The Amen Break

[Begin by singing: “Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen…”]

That song comes to us this morning from the African American Spiritual canon, which means that it has its origins in the Black Church and the struggle to survive and make meaning amidst the horrors of slavery. So it is a collective creation – it has no single author – but it was arranged by Jester Hairston in 1963 for a film starring Sidney Poitier, which helped to popularize it. In 1969, a funk and soul band named the Winstons recorded an instrumental track as a B-side to their one and only hit. They called that track “Amen, Brother,” because its theme riffed on that arrangement. Let me play a little bit of that for you, so you see what I mean:

[Play excerpt from, “Amen, Brother.”]

Now, if you’ve never heard of the Winstons or of “Amen, Brother” before, I won’t blame you for it. As I said, they only had one hit, and that was 49 years ago. But if you’re alive right now and you watch TV or listen to the radio, or sit through the ads that run on YouTube before the video you want to watch plays, I can all-but guarantee that you’ve heard at least a little bit of music from the Winstons before. That’s because right around the middle of “Amen, Brother,” the drummer – Gregory Coleman – plays a little drum break. It’s not even a solo, it’s really just a lull where the drums pick up in between the contributions from the other instruments. But this is the part that you have almost-certainly heard before. Here, I’ll play it for you:

[Play the Amen Break.]

That little clip of drum beats is called the Amen Break, and it is likely the most reused piece of recorded music in the history of sound. It has appeared in literally thousands of other recorded works through a process called “sampling” – when an artist takes bits of existing sound and mixes them together with newly-recorded material and/or other samples to make a new piece of music. Sampling is essential to hip-hop and electronic music, but in the last two decades it’s become more and more common across genres and in even stranger places. The Amen Break appears, for instance, in NWA’s Straight Outta Compton – one of the most important tracks in the history and evolution of rap. Give a listen:

[Play excerpt from, “Straight Outta Compton.”]

You may have noticed that I didn’t include that much of the song and cut it off a little abruptly. That’s because Ice Cube is two words away from a third which is generally held to be unacceptable in church. There’s at least one such word in almost every line of the piece, in fact. I’m generally of the belief that worship is big enough to hold as much as we need it to, and that you could build a service so that the right expletive was not only acceptable, but necessary. But, that is not this service, and those were not about to be just the right expletive.

Now, I know y’all pretty well, and I trust that there are a few folks out there who are familiar with NWA and know why I’m not going to explain what the acronym stands for. But now let me pick an artist that more of you probably own albums by:

[Play excerpt from, “Little Wonder.”]

That’s David Bowie making use of the Amen Break for his song, “Little Wonder.” And for the record, I also had to cut that piece off very carefully because he, too, was one line away from using a word I won’t repeat from the pulpit. But if neither David Bowie nor Dr. Dre connect with you, you still might have heard the Amen Break before in the music over the opening credits in TV shows like Futurama and the Amazing Race. And even if that’s not so, the sample is now in popular use among advertisers, so you have most likely heard it in 2-3 different car commercials by now.

So a small fraction of a minor recording session from an obscure rock band has gone on – in a manner no one could have possibly predicted – to become an essential thread in the soundscape of modern culture. Reaching ears all over the planet, more pervasive and inescapable than the most successful hit single. And that’s all very interesting – to me, at least – but by now you must have an inkling that I see some larger lesson at work in this anecdote. So here it comes, friends:

The Amen Break is a tiny moment, frozen in time. It captures a particular where and a particular when: the moment when the rest of the Winstons quieted their instruments and Gregory Coleman laid down a few choice licks on his drum kit. But that one moment keeps touching points after it, showing up in unexpected places again and again and again. And the sampling process that makes that possible – the way that a DJ mixes clips of sounds together in different ways in order to make new works of art – that’s not so different, I submit, from the way that we view and explain to ourselves our own lives.

Consider this: when you think back on your childhood, do you examine each moment of it, equally? Of course not. The human memory doesn’t work like that. We remember patterns and themes and we hold on to particular moments that seem especially valuable, meaningful, powerful, or important – especially when they help to reinforce those themes. If your story is that you had a happy childhood, the moments you cling to are probably mostly happy memories. If you understand yourself as having been quiet or lonely as a child, the points in time that stand out for you in your memory are going to mainly support this – perhaps with a few counter-examples, to help illustrate the general rule.

