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.

 

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Four-Wheeled Stereos

The engine revved as I pressed slowly down on the pedal, trees flying by as I whipped back and forth in the low hills of East Texas. A goat clipping away at grass near the roadside leapt into the air and charged away from my passing SUV. The summer sun beat down while the canopy stood strong above me, shading the better part of the road. Here to there. A to B. Driving.

Pop the hood and I will scratch my infantile beard and thoughtfully appear to consider the twisting coils of metal, plastic, and rubber snakes. Ask me a question, and I will point at the large blocky thing in the center and say, “That’s the engine.”

Likewise, I can’t tell you about makes and models and manufacturers, or even what shiny color of what sexy motorbeast I might prefer. But stick me behind the wheel, and my eyes light up. I can’t give you a zero-to-sixty on any of the cars I’ve driven, and I don’t have the vocabulary to tell you how it handles. But I know fun. Give me the keys, and I can feel the fun.

I have not owned a car for two and a half years. I do not drive, and the little college town in which I reside has no need for cars. Everything is in walking distance.

During that time I have listened to far less country than ever before. Without wheels, without road, I need no radio. I spotify my music from a safe corner in the house, on my tame little laptop. And when you’re sitting there, plowing through the oldest books from the hardest classes, and your ADD is acting up, and the birds are singing, and you can’t help but want to fly out that window like a maniac and run screaming into the hills—in those times, the lyric-centered, steady-rhythmed deep peace and shallow grin of a country song just won’t cut it.

Now, as I stagnate in my chair or on my couch or bed, I don’t stop listening to country. I still plow through albums and formulate playlists and occasionally pull up our local station’s online app to keep up with the times. But my play queue is slowly filling with blues rock, selective rap and hip-hop artists, and the occasional Disney song. Older funk and rock-and-roll leak out of my speakers, and Irish reels by Aussies and Boston Yankees begin to make my foot tap. But George Strait and Montgomery Gentry, Eric Church and Little Big Town, they all drift quietly to the back.

But the moment I stepped off the plane and back into the sweet, wet air of East Texas, something changed. Southern lilts and country tilts in the rhythm of residents of this fine state started working on me like a drug. Big pines leaned over my head and whispered rumors of sacred songs I had forgotten. And finally the moment came when momma put they keys in my hand told me to run an errand.

Twangs and trains and country livin’, broken hearts and rednecks, wild parties and foolish youth and old wisdom blended and shook up and spilt from my speakers like the call of the wild and I was off. Windows down, radio up, across Starr and University, around the Loop, through back roads and brick streets and into driveways from the wrong direction—all to the sound of a guitar. Fiddles came from time to time to remind me of my roots, and banjos burst on the scene like a long-lost cousin. Somewhere in the air a steel guitar let me know where I came from, and I croaked and yelled to an old song with a Darius Rucker twist.

Fifty-five, forty, fifty, forty-five, thirty, and twenty in a school zone. Don’t they know what I am doing here? This is country music on the radio. None of this slow stuff, I drive with a steady lead foot. There’s something about turning tires and the quiet rumble of any old engine that calls for country. Or maybe it’s the wind flying past, and the cars on the road, and all these trucks driven by Aggies, Longhorns, and Lumberjacks. Whatever it is, I can’t get behind the wheel and stay on any pop, rock, or hip-hop station. The radio’s on, and it’s Texas and Nashville, Southern voices and the backwoods brogue of a down-home drawl. The car and the radio, it’s all one instrument, and I know how to play it.

But eventually the errand ends. I go home, park the car, and turn off the beginning of some old song about “time to kill.” Time is killing me. I’m called elsewhere, and my four-wheeled stereo of speed and sonic bliss will have to wait a while. Inside, the house is quiet and my little laptop is sitting patiently. I have words to write, a challenge to meet, and I can’t do that on a highway. So I set the keys on the counter and head upstairs to peck away at the keyboard. But hey, I don’t head back to the land of the pedestrian for two weeks. And there will be errands to run for days to come. I’ll drive.

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.

