Friday, November 30, 2012

Folk songs

I've sung the song "Good Morning Mister Railroad Man" (also called "Danville Girl") practically every night for ten years. I learned it from a recording of Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie's sometime companion, that I listened to a lot as a child (here's a recording of the two of them singing a different version of the song together in 1944). I learned it word for word and inflection for inflection from that one recording.

Is it a folk song? Well, it was cobbled together by hobos from bits and pieces, and adapted by Houston and Guthrie. Who knows where those the pieces came from, who they went through. According to Michael Cooney, this process through an oral tradition, like a game of telephone, is what makes a folk song a folk song.

But I think there's something deeper. It's important, for example, for many of my folk friends, to get the words right. Make sure you respect the tradition by getting it right. And there are a lot of good resources out there: collections of texts and field recordings and scholarly editions... for folkies there's always the wonderful Mudcat Cafe, where you can find many many variants of this song.

And so, though there is no "right" version of this song, you can pick out any of the selection on view, most transcribed from recordings, and you can learn to reproduce that version.

In an oral tradition, without recording technology or writing, such reproduction is meaningless. Performances vary, the exact word order varies in places, verses get transposed... The fixing of a song in place is in itself meaningless. Songs in this world are inherently fluid.

So why do I feel a little guilty when I want to mess with what someone else has written? We have copyright laws, which depend on reproduction—hence the "copy" in "copyright." The also serve to fix a form in time: a work "published" on such and such a date becomes a definitive version. I respect copyright (I spent summers as a teen working on copyright filing issues). I come to think of this fixed, published form as privileged over the fluid forms that, I've come to realize, are a more natural shape for ideas to move amongst us.

I write songs very very slowly—I probably have eight decent ones to show for almost thirty years of trying. Part of my problem is that I don't actually write songs very well—they need to develop pretty much complete in my head, and if I push too hard, and especially if I go writing things down too soon, it kind of spoils the soup. Good thing I have a day job.

I think my song composing process is a little like the fluidity of the folk process; I need to forget a song almost, then think of it again, only maybe get it a little bit "righter." Over and over—I finally "got right" a song a couple years ago I'd mostly written in college, first as a lullaby for Joseph (why do all the Christmas songs focus on Jesus and Mary? Yes, I know the reason, but it hardly seems fair to patient, kind old Joseph.), then as an imagined fisherman's lullaby. Finally, twenty years on, I came back to it and was able to make it sound right—just a couple tweaks to the first verse was all it needed, but it needed them.

And now, I think of it as fixed, and I think of that fixity as proper—for me. It's the same for jokes—there are jokes I love that I say the same way every time. They are fixed for me, because they fit me. If someone else learned them from me, and it wasn't written or recorded, I expect they'd learn them differently. On the other hand, especially in our well-recorded world, there are performances one learns verbatim. Hang around with my old Morris team and you'll be able to reproduce Monty Python and the Holy Grail almost word for word, and inflection for inflection. These have left the folk process, and in their brilliant final-cut versions, are not so much jokes as routines.

And the great rich songs of the living folk tradition have bits that last like hardened gems, never changing—not always the punch line, but particular memorable turns of phrase, perfect rhymes, or the repeated formula that holds a song together.

Here's the paradox at the heart of my ramblings here: we want to remember, but if we remember too well, we remove the water the memory is swimming in. Our care, our collecting and sorting and knowing of songs is great, but it also means the songs themselves—not new, original songs, but living, changing existing songs—stop moving and growing. We need to be able to forget them enough to have to struggle to remember, and so let them grow and change to fit us.

A song that's gone through the mill, and come out weathered and smooth, that's a traditional song or a folk song. But even more, a song still floating in that tide, still bouncing around between people, changing and adapting—that's a living folk song. Most of what we sing as folk songs are taxidermy.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Conservatism and liberalism

I've been ruminating since the election on what exactly people who call themselves conservatives actually mean by that. It turns out conservatism is a relatively new word, only emerging as a common term in 1819 in the title of French ultra-royalist journal Le Conservateur. It is a term that really only began to make sense in the wake of the French Revolution, with its wholesale destruction of not only an established political order, but much of the national cultural riches that had grown up around that order. Not to mention the Terror.

