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Category Archives: Music

Franz Liszt’s Orpheus & Travels in Time

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While Bruce and I were in Berlin, I had planned a few posts that I intended to go up while we were away. Alas, my technical understanding was lacking, and they didn’t get posted. One of them was a follow-up to my piece about squabbling over the arts, which I’d illustrated with two depictions of Orpheus before and after he met his untimely death in spite of the beauty of his art. Today I give you the song that I intended to run that same week—this poignant symphonic poem by Franz Liszt on the subject of Orpheus, Part I above and Part II below.

I had also selected this piece because Liszt wrote it while he was living and working in Germany—Weimar to be exact—and in one of those funny coincidences, Bruce and I, much to our surprise, ended up spending a day and a half in Weimar last week. We drove over from Berlin with Bruce’s old friend Kai, who happened to be slated to play in a tennis tournament there. While he played, we toured the ancient city and walked in the footsteps of Liszt, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Richard Strauss, Hans Christian Andersen, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, and many other artists, writers, and musicians.

Goethe’s garden house in Weimar, Germany.

It’s hard to imagine as you walk the cobblestone streets of beautiful Weimar and stroll through the park along the Ilm River to Goethe’s garden house that just eight kilometers away, the Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp, or that after the liberation of the concentration camps Allies forced the citizens of Weimar to tour the remains of Buchenwald on foot. Scenes from that episode in Weimar’s history were recorded and can be seen at the end of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a 1945 anti-German post-war propagation film, available in its full 20-minute form here at the Holocaust Museum website. (Warning: this film is largely composed of clips of dead and dying concentration camp victims. It is brutal.)

It’s also difficult to imagine Weimar as an East Germany city. It retains its old-world charm because many of its buildings and monuments were spared from bombing during World War II. However, on the outskirts we found numerous of those concrete-slab high-rise apartment buildings, some of them fallen into decrepitude, typical of the cheap, radically modernist efforts of post-war Socialist architects and builders. They seemed particularly odd in the bucolic hills around Weimar.

We did not visit Buchenwald—time was short, and Kai was more eager to get back to his family in Berlin. But one thing that is true in Germany is that history peeks through everywhere. The Topography of Terror memorial site sits on the location of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, but is also rimmed by a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Even as I enjoyed the quiet, clean, and plentiful trains that made getting around Berlin so easy and pleasant, I couldn’t help but think how this train system was used and perfected in the transportation of humans to their terrible deaths.

Bruce said that as he walked around Berlin he was constantly wondering, “What happened here? In this exact spot?” It’s a good question for any one of us to ask any day and in any spot. You can bet something happened wherever you are, even if it’s been covered over or obliterated by the passage of time. When I take a moment to let that reverberate in my mind and body, I am enlivened and reminded to choose carefully (and to the extent I can) which kind of path toward the future I might participate in.


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A beautiful song for the third anniversary of my marriage to Bruce. This “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, whom I posted about just the other day, and is sung here by kd lang, who Bruce and I saw in concert here in Orlando last Sunday.

So many thoughts—

One reason why this song is perfect for today is that Bruce, like lang and Cohen, is a Canadian. “Canadian content” is one of our short-hand phrases for pointing that out—the distance from which we came together.

Another reason is that the love of people our age is complicated. Just this morning, I woke up with a low blood sugar and burst into tears over anxiety about our upcoming trip to Berlin—all my fears of not being able to keep up because of the arthritis in my foot and needing to rummage around in his friends’ kitchen for low-blood-sugar juice in the middle of the night and of my stomach getting upset over unfamiliar foods… Bruce and I had to talk it all out, and I told him after I realized what day it is that maybe I should wish him an unhappy anniversary. But, no, he loves me—and I love him—in spite of all the flaws of our human condition. “All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value,” Cohen is quoted as saying about the song, and that seems appropriate today, even though I would not call my love a cold or broken hallelujah. Quite the contrary.

But even the kd lang concert the other night gave me much food for thought. Beyond the beauty of lang’s voice and the sheer pleasure of the concert, I have to note that it was not particularly well attended. Bruce and I—and no telling how many others—had gotten free tickets in a last-minute promotion, which was no doubt inspired by poor ticket sales. The Hard Rock Café concert space was even so only about 2/3 full, and I felt bad about this. Lang gave a terrific performance, and I know that non-sellout shows must be a standard feature of the musician’s life, but it was hard for me to believe that someone as distinguished as kd lang hadn’t filled the place up.

