full court press

Above the Fold: Stand by Me

A musical journey ten years in the making
December 8, 2008

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by never ending suicide bombings in Iraq, escalating conflict in Afghanistan, hand-to-hand (if unarmed) conflict over gay marriage, IRAs which once looked like giant pumpkins now the size of grapes, torture by the American government, and reporters who remain reluctant to portray it as a crime—if you need proof that, throughout all the catastrophes of the last eight last years, a much brighter side of humanity was still alive and well and thriving in every corner of the world—consider this story, which reached us through Bill Moyers:

Many years ago, Mark Johnson’s brother Greg—”a huge inspiration” for Mark—gave him a book called A Day in the Life of Africa. Greg had taken one picture out of the book and framed it. The caption read, “One of the more dangerous townships in South Africa finds solace through backyard jazz.” Mark kept the picture on his wall for years; eventually he learned the upright bass player in the band in the picture was Pokei Klaas, and that Pokei was also the leader of the band.

Fast forward ten years. Mark, now all grown up as a successful music producer, is walking underground through the New York subway. He comes upon two monks painted from head to toe in white, one playing a nylon guitar, the other “singing in a language that I didn’t understand.” And two hundred hurried New Yorkers stopped in their tracks by the performance. “It occurred to me that here is a group of people that would normally run by each other. And here they are, collectively coming together.” An idea was born. Now it just needed its soundtrack.

A few months later Mark was on the street in his own neighborhood, Santa Monica, one of the only neighborhoods in the City of Angels which enjoys actual street life—even pedestrians! Suddenly he heard the powerful tones of “Stand By Me” wafting towards him from more than a block away. Ben E. King’s hit from 1961 was being performed on the sidewalk by another soulful black man, Roger Ridley, and Mark ran over to hear the performance. When Ridley agreed to be recorded and filmed, Mark was launched on a ten year voyage.

For the next decade, he circled the globe to get dozens and dozens of musicians to contribute to a single performance of “Stand by Me.” To see some of the results, go here, set the embedded video at the 2:39 mark, crank up the volume—and prepare yourself for a four minute, twenty-five second tour de force.

It begins with Roger Ridley’s soulful California introduction from a Santa Monica sidewalk. Then Grandpa Elliott—”Though I won’t be afraid, though I won’t shed one tear”—comes in with a deep baritone, flowing out over a huge white beard and a belly shaking to the beat under his New Orleans overalls (with rhythmic back up from a smiling Washboard Chaz). Clarence Bekker, an astonishing black singer from Amsterdam, shouts out, “When the sky, that we look upon,” and six members of a native American Band called the Twin Eagle drum group join in on a single drum from Zuni, New Mexico. “I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear,” Bekker wails while shaking his dreadlocks. François VigulĂ©, all in black, starts rapping his tambourine in Toulouse, as Cesar Pope strums a ukulele down in Rio. From Moscow, Dmitri Doganon is pulling his bow across his cello, just as Grandpa Elliott comes back in, and Robert Lui rocks out on his guitar in New Orleans. Geraldo (acoustic) and Dionisio (electric) strum their guitars on the street in Caracas, and Junior Kissangwa taps his white drum set lightly in Mboth (The Congo).

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Then Pokei Klass—you remember Pokei, the man pictured on the wall of Mark Johnson’s bedroom—appears on the double bass from Gugela, South Africa, where Johnson has finally tracked him down. Django Degan thumps his congos over Grandpa Elliott’s harmonica, and an extraordinary South African chorus called Sinamuya (focus on the large woman on the right, the one with the pink necklace and the golden belt) sways with the rhythm in Umlazi. Stefano Tomaseli (the man with the headband over the big hair) comes blazing in on his sax from Pisa, Italy, with vocal harmony from South African Vusi Mahlasela. Then we’re back on the Santa Monica sidewalk with Roger Ridley, and the song is over.

It is a soaring moment of hope. It also the perfect bookend to a video that made me feel this way at the beginning of the year, when Jesse Dylan directed Will.i.am and everyone from Herbie Hancock to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Yes, We Can,” the most powerful political video in black and white I have ever seen. That one began this way:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.

Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a president who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land.

Back then I could barely allow myself to hope that America would finally rediscover its better instincts and elect the most compelling presidential candidate I have seen since John F. Kennedy took office, the same year Ben E. King sang “Stand By Me.” To my astonishment, that earlier video’s refrain came true in November: “no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.”

Now pause for a moment, to reflect on what a gigantic achievement that is.

Twenty years ago I wrote of another promising moment from my youth: “We did experience hope in 1968: hope and ambition and amazing joy. But to millions of us, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination felt like the resounding chord that ended Sgt. Pepper’s: a note of stunning finality. For me, at least, I hope the memory of that trauma and all the others of 1968 will now begin to fade away, so that our dream to make a better world may one again become vivid.”

With Barack Obama’s election to the White House, it finally has.

Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.