Two weeks ago I traveled to Buckeye, Arizona to attend my wife’s grandmother’s birthday party. She is truly blessed and fortunate to celebrate her 90th year of life.
She was born in 1922 in Bastrop, Louisiana in Monroe Parish and lived most of her adult life in Oakland, California. Today she suffers from acute dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Of course her memory is not what it used to be. She needs skilled nursing assistance for 12 hrs. a day and is wheelchair bound. This year her family decided it would be a great idea to get everyone in the family together to celebrate this momentous milestone in her life.
To make a long story short, there was plenty of family and friends who traveled to Buckeye to celebrate her special day.
The food cooked and served that day was easily standard fare in any Southern kitchen, which ranged from fried chicken to seafood gumbo, rice, candied yams, greens, gravy, cornbread and . . . (Ooh, I just had a flash back). Anyway, there was cake and a bit of E&J as well.
My wife’s grandmother, whom I’ve affectionately called “Gramps” for years now, seemed to be enjoying her special day. Although she struggles with her memory, she did have brief moments of lucidity where she made great remarks about the going-ons around her. Gramps knew it was her birthday.
Throughout Gramps day of celebration the radio was on and playing in the background. So called “oldie-but-goodies” and “grown folk” music filled the house with sound. As I listened to the music another grandson-in-law, like myself, mentioned he had one of Gramps favorite old blues CDs she used to listen to when she lived in Oakland. I immediately encouraged him to get it and play it. He did. We played it. The look on Gramps face when she heard her long lost blues was priceless. She smiled, started bouncing to the rhythm of the songs and more impressive, dementia and Alzheimer’s be damned, she began to lip-synch the words of the songs. Suddenly all eyes were on her. This was her music! I remembered years ago Gramps would listen to this CD over and over again. It literally played non-stop all day in her home in Oakland.
I sat back in a chair filled with great joy to watch her sing and groove to the music. Some people began to laugh, however, not at her performance, rather at the song she was grooving to. You see she was lip-synching to Theodis Ealey’s 2004 hit song “Stand Up In It” (a guitar driven, sexually charged song, which essentially instructs clueless men how to please a woman). I thought to myself she’s 90 and can sing whatever she wants to. Go on Gramps! Soon her old CD revealed a line up of some of the best blues songs ever recorded. Tunes such as B. B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” Muddy Water’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Freddie King’s “I’m Tore Down,” and James Elmore’s “Shake Your Money Maker” were among many that bellowed from the house speakers. Gramps lip-synched every cut on the disc!
My wife and I returned to L.A. reminiscing about the great time we had. I held on to the image of Gramps singing the blues. With that image in mind I wondered, what does this music mean to her? Why does she love it so much? And, how does this music make her do what no medicine ever could? How could it? Gramps knows the blues and the blues knows her. She’s had an intimate relationship with it ever since she was a little girl running through the grass fields of North East Louisiana. For Gramps, the blues facilitates her unique character. It allows it to fly.
The blues has served in this capacity for years as a significant part of the African-American music culture. As such, it has voiced the sentiment of aching dark souls as they struggled through a life of racism and second-class citizenry. Certainly Gramps knows this struggle all too well. Scholar Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) wrote about the beginnings of the blues and how it developed as a response of Black bodies being ripped from their homeland and brought to shores of unknown places. Their sorrows birthed the blues!
The blues serves to express varying degrees of sorrow and at one time played this role in Gramps life. However, I think the blues for Gramps now is an audible reminder of a time gone by. Today the blues for her provides the musical framework to reminisce cherished moments in a long life. These are not sad moments; they are simply moments to be remembered. Gramps listened to the blues on all occasions: when she was fired; when she was hired; when she found a love; when she lost love; after funerals, and at birthday parties. The sound of a driving guitar, a syncopated harmonica rhythm, a shuffle drum pattern, and minor key melodies uttered from the mouths of grown folk are all that Gramps needs to hear to catapult her back fifty years or more to her days filled with promise. The very rhythm and tone of the blues holds familial capital with her soul. Gramps’ smile, rhythmic bounce, and lip-synching was more than a reflection of how the blues made her feel, but was also an outward sign of her remembering those precious moments only known to her.
Yes! Gramps remembers the blues.
Update: Gramps passed away in Dec. 2013 listening to the blues!