Amen, brother: The man who planted beats

Amen, brother: The man who planted beats December 17, 2012

Here’s an old Sinead O’Connor performance:

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.


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  • EllieMurasaki

    Something that emphatically does happen: people objecting to the term ‘cisgender’. Not because it’s inaccurate, oh no, the objectors are male-assigned-at-birth men or female-assigned-at-birth women; the objection is that it’s not a proper word for members of those groups, because the correct word for such people is ‘normal’.

    We who do not identify with our assigned-at-birth gender take exception to that.

    This is a group of people with power saying that a word that ought to encompass members of multiple mutually exclusive groups is and should be reserved to members of that one group alone.

  • Bullshit.  This is a group of people saying that calling people American if they are from the United States of America is not, in fact, racist or imperialist or colonialist or whatever your elementary Spanish/social justice textbook says it is.

    As I’ve said from the beginning, I’ll call people whatever they want to be called (within reason).  So if I’m happy with that, and the person being called American or Canadian or Brazilian or whatever is happy with that, then the only person who is unhappy with that is you.  So you’re going to have to explain to us why we should use different words, and not just by declaring (wihtout evidence) that we are being just like colonial misogynists or…anti-sportspeople.

  • caryjamesbond

    Has anyone said that?  No. What multipe people have said is that THEY. DON’T. CARE. if everyone from Quebec to Tierra del Fuego calls themselves American.

    So this is more like people going “Yeah, sure, call me cisgendered, call yourself cisgendered, I don’t really care.”

    Also, way to try and attach your pointless cause that no one cares about to the struggle of people to have their very gender and sexuality recognized as legitimate.

    Aren’t you one of the ones that gets all upset over cultural appropriation?  You know all sorts of pointless buzzwords- is there one for trying to appropriate the acquired legitimacy of someone else’s hard fought cause for your own?  Because I think you just created the need for such a word.

    Hey, you know what else this is like?  It’s like if Americans were enslaving Columbians. Because Americans are forcing something the Columbians to perform actions they don’t want to. Yep. the US referring to its citizens as “Americans” is just like slavery.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You know, I never once said that this is a problem as great in degree as any of the problems you or I have compared it to. What I have said is that it is similar in kind to the ones I have compared it to. It’s just another manifestation of the problems that many non-US commenters around here have with US people behaving as though the US is the entirety of the world, and I don’t recall hearing either of you ever criticize any of them for being mistaken on that point.

  • PatBannon

    I will take no part in this debate except to say that “I don’t give a flying off the top rope double inverted fuck” is one of the best phrases I’ve heard in weeks.

  • Hexep

    There isn’t one.  One could say ‘member citizens of the OAS,’ if one were so compelled, or perhaps ‘citizens of the American republics.’  But this is not a group with a commonality of interest that justifies creating a special, one-stop name for them, or, if they are, not enough so to justify stealing a name that one constituent group already uses to define itself.

    What’s hilarious is that in a previous thread, I got chewed out for doing this exact thing you’re doing now.  I think I said something like, ‘as a person who is not a member of any BGLT or associated group, it’s not for me to choose a name to refer to them in array, but rather respect one that these groups choose for themselves.’  I remember being quite criticized for declaring that they had some kind of inherent commonality, such that outsiders should expect these groups to come up with a name for themselves as a gestalt.

    So, here’s just the same.  Why do we need a word for ‘people from the nations between 30 and 140 degrees west longitude?’  And if we do, why do we need to filch the word that one such group already uses to refer to itself?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Why do we need a word to refer to the peoples of the continent of Europe, or that of Africa or Asia or Australia? If we should not discard the words ‘European’, ‘African’, ‘Asian’, ‘Australian’, why must we preserve the absence of a word for the people of the Americas? In particular given that there actually is a word to fill that hole, it’s just got a narrower definition that’s more popular.