Random Sketches on a Sunday Afternoon

This morning, walking back from church, I stopped briefly on a hill to watch birds on the wind. The hills were stretching away, folding and unfolding until they disappeared over the horizon. They are something like golden this time of year, and the sky was a pale blue. In between the gilded land and powdered sky were hawks floating in the breeze. I’ve seen wind toss trees to the ground, send cars across multiple lanes, and topple steeples. These hawks were not disturbed in the least by the moving air. It was strong where they were. They rose up and dove down, drifting about on thermals and cross-breezes, not going anywhere in particular. They were just riding the wind, enjoying the view.

*          *          *

The Palouse hills, though they rise and fall, keep a steady height. It’s like the rumpled sheets on a bed, always curling up only to fall down to the mattress and no further. They’re bounded at the top, too, so you can stand on the top of one and watch the rest ripple off into the distance. But in one place, that is not true.

Wawawai is a sudden downward slope, a passage deep into a valley. The hills surge above, like giants looming. The sun sits above them, gleaming down until the fire touches the river, and the little lake that squats beside it. The water’s surface shines like shook foil, as Hopkins once said. It’s like a second sun, trapping you within a cage of golden beams and walls of grass and earth. It’s a pleasant captivity.

*         *         *

Everyone should sing. It’s a fact. Not all of us have great voices, and not all of us have voices that can sing everything. But all of us should find something to sing, and sing it passably well. Singing is part of being in a community: sharing joy and words of wisdom or worship in a glorious medium.

*         *         *

Every American child should familiarize himself with the history and culture of the British Isles. There is nothing so exciting and so commonplace, so tightly knit and so separate and diverse as that community of nations. An understanding of those islands and the nations that call them home fills with the world with a richness and wonder that stretches back for millenia, providing a hint of the wisdom our American youthfulness has not achieved. And, as one who loves Scottish freedom, it makes a man twice the nationalist and the twice the skeptic than if he had been raised on our history alone.

*         *         *

The sun is falling low now, a jewel set in sapphire and gold, a seal on the passing day. It’s been glorious. Friends and new freshmen, long car rides, shy dogs, and watermelon, all of them interwoven with music to our Lord and for him. As the day winds down and the next week rises up like a battlefield to be traversed, the Sabbath is bidding a fond farewell. It will come again, and we will sing again, and it will go again, and we will fight again, and at the end of weeks, the end of days, there will be another Sabbath. And that one will last forever.

The Leaf-Mold of the Mind

Right now I’m reading a book called “Wordsmithy” which gives some nice tips on how to live like a writer. One of the major themes is that in order to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. You have to read widely, read what you love, and let all that good stuff just simmer in your head. Tolkien called it the “leaf-mold of the mind,” the place good stories grow from.

That’s an excellent piece of advice, and I want to go one step further. Just as important as what you read is what you listen to. In today’s society we are almost continually surrounded by music. Our access is virtually unlimited, so, naturally, we exploit it. But the songs we sing and the tunes we hum shape our minds, craft our worldviews and inform our imaginations just as much as what we read.

I’m a big fan of old fantasy. Lewis, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, and a little bit of the crazy new stuff by guys like Robert Jordan, Eoin Colfer, J.K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett. A little John Grisham, Wodehouse, or Flannery O’Conner for diversity. There’s also classics, like Milton, the Illiad, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and all that good stuff. A fairly healthy and rich source of imaginative fodder.

But while all that certainly shaped my imagination and probably comes out in my writing, most of what spills out of my mouth when something bumps into my mind is country music or classic rock. When confronted with an interesting little situation, I don’t often think of a certain chapter of The Horse and His Boy or a character from Shakespeare. I think of something George Strait sang, or a song by Skynyrd, or maybe the Mississippi Squirrel Revival.

So when you set out to live like a writer, to create a good leaf-mold, read all sorts of good stuff. But don’t just be thoughtful about what you read. Pay attention to what you’re listening to. Make sure that soil’s just as rich, the imaginative nutrients just as diverse. Not only will it help your writing, you might just be able to dance to it.