Last week a great voice was brought to our collective memory by the passing of Leon Bibb. I thought about whether or not I should write anything about it. I did not know him. I never met him. I never saw him perform live. And yet he remains a part of my memory. And so, after considering it, I wanted to put a few words down. I thought I should try, even from my great distance, to pay respects to a man I know from one single moment on television.
It has only been in the last year that I learned some of Leon Bibb’s history. I still want to learn more. For forty years my only memory of Mr. Bibb was a three minute performance on public television. The year was 1971, I was fourteen and I had a small portable Panasonic cassette recorder I took everywhere.
One Sunday I was looking through the TV Guide and found a music program coming up next on a local channel. I ran to my room and retrieved my trusty black and silver recorder and settled down into the green and blue shag rug, flat on my stomach, chin propped up on my palms, directly in front of the screen. My microphone was perched on its stand in front of the RCA speakers. What I saw next impacted me in ways I did not understand.
The program that day featured three artists. The first up was Mike Seeger, a virtuoso on banjo, and a symbol of traditional old time music. The closer, and the one accorded the most screen time was Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. I was too young, too new to music to know who was in that line up of musicians, but I knew Bill Monroe was the father of Bluegrass. Three years later I would see him perform, standing only fifteen feet from the patriarch of bluegrass. And then there was a man named Leon.
How much time was given to each artist on the stage is unclear. For the television program the editors trimmed it down. Leon Bibb had one song. But what a song it was. For the longest time I would play my tape, listening as a simple song called my heart back from the place I had hidden it. Of course at fourteen I could never articulate all of this, nor could I have understood that the angels were troubling the waters of healing I desperately needed.
To this day I cannot remember the name of the show. Whatever that program was, I loved it. I loved the sounds, the diversity and artistry of the performers. Right now I would pay a king’s ransom for a copy of that broadcast. Yet, whenever it came time to play my scratchy, hissy cassette tape, there was one song that I played more than any other. One song. One song right in the middle of the show, sung by a black man in an immaculate cream colored suit. A man who sang with a dignity that was refined in the fires of inequality.
Of course, at that moment I knew none of that. What I connected with that day was, in the words of Van Morrison, “inarticulate speech of the heart.” When I listened to my tape of the show it always got stuck at one point. Leon Bibb’s performance. Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play. Over and over again.
I was living in North Carolina at the time. My heart was still in Maryland, where I was born. Where I had lived. Where my best friend still lived. The move had been heartbreaking to me. To add salt to the wound I felt like an outsider in my new town. None of this was on my mind that day. I was just happy to have another concert show to watch, more new music to absorb. But I got much more than I bargained for.
My memory tells me that I liked what I saw of Mike Seeger, and Bill Monroe. I would bet you that Bill Monroe played “Uncle Pen,” but if you pressed me I would say that I can’t be sure. Only one song do I remember by name.
I have a picture ingrained in my mind. The show was filmed at an outdoor venue. Alone at the microphone stood Leon Bibb. He may have sung acapella that day. I am not sure. But I am sure he sang the only number I remember by name, “500 Miles.”
In those days “500 Miles” was a standard in folk circles. I was never particularly moved by the renditions I had heard. Not even Peter, Paul and Mary’s version. I mean, those versions were nice but not particularly moving. But this man in the cream colored suit, his take was different.
He sang that song with an understanding of the pain intrinsic in the lyrics, yet he didn’t pander for sympathy. He bore the pain with restraint, his performance respecting the journey of the traveler. His composure demonstrated his ability to rise above the indignities handed to him because of his race, his faith, his station in life. He was the outsider who was the overcomer, but an overcomer who paid a price on the hard road to freedom.
Like the traveler, I knew I was far from home. As the new kid in town, I was the outsider. As the target of bullying and public humiliation in middle school I found new ways to burrow down deep in my soul and hide my heart from all but a few. When I finally made a new best friend he was taken in a motorcycle accident just a year into our friendship. But in that moment my heart was connecting with something, a current, an undertow, that pulled me deeper into the river of song. The only place I could find currency to pay for my ticket through this life. Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name. Lord. I can’t go home this-a-way.
I lost that tape. And I lost the last name of the artist that riveted me that day. Years later when the internet came along I used it to search for the recordings I had owned on vinyl and for the records I had never gotten around to purchasing. Every so often I would search for Leon Tibbs, or was it Tubbs?
It wasn’t until 2008 that I discovered Eric Bibb. And it was almost a month later before it dawned on me that maybe the man in the cream colored suit was Leon Bibb. And so, in a moment of need I discovered a connection to my past, and discovered the father by discovering the son. And that is a little like the gospel, to me. In that revelation I connected to a lonely moment in my youth when I felt displaced, and far from my home.
There is so much to his story. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, in a small community where he saw signs for colored restrooms and colored water fountains, Leon Bibb transcended the small-minded and petty racism of his childhood. In his later years he would go to schools and teach children about the evils of bullying.
He marched with Dr. King at Selma. He endured blacklisting for his social activism. He appeared on Ed Sullivan eight times. He had his own television program in a time when that was considered unusual. But I knew none of that. All I knew was all that I needed, that he sang “500 Miles” with the grace of a man who bore his sufferings in stride. No bitterness, his eyes on the prize. I pray for that kind of courage.
I keep thinking of a word. A single word to help me convey my feelings. And I think that word is grace. Grace. The grace to work for change, to lift us towards a better day, a brighter future. As the song says
If you miss the train I’m on
Then you’ll know that I am gone
Lord, I’m 500 miles from my home
Leon, tonight you’re home. My train is running a little later, but I hope when that day comes and I step off the platform that I can find you. You won’t know to expect me, but I will be looking to shake your hand. I owe you a debt of gratitude. www.theflamestillburns.com