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Everybody has been so worked up over the Duck Dynasty/Phil Robertson controversy (and, before that, Megyn Kelly’s “white Santa” drama) that it feels like we’ve misplaced our “peace on earth and good will toward men.” I really appreciate Jen Hatmaker’s wise and passionate words on the subject, but frankly I’d prefer not to add any more volume to the cacophony. Instead, I’ve come out of blogging hibernation to offer my reflections on something a little more fitting for the season. A couple days ago, I heard an engaging segment on NPR about sad Christmas songs.

“Bundled up in Christmas is hopefully a lot of joy and a lot of family and a lot of happiness, but that’s always going to be touched with an element of sadness,” said NPR’s Stephen Thompson, and I agree. Whether it’s Nat King Cole’s classic “The Christmas Song” or Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here,” our favorite holiday tunes usually come with a dash of melancholy. It’s what I used to refer to during my teen years as a “happy sadness.”

Every Christmas I have at least one or two songs that wind up defining the holiday for me that year. The last couple of years, the tracks from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas comprised my go-to holiday playlist. But this year, I can’t seem to get away from the funky “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown. The tune has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past couple weeks.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I was a bit too young to witness James Brown in his original glory. My initial impressions of him were informed more by the mild spoofs of himself that he did in The Blues Brothers or Rocky IV. While those performances were genuine James Brown, they were more riffs on his former greatness than fresh manifestations of his true artistic brilliance. James Brown is remembered as “the Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” and “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Signature James Brown hits like “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” are not just great R&B songs; they’re among the greatest entries in the American songbook. It’s not hyperbole to say James Brown was one of the most influential artists in popular music. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine how any of today’s variations of pop music—rock, R&B, hip-hop—would exist in their fullness.

“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” was released in 1968 as part of Brown’s A Soulful Christmas album. When I first heard the song  a few years ago, I confess that I listened to it through the filter of the latter-day James Brown caricature. It’s the funky Godfather of Soul talking about Santa Claus going to the ghetto. That’s pure fun and silliness, right? Upon further listens, however, I was struck by how urgent the song is. Not only is it filled with an understated poignancy, at moments it virtually seethes with a biting desperation. This, after all, was 1968—the year that saw Brown moving from being one of America’s most popular entertainers to one of its most vocal activists.

Most notably, 1968 was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. All at once, the anger and hopelessness of black people boiled over in the form of riots across American cities. As the nation both figuratively and literally burned, James Brown was called upon to help bring peace to a tenuous situation. On April 5, 1968, the day after King’s murder, Brown had been scheduled to perform a concert at the Boston Garden. In the wake of the Memphis tragedy, however, the performance was initially canceled by Boston Garden management until Boston’s first African American city councilman, Tom Atkins, persuaded Boston mayor Kevin White that the James Brown concert should go on and be televised on local public television as a means of unifying the black community and directing its attention away from the despondency and rage that were hanging in the air. James Brown not only supplied a thrilling performance, he was credited with calming the city’s nerves and keeping Boston residents safely away from the troubled streets.

The full story is chronicled wonderfully in James Sullivan’s book The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America. Indeed, the Boston concert marked something of a turning point in Brown’s career. After that show, President Lyndon Johnson implored the singer to perform a benefit concert in Washington, D.C., to promote a message of nonviolence. And later in the year, Brown would release his groundbreaking hit “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which placed him squarely in the fray of the civil rights movement’s struggle for racial justice in America.

It’s against this backdrop that Brown recorded “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” And once you get past the initial funkiness of the track (check out the quick burst of “Jingle Bells” during the saxophone solo), it’s hard not to hear it as a type of subversive protest song.

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Hitch up your reindeer, uh!

And go straight to the ghetto

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Fill every stocking you find

The kids are gonna love you so, uh!

What’s most striking about the song to me is how Brown acts as the tour guide for Santa, the one man whom you’d suppose knew his way around all parts of the world. But in 1968, Brown understood that Santa Claus, and all he might represent in this context—the government? the church? white America?—needed instructions for navigating their way around the ghetto, a place that was presumably foreign to them.

Leave a toy for Johnny

Leave a doll for Mary

Leave something pretty for Donnie

And don’t forget about Gary

“Tell ’em James Brown sent you,” the singer goes on to say, at once offering himself up as the conduit for connecting with the hidden pain of the black community.

I confess, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is an odd candidate for the Christmas canon. It does not receive the acclaim of R&B holiday classics such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” or the Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night.”  It will never be sung by neighborhood carolers or during a church Christmas Eve service. But 45 years after the song’s release, in a 21st-century era that still boasts disturbing social and economic disparities between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and non-immigrant, it might do us well to take Soul Brother No. 1’s desperate plea to heart. Could it be that he’s calling us to pack up our sleighs and remember the contemporary “ghettos” in our midst?

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Many of you have probably noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. This became especially embarrassing when I was informed last week that Reconciliation Blog had been named to “The 50 Top Evangelical Christian Blogs” by the Biblical Learning Blog. So, I figured I should try to work my way back into that blogging rhythm. Truth is, I get tired of writing about race all the time. That’s why I took a pass on some of the recent race-related incidents, including Harry Reid’s awkward comments and the whole Blind Side debate (which inspired an excellent commentary from my friend Joshua Canada, by the way).

Anyway, I’m not feeling especially insightful right now, so allow me to indulge my bent for nostalgia again. Ever since I turned 40 last year, I’ve found myself spending more and more time reflecting on the music, movies, and TV programs of bygone eras. Some of you might remember my Hee Haw post from last year as a prime example. Lately, I’ve been flashing back to that iconic Generation-X childhood favorite School House Rock! In fact, I’ve been driving my wife and kids crazy singing and humming various tunes from that classic Saturday-morning series of educational shorts. I’m sure our teachers were helpful, but come on–how many of us actually learned our grammar, math facts, astronomy, and American history from “Conjunction Junction,” “My Hero, Zero,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “No More Kings”?

But here’s the thing: I’d argue that School House Rock was not only educational academically; it also was a great example of racial and cultural reconciliation in action on television. Like Sesame Street and The Electric Company before it, School House Rock reflected the diversity of America, both through its wonderful music and animated characters, who comprised a colorful swath of races and ethnicities. The song “The Great American Melting Pot,” with its mellow Karen Carpenter-esque vocals, even spoke about the importance of that diversity. (On the negative side, I think one of the glaring omissions in the SHR catalog is an honest overview of both the history of the Native American people in this country and the civil rights movement; I guess the early ’70s was still too soon to tackle these thorny subjects on Saturday-morning television.)

I loved that the SHR songs — which were written and performed by an exceptional team of musicians (most notably, Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens) — experimented with pop, blues, jazz, folk, country, and other musical genres. In all honesty, the “Rock” in the title was only true in the loosest sense of the term. Still, SHR is a nice reminder of the days before extreme niche programming, back when a single radio station could play everything from Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye to Tammy Wynette and Aerosmith.

School House Rock also allowed occasional nods to the Bible and Christian culture. For instance, many of the songs featured gospel-flavored idioms. Check out the use of the Noah’s ark story in “Elementary, My Dear,” as well as that song’s “gospelly” vamp.

I know I’m not alone in my affection for School House Rock, so I thought I’d try something different here at Reconciliation Blog and offer up my personal list of the Top 10 SHR songs. These kinds of lists are subjective by design, and they often rile up those who think “this” or “that” should’ve been included or left off. But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? So, here we go — my roundup of “the best” School House Rock songs. Once you’re done reading and listening, please feel free to share your own lists — or to tear mine to shreds. Or both.

#10 Sufferin’ Till Suffrage
Not only did this one firmly lodge in my mind the helpful fact that women gained the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it’s also a jazzy tune that reminds me (both in musical style and feminist swagger) of Donny Hathaway’s great theme to the classic sitcom Maude.

#9 Verbs: That’s What’s Happening
Ah, now this was perhaps the funkiest of the School House Rock tunes. I mean, this one is full-throttle ‘70s groove. Plus, it painted a positive picture of an urban neighborhood that still had its own movie theater where kids could go see matinees by themselves, and then run home to the loving arms of their parents. When I was 6, I wanted to live in this community.

#8 The Preamble
This one makes my list simply for the fact that it, probably more than anything else, helped me pass my junior high Constitution test. And I know I wasn’t the only one that used this song’s catchy, banjo-driven tune to help me memorize the “We the People” preamble.

#7 Three Is a Magic Number
Such a sweet song this one is. I used to love how it talked about “faith and hope and charity,” while featuring that precious portrait of “a man and a woman” who “had a little baby … they had three in the family.” There’s also an interesting reference to the “ancient” and “mystical” Trinity.

#6 Interjections!
I love the voice of Essra Mohawk, who sang this one, as well as “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” The song also has that Handel’s Messiah vibe, with its exuberant chant of “Hallelujahs” as its coda. I always could relate to the little girl at the episode’s close who would bemoan, “Darn! That’s the end!” I, too, wanted the song to go on and on.

#5 Figure Eight
Like the Charlie Brown TV specials, and Vince Guaraldi’s accompanying scores, there was always something just a little melancholy about many of the SHR songs. For me, this one was the most introspective and melancholy of them all. Being a mildly melancholy kid, I loved it. What’s more, I still hear Blossom Dearie’s breathy and delicate vocals in my head whenever I’m doing math that involves multiples of eight.

#4 Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla
A great song featuring Latino characters and their busload of kangaroos, aardvarks, and rhinoceroses. The narrator, Albert Andreas Armadillo, presents the strange case of Rufus Xavier Sarsaprilla and his sister, Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla, and demonstrates quite convincingly how pronouns make our lives easier.

#3 Naughty Number Nine
This has to be the bluesiest of the SHR songs. Put your headphones on and listen to the jazzy horn section, the mellow bass, and the rich vocals by Grady Tate, the veteran jazz musician who also teaches at Howard University.

#2 I’m Just a Bill
I used to always think this one, along with “Conjunction Junction” and a few others, was sung by Ray Charles. Only years later did I discover that the actual vocalist is a white singer and actor named Jack Sheldon. His is one of the most soulfully distinctive of the SHR voices, and this song gave many of us a running start for our U.S. Government classes in high school. Maybe this should be required viewing for some of our current lawmakers.

# 1 Little Twelvetoes
I know this isn’t among the most popular SHR songs. I personally never cared for this one as a kid; however, my appreciation for the lyrical depth and musical sophistication of this song has grown over the years. There’s something both progressive and psychedelic about this one. I hear traces of Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, and Pink Floyd. For me, this song above all the others demonstrates how musically serious the SHR songs were. Even though they were primarily writing for grade-schoolers, Bob Dorough and the other composers never assumed that their listeners were too young to appreciate clever and complex musical arrangements. There’s also an underlying message in this song, I believe, about celebrating our diversity, sharing our gifts with others, and recognizing the value of those who might be different from us.

Well, I could easily list another 10 SHR songs, but I’ll leave this as my best-of. Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.

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urbanfaith logoThe past week saw a spike in public rudeness and incivility, at least in the worlds of politics and pop culture. By now, you’ve read the tweets and watched the YouTube clips of the various offenses, right?

Most of the incidents have led to multiple apologies (both sincere and compulsory), as well as a surplus of opinion and chatter that has confirmed the central role of Twitter and Facebook in relaying real-time commentary on breaking stories. But most of all, these outbursts have demonstrated, in often shocking fashion, just how impulsive, mean, and disrespectful the human heart can be.

(This is the intro to a new commentary I wrote for UrbanFaith.com. Click here to read the rest of the article.)

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urbanfaith logoGreetings, everyone. Thanks for the excellent dialogue happening regarding that last post about President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren. Just wanted to bring to your attention a postmortem on the event that I posted over at UrbanFaith.com. And while you’re at UrbanFaith, please also check out my friend Todd Burke’s hard-hitting commentary on the political hysteria surrounding the health-care debate—and feel free to chime in with your own opinions, since I’m sure some will take issue with Todd’s perspective. And, if you haven’t seen it yet, you need to read Jeremy Del Rio’s insightful essay on why the call for biblical justice should be a natural part of our worship.

If you don’t frequent the pages over at UrbanFaith, there’s probably a few other recent articles there that you’ll find interesting too, so please hang out and make yourself at home. (My livelihood as an editor and journalist is depending on it.) 🙂

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urbanfaith logoSorry that I haven’t updated the blog in a while. I’ve been busy with work and family outings (trying to get in some final summer activities before the kids return to school). To be honest, most of my blogging energy is being used up over at UrbanFaith.com, which I’d like to encourage you to visit and bookmark, if you’re not familiar with it already. UrbanFaith is an online magazine that I work on as part of my day job at Urban Ministries, Inc. Here are a few of the interesting items we’ve posted recently:

• Redeeming a “Teachable Moment.”  This one goes beyond the beer summit to try and get at the real lessons from the Henry Louis Gates arrest and the subsequent racialized fiasco. We solicited commentary from seven Christian scholars and pastors, including William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston. Pannell and Loury, especially, offer a trenchant analysis of President Obama’s handling (or mishandling) of the matter. The topic’s a bit dated now, but please check it out and let us hear your feedback.

• Justice or Socialist?  The legendary Christian reconciler and activist John M. Perkins shares insights on pursuing biblical justice without letting our politics, ideology, or suspicions get in the way. Very relevant in light of the current health-care debate.

• How to Handle Panhandlers.  Should we give without constraint, or does God want us to be more discriminating. My friend Arloa Sutter allowed us to adapt this one from her blog. This one will always be a timely issue for us to wrestle with.

• Aliens vs. Racism.  A review of the new film District 9, which isn’t your typical UFO flick. For starters, it’s set in South Africa. Plus, the human heart turns out to be a lot more frightening than the ugly extraterrestrials.

