Common Chords: A Unifying Nonprofit for a Dissonant Time

by Todd Nissen

Partner, The Vella Group
Published On: June 7, 2023Categories: Insights, Nonprofit Profiles

When Rev. Robert Jones and Matt Watroba take the stage at The Ark, a folk and roots music club in Ann Arbor, they waste no time telling the 250 fifth graders to shout the chorus to Hank Williams’ 1949 classic “Mind Your Own Business.” The kids are happy to comply. It’s way better than spending the day in class. But while they may not realize it, they are in a different kind of classroom. One that will provide them with a lesson in diversity — musical and otherwise.

That’s because the song’s three chords and five notes show up over and over again across the rich tapestry of American music, whether it’s Bill Monroe, Elvis, The Temptations or Michael Jackson. The chord and note progression may be played as Delta blues or in a Black church gospel style. As boogie woogie in a honky tonk. Or with a claw hammer style banjo at a blue grass festival full of white folks.

All those different branches grew from the same musical tree, Matt tells the students. “We find out from the history of our music that we have more similarities than differences,” he says. To keep things entertaining, Robert plays a blues lick on the harmonica with his nose. It’s a hit with the kids.

Blues from the Lowlands Meets Folks Like Us

Welcome to Common Chords, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2018 by the two old friends to address issues of race, equity, similarities and differences. They know each other and the material well. They first met in the 1980s while hosting adjacent Saturday afternoon shows on WDET, Detroit’s public radio station. Robert, a Black blues aficionado from Detroit, oversaw Blues from the Lowlands. Matt, who is white and grew up in Plymouth, Mich., loving Pete Seeger, produced Folks Like Us.

Before a global pandemic upended normal life, Common Chords was a regular thing at The Ark, thanks to a grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund, and donated time and expertise from Ark staff. Ark representatives cast a wide net for schools to participate. Ultimately, 2,700 grade and middle school kids came from across southeast Michigan — Goodrich in Genesee County, Waterford and Troy in Oakland County, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Fast forward to April of this year. Robert and Matt performed Common Chords for the first time at The Ark since October 2019. Over four performances, 1,000 kids bounded through The Ark’s iconic, photo-lined halls to watch the show. Robert and Matt have tweaked some things. They now refer to music streaming since kids don’t always know about CDs.

Different Opinions, Shared Values

As the world has opened up post-pandemic, Robert and Matt have found other audiences for the Common Chords mission, which is described as using “music and the arts to tear down the walls that divide us, in order to bring us into a common understanding of one another.”

But how is that working for people now, when themes like diversity get caught in the crossfire of our current culture wars? “We never mention the word diversity,” says Matt. “We show it to them, and they fill in the blanks.”

Last October they performed at RiddleFest. The event in Burnsville, N.C., is an annual tribute to Lesley Riddle, a Black musician who influenced the development of early country music through his collaboration with A.P. Carter and the Carter family.

In early May the musicians traveled to Statesville, N.C., where they brought the Common Chords theme to an event called Stronger Together – Celebrating American Roots Music.

Here’s how Robert describes the broader message for our current era: “Instead of you celebrating your music and me celebrating my music as separate, we start to develop the connections that the music has. Ultimately, just like a sports team or anything else, the idea is if you can celebrate each individual contribution as it makes the whole stronger, then that’s something we can agree on.”

Matt and Robert put their own friendship in that category. “Matt and I have been friends for over 35 years, but there’s stuff we disagree on. A lot,” says Robert.

Some examples:

  • Organized religion. “Robert is the pastor of a Baptist church, and I don’t belong to a church,” says Matt. “In fact, I don’t adhere to any organized religion at all, and yet we connect spiritually in many ways.”
  • “Believe it or not, I’m probably more politically conservative than Matt,” according to Robert.
  • Detroit Tigers. “Matt loves Tigers baseball,” says Robert. “I can take it or leave it.”

How do they deal with it? “We don’t fight about it — we just have different opinions and different viewpoints,” says Robert. “But the point is we have literally the same values. We can share values. We just don’t have to be the same person.”

What do audiences think when they hear the musical version of that? One fifth grader filing out of The Ark on his way to the bus in April put his experience this way: “Nine out of 10.”

We’ll take it.

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