Written by:

Today’s national holiday might be an opportunity to pick a little more bluegrass music with friends as long as you get the day off. Some of us might even be playing guitars with the same name as the holiday honoree.

Baby boomers like me can look back more than fifty years to a time when Martin Luther King, Jr. was in his heyday. This summer will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Sixty years seems like such a short time. Perhaps that’s because those memories are so vivid. Kennedy’s assassination. The war on poverty. Troublesome times those were for sure, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam would make the times even more difficult.

Martin Luther King was a troublemaker. A lot of people didn’t like him. He ushered in a period of intense social upheaval, generational conflict, senseless loss of life. But his was the voice of reason and he spoke with such eloquence that it changed a lot of people’s till-then closed-minded thinking about race and class. I know. I grew up in the south during the 1960’s. With his words alone, Martin Luther King changed everything. What reasoning person could argue with the proposal that human beings should be judged by the content of their character rather than color of their skin?

King’s revolutionary ideas went beyond racial bias. They made you think about cultural bias, poverty and class distinctions as well. What can we do to make it possible for anyone with a dream to reach his or her full potential? King’s dream was the American dream.

A few years ago I went to the Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa for the first time ever. The church sponsored a speech contest for middle school and high school students who had written about Martin Luther King for their school projects. My daughter Juliet went as the representative from Healdsburg. Her speech was great and of course my favorite, but all the kid’s speeches took me back to a time when I was growing up in the turbulent sixties.

The ideas expressed by the young orators had seemed like very new ideas to me in the sixties, but I realized as I listened to them all that the idea of social justice takes many forms and it is never new. It just needs a voice, and these kids were expressing those ideas in ways that meant something to them personally.

The Santa Rosa Community Baptist Church caters to a mostly African American clientele. if I lived closer, I’d be tempted to go there even though I’d be much paler than the average worshiper for sure. The members of the congregation were very friendly, served great chocolate cake, and they played some really good music! One of the bands sang a cappella Gospel tunes. It was sublime.

I don’t know if Martin Luther king ever enjoyed Bluegrass music or Old Time music. For all I know he thought of the traditional song Down In the Valley as he sat in the jail writing one of his famous speeches:

Send me a letter, send it by mail
Send it in care of the Birmingham jail

King certainly did enjoy gospel music. Mahalia Jackson was often on the stage with him. Legend has it that she even prompted him from backstage at his famous speech in August of 1963: “tell him about the dream, Martin”.

Gospel music is one of the trio of foundations for the CBA along with bluegrass and old time music. I’m sure Martin Luther King, Jr. heard some incredible live black gospel music in his day. When I think about black gospel music, I think about a comment my nephew made when he was about five or six years old. My brother had taken him to a funeral for the mother of an African American family friend who had worked for our family many years. Both the mother and daughter had sung in their church’s gospel choir so, although I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, I can imagine the music must have been pretty good. The comment from my young nephew after leaving the ceremony was something like: “Dad, that was the BEST funeral I’ve ever been to!”

Black gospel is different from most of the bluegrass gospel you hear. If you’ve listened to a lot of Doyle Lawson, some of the stuff you’ve heard is pretty close to what it should sound like. As we all know, music has the power to create a feeling we can’t express. It has the power to move us; to inspire us. Words can change us, as lyrics set to music or as impassioned rhetoric that makes us think about how we need to treat our fellow man. Happy MLK Day everybody!

Read about: