A repost from last year, in honor of Dr. King.
from the 1997 album Love Travels
Our antiseptic approach to the legends of American history often results in the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being reduced to four words and a three-day weekend. To prevent this in my own mind, I often revisit “Beautiful Fool”, a Don Henry composition that can be found on Kathy Mattea’s 1997 album Love Travels.
What I love about this song is its realism and its willingness to take on two voices of perspective at the same time. As an older woman reflects on King’s impact on her country and the sacrifices he was willing to make, she remembers her far less charitable opinion of him when he was alive: “Walter Cronkite preempted Disney one night, and all us kids were so upset. We thought you were a trouble instigator marching through our TV set.”
I particularly appreciate the line in the bridge that connects him to other peacemakers. Peacemaking is often confused with passiveness, when it actually requires far more work than reflexive response with violence. “Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ. History repeats itself so nice. Consistently we are resistant.” King modeled his use of nonviolent resistance after Gandhi’s success in India and used the Gospel to make the case to the fence-sitters, a powerful approach given that the same Bible was being used by his opposition to make the case for continued segregation and denial of human rights.
The description of him as a “beautiful fool” captures both the cynicism that was directed at him for attempting to “fight a fight without a fist” and the deep admiration for him trying, even if it was arguably in vain. I suspect that it requires a good dose of hopeless naïveté to change the world, especially when surrounded by cynics who tell you that it’s a waste of time to try. There will always be more of the cynics. After all, cynicism is little more than naïveté without the concern for humanity and willingness to put in any effort for a cause other than your own.
The song is open to wide interpretation, but I feel that the final verse captures when the narrator moves from being a cynical observer of King to one who sees him appreciatively as a beautiful fool: “I saw you on the black and white with blacks and whites applauding you. I saw you on another time without a sign of life in you.”