Thursday, June 01, 2017

Building Bridges not Walls

Remembering Greg Allman: Building Bridges not Walls
Daniel Cano

I’m not sure why, but Greg Allman’s passing hit me hard. Allman was a founding member of the Southern-based Allman Brothers Band, whose blues, country, rock-infused music, inspired so many of my generation, (regardless of race, ethnicity, or culture) to be wary of materialism, respect nature, leave our worries behind and experience the open road, a generation of “midnight riders”.

For me, a Chicano from Los Angeles, and miles away from Macon, Georgia, the Brothers’ music saw me through many dark days, especially in songs like Jessica, Rambling Man, and Blue Skies, songs that lifted my spirit, reminding me that life is like a river, and no matter what, “It just keeps on flowing/ It don’t worry ‘bout where it’s going.”

I’m not completely sure if my emotions are solely for Allman’s memory, his music, or for what he represents to me: the passing of a generation that sought peace over war and love over hate, or, at least we made the attempt. At the same time, the Brothers’ deep Southern roots raise, in my mind, many complex issues about American culture, like slavery, racism, Jim Crow, the Texas Rangers, and-- clashing cultures.

The identifying element of the Allman brothers’ music was the dueling, operatic guitars of Greg’s brother, Duane, and friend, Dickie Betts. The Allman Brothers would never have had those guitars if it wasn’t for the Arab, Spanish, and Mexican cultures that introduced them to the Americas. And, ironically, we’d never have the modern guitars if it weren’t for Les Paul, Leo Fender, and the early innovators of the electric guitar. When cultures blend, wonderful things can happen.

Some say, one of the most advanced cultures was 16th century, Toledo, Spain, where Jews, Catholics, and Muslims, living and working together, made enormous breakthroughs in science, medicine, mathematics, and the arts.

I mean, if we didn’t have the South, we wouldn’t have the Texas Tornados. Freddie Fender’s guitar and Flaco Jimenez’ accordion gave the group its unique Mex sound, but that sound wouldn’t have been complete without Tex sound of Auggie Meyers’ organ and Doug Sahm’s (a Texan of Lebanese descent) voice. Together, we get Tex-Mex.

For that matter, would we have musica nortena, a music that straddles borders and cultures, not wholly Mexican and not wholly American? And would we have the mariachi without the German, French horns and violins mixed with the Spanish, Mexican, Arab guitars and bajo sexto? And closer to home, for me, anyway, without the South, I wouldn’t have had my father, and his unique view of America.

My dad was raised in Los Angeles, on the westside, a few miles from the Pacific. He quit high school to work and help support the family. Though, he once told me, “I didn’t think I was getting anything out of school.” Yet it was this man, with an eleventh grade education, who introduced me to the writings of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and William Styron, as well as the music of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Eddie Cano (no relation).

My dad was a second-generation American, part of the WWII Chicano generation, but he didn’t have a Mexican accent when he spoke English. He had more of an Okie-Arkie, accent, using “yer” for “your”, “ain’t” for “aren’t”, “cain’t” for “can’t”, and “shore” for “sure,” as if his parents had migrated from Oklahoma and Arkansas instead of Jalisco and Chihuahua.

When I asked him about it, he said, “Well, a lot of Okies lived in the neighborhood with us Chicanos. You gotta remember, we lived right off Santa Monica Boulevard, old Route 66. When the Okies and Arkies came to California during the Dust Bowl, they drove right up Santa Monica Boulevard, stopped at the beach, backed up a few miles, and moved into “La Garra”, on Cotner Avenue, near Sepulveda, with the rest of us, the only place they could afford.”

“La Garra” is a Spanish word that means a dried piece of leather, but the old-timers used it for “rags” “garras”. In the 1930s, Thursdays were washdays, and women hung clothes to dry in the front yards, and the rags (drying clothes) flapped throughout the neighborhood, hence the name.

