Josephine Baker- Erik Nielsen
For years I had heard the name Josephine Baker. With that name came a smattering of information about a Black American woman who created a sensation as an exotic dancer in Paris in the 1920’s. Two years ago, as I was trying to educate myself more about Black history in order to be a more effective ally in the battle for racial justice, I came across her name again, but this time I read up on her and was astonished by what I learned.
Did you know that Josephine Baker was the most famous entertainer in France, perhaps in Europe, during the 1930’s? Or that she used that fame and her tours to gather information for the French Resistance During World War II, or that she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military and was inducted into the French Legion of Honor for her service? Or that she attempted to show that people of different backgrounds and from different areas of the world could learn to live together peacefully by adopting 13 children from all over the world? How about the fact that she was the only woman invited to speak at the March on Washington in 1963? Or that after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked Baker to become the unofficial leader of the Civil Rights Movement? (After giving it a lot of thought, Baker declined, saying that her children were too young to lose their mother.) All this, and more, from a woman born in poverty in St. Louis in 1906, who was first married at 13, joined the chorus of the first black musical on Broadway, Eubie Blake’s and Nobel Sissle’s Shuffle Along at age 15 and was dancing in Paris at 19. Ms. Baker not only danced (introducing the Charleston to Paris in the mid-1920’s), she sang, was featured in French movies and made a triumphant return to the international stage in her 60’s performing at such venues as the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall to large audiences and rave reviews. Josephine Baker was truly an amazing woman who was not only artistically gifted, but who also used her fame to try to make the world a better and more just place.
I was so impressed with her that I wrote a piece for solo flute in 2020 and called it Black Venus (one of Baker’s many nicknames). In the piece I do my best to evoke some of the sounds of the Jazz Age in Paris, as well as some of the feel of songs Baker would have heard growing up in St. Louis on the Mississippi River. Here is a performance by Montpelier flutist Hilary Goldblatt:
Written by Erik Nielsen.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. day. The snowstorm has me at home writing this blog post. It's an update from a musician in transition, a snapshot of an exciting new time in my life. By the end of these paragraphs anyone passing this way will know a lot more about me.
We're still in the depths of the pandemic, which has pretty much canceled out my former flute teaching and performing. Nevertheless, I'm renting a Monteverdi room and a CAL room. This enables me to continue crafting Native style flutes and recorders, and also get the following new project going.
I've always been interested in this wonderful crazy species of ours. If you ask people around the world the "age" of humanity they pretty much agree that we are an adolescent species, as in lots of new powers but not a whole lot of wisdom. We have not yet grown up. For example, with all that recorded history under our belts, have we settled on a best way to organize big societies and make decisions? Nope. Are we willing to agree to the obvious, that what we have in common is more important than our differences? Often not. With human population having tripled in one lifetime, have we squarely faced up to the fact that the fate of our planet rests in our hands? Not yet.
We are complex, contradictory and slow to learn. We are susceptible to our worst impulses and able to forget all the lessons of history. We are irrational and we are maddening!
About 10 years ago I was facing some personal failings myself and wondered if it all came down to character issues. I did an internet search for "character" and up popped a site that, over this time, has changed my life. It was VIAcharacter.org, and I saw there some simple things. Character was a different animal than I had thought... as multifaceted as we were. You could be deficient or challenged in some aspects of character and at the same time strong in many others. What a relief. And these aspects could all be developed through intention and practice. So if character was what made us good, I thought I might have chanced on a roadmap to the good life, the well-lived life. And so it has proven to be!
Last week Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post wrote, "If politics is downstream from culture, then culture is downstream from character. And right now, we have a character crisis in America."
It seems like we in America, as well as all of humanity has access to massive torrents of information and opinions right now compared to just trickles of wisdom. And although I have no idea how one person can begin to address this, I'm making a start anyway here in Vermont with my eight-week course called "High Octave Living". This course (also offered by VIA under another name) blends mindfulness instruction with exploration of the 24 universal human character strengths that when put into practice can change everything, for an individual as well as for groups.
As a taste of how this works, consider our building. The pandemic has made us all into ships passing in the night, hidden behind masks, maintaining maximum distance. We hear practicing, we hear footsteps, but it's so impersonal and unknown what's happening in these rooms right now.
There's another more expansive way of being in the space, though. CAL and Monteverdi represent and foster three of the 24 strengths especially. These powerful agents of change and growth are called Love of Learning, Creativity, and Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. Just sitting with this perspective for awhile can make us more grateful for such a place. So let's say the person singing scales below us is bothering our train of thought. Deciding to hear this sound as their life force expressing as Love of Learning and Appreciation of Beauty can instantly change irritation into acceptance and connection, even into feeling at one with them in common purpose.
I also can feel an afterglow of Spirituality, another of the strengths, from the decades of prayer and meditation practiced in the building. A quick search finds that this place was built in 1928 as St. Michael's Convent and housed Nuns who taught in Montpelier's Catholic schools. Likely the Sisters of Mercy were among those who lived in these little rooms. This order served actively in the world in ways many of us would agree with: "Through prayer and service, the sisters addressed the causes and effects of violence, racism, degradation of Earth and injustice to women and immigrants". The people who set the tone here, in other words, were expressing through their lives strengths like Compassion, Humility and Fairness. As well as Bravery and Spirituality.
This kind of perspective of the strengths as being universal to all of us, throughout our lives, provides additional meaning and insight into all our places of work and all our interactions. It can even extend to redefining every human from the inside out as especially embodying some of these attributes, their "signature strengths". This puts into practice MLK's hope that his children (and all of us) be judged on "the content of their character" rather than outward appearances.
I'm right now engaged in trying to promote my High Octave Living courses. So far I've started an All-Vermont Meditation Circle (see mindfulVT.org) so people can get to know me and I'm writing a series of articles about the strengths which I hope to have published in Seven Days or one of Vermont's other papers. The course is also appropriate for institutions, organizations and companies, where working with strengths has proven to be helpful with employee relations, work attitudes and job satisfaction. If you have ideas of where and how to promote this program, or any connections to share please let me know.
Right now I'm teaching the course only on Zoom. The next courses start in mid-February. This is essentially MBSP or the Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice course available on the VIA site for $499, which I'm offering for $175. It could truly be life-changing information for many Vermonters, as it has been for me. You can read more at
Monteverdi Music School has been a center for music lessons and music activity in Central Vermont for 26 years, and now establishing its outreach to the online community!