by John Colgan-Davis
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, teacher and harmonica player for the rockin’ blues band, Dukes of Destiny.
When I was a young kid about 11 or 12 and eating breakfast at the kitchen table, my mother would often be there. She would be reading through the paper, and while I was looking at the comics or the sports pages mom would often be reading the obituaries. I thought that was strange, morbid. As a young kid I could not understand why anyone would want to spend time reading about someone who had died. It seemed bizarre. I was young, felt invincible, and death was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought my mother was a little weird.
I am in my 60s now; I have lived a fairly full life and have been to a number of funerals and memorial services. I have had close friends die; my parents are both dead, and I have had a health scare or two myself. I now spend time reading the obituaries just as my mom did, and I pay attention to death announcements on the radio news.
I no longer feel invincible, and I am aware that life can be ephemeral and that it is something to be treasured and enjoyed. That is not sad or somber to me, by the way. Not at all. It is the way it is, and in fact, it makes me very appreciative of and joyous about the ongoing common elements of life. To me it is the small things that matter so much, so I am not maudlin at all.
I bring this up because at the beginning of the year one of the things the media focuses on is who died during the previous year. And one of the things I get to do is look back at that previous year and think back on some of those people and how some of them were big influences on my life. And I get to once again reflect on them, acknowledge my debt and express my gratitude.
When Pete Seeger died, I wrote about him in the Dukes of Destiny newsletter — the way his generosity of spirit allowed him to link the joy and pleasure of making music with incredibly important things like organizing for civil rights, working for a clean environment, speaking up for free speech and teaching people to organize, all while singing along.
It is impossible for me to think of him without smiling, and listening to him and seeing him at rallies, concerts and festivals was always a joy. He is one of those who showed me that making music is about so much more than just making music, and he remains a big influence and inspiration.
Bobby Womack was a soul singer and songwriter who had hits in gospel, soul, and rock and roll. I loved his voice which could go from silky smooth soul to gravelly down in the alley. He never really made it super-big, but his song “It’s All Over Now” became a big hit when covered by the Rolling Stones, and his “Looking for a Love” was a minor hit for him and covered by others. He played guitar on some of Aretha Franklin’s and Wilson Pickett’s hits, and he also wrote and performed some of the greatest soul love songs ever, including “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and “I Can Understand It.” I remember being in my apartment singing along to those songs and wishing I had that voice. And I still do.
One of my favorite musical collaborations was the series of albums that Johnny Winter did with Muddy Waters. “Hard Again” and two of the live albums they recorded were just flat-out riotous and shout-out-loud joyous. Great rhythm sections, amazing harp, hard-edged recording and some of the strongest singing Muddy had done in years. When I heard about Johnny Winter’s death, I played “Hard Again” loudly and just sang along; it is an album of pure joy and celebration. And one can’t sit still listening to it. Thank you, Johnny
There were other people who died in 2014 who meant a lot to me — Robin Williams, James Garner, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruby Dee and many more. That always happens; life and death constantly happen, and writers, musicians, thinkers, actors, painters and more who stirred something in me regularly move off the stage, as I will someday. I am grateful that I have been touched by so many people across so many fields from so many cultures and places.
And I know that as long as I can stay open to surprise and new learning, I can continue to find ideas and sayings and performances and work that expand my sense of the world, my knowledge of it and my place in it. And so I will continue reading those obituaries, paying attention to those death notices and continue saying “Thanks” to all of those people who unknowingly have contributed so much to me. They have helped and continued to help me grow, and I would not be where I am or who I am without them.
Ed. Note: When comedian George Burns, who died at the age of 100, was asked about his daily schedule when he was in his mid-90s, he replied, “I get up in the morning, and the first thing I do is look at the obituary column in the local newspaper. If my name is not in it, I get dressed and have breakfast.”