Black and white, darkness without light: a spiritual journey begins on a Three Dog Night

The joyful melody and playful rhythm will be all too familiar to my mother, and the eldest of my sisters. I was about 12 when this song came into my life, the first 45 rpm record I recall owning. I spun the disc hundreds of times…maybe thousands…playing it again and again until I’m sure everyone else’s ears bled with it. My mother and sisters continue to bring those days up from time to time, a cherished family twitter.

The year was 1972, the advances of the American Civil Rights movement still fresh in the public consciousness, and Three Dog Night took Black and White to the top of the charts. However, the song had been written at the outset of that movement in 1954, an ode to the US Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation of public schools. Sammy Davis Jr. recorded it in 1957, just as things were heating up, politically.

I’ve often referred to music as my Philosophy 101. Music also fullfilled another course of study in my curriculum of life, Introduction to Radical Politics.  I don’t know how conscious I was of the politics at the age of 11. I know I was aware of — and flummoxed by — racism. Aside from the day-to-day media depictions, I’d witnessed unsubtle acts of it by children and adults. None of that seemed to make any sense. Even then, the song’s political and social commentary appealed to me.

I listen to Black and White now, though, and I hear something more in it, something else, and I wonder how aware I was of it getting on toward 40 years ago.

I like to think everyone is spiritual, even those who think they are not, in ways we don’t realise. I know now how true that has always been of me, how true that remains even today and, I’m sure, tomorrow and the next. My spiritual journey has been primarily about allowing what lies deep within to bubble up like an effervescence and reach the surface.

I think too that our spirit needs nourishment. Sustenance comes in many forms. The love of another. A sunrise over crashing waves on a tropical beach. Following, with your eye, the perfect line of a human hip in the painting of a lover’s embrace or, with your fingertips, the perfect line of your lover’s hip. A long time ago, music became my food for the soul. In a push me, pull you dance of upswelling energies and nourishing experiences, music sign-posted my journey in ways that will be difficult to describe, but I think the earliest of steps featured this song and it’s easy to identify why.

The world is black, the world is white
It turns by day and then by night
A child is black, a child is white
Together they grow to see the light, to see the light

Like all the best verse, like all the best mystical texts, the words here play off each other, provide subtle and unsubtle variations in meanings depending on how they are interpreted, alone and together, on the metaphors and similes we mentally supply. In this one stanza I sense a number of spiritual references. We are all one forms the song’s central message: black or white, “Together they grow to see the light”. There is the essense of the Byrds’ song, Turn, Turn, Turn, the turning of the season, a time for every purpose — the world turns by day and then by night. And underlying it all runs the eastern, Daoist thread of balanced opposites, opposing forces; without the darkness, there is no light.

So I wonder…is it the catchy little melody? The playful rhythm? The nursery rhyme qualities of the lyrics? What had me playing this song over and over and over again as an 11 year-old? Was I, even then, expressing myself politically, culturally, socially? Was I already learning to feed my soul? I’ve written elsewhere, your body knows more about your spiritual well-being than your mind does; teach your mind to listen to it. I think, also, that your spirit can call out to your mind and body, saying, “feed me.” On the surface it’s a simple-seeming song that, nonetheless, enchanted a young boy, sparking in him a love of music and signaling the early steps of a long spiritual journey.

More than all that, sometimes a human creation rises into the world when needed most and that need catapults it into the social consciousness, just the way Black and White did in 1972, solidifying the gains of a political, social and spiritual movement that originally created it. These creations combine elements of exquisite popular artistry with layered expressions of timeless, eternal meaning. These creations indicate a social and spiritual collective consciousness that’s rising up and saying, “feed me.”

Yummy…a little Joy to the World. <smile>

2 Responses to “Black and white, darkness without light: a spiritual journey begins on a Three Dog Night”

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  1. Gary says:

    Man, that song brought back memories. It reminds me of sultry nights in New Guinea and hot days in a car driving somewhere. I agree with so much of what you wrote, about music being the wellspring of spiritual uplift and also as a powerful medium for conveying political messages. I guess like you say everyone is spiritual in some ways, some more than others – and yes we all need sustenance. But I’ve known people who can go about their day and seemingly not notice a single thing that’s happening around them other than matters to do with their work or themselves directly – cocooned.

  2. Peter says:

    [smile] I’ve known plenty of the cocooned, and know plenty more. That’s OK. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re all on a journey, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. I don’t think anyone can insulate themselves from their own spirit so much as to be completely unaffected by spiritual events, energy or experience.

    Being in Noosa last summer provided a great example. It’s one of the most energetic places I’ve ever experienced, and even people who claimed to be non-spiritual sensed there was something ‘different’ about Noosa that couldn’t be explained by the beauty of its seaside locale with the National Park right there, or by the peaceful, loving community of people who choose to be there, or any other rationally identifiable reason.

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