The Story Behind the Story – Why Blind Willie Johnson’s (and yours) is Important

At this year’s Thanksgiving table, the group of family and friends that gathered discussed why we think (or don’t think) our own stories are important enough to record. One answer was, “Who’s going to read it, anyway?” The answer came to me this morning as I was reading a well-written article by Michael Hall in this month’s (December 2010) Texas Monthly magazine. The article is entitled, “The Soul of a Man – Who Was Blind Willie Johnson?” .

Blind Willie Johnson was an African-American who made his living singing and playing a cheap guitar “…traveling (Texas) and singing, going from town to town, corner to corner, church to church, revival to revival.” He recorded thirty songs between 1927 and 1930 and, for a brief period of time, was a recording star, outselling the renown blues singer Bessie Smith during the Great Depression. “By the sixties, Johnson had become a hero to folkies and rockers alike,” writes Hall. He influenced folk legends like Bob Dylan, guitarists like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. But when reading his story (and the mysteries that will never be known about Blind Willie), I believe that, if asked while alive if he thought his stories were worth recording, he might have also said, “Who’s going to read them?”

Blind Willie knew only what he thought he knew of his story. He did not know the story behind the story. The stories of how he lost his sight and his path through Texas are fascinating. His story and music has not only influenced modern music legends, but now, since the Texas Monthly article has been published, has undoubtedly has inspired thousands of readers like me. What Blind Willie didn’t know was how the rest of his story would remain a mystery. Michael Hall poses those questions in his article. Those questions create even more intrigue and inspiration to Blind Willie Johnson’s story.

We can never know the story behind our own story. But it is important to realize that there is a story behind our story and those of our loved ones. It is, therefore, our responsibility to record those stories. Who will read them? It doesn’t matter! What matters is that they are recorded. If Blind Willie Johnson would have realized that, his story may have had a positive influence on even more people.

And “That’s The Way It Is”…or is it?

I am old enough to remember Walter Cronkite, once known as “the most trusted man in America” signing off his news reports by saying, “And that’s the way it is.” And I believed it was! I have gained an added respect of a man I already respected, another old-school reporter, Ted Koppel. In a Washington Post article from last Sunday , he brilliantly discusses the difference between opinion and facts, and “the transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity.” This article is a must read for anyone who misses the days of responsible, unbiased news reporting. If I were to hear a modern-day reporter say, “And that’s the way it is”, I would have to ask, “Is it?”

I was recently asked if the stories I capture and preserve at LifeStories Alive are checked out as to being factual. The answer is, “No, the stories I gather for families are not checked out as to being factual.” They are not for public consumption with the intent of being interpreted as fact. They are captured and preserved with the intent of telling a story from the story teller’s point of view. In fact, I had a lady approach me insisting that I capture her father’s stories soon. When asked what the hurry was, she said that the family knows that 90% of her father’s stories are false, but he tells them so well (and funny) that they wanted to capture them before he forgot them!

So my advice is to listen to TV news with the reporter’s intent in mind…biased or unbiased, as a collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news (as) a public trust” or as a “profitable commodity”? The decision belongs to you. And that’s the way it is!


Is a Sense of Humor Part of Your LifeStory?

Last Tuesday I interviewed a 91-year-old lady named Joy for her LifeStory. I realized during the pre-interview process that she had a good sense of humor. I did not, however, know if or how it would surface during the filming. I am happy to say that it was definitely there! Early in the interview, seemingly in mid-sentence, she told a joke…and it was a good one. From time to time during the rest of her sharing the stories of 91 years of life, she would giggle, give me “the look” with a grin attached, and make me laugh out loud. A sense of humor has been a part of her life from way back.

Is a sense of humor part of your LifeStory? If it is, how do you show it? I believe that all of our stories should not only be captured and preserved, but also shared. Joy shared how her mother made her laugh at an early age. She saw how it delighted the people around her growing up. So, quite naturally, she has kept the tradition going.

If your sense of humor is worth sharing, then how many times this week have you shared it?  If you can’t remember, then make it a point to share it within the next twelve hours. Pick up the phone, send an email, or, better yet, meet with someone and make them smile. This is a good reason to re-connect with a long-lost friend who you haven’t touched base with for a long time. We typically don’t know what to say after all those years. So start with a funny memory you shared together. You will see the years since your last conversation magically drift away. You will find yourself back where you left off so long ago. You will also feel good. And when you do, thank a 91-year-old lady who is appropriately named “Joy.”

A Life Well Lived

A received the sad news last Sunday morning that a remarkable friend in our community died. The funeral was that afternoon and was well attended. A comment was made that his was “a life well lived.” I have heard this expression before but never did I feel it was aptly applied until it was said about Alex.

Alex retired from work just three weeks before his death…at age 96! I remember his 95th birthday celebration party. A huge crowd of people gathered in a community center to honor him. Among his many accolades was a certificate from the Chairman of the company he worked for, a Fortune 500 regional grocery chain. You see, Alex was their oldest employee and , to say the least, their oldest bag boy!

I saw Alex just about three months ago as I was leaving the grocery store and he was arriving for another day of work. I asked, “How are you doing, Alex?” He grabbed by arm and said with his beautiful smile and distinctive Hungarian accent, “I’m fine, Michael. You know, I went to walk around the block yesterday and ran out of breath half way up the block. But when I come to work, I fell like I can work all day!” I thought to myself, I hope to have his energy tomorrow, much less when I am in my mid-90s.

Alex’s wife died many years ago. His loving daughter and son were not far, but Alex lived independently in his own home until he went to the hospital the week he died. He had may grandchildren and great-grandchildren who loved him dearly as did hundreds of people in our community. To list his accomplishments through 96 years would take a long time. Lets just say we all loved hearing his stories…stories that have been shared in these past few days since the funeral. I only wish I had recorded them.

What defines “a life well lived?” I think the answer exists in the face, the eyes and the feeling you get when you talk to a person like Alex. When people talk about him, they smile. When I think about him, I just want to remember every detail of his presence. He lived life to its fullest, and left it peacefully. Rest in peace, Alex. I miss you.