Bruce noted that there’s really no great way to keep up with events going on in Orlando, and several friends commented later that they, alas, had not realized she would be here. We ourselves had missed a John Prine concert just a few days earlier in spite of the fact that I’m his fan on Facebook and would have loved to be there. (I first saw him in concert in about 1977, and perhaps we should label him with “Appalachian content” to also indicate the different roots Bruce and I have.) It’s just hard to keep up, and we are distracted from our “entertainment” options, even the profound ones, by our work.

Such is the unpredictable and accidental nature of fame, art, love, and human life. Today, I am grateful to be experiencing all that together with him.

So Long, Marianne

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Leonard Cohen was in Toronto recently to accept the Glenn Gould Prize, and I heard his son, Adam, talking on CBC Radio about the event, where he’d also performed a couple of songs in his father’s honor, including this Cohen classic, “So Long, Marianne.”

Though there’s a bit of that insider clubbiness evident in the interview, and an inane comment by host Jian Ghomeshi about the “sexy” nature of Cohen’s songs, there are some wonderful comments about Cohen and his priorities, and Adam Cohen is articulate about some aspects of his father’s artistry. He also does a great job playing his own version of “So Long, Marianne” and one of his own recent songs, “Like a Man.” Beautiful stuff. (Ghomeshi himself is smarter here in his brief introductory essay about Cohen’s receipt of the award and the value of poetry.)

Here’s the entire twenty-six-minute interview with Adam Cohen, and below a few comments that seem especially relevant to my themes here.

On why Cohen doesn’t usually accept awards (he declined the Governor General’s Award, but accepted this one out of respect for Glenn Gould):

“This is a guy who is not interested in self-congratulation, certainly not publicly.”

“Outside of true and genuine humility, not some act, not some artifice, not some social device, outside of an aversion to the self-congratualtory aspect of awards, his interest is art. His focus, his devotion, his life… I mean, what distinguishes him and delineates him from so many others is precisely his commitment to the work and not the vanity, not the social status.”

On Leonard Cohen’s “most unlikely and delicious, triumphant come-back,”… “this return to the public eye in the highest of forms” and the fact that he is “more pertinent than he’s ever been before”:

“We’re living in what is, for the first time, collectively what is regarded as an impoverished time for the arts. I think that there has been a staggering collapse in the social value of what we think of as the arts. My Volvo was broken into, and they didn’t take the twenty-five CDs that were in the front seat. They took my car seat, my kid’s car seat. And what was more upsetting to me was that they didn’t take all these fantastic CDs, and it was such an emblem of the lack of esteem for music and the arts. It’s not downloading; downloading, pirating, has always happened. When I was a kid and you were a kid, we taped stuff off the radio on a cassette. So that’s not the problem. The problem is a dip in the cultural value of music and of the arts. And my father is part of a group in this incredibly splintered culture that we’re in—where there is no more consensus, there is no more Ed Sullivan, there is no more Tower Records. There is just this fractured civilization, everyone looking in their hopeless little screens. And what my father represents is a person standing in this one category that is unanimously regarded as the golden era, the people that produced Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, my father, and several others, and there he is standing on the heap of his work in this sort of apocalyptic, cynical time, and he’s like this bastion of truth. He’s weathered the storm. And I think it’s because of the poverty of the land.”

I don’t accept these last comments completely at face value, and I will take up this issue of fragmentation and its threats and opportunities in another post soon. But today, the melancholy strains of Leonard Cohen (and Adam) seem right to simply honor and celebrate.

School’s Out & The Little Red Schoolbook

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Today’s song (lyrics here) is a little old anthem to help all my friends get through the next week or so (or more for those in el-hi) to the end of the school year. It took me a long time to realize that teachers feels the same sense of relief at the end of the year that students do.

Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” dates to 1972, but I was still a goody-two-shoes child then and didn’t fully appreciate it until I was in high school and going through my own teenage rebellion. Even then, I was rebellious in a goody-two-shoes way. I wasn’t smoking in the parking lot, at least most of the time, and I wasn’t yet drinking or losing my sexual innocence. I was just disobedient and disrespectful to my teachers.

