“village ghetto land” – stevie wonder (1976)

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I have a soft spot for holiday novelty songs. For me, they are so incredibly fun and embody the unique appeal of the holiday. Every major holiday has their own novelty records, but fall and winter is when we hear them the most. Halloween has the “Monster Mash” and its countless knockoffs while Christmas music becomes inescapable for a few months. Though, in between, you have Thanksgiving. There are not a lot of songs embodying the spirit and imagery of turkey and stuffing, but what is there is quite entertaining. I keep a list of songs to write about for this blog and I had a special list of Thanksgiving tracks to choose from. I mulled over tracks like “Groovy Gravy” by Quincy Jones, “Thanksgiving Day” by Ray Davies, and “Pass the Peas” by James Brown. Any of which would have been excellent choices to discuss Thanksgiving, but I went in a different direction.

This past weekend, I revisited one of my favorite records while getting some work done. Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life is a two-LP (and extra 7”) testament to humanity. It is such a breathtaking and layered album. The collection of tracks offer a diverse listening experience including massive pop radio hits, sullen reflection pieces, and out of this world jams. Songs in the Key of Life represents the dynamic and fluctuating nature of man and our relationships with one another.

I feel every song borders on perfection, though some more than others. These are tracks where I have to stop what I’m doing and become lost in the moment. Songs like “I Wish,” “Ordinary Pain,” and “As” are breathtaking in terms of their narrative and musical composition. Wonder is crafting a world of experiences for the listener. These experiences and stories may not reflect those of the listener, but they serve as a window into another world; a life many of us may not know.

The most underrated song on the album is certainly “Village Ghetto Land.” Lyrically, the imagery Wonder is conveying and striking and poignant. Wonder is asking the listener to take his hand so he can show them a world that many of us don’t (or won’t) see; a world of marginalized poverty where people struggle to survive from day to day. Specifically, Wonder is singing about the struggles of the poorer black communities. In these communities, people starve and do not have adequate access to medical care or even money to buy proper food. The land serves as a reminder that systemic oppression has real-world consequences on those of certain classes and ethnicities.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that can split a room. On one side, it is a holiday for those to reflect on their lives and be grateful for luxuries and love they have in their lives while gorging. On the other, it is a white-washed reminder of the colonialization of indigenous people. Both of these are things I try to remember this time of year. For one, I am happy for the opportunity to be surrounded by friends and family because that is something I cannot usually do on such a scale. I’m also aware that many families or individuals don’t get to share in that collective spirit of unity.

In an already incredibly powerful song, these lines stand out to me the most:

Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have.
Tell me, would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?

Such a sobering question. Considering the duality of the holiday, I do my best to focus on my life and being grateful for what I have. However, it is easy for me to grateful. I have a loving support system, a job, and access to societal opportunities not readily available to people who have less. Wonder is right to ask that question because you wouldn’t be happy living in a world like the one in “Village Ghetto Land.” For someone who comes from a place of privilege to tell someone who has less that they should be grateful is disheartening and devoid of all human empathy. There are many reasons why some people have less, but they should not be looked down upon. We’re all in this together, and we have to lift each other up.

Musically, “Village Ghetto Land” is just as remarkable as it is lyrically. Wonder is the sole musician on the track. Composed on a Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer, the track evokes the imagery of a large concert hall with a full string orchestra. It is quite a majestic and almost aristocratic sounding track. The composition adds dignity to the narrative where its inhabitants may not have any.

“Village Ghetto Land” is not a Thanksgiving song by any means, but it carries the spirit of the holiday. The leaves have fallen and frost is gathering on the ground. It is getting colder, and that’s a problem for a lot of people. This is why, when it starts to freeze, we should keep our hearts warm and open. Take time to reflect on your life and what you can do to better the lives of others.

“stoned soul picnic” – laura nyro (1968)

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There are some albums I truly cherish and, for one reason or another, leave my mind. I don’t think there is some significant meaning to that. I don’t love them any less. However, an album temporarily retreats into the recesses of your mind. Whatever purpose it had has been fulfilled until the day it is needed again. When that happens, it is a replenishing and joyous occasion.

Such an occasion happened on Tuesday. I was at the music school where I volunteer looking through their vast record collection to replace some recordings we featured the previous month. During this, I found Laura Nyro’s 1968 masterpiece Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. At that moment, everything came back to me instantly. Every horn, every chorus, and every crescendo by the incomparable Laura Nyro. The feeling that overcame me was spiritual in a way; a light had been seen.

