Shedding Kindness With Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen

inThe Artistson February 16, 2021

By Jed Finley

These days it seems like everybody’s got the blues. At least that’s what Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen tells me.

“I think a lot of people have the blues these days. It’s behind the frustration, this COVID nonsense, and the politics. People are still mad, what are they mad at? What do they have to be mad at? The anger and meanness is causing a lot of division. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.”

Pat and I have known each other since the summer of 2017 when I first ventured to Hillsborough, North Carolina, to intern at the Music Maker Relief Foundation. That was a marvelous summer for me, one that moved slow. I spent a lot of time with Pat and the rest of the Music Maker partner artists that summer. I picked folks up at the airport and shuttled them to their gigs. I lugged amplifiers and guitars and drum kits to venues. It was a summer spent in service to some of the most important artists and musicians in this country.

Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen is shedding kindness during the pandemic.

Two months later, I was back at school, finishing my undergraduate degree, and it wasn’t long before my graduation when I got a call from the folks at Music Maker. A position on their staff had opened up, and they invited me to apply. After a few interviews over the phone and in person, I was back in business at Music Maker — or back in service, rather. During my time working as a program associate at Music Maker, Pat Cohen and I became fast friends.

Despite being separated by time and distance, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, we have worked hard to get into the habit of getting together over the phone at least once a week. Our conversations stretch here, there, and everywhere — and sometimes last for hours — but Pat and I wanted to use our most recent conversation to discuss some things that matter to all the listeners, readers, and supporters who are part of the Music Maker family.

COVID-19 has hit every single one of us. Some have it easier than others, and many have it much worse. Quarantine tends to make us want to put on our rose-colored glasses and reminisce and romanticize the “before times,” but those times were materially different for Pat and me. We both had steady work then. 

I’ve left Music Maker to study in for a master’s in Folklore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the gigs that sustained Pat have disappeared, thanks to the pandemic.

My chosen field has been in perennial “crisis” for the last half century, but Pat’s chosen field, the music industry, has never stopped changing, and it has always demanded that artists and musicians keep up with those changes. The past few decades have seen massive changes in the ways folks produce, distribute, and consume music across the globe, and every working musician has had to adapt and respond. And though musicians have always had to keep up with the changes in whatever piece they’re playing, the changes we see emerging across the landscape of the music industry do not appear as regularly as the turnaround in a 12-bar blues.

Sometimes, it seems to me like COVID has given me the opportunity to evaluate things I’ve taken for granted. One of those is live music. Live music always provided a means for artists to share their music and for audiences to listen, enriching us both. This was something I thought could never end. Live music is not only a tradition; it’s an institution. 

But these days, it’s not even an option. Neither for me, a listener, nor for Pat, a musician. And in a time like this one, my conversations with Pat have taken on even great importance.

Artists and musicians like Pat have built their lives and livelihoods creating art that makes life better for the rest of us. It’s a calling. Just like one man hears the call to be a preacher, so does the artist feel the call to make art. This is something Pat and I have talked about. For so many artists and musicians like her, there’s no other choice but to make music and to share it with people.

To those folks, Pat has this advice to share: “If you’re an artist right now in COVID times, then right now is the time you should be shedding.”

Practice Being Kind

Musicians have their own lingo. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Just like doctors and lawyers, truck drivers and postal carriers, every group of working people has its own common language, its own shorthand.

One such word in the lexicon of jazz, blues, and gospel musicians is “shedding.” It means practicing, and it refers to holing up in the woodshed away from the house or the club or church, either alone or with fellow musicians.

Now, shedding doesn’t have to happen in an actual woodshed. The thing that strikes me the most about this term is the connection between space and action. A crucial feature built into the meaning of “shedding” is the act of creating a space dedicated to practice, to hard work, and to getting better.

Jazz musicians in particular love to talk about “shedding,” but my most recent conversations with Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen have taught me a lesson about shedding that we can all use in our lives, whether or not we are musicians: “Just start practicing being kind to people.” Pat reminded me we must try, we must go out of our way to do something nice for folks, whether they are your sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, or complete strangers.

We talked about kindness for a long while before we talked about a special way that musicians can practice it. Pat told me, “You know, if you are an artist and you’re in this business right now, now is the time that you should be shedding.”

Both imperatives are about practice: if you’re a musician, practice your instrument. If you’re a human, practice being kind.

We’re all holed up in our homes and going crazy from loneliness. The least we could do is take this time alone to make our own lives better and to make life better for others. Pat had one exercise she recommended to her fellow artists to accomplish both tasks:

“It’s too cold to go out, so I can’t go out now, and especially with all of this COVID business. It makes you not really feel like going out a lot. You know, today, I took out my tracks, and my way of rehearsing was to make phone calls to different people and just sing them some songs. Give them an at home concert. You can do that, and it helps you, too. You know, it’s like the gift that keeps on giving. Not everyone can do that specifically, but I said it’s time for me to pay it forward and do something nice for somebody.”

Pat’s prescription knocks out two birds with one stone. We can practice kindness and our craft at the same time. We can share our gifts, improve ourselves, and make life a little better for everyone else — all from within our own COVID quarantine woodsheds.

“You really can brighten up somebody’s day,” Pat said. “You’re sharpening up your chops. You’re getting your rehearsal in. You could learn new tools. You can do anything you want. You’re reaching people, and you’re helping people by doing that, too. You’re talking to them, spending time with them, giving them something they can’t get anywhere else.”

With the chaos and conflagrations of our present moment, I invite everyone to heed Pat’s words. Instead of stewing in our present discontent, isolated and alone, let us cultivate kindness and cultivate our talents. Let’s share these with others while we improve ourselves. We’re all in the woodshed right now, so let’s make the most of our time there.

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