Brooklyn, New York, 1942. The United States of America were becoming more and more involved in the Second World War, the strain felt on families around the nation. Yet, in this time of destruction and propaganda, there were also some things good happening, such as the birth of young Eric Nagler, on the first of June. With his father as a high school biology teacher, he was spared from the draft and having to be directly involved with the conflict in Europe, but that wasn't the same for the rest of his family. Coming from Jewish heritage, and being Jewish himself, Eric recalled how those from his family who came to America before the war were saved, while the rest just disappeared, never to be heard from again. This was only the start of growing up in what Eric called “the shadow of the war”. He would hear the stories his uncles told from their time overseas and would come home from public school with the Army-McCarthy hearings on air, a very different childhood from the ones of youth who would later come home from daycare to watch Eric on their own televisions. It wasn't even until about when he was 7 years old that the first television came to his neighbourhood. A nice 7” model (with accompanying magnifying class to make it 9”) upon which they would watch Pinhead and Houdini, or sometimes Howdy Doody.
But television was never a big memory for Eric, back then, it was all outdoors. When fall came around neighbour Billy Smith (biggest kid, best skates) would come out with the chalk and roll down the street marking a path for their Cops and Robbers roller skate track. From there, spring and summer held the times of ball games, of which Eric could easily list off twenty or more to this day that they would regularly play. Those memories of activity were seen in school as well, where Eric recalls being second baseman, yet outside of school, around this time was also when Eric would start to find music.
It all started with the piano. There was one in the house that he would bang on as a child. His father would tell him to “stop that racket”, but his grandma would issue requests for such songs as “The Tennessee Waltz”. For these requests, he would simply bang a little softer, yet his grandma would tell him how beautiful this sounded. Encouraging Eric's first musical dream, learn piano. His parents paid for him to have lessons, which didn't go so well. After three months of lesson, he was done with piano for good. Shortly after this, he heard the sound of the saxophone at a friends house, and had the new dream to learn that. When he excitedly told his mom, she said he couldn't. After all, “it wasn't a valid instrument in the orchestra”. She told him to instead learn clarinet, a real instrument. So they bought him one, he had some lessons, and hated that too. Then, well then came the bass. Eric remembers hearing Charles Mingus playing the “Haitian Pipe Song”, it was at that moment that he knew he wanted to be a bassist. He was excited to tell his parents. But then his mom told him that “the bassist sat in the back of the orchestra and only played one note”, she said Eric should really be learning the cello. One night Eric's father brought one back from the high school where he taught, Eric was so tired of the same routine that he didn't even bother coming home that night. The cello was returned to the school untouched.
One night, while reading comics instead of doing homework, he heard a noise coming from downstairs. It was something he had never heard, an instrument his older brothers friend was playing. Scruggs Style bluegrass banjo music. Finally, Eric had found the instrument and the noise he had been looking for his whole childhood. Ever since, the banjo has been his instrument of choice.
It was music that he wanted to pursue, but his parents “conned him into university” saying he could do anything he wanted as long as he got a degree. So, off to university Eric went. Here, he received a degree in psychology. From there, he received another degree in educational psychology. It was partway through his doctorate in psychology that Eric realized, as he put it, “this was bullshit”. A psychology degree wasn't going to make him a musician, his parents just wanted him to go into something different than banjo music. It was at that point that Eric left formal education for good. Instead, partially before and partially after then, he became a hippie. After all, it was the sixties by then.
Eric had no idea where to find people playing music like he was playing, the music he had come to love. One day though, his brother told him about a New York City neighbourhood on the west side of Lower Manhattan called “Greenwich Village” where he heard that people gathered on Sundays and played the same type of music as Eric had. From then on, he joined this group of people like him, and they would all play at Washington Square fountain in Greenwich village. They were referred to as “beats” back then, “beatniks” after the Russian Sputnik satellite was in the news. In those days, no one really “wrote songs”, so they could all just play music and communicate at levels deeper than words. They would all just know what to do. Unfortunately, one of the group did start writing songs. After those days it was more “sit and listen” to someone perform, then another person would perform. To this day, he still hasn't really forgiven Bob Dylan for doing that to them.
I had then asked Eric what it meant where on his website it said he “managed to avoid getting my head bashed in by truncheons when the cops attacked us in Washington Square for singing without a license.” Really, I was interested in knowing the story and what “singing without a license” even meant. Upon bringing it up, Eric started laughing saying how it “really was a funny story”. Every year, one of their large group (a friend of Eric's named Lionel Killburg) would travel to New York City Hall and request a licence, allowing them all to play in the square. Until one year, Town Hall simply said no. After all, “they were a bunch of hippies, they were riffraff”. This didn't stop the “riffraff” from playing. The next Sunday, they gathered in Washington Square to sing and play their music. That week, they were greeted by police, who gave a stern warning. So what did the group do? They went the next day as well. So did the police. Instead of playing music, the group all sat in the fountain and didn't make a sound, glaring at the police in complete silence. One of them started singing “we shall overcome”, and by the time anyone else could join him, the police charged at them with their clubs. With no regard to their victims, the police started bashing in heads and smashing skulls. They then surrounded the fountain, supposedly to “protect it from the hippies.” I had yet to see what was funny about this. It was then that newscasters came, and a Senator, and local (very wealthy), Fifth Avenue residents. They were all angry. Yet, not at the group of young musicians. At the police. After being yelled at for not allowing people to sing, the police were pretty embarrassed, as was the politician who first said they couldn't, next weekend, the group was back singing and playing music. Now I can see some humour!
