Race relations — the gulf between black and white — have been a defining feature of American history ever since our founding. Today, much of our politics is viewed through a racial lens.
The arts have sometimes imitated our troubled legacy. Sometimes they’ve countered it.
More than 50 years ago, for example, Steve Cropper was part of a vibrant Memphis music scene. As a white guitarist with Booker T. & the MGs — Stax Records’ house band — he backed black artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas. Cropper also produced many of their records.
Roger Kaufman is a longtime Westport musician. He’s old school — Old School Music is also the name of his music events production company — and he’s long been fascinated by that era when black and white artists played together, at a time and in a city convulsed by civil rights conflicts.
Kaufman knows Cropper — a Blues Brothers founder, ranked 39th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists ever. He also knows John Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Kaufman convinced Cropper that Americans need to know the story of Stax, and that important era in our musical history. He urged his friend to donate the Fender Telecaster guitar he played on “Dock of the Bay.”
Today (Thursday, December 1) there’s a special ceremony at the Smithsonian. Using their original instruments, Cropper’s band will play “Green Onions,” “Midnight Hour,” “Soul Man” — and “Dock of the Bay,” which he co-wrote with Redding.
Tomorrow Cropper’s guitar goes on exhibit, in the museum’s American Jazz and Blues section. On February 1 it moves to the highly trafficked American Stories area, adjacent to Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Kaufman will be there today. So will Booker T. Jones, Sam Moore, Eddie Floyd, and members of the Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes families.
Roger Kaufman won’t perform. But he’s played a crucial role in bringing this great story of black and white music to the broad museum-going public.
“After 50 years of striving for peace, equality, human and civil rights, let’s keep the faith and enjoy the music,” he says.