#486: Earth, Wind & Fire, "That's the Way of the World" (1975)

On Fridays I stayed at my high school long after classes ended, wandering the sprawling cinderblock buildings, watching the sun settle in the sky a bit earlier than it had just a month before. It was football season, and come nightfall I’d pull on a stiff polyester uniform—green and black with gold-painted plastic buttons—and pile into a school bus with the rest of the marching band and our director, Mr. Snell, a nearly-silent middle-aged black man who, in my memory, was at least seven feet tall. While other bands covered Top 40 pop songs, Mr. Snell kept us to the classics he loved, focusing on Earth, Wind, and Fire: “Let’s Groove,” “Fantasy,”  “September,” and especially “Shining Star,” from their breakthrough album That’s the Way of the World.

The bouncy levity of EWF’s music contradicted the rhythm of my days so utterly that it was almost absurd. In a school of nearly 2,500 students, I waded through over-crowded classrooms and hallways that smelled of bleach and the Chic-Fil-A sandwiches sold in the gym lobby. Mornings, half-awake, I slid through metal detectors and tried to avoid the fights that swelled up from the crowded halls like tsunamis. Like most of the others, I was in marching band because I did not belong anywhere else. I was not a trouble-maker or a Mathlete or a basketball player or a student government politico. I was not allowed to audition for Mr. Snell’s jazz band, his prized possession, either for a lack of talent or for choosing the wrong instrument.

I never saw Mr. Snell smile and I never heard him say we had played well. We’d stumble through a song and look to him, our instruments still raised, to see him give the tiniest wave of his hamburger-sized hands. “Again,” he’d say, giving us another chance, and we’d start over. I had never heard of EWF before learning to play their songs on my clarinet. The arrangements we performed were boisterous, with little attempt at harmonizing. Every instrument shouted all the notes. When Mr. Snell finally told us to stop, to move on to another song, I could never tell if we’d actually improved or if he just couldn’t stand to hear us play the same bars one more time.

Mr. Snell took us to New Orleans to march in a Mardi Gras parade and, another year, took us to New York City, where we wandered the open-air markets in Harlem for hours. We ran our hands over cowry shell jewelry and necklaces featuring the same assorted religious iconography—ankhs, stars of David, crosses—featured on the covers of the EWF albums we’d been rehearsing. At the market, Mr. Snell bought a knitted black kufi hat and wore it for the rest of our trip, and I tried to imagine him as he was in 1975, when That’s the Way of the World was released, chock-full of horns and kalimba and falsetto’d joy. In 1975, Earth, Wind and Fire topped the Billboard charts alongside a whole lot of white guys: Elton John, Glen Campbell, James Taylor, Barry Manilow, David Bowie, the Eagles. I imagined Mr. Snell listening That’s the Way of the World as the world’s ways shifted rapidly, ceaselessly, all around him.

A lot had happened in Memphis by 1975, in the seven years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of a downtown motel. By 1975, Elvis was forty years old and had grown puffy and chatty. Still performing to sold-out crowds in his hometown, he would be dead in just two years. White flight was draining hordes of wealthier residents to the suburbs. This migration is often associated with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, but was also provoked by changing public school policies. In the mid-1960s, Memphis city schools enrolled a nearly equal number of white and black students attending segregated schools. Desegregation efforts were stalled and delayed until 1973, when busing was federally mandated in order to enforce desegregation. Over 10,000 students would be bussed to schools outside their segregated neighborhoods. Members of a group called Citizens Against Busing protested by burying a school bus in a giant pit, and 40,000 of the city school system’s 71,000 white students fled to private, religious, or suburban school systems over the next four years.  

In 1975, Memphis was in the midst of a transition that wasn’t resolved even by the time I found myself, in 2003, marching to “Shining Star” on Friday nights. The problems of 1975 still hadn’t been made right. My school was still segregated, but from the inside: the school’s “optional” program was mostly white and its “traditional” program was mostly black, and the two rarely interacted. I was proud to go to public school, but also aware that it was one of only a couple public high schools in Memphis that white kids attended.

Maybe EWF was simply the obvious choice for our band. Their gratuitous use of religious iconography resembled Memphis’ obsession with Egyptian imagery. The Memphis Zoo, covered in hieroglyphics and built to resemble an Egyptian palace, and the huge pyramid alongside the river with its fiberglass statues of pharaohs, are nearly identical to the cover of EWF’s later album, All ’N All. And EWF’s front man, singer, and songwriter, Maurice White, was born in Memphis in 1941. But our school was not one for motivational posters and EWF’s message was so optimistic, so devoid of cynicism, that it’s impossible for me not to see their selection as a deliberate message from Mr. Snell.

I wonder if Mr. Snell thought that, by emulating EWF, with their nine members, two drummers, a horn section, and their miraculously tight, singular sound, maybe we’d also learn something about unity. Over the course of daily practice, after-school rehearsals, summer marching camps, and Friday night football games, those songs lodged a kernel of joy and perseverance into my brain that couldn’t be shaken.  I’m sure we butchered those songs. I’m also sure that wasn’t what mattered, in the end. Mr. Snell may not have said many words, but if he spoke to us through Earth, Wind and Fire, the message he chose to share was something deliberately encouraging, uplifting, and hopeful to the point of delirium.

Now, a decade later, in the first cool evenings of autumn, my thoughts often drift to football games on Friday nights, to the high-pitched refrain of “Shining Star” that took up residency in my head. I see myself marching barefoot in the browning grass, or, in the winter, shoving heating pouches into my shoes, struggling to make my cold fingers hit all the right notes. I see myself in my stiff uniform, my too-big hat with its shedding feather plume, with the lights of a half-empty stadium gleaming off the keys of my second-hand clarinet. I see myself lining up in formation, listening for the cadence, my head craned back to see Mr. Snell’s face somewhere up in the stratosphere. And with the wave of his hand, it would all begin again. We’d get another chance to make it right.

—Martha Park