    And considering that the people of the parts of the Americas within US borders are the people with most of the power in this equation, I see nothing at all problematic about pointing out that we don’t get to say the narrow meaning of ‘American’ is the only one to the exclusion of the comparatively powerless people described by the broad meaning but not the narrow one. So that means we have to give up a tidge of that power. Cry me a river.

  • Hexep

    People who play baseball and soccer are athletes.  There’s a subtle difference between ‘sport’ and ‘sports,’ and other than the accidental co-location of terminology, the two groups have nothing in common, and have no commonality of interest.

    The term ‘sport,’ to refer to hunting and fishing, originates from the distinction between hunting and fishing for fun – for ‘sport,’ as in doing something for entertainment – and hunting and fishing because you need to eat that stuff or you’ll go hungry.  Since then, sport-xing referred to doing something that other people do because they need to, but you do it just for fun, and then expanded to just doing anything for fun and recreation.

    Of course, then later came professional, competitive sports, like soccer and baseball, and is it really sport if you get paid to do it?  But these were all physically intensive phenomena, so they were called athletics – which is also what you call track-and-field types, of course.

    So, I can understand how you can see the similarities, because in both cases, the side you seem to be on is verifiably wrong.

  • Stealing?
    If people from Canada or Peru or wherever start referring to themselves as “Americans” on the grounds that this that’s the continental cluster on which they reside, they aren’t stealing a thing.

    And, while I’m here:
    – If someone were to insist on calling Canadians and Peruvians and so forth “Americans” on those grounds when they preferred to be called something else, I would consider that inappropriate.
    – If someone were to insist that everyone living in North/Central/South America come up with some other single term that it’s OK to call us all when we prefer to be called various different things, I would consider that inappropriate.
    – If someone wants to stop using “American” to describe people from the U.S.A, on the grounds that they’d prefer to make it easier for someone from Canada or Peru to use that label, I’m fine with that.
    – If someone insists that if I lived in Canada or Peru, I could call myself an American, but since I live in Massachusetts, I can’t call myself an American, I disagree with them.
    – If someone insists that nobody gets to call themselves an American, on the grounds that this is all just too silly, I deeply sympathize but ultimately disagree with them as well.

  • I’m pretty sure that nobody is crying here.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out what kind of real “power” you are upset about, except that you have somehow determined that describing people’s nationalities by using the name of the nation is somehow wrong and oppressive and colonialist and racist and privileged and microaggressive and we should all be ashamed. 

    I’m sure that you see yourself as the lone voice pleading for privilege-checking and equality and justice and all, but honestly, nobody here has suggested that anybody call anybody else anything they do not want to be called…except for you.

  • Using the “America” part of “United States of America” to describe
    USians as Americans (by residents of that country) could be seen as
    appropriative when the word describes two continents.

    For that to spiral out to… well, what I’m seeing here… boggles my mind. I’m not sure just how it got this way, and if I’ve helped initiate that in any way, I apologize to all.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Looks to me like a classic pattern of people with privilege reacting badly to having their privileged behavior pointed out to them, and you’re not one of the ones reacting badly (or indeed possessed of this particular privilege), so you are in no way at fault.

  • Hexep

    The word ‘European’ has meaning because of the ongoing process of European integration.  In the political and economic sense, there is such a thing as Europe.  It’s the same with Africa; the whole continent is joining up in customs unions, free trade agreements,  and even peacekeeping missions – the African Union sent troops to Darfur in 2007.

    The word “Asian,” though, I agree should be abolished.  “Asia” consists of 3 major blocs or councils, each of which suffers from large internal dissent, each of which is unfriendly or hostile to the others, and two of which has interests that extend onto other continents and geographic locales – and even taken together, they don’t comprise the whole of ‘Asia.’  (Whither Japan?)  The only thing more meaningless than the phrase ‘Asian’ is the phrase ‘Eurasian.’  Some day, someone will make up the world ‘Eurasica,’ and that’ll be even worse.

