Bob Stannard: There is no superior race; just superior people

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Who do you know who would sacrifice everything for justice for all?

I was born in 1951. I grew up listening to The Kingston Trio's "MTA"; Spike Jones' "Der Fuehrer's Face" and Woody Woodbury. Elvis came along later only to be dwarfed by The Beatles. Then came The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, Pink Floyd and many others.

My grandmother, Thyra "Nanny" Erk, gave me my first harmonica when I was 10; a Hohner Echo Harmonica. I had no idea how to play it so I just walked around the house breathing in and out on this handy little machine making melodic sounds (more or less) wherever I went. When the British Invasion hit I lost interest in this instrument and decided at the age of eleven that drums were for me as I was going to be the next Ringo Starr.

In between "She Loves You" and "Dark Side of the Moon" I discovered Blues. Over the years I've been asked how I got into the Blues being a white kid from the whitest state. At 14 I would sneak out of our house in South Dorset; hop on my one-speed bike that you pushed the pedals backwards to stop and ride to the Equinox Hotel.

In 1965 The Equinox was waning and closed in 1969. I rode down to hang out with the black employees who stayed in dismal housing across the street from hotel. During the day they dressed up in fancy clothes and looked magnificent, but after work, they changed into their dirty, tattered clothes.

They sang music unknown to me as they passed around a bottle of whiskey. It was here where I heard a harmonica being played by a man who knew how to play. I've never forgotten that experience.

Last night my wife, Alison, and I watched "What Happened, Miss Simone"; a documentary on the life of Jazz singer, Nina Simone. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933, Nina Simone was a savant. A self-taught pianist at the age of three she went on to change the world. She had hoped to be the first, black woman to play classical music, but life got in the way.

Around the time I was pedaling a small bike to go hang out with hotel employees, Nina Simone was morphing from being one of the nation's premier Jazz/Soul singers to an outspoken, black, woman, activist.

When racists bombed a church and killed Medgar Evans and four little black girls, Nina Simone's life also exploded. She immersed herself into the Civil Rights movement. She wrote "Mississippi Goddam," which was not only banned from the airwaves in the South, it also got her banned from most clubs. Not being able to find work she left America to live in Africa and Europe. Everyone, including her abusive husband/manager, was telling her to be more like Aretha Franklin and ditch the activist thing.

She was more passionate about justice than her music. She risked it all; her music; her fame and fortune and many of her friends, to stand up for what she believed in; liberty and freedom for ALL people.

Like many black activists of the '60's Simone paid a heavy price for standing her ground.

Those who were raised with a strong sense of right and wrong know what's important and how to respond to injustice. Nina Simone was one of those rare people who was beyond brilliant. She was a genius; a natural born talent who, after receiving a full scholarship to Juilliard, was denied admission to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music because of the color of her skin.

We'd like to believe that things have changed since the '60s and that our issues with race in America are resolved, but they are not. If anything, under our current president, it seems like things are getting worse. It's sad to watch and makes me yearn for Nina Simone.

Bob Stannard writes a regular column for the Journal.


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