When I was about fourteen or fifteen I loved listening to my Panasonic cassette recorder/player. The slim, rectangular black and silver box was portable and thus my travelling companion in the car, or on those Trailways bus rides to visit my grandparents. In addition to its playback capabilities, it came with a small microphone that allowed you to record sounds or conversations, convenient for making your own prank tape recordings. My friend Bob Brown went so far as to place a speaker under the hood of his car, and by some electrical wizardry turn it into a public address system. Sitting at a red light, we could hit the record button and speak into the microphone, broadcasting to the cars around us within earshot. “Hey, you there. Yeah, you in the Dodge. Quit picking your nose for God’s sake!” Which only proves that even way back then; mankind found ways to use new technology to do sophomoric things. Even as I write this, I must confess I wish I knew how to do that today. With the speaker systems available in today’s automobiles I could be the prophet of rush hour. I can see it now, “Hey lady, don’t you think that’s enough eye liner?”
These mystery tapes usually consisted of someone bursting into the room and confronting the other “actors” (term used loosely), and demanding a) where’s the money you owe me b) where’s the jewels you stole or c) now you’re gonna get it. This was followed by a cap gun going off and the victim groaning and collapsing while knocking over as much stuff as possible on the way to the floor. Sound effects were very important. Aunt Ginny was usually a gangster’s moll, or some other equally admirable example of femininity. It was audio noir. Every time we played the tapes back Aunt Ginny would laugh. The typical scene lasted a minute or so and I think we recorded fifteen in one day alone. We were dorks.
But I digress. In addition to the usual moments of insanity fueled by puberty, there were also moments of musical magic. That summer, sitting on my grandparent’s front porch at night, gazing up at the stars and listening to Paul Kantner’s sci-fi rock opera Blows Against the Empire, I felt energized. Bring on the revolution! Hey, can I have some of your purple berries? I have all the answers, not bad for fourteen-years-old! (By the way, have you ever noticed that you can take the old songs and sing them now and they still sound relevant? I’m talking Jefferson Airplane, “Volunteers of America, start a revolution,” or the Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again, “new boss same as the old boss.” Just saying).
But I digressed again. So back to age fourteen and a license to record. As some of you may remember, there were no dvrs back then. Phones were still attached to walls. (My kids are now feeling much more sympathetic towards the old man, realizing what he had to grow up with. It explains a lot). Because we had no dvrs, in order to audio record a show one had to place the microphone in front of the television speaker. The television in this case was the size of a commercial freezer, yet somehow the screen was only a scant twenty-seven inches. You could serve dinner to a family of four on top of the television cabinet and have room for the salad bowl too. Condiments? No problem.
Did I digress again? On one particular Sunday afternoon I came across a music show on TV and immediately ran to my room to get my recorder. I placed the microphone in front of the speaker, grabbed a pillow off of the sofa, and stretched out in front of the TV. I do not remember the name of the program, but I remember the musicians appearing on it. There was Mike Seeger playing something traditional on banjo. Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys were the headliners. In between a tall handsome black man in an immaculate cream colored suit made an appearance. His baritone was majestic. His first name was Leon, but I didn’t quite catch his last name. He sang the classic folk song “500 Miles.”
I was transfixed. I listened, shot through by the authenticity of his delivery. In the middle of a world filled with Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones, this stately singer riveted this suburban white kid to the floor. I played that tape over and over again, trying to imagine the world of pain this man felt, separated from home by such a great distance. And the sorrow in his voice that he couldn’t go home “this a-way.” At that time a lot of the folk music people sang “500 Miles.” But this guy owned it. His delivery was a straightforward vocal; none of the excessive tricks of the American Idol generation were to be found anywhere. And that was what made it magical. The restraint in his voice amplified the sense of melancholy in the piece, and that is what gave the pain dignity. He didn’t trample the tune, as so many would today, showing off every note within the singer’s reach. When you heard Leon sing the song you knew that he respected it, what it meant, lyrically, emotionally, and spiritually. What it meant to the narrator of the song, what it meant to Leon personally. The journey was more than just 500 Miles; it was a journey of the heart and soul. It was ground you did not tread lightly. I wore that tape out. Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play.
Over the years I would try to find a copy of “500 Miles” by Leon Tibbs. Or was it Tubbs? I was never sure. When the internet came around, I began to use it to collect old music that I could not find on the racks at the local stores. I ordered re-releases from large and small labels alike, quickly before they went out of print again. I found obscure records that I thought would never see the light of day. I ordered stuff from England and Japan. I was in record collecting heaven. In the early days of the internet you used to hear grumblings from the hardcore computer geeks about people clogging up the information superhighway. I did my best to shut down all the lanes. Now even dorks were calling me a dork. But search as I might, Leon was nowhere to be found. (Today, with Amazon’s advanced algorithms; there would have been some kind of linkage. But this is before Amazon, when it was known as CDNOW).
Fast forward to a few years ago, about 2008. I often used sound clips to check out new music, or YouTube to glimpse a performer. I had been hearing about a musician who was an acoustic folk blues artist with a spiritual bent. And so it was, in a time of great personal tribulation, in a moment when I needed a song to see me through, that I discovered a song that would become an emotional lifeline. The performance spoke to my situation and served as a prescription for my soul. On that day I discovered Eric Bibb. His mix of blues playing coupled with gospel lyric content was a healing balm for a broken heart. The song that became a life verse for me was Eric’s cover of the Rev. Gary Davis tune, “I Heard the Angels Singing.” A short time later Leon came to my mind, and I realized in a flash that his name must be Bibb! I had rediscovered the father by discovering his son. And that is the gospel truth. I now have a recording of Leon singing “500 Miles”, on the album A Family Affair by Leon and Eric Bibb. This is something I treasure. Sometimes you appreciate God’s gifts more after a long wait, when you think your answer will never come. 500 Miles. It only took forty years to travel that distance. Its ground you don’t tread lightly.
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