People had words for “old guard” before 1819; conservatism represents half of a dynamic that's been going on since the dawn of time: some people want to do things the way they have been done habitually, and others want to change those patterns. At root, it's a basic biological function: continuity vs adaption. Both valuable, both valid, together regularly in conflict.

But something happened to the political world of Europe (and the Americas) in what we now call the “revolutionary era.” Revolution itself became a self-conscious cause. Some revolutions were specifically about a change of regime, but for the first time the idea that people ought to revolt and establish new order organically had real on-the-ground success—established governments were founded not on overthrow of a particular tyrant or governing identity group (ethnic, religious, etc), but on the overthrow of a “class” of people. “Conservatism,” I believe, was a reaction to revolutionism as a philosophy."

“Tradition” is a word that gets bandied about a lot if conservative circles. In America, “traditional family values” is a code phrase for family structures and social mores grounded in the nuclear, church-going family. “Traditional marriage” is used to denote a life-long commitment between a man and a woman, producing offspring biologically, sanctified in a religious institution (see my article about this usage here).

But “traditional” is also a word used a lot in the folk music and dance community. It connotes being part of a style or form that's been passed down from person to person. But folk music as a field was also heavily influenced by leftist political activism: union organizers adapted hymns into union songs, desegregation activism was founded in part on singing songs like “We Shall Overcome,” and the entire counterculture of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s included heavy doses of the electrified rediscovery of folk music. It still does.

The thing is, traditions can be revolutionary. As the Wikipedia article on conservatism points out, “In the United States, conservatism is rooted in the American Revolution and its commitment to conserve the rights and liberties of Englishmen. Most European conservative writers do not accept American conservatism as genuine; they consider it to be a variety of liberalism.” So also we see the Chinese Communist Party engaged in a struggle between “reformers” and the revolutionary “old guard.”

Really, any revolution that sustains itself long enough to become the new established order carries this possibility. How else could we have a “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” And so we have a fundamentally confused idea: “conservatives” fighting for policies developed in the 1980s interested in dismantling “liberal” institutions assembled in the 1930s and 1940s.

Conservatism doesn’t really make sense as a working philosophy in and of itself. Conservatism means maintaining institutions generally, but without being attached to some specific identity or institution, it could just as easily mean the old guard in Beijing as the Dalai Lama's retinue in Dharamsala; ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers or Salafist Saudis; singers from the Sacred Harp or singers from Wobbly songbooks.

So: conservative… what? What is being preserved? And the thing is, we almost all want something preserved, collected, retained, remembered… we don't by and large want to completely forget. Even the monsters of cultural memory erasure—Taliban who destroyed Buddhist monuments, Pol Pot's educide, the iconoclasms that have swept the Christian world for centuries—have their own ideal past they wish to purify and make clear. They are conservative even as they destroy.

I betray my biases. I was raised a self-confessed liberal. I was raised to sneer at Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell and Barry Goldwater. And here’s the thing: there is no such thing as purity of conservatism or liberalism. We all want some things to remain, and some to change. The American Republican party was formed by the joining of the business-conservative Whigs with the “Radical Republicans” who rallied around slavery abolition. Revolution and plutocracy wrapped up in one package. We liberals who rail against the “former Party of Lincoln” forget this. Lincoln stood for abolition (eventually) but also for railroad baronies. Nixon was for overthrowing Allende in Chile and for forming the EPA.

I sing old songs and new songs that sound like old songs, after listening to new rock music on the radio. I sit in silent worship in a 350-year-old practice, while wrestling with my own very modern non-theism. I live in a 122-year-old house, typing in a blog entry over wi-fi.

Conservatism for conservatism's sake makes no sense, just as liberalism for liberalism's sake ends up as a grand mushiness. We as humans need traditions and institutions and patterns to make sense, and we need to be able to edit those patterns as the world they describe changes. And for any given tradition, we need conservatives working in the “old style” at the same time as liberal avante gardists push the envelope. This is true in the arts, and it’s true in public life.