Watching the above version of “School’s Out,” filmed at a concert in Sweden, made me think of one of my inspirations for my rebellion, The Little Red Schoolbook. (I mistakenly thought it originated in Sweden, but it was Denmark.) The Little Red Schoolbook made the rounds in the U.S. about the same time “School’s Out” did.

I don’t remember much about my own rebellion, except that I got thrown permanently out of geometry class and that the school administrators summoned my parents to confer about how to make me behave. My geometry teacher frequently assigned students who whispered in class to copy out passages from books as extra homework. He often suggested the Bible as a source. When I received this punishment one day, I chose The Little Red Schoolbook as my source—a passage about how authoritarian teachers are actually insecure. “All grown-ups are paper tigers…” “If you’re bored, you only learn how to be bored.” And so on. Mr. Houser greeted this with outrage. The one detail I will never forget is the shade of red his face turned when his eyes fell on the words I had copied out in my prissy schoolgirl hand. I was satisfied with that.

It’s interesting to me how those mixed feelings about school have stayed with me even though I chose a life in education. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy teaching, but I feel a constant tension with these issues of authority. And even my fellow academics, most of whom I believe generally love school more purely than I do, get burned out and look forward to summer or whatever short breaks we may get.

We don’t get cut many breaks in education these days, especially not in public education. When I found a video excerpt of a documentary about the Australian release of The Little Red Schoolbook, called As It Happened: The Book That Shook the World (2007), I was struck by its emphasis on the possibility of students striking. I had just posted on Facebook about the sorry state of higher education funding in the state of Florida and noted that “IMHO it’s time to start thinking about strikes, though we are all too grateful just to have a job.” I guess the rabble-rousing Little Red Schoolbook is still somewhere inside of me, though I have long since been absorbed into the status quo and the nation has backslid in terms of progressive education.

Below is the short strike-related documentary excerpt, and a longer, more general one is here.

Here’s to dreams-soon-to-come-true of summer, freedom, and much-needed rebellion.

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

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I’m in a mood today where I am feeling angry about the rich getting richer. I’m not poor, so I can stand it and live on. But it makes me wonder why it is that some wealthy people (like Bruce Springsteen) and some middle-class people (like me) feel for the poor and wish for more evening out of income and opportunities, whereas others just get greedy.

I encounter this profiteering greed mostly through the arena of healthcare. I don’t have high-brow tastes—I don’t spend a lot of money on cars, or clothes, or jewelry, or furs (god forbid), or expensive vacations, or fancy wine, or recreational drugs, or makeovers, or the many other vanities that I’m not even aware of. I spend money on my health. I’ve been doing a lot of that especially over the past five years, as I’ve encountered several issues with my health.

To me, most of the time, it doesn’t seem as though it’s the physicians who are greedy. They may make a better living than I do, but they mostly seem still fundamentally upper middle-class in spite of (or because of) their BMWs in the parking lot.

But the corporate entities with which I deal make me crazy. Recent examples:

* Today I was told by Florida Hospital that I have to pre-pay more than $400 for a colonoscopy scheduled for next week. (It’s my first ever, and is enough to dread by itself.) My insurer told me that, no, a routine preventive procedure is covered at 100%. We (together) called the hospital back and were told that they charge for a diagnostic rather than routine procedure, even though the latter is what the doctor ordered. “Just in case,” the drone said, “they find something wrong.” So they are charging in advance for a service that I may or may not need and that the doctor didn’t order. How can that be?

Ultimately, of course, they will refund my money. But it will be in their coffers for six to eight weeks or more.

* I mentioned on Monday that my insulin pump company holds me hostage. Every time a pump goes bad, they send me an emergency loaner. But if I don’t buy my next permanent pump from them, they will charge me $3600 for 90 days’ use of the loaner. The pump itself is barely worth that much, as they send old, reconditioned ones.

They also constantly try to force me to sign up for automatic supplies deliveries and billing. But diabetes is not a condition where you take one pill every day for a stable dosage. No, use of insulin varies, and so use of supplies varies. I don’t want to get a new order until I need one. The customer service has become so problematic, however, that it now often takes more than a month between when I order supplies and when they arrive. Several times I have run completely out of supplies and had to call for an emergency overnight order. How can it be that I can get a book or a pair of shoes or some obscure piece of computer gear in two days, but it takes a month or more for vital, life-sustaining medical supplies?