    Compare Europe and Africa, however, with our own equivalent, the OAS.  The OAS has no armies, it has no customs union or free-trade zone (its constituents have set up several such agencies on their own, majors being NAFTA and Mercosur), has no high court, hasn’t established a currency, and has no international cachet.  It is an entirely toothless, emaciated institution, not only for lack of interest but because it has no reason to exist – it does nothing at all that Mercosur or the Andean C don’t already do, except include two countries that have no reason to be there and a third country that completely upsets their internal trade-balance system.

    Conclusion: There is no such thing as “America,” except the United States of America; all else is meaningless and arbitrary geography.

    Homework Questions:
    1: Switzerland is geographically in Europe, but is not a member of the European Union.  Does that mean it’s cultural imperialism for the agencies such as the European High Commission, European Parliament, et al, to refer to themselves as such even though their authority does not extend over Switzerland?
    2: Doesn’t the phrase ‘USians’ or ‘estadounidenses’ conflict with the fact that Mexico is also a United States?
    3:  The name ‘Argentina’ refers to the geographical feature of the Rio de la Plata basin (plata and argenta being the Spanish and Latin words for silver, respectively).  Since neither the R. Plata or its basin are entirely in Argentina, does this name constitute an imperialist/revanchist claim on Uruguay?
    4: The name ‘Brazil’ refers to brazilwood, a type of tree that is found in Brazil and ultimately derives from the Portuguese word ‘brasa,’ meaning ’ember.’  Brazilwood trees, however, can also be found in Suriname and French Guiana.  Does the name Brazil, constitute an imperialist/revanchist claim on those two nations?
    5: The etonym ‘British’ refers to people from the UK, or more properly the UKGBNI.  However, there is one British Isle (Ireland) over which the UK does not exercise full sovereignty.  Is it imperialistic for the citizens of the UK to refer to themselves as ‘British,’ and if so, what should they call themselves?

    And the most important question of all…

    6:  At what point, to you, will the Mercosur and Andean Republics have enough power and dignity to take a seat at the table of nations as equals, rather than as victims?

  • Hexep

    Do you categorically reject the possibility that you might be at fault on this one, or do you take it on a case-by-case basis?  And if it’s the latter, on what basis have you deduced that you’re on the right side of this one?  What would a position on the wrong side look like, in that same bearing?

    A wise woman once said that when all you’ve got is a match, everything in the world seems so very flammable…

  • Of course.  If people disagree with you, it must be because they need to Check Their Privilege (TM), because you are the righteous voice of the oppressed and could not possibly be even slightly off in your interpretation of the argument.

    Check your privilege?  Sure.  Right after you check your ego, Social Justice Warrior.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I just popped into this thread to see what was going on and having noticed such, shall stick my tongue in my cheek and note two things:

    1. US Americans tend to pronounce “Aussie” as “arsey” which we don’t really like, but
    2. It’s a good thing that rhyming slang isn’t well-known in the US ;)

    Now, back to Captain Correction and the gun nuts!

  • caryjamesbond

     I never once said that this is a problem as great in degree as any of the problems you or I have compared it to. What I have said is that it is similar in kind to the ones I have compared it to. 

    Whoopdedoo. You can say that about anything. Being forced to clean your room is like slavery, because an authority figure is making you do work you don’t want too.

    Speeding tickets are like the Rodney King incident, because its a cop doing something you don’t like. 

    Sipping a glass of wine is like a Tijuana blackout weekend, because they both involve consuming alcohol. 

    Using the “America” part of “United States of America” to describe 
    USians as Americans (by residents of that country) could be seen as 
    appropriative when the word describes two continents.

    See, I would disagree. There is no continent of “America.” There is a North America and a South America, and anyone from either of those two places would need that qualifier to have their comment make even minimal sense. There is, however, a country of America which has the appellation “American” to describe it’s citizens. 

    Currently, the conversation goes something like this:
    “Where are you two from?”
    “I’m from South America, Peru specifically.”
    “I’m an American.” 

