Sometimes I wonder if I was born into the wrong generation. Sorry mom and dad, I’m glad you had me, but maybe we were meant to be in a “Back to the Future” movie and I was supposed to be brought up in the 40’s. The car I’m now driving came with 3 months of free satellite radio. Most of it I don’t like because it tends to distract me to have so many options. But the station I find I leave it on most of the time is music from the 1940’s. Really? My grandparents era, only 10-20 years past the dust bowl and the great depression, the generation of WWII and the holocaust. The age of such deep racism that would finally lead in the 50’s and 60’s to Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and the many more unnamed folks of every ethnic background who gave up so much and experienced so much pain to find a way forward toward an understanding of equality for all. We haven’t really reached it yet. That whole equality for all thing.
I tend to like stuff that’s old. My Grandy Crissman had an old radio that was housed in a cherry wood cabinet and had a big arcing gold dial at the top and the speaker beneath. It probably sat 4 feet tall and on Sunday nights after having visited for the afternoon (we drove to Quinter once a month after church to see them) Grandy would turn on the radio and we’d listen to music. For the longest time I believed that radio only played music from the 40’s and 50’s, it took a lot of ‘splainin’ for me to believe that was simply the station Grandy would put it on. They had a little rocking chair in a corner by my Grandma’s hutch that was just my size, I still have it, and in my memory, I would sit and rock and listen. My family might remember that differently, like maybe I was invited by my dad to sit on that rocker in the corner because I had done something ornery, or wouldn’t be quiet, or some other such situation that brought everyone else to the limit of their tolerance.
I don’t know that Louis Armstrong played on those stations all the time, but he was recording records in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, dying on July 6, 1971. He made USO tours, and travelled with his orchestra when African Americans were not welcome too many places. He had a spirit about him that seemed to ease the tension. There are many ways to fight for equality, some march, some sit in the front of the bus when the rules say they can only be in the back, some enter public schools with police and national guard escorts and suffer violence for equal opportunity, some simply attend Sunday School and become martyrs at the hands of those so overwhelmed by fear they could only act out of hate for another. Some are bravely willing to use the judicial system to go to trial in Topeka, Kansas to change the wrong-headed belief that “separate but equal” is ever really true. And some, some smile and sing, words and actions seemingly innocuous in their beauty, but I wonder. We need all these ways of fighting for justice and not settling for less.
Louie Armstrong smiled and sang about what a wonderful world we’ve been given to live. The words, in the beauty of their commonplace vision for us all beyond boundaries and borders, seem anything but radical in their nature. But friends, do NOT underestimate the power and intensity behind the voice, the image, and the vision of the man and his orchestra who sang and played this song to millions, a song that continues to be played forty years later. Radically transforming? Let me be so bold to say yes, radically transforming in its Simple. Universal. Beauty. The words, the tune, the voice – it was and is all about ending the divisions we artificially put in place to separate ourselves, one from another. Beauty can change hearts and minds and spirits and communicate visions that take us beyond our self-set limitations of the ugliness of exclusion in all kinds of settings and situations.
So maybe listen to the above recording differently this time. Listen especially to Louie’s words before the song starts – you’ll hear the heart of the one who must be included when we talk about leaders whose lives challenge us to live, in our freedoms, beyond hate and fear, toward the beauty of what it means to love all, where all, does indeed, mean all.