There is a new mural of John Coltrane, by artist Scott Nurkin, in Hamlet, NC, the site of Coltrane's birth. I'll be making a pilgrimage soon. In the meantime, here is a short essay I wrote for The Porch magazine back in 2018.
You hear a train before you see it. The whistle pierces the air to warn anyone nearby that thousand tons of cargo are hustling through. You might see the train soon after hearing it, exhaust billowing from the engines as it chugs down the track. But even if you could not see or hear a nearby train, you know when it passes because you feel it. The ground rumbles in every direction. Thousands of tons of steel reverberate bass tones up through the foundations of buildings and down towards the bedrock of a place. Things shake and rattle while the train rolls. Stuff falls off shelves. Vibrations slide up through your feet. The sound gets in your body.
Seventy-five minutes east of Charlotte, NC, train tracks bisect a little town called Hamlet. Nowadays, passersby mostly do not notice Hamlet, except for the signs on the superhighway just south of town. But before the bypass sliced up the countryside, Hamlet was a stopping point for travelers on the way to and from the coast. US Highway 74 went right down the main street of town, which for many harried vacationers meant a stop to wait for the train to pass. The trains cut through, dividing neighborhoods by race and class, using geography to reinforce ideas of difference, ideas used to justify violence and oppression.
The trains still bisect Hamlet today, but the bypass took the highway, and the traffic, and the commerce, out a couple miles from town. The automobiles do not back up at the railroad crossing anymore, while oil tanks and coal cars and cargo carriers roll down the track. The mills have shuttered and emptied out the little town of its cars and the people that belong to them. But at the corner of Hamlet Avenue - that’s the main street - and Bridges Street, a small granite plaque sits enshrined in a brick wall. It reads:
“A Jazz Messiah”
Was born here 9-23-26
“Messiah” is an uncommon description, but then, Coltrane was an exceptional man. And in that little spot, nearly unnoticeable, he lived his earliest days. “Trane,” as he would later be called, born by the tracks.
For most of the 1960’s, the United States was shaking at its foundations, as it is again today. Among the most well-known events, White terrorists killed four young Black girls at church in September 1963. Only two months later, President Kennedy was assassinated. The Civil Rights movement won milestone victories with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, but those legislative victories failed to change the systemic nature of poverty and oppression in Black and Native American communities. By the end of the decade, the country was in an uproar over Vietnam.
Coltrane did not generally take a direct approach to activism in his music. His quest was driven by the union of music and spirituality. Interviews make clear that he did not see music and spirituality as divorced from the political situation of the 1960’s, the decade when his career blossomed and his mastery as an improviser was on full display. The connections between his musical and spiritual quest and their relation to the context of social upheaval were there, but without lyrics, the connections were not always overt.
One exception to this is “Alabama,” recorded in November 1963, just a few weeks after the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The track appears on the album Live at Birdland, a record where half the tracks were recorded at that legendary New York jazz club. By 1963, Coltrane’s playing, which was already dense, was growing increasingly complex. He used long improvised solos with unrelenting passages moving as fast as humanly possible.
Against that backdrop, “Alabama” makes an immediate contrast. It moves slowly, without the motor of a walking bass or the driving and crashing of drums. The melody is a chant or meditation - simple, speech-like, meditative. And its source is clear. This music is the music of the elders, a song heard in the hush-harbor, the rhythmic lamentations of a chain gang.
The sounds themselves tell the story, but the name of the piece thickens the music. Coltrane’s lament is for four little girls, but it is also for generations, over centuries, who faced the brutality and terror of white supremacy and learned to sing songs of despair and hope in the midst of it all. And surely there were some nights when singing a song was the only thing to be done.
The ground rumbled on the morning of September 15, 1963 in Birmingham. So it had always been in Alabama. But Coltrane’s first songs, while still nurtured in his mother’s womb, were heard above a rumble. While the trains shook her side of the tracks, she sang to baby John, sending through the vibrations of her body songs of woe, songs of courage, songs of hope - “There’s a freedom train a’coming, get on board!” John learned his first music over that rumble, heard his grandfather’s sermons over it. When it continued - when the ground of the whole world shook - he knew a song to sing, a new song, but one connected back to a time far before he knew words.
Folks speed down the highway now, bypassing the rumbling ground in Hamlet, but vibrations are moving through the bedrock all around this land still divided by race and class and neighborhood. There are more songs to sing, songs of lament, of hope, of courage, of determined resistance and resilience. There may be moments ahead when singing is about all anyone has left. But sing we must, for who knows what child may be born to sing new songs into our rumbling world?