The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind the intuition.
The Denver Post columnist Tina Griego took a seat next to an older woman sitting in Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver at the beginning of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Awards. They chatted briefly before the name Bennie L. Williams was mentioned by a speaker on stage. The coincidence was that speaker was thanking the very woman sitting next to Griego for her contributions to the Denver community.
Williams had been a vocal music teacher for 43 years in the local public schools and a few days after her conversation with Griego she won a Metro State Martin Luther King Peace Award. At age 80 she was in her 13th year with the Spirituals Project. What has teaching the songs created by black slaves to do with Simple Reality? I might just as well ask what has Simple Reality have to do with “feeling?” The answer is quite a lot actually.
Griego gives her answer as to why a nonprofit like The Spirituals Project exists to keep this unique form of American music alive. “Watch the world-famous Odetta sing ‘Motherless Child’ on YouTube and you’ll understand their power.”
At a time in the history of America when opportunities for young African American women were few and far between Williams showed her character and determination. She earned a bachelor’s degree in piano and music education and her master’s in choral conducting. “The choir became my instrument.”
While a young girl studying piano, she played Beethoven’s Minuet in G for her father and burst into tears when she finished. She had experienced what in P-A we call feeling. Williams was beginning to learn the importance of the gift that she has brought to thousands of students including her most famous pupil, the four-time Grammy Award-winning Dianne Reeves. “You have to be willing to enter the music. Sometimes, my struggle is to get people to go into that place in themselves because the spirituals are about pain, and we’re such an escapist society. We spend a lot of time trying not to go there.”
And then she said something that brought in me the same response she had had all those years ago to Beethoven’s Minuet in G. “They are about surviving. Just sing those songs, and you can survive anything.”
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.