PLAY THAT FUNKY SOUL: The Kashmere High School Stage Band, circa 1976.
The new Mark Landsman documentary Thunder Soul may be relying on the glitz of executive producer Jamie Foxx’s name to get attention at the box office, but this magnificent little film about the musical achievements of an all-black Texas high school stage band hardly needs Foxx’s help.
Like a PSA on the lifetime value of music education in secondary schools, Thunder Soul captures the reunion of Kashmere High School’s funk band 35 years later as the alumni get the band back together to perform a tribute concert for their famed band leader and accomplished jazz musician Conrad O. Johnson. “Prof,” as the students call him, served as a father figure, drill sergeant, and part-time life coach, for the group of mainly at-risk African American kids, pushing and inspiring them to grow into award-winning musicians who innovated the world of high school stage band music with their smooth James Brown-inspired sound.
ALL TOGETHER NOW: Conrad “Prof” Johnson conducts the Houtson, Texas, Kashmere High School Stage Band.
Once tapped to be a musician for Count Basie’s touring band, Prof eventually passed on the glamorous lifestyle of professional music, choosing instead to settle into marriage and a quieter life of purpose as an educator for a local high school. Or so he thought. It was at Kashmere High that his creativity blossomed, leading him to craft a catalog of songs for the school band that are still being sampled by contemporary DJs and artists on hip-hop records and pop tunes today.
But it’s Prof’s lasting influence over the students’ lives, not the music industry, that looms largest in the film. Still eager to please the man who taught them so much of what they know, the alumni painstakingly turn the dissonance of decades passed and instruments left untouched into a stirring symphony paying appropriate homage to their 93-year-old professor. In awe of their ability to still play, Prof exclaims almost with a well-deserved wink of ego, “You mean they were taught so well, that they can remember what they did then … and do it?”
The answer is yes. And to hear the alumni speak, many of whom hadn’t touched a trombone or flute in over 30 years, those sacred hours spent in the band room during the 1970s were about more than just instruction on notes and harmony. Prof taught the students that they had the power and potential to play as well as any professional band, if they would only work hard. It was that inspiration that pushed many of the students out of the Fifth Ward of Texas with life sentences to poverty and raised them into adults who ultimately became doctors, lawyers, musicians, and even pastors.
Rhythmic and multi-faceted, the film itself is a bit like jazz — always progressing yet lingering over the notes. Landsman, aided by the phenomenal editing of Claire Didier, maintains the backbeat of the band’s story while weaving in colorful snippets of the Black Power movement, the racial segregation of the south, the cyclic nature of poverty in America, and the charm and intimacy of black families. Whether you love niche funk music or are simply a sucker for the sentimentality of a good underdog tale, Thunder Soul, even without a powerhouse star to headline the movie, is worth your time.
Thunder Soul opens today in Atlanta, Houston, and New York. Check the film’s website to find out when it opens in your area.
Forty years ago this week, more than 400,000 concertgoers gathered on the muddy grounds of a 600-acre dairy farm in upstate New York to celebrate what was billed as “three days of peace and music.” The Woodstock Music & Art Fair transformed the way we think about popular music and youth culture. In fact, it became an emblem of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
The past week has been filled with observances of the music festival’s anniversary, an “acid trip” down memory lane for many baby boomers. And next week the celebration continues with the release of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a cinematic tribute to that legendary gathering.
In a turbulent era that found the nation reeling from its involvement in the Vietnam War — a period that was just a year removed from the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — Woodstock represented the power of unbridled hope, freedom, and youthful exuberance. Of course, it also represented that great American trinity of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” — with newly embraced freedom also came the collateral damage of hedonistic living.
Out of all the acts that performed during Woodstock — artists like Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, and Joan Baez — arguably none has become more identified with the event than Jimi Hendrix, whose two-hour set actually took place on August 18, after the music festival was officially over. Rain and technical snafus had pushed his performance to early that Monday morning. With only an estimated 80,000 people remaining to witness it, Hendrix delivered one of his most stirring performances.
If anyone could make his guitar weep, it was Jimi Hendrix. He made it sing — in ecstasy and sadness. He made sounds that had never been heard before. It’s no wonder that, in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked him as number one on its list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
Hendrix, who was a lefty, taught himself to play a Fender Stratocaster upside down, so that his right-handed guitar could be played left-handed. He experimented tirelessly with amplified feedback and unorthodox chord structures, while incorporating blues, jazz, funk, and his own electrified brand of psychedelic rock into a sound that has influenced virtually every rock guitarist since (not to mention urban funk and pop artists such as George Clinton and Prince).
Hendrix achieved worldwide fame following his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Two years later, he headlined Woodstock, where he played his enduring version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Through his blistering, sonic barrage, you could actually hear “the bombs bursting in air” and see “the rockets red glare.” And, with it being the era of Vietnam, he even threw in a few notes of “Taps” to keep things interesting.
