Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

Category Archives: 2015

Heal the Nation

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Heal The Nation, 2015

It seems like a long time ago when I was sitting in my living room, listening to Burnin’, and Bob Marley’s image on the cover of the album spoke to me.

Burnin’ Album Cover Picture.

TheWailers Burnin’
I wrote down what he said—in Patois—which I do not speak. I called what I had written down, “Heal the Nation.” Over the years, I made a song of some form of those words and played it with The One Drop as a drum chant. Later, I recorded it in other versions with Tom and Kathee. This summer, many things about the song came clear to me. I experienced my own personal need to heal and saw the same need in people all around me. The Karma Refugees recorded the song in July. While we were working on recording the tracks, we called the rewritten song, “Healing.” Here, in 2015, is what Bob Marley’s image told me so many years ago.

Heal the Nation

Sufferahs caused by slavery
An’ live in the system (shitstem) that’s slavery’s child
An, live in the depot of slavery’s trade (in Jamaica)
Live in the dread pit slavery made

The Sufferahs got nothin’ to lose
When the slavery system falls
When the ego system dies down slow
When the empire system rots.

Chorus
At the foot of Babel Tower
At the foot of the Bankers of Babylon
Where the language all fuck up
That’s how they make you do what they want

An the Sufferahs found the little herb
Grown on the grave of King Solomon
The wisdom that grows from the earth
They called the Healing of the Nation.

Chorus
Heal the nation girl and woman
Heal the nation boy and man
We’ve been down in the valley for a mighty long time
Heal the nation if we can

At the foot of Babel Tower
At the foot of the bankers of Babylon
Where the language all fuck up
That’s how they make you do what they want.

An’ then the Rastas called the little herb
“The Bread of the Lamb”
An’ the power that comes from the earth
They call the Healing of all Nations

Chorus
Heal the nation girl and woman
Heal the nation boy and man
We’ve been down in this valley for a mighty long time
Heal the nation if we can.
“Heal The Nation,” The Karma Refugees, 2015.

Song Writing, guitar – Mike Opitz
Vocals – Kathleen Downes
Bass – Tom Daddesio
Keyboards – Caitlin Brutger

1. Learning to Hear Reggae
The first reggae song I heard was “Concrete Jungle.”

I had purchased two new records—Catch a Fire (1972) and Natty Dread (1974) as presents for myself after surviving my first semester of teaching at CSBSJU. I remember being intrigued by the covers but had no idea what the music would sound like. I thought the records may have contained some kind of Caribbean sea chanteys or calypso music—which I had loved as a kid. But really, I was just in the mood to give myself a reward.

The present I gave myself grew to become the education of a lifetime. I drove home—in the mode of Jonathan Richman—“Going faster miles an hour/ with the radio on.” I was still a kid at heart and summer vacation was about to begin. Music has always been the heartbeat of summer for me. I fired up my turntable, heard the needle settle into “Concrete Jungle,” and my transformation began.

I have learned that Chris Blackwell polished up The Wailers’ music, added Wayne Perkins’ famous guitar overdub to “Concrete Jungle,” and marketed the band as a black rock band. Catch a Fire was crafted to reach white audiences. It worked on me. The guitar solo won my heart. Blackwell had set out to make a deep Jamaican roots music from the African Diaspora available to white audiences.* Rock had already made the journey from slave music through blues to reach white audiences as rock and roll. But something had been washed out of the music in the process. The something was an awareness of the history of a people. The economic and personal suffering of the blues refracted through the culture industry transformed into teenage angst. The real pain of life under the oppression of capitalism and racism vanished from the music. I have an image from my teenage years of a mob of baby-boom kids rocking out at a summer playground dance. We all wanted to “dance ‘til a quarter to three … with Daddy G.”

We had no idea where this music came from. If someone was called “Daddy G”—that was cool. We had no idea of African-American slang. We just wanted to talk like that. We thought the music was made by peppy teenagers like us living lives of high-school drama. Black music came to American teenagers as ahistorical, disembodied soundtracks for our teenage years.

The first two songs of Catch a Fire tell you exactly where the music comes from. This is how I learned it. From “Concrete Jungles” all over the world where descendants of colonized or enslaved people try to make their voices heard. When these voices grow more and more audible, Bob Marley asserts: “Slave Driver/ the tables are turn./ Catch a fire/ You’re gonna get burn.” When I heard The Wailers for the first time, I knew that the words were just a part of it. The harmonies (“started out cryin’”), the amazing punctuation of bass line and drum beat, and the whole groove all revealed meanings. The political and economic oppression of a racist system— in reggae labeled as “Babylon” and “Babylon System”—comes back into rock music in these two songs.

I stumbled upon my first two Wailers records by accident. I bought Catch a Fire—their first release for Chris Blackwell and Island Records–the album Blackwell designed to reach white, middle-class audiences. The second album I bought was –Natty Dread—the first album after Bunny and Peter, childhood friends and founding members, left the group–released under the name of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Here I heard mysterious Rasta philosophy embellished by the more conventional but lovely harmonies of the I-Threes. The mix was soulful—using horns and saxophone as well as drum and bass. Looking back, it seems that both albums were aimed at reaching people like me. Blackwell wanted to tap into the lucrative American and British markets; Marley wanted to express a worldview that had been repressed for centuries.

