Mahalia Jackson vs. Ray Charles

Mahalia Jackson Silent Night Ray Charles Gospel Christmas

Let me start by saying that Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles are legends, national treasures. I’ve liked Ray Charles for quite some time and I recently purchased my first Mahalia Jackson CD – the one I’m going to talk about in this post – and was bowled over. Let me be one more voice telling anyone not yet familiar with the work of these two artists that you really owe it to yourself to discover them.

With that being said, I’ll give away my findings now: one CD amazed me, the other disappointed.

“Mahalia Jackson Silent Night” amazed me. Mahalia Jackson’s CD gave me 16 heavenly tracks. Most of them feature just Ms. Jackson’s voice and sparse, muted accompaniment from an organ, piano, or choir. She owns the music on this CD. Her richness of tone, her diction, her clarity, her range, her presence – all are remarkable, and I treasure these songs as sung by her. The overall feel of the album is strongly religious, with only one song, “White Christmas”, having a secular theme. All the other songs can move a body to tears of joy and praise for the power she puts into them. If you’re worried about the commercialization of a holy time of year, play this disc and dispel the messengers of mammon with the angelic delivery of Mahalia Jackson. If you love gospel music, this absolutely belongs in your collection, no excuses.

Now for the disappointment. I really wanted to love “Ray Charles Celebrates a Gospel Christmas.” I really did. My suspicions were aroused, however, when I heard a dubbed intro at the start of the CD. Why did that have to be added in? And while I wanted a Gospel Christmas album, only half the tracks could be considered religious. The rest were Christmas standards that happened to have a gospel choir around while they were being sung. Sadly, those tracks simply did not work with the rest of the mix. I enjoyed “What Kind of Man Is This” and “Oh Happy Day”, but the rest failed to get me going, either from a gospel or from a holiday perspective.

I’ll stick with other offerings from Ray Charles, but I’ve only begun to discover Mahalia Jackson. If you want gospel music with a Christmas theme, follow my recommendations and you can’t go wrong.

God and Guns

Saw a show last night in which yet another weak priest voiced a declaration that God would protect the group he was with, only to be growled down by others proclaiming their trust in a particular make of handgun. Why does the weapon industry need to send the message that, given a choice between looking to God or looking to guns, that we should make an idol out of a gun?

I have faith in God. Faith is the opposite and absence of fear. One reaches for a gun out of fear. I have faith, because I strive to do God’s work in serving others. I know that I will not be taken from the earth until the work I have to do is complete. Gun or no gun, that is the truth.

My commandments tell me to not worship idols. I understand what weapons can do, but the protection they offer is nothing compared to the protection offered by God.

Joshua told us to choose whom we would serve. I’m with Joshua. This day I choose to serve God. Put a gun to my head and the choice is the same.

Why Did I Go Back to Teaching in the First Place?

Time for me to continue my exploration into the why behind my career change. Given the level of benefits I enjoy at my current job, and that I would have had similar benefits at IT jobs over the last 12 years, all other things being equal, I should never have returned to teaching in 2002. All things weren’t equal back then, and looking back to that day shows what’s missing in teaching today.

Teaching was already in trouble by 2001. It was in trouble in 1991, when the TAAS test first came out. Holding schools responsible for their test results started that year in Texas, and it’s produced 22 years of school administrators gaming the system. It’s also produced 22 years of erosion in academic standards. If students only need to master certain skills and competencies, then only those areas are drilled on, repeatedly and at length, so that the weaker students master those things. The devil can take the average and above-average students, so long as they put out a passing performance on the state-mandated tests.

The state can respond by increasing the volume of material required to succeed on the tests, which in turn results in districts reaching for curriculum-by-the-numbers solutions. Set a schedule for a course, and adhere to that schedule like it was a Fascist train schedule. Where a teacher’s professional judgment and background used to be able to make a difference in how a teacher ran a classroom, that discretionary element is no longer welcome in education.

Or, rather, if a teacher isn’t moving in lockstep, that’s evidence that can be used against him or her should his or her students take a dip on the mandatory test scores. That makes me have to ask why should the state even bother hiring teachers? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just hand out a stack of workbooks and tell kids to finish them? Given that the primary duty of every teacher is actually the custodial supervision of minors, why not build schools more along the lines of minimum-security detention facilities and get high-school graduate proctors to supervise the rote lessons?

I went back to teaching in 2002 because a teacher could make a difference in the way he or she approached his or her subject. We were free to emphasize areas we had a passion for, and different teachers meant different focuses and styles. Not so anymore. Different teachers means different personalities, but the material has to be the same, across the board. Somewhere between 2002 and 2013, things changed where I was and I found myself doing a job that really should be done by a computer: presentation of material and verification of that presentation via a pre-made subject matter quiz.

Children no longer learn. They don’t even memorize. They echo.

Ricky Gervais Has a Good Point

The disaster in the Philippines has caused my prayers to go towards the people of those islands, but I am prompted to remember the words of Ricky Gervais in the wake of the Oklahoma tonadoes last year. He said, “Praying for something but not doing anything to make it happen has the same effect as writing to Santa & not letting mummy read the letter.” He’s right.

Jesus said pretty much the same thing, if you read your Bible carefully. And while Gervais may not be the prayin’ kind, there’s nothing wrong about his generosity. If I pray and lend my faith to help those in hard times, that’s nice. If I pray *and* offer aid, in abundance, then I’m the Good Samaritan that Jesus spoke of. Now I wonder how many prayers the men that passed by the waylaid traveler said. Maybe none, maybe a hundred. The point that Jesus and Gervais make is that they should have done something more than just pray.

They should have done something more.

There is a statue in Germany, damaged by the war. It is a statue of Christ and his hands are missing. Rather than replace the hands, the people there set a plaque nearby that told everyone, “You are the hands of Christ.” I take that to heart: *I* am the hands of Christ, and so is anyone else willing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and offer shelter to the homeless.

I’m resolved to do something more in this case. I’ll pray with those that pray, and I plan to donate with those that donate. Whether or not you’re in the first group, make sure you’re in the second, because that’s the one that sees to the prayers being answered.

Asalto Navideño

So let’s say you just put on Christmas music that you love, but some hipster doofus party-pooper has to say, “Ecch! Who listens to Christmas music?” For whatever reason, he’s wanting to mess up your holiday spirit. Don’t worry. Just let him know you’ll put on some classic Puerto Rican salsa from the 1970s. Drop Asalto Navideño into the mix and Señor de Party-Pooper will think you ditched the Xmas for some regular stuff. Joke’s on him, though.

Asalto Navideño is a true classic. Granted, it’s not one that is considered a classic in the English-speaking part of the USA, but English isn’t the only language for celebrating Christmas. And, frankly, it’s entirely possible to get just a little tired of hearing “White Christmas.” That’s why you need Asalto Navideño in your musical arsenal.

Willie Colon on trombone and as bandleader coupled with Hector Lavoe on vocals produced some of the best music of the Salsa explosion of the 70′s. How good? Hector Lavoe’s nickname is “The Voice.” When you hear him, you’ll get the picture. Willie Colon’s band is tight and smooth and the music is festive, perfect for dancing, and ought to shut down any Grinch trying to steal your Christmas. He’ll have no clue.

And if, for some reason, the hipster doofus party-pooper picks up that it’s a Christmas album and objects, merely respond with a question, “What, do you disapprove of the music of the Puerto Rican diaspora? What are you, some kind of hater?” No hipster doofus wants to be labeled as being “anti-diversity”, so he’ll get right with the parrandas and let the salsa play.

I love this set and you really owe it to yourself to seek it out and give it a whirl.

Lou Rawls: Merry Christmas, Baby

I start listening to my Christmas music starting the day after Halloween. I kicked things off this year with the Fania All-Stars “Asalto Navidad” (more on that in another post), but the next disc I hit was “Merry Christmas, Baby” by Lou Rawls. Even though the temperature outside was a sunny 79 degrees, Lou and the Crew put me in a holiday mood.

There’s no question: Lou Rawls has got a golden throat. He’s got some musicians that really cook backing him up, so it’s class all the way. I play this disc straight through, no questions asked (except for skipping “Little Drummer Boy”, the one Christmas standard I simply can’t stand). No complaints at all, so let me get to the outstanding tracks. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” really swings, and I love the big finish on it. “Little Boy Dear” is tender and caring, a perfect song for tucking the kids into bed on Christmas Eve. I love Lou’s “Jingle Bells”, and the a capella “Auld Lang Syne” warms the heart beautifully.

But there’s one song that I put on repeat every time I get to it, and I can play it over and over 20 times or more. “Good Time Christmas” is that song. It’s an exuberant celebration of life and that one line, “Mother I know you been prayin’/ The Lord has seen me through” makes me so happy to hear every time because it’s true: one more year, one more time the Lord’s seen me through. Christmas is a time to celebrate, and this song is a song to play at that celebration.

Lou Rawls puts his distinctive interpretation on the old standards and I love what he does with them. It’s a great mix that balances fun and reverence, and I guarantee it’ll get your Christmas mood up and running strong from here to December 25th.

Heisenberg and Me

I dressed up as Walter White/Heisenberg from the show “Breaking Bad” for Halloween. Although I have nothing to do with the meth trade, I do have a number of factors in common with him. And while our common situations make only anecdotal commentary on education in the USA today, they nevertheless make an informed commentary.

