24 September 2009

Mary Travers

The first song I ever played on a juke box–I am old enough not to remember if I put in a nickel or a dime–was ‘ This Train,’ a song from Peter Paul and Mary’s first album. --That was in about 1962, but I am also old enough not to remember exactly what year that was–and I imagine I must have been about fifteen. I had earlier spent some time worrying about the tragic fate of Tom Dooley, and had even anguished over the horrible lot of a man named Charlie who for lack of an extra nickel for the fare increase couldn’t get off of the train on an increasingly expensive Boston subway. But in their music and by their presence Peter Paul and Mary helped open my consciousness to the responsibilities of social activism and social justice. The first album I had ever purchased was Peter Paul and Mary’s first album. Their work I had to have readily accessible. It was on that piece of vinyl that many of us heard for the first time the anthemic songs “If I had a Hammer” and “Where have all the Flowers Gone.” In that era of bubble gum music, of “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy,” Peter Paul and Mary stood on the cover of that album against a red brick wall that I knew to be in my beloved Greenwich Village, and sang of Sorrow and Justice, and repairing the world if we only had our way. And so what else would I play in public but what I understood as songs of social import. They drew me and many others like me into the cause, and I would spend my nickels and dimes and energies prosletyzing and marching and singing the songs. Peter, Paul and Mary allowed me to listen in the company of my parents to Bob Dylan’s notice that it was their responsibility to get out of our way because they didn’t understand us, even as Peter’s song, “Day is Done,” comforted us that our parents could join with us in the struggle. I learned from Peter Paul and Mary more about metaphor than I did from Ms. Bueschel, my ninth grade English teacher. When they sang the traditional folk ballad, ‘The Cruel War,” we knew what war they were talking about; when they sang the Weavers’ spirited folk song, ‘Wasn’t that a Time” we knew to which Revolution they were referring. Even poor Puff the Magic Dragon along with Dylan’s Quinn the Eskimo and The Association’s “Along Comes Mary” was dragged in unwittingly and unwillingly as an element in the secret code of our burgeoning drug culture,.” Oh, yes, Peter Paul and Mary taught me about the struggle and stayed with me through it. There was no turning back. Indeed, it was an attempt to teach to the fifth graders for the Winter Sing at my daughter’s elementary school, Peter Yarrow’s song “Light One Candle” that led us to successful battle with the music teacher and the building principals and district superintendent before each acceded to our requests to offer historical and Jewish context to the song. And, indeed, when we had our way, the fifth graders did sing beautifully that night about the Maccabean battle.>br>

And then it was not several years ago that we went with our children to hear Peter Paul and Mary at Northrup Auditorium. They remembered to us that many of us who had listened to them in the beginning had now brought our children to listen with them to them again. Some of us were even older. And Peter remembered to all of us the prayer, “We Shall Overcome” and we–we and our children--sang together.

I rarely listen now to PP&M, and I am not sure why this might be. But I will sorely miss the presence of Mary Travers.

13 September 2009

Red River Shores

Gosh, so much seems to start with Dylan. I’ve been listening for months now to the Bootleg Series #9, Tell Tale Signs. And particularly I’ve been replaying “Red River Shore.” In the liner notes there is the suggestion that Dylan’s work is a derivative of a traditional folk song, but I’ve not been able to discover it yet. Not a concern: if I listen to enough music I discover roots. For example, I’ve traced Dylan’s “Paths of Victory” to a ballad from the 1880s: “Pans of Biscuits.”

In any case: “Red River Shore” is a song about Desire, a subject not unfamiliar to Dylan’s themes. I think immediately of “I Want You,” “Visions of Johanna,” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile, With the Memphis Blues Again.” Anyway, in “Red River Shore” it is the girl from the Red River shore who epitomizes the ephemeral nature of Desire. He seeks her but can never attain her: fulfilling desire destroys desire. It’s a lovely song and this blog is not a literary essay. The song concerns loss and Desire: he has lost the girl from the Red River Shore—she has sent him home to lead a quiet life, and though he has moved on to “scare himself in the dark to be where the angels fly,” he has not ever been able to let go of this Desire for the girl from the Red River Shore. And he wants to be certain that he has, indeed, known this girl from the Red River Shore, even if he could not finally have her. He wants to know his Desire was Real. But when he goes back to the bar to ask about his encounter with her, no one there knew what he was talking about. They hadn’t seen him or her! Whatever the event, it was his consciousness that created it and the girl from the Red River Shore. We make our Desire, and we pursue our Desire, and we never achieve our Desires. And no one really knows what it is we are talking about.