    And I find it hilarious that the rest of us spend time explaining that, unless you’re describing things like the African Union or regional issues, you shouldn’t lump everyone together as “Asian” or “African” but realize that these are very complicated CONTINENTS filled with a wide variety of cultures that can’t really be lumped together in a useful way. 

    The only time someone has described themselves to me as “African,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” or “white” is when filling out a survey. 

    And we have a word for “Australian” because that’s one nation. 

    Given that the people I’ve met from South America have been very proud of their nations of  origin, I think they’d feel more ‘oppressed’ by your suggestion that they erase their regional, dialectical, racial, culinary, topographically, linguistically diverse cultures to refer to themselves by the word “American.”

    It is important to call people what they want to be called. Its more important to think about your suggestions instead of going to war on privileges that don’t exist.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Do the words ‘European’ and ‘Asian’ have any meaning in a geographic sense? Because I assure you there is no political or economic boundary defining the southeastern United States (not an official one since the Confederacy folded, anyway), but people from Louisiana to the Carolinas still call themselves Southerners.

    Nobody actually calls Mexico ‘the United States of Mexico’. Not in English at all that I’m aware of, and not in Spanish except when trying to be highly official, rather like how it’s only on official state documents that we see the phrase ‘Commonwealth of Massachusetts’. Also there are no other contenders for the words ‘Mexico’ or ‘Mexican’. So, people from Mexico can have ‘Mexican’, people from anywhere in the Americas can have ‘American’, and people from the US can have whatever term we end up agreeing on that describes people from the US provided it’s not ‘American’, which is undoubtedly going to shake out to something containing ‘United States’ in full or abbreviation.

    I don’t know nearly enough about the subjects of any of your other questions to express an opinion and I suspect you of making up at least some of them to gotcha me with. (Looks like you could make the same point by asking if it’s imperialist of the state of Mississippi to take that name when the eponymous river goes up as far as, what is it, Iowa, Minnesota? Lots of states on that river, anyway.) And no, I am not looking them up right now, because depending on how many hours end up being offered Saturday, I’m on track to work between sixteen and twenty hours of overtime this week. Previous personal record, nineteen in a pay period; pay periods are two weeks.


    2: Doesn’t the phrase ‘USians’ or ‘estadounidenses’ conflict with the fact that Mexico is also a United States?

    Or maybe not…

    (My spanish book, the same one that had the south american girl proudly tell the token american “But we’re americans too!” also “explained” that in spanish-speaking countries, you actually refer to the USA as “The United States of the United States”, because “United States” on its own could refer to mexico.)

  • Joel

    Ellie, I’ve read much of what you wrote, and, if I understand you correctly, you believe 3 distinctive things: 1) The term “American” conveys a sense of status.2) Central and South Americans feel that they are excluded from this term because they are some how culturally/genetically inferior. 
    3) Every time we call ourselves American’s, and call them–Central and South Americans–by their local name that we are participating in some sort of linguistic domination or violence by linguistically placing ourselves in a higher social status, while, at the same time, giving them a socially inferior status.Do I understand your point? The effect is important here. Are you confident that these 3 premises are strong? Are you confident this common usage is creating the effect of subjugation or psychological pain to Central and South Americans? If you are, would you please give me compelling literary sources or reasoning to reason about. I don’t feel you have given a compelling case, yet. From what I’ve read, very few people in this thread have done more than make assertions. There’s little actual argument. Could you describe to me, in detail, how this disparity in usage creates suffering; and, could you describe to me in detail your premises that lead to  a conclusion that follows from those premises. Help me understand what you’re actually saying because it could be a subtle point. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    People who are from the Americas have a right to call themselves American, just as people who are from Asia have a right to call themselves Asian. We who are from the United States of America have an equal right to call ourselves American, seeing as we are from the Americas, but we do not have a right to say that only people from the United States of America are permitted to call themselves American. This ties in with the US insistence that US culture is superior to all others, historical and contemporary US efforts to impose US culture on all others, and general US blindness to the fact that the world is bigger than the US.

