Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Joe Dean Got It Wrong, Right?

Joe Dean, born this month in 1908. Master of the blues piano. His song "I'm So Glad I'm 21 Years Old Today," a favorite of mine, meant something different back when he recorded it. Dean was glad because his "baby" could no longer "treat" him that way. She apparently made a fool of him one too many times. Had that song been written in the present era it would have been about bar hopping.

When I turned 21 a bunch of friends at the factory where I worked (now there's the subject of a blues song if ever there were one) wanted to take me to the bar. I just asked them for the money they would be spending. Not a single one wanted to pony up. I told them I'd see them at the bar regardless and then hit the porno store instead. (I sense another blues song.)

The porno store held a wide variety of wonder. Magazines, videos and books of all varieties. It's not the kind of environment Dean would approve of. After all, he later became the incumbent of St. John's United Church of Christ on Norther Grand -- quite a journey for a guy who used to play the piano for tips around at house parties.

Dean's song may not match today's love of the mythic age, but the spirit of freedom is undeniable. 21, no matter the era, has been seen as a time of liberation here in America. Dean, born in St. Louis, realized that. It's inherent in the joy in his voice and his use of "walking piano," a sound that always seems to signify action (in this case a simple liberation from grief). In that respect, Dean's song isn't much different from the feeling twenty-year-olds feel today when that mark is approaching.

There aren't a ton of great songs celebrating the age milestone anymore. Maybe that's because it's understood that the act of going to a bar to get smashed is just window dressing. Anyone inclined to get drunk on that night has probably done it a hundred times before. Only now they don't have to hide it from cops and mom.

Dean got it kind of right. The need for liberation is always there. It just doesn't really have anything to do with age anymore.

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