For the second straight year, the Oklahoma Hall of Fame has denied our application to induct renowned guitarist Charlie Christian into its halls posthumously.
Perhaps the OKHOF and its board members do not appreciate our public discussions of this unfortunate slight. Perhaps, I worry, we hurt our efforts by publishing commentaries that try to shed light on this injustice. Then again, left to their own devices, OKHOF did not bother to induct Charlie Christian for the first 75 years after his death anyway.
The evening after receiving the OKHOF’s latest rejection letter, I was sharing cocktails at Savings & Loan with a good friend. He was introducing me to an acquaintance of his — a Haitian-born artist and writer who had moved to Oklahoma last year from Chicago.
I offered my friend a sarcastic toast to Charlie Christian and his eventual acceptance into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. The non-Okie among us dropped her jaw.
“Charlie Christian is not in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame?” she asked in astonishment. “I knew who Charlie Christian was before I knew Oklahoma existed!”
Underwood inclusion highlights incongruity
If you want to be particularly perplexed by the poor optics of this scenario, consider the only musician the Oklahoma Hall of Fame is honoring this year.
At age 33, Checotah native and perpetual victim of pretend cheating Carrie Underwood is eight years older than Charlie Christian was when he died, but her inclusion in this year’s OKHOF class highlights the incongruity of Christian’s continued absence.
Underwood is a far-above-average singer of the autotune era who has a penchant for screaming. While she should get credit for writing a handful of her own songs, her awkward guitar playing is simply for effect on her million-dollar superstar tours. She brushed off media-generated criticism of her perfectly acceptable Sound of Music live performance, and she has supported a robust list of charities after coming to stardom as an American Idol winner.
In contrast — or at least up to snuff in his own right — Charlie Christian revolutionized the electric guitar as a black man living in segregated America. Had there been televised talent shows in 1937 when Christian was 21, he would not have been allowed to appear on them. (America witnessed its first black person on TV in 1939.)
For an excellent 2016 NPR piece celebrating what would have been Christian’s 100th birthday, Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead dubbed him “the single-greatest influence” on the electric guitar.
“Charlie Christian has left his mark on many thousands of musicians who never knew his name,” Whitehead said. “That’s about as influential as you can get.”
2018 application will be more creative
It’s clear that the Oklahoma Hall of Fame knows Charlie Christian’s name, of course, because visitors to the Gaylord Pickens Museum can see a poster of the musician.
Many of the concerns we hear about Christian’s exclusion relate to his race, though we have intentionally never questioned the OKHOF’s choices except to highlight how the meritocracy requested by its nomination form skews heavily against a man of Christian’s time and background.
Still, it is nice to see this year that the OKHOF has chosen to induct two African Americans who were 1) actually born in Oklahoma and 2) not pending NBA free agents.
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Tom Colbert is part of the 2017 class, and civil rights pioneer Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher — who sued to gain entrance to the University of Oklahoma’s law school — is being recognized posthumously.
In the end, we will nominate Charlie Christian for Oklahoma Hall of Fame membership in 2018, even though we will have no additional information about living relatives, social club memberships or charitable activities. To what extent any of that matters seems irrelevant if you truly understand Christian’s talent and global influence.
Perhaps we’ll write to Oklahoma Hall of Fame member and excellent guitarist Vince Gill to see if he can talk some sense into the committee. If Charlie Christian is ever to get his due in this matter, it just might be time to get creative.