SELMA — A trickle of traffic careened across the Edmund Pettus Bridge Monday morning, taking little notice of the sound resonating from Songs of Selma Park that bounced off of the asphalt and brick buildings and slithered through the alleyways downtown.
Johnny Bodly was there with his Yamaha keyboard, which was plugged into a ragged amp churning out basic drumbeats and the tinkling sound of his instrument, playing Marvin Gay's classic "What's Going On."
"I just like coming out on days like this," Bodly said. "Selma needs stuff like this."
Bodly, a Selma native who spent more than 25 years in Boston before returning to the Queen City, lamented the fact that street musicians are a rarity in the area, a stark contrast to the major metropolitan areas that the local music man once wandered.
"People love it," Bodly said of hearing music as they walk to and from their various destinations on city streets. "Everywhere — any city, any state. It's the universal language."
Bodly, a self-taught musician, started playing music as a teen in an area reform school where he built his first guitar from scrap wood and wire — he remembered the cruel segregation of the 1960s, which left many young black men in area jails, himself among them.
"Selma was very segregated then," Bodly said, adding that he practically grew up in the county jail. "Can you imagine the hell a black child would go through being in jail in the 1960s? Music can take you away from a lot of things."
Bodly found inspiration in the songs being sung by marchers during the Civil Rights Movement and noted that many of those songs have been lost to time, forgotten by all but those whose throats belted out those songs more than 50 years ago.
While his primary instrument is the guitar, which he can often be found strumming on the bench in front of the old Washington Street Supermarket, Bodly said he took up the keyboard a little over a year ago, inspired by the sweet sounds of Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole.
For his part, Bodly finds songs like Gaye's 1971 classic essential for today's political and cultural climate — he noted that Gaye's song was tackling issues of racism, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, which are still being faced today in one form or another.
"I think it's even worse today," Bodly said.
The street musician also referenced jazz icon Louie Armstrong's classic "What A Wonderful World."
"People don't write songs like that anymore," Bodly said. "We need songs like that now."
Currently, Bodly has an album out entitled "The Guitar Man," which features a track listing of all original gospel music that tackles current affairs from a spiritual angle.
Additionally, he has thus far released two books — his first was entitled "These Eyes" and his most recent entitled "If I Die Tonight," the title for which he pulled from another of Gaye's songs.
Further, Bodly's next book, a memoir of sorts, is currently in the works — it will be entitled "Selma: Memoirs of a Juvenile Criminal."