Rory Block’s September 28 ChurchLive Benefit – A Real Life Fantasy
Imagine a Steven King short story with a happy ending, Alice in Wonderland for adults, a Ken Burns documentary about somewhere over the rainbow where blacks and whites sit together in church, Martin Luther King’s dream come true.
Saturday night in a rural church in Chatham, New York for a few moments that dream became reality. Those attending made it to the mountain top.
That’s the way Rory Block’s ChurchLive benefit felt. We live in a polarized world. Democrats against Republicans, atheists against Christians, schoolyard shooters against kids, terrorists against democracies, cops against suspected criminals, Jews against Muslims, blacks against whites, whole countries trying to obliterate each other.
For two hours in a century and a half old white clapboard church in bucolic Chatham, New York Rory Block – the world’s premiere acoustic blues guitarist, a 70-year-old white woman who looks and acts half her age – shared the stage with The Heavenly Echoes, a black gospel group whose sanctified music channels God in His purest form.
Finding ChurchLive is like trying to locate an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. Getting there is an exercise in maneuvering curvy back roads, one-lane bridges, and one-way streets. You park on the grass. There is no paved parking lot. Rory and her husband bought the church because it was about to be sold and torn down to build an apartment house. The soft blue light in the sanctuary beckons like a beacon in the darkness. There are no street lights.
The pews were about half full with an equal measure of blacks and whites. I can’t ever remember attending a concert with that mix in 50 years of reviewing blues. God wrote the setlist for this concert.
Rory opened the night with an anecdote about riding the huge Concorde plane to Paris and watching a man write a check for a young person’s whole education on the spot. Could such a miracle happen in this gorgeous little church? “We need this building in this community,” she pleaded.
Ryc Ward, a church regular, opened the show with a song that included the line, “Good Lord, show me the way, and I will go to the river and pray.” Strumming simple chords on his guitar, he finished with “Old Rugged Cross.” I felt like I was watching a clip from Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary on PBS.
Introducing “Preaching Blues,” Rory recalled sitting knee to knee with bluesman Son House when she was 15 in 1965. “Do the math,” she seemed to say. “I’ll be 70 next week.” Son taught Robert Johnson to play the blues and was both a preacher and a blues singer in the 1920s when mixing the two genres was considered as inappropriate as combining water and gasoline.
Leading into “I’ll Be With You Always” she recalled studying with Rev. Gary Davis. “You just had to keep up with him,” she said. “That’s just the way he taught.”
The audience sang along with her on “Changing Hands.” She ended with a song her mom used to sing to her as a child with the line “We’re on our way to a better place.”
The Heavenly Echoes’ Hayes Coleman, whose four-octave range puts Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson to shame, directed “Coming Home” directly to me. He knows I love that song. It’s smooth glide, an idyllic gospel promise of a better life after death. Bass player Joe Abbey sang his original with the mantra “The church is gonna make it,” imploring everyone to give to the cause. Youngest singer Decky Lawson who doubled on drums sang “On My Way Home,” and members of the audience led a call and response chorus on “Testify to Jesus.”
Senior member Earl Thorpe sang lead on “My God,” a reworking of the Temptation’s “My Girl.” Earl Kornegay played perfectly understated guitar throughout, and Hayes invited me up on the pulpit to say a few words at the end. I told the crowd that we live in a very polarized world. What a different world it would be if the fantasy of this night could infect the world.
When I was a little boy I saw a Walt Disney movie, South of the South. It was about a little rich boy whose father owned a plantation and had no time for his son. The child is befriended by Uncle Remus, a slave who enriches the boy’s life with fairy tales that come to life in this kid’s mind. The screen lights up with images of Uncle Remus skipping through a field surrounded by cartoon butterflies and bunnies. That image is permanently burned in my memory.
You can’t find that film today. My wife had to order video as a Christmas gift for me from England, Walt Disney removed it from distribution because of the public outcry that it represented an idyllic version 19th century slavery. It was as if we needed only to concentrate on the horror of the way we treat each other to make our history of racial hatred go away.