“People hand in hand
Have I lived to see the milk and honey land?
Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands
Or is this a vision in my mind?”
— Stevie Wonder, “Visions”
Some people remember 1967 as a very good year for pop music, from Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” to Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing “Something Stupid.” They remember a summer of love that gave way to a fall where the Beatles sang “All You Need is Love,” a simple declaration of interdependence and an enduring international anthem for complex and ever-changing times.
In 1967, in some important ways, things were getting better all the time. The Loving v. Virginia decision struck down bans against interracial marriage in the United States. Thurgood Marshall was named the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, and Carl Stokes was elected the first black mayor from a major American city, Cleveland.
But 1967 was a year inflamed by strife, too; war raged in the Middle East and in Vietnam. Cities such as Detroit, Newark, New Jersey, and other places burned across America. Richard Nixon marshaled white resentment in his march toward the Republican nomination for president.
Which is to say, 1967 was a year of turmoil and triumph, just as every year is, including this one, a time when new walls of exclusion are championed and old monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers and officers come down.
From the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, we were blessed with music that tended to heal and enlighten, inspire and challenge.
Today, when political lies threaten to trump moral truths and profits trump creativity, the music doesn’t salve society’s wounds as it once did or seemed to.
But earlier this month, I heard two veteran bluesmen perform a song the nation badly needs: “All Around the World.” The song, co-written by blues master and Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’, is an upbeat call-and-response tune. Backed by a tight band, Mo’ and his touring partner, Grammy winner Taj Mahal, ripped through the song in New York’s Central Park.
Like Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” in the 1970s, “All Around the World” imagines a world spinning on an axis of love:
“There’ll be love all around the world (All around the world)/ There’ll be peace and understanding (All around the world) …”
Neither I nor the song advocates a fey and feckless love that merely prompts us to forgive our tormentors, again and again. The love we need and the love the song talks about gives society a powerful emotion, strong enough to stare down evil and douse the torches lit by bigotry, ignorance and injustice in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all around the world.
Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, who have a new CD out and are touring under the banner TajMo, performed their rousing song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to a rapturous response. It’s the kind of song I can imagine John Legend recording with a gospel choir and a rap break by somebody like Chance the Rapper. It’s the kind of song I could see everyone from Ariana Grande to Garth Brooks to Kirk Franklin adding to their live shows. It’s the kind of song I can imagine becoming a thumping recessional tune in various houses of worship or at rallies for an America that lives up to its majestic promise for all its people.
It’s the kind of song I can imagine being recorded by a cross-section of artists, a kind of “We Are the World” for the 21st century, in the name of social equality or world peace.
Like other masters of the form, Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal play a blues that’s animated by joy. They sing and play the way Ella Fitzgerald sang her songs, the way Louis Armstrong blew his trumpet, the way Stephen Curry dribbles his basketball, with joy and love. And that’s what we’ll need to come together and make a better tomorrow.
All around the world.