Make A Joyful Noise

“Of all the noises,” said Dr. Samuel Johnson, “I find music the least obnoxious.”

I have long earned my living as a writer in some fashion – as a journalist, editor, speech writer, communications consultant, media manager – but music has always been a critical element of my life. As a youth, I sang in our church choir and my high school glee club, and picked up some guitar licks from my older brother Gene (TV anchorman in Richmond) who once upon a time played in a rock band. For a while, I sang bass in a four man group we called The Golden Oldies Quartet which was a bit like Sha Na Na, at least in our choice of material. We sang four part harmony a cappella and closed up many a saloon with our warbles in that magic time of life when every night is a party, or at least could be.

In those same years, before I settled down to raise a family and be a responsible citizen, I played a solo act, just me and my guitar, at Mr. Henry’s, a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. I was never a gifted guitarist but I can sing and have mountains of confidence in myself. The music fills a void and affords me an alternative means of expression.

As I segued into maturity, a rather lengthy and tortuous process, I would frequently participate in jam sessions with other old family guys in our neighborhood. My good friend Martin Lowery and I were the core of what would become a group, but in the early days it was just us. Martin has a PhD in philosophy from Duke so of course he plays the blues. Also, he is a great fan of Jerry Jeff Walker’s music.

It came to pass that in 1994 Martin and I took our families to Paris for a week where I insisted we all go to the Conceigerie where prisoners were held before their appointments with the guillotine during the French Revolution. One of the names on the wall was that of Charlotte Corday, my personal heroine, a beautiful young woman from Caen who went to Paris in the summer of 1793 where she assassinated the radical leader Jean Paul Marat. It was a brave and daring thing to do. It was murder, I know, but Marat had it coming. As I regaled Martin and our wives and daughters with the story of Charlotte, Martin and I decided then and there – over a couple of bottles of good French wine — to compose a musical drama about her.

Over a period of more than 10 years, we did compose that drama and in our humble opinion it is a good one. We hired professional singers to record the songs in a professional studio. It was an exciting adventure in creativity. We have never been able to get the drama on stage, but we are still here, the play is still in hand and it may yet happen. In any case, I can claim and justly that I have written a libretto. Not so long ago I would have been hard put to tell you what a libretto is, but now I know.

In a lighter vein, Martin and I continued to play music at neighborhood picnics and parties. One of our dear friends and neighbors Richard Weil, a song writer par excellence, began sitting in on a regular basis. Eventually we found a great lead guitarist named Jeff Almen and an inspired bass player named George Simpson. We are today the New Misty Crystals and perform frequently in public.

(People with a sense of history may recall that during the mid-19th century, there was a popular blackface music troupe called Christy’s Minstrels with whom composer Stephen Foster was associated. During the 60s, there was a popular folk group called The New Christy Minstrels. Why we picked the name New Misty Crystals for our group I cannot say. A lack of creative thinking perhaps.)

And I must add in all humility that we are pretty good at what we do which is mostly rock, blues, country and bluegrass. We started out humbly enough playing small venues such as the Takoma Park Folk Festival and fund-raisers for the Race for the Cure. We have for three years running played for the annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) which is a large audience. The first two were in San Diego and New Orleans where we opened their final day sessions before crowds of 5-6000. The third was in Nashville in 2014 where we played their opening day ceremony before an estimated 10,000 people. That is heady stuff. (I acknowledge this is something of an inside job as some of us actually work for the NRECA, but that only explains our first appearance. They keep inviting us back because we’re good – and also because we don’t cost much.)

But perhaps the most memorable of all was a concert we gave in Jonava, Lithuania, which hosts a cultural festival every other year. How we got there is a convoluted story but there we were in a great hall with hundreds of screaming fans holding their cigarette lighters and pretty young women dancing in front of the stage. I sing lead on many of our numbers and for a while there I really felt like Mick Jagger. At one point I leaned over to our bass man George and ventured that this was the high point of our lives, unlikely to be equaled.

But I was wrong. Not long after returning from Europe, we began making plans for a CD of all original songs. It took us the better part of a year, but we finally got it done and we are proud of the result. You can catch our songs on ITunes or Amazon. Just type in New Mistry Crystals and a whole new world will open up for you.

All in all, I must say that music has enriched my life considerably. My harmonica playing needs some work, but I have the time and the determination to do it. And if I miss a note now and then, what of it? We all miss a note now and then, even those of us who do not play and sing.

Despair Over Income Disparity

During his annual State of the Union address President Obama identified the growing income disparity in our country as a major problem we should do something about. This is apparently going to become the mantra of the Democrats for the November elections.It’s going to be a long year. The income disparity is one of those fuzzy issues that lends itself to demagoguery. Everyone seems to agree the disparity is too big, but no one says how big it ought to be. Surely we don’t want everyone to have the same income. That vision got a workout in the last century. The results were poor. Income inequality is as American as pizza. We assume people with a lot on the ball should earn more money than slackers.

But how much more? There is no credible answer, nor is there any consensus regarding what we should do about the growing income disparity.
We hear a lot about curbing the excessive compensation of corporate CEOs, which generally speaking would be a good idea. Some of these guys are giving greed a bad name. But that would not rectify the problem. Also, raising the minimum wage is another red herring. Less than 3 percent of workers earn the minimum wage and most of those are middle class kids in their first jobs. Raising the minimum wage may be a good idea but it will not impact the income gap.

Likewise, raising taxes on the rich might have some impact, but not much. In 2013, the top 1 percent of wage earners paid 30 percent of tax revenues. The bottom 20 percent paid no federal taxes. We can tweak that balance but all our tweaking will not close the income disparity.

The real problem of course is not one of income but rather social and economic mobility. As long as people see reasonable hope for a better future, our nation will prosper. Unfortunately, opportunities for advancement are increasingly scarce for many people, especially those with limited education and few job skills. A major part of that stems from the loss of millions of low skill manufacturing jobs that once offered people with minimal qualifications relatively easy access to the middle class. We have a great potential to employ more people in well-paying manufacturing jobs, but jobs in modern manufacturing require advanced education and training that most of the displaced manufacturing workers simply do not have.

In sum, we are left with a growing wealth gap between the top and bottom. What are we to do about it? Should we do anything? I extol the importance of education, but too much of our higher education today is failing to endow students with marketable work skills in our rapidly changing economy. Today 15 percent of cab drivers in the U.S. have college degrees. Applications to four year universities are declining and for good reason.

The growing income disparity is a result of a stubborn unemployment that reasonable people working together can solve. One solution is a coherent program for training people of all ages for jobs that actually exist and offer potential for personal growth. The business community would eagerly join forces with government in support of such an initiative if it were truly bi-partisan, professionally led and based upon practical incentives.
In his State of the Union address, the President also called upon Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to rationalize federal job training programs. Without question, the plethora of federal job training programs is a mass of confusion and wasteful duplication. The Government Accountability Office had identified 47 job training programs in nine agencies that spent $18 billion in 2009. The House Education and Workforce Committee says the GAO left out at least nine programs.

And of course these are just federal programs we’re talking about. There are hundreds more at the state and local level, and even more in the private sector – including the Manufacturing Institute’s “Dream It, Do It” initiative of the Manufacturing Institute that is doing great work. It may be that the best training programs are in fact at the state and local level.

We have faced bigger challenges than the income gap. What we need is less demagoguery, more rational analysis and perhaps a bit of leadership.