I showed my volunteer partner the record and exclaimed its brilliance. My volunteer partner has been a skilled musician for years and is very knowledgeable about 1960s American music, but he had not heard of Nyro. I told him I wasn’t surprised. I think Nyro is criminally underrepresented in popular culture. Though, that was by design. Nyro came up in the same Greenwich Village folk scene as the likes of Bob Dylan, but shied away from the limelight. She gained a reputation for being not only an amazing songwriter, but a definitively unique and talented singer. Take those qualities Nyro had and add a tight soulful backing band, and you have one of the finest and most underrated records of the 20th century.

For me, Nyro is the most talented woman in rock/pop music history. She delivered on all fronts. While she was not really famous in terms of her own commercial impact, many of her songs became huge hits for other artists including the Fifth Dimension and Three Dog Night. Nyro’s talent as a songwriter was masterful and served as the foundation for her exceptional style as a musician. Her opulent vocal talents breathed life into her words in ways very few other artists have replicated. Her flexible vocal range allowed her to conquer jazz, folk, blues, pop, rock, and soul. She had it all covered and she did so effortlessly.

Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is a rare example where every song on the record is flawless. Sophisticated and textured both musically and lyrically, Nyro takes the listener on a trip into the loves, romances, and deaths within her psyche. The album changes gears frequently from song to song and, sometimes, even verse to verse with such a rich progression.

I was taken to a beautiful place on Tuesday when I revisited this record with my volunteer partner. I sat down, closed my eyes, and let the music take me away. Very few records make me as happy as that one does. People kept coming into the office to get supplies and materials, and they would stop and be filled with excitement that Laura Nyro was playing. One of the school’s teachers just let it all out and shared with us everything she knew about Nyro and that it was so amazing that young people were taking an interest because, the reality is, not many people know of Nyro. Nyro’s music has this amazing effect to put a smile on anyone’s face and embrace life with such passion.

Every song on the record is amazing, but I have a soft spot for “Stoned Soul Picnic.” An avant-garde jazz track, “Stoned Soul Picnic” is simple in its message; a picnic with wine and good friends. The track starts slow with a lite piano and unobtrusive guitar. When the backing vocals kick in, the progression changes. More instruments start joining and music swells. A positive energy is being built. Nyro’s vocals become increasingly dynamic as she increases her range in an operatic fashion. Musically complex, though it conveys pure and simple happiness. It is calming and exciting simultaneously.

I love it when I see people experience Nyro for the first time. My volunteer partner was skeptical, but he really enjoyed listening to her. I just wish more people did. She is well-respected in the music industry, but lacks significant commercial attention. It even took six nominations for her to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  Someone so beautiful and talented deserves recognition. The next time you’re feeling a little blue, just go online and listen to a song or two. As soon as you do, you’ll want to surry down to a stoned soul picnic.

 

“strange town” – the jam (1979)

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I’m a few months shy of my fifth anniversary since moving to Chicago. Just a few months fresh out of college, I made the decision to move to the Windy City really on a whim. I had never been (except for one time when I was really young and layovers at O’Hare), didn’t have a job, and did not know a single person. This was to be the first big move I made as an adult, and all of the factors that would contribute to my success in getting settled were set entirely against me. Nearly five years later, it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I was living in Alaska before my move to Chicago. I spent months researching the city. I studied everything I needed to know to make my move; the CTA, neighborhoods, and most importantly, job prospects. I could locate a good apartment with the help of a rental agency, and public transit is fairly intuitive, but the job issue worried me. I would be an outsider. Not only that, but an outside who was absolutely unestablished. My ability to find work would mean the difference between becoming a resident or an extended visitor. If I couldn’t make ends meet, I would have to retreat back to the familiar and feel like a failure.

Spoiler alert! Everything worked out fine. However, I want to focus on my first few months in Chicago. I drove my U-Haul into the city at the end of February 2011. Unknown to me at the time, I wouldn’t be gainfully employed until June. So, the goal was to get settled, make friends, and find a job using every lead and resource I could get my hands on.

Being truly on my own for the first time was incredibly exhilarating on many levels, but it did get lonely at times. That comes with the territory of moving to a new city with no structured entities that are designed to socialize you amongst the people. Sure, there are college students who move to Chicago to go to school. However, not meeting people in college is incredibly difficult. You exist within an institution that guarantees you have every resource available to hold your hand as you start to figure out the people around you. College is a great method in enhancing your personal and social networks. For me, that wasn’t an option.

I relied on the internet to help me find the fun, hip spots in Chicago. Meetup, Brokehipster, and the Chicago Reader were my portals to the fun scenes of Chicago. A lot of the events and shows I went to were fun and I have great stories. I even made a few long-term friends in the process. When you start things on your own, it can be an incredibly slow process. It can take a few years to become truly established in the sense you have all your needs met and you have a decently-sized network of friends and colleagues.

