I just watched Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, a documentary that came out last year. It was available up here in Canada on Kanopy. We get five free movies a month through Kanopy from our library, and they often have art house features and independent films.
When I grew up, Jimmy Carter was a president and then later did and does a lot of great work with peace, Habitat for Humanity, clean energy, and more. I guess I always admired him because he kind of reminded me of my dad. Like Jimmy, Dad was born down South, not really the deep South, but the gateway to it—Louisville, Kentucky—where I was also born. But, because my mother was born in the Appalachian Mountains, our adventures to the southern states began in Eastern Kentucky and then went southward to where aunts, uncles, and cousins resided throughout the years: Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and all the way down to Florida and west to Texas. I think my parents probably shielded us from the worst problems as we were growing up. Mom and Dad supported civil rights and, like Jimmy Carter, who went to black churches and loved gospel music, so did my parents. When we lived in the Chicago area, Mom and Dad tutored down at the Keystone Baptist Church on Tuesday nights. I sometimes went with them because I was good in English and languages and wanted to practice teaching kids, but as I recall, I mostly tutored them in math. We made friends with a lot of people at the church and sometimes went there on special occasions. I have the same kind of memories of that place as I do of my own relatives down South. Food and music were the backdrops to fun times, and to this day I still prefer the southern food I grew up with that which was available only in black churches, Sunday family picnics, and anything cooked at Mammaw and Pappaw’s holler, be it fried chicken, applesauce cake, shucky beans, cornbread, and the many other perfectly delectable things my mammaw, mom, and aunts used to make. Oh, and genuine banana pudding, with vanilla wafers. Oh, and any kind of collard, turnip, or mustard greens. Like Dad, Jimmy Carter was both an engineer and a poet, so my young life had that guidance, along with big meals where we’d debate at the table and where family gatherings had us elbow to elbow, smothered in laughter, while lightly roasting each other, all along with serious discussion, of course.
Jimmy Carter seems like a genuinely good-hearted person to me, kind of like my dad. Both could be serious. Both loved music. Both really loved gospel. Both had a fun side to them. And both broke barriers in whatever white, conservative places they eventually lived. But I had no idea how involved Jimmy Carter was with various musicians, even ones like Charlie Daniels, who was a staunch Republican. Jimmy had and has a way of bringing people together who would normally stay away from each other. He said in the documentary that music was a great way to join people together, a commonality that could bring good times and peace. Jimmy was great friends with Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Willie Nelson, Dizzy Gillespie, and so many others. The effect he had on everyone, and they on him, was amazing. As I watched the documentary, I thought, wow, that sure was a different life back then. Things were never perfect with the world, but his presidency had some real integrity, and the good he’s done since is miles above what most leaders since him have accomplished. I guess back then, I was innocent too, being so young. I look at the world around me now and don’t go to church anymore, nor do I care to. I am jaded by the step religion took in the United States in the past few decades as well as the fact I agree with Dan Rather, when he said once, “In science I trust.” But there’s a sort of peace I get when thinking about people like my dad, who passed away in 2009, and Jimmy Carter. In the documentary, at a White House concert in the 1970s, Jimmy got on stage with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, and sang the “Salt Peanuts” part to the song. That took me to another stage of my life, quite some time after Jimmy Carter was president, to the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was really into bebop and jazz, when I lived in California. I would listen for hours to Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Wes Montgomery, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan and others. I guess that’s not all bebop, some came later, some earlier. I even got to see Charlie Mingus at a park in Lake Forest once.
So, yeah, the documentary brought back a lot of memories and a sort of peaceful feeling as I sit in a world getting weirder and weirder. Dad and I even got to see Jimmy Carter when he came to Purdue University (both our alma maters) once. I left feeling energized.