Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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394. Scattergram, Spring 2017

In Books, Music, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Words & phrases on January 14, 2017 at 4:33 am
Robert Rauschenberg, Scattergram

Rauschenberg, “Scattergram”

My Spring teaching semester begins right after Martin Luther King Day, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States (there, I said itfollowing hard on its heels. As I find myself struggling to bring order to my mental landscape, the word scattergram comes, unbidden, to mind.

scattergram would require me to map my wayward thoughts in relation to something fixed. But rather than being plotted between two axes, representing dependent or independent variables, everything appears to be in total disarray. Nothing can be held steady, allowing other variables to be plotted in relation to it. Even scattered is too controlled—splattered, more like it.

No matter, I must posit order; let the horizontal axis be calendar time, the vertical, hours per day or hours per week. There looms a 15-week semester moving inexorably onward into May, with four courses (3 different preparations) running—galloping—concurrently, three of them twice a week each, the fourth, blessedly, only once. Here they are, with their attendant syllabi and lesson plans and work schedules, their assignments and office hours, their grading, grading, grading. Subject matter is another diagram altogether, but of course it will color the whole experience, mine and my students’, in and out of the classroom.

shoppingThe courses will inevitably overlap with each other. Concepts of freedom and unfreedom frame my two first-year composition courses, with a focus on incarceration in the United States, mass imprisonment of black Americans, black men in particular, disenfranchising them all over again: The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander describes and amply demonstrates. The ideas in these two courses can be further illuminated through the lenses of the third, contemporary theory. To Jean Beaudrillard, U.S. society is itself carceral, though Americans will do almost anything to avoid facing this fact, with “truth” becoming a non-issue in the age of the hyperreal, when media images no longer need to correspond to any underlying reality. 

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Michel Foucault’s genealogies of prisons and punishment trace the advent of “corrections” and the rise of all-seeing surveillance, epitomized by the panopticonStuart Hall, author of Policing the Crisisredefines “black” and unites in resistance the diverse new ethnicities of contemporary Britain. The fourth course, my weekly Special Topics seminar, after dragging us, bedraggled and grief-benumbed, through the wake of terror, helps us come to some kind of healing through art—and through humanity, I hope, bedeviled though we are.

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Sure, we’re scattered, shattered, shell-shocked, mud-bespattered. But we’d best take heart, bestir ourselves and coalesce, soldiering on through the blighted landscape, casting a smattering of light upon these benighted post-truth times. 

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Come Together

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

 Belay there, me hearties! Let’s Work Together.

(And why have I just used so many words with the prefix “be-“? Begorrah, I cannot say.)

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393. Flying those Flags

In Britain, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on December 4, 2016 at 3:25 am
Eddie Izzard's Do You Have a Flag?

Eddie Izzard’s Do You Have a Flag?

I’ll try to keep this brief, because to me it’s cut-and-dried. Hampshire College has folded, following a firestorm of protests and threats, and has re-flown the American flag on its campus. I have not followed the controversy closely, but I want to make one observation: private colleges in the United States are not required to display the national flag.

As a student of nationalism, I feel compelled to note that although pennants and flags have long been used as signals (as in semaphore) and to identify armies in battle, national flags are very recent developments in world history, only dating back to the late eighteenth century, and not becoming universal until the 19th century. Rectangular pieces of fabric bearing national insignia, they have become potent patriotic symbols that often carry strong military associations, but it is important to remember that they are just that, symbols, displayed on bits of cloth and mounted on poles—or, in one of my favorite songs, printed on plastic and plastered on cars.

Allow me, and yourself, a little levity: watch Eddie Izzard’s classic sketch, “Do You have a Flag?” performed here by the comedian himself, and here by Lego men. Now treat yourself to John Prine’s classic song from his first album, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. Back in 1971, he was referring to the Vietnam War when he said, in the next line, “It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war”; but unfortunately it’s all the more resonant in this brave new world of perpetual war.

I recall with sadness the great Indian philosopher poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote Jana Gana Mana, the song that has become the nation’s national anthem. (He also wrote Amar Sonar Bangla, the song that became the national anthem of Bangladesh.) I can’t hear Jana Gana Mana without getting overcome by nostalgia—love for India, the aspirations of the–then newly independent nation, and memories of singing it at the top of my ten-year-old voice every time I went to the cinema with my father (the flag billowing on the screen for 52 seconds just before the running of the birth control advertisements: do ya teen—bas!). Tagore was a great patriot with a deep love for his country. But as he grew older, and began to understand what horrors nationalism was capable of wreaking, he came to see it as a modern scourge, and spoke out strongly and insistently against it. For this he was attacked and vilified by many of his compatriots, just as those who dare to question the military adventures of the United Statestoday are attacked and vilified as anti-national. As Tagore said in 1908, “I will never allow nationalism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” For both yesterday and today, his words warn us of the danger and the travesty of bestowing upon a state apparatus and its symbols the love best reserved for our fellow human beings, the reverence best reserved for all things sacred.

