Music, Identity, and George Jones

Today George Jones passed away. I have some good friends who don’t listen to country music, so I had to explain who that was and what it meant. It’s always strange, explaining country music. Even eras and sub-genres and artists I don’t listen to can get me pretty impassioned. For some reason, whenever I talk about country music, I feel like I’m talking less about one genre among many, than about an entire culture.

I think there’s something in that. America has a long history of a lot of good music, but when radios and then record players and all their descendants came along, something changed. Music become mass-produced, piped out over the airwaves for miles in every direction, or arriving in stores in every good-sized town.

Think about what that means. People across the whole United States can listen to the same artists singing the same songs in the same way. Music was already a communal event, but now it was one that transcended the local community. You were tied by your love of this or that music to people half a continent away.

And music is not just the enjoyment of an experience. It’s also a carrier of tradition and a marker of our identity and values. “This is what we sing about, these are our songs, and this is how we sing them.” Music, in that era, tied the United States together in one vast musical tapestry.

And this all, of course, was during and after the second World War. This is when American patriotism, in good ways and bad, was at its height. Our identity as Americans, whatever values we held in common, and our national unity were important to the generation who had endured so many horrors to preserve them. And with the rising threat of communism, such values and symbols of unity would continue to be important.

So when a new generation began to question the old value system and the culture shaped around it, it was natural for that generation to express their views and their sentiments in music. The hippies and their ilk had protest songs addressing issues of race, war, poverty, gender, and just life in general from a new point of view. As they stirred up trouble across the country, their music stirred up trouble across the airwaves.

And that’s where I start my history of country music. It existed before that, to be sure. But for various reasons–good ones and not so good ones–country got associated with conservative values. The nation, or at least all the parts I am familiar with, was polarized between cowboys and hippies. And this was reflected in the music of each side.

Since then music has changed. Hippies themselves stopped being a force as such, and carried their causes into more respectable corners of the world and established them there. The same thing happened with their music. Rock, funk, folk, and others were invented or reinvented by that generation.

Country carried on in another way. Though it effected other genres from time to time, and was influenced in turn, it remained itself. It was still country music, and it was still identified with that same conservative culture.

Music can be a powerful statement of identity. Are you an Okie from Muskogee? Are you not a fortunate son? It can communicate values. Maybe “times, they are a-changin’,” but perhaps we should” stop rolling downhill like a snowball that’s headed for hell.” Sometimes a genre is just a style of picking you prefer. And sometimes it’s a stand you take.

I won’t make any claims about the culture country music represented in George Jones’s day, or what it means in our day. But I will say that, for better or worse, that culture shaped who I am. And it is strange to see one of its legends pass away.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jones. You will be missed.

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Narrative Consistency and Postmodernism

Okay, seeing as I am an undergrad and not a philosophy major, this is all armchair stuff that I would love correcting on or discussion concerning.

Okay, so postmodernism, insofar as postmodernism is a concrete thing, likes at least two big ideas: narrative and relativism. “Narrative” is the word used to describe somebody’s account of the world–the story they tell themselves about themselves and about everything else. Relativism (in one sense of the word) is the idea that true is in the eye of the beholder. That is, nothing exists (or can be shown to exist) objectively, but only in relationship to an observer.

This come together nicely. Narratives are accounts of one person’s truth. There are as many truths as there are narratives, and there are as many narratives (or variations on narratives held in common) as there are observers. Truth is relative. To what? To your narrative.

Now, my initial reaction to the postmodern mood is something like exasperation. Truth cannot be pinned down, because it’s all relative, so why are we even having this discussion? Go be postmodern somewhere else. If nothing is fixed, if all truths are up for grabs, then there is no point in talking. But… I watch MovieBob.

Yes, I know, it’s a nasty habit. I disagree with him on virtually every political or religious question that has ever come up. And not only do I think he’s just plain wrong, he’s mean about it. But he reviews stuff in short bites, makes it fun, and includes pretty pictures. He also is my biggest connection to nerd culture. And I need that connection to nerd culture.

See, MovieBob talks about a lot of things, but one thing he frequently notes is that the way we tell stories is changing. TV shows used to be chopped up into simple, mostly stand-alone episodes without much development for the characters or arc to the story. Lately, however, they have all become sprawling epics of complex plots involving constantly changing characters, settings, and relationships between characters. You can pick up the Andy Griffith show pretty much anywhere and be just fine. Just you try doing that with Fringe.

There’s another important shift in storytelling on the big screen as well. His Most Excellent Majesty, Joss Whedon, King of Nerds, has graced us with the Avengers. A whole franchise made up of series with their own continuity now have to criss-cross with each other while maintaining their own character arcs and plot details and being consistent with the narratives of the other world. And therein lies a nugget to consider.

We like our TV, our movies, our stories in general to be consistent. If a character has a certain personality trait in one episode, and the opposite trait in the next, the creator better have put him through some serious trauma somewhere in between. If you honestly expect us to put up with this whole “Avengers” thing, you better make sure none of the weird sci-fi elements from Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, whichever Hulk is supposed to be canon are contradictory in any way. Otherwise you will have created an inconsistent universe, and we just can’t believe you.

Canon. That’s another good word to think about. We expect narratives to be consistent, and if two stories in the same universe contradict one another, one must be “canon” and therefore what really happened in this fake universe, and the other must be an aberration.

All this exists in a largely postmodern culture. We have in many ways, though not completely, ceased to believe in objective truth. We have to, or else people would be held to standards, and that might require coercion. Americans don’t like coercion. We like liberty. At any rate, in a postmodern culture we have not really abandoned the idea of truth or of fixed standards, simply forced them into contexts.

