Anyone who knows me realizes that I love music – especially old R&B, as well as classic rock, standards, etc. In a previous life, I spent four years as a radio DJ. I guess those who can’t play it or sing it can at least broadcast it. Anyway, music has always been a solace for me – a means of transport from the stresses of now to temporary oases of song and thought.
If you love those musical genres as I do, then you’re probably familiar with most of these titles (the majority being soul classics from the 60s and 70s): "Java", "Mother-in-Law", "I Like It Like That", "Ride Your Pony", "Get Out of My Life, Woman", "Working in the Coal Mine", "Yes We Can Can", "Play Something Sweet", "Southern Nights", "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Lady Marmalade.” Classics songs for Ernie K. Doe, Lee Dorsey, Glenn Campbell, The Staple Singers, Dr. John, Patti LaBelle, and the list goes on and on. Do you know who wrote those songs? They (and many other numbers you would also recognize) were written by Allen Toussaint.
If you’re really into the world of R&B/Jazz music, or if you’re from New Orleans (his home and headquarters), you know Allen Toussaint. Though a consummate performer on his own, he was arguably one of a handful of the most talented and prolific composers of the 20th century. Toussaint died last November and left behind a virtual treasure store of music that will entertain listeners for eons to come. But many who know the songs... and love the songs... or who will come to know and love the songs... are unfamiliar with the name. It was the music that Toussaint loved, and that’s what he left behind.
I’ve been listening to some of his music for a couple days, and it reminds me of a couple of spiritual principles: (1) It’s not about us. As for Toussaint it was about the music, for Christians it’s about The Story. Ours is an ancient story that continues to touch, captivate, and transform people as no other story ever has or can. It’s the story of Jesus – His life and teachings and principles and challenges and death and Resurrection and unconditional love. (2) The Story of that Divine Love and what it looks like is the legacy we leave behind. Many who know Toussaint’s music do not know his name. If in years to come others remember being made to feel valued or heard or appreciated... if they learned from us lessons of kindness or charity or mercy... if they recognized in us what it looks like to rise above prejudice or hostility or greed... if they somehow were lifted past self-interest to compassion and past fear to faith... if we did or said or stood for anything that made life better and stronger and happier than it would have been without us, then are not those the things that need to be remembered? It will not be our names that form our legacies – but our lives and the lasting impact for good or evil that they had. And our lives are made lasting and meaningful to the extent that they reflect and share The Story of the One Who lives in and through us.
There’s a YouTube clip from the 80s of the most unpredictable quarter you can imagine: Dolly Parton, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint at the piano. They’re singing one of Toussaint’s classics, Working in the Coal Mine. I think I’ll watch. The music lives on and brings a joy to the lives of all who listen. Let’s learn a lesson from that, the lesson being to craft our lives in such fashion that we become part of something that will forever live on and bring joy to the lives of others.