When I was a teacher, I dressed like Walt. Dockers, button-up shirt from a cheap store, and, above all, comfortable footwear. Teachers are on their feet a great deal, so they need as much comfort and support in that area as is possible. You want to make a teacher’s day? Give that teacher a gift card for a shoe store. The clothing is superficial, though. Let us get deeper into things.

In the first episode, Walt is slinging knowledge to a disinterested mass of faces. I’ve had that classroom, too. He’s obviously got a passion for his subject and a belief in its intrinsic value and that of knowledge itself, but the kids in that room don’t share that vision. While there’s a lot to be said for a broad education that offers a wide range of subjects to everyone in school, there’s also the counter: what is the point in learning all that stuff? Really?

If it’s worth knowing, it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, right? And if it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, it’s easy enough for people at or above one standard deviation below average intelligence to pass. While those students right around that one standard deviation below average are struggling with the content, those that are average or better are left adrift. They get asked to tutor those that aren’t as bright, do review after review, and then chastised when, out of boredom, they do something disruptive. Thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be quieter these days. Also thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be more widespread these days. But those are the options for our hapless average-and-better students in a mainstream classroom.

The next step up is a doozy: the AP track. College Board makes no secret of its pass rates. It posts them for all to see, and quite a few tests hover around the 50% mark. Even so, school boards and administrators think that hard work and gumption are the perfect tonic for getting kids to ace those tests. College Board differs, and has the data to back up its position from the outset. It offers a tool for recruiting potential AP students called “AP Potential.” I love straightforward names like that. AP Potential will look at PSAT scores to determine a child’s potential for passing a particular AP exam. Recruiters can select a pass rate for their classes. If one desires a 100% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the names of students that scored very highly on the PSAT. If one desires a 50% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the same high-fliers and then, working its way down the list of scores, will offer up an equal number of students that didn’t score as highly on the PSAT. Those guys are the ones College Board is essentially saying are going to fail to pass the AP exam. It’s not a matter of hard work and gumption: they simply don’t have the aptitude at that time.

No matter! Schools are ranked by the number of kids that take the AP test, regardless of outcome, so into those classes they must go! Although I haven’t yet seen an AP Chemistry section in Breaking Bad, I’ve taught enough AP sections to know right from wrong in setting up those courses. Too often, the AP class has the opposite of the regular class, with the students at or above two standard deviations above average intelligence doing fairly well and everyone else left in the dust. AP courses used to be offered as enrichment to students already familiar with the basic material. Now they are frequently the introduction to that material, which means that the less-apt students in those courses lack the fundamentals needed to flourish in that course. They go on to take the same course in college and typically do very well in the course, but it’s only after getting raked over the coals in an AP course and being part of the 50% of American kids that don’t pass the exam.

So there’s a huge chunk of kids in between the range from special education on up to above-average intelligence that aren’t really being served by the school system. I saw Walt trying to reach them, and I tried to reach them. It’s not really working all that well. I remember, once upon a time when I was in high school, that there were five different tracks for students, allowing for a spectrum of class offerings where students in the class were homogeneous with each other. Now, instead of showing the students that they’re individually important, we tell them they’re as unique as snowflakes and then warehouse them like commodities.

It’s torture for the kids and it’s a beat-down for the teachers. Teachers teach because they want to reach out to kids and show them a bigger world. They want to guide and inform. They don’t share the vision of the state that mandates their primary duty is to provide custodial supervision of minors during campus hours. They are insulted by a system that tells them to either offer up a minimum of information and then drill it until everyone has memorized it or to turn on a firehose of facts and analysis without regard of a student’s ability to receive that much information that quickly. Increasingly, school districts are reaching for canned information so that teachers have less and less discretion in the classroom. Why? It’s so that the district can absolve itself of responsibility in the event a student fails to pass a test. If the teacher didn’t present all the canned material on time, then, obviously, it’s the teacher’s fault for the student’s failure: certainly not the district’s.

And, yes, I see that in Walt’s face. Maybe the actor just copied other teachers he saw without knowing everything that went into the outward appearance but, like the clothes, it’s a dead-on portrayal.

It’s also one of the reasons I left teaching.

I suppose I should write more about that subject, now that I’m able to look back on my decision with some time intervening. I had a number of reasons for leaving the profession, and many of them stem from administrative and legislative decisions that have an adverse impact on the entire educational system.

Q. and A.

Q.: Is there a God?

A.: Yes. I believe there is a God.

Q.: Do you have proof?

A.: I have my own personal experiences, unverifiable via experimentation.

Q.: So how do you know your proof is valid?

A.: The same way I know anything, such as how blue is blue.

Q.: But shouldn’t your belief in God derive from actual, provable evidence?

A.: Why is that? Isn’t all proof subject to the personal bias of the one that views the proof?

Q.: It is, but, surely there is a consensus view that blue is blue based upon the wavelength of light that constitutes what we call “blue.”

A.: I agree. But aren’t there other things that have the same proofs, but have subjective interpretations based upon culture or historical period?

