Category Archives: music

To the Place / I Belong

Currently, I’m having an issue with John Denver. At night, almost every night, his country hymns are the ones that lull my 7- and 4-year-olds to sleep.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, the musical bedtime selections of our kids is not a big deal. And I acknowledge that overall, our kids’ tastes in music are quite varied. Like in the car, where they clamor for ’90s French rapper MC Solaar. Or in the kitchen, where they hang on for dear life to keep up with the rollercoaster that is Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. U2, Stevie Wonder, The Who, they dig all that.

But when you’re a mother of color trying to instill some sense of black culture in your kids — and the shiny meadows and shinier blonde mops all around you make you feel you’re already living a John Denver song — hearing those opening twangs about the Shenandoah River night after night after night can feel like a losing battle. I’m not sure how the CD, which belongs to my husband, first got into the rotation. But at bedtime, as their eyelids flutter and finally sink into sleep, there is only one voice Sky and Rose want to hear: the voice that sings Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on My Shoulder and of course, the top grosser of all Denver’s hits, the ballad that gets mentioned with John Lennon’s Imagine and Aretha Franklin’s Respect as one of the most influential songs of the 20th century: Take Me Home, Country Roads. Attempts to slip in the occasional Erykah Badu or Harry Belafonte are futile.

“I like how his voice sounds singing with the music,” Sky explained the other night. “It sounds, you know, nice.” And part of me can’t argue with that four-star review — especially since I made a stink to Brian about the last CD that was in heavy rotation, Led Zeppelin II (remastered). I’m sure Sky and Rose have no idea what Robert Plant is talking about, but there’s something weird about peeking in on children bathed in the glow of a Hello Kitty lamp and hearing “Squeeze me baby/ ‘Til the juice runs down my leg” waft through the crack in the door.

Now, some have called Denver’s songs soaring melodies of hope. I would call them syrupy odes to romantic love and an idyllic notion of America that doesn’t really exist. I would not be alone in that assessment. In 2007, in the midst of an apparently heated battle over whether to declare Rocky Mountain High the state song of Colorado, a Denver Post columnist opined, “Rocky Mountain High deserves its place in Colorado . . . in Muzak form on supermarket speakers or during a marathon Time Life infomercial hosted by Air Supply.” Of course with music, it’s all relative. If Ray Charles and legendary ska band The Maytals saw fit to record covers of Take Me Home, there’s gotta be something to it that I’m missing.

And as I write this, I’m actually recalling another heated debate that took place right around 2007, in a cell phone conversation between Brian and me. I’ll attribute some of the things I said, and the conviction with which I said them, to the hormones coursing through my body during my second pregnancy. But I distinctly remember screaming about the importance of our kids understanding the revolutionary sound of A Tribe Called Quest. And I remember Brian saying something about hip-hop consisting of a lot of noise and only a very little bit of actual music.

The other day, as I heard Denver’s relentless major chords drift once again through the hall, I decided to try an experiment. I started Googling “John Denver” and “African-American,” just to see if there was any possible intersection of Denver and black culture other than in this house.

It didn’t take me long to find it.

In the 1970s, after Denver married first wife Annie Martell, the couple had trouble conceiving. They adopted a son, Zachary John, and later a daughter, Anna Kate, who Denver would later say were “meant to be theirs.” The little boy who inspired Denver’s  Zachary and Jennifer and A Baby Just Like You (which he wrote for Frank Sinatra), was black. If the Internet is to be believed, he is now in his 30s, happily married, and still lives in Colorado.

In an interview he gave to People in 1979, Denver talked about his family. He made no mention of race, but he made his feelings about fatherhood very clear. “I’ll tell you the best thing about me. I’m some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad. When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by. That’s more than enough.”

Well I’ll be damned. There’s an idyllic notion of America, and I want to sing along.


Beautiful Struggler

Sometimes, out of nowhere, a person comes into your life and offers you the gift of sight. Somebody you didn’t imagine could exist one day appears the next day, and sends a column of light into the settled passages of your mind, showing you something you needed to see. Not by anything they say or do, but by their way of being in the world.

I made a new friend this week. His name is Leon Mobley, and he plays the drums.

You might not have ever heard of Leon, but some of the people he’s played with in his 40-year career may ring a bell: Stevie Wonder. Michael Jackson. Mick Jagger. The Marley sons, the Fugees and the rapper Nas. A few years ago, Leon got a phone call from a friend to come play at the United Nations in New York for a fundraiser. It was Madonna. When Leon was 7, a friend of his uncle’s came by one night and scooped him up to play drums for a show in Boston. That was Duke Ellington.


How did the path of a world-traveling percussionist cross the path of a mom whose orbit often includes the town gas station, family day care and the nearby Target? They crossed because, incredibly, the place I reluctantly call home is also a place Leon calls home. Not two weeks ago, I sat on a train bound for a weekend in New York, feeling every Amtrak mile that put distance between me and the racial vacuum of this awfully lovely town. But this very same place — this land of saltbox barns and driveways that disappear into Yankee estates unseen — was drawing Leon closer. He couldn’t wait to get here.

