Prayer/Protest/Peace Peace Peace

There are a few performers who I passed up chances to see, and then they died before I got another chance — leaving me with pangs of regret. Fela was the first, then Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and then I actually had tickets to see Nina Simone but something else came up. Fortunately, I caught Abbey Lincoln at Yoshi’s on a valentine’s day with my wife a few years ago. I don’t know if any other valentine’s day will beat that one.

A voice can transmit many things. Abbey had a beautiful voice, but I think what I treasure most about it is that it’s a voice that seems to embody dignity. It was fun that night to watch the quiet deference of her band, all young men sharply dressed, and all aware of their good fortune to be sharing the stage and the music with her.

I hope the recent spate of obits here doesn’t seem morbid — but one of the perks of having artists in our lives is that, when they go, they leave behind things that are easy to celebrate — things that give us the illusion that they’re still here, sharing the room with us.

I’ve used a recording of the Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach piece above for a “Digital Darkroom” class a few times. It’s a photoshop class, and I find that, with easy access to images from Google and stock photo sites, it’s sometimes hard for students to climb out from under the shipwreck of images that have preceded their ideas — to identify images that come from within, instead of without. To encourage students to pay attention to the stuff that bubbles up from behind their eyes, rather than in front of them. So we shut off the computer monitors and I play three songs for them, for them to listen to with eyes closed, and see what sort of visions appear on their inner movie screens. Then they make sketches and share what each of them saw.

The first song is a song with a strong story, kind of a movie with lyrics. The second song has more oblique lyrics — there are words, but they don’t always connect up in obvious ways. And then the third song is Abbey, abandoning words for raw sound. It can take students to some interesting places.

Here’s a clip of Abbey acting in the 1964 independent film “Nothing But a Man” — might show it in an “independent film” class I’ve been cooking up:

And here’s Abbey in her later period. It’s always different to hear a song from somebody dead than it is to hear one from somebody alive, but the lyric “you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you” has an extra sharpness now:

You can catch an interview with Abbey on Fresh Air here.

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