Q.: Give an example.

A.: There’s the debate on marijuana. We have evidence before us of its potential for medicinal uses, but the US Government continues to keep it classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which is to say the USG holds the view that there are no medicinal uses for it. We all have access to the same proofs, but our conclusions are our own. Forming a consensus doesn’t make it more right, either. If a large group believes a lie, does that make it true?

Q.: No, and, hold on there… you’re asking questions. That should be my job.

A.: Why is that?

Q.: I’m Q. Q. goes with “question.” You’re A. A. is for “answer.”

A.: Not necessarily. In biblical studies, “Q.” refers to a yet-undiscovered source for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. “Q.” is the abbreviation for the German word “quelle,” their word for “source.” You could be a source, not a questioner.

Q.: And what would that make you?

A.: I could be Alpha, for all I know. If an Omega shows up in our conversation, that would certainly perpetuate the religious nature of the discussion.

Q.: So you don’t really know who you are?

A.: I could be a fictional character in a very well-imagined story, for all I know.

Q.: That would make the author a God-figure.

A.: Indeed. And perhaps some of my experiences have made me aware of that author’s narrative. His will, so to speak.

Q.: Could you relate those experiences to me?

A.: No. There is something of the sacred about them, and sacred things are personal truths. Sacred things lose some of their value if they are shared too openly or too freely.

Q.: Shouldn’t all truth be open and free? Isn’t keeping things obscure a brute-force way of avoiding scrutiny?

A.: No, not all truth should be open and free. Do you tell an old woman in poor health that her husband has died before you give her a chance to sit down and brace herself for hard news? Not if you’re a thoughtful person. You keep a secret for a while. Other things, you keep secret always, such as in the case of physician’s privilege.

Q.: So you have no proof there’s a God.

A.: You have no proof that this isn’t some massive fictional construct we’re in, where we think we’re human with free will, but we’re really just two guys, named Q. and A., whose very existence sprang into being the moment our conversation started and will end as soon as the conversation ends.

Q.: I find such a thing to be very hard to believe.

A.: And very hard to prove, as well. Yet, it may very well be true.

Q.: So, then, what are the most important questions to ask about God?

A.: You complained earlier about my asking questions. Now you ask me to answer with questions. I love the irony.

Q.: I get the irony, as well.

A.: OK, the most important questions… Is there a God? Does he want me to have a relationship with him based upon evidence or out of trust and love? I guess after those, everything falls into place.

Q.: What do you mean? There are so many other questions to ask. What does God want me to do? Where does he want me to go? Who does he want me to help? Millions of questions.

A.: Yes, but if there is a God, and he wants us to follow him in faith, without proof, then everything else falls into place after that. Instead of looking for proof, one looks instead for love.

Now What?!

Now What

Since I’m doing a long haul every day in to work, I needed to get some new tunes for the trip. I am thrilled that I treated myself to Deep Purple’s latest studio disc, “Now What?!”. I loved “Purpendicular”, enjoyed “Abandon”, but was disappointed by “Bananas.” “Rapture of the Deep” let me know that “Bananas” was a slight mis-step, but I still wasn’t 100% satisfied with it as a put it on and leave it on disc, the way I felt about the best DP offerings. Happily, “Now What?!” returns to that set-it-and-forget-it level of quality. I can put it on and relax, knowing full well that every track hits on all cylinders.

There were times listening to it when I thought it sounded like a Yes album or a Pink Floyd set. It’s Deep Purple through and through, but they band has chosen 2013 as the year to really open up on their progressive side. I’m not complaining: I think the result is marvelous. But if you’re looking for the straight-no-chaser rock and roll of “Machine Head” or the MkIII lineup, this is not the album you’re looking for. If you enjoyed the more introspective and moody tracks from “Fireball” and “Who Do We Think We Are!”, then this is the one for you.

Lyrically, the disc has many dark moments – comments on current financial practices providing the fuel for those statements. “Blood From a Stone” pulls no punches and “Uncommon Man” is filled with acid. “Hell to Pay” is a chorus rocker from 1983 that manages to fit in well with the progressive mix on the rest of the album. How did they do that? And “Vincent Price” is straight out of The Damned’s goth playbook, but, again, it fits masterfully. These gramps with amps certainly remember how to craft a great hard rock album with richness of content that keeps a listener coming back for more. I may still pick and choose from the last two of their studio offerings, but I really think I got this lineup’s best efforts since “Purpendicular” on these tracks.

If you like classic rock, but are tired of the same thing over and over on the radio, then get this disc and get into some great tracks that should be all over the airwaves. That they are not has more to do with robot-generated playlists and MTV not showing videos than the merit of the songs themselves. I don’t know how many more albums Deep Purple has left in them, but I’m glad they got this one out. 10 out of 10 on this one, because I like DP with prog flourishes.