  • Joel


    Please re-read my questions, as you have not addressed them at all. I understand that you believe that it is their right to call themselves American. The rest sounds like a mindless vomit of  political, talking points. 

    I was under the impression that you were discussing a subtle point about linguistic domination, like those ideas discussed by Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault. But, this last barrage  of simple restatement of belief makes me believe you are just regurgitating hand-me-down beliefs, something like I hear when discussing topics with the highly dogmatically religious people. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which makes me in turn suspect that you are dismissing everything I said in order to hold on to the privilege associated with being from the country said to lead the free world while simultaneously denying that such privilege exists.

    I never claimed that the assertion that ‘American’ describes US folks and US folks only is ‘subjugation’ of people from the Americas but not the US. What it is is one of many manifestations of how US folks assert superiority over non-US Americans, and US folks, in case you haven’t noticed, have political and purchasing power that people south of the US mostly don’t. I should not have to explain how being treated as a lesser sort of person is hurtful to the people so treated.

  • Joel

    I’m not sure what has to do with what, here, Ellie.

    “Which makes me in turn suspect that you are dismissing everything I said in order to hold on to the privilege associated with being from the country said to lead the free world while simultaneously denying that such privilege exists”.

    This is a terrible response to a request for clarity and rigor. I am asking for an argument ( Your statement is insulting and, to me, seems to reveal a childish mind. I don’t think you even know what you are saying. Sound like you are simply regurgitated half understood thoughts from freshmen textbooks you barely read. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, that’s about the level of coherence you’re gonna get from me heading into the tenth hour on the clock today and the thirty-ninth hour since Sunday. My sincerest apologies. Try again after the New Year.

  • Joel

    Feel free to answer me later. I’ve got time. When you feel coherent, and when and if you want to respond, please do. I’ll be waiting on your response. I would rather a well thought response over one driven by exhaustion, anyway. No need to simply respond; wait till you can gather your thoughts into an argument.  

  • caryjamesbond

    How Evangelical Christians want to eliminate other beliefs:

    EC: *Presents series of arguments that are moral, theological, personal and lead inevitably to the conclusion that Christ is lord of the universe and savior of mankind*
    Non-ECs: “Gee whiz!  I will now stop being [non-EC] and become an EC instead! Huzzah for Jesus!”

    How Atheists want to eliminate other beliefs:

    Atheist: *Presents series of arguments that are moral, scientific, logical, personal and lead inevitably to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a supernatural deity. Like, at all.*
    Non-Atheists: “Gee whiz! I will now stop being [non-Atheist] and become Atheist instead! Huzzah for science!”

    Evangelical Christian/Atheist response to  non-Evangelical Christian/Atheist rejection of arguments. 

    EC/A: “You sure, brah?”
    EC/A: “Ok, here’s my card if you change your mind.”

    How Hitler wants to eliminate other beliefs:

    Hitler: *Presents series of Zyklon-B canisters.*
    Non-Hitler: *dies*

    Hitler’s response to non-Hitler’s rejection of Hitler’s arguments:Hitler: *Blitzkrieg*So maybe if everyone could stop shouting”ELIMINATE” like a confused Dalek, we could stop talking past each other. If either New Atheists or Evangelical Christians succeed completely, THERE WILL BE THE SAME NUMBER OF PEOPLE. Given the current distribution of both Christian and atheist beliefs that takes in every possible permutation of political/social belief or taste, I’m inclined to think that the world wouldn’t be that different. The difference is that everyone would either believe or disbelieve in the same sky-daddy. And unless you think that your friend who converted to [BELIEF] after being a lifelong member of [OTHER BELIEF] has fundamentally become someone totally different, instead of being fundamentally the same with a different paint-job, I don’t really think that “conversion” is the same as “elimination.”  So maybe everyone can back up a little with the “ATHEISTS ARE A-GONNA ELIMINATE US ALL!” thingy? Mildly offensive, is what I’m sayin.