’Til We Cross the Burning Water

My baseball brother Lou asked whether I had any thoughts about the death of Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four, among the most illuminating baseball books ever written; in 1995, the New York Public Library included it as one of 159 “Books of the Century,” the only sports book so honored.

Only one other book has influenced my attitude about baseball as much as Ball Four, and that’s Bill James’s 1982 Baseball Abstract, which opened my eyes to analytics. If you put those two books together, you pretty much have my outlook on the National Pastime. Beyond that, though, I feel as all Bouton’s eulogists do, which is that he told the truth well, and time has vindicated him while diminishing his critics.

I was hit harder by the passing of Johnny Clegg from pancreatic cancer at 66.

Born in England, Clegg moved to South Africa at age 12 with his Jewish, jazz-singing mother and new step-father, a journalist. (Mom and Clegg’s father split right after Johnny was born.) The step-father introduced him to the black African side of Johannesburg, where Clegg learned about music — and injustice. He began playing with black musicians in violation of apartheid, and was arrested for the first time at 15.

Clegg wasn’t deterred. His integrated band Juluka caught the rising wave of Worldbeat in the early 1980s and became popular in Europe. After Juluka broke up he formed another integrated band, Savuka, which combined rock, British folk, and Zulu rhythms and harmonies in a gorgeous blend that reached our ears in 1992, when we visited friends who spent years living in Africa. “You have got to hear this!” they said. They were right. Clegg and Savuka impressed The Fabulous Wife and me as much as Bob Marley and the Wailers had a decade earlier. We were instantly hooked.

The Fabulous Wife grew up ignorant of rock music and disdained it, but when we had a chance to see Clegg and Savuka in August 1993, she said “You either get us tickets or move out.” I wrote to Lou about the concert the day after we saw it:

[Clegg]’s forty years old and not at all the typical hedonistic, naive rock star. He’s got the same attributes Marley had: a broad, fully adult emotional range plus a strong sense of rhythm and melody. On top of that he can dance — god can he dance! He forever put the lie to my claim that Jewish men can’t dance (which I invoked to escape having to do it with The Fabulous Wife all these years). Because the talent is there, he didn’t resort to the usual concert tricks, i.e. costumes and make-up, exotic staging, laser shows, etc. Just the music and dance, straight over the top. It packed one hell of a wallop. Unless he’s assassinated he could stay on top for a long time, although his political orientation could limit him (as it did Marley) to cult status in the U.S.

Happily, he wasn’t assassinated, and in South Africa he became a hero. What great times the Nineties were! National leaders, foremost among them Nelson Mandela, preached reconciliation and unity rather than hate and division. And if left-wing authoritarians were calling out Clegg (or anyone else) for cultural appropriation or other such neo-segregationist nonsense, we went blissfully unaware of them.

There aren’t many videos of vintage Clegg on the Internet, but the cameras were rolling when he performed “Asimbonanga” (“We Have Not Seen Him”), a paean to Mandela and martyrs of the anti-apartheid movement, shortly after Mandela was freed. Watch that one to get a sense of the song. Then watch this version for what Clegg called his pinnacle moment as a performer, “a complete and amazing gift from the universe.” The last few seconds say it all.

Mandela with President Bill Clinton, 1993.

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