Saturday, May 9, 2020 – Live to Blog with my head filled with “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom”
Little Richard died today. To the best of my knowledge he did not die as a result of complications of COVID-19 as so many have recently. In 1955 Little Richard coined the phrase that is filling my head. Little Richard claimed to be the architect of rock and roll and his phrase became a part of rock’s musical history. It is the opening line of the song “Tutti Frutti.” In 2010 the Library of Congress added this Little Richard anthem to the National Recording Registry as one of its most culturally significant recordings. Since I can’t get the phrase out of my head, I may as well play it.
The Challenge of Personal Congruence
Thanks to my sisters, I grew up with the music of Little Richard. I was born about 10 years after my youngest sister but all three were teenagers at either the beginning of his career or just as he was hitting his musical stride. In fact, I may have been able to say “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom” before I said much of anything else.
Both the music and person of Little Richard have fascinated me. His music is so distinctive. From the opening notes of any of his hit songs, we know immediately it is Little Richard. As a person he was also distinctive, especially as a performer. His flamboyant costumes, hair, and make-up set him apart from so many other performers of his time…actually, any time.
What fascinated me about Little Richard was his very human struggle to be a congruent person. To be personally congruent is to know ourselves and to be ourselves…to be comfortable, as it were, in our own skins. Author Parker Palmer describes the opposite of congruence as “the divided life.”
Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”Parker J. Palmer, p. 4, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life
Little Richard lived out the challenge of personal congruence in a very public way. He tried to speak freely of that challenge at different times in his career. There are two times I remember seeing him do this on television. Once was with Pat Robertson on the 700 Club shortly after he had given up rock and roll in the 1970’s to become a Bible salesman and to be straight. It was interesting, but painful, to watch because Little Richard was so very divided at that time and was, in fact, in denial about himself. I remember he sat uncomfortably in the guest’s chair, unsmiling, and refusing, when invited by Robertson, to perform one of his famous songs. Little Richard asserted he didn’t do that kind of music anymore.
Some time later, in an interview with David Letterman in 1982, I saw a slightly more congruent Little Richard but he was still divided between who he thought he should be and who he was. The following clip is the whole of that interview, including a gospel song from Little Richard at the end. It is fascinating to watch because Letterman is an outstanding interviewer and he helped Little Richard open up with more of his story.
Not long after this interview with David Letterman, Little Richard would once again return to the world of rock and roll. Little Richard’s love/hate relationship with his own sexuality and rock and roll, and his on-again/off-again relationship with evangelical Christian faith is well documented. In 2017 Little Richard gave one of his last interviews on a religious broadcasting network. In that interview he again denounced homosexuality and transgender identity.
I loved the rock and roll music of Little Richard. I was on the Mall in Washington, DC on the 4th of July in 2011 and so was Little Richard. Well, not in the exact same place I was. He was rehearsing to perform that evening on A Capital Fourth, the PBS live 4th of July celebraton broadcast. That was a close as I ever got to Little Richard.
There is, however, something about Little Richard’s struggle to achieve personal congruence that resonates with any of us who are trying to be fully human. In his struggle we saw reflections of our own. In a day when masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are in such short supply, it is ironic that we are all born with a plentiful supply of life masks. Throughout our lifetimes we try them on one-by-one to see which one fits us best. We hope we eventually find one that fits us, is comfortable to wear, and represents us more or less accurately. In acheiving the congruence of the undivided life we finally realize, though, there are no masks that actually fit us. We are who we are.
Early in his career, Little Richard made a gospel album. On that album he sings “Peace in the Valley” and it is one of the most beautiful renditions of the song I’ve ever heard. Today I hope Little Richard Penniman has been freed of his last mask and finally found the peace he sought. Rest in true peace, Little Richard.
The Challenge of Public Congruence
Personal congruence is a struggle and, for most people, so is public congruence. To be congruent publicly is to let your life speak in a way that is consistent with your words. Parker Palmer also wrote a book about that. It is one that I required students to read in an MBA course I taught at Eastern University.
Public congruence is an expression of our personal ethics. To be congruent is to be an example. To be incongruent is to live by the ethic of “do as I say, not as I do.” Public congruence is something we tend to expect of leaders. I have to admit that today I’m struggling with the incongruence I’m seeing in Washington, DC at the moment.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence refuse to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, even when they know this is the recommendation of public health officials. In fact, Mr. Trump may have exposed very elderly veterans to coronavirus during a remembrance of the end of World War II this week. Now both Trump, Pence, and Ivanka Trump each have members of their staffs who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Rather than take the prevention steps which have been recommended for weeks, Trump and his staff (which likely includes Pence, Ms. Trump, and their staffs) will be tested daily. There is still no evidence they intend to be like the rest of us who take the prevention protocols seriously.
So, let me get this straight: at a time when many communities in the U.S. are begging for tests, Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence, and their staffs will now be tested daily because they refuse to follow the basic prevention protocols many of us are following?
Why is it that a famous Marie Antoinette quote comes to my mind when I read about the incongruent behavioir of this Administration?
The Adventures of Chickenman
You know, I’ve just got to hear from someone who is more congruent. Here is Episode 23 in which Chickenman flames out over a request.
The View from Jeff
Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and keep striving for the undivided life.