I know nothing about music apart from what I like. I don't even think I could tell you what (and if there is anything) I don't like. But lately I've been wondering maybe how I can be a little more specific in my work here, studying African-American expatriates in Paris and I've been giving some thought to what got me interested in African-American culture in the first place.
As a kid who grew up in Los Angeles I spent a good amount of my childhood in a car--in traffic. You know, I'm sure my parents would report different, but I don't really remember minding, and as a child who grew up in a car--in traffic--my favorite pastime of traveling is still listening to music. I would lie in the back of the van with my ear next to the car speaker while we were in bumper to bumper traffic listening to my dad's mix tapes and the oldies station. I never got to choose what to listen to, and I don't think I ever expressed preference--except when I complained that the Classical music made my stomach hurt, which by the way is still the case, and my parents would change the radio station. But there was one song in particular that was played often on KEARTH 101.1 which I have loved and never tired of. "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye. I cried if my father tried to change it. Alas, when I had no knowledge of skin color, no understanding of race, no preference for one or the other, Marvin Gaye was my first love.
It was years later, probably High School when I found a Marvin Gaye album on my father's shelf and found this song again, and never let it go after that. My family can vouch for how often Gaye's "What's Going On" album was played in our house that year. I followed Marvin Gaye straight into the history of Motown, into the legacy that was black music. It didn't take long to find Big Band from there, and Swing, and Jazz, and for a little while I lost myself in Frank Sinatra, and Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. This, by the way, is a nice place to loose oneself. But I soon returned to what really got me going. Duke Ellington and Count Basie emerged. Then, I continued to pry into the music of African-American culture. And I was in love again with these voices. Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, oh, Louis Armstrong, and then I found Fats Waller, Bessie Smith--and I just kept going. Robert Johnson, Josephine Baker.
My sister caught on to the whole thing. She started listening to some Soul, to some Gospel, and so my family were plunged into the world of African-American music. I started studying French, and found through a professor here at BYU Ben L'Oncle, a French-Blues singer who I fell in love with. I came home and stopped listening to anything else, other than this soulful, bluesy stuff that was melancholy and imperfect. And I was thinking, why is this something I can't let go of? Why is this something that is so much a part of me that I can't say "I'm going to study African American expatriates" without saying, "You know? Josephine Baker... Ada "Bricktop" Smith. And what I want to want is to study the writers, and the intellectuals, but I think I'm going to have to admit to myself sometime that its the collision of France which has always appreciated the melancholic with old African American blues and jazz which has rarely had reason to be anything other than melancholic, that really gets me.
Maybe that gives me a place to start. I've been wondering--why France? What's the point in going there? Who will I talk to? What will I study? I don't know anything about music, but could I? Could I do something right by Marvin Gaye? Pay him back for this gift he's given me. And keeps giving me.