He remembered walking outside his clapboard house one morning and seeing a jalopy loaded with furniture and people. “They had nothing, not even food,” he said. “Your grandpa told your grandma to make them some food. She came out with stacks of burritos.” My dad said, laughing, “At first, they just kept looking at them. But once they started eating them, they said, ‘Hmmm, these ‘re good.’” He added, “When I was growing up, all us Chicano kids would go to their house and eat chittlins’ and grits, and they’d come over to our house and eat my mom’s food. We listened to their music and they listened to ours.”

I asked, “Did you all get along? He answered, “Shore. What was there to fight about? They were poorer than we were. We went to school together. We played baseball and football together. We had Japanese neighbors, too. When the Japanese went to the relocation campus, our parents helped them out. Some Japanese families signed their houses over to Chicano families. When they returned from the camps, the Chicanos gave them the houses back.”

Allman’s passing also reminds me of being back in the army. It was my first encounter with Texas Mexicans, who spoke English with a slight Spanish accent but an unmistakable southern drawl, as if they’d come with Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie from Kentucky or Tennessee.

Many saw themselves, proudly, as cowboys, wearing cowboy boots and listening to country music. Why not? Our Spanish-Mexican ancestors introduced the horse to the Americas. And without the horse, there would be no Willie or Waylon singing, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Or, San Antonio would have never heard Little Joe Hernandez singing, “She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timing man.” What would we do without Domingo Samudio (Sam the Sham) singing “Wooly Booly?” Would Los Lobos have gained fame without the Blasters and the punk movement?

When I bought my first Allman Brothers’ album, I’d just finished a three-year hitch in the military, my last 18 months spent in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Talk about the deep South. It was 1969. There were still billboards along the sides of the highways announcing, “Support Your Local KKK.” I’d seen an African-American soldier, fresh from combat in Vietnam, downtown, sitting on a curb, crying. They’d just told him they couldn’t serve him in one of the bars. His tears were more from humiliation than anger. White soldiers in the bar also left, boycotting the bar. I saw what racism looked like.

Like other bands in the Sixties, the Allman Brothers saw themselves as family, travelling bluesmen, musical highwaymen, traveling across America with their girlfriends, wives, and kids. They created the sound we know as Southern rock. Yet, there on the cover of my album was African-American drummer Jaimo Johnson, one of the Brothers founding members. That was too cool, I remember thinking, a band from the deep south with a black drummer.

Besides being a great rock ‘n roll band, the Allman Brothers were sending America a powerful message. The band was all about the music, and they were willing to take any abuse tossed at them for allowing a black man into their family. It was the same when I saw Willie Nelson and Little Joe perform “Solamente una vez”. It was all about the music.

So, whether it is Los Lobos with saxophonist Steve Berlin, the Plugz featuring Tito Lariva, Charlie Quintana, and Barry McBride, or Eric Burden bringing in War as his backup band, in a world where some would prefer to construct walls to separate us, there will always be those rebels, radicals, and musicians who will break the rules and construct bridges to unite us so that beneath our feet the river keeps on flowing, as nature intended. Rest in peace, Mr. Allman.


Manuel Ramos said...

Daniel - thanks for the memories - I got into the Allmans back in the 60's in college when I also listened to the likes of Little Joe, B.B. King, Waylon Jennings, Santana. Grew up in rural Colorado where I sang along with Jose Alfredo Jimenez and others on my grandmother's "Spanish radio station" and, a bit later, did the Wiggle-Wobble to Rhythm & Blues from Chicano Soul bands that played in the clubs in Pueblo, CO. It's all about the music. Nice piece, Daniel.

Daniel Cano said...

Gracias, Manuel. Muchos memories behind us, brother. Salud.

Elias said...

Cool story/ies, Daniel, and always fun to hear of ole Santa Monica and the West Side (cuando llegaron los Okies).
Thanks for pointing out the bright side of the West Side blend (even though it's not always so bright, even today). That's a history worth remembering.
Now to check out some Allman Brothers ...

Daniel Cano said...

Elias, good to hear from you. Yes, there is a lot of Chicano history along L.A. Country's Pacific Coast, but most of the stories come to us, not in books, unfortunately, but in personal narratives from those who lived them.