Until this week, I had never heard of Grandpa Elliott or Susan Boyle, but their names are quickly becoming well known through the internet’s social networking sites like YouTube and Facebook. The two musicians are unrelated: Grandpa Elliott is a jazz/blues street musician from New Orleans and Susan Boyle is a native of Scotland and a participant in Britain’s Got Talent, a reality television show in the United Kingdom.
Last weekend, I watched the following music video produced by Playing for Change, a network of musicians and artists who want to bring peace, inspiration, and connection through a collaborative, multimedia effort that stretches across the entire planet. As they raise funds and awareness, Playing for Change hopes to build music and art schools in impoverished communities, so they can teach young people to share their music with others and connect with other such schools around the world. Their website describes the vision:
Traveling across four continents over three years with cameras and a mobile recording studio, Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls embarked on a search for musical inspiration. What they discovered on their journey was the power music has to connect the world together. Chronicled in the feature-length documentary, Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, is a journey that starts in the city streets of America and Europe and heads to South African townships and the Himalayan Mountains….Throughout the film, musicians from different locations that have never met each other join together to recreate songs such as “One Love” and “Stand by Me,” further demonstrating the power of music to connect and inspire people around the world.
The music video “Stand by Me” begins with Roger Ridley, a street musician from Santa Monica, California, who launches into a laid-back rendition of the song with simply an acoustic guitar. But hold on tight because Ridley’s brought friends, thanks to the wonders of high-tech digital music and video production. A New Orleans blues and jazz singer, Grandpa Elliott, takes the first verse of the song:
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.
A third musician, Washboard Chaz, also from New Orleans, brings his unique instrumentation into the mix and all three buskers are digitally joined together for the chorus. It gets better! At the onset of verse two, the music goes transatlantic with the amazing vocals of Clarence Bekker, standing in a side alley of Amsterdam, Netherlands; however, a group of drummers from the Twin Eagle Drum Group in Zuni, New Mexico, set a driving pace with their Native American drums. Okay, here’s the video:
All I have to say isâ€¦the video accomplished exactly what it’s founders intended! I found myself inspired, even to the point of tears, as I embraced the impact of what was taking place right before my eyes: virtually unknown street performers who, if we’re honest, we wouldn’t give a second thought. Recognizing the technical hurdles and the behind-the-scenes planning that must have been poured into this project, I was simply and utterly blown away by the amazing performance of this rag-tag group of nobodies, especially Grandpa Elliott who featured quite prominently and cut loose with a really cool harmonica solo.
Then yesterday my wife called me upstairs to watch the video of Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old unemployed Scottish woman who entered the Britain’s Got Talent competition because, in her words, “I’ve always wanted to perform in front of a large audience.” Susan admits, “I’ve never been married. I’ve never been kissed. Shame, but it’s not an advert!” As of this moment, nearly thirteen million people have viewed the following video in only four days, not to mention the millions who have watched several other versions floating around cyberspace:
Miss Boyle attempted to walk off-stage when the song ended, but the judges quickly called her back to hear their comments. One of the judges, Amanda Holden, summed up everything I was feeling during Susan’s solo:
I am so thrilled because I know that everybody was against you. I honestly think that we were all being very cynical and I think that’s the biggest wake-up call ever. And I just want to say that it was a complete privilege listening to that.
You would have to be brain-dead to watch the above television clip without having your heart stirred, perhaps needing a box of tissues on hand. I’ve begun thinking about these two seemingly unrelated videos, featuring Grandpa Elliott and Susan Boyle, and asking myself, “What can I learn from this?”
Why do such things stir us so? Many people willingly pay exorbitant prices for tickets to see top talent such as Sir Elton John or U2 or Lady GaGa, often forming long lines at the ticket office, camping out for days in advance to avoid the disappointment of a sell-out. But when you go to an event like that, you expect a great performance. It’s what the professionals do, isn’t it? And we love them for it.
But we’re not normally tuned into watching nobodies perform, unless it’s to make fun and have a laugh. If they are truly talented, we reason, then they would already be at the top of the charts. Since they’re not, they must be rubbish. So it might be worth taking a chance and listening to thirty seconds before changing channels or looking for another form of entertainment, but what if we get totally blown away by the unexpected? To borrow a phrase from Susan Boyle, I was gobsmackedâ€¦completely and utterly astounded, overwhelmed, beyond amazement, rendered speechless.
People are now searching the internet to buy Grandpa Elliott’s music on CDâ€”some might even be willing to buy his stuff on 8-track tape if it existedâ€”because of one brief appearance in a collaborative effort by Playing for Change. Unfortunately, Grandpa Elliott doesn’t have an agent or a record label or a public relations manager. He’s been playing jazz and blues on the streets of New Orleans for the past fifty years, an “undiscovered” talent that most passersby probably wrote off as another homeless bum who could have been a good singer if he had not thrown his life away on booze or drugs.
Susan Boyle has been living in obscurity in a small Scottish village, enjoying a simple life and singing in her church choir, until now. The reality of what’s happened could change everything for Miss Boyle and Grandpa Elliott; and unfortunately it may take away as much as it gives them in notoriety and fame.