And so the last line of the song continues to catch me up sharply: “Sometimes I think, nobody ever saw me here at all, except the girl from the Red River Shore.” My narrator says that he is invisible to all except to his Desire; it is a position of remarkable aloneness, even of loneliness, and yet, there is the comfort of the unreachable Desire that makes one present.

11 September 2009

I should be working on the article, but I don’t feel like it right now. I suspect that this resistance (aren’t all refusals instances of resistance?) stems from a current reading of Moby Dick. Or perhaps this re-reading of a truly rich novel confirms too much of what I have discovered in the world: what’s the point? Ishmael goes to sea because he is bored, and he discovers that the opposite of bored is alarmed. If Thoreau learned by his experiment that if he marched in the direction of his dreams he would realize unexpected success, then Ishmael learns that if he sails out in the direction of his dreams, there is no end to the dangers and the unknowns he faces. And try as he might to get some control over the world, he keeps discovering how little he ever can and will know.

I was overhearing a conversation yesterday about the death of a teacher from a brain aneurysm. In fact, the conversation concerned something else: the resignation of the teacher hired to replace the deceased educator. There was some jocularity concerning the surprise and embarrassment from the newly hired teacher’s failure—he was in a certification program at the University.

And all I could focus on was the ability of colleagues to laugh at all in the face of the suddenness and capriciousness of chance that ended so suddenly the life of the teacher. And it wasn’t so much the death as the arbitrariness of it; oh yes, the idea of there but for fortune go I. I felt like Yossarian in Heller’s Catch-22 and Ishmael in Moby Dick: They’re trying to kill me, Yossarian cries. “Who?” the doctor asks. “Everyone!!” At one point Yossarian screams that every cell in his body is waiting to turn traitor and do him in. And Ishmael almost philosophically notes that there is as much danger sitting before the fire in the living room as sitting precariously in the whaling boat with the whale line running out threatening to sever limbs from body and body from life. There is no safe harbor once you’ve left the original harbor.

So perhaps laughter is the only response to the realities of the uncertainties embodied in the white whale; certainly the humor in Catch-22 relieves this primal terror. And Ishmael has a keen sense of humor, ironic that it is. It seems to acknowledge, with Dylan, that it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

02 September 2009


So, Monday during my run I took a break from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and listened to selections from Dylan’s Tell-Tale Signs. In “Huck’s Tune,” Dylan sings, “All the merry little elves/can go hang themselves,/my faith is as cold as can be./I'm stacked high to the roof, and I'm not without proof,/If you don't believe me, come see.” And I couldn’t help but think of the forthcoming album of Christmas songs that Dylan is issuing in October—two weeks before Halloween and just in time for the beginning of the Christmas shopping spree.

At first blush, I’m afraid I couldn’t take this album very seriously. Nothing about it made any sense to me. And then I listened again and again to “Huck’s Tune,” and tried to reconcile this glaring contradiction. Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself!” Okay, Dylan seems to be contradicting himself: but what does it mean? The Rabbis try not to explain contradictions but rather, to show how what appears to be a contradiction is, in fact, not one at all.

So, I’ve been thinking about Mandy Patimkin’s album, Mameloshen (Yiddish for mother tongue), a collection of traditional Yiddish songs and additional songs by American Jewish composers that Patimkin has translated into Yiddish. Along side such traiditonal songs as “Belz,” (Alexander Olshanetsky and Jacob Jacobs) and “Oyfn Pripetshik” (Mark Warshawsky), Patimkin offers Supercalifragilisitc-expialidocious” (Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman), “Maria,” (Leonard Bernstein), “American Tune,” (Paul Simon), and “White Christmas,” (Irving Berlin). The effect of this juxtaposition is to give to each of the resituated songs a new context and hence, a new meaning. And in light of the disdain for those merry little elves, I suspect I can hear these songs truly anew.

Here is not the time and place to explore this theme, though it is not an uninteresting one to me. Once, years ago, we studied this album in a series of summer evenings exploring the American Jewish experience. But here I want to consider that Dylan’s offerings of traditional Christmas music might provide some new perspectives on these familiar cultural icons. Certainly the new arrangements offered by Bob Dylan have to be seen as something more than just another, even highly original and idiosyncratic variation on some traditional holiday songs. Dylan has always been a commentator on American culture and society; Dylan has always been for me (at least) a perceptive and insightful critic of our ideological stances. He has been one of my master teachers. In “Red River Girl,” Dylan speaks personally that “some of us turn out the lights and we live/In the moonlight shooting by/ Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark/To be where the angels fly.”

I am beginning to see this album of Christmas songs coming from that frightening and creative space where the angels fly. Suddenly I’m looking forward to it.