Sadly, Hendrix died a little over a year later, in 1970, at age 28 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. He was famously ensnared by the destructive lure of alcohol and drugs, and is counted among a number of tragic and untimely deaths from that late-’60s/early-’70s era. But his impact on music is undeniable.
What’s more, Hendrix’s very presence at Woodstock (along with other artists of color like Baez, Richie Havens, Carlos Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone) put forth a visible declaration of the way that art and pop culture could transcend and overcome even our most entrenched social divisions. Martin Johnson’s retrospective at TheRoot.com offers a great summation of Hendrix’s appearance at Woodstock and the importance of his legacy.
Of the songs he left behind, one of my favorites is “Night Bird Flying” from The Cry of Love (1971). This was the first recording released after his death. The first song on the album is called “Freedom.” It’s a word that can describe different types of liberation. Being set free from vice may not have been the primary meaning, but it’s a desire that he probably felt.
The struggle to be free may be what gives rise to songs like “Night Bird Flying.” It’s an amazing confluence of expression and sound.
She’s just a night bird flyin’ through the night
She’s just a night bird making a midnight, midnight flight
Sail on, sail on
For me, in the early ’70s, “Night Bird Flying” became an expression of the spiritual peace that eluded me, despite my efforts to find satisfaction in other things. It gave voice to a feeling of estrangement. I remember being a restless teenager, returning home from a Hawaiian vacation with my family. During the trip, I had a falling out with my younger brother. It grieved me. On the flight back, I sullenly sat apart from the rest of my family members. Few things are as troubling as the feeling that you are at odds with someone, especially a member of your own family.
Alone in my grief, I thought of Hendrix’s song. How I yearned for a better day. Would it ever come?
I remember the telling photograph that was taken on one of the Hawaiian Islands. My whole family was arrayed in Hawaiian shirts while I leaned away from them in my T-shirt that, on the back, displayed images of cannabis and a water pipe. The shirt’s lettering boldly proclaimed: “Smoke It!” In contrast to the scowl on my face, my siblings smiled in a way that showed they still had an innocence that would be lost when they eventually followed me into using drugs.
Though getting high brought me temporary relief, I was a troubled soul. It was no less so as I sat on the plane and felt the loneliness of separation. Listening in my mind to the Hendrix song made me want to soar like some mythical night bird. In the midst of trouble, the psalmist David longed for wings that he might take flight and find relief in some place of refuge. “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!” he wrote. “I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest” (Psalm 55:6-8, ESV).
I wonder if Hendrix felt a longing like this. He may not have known what it was, but it could have been what made his guitar an expression of his desire. The sorrow of not finding the true freedom that he sought seemed to seep into his music.
In a Christianity Today article entitled “Learning to Cry for the Culture,” singer and writer John Fischer observes that evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer’s most crucial legacy was tears. He writes, “Schaeffer never meant for Christians to take a combative stance in society without first experiencing empathy for the human predicament that brought us to this place.” Rather, he advocated understanding and empathizing with non-Christians instead of taking issue with them. He believed that “instead of shaking our heads at a depressing, dark, abstract work of art, the true Christian reaction should be to weep over the lost person who created it.” Fischer concludes his article by saying, “The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry in his day should make us cry in ours.”
In A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card reminds us that the Bible is full of lament — people of faith, including Jesus, giving voice to the sorrow and anguish that fills their hearts. It’s a means of staying connected to God when the world is not as it should be. It’s the mourning that Jesus commends.
I have a lot to learn about this, but I desire to be more compassionate. Jesus was moved with compassion when He saw the throng of people that had gathered in a remote area to hear Him. They were “like sheep without a shepherd.” In fact, they probably looked a lot like the multitude of hippies gathered at Woodstock. Jesus welcomes them all, and feeds them both physically and spiritually (Mark 6:30-44).
As contemporary followers of Jesus, we also have an opportunity to show compassion to those who are searching, those who are lost.
I feel sad knowing that Hendrix felt conflicted at times as we all do. I don’t imagine that he found the freedom that he yearned for. I wouldn’t pretend to know. But I do know that the longing in his music was so deep that I can hear his discontent over his present circumstances, his reaching out for something more. Thus I lament for Hendrix:
You were among the greatest of your generation.
You achieved heights that few know.
Through your guitar,
you sang and wept,
laughed and mourned,
danced and lamented.
You kissed the sky, but your wings were broken.
You could not reach what you longed for.
As we remember Woodstock this month, I’m also remembering the multitude of young people who gathered at that muddy farm. Many of them, now 40 years older, are probably still yearning for something more. We can celebrate the excitement and history of that phenomenal event that forever changed popular culture. But I also want to say a prayer for those restless souls who are still searching, who are still longing for true peace and love.
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