• Three Days in 1969.  Remembering Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix, and our continuing search for peace and love. If you’re a fan of Hendrix or the Woodstock era, you’ll want to check this one out.

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Here’s a piece that I posted earlier at UrbanFaith.com.

Let the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage continue. As soon as I heard the tragic news about his passing yesterday afternoon, I knew it would mean nonstop fodder for all the CNNs and WGCIs and TMZ.coms (sorry, Farrah). This will be just like Princess Di’s death, I thought. And for a brief moment, it was just as shocking and unexpected. Then, after a few minutes, the horrible truth sank in: Michael Jackson had already died many years ago. Or at least that’s how it felt.

I posted that thought on my Facebook page and was surprised to see a steady stream of friends chime in with their agreement. “Around ’92, I’d say,” wrote my college friend Christopher. “You got that right, he’s been gone for a good long time,” added Karin, another former classmate. “Yes,” continued my work colleague Bruce, “it feels like we’ve already grieved his death … as sad as the news is.”

Maybe it was around 1992. That’s when the plastic surgeries and ever-whitening skin began to morph him into something more noticeably un-real. Or perhaps it was back in the early ’70s, when, under the harsh rule of a demanding stage parent, he was not allowed to be a child, but then years later didn’t seem to understand how to be an adult, either.

By the late ’90s, the “ABC” – Off the WallThriller versions of Michael Jackson were clearly notions of the distant past. I’ll never forget the day in 1997 that my wife came home from her job as a daycare worker and told me she had overheard a discussion among the 7 and 8-year-olds about Michael Jackson. After she offhandedly referred to him as an African American, the kids’ eyes widened in disbelief: “You mean Michael Jackson is black?”

Many of us used to think that Michael Jackson’s constantly changing looks were the result of his desire not to be black. The narrowed nose, straightened hair, and lightened skin all suggested a person who was attempting to escape his genetic fate. Yet, Jackson always spoke about being proud of his racial heritage. And his continued influence on the black urban and hip-hop artistic communities was immense, despite the fact that he appeared to be running away from his race.

Could it be, as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page has suggested, that Jackson was not trying to escape his race so much as the image of his father that he saw in the mirror?

The truth is, despite all the controversy and dysfunction and tragedy in his life, Jackson was one of the great pop-culture reconcilers of our time. Like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole, and Bill Cosby (as well as many others), Jackson broke down racial barriers by virtue of his talent and ability. I recall seeing white girls in 7th grade walking the halls with the Thriller album in their hands and thinking, Wow, white people like Michael Jackson too? Before that, in my limited 12 or 13 years of life, I had never seen white people so publicly claiming a black pop star as their own. But for the ’80s generation, Michael Jackson demolished the walls. Everyone, regardless of race, talked about the “Thriller” video or Jackson’s legendary performance on the Motown 25 TV special or whatever Jackson’s latest fashion statement happened to be.

Of course, we also talked about his problems and freakish behaviors later on. But my sense is that there always was more sympathy than condemnation for this man whom so many once wildly celebrated.

The outpouring of sadness and grief after the announcement of Jackson’s death yesterday proves that he still occupies a special place in our culture. Folks whom I would’ve never imagined cared about Jackson have chimed in on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs with notes of sympathy and fond memories of “the King of Pop.”

I was about 8 when Elvis died in 1977, and I remember not knowing much about who the guy was until that day. Suddenly, I received a whirlwind education on “the King” and his importance in music and pop culture. In death, Elvis Presley became real to me. I suspect it may be that way for many younger folks today as the tragic figure that Jackson became in his latter years takes a backseat to the musical legacy of one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.

No one knows what the condition of Jackson’s spiritual life was at the time of his death, whether or not he’d made peace with God. The assumption is he was still searching, still unfulfilled, still trying to recapture the success of his ’80s heyday while trying to escape the fallout of that same success.

Today, we fondly remember our favorite Michael Jackson songs: “I’ll Be There,” “Rock with You,” “Beat It,” “Black or White.” We celebrate the joy he brought us as an artist. But we also pray that, perhaps in his final moments of life, he was finally able to see things clearly.

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Thanks to a tip from a coworker, lately I’ve been enjoying the soulful sounds of (wait for it) a Korean gospel choir. Korea’s Heritage Mass Choir is a dynamic ensemble of young artists who clearly have been inspired by the Spirit—as well as urban contemporary gospel tunes from the U.S. (I’ve embedded three of their videos here, but you can find several others over at YouTube.) I’m especially taken by their rendition of the old Kirk Franklin/Fred Hammond cut “My Deisre.” The Heritage Choir’s videos have been making the rounds for a while now, so perhaps you’ve seen and heard them already. If not, enjoy—and give the Lord some praise!

 

 

 

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