Change is gonna do ya good:The music of Otis Gibbs
One of my favorite songs of this still-fresh century is Otis Gibbs’ “I Wanna Change It”. From his album One Day Our Whispers, it’s an inspiring sing-along that has only grown in relevance since its release in 2004. Allow me to quote from the song at length. Gibbs sings:
There’s been an awful lot of talk about changing the world…
I wanna change it, with you…
There’s been an awful lot of simple people feeling left out…
I wanna change it, with you.
All the great changes in society,
They start with two people, just like you and me.
I wanna change it, with you.
I wanna change it, with you.
If we want to, we can feed the world.
If we want to, we can stop the hate.
If we want to, we can change the world right now.
Freed from the computer screen and flowing from your speakers, these words are insanely catchy, propelled by Gibbs’ rough-hewn shout, an insistent country-rock rhythm that’s designed for two-stepping, and a couple of nifty pedal steel solos by John Byrne. It’s easy to hear that Gibbs, who produced One Day Our Whispers himself, understands that if you want your words to be heard, you have to frame them amidst music that lets the lyric sing. A key to the power of this song is the way it keeps emphasizing, melodically, “with you” in such a way that you can’t help but want to finish the line “I wanna change it…with you.” I bet that when Gibbs performs the song live, the audience sings that line out strong in the process, embodying the song’s thesis.
* * *
A coincidence of the calendar had me writing about Otis Gibbs’ new album, Grandpa Walked A Picketline, on the same day the nation honored Martin Luther King Jr. last week. Or, rather, the day the nation honored a caricature of the man. The King we revere today was cleansed long ago of the radical moral and political power “I wanna change it. With you” which allowed the civil rights movement to alter the world in the first place. The whitewashed result has been that his holiday serves mostly as a once-a-year opportunity to pat ourselves on the back (and by “ourselves,” I primarily but not only mean “white people”) for a job well done. That is to say, for changes no longer needed.
For example, King’s challenge to judge one another by character rather than color is instead deformed into the altogether different goal of “color blindness,” an exercise in collective make-believe that’s every bit as dangerous as it is disingenuous. (This national delusion is what Stephen Colbert is mocking when he says things like, “I don’t see color. People tell me I’m white and I believe them because I watch Antiques Roadshow.”) And as for the King who ended his life “question[ing] the capitalistic economy,” arguing for “a guaranteed national income” and a “restructuring [of] the whole of American society” “America, you must be born again,” is how he put it…well, that King is dead and buried beneath a mound of status quo. I’m not alone in fearing that the election of Barack Obama will for many justify further self-congratulation or, ultimately the same thing, apathy.
King delivered the lines I quote above in a 1967 speech titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”, and I was reminded of them by a song on Gibbs’ new Grandpa Walked A Picketline titled “Damn Me”. “I log many a mile every year, I do my best to spread the word [and] fan the flames of discontent,” Gibbs sings, his voice sounding as raggedly empowered as if he’d been shouting protest slogans all through a cold night. “It’s what I like to call the Lord’s work.”
I like that. Gibbs comprehends, as did King, not only that dissatisfaction can be a symptom of unjust which is to say, immoral social arrangements, but also that a righteous discontent is the prerequisite to what the aspirations of our own moment have vaguely labeled “Change.” I suspect King would have said “Amen” to Gibbs’ sentiment, too, because he concluded his “Where Do We Go From Here” speech with a similar, and still urgent, call of his own:
[L]et us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied…Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout “white power,” when nobody will shout “black power!” but everybody will talk of God’s power and human power.
I’ll admit that God talk like that leaves me cold. But “human power” the ability of you and me, though only working together, to achieve ourselves and the world “human power” thrills me as the why-and-wherefore of life itself.
* * *
The day after the King holiday, Barack Obama was sworn in as our nation’s 44th president. Obama has often emphasized ideas similar, albeit far fuzzier, to King’s, and his inaugural address was no exception. Obama spoke:
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
“We can change the world,” Gibb sings, “if we want to.” And even his album covers, which evoke the social realist style of the 1930s, say amen.
Gibbs returns to his version of “the Lord’s work” again and again in his songs: People can create not only “a more perfect union,” as Lincoln had it, but a more perfect world. Human beings can not only change the world and “change,” of course, is going to occur in any event but we can, to a necessarily limited yet still significant degree, direct that change toward moral ends. And, Gibbs stresses, this power isn’t only in reach of heroes such as King and Obama. I like that the track which provides Grandpa Walked A Picketline with its title is actually a song called “Everyday People”. It tells the listener that our abilities to imagine, reason and create are what make all of us ordinary humans extraordinary human, in the first place and it makes you want to sing along.
Otis Gibbs performing “Everyday People”
Grandpa Walked A Picketline was produced by Chris Stamey, and the album’s arrangements, especially the contributions of Al Perkins, who weeps and shudders on pedal steel throughout, are engaging, sympathetic, first rate. Gibbs populates his songs with real individuals and telling real-life details: “Caroline” is “sleeping jumbled ‘cross two beds” in a motel with her kids; “Preacher Steve” is “sitting up under the Ferris wheel picking coins up out of the dirt”; another man awakes in a “Beto Junction truck stop with a steering wheel in my side,” and “a six-dollar shower waits inside.”
But always, Gibbs emphasizes that the men and women in his songs are connected to all of the men and women outside of them. He reminds that we live our lives individually and collectively, that “we can change the world if we want to.” And that its time to get to work.