The Ballad in the Street
Benjamin Dunlap, 2011 Wofford College Commencement remarks introducing the legendary blues and roots singer Taj Mahal:
Many of you graduating seniors are aware that there’s a national obsession at the moment, among scholars as well as pundits, about the nature of true happiness—not just regarding a run-of-the-mill, smiley-faced, have-a-nice-day sort of hedonism, and not merely with the blitzed-out party-weekend-at-the-Row that you’ve all outgrown by now, but with that deeper satisfaction based on a belief that what matters most is larger than oneself and is at its best when it pertains to helping and communing with others. The builders of this building behind me may have had a song on their lips and freedom in their hearts, but nobody asked if they were happy. Maybe those who used the building after it was finished should have listened a little more closely.
We’re told by researchers today that effortless winning eventually reduces even the most self-centered among us to a state of apathy, whereas empathy and fellow-feeling often result in the opposite emotion, an exalted sense of purpose fulfilled. We’re also advised that we Americans are not as happy as we used to be and not so sure we know where we are headed. Maybe we’re still not listening.
As you might expect, the arts can be used to illustrate these points as well. For example, though it seems to be ubiquitous, elevator music strikes all of us as pointlessly upbeat, vapid, and annoying—while the blues convey a universal message that though, on the one hand, things are never so bad they can’t get worse, on the other, there is something undaunted in every one of us, even those without a fancy degree and even if it’s merely irony or bravado. A man’s a man for a’ that, and, though we ourselves may not have been reduced to utter misery or despair—not yet, at least—we ought to be able, if we’re listening, to recognize the sound of a desperate soul’s resilience and know what courage looks like in the face of injustice and defeat. Nothing human should be alien to us, including the music of Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt.
Some of you seniors may also know that, when the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre set out to describe a man in the last extremities of alienation, the only thing his character could cling to near the end was a Bessie Smith recording of “One of these days.” It could just as well have been Taj Mahal singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own”—or, for that matter, any of his songs transported like precious cargo from the Caribbean or the Delta or almost anywhere in the world. He was first in the field when it comes to world music, finding and revealing what’s truly universal, opening our minds and sensibilities to something other than ourselves and the limited spheres we otherwise inhabit.
Here at Wofford College, almost everyone comes to know other parts of the world, other languages and ways of life. But sometimes we’re a little too quick to assume it’s only the far-away that has such lessons to teach, contrary to what the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson tried to tell us. “What would we really know the meaning of?” he once asked a group of high-achieving students on an occasion very much like this. “The meal in the firkin,” he answered, “the milk in the pan, the ballad in the street, the news of the boat, the glance of the eye, the form and the gait of the body.” Not just the remote and exotic, he insisted. What we need most to study as our thinking grows more global and our lives more complex may often be, as he put it, “the near, the low, the common. . . the literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street.” He would have loved the blues.
And why is that? What is it that leads such sophisticated, scholarly minds to the realization that, within the music of artists like Bessie Smith and Taj Mahal, lies an essential wisdom that we can’t do without? Well, as another musician, Louis Armstrong, once observed, “there’s some people that, if they don’t already know, there’s no way you can tell them.”
But I’m willing to bet you graduating seniors do already know, or have glimpsed enough to know what you’ll need to learn. I’m willing to bet you don’t need to be told how privileged we are today to hear for ourselves from a truly legendary performer who knows all about the ballad in the street, the glance of the eye, the form and gait of the body—not to mention the literature of the poor and the feelings of the child. As was said by another great teacher to an audience like us, “Those who have ears, let them hear.”