I need to give up my own broad liberalism for something more nuanced. And I hope some of my conservative friends will consider doing the same.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Things Fall Apart

It didn't have to end this way. And, actually, it didn't end this way.

The nightmare of my childhood and young adult years was the all-out nuclear war. The end-of the world scenario younger viewers will recognize from the end of Terminator 3. I remember it most vividly from The Day After and Threads, American and British what-if-there-were-a-nuclear-war movies.

The horror of that vision is so absolute: nothing but irradiated dirt, burnt corpses, smoldering ruins... and the presence of that nightmare lurked in the background for half a century. It still lurks today, even further in the background, though Russia and the US seem like unlikely all-out enemies today.

But in the wake of that vision of the End of Everything, there was the question, what comes afterward? What about the survivors? And the answers we were given were just as awful: a breakdown of order, summary execution of looters (that was a scene in Threads that stopped me cold and still runs through my head sometimes), shorter brutish lifespans, nuclear winter, ruined crops, starvation...

And Mad Max. Or young Don Johnson in that most peculiar film A Boy and His Dog. The world turned desert, every man for himself. Kind of like Conan the Barbarian's world, only in the imagined future, not the imagined past.

This is a world where everyone is an orphan or a widow/er, where no-one whom we survivors meet (because you and I will be part of the lucky 5%, right?) is a friend or family. So even more than Conan's world, it's the world of B-grade westerns, full of suspicious gun-toting strangers.

Here's the thing: most of the real horrors of the world don't happen with breakdown of a larger society. They happen when that larger society is kidnapped by psychopaths with a Theory: Aryan superiority, collectivization, the legitimacy of Protocols of Zion, the Tutsi Menace... When that Theory is enacted, hundreds of thousands can be efficiently murdered. When the mass societies—which may do these terrible things but mostly just serve to organize people into ever-more-efficient machines for making things—break down, they tend, sooner or later, to re-form as small societies. These small societies may wage in regular low-level warfare on each other, but my point is things do NOT completely fall apart for very long.

European explorers and long-distance traders in the Americas of the 16th to 18th centuries came across well-organized groups of Indians. They appeared, in fact, to be a permanent part of the primeval wilderness. What they did not realize was that the primeval wilderness had been a lot less wild only a few generations earlier, before waves of disease destroyed a huge proportion of the population (50%? 70%? more?). By the time those Europeans penetrated the interior of the country, whole nations had vanished, and what the Europeans encountered were the survivors. What they took as natural poverty was the poverty of the children of refugees from a holocaust.

But they didn't see savage anarchy. They thought they saw savages, but savages with intricate kinship structures, a religious life, stories and arts and costumes and dances and villages and all those things that early anthropologists loved to collect and write down. And these survivors had organized political alliances in the fast-changing landscape, entire new tribes sometimes formed out of the decimated remnants of old tribes.

The end is not the end. The collapse of a state, or a church, or an economy, or of any institution, doesn't mean zombies shambling in the streets. Or rather, it only means shambling zombies for people so devoid of social imagination that life is literally meaningless without the collapsed entity. And sadly, if that's the case... those are the people who ought to be sympathetically treated as zombies. Not the poor survivors out looking to re-form some kind of society and feed themselves and their family and friends as best they can.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

God Is a Really Good Story

I've been struggling for months, not with my non-theism, but with a way to frame it that reflects my sense of "yes." Our family has been attending a different Friends Meeting than we had been for over a decade, one which was founded several years ago out of a desire to have a more explicitly theist worship. A number of our friends have been involved in the group. We tried it one Sunday, and just kept going.

It would make a good narrative, I suppose, or anyway a more stock narrative, to say I was somehow converted or convinced. I haven't been, not in the way that is usually meant. But I have been sitting with a kind of "disturbance in the Force" that predates our joining Laughing Waters worship. I've spent most of this year trying to get to where this disturbance is coming from.

I had an image come to me in worship last Sunday. It was simple, but it's a puzzle, and it's not leaving me alone. It's a question, which I know is concealed behind an impenetrable wall. The question, not the answer. I don't know what the wall is (I assume it's metaphorical), and I don't know what the question is. So like the character in Kafka's "Before the Law," I'm waiting.