* A few years ago, I was told by a dentist at Greenberg Dental that I needed a crown and perhaps a root canal. Both of these are procedures that my dental insurance was supposed to cover completely. But suddenly Greenberg told me that only their general dentists were in the insurance plan, whereas that those who do the root canals were not. So, I was forced to either pay for the root canal myself or find another dentist who would do it and then send me back to Greenberg for the crown, leaving several days in between when I’d have to walk around with a hole in my tooth. I did the latter, and it was then that Greenberg started adding on charges to the crown. First, they said it was a lab charge, but when I called my insurance, I was told no such charge was allowed. It took several days for Greenberg to back down. “We bill them this way all the time,” I was told. “People always pay it.” Not me. Eventually they took the false charge off the bill, but then they added another. This went back and forth while I had a hole in my tooth. Finally, I settled on a $30 overcharge for an item that had never been listed on any of the earlier estimates. It became clear to me that there was collusion between the health insurance company and Greenberg.

These stories are boring. Sorry. They accumulate and accumulate in my life. Even though they are boring, they make me angrier and angrier every time I encounter such practices.

Our health care system is just fucked up, plain and simple.

Even if you believe that profit is the best incentive for good medical care (I don’t but even if you do), the problem is that you can never talk to anyone who makes decisions. You get customer service representatives who spout platitudes, who tell you “that’s our policy” or “that’s just the way it is.” There is never anything they can do to change it. And there is never any use appealing to a sense of right and wrong or a sense of decency.

These people are paid to insulate the people at the top who are reaping all the financial benefit of these predatory and unethical practices. Every time I think of them, I think of Michael Moore. Michael Moore has his flaws, but, by god, he was right to go for the executives in Roger and Me and in Sicko. But notice that he could get at far fewer of them by the time of Sicko. (Roger and Me was released in 1989 and Sicko in 2007.) The wealthy protect themselves from the rest of us so effectively nowadays that there’s seemingly little we can ever do to affect their unconscionable greed.

And healthcare is just not like other, non-vital services and goods. Shopping is impossible or at least very inconvenient, if not dangerous.

I will encourage my gastroenterologist to establish a relationship with a testing center that has more responsible and fair billing practices, and to move his tests away from Florida Hospital. I will raise hell on the phone with the corporate shills at the front line of “customer service” just on the off-chance that, like politicians’ offices, they keep track of “customer reactions.”

It doesn’t seem like enough. I languish today in my inability to change the practices of an industry that affects my life all too much.

You can watch Sicko in its entirety here if you haven’t seen it already:

But at least watch the trailer to remind yourself that things have not improved since Moore made Sicko. In fact, the profiteering continues to rise, and the healthcare industry continues to use unethical practices that make it look less profitable than it is.

How do people get so corrupt? Why do our laws no longer protect us, the people, but only the powers that be? We live in dangerous, dangerous times.

Strange Fruit: Trayvon Martin

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Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” seems eerily appropriate these days.

If you think we don’t need to worry about lynching anymore, or if you need to bring tears to your cold, dry eyes, just contemplate Trayvon Martin for a second. I have tried in the past days to think of something, anything intelligent to say in the face of this recent episode in the history of racial injustice. But I have been unable to get my head around it.

For one thing, I just keep trying to walk in the shoes of a teenager going to the corner store for a soda and candy only to confront an armed man who stalks and then shoots you dead. I think of myself and the many walks I take around my neighborhood, and I imagine a man swooping down on me, assuming my criminality based on nothing, and then that man attacking me. It boggles my mind. Sanford is just on the other side of the Spring Hammock Preserve from the town where I live.

However, this would never likely happen to me: I am a woman, and I am white. The part of this scenario that I can’t even possibly imagine is what it is like to be a young black man and to carry the fear and mistrust that long years of racism have draped over my life. As Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, notes (on one of the videos at MSNBC linked below), we are 150 years past the end of slavery, but African American males are still routinely discriminated against, treated as criminals, and disregarded as victims of violence. Here is yet another incidence, and a particularly horrible one.

If there is one thing I have learned from my occasional forays into watching The First 48, it’s that people are killed for really stupid reasons—a moment of drunken pique, fifty bucks (or less), or in a macho stand-off. Many of the people who kill don’t really mean to. Many kill because they are afraid. A lot of them cry and regret it afterward. But the police still send them to jail.

