Joy at the Joy of Tracy Chapman

I want to circle back to a theme that clearly resonated with people in my post on Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce last week. It’s a concept I’ve come to now understand has a name: “Freudenfreude.”

Loosely defined as:
“Taking joy/pleasure in other people’s joy or pleasure.”

It’s a concept defined as the linguistic opposite of “Schadenfreude.”
“Taking pleasure in other people’s pain or suffering.”

A part of last week’s post that clearly resonated with many was when I wrote the following:

“We have all lost the ability to simply “enjoy the enjoyment” of others.
We can no longer, it seems, ever celebrate any success of any other human being.
We have so completely swallowed the cruel lie that life is a “zero sum game,” that any success by any other human beings must be, de facto, “taking away from me.”

This is tragic, really. Deeply tragic. And dangerous. It’s dangerous because envy, jealousy, bitterness, and depression, can lead individuals and societies to some very dark places.”


This leads me to write about last nights performance of “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs. For me, personally, it was a moment of profound Freudenfreude.

The performance of Joni Mitchel was as well; and a new song by Billy Joel, and performance by Annie Lennox, also made me verklempt. But I’d seen videos of Joni’s return to concert stage last year with the incomparable Brandi Carlile; and, they, Joel, and Lennox, were announced performers. I was ready for those moments.

It was Tracy Chapman’s unannounced return to the Grammy stage —playing the same song again, thirty-five years later— that got to me the most. It clearly got to the crowd too. Many of us, whoever we are, we reacted with great “Freudenfreude.”

I was bawling.

Let me back up a moment to this album (pic of my copy…) and the year 1989. I want to do this, because, also as of last night, I am newly aware of a cultural conversation that’s been going on, ever since the CIS gendered straight White Combs cover the most iconic song from the Black Queer Chapman.

I somehow I missed all of this —I mean both the cover and the controversy— when it first erupted.
Even now, I should disclose: I have never heard the Combs’ version of the song. I’ve heard Chapman’s HUNDREDS and hundreds of times. But even last night, I heard folks claiming cultural appropriation and injustice about Combs’ choice to cover this song.

This is going to eventually lead me back to “Freudenfreude.”
But first, let’s talk about “Fast Car,” 1989, and Tracy Chapman…

That year was the end of what, imho (and I have claimed many times), was the bleakest musical decade, ever.

Your mileage may vary.

I have many good friends, including my wife, who have fiercely debated this assertion for many years. There *were* true stars that I now truly appreciate. But I stand by how I feel. No need to lecture me. If that was your decade, rock on.

While my fondness for 80s music has definitely grown over the years, the general feeling still remains. The 80s were a horrible time for music. (Please, I beg you, don’t get lost in this tangent…I’m just inviting you to understand this is how some of us feel…) As a guy whose wheelhouse was always the classic songwriters of the 1970s, the 1980s were a wasteland.

On radio and on stages, acoustic guitars disappeared, replaced by keytars and overly permed hair. Every artist —even those who’d always centered lyrics and acoustic instruments— either chose, or were pressured to add, synthesizers, 808 beats…and, dear God, a freaking saxophone solo on every attempted hit song.

It was a rough time for any of us that loved acoustic music. A desperate time, really. It felt like some permanent shift had happened; banishing the music we loved to some forever cultural trash heap.

And then, at the very end of the decade, James Taylor makes a comeback, the Indigo Girls explode out of Georgia, and Suzanne Vega is hitting the charts from New York. And in 1989, an African American woman from Cleveland has a hit with a song that CENTERS the acoustic guitar…and is just a damn great story/song.

Along with the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman not only broke ground by being a Queer artist in the very Straight, very White, and very Male, space of acoustic and folk; she almost single-handedly recovered the acoustic guitar, and the ability to pause to enjoy the words of a song, out of the dustbin. At the the time, her race and orientation were critiqued in many folk/acoustic spaces. I cannot possibly fathom what it meant to her to keep going in some of those spaces. And I bet many of you can’t either. But the song was HUGE.

And people who were not Queer or Black sang it at the top of their lungs. My own girlfriend, later wife, and I went to see her in Fort Worth and did this. (We saw the Indigo Girls multiple times, belting out “Closer to Fine.”) We got such joy from these shows.

Millions of people came to love the song.
Including, I have now learned, the Father of Luke Combs, who passed on a love of the song to his son.