This is important. This means we can indeed have discussions about “truth” with relativistic postmoderns–as long as that truth is confined to whatever narrative we are talking about. Which may not seem like much, but it’s certainly a good start.

Just some thoughts. Input welcome.

Cheers.

Your Foggy Blogger.

“Ecclesiastes” and “John”

This past weekend I participated in an awesome talent show featuring an all-star cast of students from New Saint Andrews. Flight of the Conchords met Nun Fight and Les Miserables played by kazzoo-ists. There were also original piano compositions and some crazy dancing. It was fantastic.

My entry was a pair of poems. Since a few folks have requested written versions, I am putting them up here, together with the introduction I gave that night. Since that part was a little more ad-libbed, it’s not verbatim.

PS. The line breaks are transferring weird. When I get some more time, maybe this weekend, I’ll come by and line them up a little better. (For instance, “field” and “yield” should be pretty much directly over one another, and stuff like that.)

Preface:

Contrary to the way it may seem, if you know me, despite some of the incredibly stupid things I’ve done, my besetting sin in life is often over-thinking things. I like to come up with plans and schemes, ways of getting around whatever it is in life that terrifies me. And all too often I fail miserably.

Realizing this, I spent a little bit of time in the Gospel of John, and a whole lot more in the book of Ecclesiastes, searching for wisdom. In these two poems tonight, I hope to share with you what I think I’ve found there.

Solomon

Listen up!

Once there was a preacher,

                                A true soul-teacher,

A man with a plan and the world in his hand,

A king of divine anointing,

A lord of Wisdom’s appointing.

Solomon the wise

                                Began an enterprise

To carefully devise a surefire way

To make this confusing world clear as day.

So listen up all you

Who Lady Wisdom pursue,

For these are the words of the king, and his words are true.

 

All that exist are as mist in the morning and fog on the creek,

They are smoke on the mountain, feeble and weak.

All plans are uncertain, all choices are bets,

                                The sun rises and sets

And every flower will fade,

And light passes to shade.

Every man will die, both you and I,

Who can say who will reach the sky?

 

I saw a man like a king,

                                                Who could nobly sing.

But his generation came and went,

And when his life was spent,

Another took up his song,

But the very chorus was remembered wrong.

 

Dress yourself in silk or cotton,

But one day your frame will rot in

                                                                The field.

Your very kingdom will yield

                                                To the force of time.

No chiseled verse or rhyme

                                                Will commemorate your deeds.

For every king that rises, another king succeeds,

No matter how the old one pleads.

For all mean are men, and every man bleeds.

 

What? Will one of you weep?

Still hear, for wisdom is deep.

No man knows his way through the fog,

We are all trapped in this miry bog,

But there is one who sees it all,

And through the fog you can hear his call.

“Trust me, child of mine,

Like one drunk with wine

                                                You stumble,

But if you will hear me, be humble.

Here in the passing shadows I have given joys,

Faithful friends and wondrous toys,

And if the sorrow is too great to bear,

Remember who has put you there.

You cannot see your way through the fog,

But I have not asked you to.”

 

Hear this wisdom, the words are true:

We are as mist in the morning or fog in the creek,

Like smoke on the mountain, both feeble and weak.

Like grass in the sun, we have our time and fade,

And, like a Father, God cares for every blade.

And so Solomon saw that there was nothing better under the sun

                                                Than for man to eat, drink, seek fun

In the labor God has given him now.

Do justly, love mercy, humbly bow

                                                                     Before God above.

No man can find out the ways of the world,

                                                                                For the only way is love,

And that way cannot be tamed.

 

John

John one, verse fourteen, the Word became flesh.

                                Say it again and make it fresh,

Because until you understand

The firmness of the land

                                                Beneath God’s feet,

How as a child his mom would give him treats,

You have failed to grasp the implication.

 

If you, O thinker, need a point in what I say, it’s this:

Live like God on a summer day—with bliss.

Carve on a chair, rule out a straight line,

Kick back with James, enjoy some wine,

And when you laugh, laugh divine.

Listen, O Scholar, real life is fine,

And it takes more than a mind.

 

Because, you see, a Platonic abstraction

                Don’t understand attraction,

                Can’t be driven to distraction

By a bride to be.

What good is eternity

                                                To a floating mind?

Take away the flesh, and fruit is rind,

The only part of the watermelon I leave behind,

And that’s a shame.

And you should feel no shame.

 

I hope you dance like no one sees,

Take a chance and climb the trees,

Live with your wings out in the breeze,

Run in the wheat,

                                                Smile in the freeze

Name every beast beneath the moon,

Don’t be afraid to rhyme with june,

Or set a poem to a well-known tune,

This is life.

Live it.

 

The sound of a song, a resounding gong,

A well-thrown pass and going long,

Word without flesh is life gone wrong.

Grass between your toes,

When that girl crinkles her nose,

And don’t you suppose

                                                That beneath the sun

God himself ran for fun?

Lose yourself in the music, the moment,

                                                                Get on it,

                                                                                It’s passing

                                                                Like lightning flashing

                                                                                                                In the sky,

                                                                In a flash we live and die.

That’s all we’ve been given, so start livin’

Like God himself on a summer day.

The Word, the truth, and the life,

                                                That’s the way.

Forsake the night; embrace the day.

And now let my chatter cease,

Let all wisdom increase,

And may merry hearts fill this hall.

So much have I said, and that’s all.