Let Us Now Praise the Carpenter

Let us now praise the carpenter, and the things that he made,
And the way that he lived by the tools of his trade.
I can still hear his hammer singing ten penny time,
Working by the hour till the day he died.

Oh, he was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

Oh he worked his hands in wood from the crib to the coffin,
With a care and a love you don’t see too often.
He built boats out of wood–big boats–working in a shipyard,
Mansions on the hill, and a birdhouse in the backyard.

He was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

He said “Anything that’s worth cuttin’ down a tree for
Is worth doin’ right. Don’t the Lord love a two by four!”
Well they asked him how to do somethin’ he’d say, “Just like Noah built the ark.
You got to hold your mouth right son, and never miss your mark

To be tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
Be was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
Square with the world. You take good care of your tools.”

A life of working hard at a craft and a well-earned reputation for virtue are things to strive for, whatever your profession.

Here’s Guy Clark singing a live version.

This is what good country is about–telling stories or passing on wisdom through sung poetry. And that, I believe, is the very heart of a “folk” music tradition, the kind of music that builds, reinforces, and defines a community. It does not merely entertain, it illustrates and embodies what the community is about.

Taken from that perspective, country music has historically been remarkable for embodying that kind of music in a mass market context. The way we often treat music as pure entertainment with no greater purpose, and as a thing of passing fads, is not conducive to a culture that creates or values songs like this. For country, however, that was a selling point for a long time.

One way to build our communities is to nurture this kind of music, whatever label it falls under. Folk, Americana, some brands of rock, blues, soul, or jazz, all can potentially tell stories and pass on values. Wherever you find yourself musically and regionally, this is something to consider. A strong community is reinforced by a strong musical tradition.

There is something missing in this picture, of course. One reason music of this kind doesn’t survive well in America is because it’s hard to pass on actual songs. They are protected by copyright, because we believe music belongs to the artist first and not to the community. We cannot re-sing, re-write, or modify old songs to suit new singers, because we do not own them. And so we don’t write songs that are meant to be treated that way.

If we want to build strong communities, we should think through this understanding of the artist and what art is meant to be.



An Imaginary Country

Occasionally I ponder how one might describe Texas to someone from far flung parts of the US. Today I was thinking about central Europe, and a new angle struck me. This is the result.

Imagine central Europe. The Czech Republic and Germany especially. Beer, strudel, lederhosen, sausage, quaint little Alpine cottages. Lots of polka. Lots. And plenty of unpronounceable names. Take all those people and set them down on some dusty hills right next door to the Great Plains. Still imagining the polka? Good. That’s Central Texas.

Now take all the Cajuns and creoles out of Louisiana. Empty it out until there’s nothing but woody hills up north and swampy bayous down south. Then fill it with people from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. That’s East Texas.

Now take the nice parts of Chicagoland, both the city and the suburbs, and put them on the flatter side of Wyoming, complete with all the cattle and Sheriff Longmire and the antisocial types. The central Europeans and the rednecks will fly out of this airport. This is DFW.

Now combine the Wenatchee area of Washington with the drier and emptier parts of Arizona. This will be owned in large part by the people from Chicagoland and central Europe. This is West Texas.

South Texas bleeds into central Europe and Arizona-Wenatchee. Except it’s got a lot of Spanish influence, and a lot of Mexican music. They also grow oranges here. So it’s like SoCal, but older and minus the glitzy parts of LA.

All of these are united by the shared memory of a revolution. This revolution was fought by a combination of Willie Nelson, Ron Paul, homeschoolers who raise goats, and a lot of roughnecks.

Between SoCal and central Europe is the capital, Portland. Everyone in Portland likes to think about the revolution. They also vote for Bernie Sanders. When they’re not writing surprisingly conservative laws, going to offbeat indie concerts, or inventing new kinds of organic pizza, they go to college. This particular college acts like Berkley some days, like an Ivy league school on others, and gets wilder about their football program than Alabama fans.

Now take the way Europeans see Americans (“American cowboy! John Wayne! Bang bang!”) and crank it up to ten. That’s how everyone not from these areas sees everyone from these areas—when they find out that’s where they’re from. Little German guy who listens to polka while making schnitzel? John Wayne. Goldman Sachs banker from Chicago? Also John Wayne. Redneck swimming in a creek in the woods behind the mobile home park? Also John Wayne. Maoist vegan didgeridoo player? Clint Eastwood.

Some people are okay with that image. Some are not. Either way, it’s too late to find a new one, and it makes good branding for the ad guys. Also Hollywood.

That’s Texas.