Here in Florida, however, we have a really, really, really bad law. It was passed in 2005, and it’s commonly referred to as the “Stand Your Ground” law, explained here by the Orlando Sentinel. It allows people to shoot others on the street, in public, outside their homes if they “reasonably” feel threatened in any way. Because “feeling threatened” does not mean actually being threatened, and because what is “reasonable” is open to interpretation, this law is a license for anyone to commit murder and go unpunished simply by saying they felt threatened.

Mind you, self-defense has always been a claim that shooters could make, even long before the Stand Your Ground law was in effect. However, most of the time, shooters were responsible for trying to escape a conflict first. There had to be some actual, tangible, inescapable, visible physical threat, or at least the defensive shooting had to happen in a person’s home. Not anymore in Florida or in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, or West Virginia. Such legislation is also pending in Alaska, Iowa, Minnesota, and New York, as MSNBC reports.

Perhaps this law was not intended as a license to kill, but the Orlando Sentinel article reports that in just the first five months after the law was passed, here in Central Florida alone there were six men killed and four wounded in this way, only one of whom was armed. Funny that the threatened ones were the ones who were armed. It also notes that in case after case, these shooters have not been prosecuted.

Supporters of the law claim that it is being misused and was never intended to give free passes to those who kill without sufficient cause. But it’s hard to prove that someone wasn’t afraid. Prosecutors may not pursue these cases because they don’t feel they can win them. In this case, however, the chances ought to be better than average. The killer, George Zimmerman, was on the phone with police dispatchers who told him to cease following Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman disobeyed the dispatcher and made a seemingly racist comment about how “these assholes” get away with their crimes. Trayvon was on his own cell phone with his girlfriend when Zimmerman was stalking him, and he is the one who expressed fear. It is clear in this case who was the aggressor, and it was Zimmerman.

Yet, nearly a month has gone by and Zimmerman is still a free man and still retains possession of his gun. He is a man with a criminal history of domestic violence and battery, a failure as a wanna-be cop, and someone who frequently got in altercations with others. He was obsessed wth calling the police. Trayvon Martin, whom Zimmerman accused of being “up to no good,” was a boy who was an A/B student who loved sports and math. His life was over just like that because some moron with a gun was roaming the streets looking for trouble and targeted him because he was black.

Things change, yes, they do, but sometimes and in some ways they don’t change enough.

George Zimmerman should be arrested and prosecuted (whether convicted, I don’t know), the Sanford Police Department procedures should be reviewed, and this law should be changed. Even that is not enough, and we all have to keep working to change the myriad ways in which our world is damaged by the long history of racism.

There is nothing really new I can say in regard to all of this. There are others closer to the situation and wiser than I who have taken up the banner. All I can do—and must do—is add my little voice to the chorus of outrage and grief.

Remnants, or Songs from Fourth Grade

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Today, I am still keeping my cat alive. She has revived somewhat—her longer-term survival is still much in question, but she is holding her own and, we hope, healing. Because she was so near death this past week, I couldn’t help but think of “El Señor Don Gato,” the traditional children’s song about the cat that dies and then comes back to life at the smell of fish. We’re still hoping we’ll be so lucky around here, but we also know that it’s a brutal song with a tacked-on happy ending that’s not too realistic.

We knew that even in fourth grade, where I first encountered “El Señor Don Gato.” Whenever I think of the song, I also have to think of fourth-grade chorus, unfortunately probably the pinnacle of my musical education. Oh, yes, I took guitar lessons during high school, and I certainly had my ears opened when I went away to college and encountered whole new styles of music—New Wave and punk and so forth and so on.

When I look back now, though, I think fourth grade was a watershed in determining I would never be a musician. It’s something I regret, though it’s not difficult to live with. Both my parents had grown up singing at church and both had been put through the requisite piano lessons. Neither had taken to any of it, and they didn’t want to force my brother or me. We were given lots of lessons outside of school—as soon as my father was out of graduate school and well employed, we had a private French tutor (remembered primarily for his one blue eye and one brown eye), and my mother provided me with tap dance lessons, drama and acting lessons, and those doomed guitar lessons. The arts were poorly covered in our Tennessee public schools. Some things don’t change much.

But in fourth grade, we actually had a class specifically for singing. I always loved it and approached it with gusto. That is, until preparations began for our holiday-season performance. It was at that time when my best friend in class, Karen, informed me that she would not be able to stand beside me in the risers.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, hesitating slightly, “you’ll make me sing off-key.”

