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.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • AlexJarr

     Not being able to use it because if they do, no one will figure out what it means. I personally haven’t encountered this either but that’s hardly proof because I haven’t really been looking into it at all — it’s not something I’ve even heard of until today.

  • You’re comparing the “fight” for yoo-ess-ee-ans to women’s rights?  Really?

  • EllieMurasaki

    I would very much like to take my Spanish text and clock you upside the head with it; sadly, I do not have it with me, you are out of reach, and possibly I sold it. Because that text was very clear on the point that there are a great many Spanish-speaking people in the Americas who feel they have as much right to be called an American as an Italian has to be called a European (even if they may prefer to identify themselves as costarricenses or whatever, just as the Italian may prefer to identify zirself as Italian), and who resent the fact that we estadounidenses have staked a claim on the word.

  • AlexJarr

     I think that she just meant that the whole, “You shouldn’t do it because it will be time-consuming and difficult” isn’t much of an argument against anything, not that trying to create a new word is the same as enfranchising women.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m comparing the push against estadounidense assumed superiority to women’s rights.

  • EllieMurasaki

    That too.

  • This Canadian does not want to be called “American” either, because that would imply that this Canadian is a US citizen, which this Canadian is not.

  • Exactly.  I think if someone had called my grandfather an American or yoo-ess-ee-an or anything other than Canadian wrt his nationality, he would have assumed they were spoiling for a fight.

  • Then I’m terribly sorry you got rid of the textbook that explained to the world why “American” is such an oppressive word.  I’m sure it was really something.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m sure there’s dozens. In fact I am willing to bet money that any Spanish I textbook explains this.

  • I took Spanish for five years in middle school and high school.  Not one of my textbooks told us that it was wrong and oppressive to describe ourselves as Americans.

    So, how much money was on the table?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Enough to buy a used copy of the textbook I’m thinking of, if it turns out I don’t have one anymore.

  • vsm

    No, I think extending democratic rights is a fight worth picking, despite how difficult it is. I don’t think this particular cause is, at least compared to the amount of work success would involve. Considering how hard it is to consciously change language, I’m not even sure it would be possible.

  • Sadly, I will most likely use the money for wine and used Christian novels.

    But thank you for playing.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Mm-hm. How about you actually produce the page of a Spanish textbook that discusses the words for inhabitants of various Latin American countries without mentioning the objectionableness of reserving ‘americano’ as a synonym for ‘estadounidense’? Because I plan to produce said page of my textbook as soon as I get home, or (if I can’t find the book) as soon as Amazon Marketplace gets it to me (probably two weeks tops).

  • That wasn’t actually the bet that you outlined.  You said:

    I am willing to bet money that any Spanish I textbook explains this.

    And I am telling you that I had at least five different Spanish textbooks that did not.  Producing your old Spanish textbook won’t show that “any” textbook explains it–just yours.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So show me your counterexample. Don’t tell me you’ve got it. Show me. Show me its publication date, too–surplus data, but I’m curious.

  • LouisDoench

    Listen, I don’t give a flying off the top rope double inverted fuck if peoples from all over our lovely diverse hemisphere (certainly a hemisphere of contrasts) wish to describe themselves as “Americans”.  It is absolutely no skin off my nose.  What I object to is having myself described with a pretentious and condescending made up appellation (USian)  and having my objections to said construction reduced to a junior high school lecture on imperialism. If you must insist on being pedantically clear regarding whether you are referring to US citizens instead of citizens of the western hemisphere in general then type in “US Americans” It will take you a couple extra keystrokes and you (mostly referring to our Germanic friend above) won’t come off sounding like a jerk.

  • I don’t have it—I didn’t keep any of my middle school textbooks.  Largely because they were not mine to keep.

    But yeah, you got me.  I’m totally lying about my middle school textbooks because my American-Canadian privilege blinds me to the oppression in the use of the word “American.”  Deep down in my dark heart, I know that your sixth-grade Spanish textbook holds all the social justice secrets of the universe.

    *rolls eyes*

  • EllieMurasaki

    Assuming for a moment that you’re right that the intention of everyone using ‘USian’–actually, no, intent not magic, assuming that the effect of such–is to condescend to you: sucks to be on the pointy end of the stick, don’t it?

