It was April 29, 1975. Bonnie Raitt was playing the Capitol Theatre. Between songs, someone came out on stage and whispered in her ear. She nodded and went on to play the song she was going to play anyway. After that song she announced to the crowd, “Saigon has fallen!” A cheer erupted and the concert kicked into another gear.
The concert crowd spilled onto the street at the end for an impromptu party, which moved to a nearby street to go long into the night.
I’ve just read Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner”, the chronicle of a 1980s childhood spent trying to be a “Real American”. She ate the foods and adopted the fads that I had spent my youth rejecting. She embraced the myths that unfolded before her. It is only the privilege of belonging that affords us the luxury of rejection. What does it mean to “be an American”?
To those of us who had opposed that war, the fall of Saigon meant the hope that the Vietnamese could find a new life out from under the thumb of the US, and France before us. To some who had fought in that war, the aftermath was a time to help the country rebuild after a generation of occupation. To those like Ms Nguyen, it was a bewildering time, a childhood escape (with her father but not her mother) and an embrace of middle class US life in a town that was not ready to accept her.
But that night, it was first and foremost a celebration of spring. It was the cultural event of the season, an annual rite that we weren’t always aware of until looking back.
Bonnie Raitt was schooled in the blues, playing with Muddy Waters (with whom I saw her in 1978), Junior Wells, Fred McDowell, and John Lee Hooker. She recorded the work of Sippie Wallace and appeared in concert with her. When commercial success eluded her, she also played with the likes of James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Delbert McClinton, and anyone else you might care to name. Her duets with John Prine on “Angel from Montgomery” are the stuff of legend.
She became an overnight success nearly 20 years in, with a single on the charts in John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love”, a Grammy for a duet with John Lee Hooker (“I’m in the Mood”) and three other Grammys for that album and her title song “Nick of Time”. 2022 brought a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys.
She’s not done yet, having just completed a sold out tour of the northeast (with NRBQ), with a run through the south in May and continuing east in June (with Lucinda Williams), followed by the rest of the country with Mavis Staples.