I, of course, had no idea that I’d been singing off-key. I didn’t really even know what that meant. I had just been enjoying belting out the lyrics.

Karen, on the other hand, had a father who was a music professor at the local university and a mother who was a former opera singer and who gave private music lessons in their home. Immigrants from Germany, they had a certain, shall we say, highly disciplined, old-school approach to life.

I’d spent a good bit of time at Karen’s home, and her mother terrified me with her heavily accented and tremulous voice that could easily rise to a Wagnerian-Brunhilde pitch. I recall one day when Mrs. L gathered Karen and me in the kitchen to help make rhubarb pie. Rhubarb pie was something I’d never had before, and as a newly diagnosed diabetic I wasn’t sure I should be having anything to do with pie, but I tried my best to help. Mrs. L put me in charge of mixing together the dry ingredients for the crust.

Of course, I didn’t get far. As soon as Mrs. L saw me dip the measuring spoon into the sugar tin, she grabbed it out of my hand. “You have to mix the salt with the flour in the bowl before adding the sugar,” she said. “You must follow the order of the ingredients in the list.” I felt terrible that I couldn’t even properly mix together a mere three ingredients.

So, no doubt that Karen was under a great deal of pressure to perform well in the holiday concert at school. Still, it hurt my feelings that Karen refused to stand beside me on the risers, and no doubt I sang less well myself without her strong, well cultivated voice beside me. Now, I wonder at the fact that Karen’s mother never made any gesture to help her daughter’s friend develop better musical skills. In spite of a devotion to music, and in spite of the fact that Mrs. L would sometimes be doing complex vocal exercises or giving a lesson while we played, it wasn’t the kind of house where people sang around the piano together. Probably my mother knew better than to sign me up for formal lessons with her.

At any rate, that was a time in my life when I was encountering the wider world and realizing my own limited place in it. Karen’s German parents were one example, as was my friendship with a girl from India, Sonchita, with whom I played all through second and third grade. In fact, other than my failure as a singer, what I remember the most about my fourth-grade chorus class are the tunes from other cultures—the Spanish origins of “El Señor Don Gato” were explained to us, as were the Scottish ones of another of my favorites, “The Skye Boat Song,” a melancholy tune that might be more akin to my mood these days than the cheerful gato song. “The Skye Boat Song” opened my eyes to the complexity of history. It is a song of survival, but of survival after defeat. It’s a tune I will always love in its making of sorrowful beauty.

It’s My Party

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Today is my birthday, and on this occasion I’ve been thinking about my long struggle to be myself. It was on my birthday half my lifetime ago that my mother characterized me as having been “born seven pounds of resistance to the earth.” This blog demonstrates, I think, that the same trait still prevails in my personality. Why? No one knows. All the psychological explanations in the world fall a bit short of defining us, clarifying us, making us all make sense to ourselves and to each other.

I think that’s one reason why I have always been drawn to narrative over theory, as much as I see the usefulness in theoretical approaches and have flirted many times with various theories and their smacking smart practitioners. But, narrative, thank god, doesn’t quite have to make sense in the tidy way that theory does. Narrative accepts a lot of mystery, as Flannery O’Connor would put it. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see,” she notes in Mystery and Manners, “but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

Narrative is about seeing, and my blog obsession with a full range of emotions (rather than an enforced uniform positivity) is about seeing what is there, not just what we wish was there.

So, today I picked Bryan Ferry’s cover of “It’s My Party (I’ll Cry if I Want to).” It’s an anthem of defiance of social expectations, and it reminds me of my own perverse habit of pointing out the less-than-perfect in the world. I like its bald self-assertion—because, truly, denial of the self is desirable in only a very narrow range of circumstances. Most of the time, if we acknowledge ourselves and our own vulnerabilities, we can do the same for others as well. On my birthday, I like thinking about all these various paths we are each on and the ways they intersect and sometimes collide. A life, is, after all, an individualized journey, and I celebrate the unique natures of my friends and enemies alike (the latter at least in theory and narrative, if not in daily experience). Vive la différence.

