well, especially whenever I hear Jimmy Reed doing “Big Boss Man”.
Few know it today, but it was in McComb where much of the courage and strength to stand up against voter suppression was born. Stretched out in the darkness, I recall another musical icon that I associate with politics, campaigns and progress.
The first time I heard Booker T and the M.G.s, I headed straight to the piano in my parent’s living room and played the whole song by ear, all four of the basic notes around which the song was constructed.
I figured out the rest later.
Green Onions was released on Stax Records in October of 1962 and it was an immediate global smash hit. A simple twelve-bar blues piece with a captivating Hammond organ line running all the way through it, Green Onions is still one of my all time favorite, covered by thousands of bands all over the world today.
Music and the music industry, as I knew it fifty years ago was extremely racially segregated. Some people did all they could to keep it that way, but the human spirit would have nothing of it. Eventually good music leaked across the artificial barriers and just about everybody learned to enjoy just about all of it.
But, like millions of others, I was completely surprised when I learned that some of the M.G.s were white, so seemed all together fitting that, since that blacks and whites could play music together and be accepted and highly appreciated, they could also attend the University of Mississippi together too.
A federal court had, in September of 1962 ordered the University of Mississippi to accept twenty-eight year old African American Air Force veteran, James Meredith against the wishes the staunch segregationist Governor Ross Barnett who had pledged that he would never allow the school to be integrated.
But, after several days of televised violence and rioting by whites, Meredith, accompanied by federal officials, was finally enrolled on October 1, 1962, and graduated without incident the following August.
The Four Seasons and Ray Charles each enjoyed dual hit songs in 1962, and I remember them all, especially “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”. It would have been next to impossible to have lived through that year and not heard those songs; they were that popular, but so was Ray Charles.
His music was crossing over; there was no way to contain it. In his own musical way, Ray Charles was tearing down walls, and everyone on both sides, seemed eager to get across.
His “You Are My Sunshine” brought more than simple joy to the world, it brought hope which was desperately needed when on October 22, 1962 President Kennedy’s announcement on national television that the Soviet Union had been placing nuclear missiles in Cuba and that he had ordered a naval blockade of the island, putting all United States strategic forces on high alert.
His “I Can’t Stop Loving You” became something of a national anthem, heard across the spectrum from R&B to Country music stations around the world.
Our own BOMARC Missile Site at what is now the Niagara Falls International Airport had been housing dozens of powerful gigantic forty-three foot long Surface –to-Air Missiles right here in our midst making us believe that we were prime targets of a potential nuclear attack.
Whether or not we ever were, plenty of people believed that we were, and war paranoia spread like a wildfire.
I can recall the fear that our city lived with for those long thirteen days until the President agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey and the Soviets removed theirs from Cuba; what could have become Armageddon for 100 million people each on both sides of the issue was temporarily diffused.
So, I think I finally put my finger on what kept me awake all that night; it feels like we’ve been here before because we HAVE been here before. From voter suppression in 1962 to 2012 and to nuclear threats from the Soviet Union or Iran, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org