John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

A Song For George Floyd

Newly written, by Tom Prasada-Rao, it’s a quietly powerful anthem for these times.

By - Jun 16th, 2020 03:51 pm
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George Floyd mural. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

George Floyd mural. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

I’ve been struggling to write anything for the last two weeks. If you are human and watching the news, you may be dealing with something akin to PTSD. After watching what has to be the most important iPhone video ever made, one that has the potential of bringing the country to a full turn on racial justice, I’ve been trying to gather my wits and failing miserably. It was shot by a 17 year old girl in Minneapolis and we watch in horror, as she must have. In it, a bad cop executes a black man so nonchalantly he could have been snuffing out a cigarette. Try to write about music after that; it’s just frivolous — a denial of what is going on in our country right now.

I’ve tried writing about a fun song, thinking it might take people’s minds off of George Floyd and the ongoing tale of woe that is the coronavirus. I got two or three paragraphs in and my enthusiasm evaporated. Then I started and scrapped a laundry list of protest songs. It seemed like something a feature writer in USA Today might come up with to please an editor. Then a friend sent me a video of a guy named Tom Prasada-Rao singing a simple heartbroken song called “$20 Bill.” I think we can talk about this one for a while.

The song, which I heard once and knew immediately I’d be writing about it, is sad. It’s not as sad as watching a man’s life slowly being taken away; the stakes are lower. It’s sad in a way that makes you feel the terrible injury that radiates outward after an act like that. It’s sad in the way it expresses how cheap life is to some and how dear it is to others. It’s also beautiful.

It’s especially beautiful to me because, having tried, I know how hard it is to do this right. I imagine songwriters around the country and the world trying to be the ones who write the song about this incident. I picture earnest efforts and the writers anticipating a possible rush of glory while thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this goes viral?” Well they can all put their guitars down. Maybe they’ll get the next one; this one is a classic:

Some people die for honor
Some people die for love
Some people die while singing
To the heavens above
Some people die believing
In the cross on Calvary’s hill
And some people die In the blink of an eye
For a $20 bill

Some people go out in glory
(Yeah) with the wind at their back
Some get to tell their own story
Write their own epitaph
Sometimes you see it coming
Sometimes you don’t know until
You run out of breath
With a knee on your neck
For a $20 bill

Brother, I never knew you
And now I never will
But I make this promise to you
I’ll remember you still

Take, eat – let this be our communion
It’s time to break the bread
Do this in remembrance
Just like the good book said
Sometimes the wine is a sacrament
Sometimes the blood is just spilled
Sometimes the law is the devil’s last straw
The future unfulfilled
Like the dream they killed
For a $20 bill

© 2020 Tom Prasada-Rao

Bill Withers comes to mind, as does Bob Dylan. Withers, for the dead simple approach, and Dylan for the unforgettable turns of phrase like  “Sometimes the law Is the devil’s last straw.” I have to admit I had no knowledge of this guy. As you can tell from his spoken intro, he’s been in chemo. That puts him in the high risk category due to the coronavirus. As a completely unnecessary bonus, he’s probably not too comfortable driving around at night, being a black man. This doesn’t stop him from singing tenderly and with compassion — it probably enhances it. He replaces justifiable anger with resignation and the song becomes a stinging condemnation.

I watched a few of his videos and saw a slightly different performer. He’s obviously lost weight in his battle with cancer, but he’s gained a stunning directness, shedding some of the more decorative aspects in his already relaxed style. Whether he had any choice in this stylistic change, I can’t tell. His voice is not as smooth now and, instead of intricate fingerpicking, he brushes the strings with his thumb — a sound I’m partial to for its warmth and brightness.

He’s playing a four string tenor guitar in this video. It’s kind of a relic few use nowadays. With it’s pickguard dangling perilously, it only adds to the fragility of the moment. These guitars are tuned differently, like a mandolin in a slightly lower range. Chords voiced in this tuning feature larger intervals between the notes and create a big open sound. It’s a modest instrument — along with the equally modest vocal, this tribute to George Floyd couldn’t be more perfect.

We hope against hope this is the hinge history will turn on and, when it does, that it turns the right way. My skepticism is always pretty firmly in place, but there’s hope in this unique moment and the numbers don’t lie: the majority of people in this country are decent and want change. Please let this be the case, I’m tired of sad little masterpieces that get the latest tragedy just right. I’d like to trade them in for some songs of celebrations about five months from now. I hope Tom Prasada-Rao will be there with the perfect song for that dance.

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