This week's topic is pretty obvious.
Both of us are from Eastern Massachusetts. We came of age and were educated in the city of Boston, and we've spent nearly our entire adult lives in it or immediately along its borders. We've been going to the Marathon since we were children. We've both put our time into and collected paychecks from famous Boston institutions whose influence reaches far beyond Massachusetts. We are lifelong products of this city's culture, and very tiny gears in the big machine that makes this very special place run. And we're both proud as hell of our home.
Less than two weeks ago two cowardly assholes killed three innocent people and wounded 282 more in one of the most special places of this city on its most special day of the year, for seemingly no other reason than to adhere to some cockamamie mixture of paleoconservative and pseudo-Islamic bullshit. While it might seem odd for the flawed thinking of Americans who hate outsiders to blend with the flawed thinking of outsiders who hate Western political values, it's important to note that these intellectual traditions are flip-sides of the same coin. They both operate on paranoia, suspicion, ignorance and a romantic view of "righteous" violence. When hatred and destruction from one side want to hate and destroy, they need the desire for hatred and destruction on the other side to make it happen. Both of the wars we have endured over the last decade-plus are based on the fusion of those two, and it seems that Boston is just the latest battleground in a seemingly endless, borderless war of corrupt ideologies.
The problem with their plan in Boston though—in the grand scheme of things—is that the dynamic that fuels this warring is anathema to the culture of Boston. After all, we are the city that at any given time embraces over a quarter-million students from around the world before disgorging them a little bit older and a lot wiser. We are the city with the most top-quality medical facilities in the world; a physical location where people from all over the world save the lives of people from all over the world. We educated Martin Luther King, Jr., the King of Love.
While some gigantic city south of us let their prejudice get the best of them in stopping the "Ground Zero Mosque" eight years after 9/11, we respected the rights of our Muslim citizens and did not interfere with the building of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. We were the first to legalize gay marriage, the first to extend equal rights protections to transgendered people, and the first to set up universal healthcare. Quite simply, we are the epicenter of enlightened tolerance in North America. Those two-bit murdering fucks didn't realize what they were up against.
Since our topic is American music I will say this: Boston has for decades been an incubator of local talent, an educator of young artists and a destination for those successful in the craft and in the business. The city's musical history and musical present are part and parcel of our history and culture in general. Just like our academic culture, our musical culture has taken in a broad array of influences, honed it and sent it back out to the rest of the world. This week we will pay homage to that.
Brendan Hogan: I think President Obama, in his address during the interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, expressed what so many of us in Boston have felt about our city all along, especially over the last few days.
“Over successive generations, you’ve welcomed again and again new arrivals to our shores — immigrants who constantly reinvigorated this city and this commonwealth and our nation. Every fall, you welcome students from all across America and all across the globe, and every spring you graduate them back into the world — a BOSTON DIASPORA that excels in every field of human endeavor. Year after year, you welcome the greatest talents in the arts and science, research — you welcome them to your concert halls and your hospitals and your laboratories to exchange ideas and insights that draw this world together….
So whether folks come here to Boston for just a day, or they stay here for years, they leave with a piece of this town tucked firmly into their hearts. So Boston is your hometown, but we claim it a little bit, too…. For millions of us, what happened on Monday is personal. It’s personal.”
What makes living in Boston so unique is the continuous ebb and flow of culture in, out, and through our city like a great tide bringing in the world. There really is no city quite like it: small enough to retain its values and sense of responsibility to itself, while being relevant, open, and forward-thinking enough to absorb into every corner that rush of new ideas and progressive thought without losing its sense of self.
So often I've heard people say, usually in reference to arts and entertainment industries, that Boston is a small town and in order to make it, eventually you've got to leave. That may be true, but statements like that are short-sighted. Boston is a breeding ground. We're a breeding ground because the world comes to us and deposits its culture, its perspective, its knowledge here. But it's not a one-way transaction because we have a cultural backbone, as well, and it shapes those who live among it.
Nowhere is this better represented than in our music. Boston does not support the industry in the way New York, Nashville, or LA traditionally support the commerce of art. Instead, we make art and we make artists. Take Paul Pena, for example, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants born with congenital glaucoma. He went to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown and then to Clark University in Worcester. He was the product of working class culture, top flight health care, and the most impressive network of educational institutions in the United States. He played guitar in T-Bone Walker's band of the early 1970s, wrote what became one of the most recognizable songs in pop music, and later developed and pursued an interest in Tuvan throat-singing that ultimately led to a cultural award from the Tuvan people.
Paul Pena was a product of his Boston upbringing and he brought it with him literally around the world.