Both albums succeeded in reaching me. I had been able to hear reggae music because my ear had been trained by electric guitar solos, and clever back-up vocals of the rock and roll I had grown up with. Once I was drawn into the music, I was able to explore it and discover the depth and beauty at its core. But for some reason, I had missed the second Wailer’s Island record, Burnin‘(1973). In this record, the Wailers returned to their roots. Gone were the overdubbed guitar solos. The unique Wailers’ harmonies—developed on the streets of Trenchtown—came back in full bloom. The politics was evident and radical. I had discovered and loved The Wailers without knowing “Get Up Stand Up”—still one of the most radical songs ever recorded.

Here is “Get Up Stand Up” from the famous Santa Barbara concert. This is years after Burnin’ was released—but the music was reaching white kids.

I was one of those people and the feeling was exciting and exhilarating. Once I had heard and understood the songs of Catch a Fire and the odd Rastafarian words (like “Jah,”“Irie,” “I ‘n I” ff.), I was ready to hear Burnin’.

2. Discovering a Worldview

The excitement of discovery that I felt with each new Marley song is hard to describe. Each step takes you deeper into understanding the politics of racism and post-colonial empires and at the same time takes you deeper into a strange, marijuana-inflected spirituality, Rastafarianism. As Mikal Gilmore has noted: “Catch a Fire was a landmark: It was the first wholly formed, cohesive reggae album, and it immediately cast Marley into the artistic big leagues….” This attraction to the music is true for my first experience of reggae. Gilmore writes: “But Marley’s early-to-mid 1970’s Island recordings are something a good deal more than pioneering entertainment: They put forth an uncompromising and startling vision of a society kept in hell and ready to storm the gates. Songs like

“Burnin’ and Lootin,’

“Small Axe,”

“Concrete Jungle,” “Revolution,”

“Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),”

and “War” … brandish unsettling images and incendiary pronouncements that are among the most authentic in modern music” (Gilmore 16).*

In the previous clip, a live version of “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” the electric guitar weaves into the reggae groove, and the stark poetry of the lyric. The white audience “digs” this as the clip shows.

One day when I was in the midst of my study of reggae as post-colonial discourse and also when I picked up my long dormant guitar and started playing Marley songs, I finally purchased Burnin’—several years after it had been released. I fired up the turntable, heard the needle settle into “Get Up Stand Up” and my transformation grew deeper and more real. The album jacket leaned against a bookshelf, and the images on the cover seemed to stare out at me. This song, “Heal the Nation,” took root and grew out of that stare and what it said to me.

Notes

  • The original Jamaican tracks for Catch a Fire have been released in deluxe edition (2001)
  • Mikal Gilmore, “How Bob Marley Changed the World,” Rolling Stone: Special Collector’s Edition. June, 2014.
    The entire Live at the Rainbow (1979) concert is available here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V7d5B5ekKE

Activist

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Activist

A few years ago, one of my students–I think the class was Environmental Literature.–had been reading a labor newspaper before class and gave it to me. It had an article about how often women organized and supported labor movements but that the men took the credit and also took the labor of women for granted. I was a kid at the time, but I remember when my dad, a railroad worker, would be on strike. I remember being scared but was too little to know why. Men would meet on our porch and have dark, threatening conversations. My mom would cook for them and keep the kids away from the porch. So the Anna in the first verse is made-up from that. The irony of the labor movement exploiting the labor of women did not dawn on me for many years.

That was when I read the novel, Ragtime, by the Marxist novelist E.L. Doctorow.* One of the stories addresses early unions in the garment industry. The plot takes the reader to a union hall and a vivid scene of Emma Goldman–the anarchist feminist leader–giving a speech on free love to the male union workers. She asks her lovers who are in the crowd to stand up–and the male union workers don’t like to hear this. Doctorow juxtaposes this speech with the emergence of America’s first sex symbol, Evelyn Nesbit.

PBS.org Interview

Nesbit, like Goldman, a character in the novel as well as a real person, attends the lecture. This scene caused me to read Emma Goldman’s ongoing publication called The Traffic in Women–(early 20th century) — by which she mainly means marriage but other exploited labor as well. So Anna is fictional and a composite; Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit were real people but also fictional characters in Doctorow’s novel. The irony that now seems obvious in these manipulations of mass imagery that can be called “the traffic in women” did not dawn on me for many years.

The third verse tells the story of that guy and those years.

Activist

Anna was an activist.  She organized for the men.
She stood with them on the picket lines
And helped them when they came home again.

She never wavered in her belief in the brotherhood of man.
She gave her love to those treacherous dreams–
Justice and Freedom.

But the factory closed thirty years ago.
The labor was shipped abroad.
The struggle of the workers happens somewhere else.
Solidarity is someone else’s cause.

Emma was an anarchist.  She pointed to a love that is free.
She spoke of how women are paralyzed
By matrimony.

She never wavered in her belief in the power of love.
She battled against the church and state
And their control of who we can love.

But the revolution was televised,
And turned into corporate TV.
People turned on their social media
“Guaranteed personality.”*

And me, I was an American boy raised by the powers that be.
I was told that I was living
In the land of the free.

I never wavered in my beliefs—unfortunately–
I gave my love to those contradictory dreams
That hopelessly confused me.

But I got lost in the supermarket*
And the bright lights dazzled me.
I thought all those forms and consumer goods
Were the way things were supposed to be.

I’m lost … ff.

*The lines “guaranteed personality” and “lost in the supermarket” come from The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket,” London Calling, Epic Records, 1979.

Song writing, guitars, vocals           Mike Opitz
Bass, production of track                Tom Daddesio
Vocals, percussion                           Mysterious Madame X K
K
eyboard                                            Caitlin Brutger

Notes

* E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime. Random House, 1975.

*The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket,” London Calling (1980).

*Ben E. King, “Stand by Me” was added by Kathee as a vocal improvisation.