You can best describe my music of choice as “American Roots.” Before the 1920s, when entrepreneurs began to monetize music by fracturing it into marketable “genres” like “pop,” “hillbilly” and “race records,” it would have simply been called “music of the people.” 

It includes songs that tell stories about particular places, times and predicaments. Mainly, it explores the perspective of those who have spent a significant portion of their lives with their backs against the wall– the descendants of enslaved Africans and impoverished people racialized as “white,” as well as immigrants and refugees. 

The power of this music is its ability to tell a good story. The key to telling a good story is specificity. 

I’m not interested in metaphors and allusions. Give me a song heavy on proper nouns and conflict. Throw in some introspection, irony and maybe a twist at the end. Pour in some hope, but not too much– a little goes a long way. 

Great roots music songwriters, and writers in general, know that crafting a song everyone will resonate with requires telling a story that only a few people know about. This principle was best articulated by James Joyce, who wrote, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” 

This is why one of the first questions we ask when we meet someone is, “Where are you from?” It is why some people perk up and others wince when asked that question. 

The idea of place is a weak concept that makes most of us drowsy. But the names of particular places on a map hold power over us. 

This may be why I found myself wiping away tears during a scene from the most recent addition to my annual holiday viewing list– “Carol of the Bells,” the Ted Lasso Christmas episode. 

Leslie Higgins, the quirky and lovable executive for AFC Richmond, and his family had a tradition of inviting players who didn’t have a place to go over for Christmas dinner. Usually, the invitation attracts, at most, two players. 

This year, however, the entire team showed up, requiring a creative extension of the dinner table. The storyline itself stands out as a celebration of friendship and joy. 

In the episode’s penultimate scene, Higgins rises to give a holiday toast to all the guests. After honoring his wife and kids, he recognizes everyone at the table. 

Instead of using a vague ‘everyone here,’ he methodically and deliberately names the places they are from: 

“To you and all your families in Lagos, Guadalajara, Groningen, Cordon, Montreal, Benin City, Harare, Kingston and Santa Cruz de la Sierra… I know you would have all preferred to have been with them, but it was truly an honor to have you share our traditions and help make a few new ones.”  

These are international athletes in a global sport where the most loyal fans know the countries where they are from. It would have been easy and likely well-received for Higgins to name Nigeria, Mexico, the Netherlands, etc., in his litany. 

But he didn’t settle for the somewhat specific. He narrowed the scope. And as the camera panned to each player representing each place, their faces lit up as if they were receiving a sacred, individualized blessing

No disrespect to the mystics, dreamers and poets among us, but there is a reason why most Christmas pageants don’t use the first chapter of John to tell the story of the incarnation.“In the beginning was the Word…” and “The light shines in the darkness…” provides good fodder for deep theological introspection and devotion. But as a literary device to tell a story, it is a snooze-fest. 

Instead, we usually get the story from Luke 2, which is heavy on proper nouns: Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, Syria, Nazareth, Galilee, Judea, Bethlehem, David, Joseph, Mary and Jesus; conflict: Roman occupation, no room at the inn; and introspection: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them,” and enough hope to keep us interested in what the baby Jesus means for us: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.”

God coming to the world as a baby is a cause for celebration.  But hearing that God arrived as Jesus, son of Mary, in a manger in Bethlehem, a backwater town that was then, as it is now, under brutal occupation, and the first recipients of this news were marginalized “essential workers” in a field at night– this is a reason to sing. 

God came to the heart of Bethlehem so that God could get to the heart of all the cities and towns in the world.  

Whatever place on the map you came from, and whichever one you occupy now, may the hope, peace, joy and love of Jesus of Nazareth find you during the Christmas season. 

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