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At the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, they have a section dedicated to all of the old blues legends that inspired the rock musicians of the fifties and sixties. It is a small but reverential exhibit, honoring these men (and some women) without whom rock music, as we know it, would not exist. It's a chance for every fan to learn more about the roots of the music they love so much. In particular, for younger people visiting the museum that may not know the history too well, it is a great opportunity to finally hear about people like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Willie Dixon, and Howlin' Wolf.
The exhibit is set up with short biographies of some of the bigger musicians, and with listening stations where you can hear a myriad of these classic songs. There is also a case full of mementos and artifacts, which is where they have my favorite thing in the whole exhibit - this old beat-up leather suitcase that used to belong to Howlin' Wolf. Apparently, he used to keep all of his money in that suitcase, because he never trusted banks.
I guess I can understand the paranoia, as much as possible for someone with my perspective. Howlin' Wolf was one of the country blues guys from the Delta who came to record for Chess Records in post-war Chicago. It's not really shocking that a Southern black man from the pre-Civil Rights era would be wary of the institutions of white America - it's not like he'd been given a whole lot of reason to trust them.
What I love about the suitcase is how it makes you realize how much things have changed in America in a really short amount of time. It was only fifty years ago that Howlin' Wolf was carrying all of his money around with him out of fear that banks would steal it from him. Fifty years isn't that long of a time, and yet the idea of not trusting an American bank to keep your money is unfathomable today.
Think about how much trust we have in these institutions now. Our money is stored electronically, and in most cases we transfer things to and from our accounts without any currency ever changing hands. There are a good number of people who do all of their banking and bill-paying online. They make most of their purchases with some kind of credit card. Paychecks are direct deposited. Most people try to have as little cash as possible on them at any time.
We give none of these things a second thought. The fact that we can do all of this electronically has made life ever more convenient - no need to wait on lines at the bank nor to wait the three days it takes a check to clear to spend our pay check. If you spend all your cash Saturday night, you can still get money to go to brunch Sunday morning. We implicitly trust that everything, the ATMs, the online banking, everything, will work just fine, and that our money is safe and secure where it's supposed to be.
Our trust in this goes even further. The money we use isn't even tied to any sort of commodity. It used to be that the dollar was actually worth something in silver or gold. Not any more; now the dollar is given value simply by the guarantee of the federal government, and then by everyone believing that they can use it as a means of exchange. Put another way, American money is only valuable because everyone has faith in its value.
So far, we haven't been given any reason not to trust all of these things. It's all worked fine up until now, so why question it? It's no fun to live in constant fear, paranoid about every little thing. We don't all want to be stuffing money in our mattresses, or carrying it all around with us in some beat up old suit case.
Still, if you think about it, so much of the wealth of this country depends on this trust. If anything ever happened to undermine it, chaos would certainly ensue. Kind of like the end of "Fight Club" where they blow up all of the credit companies, setting everyone's debt back to zero. Isn't it feasible that all of the bank records could be simultaneously and permanently erased, so that no one really knows how much anyone really has?
Likewise, it isn't impossible to picture the dollar devaluing to a point where there is a crisis. All it would take would be a massive misstep by the government, pursuing reckless fiscal policies along with reckless foreign policies. If the dollar starts to rapidly devalue, we're stuck with them - it's not like we can go trade the money we have in to the government in exchange for some gold, hoping to ride out the bad times.
Again, I don't think there's anything to really worry about. Just because things are possible doesn't make them likely to occur. Nothing about our current situation is likely to drastically change any time soon, so I don't see any reason to stop using banks or keeping wealth in US dollars. As much as I love Howlin' Wolf, I'm not quite ready to go out and buy one those suitcases so I can follow in his footsteps.
Sometimes, though, it doesn't hurt to think about how much the order and normality of our lives is based on trust in government and financial institutions. Because we never really know when our trust might be betrayed, after which who knows what might happen. Sometimes a little paranoia might be a good thing, a necessary thing, after all.
Dan Filowitz is Toronto-born, New-Jersey-raised, Indiana-University-educated, and Chicago-residing. In addition to his Lost At Sea contributions, Dan is a senior staff writer for political humor site TalkStation.com and the president of ChicagoImprovAnarchy (The CIA) a Chicago-based improv theatre company. We are not mentioning the 9-5 corporate job. Apparently, Dan does not sleep much. Dan Filowitz is the perfect dinner party guest - fun, witty, intelligent, with wide-ranging interests, ecclectic tastes and a winning smile. Just make sure you have coffee available.
See other articles by Dan Filowitz.
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