Béla Fleck and his partner Abigail Washburn hint at a new harmony possible between the sexes
Béla Fleck’s fingers flew.
No wonder he’s earned 14 Grammy Awards, based on the banjo mastery he displayed earlier this month at a concert in Berkeley.
He put me — and probably the entire audience of several hundred — in a trance with an instrumental number that was by turns melodically tender and powerfully virtuosic.
As authoritative as Fleck was, though, he did not dominate the performance that night.
Matching him in musicality and stage presence was his partner and wife, Abigail Washburn.
A skilled banjo player in her own right, Washburn also is one of the most versatile vocalists I know of. Her songs range from “old-time” music to Chinese folk songs (she has spent significant time in China and speaks Mandarin) to new, poignant ballads about parenting her and Fleck’s two young children.
Plus she’s a crack comic. After Fleck finished a mesmerizing solo on a pint-sized instrument called a banjo ukulele, Washburn turned to him and said: “You can do a lot with that little thing.”
The audience at the Freight and Salvage auditorium exploded with laughter. And despite the dirty-joke edge, the fun was good and clean. We were laughing with both Washburn and Fleck. If anything, Washburn’s comment highlighted the potency and attractiveness of Fleck’s sensitive yet skilled version of masculinity.
That laughter was a taste of a better way possible for men and women. A relationship that’s less a battle of the sexes than a duet of equals.
Boy, do we need a different dynamic when it comes to how men and women get along. And new ways to make space for people who don’t fit neatly into either of the male or female categories.
The past few years can be seen as a raging gender war, with many men defending a model of malehood that is fundamentally about pecking orders of power. And these pecking orders typically have favored those with penises.
One reading of Donald Trump’s rise is the political dramatization of the patriarchy defending itself against an emerging human consciousness that is flatter, fairer and more feminine.
This isn’t just about those men at the pinnacles of power — men like Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh and Les Moonves. It’s about guys across the socio-economic spectrum growing anxious about a changing world. A world where collaboration and persuasion are proving to be far more productive than displays of domination. Where vulnerability and empathy are more effective than ruthlessness, phony claims of strength and emotional unavailability. The key to success at one of the of the most successful companies in the 21st century — Google — turns out to be “psychological safety.” Caring, rather than scaring, produces the best result today.
Put simply, many men don’t know how to make sense of this less manly society. I include myself in the ranks of the fellows trying to figure it out. Guys in my generation — Gen X — were given strong messages that you have to be a provider, that maximizing your individual potential by winning the rat race is the way to go. That model might have worked reasonably well for white men in the post-World War II period. But from the mid-1970s onward, the economic playing field has been tilting in favor of the already-rich. Financial insecurity has become commonplace, while our social safety net is woefully full of holes and not springy enough to help people bounce back from layoffs or other hardships.
In the context of this worrisome work situation, America has whipsawed from the unifying ideals of Barack Obama to a flirtation with the anti-corporate crusade of Bernie Sanders to the demagoguery of Donald Trump. In effect, Trump has played to our worse fears as men. Claiming that our problems stem from immigrants and foreign countries stealing what’s ours. That the long-overdue reckoning of #metoo is about mad feminists trying to ruin decent dudes. That the answer is a simple return to a brutish brotherhood where the ultimate power comes from others fearing you.
Trumpism would have us leave in place the sexist attitudes that I grew up with — and that led me and others to harm some of the women in our lives.
The good news is that we’re on the hunt for alternatives to he-man masculinity. You can see this in the recent Washington Post series examining how boys are being raised. In the promising openness to gender fluidity among younger people. To the way adolescents like my son are paving a new way that leaves behind the misogyny, homophobia and hyper-competition that were essential element of manhood when I was a youth.
To me, this momentum toward a new, better masculinity dovetails with a broader shift in our collective human culture. I’m talking about the progress toward a “teal” consciousness described by authors like Ken Wilber and Frederic Laloux. The purpose-driven, egalitarian, holistic aspects of this mindset suggest to me the contours of a “Man of Teal.”
This term came to me during a trip I took to Alaska last year, when the mouth of a glacier reminded me of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. That image, combined with my enthusiasm for teal principles, led me to make a connection between the “man of steel” and the notion of a “man of teal.” After all, Superman captures teal qualities pretty well. He’s about helping others rather than enriching himself. He has an everyman aspect through his Clark Kent alter-ego and a collaborative streak seen in his participation in the Justice League. And he has an introspective, emotional side that led him to need his Fortress of Solitude.
I hardly expected to see the Man of Teal at the Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn concert. But he showed up in the form of Fleck.
I actually had been more drawn to the Washburn part of the duo, based on my familiarity with her albums. Fleck’s banjo brilliance soon won me over. But not at Washburn’s expense. For one thing, the two of them played beautifully together. At times, they moved through long instrumental numbers where she played something of a bass guitar to his lead melody work.
But if he is the stronger technician, he didn’t press the point. Or rather, the duo didn’t emphasize him over her. It was a concert of equals. This was partly because Washburn did the lion’s share of the singing and bantering with the audience. But there also was a moment when Fleck literally stepped aside to let Washburn shine.
I play a role in the story here. It involved their encore. As they stepped back to the stage, I yelled out, “Bright Morning Stars!”
This Appalachian folk song is one of my Washburn favorites. She does a breathtaking version on her City of Refuge album.
Washburn heard me. “Oh, that’s a good one,” she responded. “But he doesn’t play on it,” she said, gesturing to her husband. Fleck, though, urged her to sing it by herself. When she hesitated, he walked off the stage and took a seat in the front row — drawing laughs with this insistence that she take the spotlight.
So Washburn sang the tune. And she asked the audience to join her. I did so, as did much of the audience. I tried to harmonize on the final refrain:
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Day is a’breaking
In my soul
It is for me. And I think it is beginning to break for all of us. Day is a’breaking in the souls of men across the country and across the world. We’re beginning to see the light of a better kind of masculinity, a way to be a man that can be skillfully strong and a fierce defender of what’s right without having to overpower or belittle anyone. A new, sacred masculinity that can make beautiful music with the sacred feminine that’s also on the rise.
Fleck and Washburn are leading the way. During the intermission of their show, the notion of Béla being a Man of Teal was all but illuminated for me. The T-shirts on sale highlighted their 2017 album Echo in the Valley, and portrayed the pair with banjos, back to back. With their names, trees, mountains and the circular boarder all in teal.
Of course I bought one.
The tealy image said theirs isn’t just a romance. It’s also a relationship of peers that looks outward. With a musical message of true partnership between the sexes.
Thank you, Béla and Abigail, for helping us hear a new harmony.