Mike: Yeah, I've heard a lot of smug people over the years talk about Boston like it's a rest stop on the road to somewhere else, rather than a great incubator of culture. Of course, most of those people were dissatisfied with their own lives and projecting their problem on to something else, so whatever.
Pena is a great example of what we're talking about. Most people have no idea who he is, but almost everybody knows "Jet Airliner". Similarly, most people have probably never heard of Cape Verde, but over the last century that little island has played a big part in shaping our regional culture.
I know this because I grew up in the city that has the largest population of Cape Verdean ancestry in the country. In the 19th Century they followed the Portuguese to North America to fish and whale the South Coast, and successive generations moved into the cranberry bogs of the South Shore. In assimilating they have made major contributions to theology, academia, music and athletics. As we speak waves of Cape Verdean immigrants keep coming to our shores and we're lucky to have them.
Another guy people might not associate with Boston is Dick Dale, the pioneering surf rock guitarist. For most people I'm sure his name invokes the beaches of Southern California, but he spent the first 17 years of his life in the ethnic stew that was WWII-era Boston. When people hear his "wet" guitar sound and think of surf and water, what they're also hearing is the influence Lebanese music had on him. He learned that Lebanese music right here.
Brendan: Another misconception that has been cleared up over the last few days is the amount of compassion the people of Boston have for each other. We have a reputation for being a little tough and cold, which we are (although I must say I find being grunted at by miserable Dunkin' Donuts employees or cut off in traffic sort of charming), but it's just a thick skin covering a deep sense of responsibility and caring toward our neighbors. You and I know it's there because we grew up with it, but it's nice to have it revealed to and recognized by the rest of the country.
I also think there's an assumption that Boston has a looser grip on the values that are inherently American; that somehow because we are a bastion of liberal politics and progressive ideas, we don't place an emphasis on the importance of tradition. I think the opposite is true. I think our forward-leaning way of life shapes the values of the rest of the country, allowing it to understand the world and to be fluid and open to change. After all, we are the cradle of the Revolution.
You can hear it in the music of Gram Parsons. When he was studying theology at Harvard he started the International Submarine Band with a few Berklee students and began shaping the sound of what would become described as "cosmic American music", blending psychedelic sounds and lyrical imagery with straight-up traditional, double-clutching country music. The genesis for that shift in country music happened right here in Boston.
Mike: You know, the first Gram Parsons song I heard was the ISB's "Hot Burrito #2" and I was floored. It was "Americana" before "Americana", some weird intellectual working-class American music for mystics. The one question I had in reading up on GP was how the hell did he develop this in the swamps of Florida? Of course, he didn't. He was surrounded by the hippie-meet-folk revival scene in Cambridge when he first heard Merle Haggard, and the lightbulb went off for him. None of this ever would have happened in Jacksonville, FL.
Parsons is an example of somebody from somewhere else who comes here early in their adult life, takes the tools they need from it and sets off to make a mark somewhere else. This is Boston's primary role in society—as evidenced by all the successful people who have shared their personal connections to Boston these last couple weeks—but it's not the only one. In fact, J.B. Hutto did that journey in reverse.
He was one of the many black folks raised in the church that went from rural southern poverty to war and eventually to Chicago, where he turned his musical training to the blues. The only difference with J.B. is that after realizing Chicago was a dead-end he moved to Boston (a great blues town as far as audiences were concerned), formed a new band, got a deal with a Rounder Records subsidiary, won a Grammy and toured the world. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with cancer, went back home to IL and died at 57, but he'd have been just another under-appreciated talent had he not come to play his cards in Boston.
Brendan: Boston is the kind of town where you can come home to roost. Maybe at first it seems odd for this city to be a comfortable home to a veteran blues musician, because, as you mentioned, the more familiar cities of the African American "Great Migration" lie further to the (mid)West, but Boston is actually a great destination for any kid of musician. We share a lot in common with the metropolitan areas of Europe that were beacons of culture for blues and jazz artists during the 1960s, and yet we have the distinction of being an American city. Where else besides New Orleans could you find a blend of Old World quaintness mixed with brash, New World swagger and top flight jazz?
Mike: Nowhere. New York, Chicago and LA were in hyper-modern overdrive, unlike Boston or Europe, and as much as I love New Orleans (my loyal blog readers know) it doesn't have nearly the diversity of Boston when it comes to anything other than music. I mean that with absolutely no disrespect. They are two gorgeous and eccentric American cities with very different identities.
So far we've covered folks who are either from here or who have spent a relatively short amount of time here. We haven't even touched the folks who have come here for the long haul and seen it as a city of refuge. Let's pick up with that next week, yeah?
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