Because that’s what a good song does. It becomes universal. It becomes something that is birthed out into the world, and takes on a life of its own, transcending identities and even generations.

All songwriters (and good preachers) know this. You can shepherd the process of what you WRITE…but you cannot control how it will be HEARD…who will hear it…or what they will take from it. All of this is fully beyond our control, and enters back into the realm of the mysterious and mystical.

For example, years ago I wrote a song about moving out of our house (the one we live in now…), and my hopes that we might one day “Return” (The title of the song…). After a particular live show where I played this song, a woman came up in tears and said “I really loved your song about reincarnation…”

Did I try to correct or explain away her experience?
No, I did not.

Because that’s what the song meant to HER, and I do not, nor cannot, have any control over this.

This is music’s superpower. This is the gift and blessing of songwriting, to be the vessel for some universal human experience. Or, at least, common ones. I have every faith it’s a gift and mystery Tracy Chapman fully understands.

I have no idea how she feels about the Combs’ cover. Google searches reveal very little.

— But I know that this morning, the Tracy Chapman-version of “Fast Car” is RIGHT NOW, NUMBER ONE on the iTunes Charts.

— I know that Tracy Chapman has won a CMA for “Country Song Of the Year,” becoming the first Black Woman to ever win that award, thirty-five years after the song first appeared.

–I know that you can count on one hand the songs that EVER do anything like that…come back decades after their first appearance.

— I know that last night a Queer Black Woman and a Straight White Man bridged identities and genres on the Grammy stage…singing an iconic song.

— I know that the camera panned to dozens of people…who cut across dozens of musical genres, races and identities…who were ALSO singing along.

And I know I burst into tears for it all.

A musical moment where the Queer community and its allies, and the Country Music community and its allies, are BOTH SINGING THE SAME SONG?

Sign me up for that, friends.
Sign our nation up for that.

By the way, in full transparency, you should be aware that apparently there are German-language linguists who trash the linguistic construction of the word “Freudenfreude.” They say, rightly, that’s it’s a made up concept that doesn’t hold in the original German.

It’s not a real German word,” they shriek.
“It sounds stupid if you know German,” they opine.
Go ahead and Google all of this, if you want. It’s somewhat depressing.

Leave to GERMANS to be too literal, get too critical, of a concept that we all KNOW is real, whatever you think of the word. Leave it to them to try to destroy “Freudenfreude” before we can all even come to understand just how important it to our ability to be happy, and experience true compassion for others. (1)

And this morning…after the first version of this post…two friends have helpfully guided me to the concept of “Mudita” from the Buddhist tradition. (I’m not Buddhist, but it feel like there’s an intuitively true connection to what I’m saying, for sure…)

It’s always a beautiful experience to take joy in someone else’s joy. As I wrote last week, and as I think we probably need to say over and over, we have too little of this today.
We tear down so easily. We build up so slowly.

Years ago, I watched a backhoe tear down an entire church building in about an hour. It was the old building at Northaven UMC, and we were building up a new one.
My plan was to go out every hour or so, and chronicle the demolition in a series of pictures through the day.
But I watched in horror as the machine cut through red bricks and wood crossbeams that smelled of history…in about an hour. I stood, mouth agape, as decades of history disappeared in minutes.
Conversely, it took more than two years to plan and build up the new building to replace that old one.

What a metaphor.

Sure, some old things NEED to be torn down.
That’s not my point here.

My point here is —in our current social media driven culture where opinions fly around in nanoseconds— to consider this:

It takes almost no time to tear down, to tear through, the joy of others.
It can take months and years to rediscover joy.

The pandemic and Trumpism remind us of this; and we all still struggle to SUSTAIN joy in this very broken world.

So, no, I clearly have no idea what it felt like to be Tracy Chapman on that stage last night.

But for all the world, it appears that not only was she beaming, but that she too —like many of us, across so many cultural identities in our divided and broken world— was, in that moment, also on the verge of tears.

And here was my thought as she played…can any non-musician (or, even most musicians!) fully understand what it must feel like to have a thirty-five-year-old song rediscovered by entirely new generations?

What a gift.
What a MOMENT of intersecting joy and mystical experience.

For me?

The most beautiful part of last night was my experience “Freudenfreude” …for Tracy Chapman herself.

Pic from: Tracy Chapman online


(1) To be clear: My last name is Anglicized German and my “Folkerth” ancestor came from there…)

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