However, between those golden moments, there also some bleak uncertainty. It was easy to be disappointed. I needed a job and that stress affected me somewhat. Unfruitful recruiter meetings, bad temp assignments, and people who just didn’t give a shit about your well-being all stood in my way. I had always lived in small communities or cities. Nothing like Chicago. I learned very quickly that it was easy to be invisible despite being in a large metropolis. For the most part, people don’t care about you. They have their own lives and problems. Oftentimes, you’re nothing but an inconvenience to them. I was even mugged that June in broad daylight on the street, and no one helped. That was an awful experience, but I learned from it. I was no longer in a small town. I was in a large city. The struggle to get by and make my own way strengthened my resolve and ability to be independent. I know we all have times we have to rely on someone, but knowing that you have to be strong for yourself is an important asset.

Penned by the Modfather himself, Paul Weller’s iconic band, the Jam, released “Strange Town” in 1979. In this cool mod track, Weller is lost in a strange town and has difficulty finding his away around and the locals are incredibly unhelpful. The people don’t know and don’t care. Plus, they’re on their way someplace. Any place away from you. Weller learns that if you’re going to succeed, you’ve got to change and fit in. Wear the right clothes. Say the right things. Go to the right places. All of these are things the locals do and you’ve got play the game if you want to win. With a great post-punk energy and a killer bassline, this song perfectly embodies my feelings as a fresh transplant in the Second City.

Now that I’m established, older friends and acquaintances will sometimes message me asking me for advice. They too are graduating and want advice on moving to Chicago or another city in general. I talk to them about what they need and the expectations they need to set for themselves. Relocating to someplace entirely new where you know no one at all is not easy. It is doable, but you have to be resourceful. Though, when you do get to that point, try not to make your town a strange town. Remember, it was you who was there before lost on the street with blisters on your feet.

“i’m new here” – gil scott-heron (2010)

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Getting old terrifies me on some level.  I’m not old by any measure and am still very young.  I have a youthful vigor and energy and still can run wild during my more uninhibited moments.  College was just a few years ago, but it seems so far away.  Cliché thinking, I know.  However, when you have a 401k, savings account, and insurance, it feels like eons.  My studio apartment costs me $795 per month for rent.  I remember when I used to worry about paying my share of $230 for a room in a house with some friends.  Now, I spend that on alcohol and responsibilities.  Looking back, it makes me smile.

I will get old and I will die.  There is a lot I do not know, but I know that much for sure.  And it isn’t the dying that frightens me.  It is everything else.  Losing my mental and physical abilities.  So, I try to live my life to fullest.  I make a good living, have hobbies, and I surround myself with good people.  There are times now when I feel my life is just too busy, but days can be fleeting.  There may come a time when I will have nothing to do.  Just existing.  A wrinkled husk that used to go on adventures and make love.

What I’m most afraid of is losing my memory.  When I really think about it, that is the only thing I am truly afraid of.  Because what are we?  What truly defines us on an individual level?  I believe that our personal experiences make us who we are.  I am the person I am because of my experiences.  Moments with friends and lovers.  Periods of reflection and introspection.  Flashes of excitement and turmoil.  A random sequence of events that has settled in my brain and shaped my worldview is the reason I am the person I am at this very moment.

A few years ago, I made myself a promise to always work at being a better person.  I believe I have figured out the secret to success and fulfilling that promise.  Trying new things and being open to new experiences are essential in personal fulfillment and being a more whole person.  Whether it involves food, people, or places, I strive to “yes.”  To learn and become more storied.

Gil Scott-Heron had a long and amazing career as an influential and revolutionary afrobeat artist.  Before he passed away in 2011, he released his final studio album I’m New Here. A deeply personal record, Scott-Heron sings as a man who is aware of his own mortality and wise in the ways only a man of his age can be.  Naked and emotionally exposed, Scott-Heron reflects deeply on his life and his state of mind.  This record is a window into the final days of a man who has lived so much, but desires to live even more.

The title track “I’m New Here” is a ragged cut featuring Scott-Heron and an acoustic guitar.  Telling a story using spoken-word, Scott-Heron proclaims that no matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around.  What I get from this is that the journey towards an increased sense of self and personal development doesn’t stop at any particular age.  Until you’re six feet under and just dirt in the ground, there is always time to focus on yourself.  If you live your life and grow, you will not have a life you regret.  In the song, Scott-Heron is comfortable with who he is and is aware of himself.  He didn’t become some different that he did not want to be.

Whenever I hear someone tell me that they are who they are and that how it always will be, I feel sorry for them.  To me, they’ve become complacent.  Sure, they might be happy, but only for a moment.  Happiness cannot sustain itself in a vacuum.  Grow from the ground and reach towards the sun.  It may be too high to grasp, but don’t ever stop reaching.  If you do, you might as well be dead.  Become constantly in a state of becoming.  Don’t overstay your welcome.  Go to another place and announce “I’m new here.”