Leon doesn’t own a house here and he wasn’t born here. He grew up in a housing project in Boston. Where he lived, a mayonnaise sandwich was a meal and the eggs at breakfast time came powdered, from a can. But in 1970, when he was in the third grade, Leon made a little piece of Boston history: He entered METCO, a newly established and voluntary school desegregation program between Boston and its ring of affluent suburbs. Waking up before the sun and taking the subway to a waiting station wagon that substituted for a bus, he was transported from his cramped high-rise to Dover, Mass., the country town next door to ours, the place where my husband and his father and four fathers before that were born. Little Leon Mobley, all of 8 years old, became the first student from METCO ever to attend Dover’s elementary school. And last week, for an entire week, he returned to that school to teach traditions of West African drumming and culture.

I wrote about Leon’s homecoming for a story in last week’s Boston Globe. Not everything from our two-hour phone conversation made it into print. For example, there was the time a kid in middle school walked up to him and said, “The only good nigger is a dead nigger.”

It’s strange to be a 41-year-old woman who writes about race and has lived here for 10 years, but who still feels paralyzed in the face of situations that are much, much tamer than that. Leon was just a kid. I’m sure he felt hurt, but he definitely wasn’t stunned. “I looked at him and said, ‘You need to kill somebody, you kill me,’ ” he said.

When I finally met Leon, it was at a suburban hotel off 95 in Newton, not far from here. The master drummer who has played at Wembley and hung out with Mandela had an audience of 35, give or take, in a lounge area outside a basement-level restaurant. When he started to drum, it looked like there wasn’t anywhere else in the world he wanted to be. Two days later, inside the school auditorium where he performed with school kids, he was greeted with the kind of deafening screams usually reserved for Justin Bieber. It was an amazing thing to watch.

It is said that when METCO first started, the program strategically sought out a certain kind of child. They were looking for little survivors, students who could cross from a world of powdered eggs to a world of poached eggs and find some way to hold onto themselves. They were looking for Leon Mobley. There was no diminishing this kid. Every experience he had here — being chased by state cops, being embraced by a local family, being nurtured by teachers or feared by townies  — became fertile soil for his own growth. Deadbolt locks in one place, doors that were never locked in another place? It was all experience. He soaked up every lesson this place had to teach him. “Without Dover,” he once said of his adopted hometown, “there is no Leon Mobley.” There it is right there, that column of light.

I sound like a broken record, I know. But I still have so many questions about this: What is home? Is it history running deep over a few square miles? Is it a census tract with an acceptable threshold of your own kind, or is it the beat you hear in your head no matter where you are? How much of home is the feeling you get, and how much of it is the feeling you make?

The Way to Belonging

Lately, there have been two music tracks in heavy rotation for rump-shaking in our house. One is “Kouman Sa T’a Ye,” a driving roots rhythm by the Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans that literally bursts with joy and asks the question, “What would life be without the neighborhood yard?” The other is “Dirty Water,” the 1960s garage-rock anthem by the Standells. It’s a love song wrapped in a snarl, and it celebrates Boston — muggers, filthy river and all — as the best goddamn place on earth.

If it’s possible for two songs to capture the meeting and meshing of our family’s cultures — black and white, roots and rock, CaribbeanAfricanIrishGerman — these two might be it. But despite the wildly different genres, it turns out that Boukman and the Standells have a few things in common. For example, rebellion: With their bold riffs and growling vocals, the Standells are considered by some to be godfathers of punk. Boukman Eksperyans, a group whose politically charged songs have been banned at times in Haiti, named itself in part for the high priest of rock guitar, Jimi Hendrix (as in, Are You Experienced). And with these tracks in particular, the echoes go even deeper: these are two songs that speak the same language about a common idea: the idea of home. It’s a notion that has eluded me, a daughter of immigrants, my whole life. And it’s a notion that defines my husband, whose long family line of dairy farmers, blacksmiths, police officers and town selectmen have left a deep imprint on the neighboring town where he was raised. The town that years ago dedicated a road after the family name. The town where Brian’s mother has been the school nurse since 1975.



Dover Town Hall, photo by Paul Keleher


After 12 years traveling these roads in Brian’s work truck, I can safely say he knows every single solitary house in this town’s 15 square miles. He knows the stories of the oldest houses still standing, and he knows the stories of old houses that once stood where oversized McMansions sit now. He knows who paved which roads and who built the stone walls that seem to go on for miles. The other day, the town’s retired police chief ran into my husband. They got to talking, and the chief started telling him how he would never, ever forget the period during the Depression when Brian’s great-grandfather, Michael W. Comiskey, drove around town delivering quarts of milk to families who could not afford it. He made the rounds early in the morning, before anyone woke up, so that none of those families would be embarrassed.

That sense of belonging, six generations deep, was an instant magnet of attraction when I met Brian. The idea that I could feel a rootedness I had never known, that I could pass those roots on, was irresistible. And as conflicted as I often feel about living in this hushed, small-town neverland, as a mother I am fascinated by what this grand experiment will mean for Sky, Rose, and Satchel, our little Maple Street caramels. They are darker and curlier, and because of that, they will have painful moments of doubt about whether they can ever truly belong. But they will just as surely have moments when they feel, even among the llamma farms and lily-white panoramas, that this land belongs to them as much it does to anyone else. Maybe even more.



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