After an introduction, Scott stepped out on stage to a rousing applause. This was an audience that knew Scott and loves his work. Every song he played drew energetic applause and occasional shouts.
We had a break, then into the second set.
Scott played “Come On In My Kitchen.” I knew it well. I’d heard it many times before on his CDs.
But this time, the way he was playing was over-the-top extraordinary. Magical. Legendary.
Moving from full power to whispers with breathtaking grace, Scott lingered between notes and held notes longer, and time slowed, and the notes sank low and slow.
When it ended we gave him a roaring applause.
The performance was thrilling. Our response, thrilling, and like being present for musical history, being there was thrilling. It was like being at Boston’s Fenway Park for a historic home run.
“Thanks for having the ears to hear that,” Scott said to us.
When I emailed Scott and asked if he knew he was playing differently, Scott wrote, “I’ve long ended it the way I did that night,” as if there was nothing different about that performance.
But the whole song that was intense, mesmerizing. I was there, and I’ve been to at least five of Scott’s performances in small settings in North Carolina, and I’ve listened to his CDs many dozens of times, so I know, there was something utterly breathtaking about his performance of Come On In My Kitchen that night.
Scott wrote, “Somehow the audience held on to every evocative note and listened right to the ending. [...] It was moving.”
And more, “That song has always held a beauty and spookiness for me. Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines played it a lot. And one night, according to Shines, they played it late and slowly. And when they finished, Shines said, it was silent. And they looked up from their guitars and everyone was crying. The women. And the men. It felt like that. Which is why I said “Thanks for having the ears to hear that.”
It WAS haunting, and we were moved. I can still here the sound of the wind.
Several other moments stay with me from that evening, but I’ll mention one more.
Before playing “Down in Mississippi” (1966, J.B. Lenoir) Scott recited the names of five civil rights martyrs and the date of their deaths.
I didn’t expect that, though he’d probably done it at earlier performances. It was very moving, especially for me, since I had begun studying African American history moved by the stories that Scott Ainslie tells with his songs, and moved by the music, some of which is already in me, in my memory, in my heart, and deeper.
This time, I recognized Emmett Till’s name. I knew his story. This time it felt personal to me, as if his murder happened in my life time, even though I wasn’t born until 3 years later.
Emmett Till (1955)
Medgar Evers (1963)
Chaney, Schwerner & Goodman (1964)
What cruel times humanity walks through, over and over again. Let us never be complacent to think the wrongs of yesterday are gone.
A master musician, story teller and historian, Ainslie delivers African American history to white audiences through playing the Blues and telling of the African roots of American music. He shares riveting detail of injustices and moments of grace, and expert detail of instruments and musical culture. His own songs draw from that musical heritage and some “The Land That I Love” weave in current injustices – like the deadly desert border crossings in Arizona.