This morning as I began my morning reflections and time of meditation, I recall that today, December 2, 2016 is my father, Lonnie Johnson’s, birthday. Born in rural Arkansas in 1922, my father migrated as a youngster with his mother to Gary, Indiana where I was born and reared. Recently my father had been very much in my thoughts, as my wife and I visited our daughter and son-in-law and our new grandson who live in Reston, Virginia. During the Thanksgiving holiday, as I held my grandson, I thought of my parents with a comforting assurance that they would have been so proud of their great grandson.
Upon returning home to Fayetteville, NC, I recall something that my father said a number of times, but I remember one specific occasion when he told me, “Son, I’m proud of you.” We were living in Arlington, Virginia in the first year of our marriage, and most remarkably I had returned to that general area a couple of weeks ago.
Every man since Adam has sensed a deep yearning to hear these words or some variation thereof from his father. I also recall another specific occasion occurring around Father’s Day, when I asked my dad what he wanted for Father’s Day, and he made a similar comment, “Son, just keep me proud of you.” I have since endeavored to live up to that admonition.
As my wife and I departed on the Megabus, we rode through the heart of Washington, DC, the place where we first met and later returned to live after we were married. I recall another unforgettable incident that occurred when my parents visited me for the first time when I lived in DC from 1969-71. During that visit I learned something about my father who inspired this poem:
Quiet as it’s kept
Quiet as it’s kept, Daddy loved the blues.
I remember the time back in the day when Dad could still drive,
and drive he did most of the way, not the whole way, but divided in half,
stopping to spend the night in a motel in Pennsylvania
somewhere about halfway between Gary, Indiana and DC
“Madear and Daddy” drove down to visit me one weekend over the 4th
and we went down to festivities off Constitution Avenue
in that “grassy as if it wanted wear” area near the Smithsonian.
Strolling like nomads in and out of blue and white striped tents,
seeking relief from the relentless blazing summer sun,
we sampled the chicken and rib tips and fresh squeezed lemonade
and finished off the feasting with a taste of the blues:
a folk festival of sorts, featuring local blues singers
and a quartet from Dad’s home state of Arkansas.
We followed the crowd into this one wide tan canvas expanse,
flaps raised and rolled up, wrapped all around the sides,
like a revival tent without the sawdust.
On the plywood stage covered with carpet remnants
in a rickety wooden folding chair sat old Flora.
She wasn’t blind but thick wire-rimmed glasses
magnified her dark orbs that closed like doll’s eyes
when she reared back her head and hollered.
Flora was good, but she wasn’t quite like Robert,
old Blind Robert that sang down in front of the Riggs Bank.
He was blind for sure (think he was born that way),
strumming and humming, and sliding that metal bar up and down the guitar strings
to lure folk into the tent to taste that thick authentic down home sound.
Blind Robert show could sing. . . .
Wonder why so many good blues singers be blind?
Brother Ray and Stevie. . . Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell,
Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake n’nem;
All the Blind Boys, from Mississippi and Alabama,
All yall, I know yall see what it takes to show nuff sing the blues.
Of course, my Daddy got the same name as a famous blues singer,
Lonnie Johnson. I wonder what all that means, if anything.
While the brothers from Arkansas was playing and singing,
I’d glance over and catch Daddy nodding his head in agreement
or see him smiling or simply breathing a sigh,
like a tacit Amen or inner response that seemed to say,
“You got that right.”
We stood and watched and listened a good while
before we left and continued to stroll from tent to tent.
After a while, Daddy wanted to go back just one more time.
My Daddy show did love him some blues that time in DC.
Some say the blues is an acquired taste that you appreciate as you age.
As I have mellowed in the autumn of the years, I have come to enjoy the blues too.
I just wish I could have shared this newfound fondness for blueness
with my father back in the day, in my younger boppin doowop days,
but I just couldn’t get into them down in the alley sad songs back then.
I just didn’t know why the blues always be so sad.
What did I know? What did I know?
Now I know it takes a whole lot of living and
a lot more loving and losing to appreciate the blues.
Like the Lady say,
You don’t know what love is
Until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues
Until you’ve loved a love you’ve had to lose
You don’t know what love is
Now I know just what Daddy meant when he nodded his head
and sighed and wanted to go back just one more time.
Quiet as it’s kept, my Daddy loved him some blues.
In all things I seek to find a spiritual application, and I came to the conclusion long ago that in a similar manner, God, my heavenly Father, sometimes affectionately called Abba, Father, my Daddy, also appreciates the blues which attempt to articulate a response to loss. As Ralph Ellison, notes,
“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger the jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolations of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
Recently I came across a magnificent musical illustration of what I am trying to say about Abba, Father’s sense of identification with those who sing the blues. Listen to Kevin Levar along with One Voice singing “Jesus Blues.”
Indeed, both my Daddy and Abba, Father, loved them some blues.