  • EllieMurasaki

    College Spanish. And old editions of textbooks are typically only four or five dollars on Amazon and that includes shipping, so I doubt finding a counterexample is going to make your bank account cry.

  • caryjamesbond

    Err, sorry Ellie, but the burden of proof is on you for this one.

    You want people to change their language. You want this not because you think USian is more aesthetic, or more accurate, or less likely to cause confusion. You want people to change because you claim the use of the word “American” “insults and belittles” the entire non-American population of the entire hemisphere.

    Essentially, you’re saying that using the word “American” to refer to the population of the United States is the equivalent of a racial slur.  In other words, something that is not just inaccurate or poorly phrased, but something that is actively morally wrong.

    And you’re gonna have to prove that one.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I am at work for eight more hours. My textbook, if I still have it, is at home. If it is not at home, acquiring it will be two weeks or so. Take a fucking patience pill. And you’re the one who thinks I’m equating ‘American’ to a racial slur, not me. Heard of ‘microaggressions’?

  • You’re serious about this?  You want me to go hunting up my old Spanish textbooks on Amazon, buy them, take pictures of every page, and post them online to prove to you that I’m telling the truth about said textbooks not containing lessons on the oppression of the word “American”?

    Oh, and out of curiosity, is it that you just don’t trust me, or that the idea of a Spanish textbook not also being a social justice warrior textbook is completely unbelievable?

  • AnonymousSam

    The term “USian” irritates me for the same reason the term “Jap” irritates me. In the best case scenario, creating a nickname/abbreviation for someone without their consent, particularly one which assumes a certain level of familiarity, is always going to be rude. Add to that the context that the term is almost always used in a pejorative sense and you have a recipe for a fight.

  • EllieMurasaki

    All you need is one page of one textbook, the page that discusses such words as ‘costarricense’ and ‘mexicano’ and that does not also point out that ‘americano’ is not synonymous with ‘estadounidense’, and I’m perfectly fine with reimbursing you the cost of the book and shipping up to $10. (Only one book, though.) And I don’t see why I should believe you about the contents of your Spanish book when you don’t believe me about the contents of mine, and I am planning to scan and Photobucket the relevant page, so I’m expecting less of you than I am of me, because the price of your textbook is on me, not you.

  • caryjamesbond

    I’m not really in any hurry. Honestly, I could really care less what your Spanish textbook said. But I looked up microagression.  In the list of Gender microagressions, these were the first three things listed:

    Sexual Objectification
    Second-Class Citizenship
    Sexist Language”

    So, since you’re insinuating, at least, that the use of the word American to refer exclusively to people from the US is a “microagression” it seems to me that it needs to be able to hold its own in terms of psychological damage done.

     So would you say that an Ecuadorian encountering someone using the word “American” to describe only themselves experiences as much psychological damage as a woman confronted with sexist language? In other words- yes, I directly said that you consider this particular use of the word “American” a racial slur. You have not directly stated that.

    However, you have described in terms of and in comparison to, racial and gendered slurs.  So yes, whether you want to say so or not, you are acting as though this use of “American” is morally comparable to racial or gendered slurs. Either admit it or tone down the rhetoric you’re using to a level commensurate with the actual level of offense.

  • EllieMurasaki

    ‘Missy’ is not a slur by anyone’s definition but it is still insulting and belittling to people described by it. (Unless it’s their name.)

  • I honestly can’t believe you are serious about any of this.  I am literally shaking my head in wonderment as I sit here.

    So no, I’m not hunting down any old textbook of mine and taking pictures of it for you.  I can think of approximately 27,452 things that would be a better use of my time and energy.  I don’t want your money, because I’m sure there are an equal number of things on which it could be better spent.

    Like Cary, I could not care less what your book says.  I don’t doubt that a textbook somewhere has a discussion of the use of the term “americano,” but then again, there are textbooks out there that say that the moon will turn blood-red as a sign of the End of Days (coming this Friday!).

    If it’s all the same to you, I’m just going to keep on calling people Canadians if they are from Canada, and so on for other countries. 

