Midlothian, Texas, is about 30 miles southwest of Dallas and approximately 5 million light years away from anything hip, trendy or cool (if it's even appropriate to use those words for popular things anymore).
Well, maybe that's not the case these days (the part about Midlothian being so out of touch, that is--it's still about 30 miles southwest of Dallas). Ol' Midlo's pretty suburban now, and it's way, way bigger and much, much more cosmopolitan--relatively speaking--than it was when my parents moved me there in 1976.
The town of my childhood in the late '70s and early '80s had a few thousand people, some farm land, a couple of cement plants, a steel plant and two restaurants that weren't named Dairy Queen (along with, of course, one that was). It wasn't a bad place to grow up, but it didn't exactly provide a representative picture of anyplace but small-town Texas.
I got lucky, though. My grandmother--much to my parents' objections, if memory serves--bought me a television when I was about six years old. I had it in my bedroom, and although I didn't have cable or anything fancy like that, I did have a window to the outside world that was plugged into the wall and received a signal through rabbit-ear antennas. (Oh, and I'm an only child, so it was all mine.)
Needless to say, I watched a lot of TV. And on Saturday mornings, there were two shows I never missed: America's Top 10 (I had a weird fascination with music charts as a kid, so much so that I used to buy Billboard magazine when I could find it at the mall)...and Soul Train.
Absolutely, Soul Train. By the time I started watching Soul Train sometime in the early '80s, it was an established cornerstone of American television. And, for me, it was a telegram from the outside world as to what was cool, funky and, frankly, not the product of white small-town Texas. In a town full of country-music lovers and headbangers (not that there's anything wrong with that...), there wasn't a lot of soul, nor was there really much interest in "urban music" until rap finally came to Midlo sometime in the late '80s.
I didn't always like the music on Soul Train, but I usually did...and I always loved the dancing. And the fashions. I just wasn't going to see anything like that in Midlothian, Texas...well, ever. Really, the music and the dancing were the best reasons to like Soul Train. And its super-smooth host, Don Cornelius, had a style that any young man would have done well to emulate...but that none could ever duplicate.
Did it help that Soul Train was a mostly urban, mostly black show? Sure, it did. There weren't many black kids in Midlothian, and although Dallas-Fort Worth overall is a diverse area, my little far-flung corner of it wasn't exactly multicultural. We had plenty of "urban" radio stations in the D-FW market, but Soul Train brought urban black culture to life in a way in which the radio never could. The styles, the trends, the astonishing moves of the dancers and the sheer joy of the famous Soul Train line were all nice breaks from the typical twang and bang I heard at school and with friends and their parents.
As it turns out, Don Cornelius would likely be happy with my impressions of the show. As anybody who watched tonight's Soul Train documentary on VH1 now knows, the show actually has a fascinating history that goes way beyond afros and butterfly collars. Cornelius, a TV reporter at the time, started the show in Chicago at the end of the '60s because he got tired of seeing black faces on TV associated mostly with crime and poverty. He sought a more positive image of urban black life--and, man, did he provide it.
The show went national within a very short time and took off like a rocket. It was thanks in large part to Soul Train that Americans of all kinds not only heard great artists (often for the first time) but also got a positive view of urban black culture on television. Cornelius, who owned the show, is a great American entrepreneur, period, and is a genuinely important figure in black history in particular (I think, anyway.). I can't say that I had much of a preconceived notion of black people or black culture when I was a kid (the result of good parenting, I'd say), but I am one of those white kids who got hooked on urban black styles and music largely as a result of my Saturday morning viewing ritual.
By the time I was in high school, I was in full rebellion against Midlothian's suffocating cowboy culture. I sported rayon shirts, baggy (although not MC Hammer baggy...) slacks and, sometimes, purple suede shoes. I even had an entire purple suit cut in the popular early '90s style with a short jacket, blousy pants and funky-collared shirt. If I could have had one of those Kid 'n Play afro fades, I would have. I listened to the music I heard on Soul Train (along with a lot of other stuff, of course) and did my best to look like the people on the show. My mother took me on countless clothes-shopping trips to Red Bird Mall--the mall closest to Midlothian, it was located, fortunately for me, in a heavily African-American South Dallas neighborhood.
The dancing part of my Soul Train style never did come along the way I hoped...ahem. But it's important to understand that I wasn't mocking the culture I saw on Soul Train. I was very genuinely trying to emulate it. (OK, so maybe I shouldn't have bought the Africa medallion. I got a little carried away, OK?) I liked that culture, or at least what I thought it to be. I though it was cool and different and maybe the way things were heading trend-wise throughout the whole country, if not in Midlothian.
As it turns out, I was ahead of my time, for once. The generation just behind mine is fascinated with black culture--the music, the clothes, the approach to life. A friend who teaches high school told me the other day that the few black kids in his private Catholic school walk around like kings because the white kids there look up to them. I can relate to that to some extent; I was always very proud to have come in second place in the voting for best-dressed male in my senior class. The winner was a black guy who really did look entirely less ridiculous in his clothes than I did in some of mine.
By the time I got to college, I realized that the whole white-boy Soul Train thing wasn't going to work in the outside world--it seemed to most people as though I really was mocking black people, so I went back to jeans and t-shirts. But I kept listening to Soul Train music, even if I didn't see the show much anymore. And while I can't say that I'm much of a fan of today's hip hop (and neither, by the way, is Don Cornelius), I do still have an appreciation for great soul music of all sorts of varieties.
These days, Soul Train more than lives on via YouTube. Some of the live performances it hosted are truly spectacular. I'll probably spend a few hours one of these days watching old clips and thinking about Don Cornelius--a guy who helped open my eyes to an unfamiliar world--wishing us, as always, love, peace and soul.