Over Back to Bates Weekend, there was a flurry of activity. A tent of beer, a homecoming game, a petting zoo, dance concerts, an a cappella concert, and improvisational comedy were all on display as students and families meandered around campus. On Sunday, just as some of the chaos was clearing, Corey Harris ’91 performed in the air-conditioned Olin Concert Hall.
Opening with some general announcements, Alan Carr welcomed us to Olin and Georgia Nigro of the Psychology department highlighted that the Watson fellowship program is celebrating its 50th year of student work this spring.
Corey Harris was a presence on stage. An accomplished performer, Harris has authored several books and published numerous albums, most recently Live from Turtle Island (2015). Both a Watson Scholar and MacArthur grantee, Harris is not only musically gifted but socially active. Because of Harris’ experience with the Fellowship, the performance was not only a celebration of his work but also an homage to the Watson Fellowship. As he calmly ambled onstage in khaki pants and a blue plaid button-down shirt, I started to think he would just play a few songs and make some small talk in between pieces. Boy, was I wrong.
As he took the stage, Harris himself had several announcements. First, he clarified that the jewelry for sale by the ticket desk was made by his wife. Then, he started into what would become many anecdotes describing his connection to each song.
One story he told related to a certain US government employee who got in trouble with the government when he spoke up about NSA surveillance conducted in secret; this mystery man was said to be in a Russian airport, thus revealing his identity: Edward Snowden. Harris went on to highlight how much big data is out there about each internet-using individual. After shopping for socks, he laughed at how frequently socks and related items appeared in advertisements on his Google search. This vignette wound down into a song called “Watching You” aptly related to government surveillance of us, and the idea of “Big Brother” out there, watching every move you make.
Another anecdote Harris shared related to an oral story he had learned of an ancestor, Uncle Wayne. During the Reconstruction period of American History, just as Jim Crow laws were coming about, Uncle Wayne (a black man) was working for his white boss. A carpenter, Uncle Wayne requested payment for his carpentry work at the end of one day’s work. His boss refused, but Uncle Wayne was not going to let his boss get away with this. Both men got angry, and Uncle Wayne did not back down. According to Harris, the boss then organized some of his friends and lynched Uncle Wayne. Stunned, the audience sat in silence as the calm but shocking words floated out of Harris’ melodic mouth. After uttering the final fate of Uncle Wayne, Harris launched into “Lynch Blues,” a song about that time period and experience.
Through these vignettes of personal history and political context, I was able to tune into particular lyrics that discussed the central themes of Harris’ work. Thus, Harris was able to transform the experience of being an audience member from a role of passive absorption to the job of active information processor. I do not identify as someone who enjoys the genre of blues or any combination of blues and other styles, but Harris’ expert method of introducing a reason to invest in the music kept me in my seat, attentively listening to his work.
As I looked around at the end of the concert, I noticed the audience’s make-up: mostly faculty, staff, and Lewiston community members, with maybe 15 students in attendance. Regardless of age, all members of the audience were smiling and bopping along to the music, and nodding in acknowledgement during Harris’ short stories.
Though a performer like Corey Harris is hard to find, I hope that Bates continues to host performers that bring not only music, but intelligent reflection to our community; art is often a voice of dissent, and I look forward to seeing what new voices Bates brings into our lives.