    Yoo-ess-ee-ans.  Phooey.

  • Münchner Kindl


    What I object to is having myself described with a pretentious and condescending made up appellation (USian)

    Why is the abbreviation of US American or, alternative explanation, the conversion of US(A) to an adjective, pretentious and condescending?

    If you must insist on being pedantically clear regarding whether you are
    referring to US citizens instead of citizens of the western hemisphere
    in general then type in “US Americans” It will take you a couple extra

    So because the shorter form is condescing to you, I should type the longer form. Okay, I will do my best to remember.

  • AlexJarr

    From the general course of this argument so far and the focus on Spanish textbooks, I get the impression that this is largely an issue in Mexico and central/South America, not in Canada. 

  • Münchner Kindl

     Any proof that it’s almost always used perjorative? I know that Jap is a slur in AE, but I never encountered USian used in a similar way. (Given that Yank is seen by some US Americans as slur, by some as friendly nick and by some as proud identifier, you would need some good sources that USian is always perjorative).

    Also, I have trouble with the comparision between a slur used during a problematic time like WWII against a minority/ enemy  and an abbreviation for one of the most powerful countries.

  • caryjamesbond

    And can I add- anyone who has a term already in use for their nationality, and are significantly hurt or upset or offended because of the use of American to refer solely to people from the US makes it marginally more difficult for them to refer to themselves by their continent of origin…..

    I don;’t care about their offense. Not all offense is equal. Some people are offended by suffering and poverty and hate, and some people are offended by the words that other people use to describe themselves. 
    The first people have a reason. The second person is hunting for reasons to be offended.

  • AnonymousSam

    Personal experience, you being an asshat, and that enough other people have thought so as well to add it to the Urban Dictionary page.

  • AnonymousSam

    Similar arguments could also be made for calling you a Germ (short for German, of course, and if other people sometimes use it in the pejorative to draw an unfavorable comparison between Germans and microbial life, I would be shocked, shocked I tell you).

    Doesn’t mean it’s not rude to do so without your explicit consent, and while I may be confrontational, obtuse, snide, arrogant and a number of other terms, I do try not to be rude to an entire country while insulting an individual.


    Or for that matter, someone from Asia describe themselves as Asian,
    even though they, of all ethnic groups, get lumped together the most.

    For that matter, “Asian” in particular seems to carry a bit of a connotation of “You know, chinese, japanese, korean, vietnamese, they’re all the same thing” sort of dismissal.

    I’d be reluctant to refer to a person as “south american” for much the same reason — that it might be taken to imply “One of those interchangeable spanish-speaking countries I can’t be bothered to learn the difference between”

  • I’d be reluctant to refer to a person as “south american” for much the same reason — that it might be taken to imply “One of those interchangeable spanish-speaking countries I can’t be bothered to learn the difference between”

    Narrator: The South American group includes Brazil and Argentina.

    Mike: And a few other countries not worth mentioning.

    – MST3K, Santa Claus

  • caryjamesbond

     I’d be reluctant to refer to a person as “south american” for much the same reason –

    Which touches on another reason this issue makes no sense- even supposing a Columbian wanted to describe themselves by using “American” they’d refer to themselves as “SOUTH Americans.”  Which- again- no problem. Describe yourself like that all you want.  Heck, I’m pretty sure if a Canadian, for reasons unfathomable, referred to themselves as American it would be as “North American.” 

    Its amazing that Ellie’s spanish textbook didn’t think of this *already necessary* distinction. Even if this was the United States of Washington and we were all Washingtonians, people from Columbia who wanted to use their continent of origin would still have to say “South America” because the America’s are pretty freakin’ large. 

    So. Yeah. Problem solved. 

  •  I’m fairly sure my Spanish 1 textbook had a little sketch in it wherein the south american proudly proclaims “But We are americans too!” (Or ‘Pero somos americanos tambien!’) to the american who exists to have things explained to him. There was no sense of it being oppressive, and it’s hard to really distinguish things in my spanish 1 textbook as “cultural truths about people from south and central america” as opposed to “Politely paternalistic cultural imperialism” (Like the bits that focused on things like “Did you know: Spanish-speaking people do not all like tacos?” or “Did you know: Not all spanish-speaking countries are military dictatorships?” or “Did you know: Although they are a strange and backward people, mexicans are technically human?”)