It was a while after this that Eric was visiting at a friends house when his friends' sister walked in. She had heard that a man who had been doing a voter registration march in Mississippi had been shot, and that Martin Luther King Jr. would be continuing the march with some members of his church and those in the local community, around Canton, Mississippi. Eric was asked if he had wanted to join, and he said sure. Although Eric was never what he would call an “advocate for equality rights”, he knew the difference between right and wrong, and he knew that how America was treating his fellow citizens was for sure wrong. After about twenty-four hours of driving (they had to stop in Memphis, someone they knew wanted to try their luck as a country singer), they made it to Mississippi and the voter registration march.
Eric emotionally recall Martin Luther King Jr
They had marched for a few days, the crowds size averaging around fifty people, but growing near towns and cities. Eric being there had garnered mixed reactions. He recalls how one man walked up to him and stated how “we don't want you white northerner bastards here, we want our own nation, not integration”. Yet this was followed by two elderly ladies from Martin Luther King's church who walked up to him and expressed how they were “so glad to have him here, trying to help us integrate”. Comments similar to those ladies kept Eric walking, standing for what was right.
As they got near Jackson, Mississippi, the crowd numbers slowly started to swell. They were walking down the streets, singing, clapping and singing when from beside the road Eric heard an elderly, female voice yelling “praise the lord” excitedly from her front yard. With the feeling of power the crowd was giving him, he yelled at her to join him to the Senate buildings where they were heading. After about twenty yards of walking with him, another girl came onto the yard and starting yelling “how dare he take her to the buildings, he had no idea what could happen there.” With that, the elderly lady reluctantly went back, and Eric moved on. By the time they reached the Senate, Eric guessed the crowd to be around 15000. Seemingly, they all passed through a wall of silence. No one was talking.
Surrounding the building were armed, white, policemen. Not far behind the police were officers in full riot gear, and closer to the buildings were soldiers with snipers. Beside the police, glaring at them, one for each officer, were African American men in white tee-shirts and overalls. Eric realized he recognized the man in overalls nearest him, it was the man who a few days earlier told him he wasn't wanted. Eric also noticed the reason why the officer seemed especially afraid, the African American man had his teeth filed to points, and was glaring up at the officer. The moment was tense, and Eric started to hear people cry in fear. He heard one person start to cry behind him, and turned to see the old lady from the front yard. He didn't blame her, he felt the same way.
It was at this point in my interview that it seemed Eric's music store went quiet. It seemed the customers were all listening, Eric started to tear up, and I had to focus to keep myself from doing the same. The speeches started, a few minor people speaking in regards to the idea of black power, people really talking about black power for the first time. Then Martin Luther King stepped up and started the speech that had already became history a year or two before.. “I have a dream..”, the speech made in Washington in 1963. Between the tears that were coming to Eric, he told me how Martin “talked about men and women, black and white, being together, working together, boys and girls, black and white, of every colour, being in school together. That was his dream.” when he was done.. someone about five thousand people away started singing. More people joined that man. Then behind him, another voice started singing in counterpoint to the man, making a round with the crowd. It was the old woman from the front lawn who came to join Eric. That moment gave Eric a strength that he still has with him. Her voice still heard in all its power to this day. As hard as you listened, the singing had drowned out everyone there to jeer. Eric's life had been changed.
Night times during the walks were usually held at all-black universities, during these nights, if Martin Luther King was with them that day, he would situate himself right at the entrance to the university. Shaking hands and meeting everyone, thanking them all. When it came to Eric's turn on one of these days, he was too nervous to shake Martins' hand. But he walked within two feet of the man that helped change the face of America, and that man thanked him.
After doing some research, I now know that the man who Eric first heard about who was shot must of been James Meredith, who was actually only wounded I've now learned. The march that Eric must of been a part of is titled “The March Against Fear”, started by one but finished by 15000.
Martin Luther King jr, would eventually be assassinated in a hotel located in Memphis, Tennessee. But the young boy who went from watching Houdini on television, to playing cops and robbers in the street with Billy Smith, to having his heart stolen by the magic of the banjo, to being charged at by police in New York and singing with Martin himself in Mississippi, he would continue on in his incredible life.
Next Wednesday, the adventure continues with moving to Canada, the recently deserted battlegrounds of Sarajevo, a JUNO nomination, Sharon, Lois and Bram Elephant Show, Eric's World, and a small music store in northern Ontario.