By Sheila Johnson
Like so many of you, I’m sure, these days I often find myself at a loss. Sometimes I feel like I want to cry. Other times I want to just punch something. It’s almost as though my heart now has a constant toothache that I can neither fix nor shake.
And because of this – again, like so many of you – I often find myself retreating to a place where I might find a small moment of comfort from the pain. While for some of you, that place may be baking or plying some hobby, and for others it may be old movies or, maybe, certain songs from your childhood, in my case its classical music. As a lifelong violinist, I find such music is my form of comfort food. It soothes my soul and it can transport me to a kinder, safer, and infinitely simpler place and time than the one in which we currently find ourselves.
And, of all the classical composers, one of my truly guilty pleasures has always been Aaron Copland. I say “guilty pleasures” because while Copland remains a giant in his field, he’s never been considered near the class of, say, Beethoven, Bach or Mozart. What’s more, as an American, Copland is regarded by many critics as something of a pop composer, one who wrote for the common people and whose music is more emotional than intellectual.
That said, Aaron Copland moves me like few others. His music makes me proud to be an American and it allows me to, every once in a while, close my eyes and envision a young land still brimming with hope and promise – the country we once were and the one that, to this day, I believe we still have a chance to become.
Which leads me to something I really, really listened to for the first time a few weeks back. I’m referring to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, a one-of-a-kind piece he was commissioned to write in the early days of World War II. What makes the Lincoln Portrait so profound is that it is a unique mix of American classical music and American words – the words of, without question, one of the most gifted and spiritual writers and orators of all time, the great Abraham Lincoln.
Now understand, Lincoln Portrait by dozens of actors, politicians, musicians, athletes and world leaders over the years. But the one I heard a few weeks ago (and the one I now love most) is the one in which James Earl Jones finds even greater meaning in the timeless words of our most transcendent president.
Because not only does Jones possess one of the most stirring voices in history, but he is a deeply proud African American. To hear Lincoln’s oratory – his words of strength, determination and wisdom – being spoken by a strong-willed black man who (let’s be honest) 150 years prior might have found himself lynched in a tree, takes me to a place emotionally that can reduce me to a weeping pile of pain, regret and yet, despite it all, hope.
I urge you, especially in these troubled times of ours, take a listen. Spend the fourteen or so minutes it will cost you and truly listen – and do so with your heart and soul as much as your ears. Listen as Copland brings the hopeful young rail-splitter from Illinois to life with his composition. Listen to young Lincoln’s fledgling sense of character find its footing and behold as his moral courage takes root and flowers. It’s all there in Copland’s music.
But then, later, listen to Lincoln’s words themselves, all of them culled from various speeches, writings and musings over the years.
But above all, when you’re through listening, do yourself a favor. At the very least – and all politics aside – consider the possibility that, just maybe, what our country needs now, more than anything, is a leader who not only understands the power of words to unite and heal, but who also has the wisdom, character, and moral courage to actually use them as such.
Eat and live well, my friends. As always, God bless.