  • They do both involve sub-groups who refuse to grant a distinction between “enforcer for the priviliged” and “person who doesn’t want to use my made-up words.”

  • Canadians occupy a different space in the USA cultural-imperialism volume than Latin Americans do. We’re generally white, for one thing, and can mostly speak a flawless reproduction of the variant of English generally used by newscasters.

    (insert long-story-short here*)

    As a result, our experience of the USA cultural hegemony has resulted, rather than trying to re-appropriate the term “American”, in adopting the identity of “Canadian” (or “Quebecois/e”, depending). That said, some people in Canada are conscious of the inherent cultural imperialism in appropriating the name of two continents as the demonym for residents of one country and prefer to apply “USian” to “American”.

    I was always given to understand that “americano”, etc, were various types of slang terms in Spanish and that “estadounidense” would be the proper Spanish form of the demonym.

    * The long story can fill Canadian Studies textbooks. The five-cent tour of such texts is: since we are not linguistically “othered” by the dominant culture in the USA so much as “erased”, we react differently to that.

  • Well, like I say, I don’t remember any of my Spanish textbooks having any lessons about being “American” or about “American” being an oppressive term.

    As for sketches, we used to have to write our own.  And classes containing 13-year-old boys generally managed to have a sketch begin with “donde esta la biblioteca,” and end with an action sequence.

  •  I mostly remember a scene in which the New Girl in school is given the warning “Cuidado con Beto!”, as Beto was apparently quite the lothario.

  • Hexep

    Definite, absolute agreement.

    In any Spanish-speaking venue, I would as a matter of course defer to how they have named things.  But we’re speaking English, and referring to ourselves in our own languages.  This is not the Iberosphere’s problem.Trying to control how other people use their own language is one of the hallmarks of cultural imperialism, and I’m glad that we’re resisting it.  The Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking peoples of the world are a mature and vibrant set of cultures that are well-represented in the world arena and control their own respective destinies as individual peoples and as confederations; they are not a downtrodden race of victims that require us to patronizingly defer to their linguistic whims.

    I’m an American.  I’m not an Estadounidense, a Meiguoren, or an Ameriki.  I don’t object when people speaking Spanish, Chinese, or Russian refer to me as such amongst themselves or when speaking with me in their respective languages.  But speaking my language = calling me by my name for myself.  For all values of ‘me,’ this is the universal rule that everyone should respect.  And if you want to create some higher category of identification to which we will both apparently belong, you don’t get to steal my name for yourself, even if you’re generously going to let me share it with you.

    Next we’ll start talking about the FYROM, I bet…

  • LouisDoench

    I apologize for getting all riled up over this. It shouldn’t be that big a deal but emotionally it is right now.  It has been a tough week here in the USA.  I have a 7 and a 5 year old in school right now and I’m a little freaked.  Please accept my apologies for being rude.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So what is the English word for ‘person from the Americas’?

  • EllieMurasaki

    So what is the English word for ‘person from the Americas’?

  • EllieMurasaki

    You know what this sounds like to me? People insisting that only [male] hunters and fishers are sportsmen, despite [male] players of baseball and soccer and lacrosse pointing out that these are also sports and therefore they are also sportsmen.

  •  > So what is the English word for ‘person from the Americas’?

    If you ever find one, I’d love to learn it. My company is forevermore talking about “North and South American clients” for this reason.

  • caryjamesbond

    People insisting that only [male] hunters and fishers are sportsmen, despite [male] players of baseball and soccer and lacrosse pointing out that these are also sports and therefore they are also sportsmen.

    Is this actually a thing that happens? Personally, I don’t care if someone from  Ecuador or Peru or Brazil wants to refer to themselves as “American.”  The only problem anyone has is with you characterizing our use of the word to  mean people from the US as an attempt to “insult and belittle” the entire non-US population of two continents, or as a ‘microagression’ or whatever other academic-sounding buzzwords you’ve dug up to mean “Using that word is bad and mean.”