I thank Jimmy Cliff, too, for introducing me to the Lowell Summer Music Series. For 21 years this National Park project has built a reputation of bringing, as their tagline says, “great artists” to their “extraordinary venue” Boarding House Park. Over the years they’ve presented hundreds of musicians, including Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Ani Defranco, Joan Baez, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Taj Mahal, Arlo Guthrie, the Neville Brothers and the Drifters. I’m just picking out the musicians of my generation – there is something for everyone throughout each annual series.
In fact, although he was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this summer and was one of the first international Reggae stars, I was amazed at how many people I know who never heard of Jimmy Cliff (or only vaguely remembered him.) After all, he was the star of the greatest Reggae movie ever made: The Harder They Come. And the soundtrack of that is definitely part of the soundtrack of my life.
Here’s a clip from the film of Jimmy singing the title song:
Always socially conscious, Jimmy Cliff gave a shout-out to the people of Louisiana, to cheers from the crowd. He also gave his seminal anti-war song “Vietnam” a pertinent new twist – he has adapted it to the contemporary “Vietnam” by substituting “Afghanistan” in the lyric. Luckily, someone with the handle NHRASTA posted clips from the Saturday night concert on YouTube and kindly gave me permission to use this one so that you could enjoy it too.
Lowell Summer Music Series is a very special 21-year-old, founded as a project of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, which in 1978 created the Boarding House Park (see below) in which the concerts are held. I know this because I called John Marciano, the Lowell Summer Series Director since 2004 and the talent buyer.
He had provided the backstory, the ground rules and the intro on the night of the concert which, due to rain, had been moved into the high school auditorium. It was brilliantly organized: downstairs was for everyone who wanted to stand and dance; the balcony was for sitting and watching. The seats were comfortable and there were so many season-ticket holders around us festival newbies, that we had lots of baby-sitters and care-takers. In turn, we could tell them about Jimmy Cliff – they didn’t have a clue who he was.
Onstage, Marciano had enthusiasm enough for all of us and it was infectious. I was impressed with the collaborative effort all of Lowell seemed to be making to keep this series alive when so many music festivals have failed, not the least in this horrid economic climate. (Of course Lowell, once at the front of industrialization, has long been trying to cope with the end of American industry.) This is all the more impressive because there hasn’t been government money for the Series for nearly 20 years.
But the high school donates the auditorium on rain days; the National Parks authority gives the park venue and pays Marciano’s salary; the University of Massachusetts Lowell provides work-study employees; and one of the sponsors ensures that kids under 12 can get in free. That’s good news for those many blues-loving Canadians, Marciano tells me, who bring their children to Lowell when there are blues musicians on the program – because generally the blues can only be heard in bars.
We strolled around Lowell between saving our seats when the doors opened at 5:30 (and simply putting a program over the back of the chair was universally respected) and the start of the brilliant concert two hours later. From the beautiful old stone church to a yuppy-fied, restaurant-rich city center, we could feel how hard Lowell was working to keep itself livable. (At left: Portuguese mill girls in Lowell). Altogether the evening was groovalicious, Jimmy Cliff was a never-resting bounce of talent and Lowell was a lovely host.