The song was written by John Gluck, Wally Gold, and Herb Weiner and was most famously recorded by Lesley Gore in 1963. Her It’s My Party album has crying as its theme and includes the luck-and-love-have-shifted song “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” But Bryan Ferry’s cover is the version I remember, and when you start wishing that you could stop passing through more birthdays, retrospection seems to be built in. We also have the perspective that allows us to roll our eyes, especially at our previous youthful selves that put on relationships and discarded them like dirty clothes. And to laugh a little at our tears of yore.

Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep

February is Black History Month, and it has me contemplating the meaning and importance of history. History is a story that is re-written over and over again, sometimes to include previously ignored or missed information, sometimes to deceive and cover over shameful events. It’s important for history to celebrate milestones and accomplishments of individuals and cultures, but it is also important for it to record and examine shameful aspects of the past.

Recently, Tea Party representatives in my native state of Tennessee held a news conference demanding that legislators have removed from public school textbooks references to slavery, and especially to the fact that many of the “founding fathers” owned slaves. Texas has already passed legislation that would require textbooks to emphasize a right-wing agenda. And Arizona began destruction of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program based on a new law that prohibits any academic endeavors that—all in one breath—“promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

In other words, white oppression may not be mentioned, discussed, acknowledged, or challenged. Next, those loonies who claim the Holocaust never happened will be getting all references to it removed from the world of education. And then who will they come for? No more Take Back the Night rallies? No more St. Paddy’s Day parades? These new laws are attempting to ensure that no story but that of the rich, powerful, and dominant is heard.

There’s also a move on here in Florida to exclude all state university and community college employees from holding office in the state legislature. (These positions pay around $30 K a year, so most who hold them have other employment elsewhere, not that most faculty members would have the time to do both.) The sponsor of this legislation claims educators have an inherent conflict of interest, though there is already a policy to ameliorate any supposed conflict of interest, albeit it doesn’t seem to be working too well. (At the same time, the elements of the state legislature are seeking to privatize prisons and other public functions, a move that would personally enrich a number of them.)

The people behind these legal maneuvers are people who understand fully the power of education, but who wish to use it, at best, as a public relations forum and, at worst, as a brainwashing technique. All the while, they claim that those who have worked so hard to open history to the realities of millions of lives that were for so long ignored are the ones doing the bad deeds. But ethnic studies programs do not preclude the celebration of white achievement. And slavery can be contextualized as a historical phenomenon that does not diminish the other achievements of the early white leaders of the U.S. Erasing reality does just the opposite, but Tea Partiers and other manipulators of history don’t care about that. All they care about is hiding realities that embarrass them and hiding the many accomplishments of groups of people they wish to discriminate against. It is clear that the agenda here is to stop people from examining history honestly and from multiple viewpoints, and to exclude from the political arena any groups that tend to disagree with them.

I really do believe that the devil is loose, and that many good people will find themselves on the chain gangs once again, metaphorically and perhaps literally. These Tea Party types are driving us back toward the evil aspects of the past, not forward into a better, more egalitarian future. That many of them conceive of themselves as righteous Christians is horrifying.

So, I have chosen to share today the old African-American spiritual tune “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep.” Although it’s a song wherein Jesus instructs Mary not to cry, this is not equivalent to the positivity movement’s denial of feeling or enforcement of cheerfulness. This is a promise of revenge and justice indicating that the evil will eventually drown no matter how powerful they are now.

This song originated in that dark past when rebellion against slavery and white oppression had to be encoded to be shared at all. It has become a shared anthem for many people, black and white (and Native American, as one source notes that 38 Dakota Indians sang it on the way to their execution by hanging in 1862). I hadn’t thought about this song for a long time until last fall when Bruce and I met up with my old high school friend Ruth and her husband, who played a beautiful old-timey version for us. There are many versions available on the web, but I chose to feature the oldest and least fancy of those I could find—to remind me that, yes, all “messages” have an effect, but that some messages are more honest than others. One version of this song contains the lines “When I get to heaven goin’a sing and shout/Ain’t nobody there goin’a turn me out.” There are some places where Tea Partiers can’t recreate history or exclude people.

These are some other great versions with a variety of styles and instrumentation. You could listen to none of them, or one an hour today or one a day for a week. Or just come back and listen to one when you need to remember that change-ups are always in the offing, that “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.”

Pete Seeger

Aretha Franklin

Bruce Springsteen

Inez Andrews

Mike Farris

Silver Hollers with Natalie Merchant

Huntsville Police Department Blue Notes 5