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Art, Entertainment and Healing After 9/11
How music, poetry and comedy helped Americans find the way forward following an unthinkable tragedy
Political and military action following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were swift and decisive. But those actions didn’t bring healing to fraught emotions or help people figure how to go on in the aftermath. They didn’t answer questions like what did it mean to be American? To be a human? To live in a world where such uncertainty and devastation are possible?
For some of those answers, people looked to artists. Following 9/11, it was musicians, poets and comedians who displayed their humanity, helped find ways to feel normal and showed where kindness, beauty and hope could still be found.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we’re paying tribute to some of the artists and entertainers who helped show the way forward.
Laughter After 9/11: Writing Comedy in the Wake of Tragedy
In the anguish following 9/11, the question eventually and inevitably arose: “would we ever be able to laugh again?”
At the time, a number of television programs were not only set in New York City but featured the Big Apple as central character. Sex and the City. Late Night with David Letterman. Friends. Saturday Night Live. Audiences looked to these shows for cues about if, how and when they might again find humor that could help them heal.
Six months after the collapse of the World Trade Center, L.P. Ferrante conducted an interview with some of the era’s most influential comic minds for the entertainment industry publication Written By1. When asked if any of them thought they wouldn’t be able to continue writing jokes, Jim Brogan, best known for his wholesome, non-political stand-up acts, quickly and simply responded “No…This is what I do for a living.”
However, he made a firm decision about where he would draw the line: “I really don’t think the events of September 11th or any of the people surrounding it are subjects for humor.”
But for comics who were political, like Al Franken, who launched a formal career in politics following 9/11, it was complicated.
There was concern that jokes about the military or President Bush would seem divisive and “un-American” given their high approval rating following the attacks. So, for Franken, the line drawn was more subtle. “My humor is more ‘be skeptical of authority when it’s being hypocritical.’ I don’t think you can now, or in the past, make the generalization ‘don’t trust the government.’”
Other comedians found ways to provoke laughs while acknowledging 9/11 but without going into politics. According to Gabe Abelson, a former writer for Late Night with David Letterman, Letterman’s approach came from place of optimism, focusing on “how the city actually began pulling itself together; how everyone was supportive of one another.”
Abelson explained, “New York was in crisis and still needed healing and reassurance rather than edgy comedy. So, Dave would do a joke like this: ‘There’s a guy who stands in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater and every morning on my way to work he gives me the finger. Well, today he gave me the finger and a hug.’”
Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry
“[I]n the contemporary context, one of the most signiﬁcant events for Arab Americans occurred on September 11, 2001, when hijackers took over four airplanes and crashed two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, one into the Pentagon, and one in a ﬁeld in Pennsylvania,” wrote editor Hayan Charara in the introduction to Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry2.
“Arguably no other happening served more to reify Arab American identity,” he wrote, as when “the world discovered, bit by horrifying bit, that nineteen Arab men were responsible for the worst attack of terrorism ever enacted against the United States.”
The works selected for this collection, by 39 poets including D.H. Melhem, Elmaz Abiinader, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marian Haddad and others, reveal the complicated emotional aftermath of the terrorist attacks as experienced by Arab Americans. Though this collection was published in 2008, seven years after the events of 9/11, Charara wrote, “Regrettably, many Americans still register the complaint that since the attacks, Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans, and Muslim Americans have not spoken out enough against violence and terrorism.”
But he pushed back on this criticism, pointing out that “they have spoken out, and they have done so regularly, loudly, and in great numbers. Not a single Arab American poet in this anthology has overlooked the question of violence— how could any American poet, Arab or otherwise, reasonably do so?”
Yet, Charara argued, “preference (time, space, and attention) is given to more sinister Arabs, the likes of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi” and others with “far flung” extremist views that “cannot be taken seriously, at least not as representative of Arab American interests.”
“As a matter of necessity, then,” he continued, “Arab Americans (and many poets are among those at the forefront) work vigorously to dismantle the misguided and imbalanced (if not wholly irresponsible) images and knowledge otherwise produced.” This anthology is record of those voices speaking out – heartbroken, fearful, angry and compassionate, offering thoughtful, unique perspectives on politics, social issues and what it means to be human, living a quickly-changing, volatile world.
Sonny Rollins and Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert
On September 11, 2001, legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins witnessed the attacks from his New York apartment, located only blocks away from the World Trade Center, according to Frank A. Salamone in the journal Popular Music and Society3. The National Guard rescued him and his horn; then, just days later – at the urging of his wife, Lucille – the influential musician went on with a scheduled performance in Boston.
“He is one of the few true innovators in jazz, a real improviser,” Salamone wrote. And, the critic continued, “Like all true innovators, Sonny really needs to be challenged…The events of 9/11 did indeed challenge this most intelligent of all musicians.”
In true, brilliant form, Rollins channeled all the grief and anxiety of the moment into a thing of beauty. He opened the show with Frank Sinatra’s “Without a Song” and demonstrated the healing, cathartic power of music. Rollins himself said his performance “sound[ed] a bit like a purging of bad memories, while at the same time seeming hopeful about the future.”
Four years later Lucille died. Rollins agreed to release a recording of the concert as a live album, his first in two decades, as Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert4. The timing of this release further underscored the emotional complexity of the performance. As noted by Salamone, “While Sonny recorded in a studio is great, Sonny live is on another level completely.”
When Salamone reviewed the album, it was 2006 and the consequences of 9/11 continued to reverberate. Suicide attacks in Afghanistan had doubled over the previous year. A wave of sectarian violence was unfolding in Iraq. Despite growing concerns about privacy and civil liberties, President George W. Bush signed the controversial USA Patriot and Terrorism Reauthorization Act.
It was a time of tremendous uncertainty and turmoil, but as Salamone pointed out, “Music can and does help.” He concluded his review of Rollins’ live album with a note of gratitude for the artist, one of the nation’s better angels:
To know that America, for all our faults, can produce a genius such as Rollins, who is warm, emotional, and supremely intelligent, is to give us hope that we can once again become the country we were, not the petty people we threaten to become. Hurray for Sonny. He is a national treasure, indeed.
Learn more about additional topics and resources for 9/11 studies.
- Ferrante, L. P. (2002, 04). Laughter after 9/11: The beginning of irony: Writing comedy in the wake of tragedy. Written by (Archive: 1965-2015), 6, 28-31. Available from the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive.
- Charara, H. (Ed.). (2008). Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry. Available from Ebook Central and ProQuest One Literature.
- Salamone, F. A. (2006). Audio Reviews: Sonny Rollins - "Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert". Popular Music and Society, 29 (4), 474-475. Available from ProQuest Central, Arts Premium Collection and ProQuest One Literature.
- Sonny Rollins: Without a Song - The 9/11 Concert [Streaming Audio]. (2005). Milestone. (2005). Available from Music and Dance Online.