Preston Epps died last year. I don’t expect you to remember him or ever to have heard his name.
But in 1959 a song by Mr. Epps reached #14 in the country. It was called "Bongo Rock," a kind of amalgam of a boogie-woogie twangy guitar and a pair of...well...bongos.
It had no lyrics: it had bongos. But only thirteen songs in the world were better that week. (His next record barely reached the top 100, and he faded from the pop scene, though he continued to play clubs in Southern California right into the 1990s.)
I found his name yesterday by Google-accident. I had intended to write about the passing of Rush drummer Neil Peart and how so many legendary musicians seem to have been taken from their fans and loved ones over the past four years.
But seeing Preston Epps’s name and finding "Bongo Rock" on Spotify and listening to it after fifty years (there’s not much to it—but #14!), I was reminded again of what a great democratizer music has always been. Why else would early rock 'n' rollers by a bongo record? (Yes, I have a copy.)
In December my wife and I saw Cracker in Norfolk, Connecticut. For those unfamiliar with the group, Cracker is a kind of progressive–Southern rock–West Coast folk–country-western group with at least one polka in their repertoire, so they are likely to draw a pretty diverse crowd. I remember looking around the audience before the show began and wondering if I shared my politics with anyone there. Who supported Trump and who didn’t? Who supported climate laws, women’s choice, gun control...and who didn’t?
When the music started, it no longer mattered.
Every time we suffer the loss of someone like Neil Peart (or Tom Petty or Glen Campbell or any others in the sadly lengthening list of performers we love), we lose one more opportunity to believe—even if only for the length of a concert—that we live in a less divided country: we lose one more democratizing element, and one more chance "to sow a new mentality/Closer to the heart."*
I often hear politicians claim that there is more that connects than divides us. On some days–with impeachment imminent and the Middle East a tinderbox–the assertion sounds Pollyannaish at best, but there’s truth to it. Losing the great ones like Neil Peart, the ones who do unite us, makes coming together as people or a nation that much more difficult.
*From "Closer to the Heart" / Rush