“From my opening line I might try to indicate my state of mind” goes the lyric from Terry Callier’s break through track ‘Ordinary Joe.’
Those who know Callier will be aware that the sad news of his death was announced in the week that saw Barack Obama re-elected as American President.
Now I can’t help but see overlap in these seemingly unrelated events, especially when looking at the role that outsider opinion played and still plays in the careers of both men.
Callier’s career initially wasn’t the rock ride to the top that he’d hope it would be and at one point he decided to retire from the music business. Failed careers are part and parcel of the music industry so many would attach little significance to the fact that Callier initially couldn’t make a living from music.
But the trajectory of Callier’s career is not an unfamiliar one to some American musicians given that it took fans outside of America championing his music to really make the record industry sit up and take notice.
Anyone with a smattering of knowledge of jazz, blues or rhythm and blues will be familiar with stories of musicians being revered outside of America while not being household names at home. It is striking that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones needed to encourage their American audiences to seek out the American musicians that inspired them.
The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts sums up his love of American music thus “To me even now American players and singers always the best. It is one of those things you have going.”
Unlike Callier, Obama’s political success isn’t dependent on support from outside America but he most certainly shares the experience of knowing that many outside of America champion his cause; especially given that in the run up to the last presidential election it has been said that most of the world would vote for Obama if they could.
Prior to the American election the BBC conducted a poll, which revealed that most of the world would prefer to see Barack Obama re-elected US President.
Call me a cynic but I would not be at all surprised if I were told that there are those in the American establishment who see the primary value Obama being re-elected is that he’s able to change visions of America.
The BBC’s Mark Mardell’s article ‘Has Obama changed America’s standing in the world’ contains the following explanation from Ben Rose, Obama’s speech writer, “when President Obama came into office he was determined to change America’s image in the eyes of the world.
The two wars had over-militarised our foreign policy. We had very large military footprints overseas. But we had a reduction in America’s standing in the world in part because of the war in Iraq, and so it was harder to get agreement on key issues.
So we really came into office thinking about how we could change the face of American foreign policy. “Rose’s statement, made in explanation of Obama’s foreign policy approach, is clear evidence that America knows it still has need for an image make-over.
It is clear that Obama’s victory speech was in part constructed to do some of that changing America’s image work. While Obama’s message of unity is aimed at the Republican opposition it also provides a vision of America as a country at ease with the idea of being not only egalitarian but also a truly multi-cultural society, if you didn’t catch the speech in its entirety this section should fill in the necessary gaps:
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you live. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.
I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”
For me Obama’s difficulty in turning his ideas into anything more than mere rhetoric lies in the fact that America’s history is a history of division; lets just think about that and consider why some musicians despite their talent never get to be the nations favourites. Terry Callier obviously recognises that all societies are constructs and therefore can be shaped differently to how they are at present:
“In a weary world that needs redemption,
Maybe we can learn to love again,
And this time there will be no exemptions,
Only better days ahead for us my friend
And it’s time to begin,
And if the thoughts are true wooohh,
The song never ends, never ends, never ends”
(Keep Your Heart Right. Terry Callier. 1998)
The aforementioned ‘Ordinary Joe’ uses the phrase, “politicians speech you” suggesting that we should be ever mindful of being taken in by political rhetoric but I think that it is fair enough to see hope in both Callier’s lyrics and Obama’s speech. Callier through music and Obama through politics offer a vision of America that many outsiders can buy into. What these outsiders hope is that America is wise enough to recognise and value what they value about America.
YouTube of Terry Callier’s ordinary Joe: