Amen, brother: The man who planted beats

Here’s an old Sinead O’Connor performance:

YouTube Preview Image

That’s O’Connor doing “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.” And that’s Gregory C. Coleman on drums.

Coleman, who died in 2006, still plays drums on dozens of tracks — from “Straight Outta Compton” to the theme from Futurama. Those songs are built around a drum break by Coleman — six seconds from the middle of a 1969 B-side by the funk-and-soul band The Winstons. That song was called “Amen Brother” — a romp built around the Gospel classic “Amen” — and so Coleman’s hugely influential four bars came to be called the “Amen Break.”

BBC Radio 1 did an hourlong documentary on the history of the Amen Break in 2011. And Nate Harrison’s 2004 video on “the world’s most important six-second drum loop” has been viewed more than 4 million times.

I’d heard this ubiquitous beat itself thousands of times, but I only just learned where it came from and what it was called thanks to a recent Killing the Buddha post by M. Sophia Newman, who works a discussion of Coleman’s beat into a reflection on Zen Buddhism, beauty and Meniere’s disease.

It’s kind of like finding out about Bo Diddley for the first time.

One difference, though, is that Bo Diddley set out to do what he did. He announced it. He proclaimed, “Hey world, check this out: Bomp ba-domp ba-domp, ba-domp-BOMP.” And he fully intended it to have a lasting impact and influence.

Coleman’s enduring legacy comes from a tossed-off, six-second break in the middle of a B-side.

I find that encouraging, somehow. “Amen Brother” came and went. The Winstons went their separate ways. A decade slipped by. And then the tiny seed that Gregory C. Coleman didn’t know he had even planted began to bear fruit.

One of my favorite books is Jean Giono’s classic fable The Man Who Planted Trees. That title conveys the entire story: A man planted trees. One hundred acorns a day. Every day. A radical rebirth and transformation of the world brought about by small steps and a long faithfulness in one direction.

I find Giono’s story inspiring, a source of hope. The man who planted trees had a plan, a very long-term plan, and he had the dedication and patience to stick with that plan and follow it through. That’s necessary and irreplaceable.

But the story of the Amen Break is also a reminder that sometimes transformation comes from little things — from brief, unplanned moments that at the time seem inconsequential. But no thing of beauty is ever inconsequential — even if it’s only six seconds from a B-side.

It reminds me of a story John Fea wrote about last month, which he called “A Lesson for All Academics.” It is a good lesson for academics — for professors and teachers especially, but also for parents, neighbors, writers, artists, pastors, youth ministers, volunteers, salespeople and, well, anyone whose life crosses paths with other lives (meaning everyone). It comes from this Jeff Haden essay on “The Power of Small Moments“:

Whatever you are today is largely due to the words and actions of other people. Most of those moments were, at the time, small and seemingly inconsequential. Only when you look back can you connect the dots.

That also means you never know when your words or actions might make an impact on someone else. A little encouragement, a little acceptance, a little praise … small actions that are insignificant to you but possibly life changing for another person.

And it also reminds me of a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, which Richard Beck wrote about recently. Here’s Wallace urging us to pay attention:

Traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people. …

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. …

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.

Amen brother.

 

  • Münchner Kindl

    One of my favorite books is Jean Giono’s classic fable The Man Who Planted Trees.
    That title conveys the entire story: A man planted trees. One hundred
    acorns a day. Every day. A radical rebirth and transformation of the
    world brought about by small steps and a long faithfulness in one
    direction.
    I find Giono’s story inspiring, a source of hope. The man who planted trees had a plan, a very long-term plan, and he had the dedication and patience to stick with that plan and follow it through. That’s necessary and irreplaceable.

    There’s a huge problem with that book, and that is that it’s a fable sold as true story. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Planted_Trees
    While it may be inspiring to read this story as general fable on the topic of “small steps can add up big”, as an instruction on “how to re-forest a region” it’s completly wrong. The man in the fable has a plan that in real life would not work. If all the trees are gone, then there is no water retention. All the acorns he dropped would not grow. The few that might sprout would be eaten by his sheep (who like deer love fresh trees over dry heather).

    There are several re-forestation projects in different parts of the globe, with different climates, soil conditions, average rainfall, and each require expert knowledge and a lot more preparation than simply “making a hole and dropping an acorn”. It starts with the selection of trees suited to the soil, climate and rain. Then the trees are raised in nurseries and planted once they are grown – and if any animals like sheep are around, the young trees will be fenced in. If there are sand dunes moving along nearby, a shield of woven mats or grass or similar to protect the trees from being blown over and to hold the sand in place is needed. If it’s on a mountain slope, the trees are planted in the right pattern so next winter an avalanche or snow slide doesn’t uproot them all (and next summer the long grass is cut to make snow slides less possible – cut each summer for 10 years, until the trees are tall enough to cope on their own).

    So if impressionable people with good intentions but no knowledge read this and try to start a forest this way, they will waste hours of work for nothing that could be used much better working in a project for reforestation under guide of an expert.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     So if impressionable people with good intentions but no knowledge read
    this and try to start a forest this way, they will waste hours of work
    for nothing that could be used much better working in a project for
    reforestation under guide of an expert.

    Um, don’t take this the wrong way, but most people are actually far, far more capable of separating reality from fantasy than you seem to be giving them credit for.  In fact, I think that in this case you’re the one who might be taking things too far.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    That’s okay. We’re all just stupid North Americans, according to him.

  • MaryKaye

    We do wrestle here in the Pacific Northwest with the fact that people want to plant trees for Arbor Day, in the spring, but trees planted then have a much lower chance of success than ones planted in the fall.  Summer is our dry season and not good for newly establishing trees.

    I helped break ground for a dogwood grove in December, some years ago.  Cold hard work, but the trees are big and gorgeous now and have completely excluded the non-native blackberries, as we hoped when we planted them.  There is something to be said for doing feel-good work, but even more to be said for doing *successful* feel-good work, and that requires some thought and discipline.  Certainly in our climate pushing in 100 acorns a day would not be a good strategy.  Pushing in 1000 acorns a day for six weeks in the late fall would be a lot better.

  • LouisDoench

    I thought we were USians, which I don’t even know how to pronounce. 

  • esmerelda_ogg

     Isn’t IN from Canada?

  • JustoneK

    Yew-shenz.

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m trying to decide whether the opening drum thingy from Owner of a Lonely Heart is the Amen Break. Thoughts? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecuksod41Qk

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I am indeed Canadian, but there are times when I wonder if Muenchner Kindl much cares about the difference.

    I knew someone like him/her way back on another forum. They constantly drew unflattering comparisons between Canada and Europe and this person couldn’t wait till they could get a plane ticket out to marry someone over there.

    The stiff-necked judgementalism of some Europeans is only matched by the wilful ignorance of some Canadians and Americans about the world beyond the borders of this continent.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Some Spanish-speaking people like to use the term “estadounidense”. Interestingly enough I’ve seem some people who totes insist that the literal translation of that into English shouldn’t used because *FLAIL*.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    “Estadounidense” is exactly why I started using the term “USisan.”  I recall back in high school (before everyone had an Internet connection at home) saying, “this would be a nice word to use in English.” 

    “Estadounidense” is one of my favorite Spanish words; it’s useful and fun to say!

  • OriginalExtraCrispy

     I pronounce it You-ess-ians.

    I went and listened to the Futurama theme and then “Straight Outta Compton” (and OMG how young Ice Cube looks) and could hear the similarities in the drum beats. The man had some serious talent.

  • TheDarkArtist

    As an electronic/hip-hop music producer (albeit only recreationally) and a huge fan of those genres, the Amen is an absolutely necessary paint in the palate of tones.

    As a music lover, you may also want to give a listen to The Funky Drummer pts 1  and 2 by James Brown, another completely ubiquitous beat in the hip-hop and pop genres. That beat that plays in “Baby Lovechild” by Pizzicato Five (used in Futurama), that’s the funky drummer. Plus, the song the sample comes from also rules hard. If you can stay in your chair when that funky ass break kicks in, I just don’t know. It’s the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.

    I love sample based music. I know some people think that it’s “cheating” or whatever, but I think they underestimate the talent it takes to create something that sounds cool from samples. It’s way easier for me to play whatever I want on the guitar or keyboard than to take something that’s already made and manipulate it into something original.

  • TheDarkArtist

    Also, everyone should give a listen to at least the first five tracks from the album “What Does It All Mean?”, a retrospective album of the original mash-up artist Steinski (with Double Dee on some of the tracks, most notably the “Lessons”). It’s like a tour of every classic hip-hop song with jazz and movie samples thrown in just because Steinski rules.

    The most impressive part? He made it all with turntables, a sampler with a whopping 8-seconds of playback (!), and a multitrack tape unit back in the 1980′s.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    You also forgot that diversity of tree species is another important aspect.  If you plant trees with all the same kind of seed, the forest will all grow up the same species.  The problem with this is that one infection can wipe out the whole forest.  If a tree gets parasitic insects or fungus, it will quickly spread to the others nearby.  However, if you alternate different kind of trees, it will be much easier to contain something like that (different trees are vulnerable to different parasites) and the forest will be more robust as a result.

  • http://twitter.com/miss_michaele Miss Michaele

    Most of us are capable of separating fantasy from reality, but there are still plenty of smart, sane people who don’t all know enough about forestry to call shenanigans on The Man Who Planted Trees.  I certainly didn’t when I first came across it, decades ago.

  • EAH

    In French the equivalent is “états-unien”. I agree, so useful that I wish English had a word for it!

  • EllieMurasaki

    Try ‘estadounidenses’. It’s pronounced exactly how it looks (though you may want to check the pronunciation of Spanish vowels). At six syllables it’s a wee bit unwieldy, though, which is probably why I’m having such trouble getting it in common use.

  • EllieMurasaki

     Some?

  • Münchner Kindl

     Ah yes. Isn’t it interesting how I didn’t mention Americans with one iota in my post, referring to people in general (and esp. impressionable people = children who are often shown this), yet get immediatly accused of slamming the Yanks? Yeah, it’s me that’s the problem here, not the chips on your shoulders. *eyeroll*

  • Münchner Kindl

    I am indeed Canadian, but there are times when I wonder if Muenchner Kindl much cares about the difference.

    Yes, I care about the difference, but no, I don’t always remember that you specifically are from Canada, since most posters here are from the US (and since I have trouble remembering who is who in many other cases, too, given the number of posters); and in many cases I am not talking to you specifically, but in general terms.

    But I don’t know whether you care about that since you already know what I’m like…

  • Münchner Kindl

     Like it’s written?

    What do you prefer? A lot of people from the Southern US get upset over Yanks since it refers to Northern US, and some consider Yanks derogative.
    Americans is not correct enough because it lumps Canada with the US or ignores it, which is not nice or fair to the few Canadian posters here.

    So USians seems to be most exact and neutral. What else do you suggest?

  • Münchner Kindl

    Yes, you’re right.

    When I spent one week replanting trees in the mountains, this was a big problem: we wanted different species of trees, but all leaf-trees like acorns were nibbled on by the deer (overpopulation for political reason + scarce food during winter). Even on type of needle tree was too soft and got nibbled on, so if five species were planted, next year only one type of hardy needle tree had survived. (The deer didn’t eat the whole tree, just ate the top and the young shots; but once the top was gone, the tree would never really grow tall, it kind of shut down).

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Is there a particular reason you’re being snarky about my use of a qualifier meaning “possibly not all”? If I’d said “All” it sounds to me like you’d jump on me for that too.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    You’ve proven yourself to be quick with the judgementalism in a way that smacks of excessive amounts of “my shit don’t stiiiiiiiiink.”

    News flash: Your country is in the habit of originating pro-deflationary economic policies which hamstring countries that, frankly, need a dose of the “inflation monster” to get themselves out of the economic doldrums.

    Greece, for example, could have done with a year or two of quantitative easing to allow for the resulting currency devaluation to help deal with its economic situation.

    As it is, the cause and effect of the right-wing Golden Dawn movement being on the verge of possibly surging to power in Greece and instituting a Fascist government can be laid at the feet of the refusal of your government to countenance inflationary fiscal and monetary policy.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Oh ho, Münchner Kindl, you got told!

    (IN: slapping down Germany without reaching into painfully obvious history: nicely done)

  • Hexep

    Why does there need to be a word that refers to both the citizens of the USA and the citizens of Canada, but that does not include the citizens of Mexico or the Caribbean republics?

    But if there must be one, I prefer ‘Anglamerican,’ since both nations are part of the Anglosphere.

  • Münchner Kindl

     No, the opposite: a word that refers to only people from the US, not US and Canada, since they are different.

    Including Mexicans or Canadians when talking about US foreign policy, the problem with creationists, the influence of evangelicals/ fundies allied with Right wingers on mainstream politics, climate change denialism … would paint a distorted picture, because these are problems / phenomenons mainly in the US, but marginal/ non-existant in Canada or Mexico.

    Calling them “Americans” or “North-Americans is inaccurate in these circumstances – it was the complaints of Mexicans et al. that they are Americans, but not Yanks, and then the Canadians that they are North Americans but not Yanks, that lead to the creation of a specific term in the first place.

  • Münchner Kindl

    All I see is that Invisible Neutrino doesn’t care what I say, he’s ready to take completly off-topic potshots in belligerent manner to show how judgmental I am, and that you agree, but can’t find a real argument against what I said on topic.

    So carry on if you feel better, I will skip.

  • Hexep

    Then just say ‘Americans,’ since we’re the United States of America.  Under what circumstances would somebody need a word to say, ‘a citizen of one of the 35 sovereign states between 30 degrees west and 140 west, and maybe also of France, the Netherlands, the UK, or Denmark?’  What’s next – a word to describe someone who could be from any part of Germany that /doesn’t/ have Sachsen in the name?

    Besides, there are two countries where people can be estadounidenses – the Estados Unidos de Norteamerica, and the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.  And that first name is just as problematic in Spanish, because isn’t Canada in Norte America also?

    In Spanish, ‘Americano’ means a person from the Americans, aka 30 W – 140 W.  In English, it means someone from the USA.  Why should I change what I call myself in my own language to match what someone else calls me in theirs?

  • LouisDoench

    Canadians call themselves CANADIANS. Mexicans call themselves MEXICANS. People from various South or Central American nations call themselves Brazilians or whatever.  People from the United States of America are called “Americans”. I’m sure whatever European country you come from it is considered  courteous to use the appellation that is preferred by the natives, barring language or pronunciation issues. If Germans would rather be called Deutschlanders then I’m fine with that. USians is snarky twaddle designed to insult and belittle. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    I sincerely doubt there are many argentinos or costarricenses or paraguayos who think ‘americano’ is a term that describes only people from the US, or many mexicanos who think ‘norteamericano’ does.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So you would rather insult and belittle the entire non-USian population of North and South America? Because, you know, they live in the fucking Americas, they have a fucking right to be called American. They’re just not from the fucking US.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The problem is you have Quebec in the mix. You could always go with “Anglo-Franco-America” if you like.

  • caryjamesbond

    Well, given that the vast majority of the non-US population of these two continents speaks one of three other romance languages that A) includes another word for the US, and B) don’t even have the word “American” because those other languages AREN’T ENGLISH, I gotta say, I’m not sure where the offense is. 

    Also, based on traditional terms, the second way to refer to the USA would be “Columbia,” a name that we were using for ourselves wayyyy before 1886.  

  • vsm

    It’s not like romance-language speaking Americans are incapable of communicating in English. Many who do prefer to use the terms USians or USAmericans.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > don’t even have the word “American” because those other languages AREN’T ENGLISH

    As it happens, “America” is also what the cluster of continents that my nation shares with nearly 20 other nations is called in Spanish. This ought not be surprising, since English was not the lingua franca of cartography when those continents were named.

    For my own part, I’m perfectly happy to call myself an American, equally willing to call myself something else if that becomes standard, and if people living in Mexico or Guatemala want to start calling themselves Americans (in the same sense that people living in Germany or France sometimes call themselves Europeans), I’m perfectly OK with that too.

  • caryjamesbond

    I lived in South and south-central Florida for almost eight years, and the only time I’ve run across that construction was on the internet. Generally, aside from “American” the terms I heard used most often to refer to Americans was “Gringo,” and “Estadounidense.” People from Cuba and Mexico in particular will refer to “el norte.”

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Yes, this.  I have never (and I mean NEVER) met a Canadian who wanted to be called “American.”  If someone wanted to be called a yoo-ess-ee-an, I would do it, but I’ve never met anyone who asked me to do so.

  • AlexJarr

    You should try and do more research. There has to be a trend of people from North America who resent not being able to use the term “American” to refer to themselves — why else would there be a debate about the whole “USian” thing if not?

  • Lori

     

    There has to be a trend of people from North America who resent not
    being able to use the term “American” to refer to themselves — why else
    would there be a debate about the whole “USian” thing if not?   

    I love my chosen people, but if you really have to ask this you have not spent enough time hanging around with (a certain flavor of) lefties.

    IDK if there’s any significant number of people from other parts of the America who resent not being able to call themselves Americans. I’m just saying that no such group is actually necessary for this conversation to occur.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Like I said, I’ll call someone whatever they want to be called (well, within reason).  But I’ve never met a Canadian who wanted to be called anything but Canadian (and given the size of my family, I feel my research is sufficient for my statement). 

    I’m not sure I understand your statement that certain people are not “able” to use the term “American.”  Who is forbidding them?

    Yoo-ess-ee-an, in my experience, is a term that crops up online sometimes, often by people who don’t care about being called it themselves, but are quite sure they know how oppressed everyone else must be.

  • EllieMurasaki

    IDK if there’s any significant number of people from other parts of the America who resent not being able to call themselves Americans.

    Define ‘significant number’. If it’s greater than zero, I’m pointing at the author(s?) of my college Spanish text and calling it done.

  • vsm

    I’ve mostly seen it used by South Americans on various lefty mailing lists. In any case, I don’t think redefining ‘American’ to mean ‘anyone from the Americas’ is going to succeed since the current usage is so common and useful. Without that, I don’t really see what’s the point of trying to make ‘USian’ a thing.

  • caryjamesbond

    Yeah, us lefties sometimes have a tendency to find offense where no one was taking any. See also- debates about color metaphors. “Pot calling the kettle black.” and so on.

    My poking around the internet hasn’t really revealed anything about the word “Usian.” Ten pages of results, the vast majority of which are results for people named “Usain”

    And like Ruby points out- it’s not like we copyrighted the term or anything.  You just don’t usually see people referring to themselves by continent. A person from Brazil certain CAN describe themselves as “South American” but…..that would be really odd. Especially since most South American people I’ve met have been proud of where they’re from. And especially because if you just say “I’m South American” someone might think you’re from Argentina instead of Brazil and that. shit. don’t. fly.

     (*NEVER* call a Brazilian an Argentinian.  Very gauche.)

    I’ve also never heard someone from Europe describe themselves as “European.”  Or for that matter, someone from Asia describe themselves as Asian, even though they, of all ethnic groups, get lumped together the most. Everyone I’ve met just says the name of a country. Except one guy, who described himself as “From Strasbourg.” Those of you familiar with the history of Alsace-Lorraine can guess why he said that.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Accuracy and not-hurtful-ness of words is important.

  • EllieMurasaki

    ‘You know of no one who is personally offended’ != ‘no one is personally offended’.

  • vsm

    I agree, but one should also pick one’s battles. Trying to change something as basic as how the people of the United States of America call themselves would be a huge effort and unlikely to succeed. There have to be more acute causes to fight.

    I’m not sure how many people are actually trying to change the general usage, though, instead of just making a political point about cultural imperialism.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Out of curiosity, would you have told Abigail Adams to stop fighting for women’s representation in government? ‘Cause nearly two hundred forty years later that fight ain’t over yet, but that doesn’t mean there was ever a point at which it wasn’t worth fighting.

  • caryjamesbond

    I’m not sure how many people are actually trying to change the general usage, though, instead of just making a political point about cultural imperialism.

    I don’t care if you want to say USian, call yourself USian, or even try to change the general usage to USian. I don’t like USian myself, because I think it sounds and looks terrible.

    However, I object to having the use of the term “American” framed as somehow exclusionary or imperialist.  There are no other nations on either continent that even use the word “America” or “American.” If there were a “Republic of South America” I could see that. But no one is being excluded by that use of the term. And certainly no one is being oppressed by that term. 

    That’s what makes a slur a slur- the word is used to exclude and degrade. See the word “Negro” for an example. It wasn’t until during the Civil Rights movement that the word gained a negative meaning, because an exclusionary and degrading meaning was transferred onto it. The N-word, on the other hand, pretty much always had that meaning attached to it. If people were using the word “American” to exclude and degrade others who wanted to use that term and/or were described by that term, it would be wrong. But I’ve never seen it used that way. 


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