Born in Jersey, Made in Detroit
The lessons of David Blair
Published: August 3, 2011
Last Sunday, at the corner of Cass Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Detroit, musicians, poets, artists, politicos and friends by the hundreds convened under the very hot sun, to mourn their recently departed compadre David Blair — or, more often, just Blair. They carried instruments of all sorts: tambourines, kazoos, various hand drums, guitars, one accordion. A New Orleans-style brass section was on hand and helped dampen the weeping, which was contagious. It had been a week to the day since we'd learned that Blair, 43 (though you'd never guess his age), had died.
On Saturday, July 23, Blair's body was discovered by a maid at the Corktown Inn, where he'd often go for the A/C during summer's hottest days. Detroit was under an advisory, with a heat index of 98 degrees, and Blair had mentioned to more than one friend the day before that he hadn't been feeling well. A medical examiner's report is pending.
A week and a day later, some of those dearest to Blair held up a banner that read "Detroit Loves Blair." See, the social activist, poet and singer-songwriter David Blair was, in his words, "Made in Detroit," even if he was born in New Jersey. He loved this city and that love was reciprocated. They had claimed each other more than a decade ago.
When news of his passing hit the Internet, Blair's Facebook page became a moving, real-time memorial. A blog written by Brett Callwood posted on MT's website quickly became one of the most viewed articles in our site's history. Then on Sunday, an incredibly diverse array of Detroiters collected to march behind the banner: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, straight, gay, transgendered, whole families and lone mourners.
To such melodies as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and with a police escort following behind, Blair's Detroit family slowly marched a half-mile north toward the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit.
It was a celebration of life. You hear about those when someone dies, but rarely does a memorial feel so celebratory. There was a palpable sense of soulful rejoicing. With Technicolor handkerchiefs and umbrellas raised above marchers' heads, passers-by were curious as to what was going on.
Inside the sweltering confines of the church, Audra Kubat played heartbreaking arpeggios, minor falls without major lifts, after which Blair's band, the Boyfriends, ripped into one of the late singer's original recordings. The song's heartbreaking theme, it seemed, was Blair's unyielding lust for life.
The church was filled to capacity, and in its pews sat some of Detroit's most serious musicians and poets, from Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett to the rapper and activist Ilana Weaver, who performs under the name Invincible.
After one of Blair's longtime best friends and bandmates, Dale Wilson, delivered the eulogy, a string of poets, friends, including Blair's partner, Dan Stalter, delivered speeches. The shared message was that Blair worked under self-imposed deadlines and had always seemed rushed to get his work done, so if the several hundred gatherers wanted to respect his memory, the one thing we can do is continue to fight for those who are underrepresented and produce our heart's work, whatever that might be. Let life be curious. Be proud. Write poems, write songs — share them with lovers and strangers.
Blair worked with many community organizations and often worked with children. Recently, he was working with the Capuchin Rosa Parks Youth Music Class, teaching them the power of call-and-response singing. They took to the stage and started belting out "When the Saints Go Marching In" just as he'd taught them. The call was heard, and Blair's congregation responded with cathartic resonance. Then the brass section, led by parade marshal Larry Gabriel, brought the song — and the people — out of the church in a New Orleans "second line" procession and marched the surrounding blocks of Detroit. And the people sang.
Upon the heavy outpour of memory and condolence online, Metro Times gathered a handful of testimonials and remembrances from those whose lives Blair touched. An online memorial exists at rememberingblair.wordpress.com. Also see dblair.org.
The night that the world learned of the death of Michael Jackson, who we all know was such a huge influence on Blair, we all gathered at the Motown Records building (Hitsville USA). That night we danced and laughed and celebrated his life. Through his music we were lifted out of our sadness and instead of dwelling on his death, we were able to remember his life. That spirit was so much a part of Blair. Turning destruction into beauty, sadness into laughter, anger into joy. I hope we can all remember that today as we mourn the loss of a great talent and even greater friend. Sing his songs, tell his stories, and remember his passion and exuberance for life and how to live it.
> Email Travis R. Wright