Was there a touch of spring
in the air?
And did she have a pink dress on? …
Wasn’t your first love
A very precious time?
It was predictable that the accolades for the late poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron focused on his political commentary and searing insight into the tenor of America’s transitional era of 1960-1980. His “We Almost Lost Detroit,” about the partial meltdown at the Fermi nuclear power plant, was as valid then as it was prescient, 12 nuclear meltdowns later, in this year of Fukushima Daiichi.
But there were two Gil Scott-Herons: the social commentator and the romantic poet. And for two young girls raised by a single father, the overlooked romantic was an integral part of their upbringing.
One of the advantages of being a poet is that no one criticizes you for lacking a singing voice. And to two young girls, the raspy, earnest, off-key, note-breaking Scott-Heron was just another dad, but one who also had a backup band — which meant that he was the perfect musician to join me in the nightly ritual of singing them to sleep.
Scott-Heron’s ballad “A Very Precious Time,” from his Winter in America album, was all about the wonder of first love. But Brie, my youngest, and Kir, four years her senior, were too young to know that. But they did have pretty pink dresses they pulled out for Easter, in a spring ritual that accompanied the blossoming of the dogwood and cherry trees.
And when she smiled
Her shy smile
Could you almost
Touch the warm?
The closing line would inevitably prompt a “You like our smiles and dresses, don’t you, Daddy?”
“Yes, dear. You have pretty smiles. Now close your eyes.”
Scott-Heron had a ballad for all occasions, something to fit the stories of blacks in America as told by me or the girls’ elders. Their great-grandfather Walker Smith — or GG-Pop — gave them several books on black cowboys and regaled them with tales of how his grandfather, the first Walker Smith, wielded a rifle and sword, rode with the Pennsylvania Cavalry and pretty much won the Battle of Gettysburg single-handedly. So when Scott-Heron’s gunpowder-rough voice intoned:
Brother Man run to Nebraska
After the Civil War was through …
Rootin’-tootin’ Wild West shootin’ up Brothers!
Though his-story don’t teach us none …
They would pipe up from the covers about GG-Pop’s cowboy books and how much they liked riding horses. And if it was a scorcher in August, or the holiday season after Thanksgiving, they wanted to hear Gil and me in a duet on “Winter in America,” which, to adults, dealt with the Republican push-back against civil rights but to the kids brought cheerful images of snowy days and family gatherings at Christmas.