One thing that has been coming more clearly to me, is how I stand in relation to God. I've been getting clearer and clearer over the last few years in my non-theism, moving from a "Who the heck knows" attitude to a "I'll be really surprised if there is a God." I've been enjoying Frank Turner's joyful "no!" in his song, "Glory Hallelujah":

And within the last few months, I've come to see God as a really central, vital—and fictional— character. A really really important figure who doesn't exist factually. That feels right to me. Because it's not that Yahweh is undeserving of respect. Jesus and the Holy Spirit too. The stories in the Bible, and all the saints stories, and all the stories of what faith can do... all important.

I think the big mistake is actually trying to bring factuality into religious discussion, as if reproducible evidence will make it work better. It doesn't. Personal witness, yes. Scientific proofs, no. Why should this be?

I think we often assume that what is factual is more real than what is found in stories. As They Might Be Giants says, "Science is Real:"

But while science is about real things in the sense that it's about things we can share even with strangers, it isn't a very rich internal language, or even much of a language for intimate social interactions, as between a parent and child, or between lovers or even close friends. Part of what makes intimate human relationships work is specifically the non-reproducible results: the specific moments shared and not in need of public justification.

It's these non-reproducible results—having specific human feelings of love, hate, anger, joy, calm, or fury at specific times and places—that story-telling works with. They are not recipes, despite what folklorists and mythologists want us to think. If they were, they would have been written as recipes or maps. Instead, stories are about specific characters with whom we can parallel our own specific experiences.

Science is a kind of discussion we can have with strangers, and as such it is essential. It's hard to imagine a world in which we didn't have the dollar, and the degree centigrade, and the meter and liter and so on and on... a world where we couldn't trust in a platform of common discourse that can go as far as things like human rights.

And this is why human rights, while they are vital, are not enough. Invoking rights means we are strangers who are trying not to hurt each other. We need more than that, and most of us have more than that, in the form of love.

Love is not rational, as Mr Spock and Mr Data found over and over in Star Trek. It does not submit to measurement. But for human beings, it is clearly essential.

So how do we get from this point to a fictional God?

I was flabbergasted by this video a month or so ago. US Representative Paul Broun, who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, which got a wide mocking audience via Facebook:

It's flabbergasting because I've come to think of this kind of science-bashing as coming from ignoramuses, not medical doctors with public policy reach. But the more I think about the kind of religious absolutism this represents—the notion that scriptural knowledge trumps science and law, that God's truth surrounds and contains whatever petty knowledge we mortals can hope to obtain, the less it looks like the problem is that surround. The problem seems to me to be the idea that factualism is the true container for the human experience.

Facts are bits of reality we can wrap our minds around, and share with strangers. Wonder and love— and religion—are what we share with friends. So when we try and make religion factual, try to make that the gold standard for legitimate discourse, we alienate ourselves from the very intimate moments of love and transcendence we're trying to get to.

Why do we try to tell each other God is real in one way or another? Well, God is real in the same sense that our love is real, or our anger, or our fear. God is real in the same sense that any truly powerful, heart-changing story is real. Don't tell me that what rips my heart out at the end of Shawshank Redemption, or what made me feel a deep ache of mourning that lasted for days at the end of Stephen King's 11/23/63, isn't real. Of course they're real. But they are real fictions.

So. This, it seems to me, is a task before us: to confront literalism—the demand that what is important is always factually true. It isn't. And that confrontation needs to include a robust counterproposal to the argument of literalism. It needs to not try and toss out God, but to make God's proper place respectable again. A shining throne? Not my style, but if that works for you, fine. I don't care for the big royal medal ceremony at the end of Star Wars either. No, what I mean is not what kinds of trappings God deserves, but what kind of genuine respect God-stories deserve, without requiring they sound like lab reports.

And hand-in-hand with this is a recognition that the way the universe works that we have learned through scientific experiment—the truly universal and factual world—is a truer framework for the world we enter as strangers.