And this isn’t only the way our memories of long ago function. Just yesterday you lived for a full 24 hours – all of us did. But can you account, with equal clarity, for every moment of that day, or even just the 15-or-so hours of it you were probably awake? I’m confident that you can’t, even more so than I’m confident that you’re mildly flattered by the way I just assumed you all have good, healthy sleep habits. Again, the focus of our memories and so the focus of our stories about ourselves are on singular moments. Often the very good, or the very bad. I know, in my own self, that when I think about who I am, what it is that I am for and about, I think of a constellation of events and actions – the things that I have done in my life of which I am the most proud, and the things I have done of which I am the most ashamed.

I submit that this collecting and assembling of sampled memory clips doesn’t just inform the way that we see ourselves – if anything, it’s probably even more important to the way we feel about others. Because we don’t even have the capacity to view all moments of our own lives at once, and we were actually there for all of them. The way we feel about family and friends and partners – those closest to us – is determined by these same snapshot memories. When I think about my best friend, I think about the squeeze packets of cream cheese that he put on the bagel he had for lunch every day in high school, which I found disgusting. I think of the white panama hat that I loaned him when we were starting college together – it got stained by his red hair dye, so I let him keep it. I think about a time I deeply regret, when he was happy, and I said something stupidly, pointlessly mean to him. And a time when he was really sad, and I told him that I loved him and I was going to stick with him even if he never felt happy again. I think about him being the best man at my wedding, and me being the best man at his – and out of all of those memories I make a story about our friendship.

Often, the greatest danger here is when we get caught up in just one or just a few memories – that are so powerful and feel so important that they over-ride everything else. They’re almost never good ones; times when we were hurt; things we can’t bring ourselves to forgive. You see a certain face or hear a certain name, and that terrible moment is the one and only thing that you can think of, or feel about. Now, there are things that are terrible enough that I won’t tell you you should forgive someone for doing them to you – or at least, I won’t tell you that you have to. Sometimes a relationship just has to end – there’s too much trauma. You can’t come back from it, and you shouldn’t even try. This past week has raised up the memories – for those of us who have them – of some of those truly horrible traumas. We can’t completely control when memories will bubble to the surface, and when they do, it can be very, very hard to go on living our lives. So I want to remind you all that you have a minister. If you are managing some trauma, old or new, and especially if you have been made to feel you have to hide it, and to hide from it – you certainly don’t have to share it with me, but you can. And although I feel frustratingly powerless to reform a society which again and again extends a sympathy to abusers which it denies to those whom they abuse – I can promise you that if you have survived abuse yourself, you are not alone. It is not your fault. And if you decide you want or need to share your story with me, I will listen, and I will believe you.

But here is the good news I have, about the Amen Break: we are each the DJs of our own memories. And while it is hard to control what thoughts spring unbidden into our heads, it is still possible to reshape them over time. For the people in our lives that we do not want to cut out of them – we can practice sampling other memories, turning to moments of connection and understanding instead of being caught in the quicksand of our own pain. It’s not as easy as being a regular DJ looks – I don’t know, I’ve never tried. I mean no offense to the DJs in the room. But we can choose the beat and the pace and the tone and the frequency of the memory collages that shape who we are and how we feel about ourselves and each other. We get to choose which moments in time are great enough and important enough to live on forever, in us.

The little bit of good news that I have about the Amen Break is this. The Amen Break was probably so successful, such a highly-used piece of music because there was no one out there policing its copyright. It belonged to a relatively obscure band that quickly dissolved and whose members went on to do other things. The person who holds the copyright on that clip, the band-leader of the Winstons went on to get a degree in political science and become a Baptist minister – that’s what he’s doing these days. So he didn’t really stay in the music industry. He wasn’t paying attention, at least not closely, to what was going on with the Winston’s back-catalog.

So while other artists might have been out there trying to make sure that people who sampled them paid them money, the Winston’s weren’t doing that, and that made it a very popular thing to use: because it was good, and because it was free. But there’s a certain amount of injustice in that. The most sampled piece of recorded music in history. An entire genre of electronic music in Great Britain that is based entirely on cutting up and distorting clips of the break. Not a single artist or a trend: a whole genre. So some people decided a few years ago that they were going to do something about this and started a GoFundMe page. They donated tens of thousands of dollars to the surviving members of the Winstons – not exactly the millions of dollars which, by even the most conservative estimate, would have been owed for the total use, but still.

We don’t necessarily always do things the right way the first time, but it means something to go back and try to make amends for the mistakes we have made. My friends, at the end of a hard week, my hope for us is this: not that we will forget the hurts that still need to be changed and corrected and answered for. But that we will be able to make space in our hearts and in our lives for a new song. For one that allows us to live and to love as freely as we can, to let go of old animosities that we would rather live without. And to tell ourselves a story that is beautiful and hopeful and kind. Amen.