“I saw my flag on the moon and I was just as proud as I could be
I saw my flag on the moon, oh Lord I was just as proud as I could be
Well, you know that I love my country
Baby baby, but my country don’t love me”
–Otis Spann, “Moon Blues,” 1969
49 years ago Friday, Neil Armstrong made one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind when he walked on the surface of the moon. This was 12 years after the Sputnik 1 satellite launched (October 4, 1957) and 8 years after Yuri Gagarin (April 12, 1961) and Alan Shepard (May 5, 1961) became the first men to travel in space. Shortly after the Gagarin/Shepard two-step, on May 25, President Kennedy issued his famous challenge to American scientists “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” On December 21, 1968, the Saturn V rocket successfully launched Apollo 8, thus becoming the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon. The success of Apollo 8 ultimately led to the Apollo 11 mission that took astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the “giant leap for mankind” portion of the festivities.
In addition to showing the Russians who’s boss, the space race brought us the computer chip, satellite and wireless technology, robotics, MRI and CAT scans, portable water filters, smoke detectors, cordless tools, and joystick controllers. Oh, and that whole internet thing. From a scientific and commercial perspective, it was an unqualified success. Right? Well, like so many things in US culture, the answer is yes and no. Lots of yes, to be sure, but still some no. For example, if I was a struggling, lawful black American living in 1969, it would’ve been totally fair to have mixed feelings about the moon landing. The fact that no one ever walked on the moon meant walking on the moon was inherently badass. Fair enough. However, the moonwalk happened because my country threw its full weight behind the idea of rationally, methodically, and urgently solving a problem and did so a mere eight years after Kennedy’s vociferous urging.
But, there was space and then there was race. There’s a reason Margot Lee Shetterly titled her 2016 book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. Turns out that NASA was telling the moon landing story as if African-American women weren’t critical to these operations. In fact, Katherine Johnson was so good at calculating rocket trajectories that before he became the first American to orbit the earth, John Glenn famously said of her, “Get the girl to check the numbers,” because he didn’t like what the pre-mainframe computers were spitting out. Black women like Johnson not only had to overcome gender biases (“the girl”), they had the double whammy of existing inside of Jim Crow. According to this February 2017 interview, Shetterly says, “My best estimate is that there were 80 to 100 black women working for NASA in engineering, computing and mathematics from the mid-1940s to the 1970s. They were part of a cohort of up to 1000 women total.” Think about that. In a 30-year period, only a thousand women were hired, and in the subset of black women you had maybe 100. THIRTY years. Do the math.
Hidden Figures is probably better as a book than a movie, but it has its moments. It would be easy to go with the dramatic, Oscar-baiting scene where Taraji P. Henson as Johnson explains the impact of segregated bathrooms to Kevin Costner. However, I love Janelle Monáe‘s steely determination here as Mary Jackson. Her calculation is so mathematically precise, it’s as if the skills that propelled her into becoming NASA’s first black female engineer were recontextualized specifically to solve a Jim Crow problem.
“They got all of that bread, just to send peoples into space
You know they got all of that bread, just to send peoples up in space
But there’s trouble there for us
Baby, we ain’t goin’ any place”
–Otis Spann, “Moon Blues,” 1969
On that note, let us return to the central critique of the space program. Not that the space program wasn’t valuable, it’s that the value was extracted at the expense of more tangible, human concerns. Gil Scott-Heron explains.
Gil Scott-Heron – Whitey On The Moon
Poet, prophet, and hip-hop pioneer, Scott-Heron addresses “the fact that millions and millions of dollars are continually sent into outer space while we continue to face the same problems here on the ground.” You can find the original version of this track on Small Talk At 125th And Lenox, GSH’s 1970 debut LP. In October 2009, Gil spoke to Dan Collins about the song.
LAR: The narrative behind “Whitey on the Moon,” about the girl who gets bit by a rat, was that based on something true?
GSH: No, not exactly. It was a metaphor. The night that we landed on the moon, my mother and I were watching it. And we started talking about different ideas that were in sharp contrast to the amount of money that had been spent to accomplish that. That’s all the poem is about. And I was an aficionado of Langston Hughes, so it has some Langston Hughes irony. I don’t know, maybe a bit more than A Raisin In The Sun, ha ha! “A rat done bit my sister Nell,” it had the rhythm I was looking for. It had a bridge like songs do. It went back to the top and went in different directions. And my mother supplied the punch line.
–LA Record, “Gil Scott-Heron: Just People Trying To Make It,” May 27, 2011
Otis Spann – Moon Blues
Recorded August 13, 1969
Sweet Giant Of The Blues, 1969-70
Otis Spann – lead vocal, piano
Louie Shelton – lead electric guitar
Mike Anthony – acoustic guitar
Tom Scott – flute
Max Bennett – bass
Paul Humphrey – drums
Otis Spann had a gruff, powerful voice and a deceptively lithe keyboard style that influenced pretty much every blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and rock pianist from the 1950s through the 1970s, maybe even into the 1980s. Given my recent foray into the Nicky Hopkins sessionography, it shouldn’t be surprising that Hopkins held up Spann as one of his biggest influences. Those high trills were straight outta the Otis Spann playbook. In late 1968/early 1969, Otis began exploring life beyond the Muddy Waters band, with whom he’d been associated since 1952-53, possibly even as early as 1946. In January 1969, Otis cut two separate sessions with Peter Green and Danny Kirwan-era Fleetwood Mac and those sessions resulted in 3 separate LPs: The Biggest Thing Since Colossus (1969), Blues Jam In Chicago, Vol. 1 (1969), and Blues Jam In Chicago, Vol. 2 (1970).
On August 13, 1969, 3 weeks after the moon landing, Otis entered a Los Angeles studio and laid down 8 tracks. Little did he know it would prove to be his last session as bandleader and tragically, the final record issued during his lifetime. Sweet Giant Of The Blues was released in either late 1969 or early 1970, by which time Spann was diagnosed with liver cancer. He’d succumb to the disease on April 24, 1970, at the age of either 40 or 46 (a subject that remains in dispute). As final statements go, Sweet Giant Of The Blues is very good, but it’s “Moon Blues” that stands out. Like Scott-Heron, Spann addresses the moon landing in terms of the African-American experience and on paper, it shouldn’t work. Old school Chicago blues with gnarly fuzz guitar is one thing, but whoever heard of a blues jam featuring a got dang flute solo?!?! Flutes are like harpsichords. Better left unheard. And yet, like Nicky Hopkins making the harpsichord work in a rock context, Tom Scott wrings deep blues out of his flute. As much as I don’t wanna like it, I love it. Louie Shelton’s lead guitar is also noteworthy because there are moments where it sounds like a theremin. And all these instruments work in
Of course, we wouldn’t be discussing “Moon Blues” were it not for Spann’s brilliant piano work and soulful lead vocal. It’s his experience navigating Jim Crow America that imbues the session with humanity and cultural significance. Like Gil Scott-Heron, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, Otis excelled in his field despite the fact that the system was stacked against him. Thus, for all of the positives the space race brought to Americans in the late stages of the 20th century — and into the 21st century — African-Americans were the subset of Americans whose appreciation for scientific progress butt up against the reality of cultural regress. And it turns out there’s a name for that contradiction. It’s called the moon blues.
“Ooh ooo ooh, you know I just got the moon blues
Yes, I said ooh ooh ooh, peoples I just got the moon blues
For all we got down here on earth
Babe, I think we might as well go to the moon”
–Otis Spann, “Moon Blues,” 1969