While the British once paraded their flag with overblown pomp and ceremony as a symbol of their imperial power, now their erstwhile colonial subjects, rather than turning away from such vainglorious displays of worldly power, seek to reproduce them with a vengeance.

The Indian Supreme Court has just ruled that the national flag must be displayed in all movie theaters, and the national anthem played to a standing audience before film screenings. While in my childhood innocence I sprang to my feet and sang with all my heart, now it chills me to see that ritual made mandatory by the highest court in the land.

I opened with a reminder that private colleges—and indeed, private individuals—are not required to fly the national flag. In closing, permit me another reminder: the last time I checked, the United States was a free country, whose constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech included the freedom to question such symbols of military might. To the extent that the flag stands for freedom for us all, long may it wave! But to the extent that it stands for Might over Right, I must say, like Rabindranath Tagore, that it does not stand for me.

Oh, and another song: U.S. Blues.

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388. It Wants To Be Found

In Books, Media, Music, Politics, reading, Words & phrases on August 17, 2016 at 2:17 am

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Happiness is a warm gun (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)/Happiness is a warm gun, mama
When I hold you in my arms/And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
—The Beatles

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a child, the scene that most disturbed me was the diminutive hero Bilbo’s underground encounter with the etiolated Gollum, in which he found the Ring and got away by outwitting (cheating, actually) his opponent in a game of riddles. From then on, Bilbo kept the Ring and he kept it a secret, using it to make himself invisible whenever expedient, and thereby sealing his reputation as a brilliant little burglar. It was clear to me that Bilbo’s behavior, though justifiable, was not altogether ethical, and I even felt sorry for the light-deprived, near-translucent Gollum, left all alone in the underground tunnels without his “Precious.”

Gollum’s hissing to himself, “What has it got in its pocketses, my Preciousssss?” filled me with a terrible fascination, followed by the chilling realization that it wasn’t his own precious Self he was referring to, but the possession he had come to prize more than his own soul. In fact, his “Precious” was precisely what was in Bilbo’s pockets.

But the most terrifying realization came in the later Ring Trilogy, when it became clear that the possession of the One Ring had not only turned the benign Sméagol—once a harmless hobbit himself—into the slinking, sniveling, cringing, cadaverous Gollum, but threatened to do the same to anyone who held onto it for any length of time. How did it do this? It made its possessor feel powerful and it made him feel safe, especially when slipped on his finger, cloaking him in invisibility. But in fact, the feeling of safety conjured up by the Ring in his pocket was entirely false.

Here, in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf warns Frodo of the Ring’s active desire to be reunited with its true master.

You must remember, Frodo, the ring is trying to get back to its master…. it wants to be found.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo had found himself continually fiddling with the Ring while it was in his pocket, and on occasion it even seemed to slip itself onto his finger. The same thing happened to his nephew Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. The Ring actually compelled its wearer to slip it on, thereby making him, far from invisible, hyper-visible to the Dark Lord; far from a powerful agent, it made him an instrument of another’s evil designs.

*****

Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also pull the finger.
                                                                      —Leonard Berkowitz

It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” goes the ubiquitous anti-gun-control slogan. But what Leonard Berkowitz, the late, eminent professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, found was precisely the opposite: the mere presence of guns in a given space excited and incited greater aggression. It came to be known as the weapons effect. The proximity of a trigger made a person want to pull it. Like the possessor of the Ring of Power, far from making him safer, it exposed both him and others to much greater danger. He became hyper-visible, because having a gun—in some studies, just seeing one—made him want to shoot it.

Guns do kill people, because, as with the Ring of Power, being in the presence of their terrible power evokes the desire to wield it. Sadly, one may not realize until too late that one is not the possessor, but the possessed. Efforts to conceal the weapon will be futile, because it wants to be found.

*****

Let’s not just leave things here, ascribing intent to the instrument but leaving its lord and master unnamed.

In the aftermath of the December, 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there was plenty of talk of the deranged shooter and the need to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill. What was almost never mentioned was the curious fact that Newtown, Connecticut is also the headquarters of the NSSF, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, just three miles away from the elementary school. The NSSF is a non-profit organization, the trade association for the firearms industry and its foremost lobbying group, in recent years outspending even the NRA, the National Rifle Association.

NSSF Logo

The NSSF’s mission is “to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” But its logo, with green deer, pine trees, and hunters with protective earmuffs, and its accompanying slogan: Promote · Protect · Preserve, suggest something very different from a trade association, more like an environmental conservation association. What purports to promote gun safety simply promotes more guns; as another of its slogans puts it more starkly: Always shooting for more. (See the Gun Violence Archive for more information on gun-related incidents in the U.S., including mass shootings.)

The NSSF runs and publicizes shooting ranges all over the country. Its website has a handy-dandy feature that allows you to find the range closest to you. Adam Lanza’s mother, a gun enthusiast herself, had taken him and his brother to one of these shooting ranges, where he learned how to wield the weapons he later took from her hoard to shoot and kill her and 26 others, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The New Republic ran an article soon after the shooting that made the link between the NSSF and the Sandy Hook mass shooting. However, it disavowed any suggestion of causation, that the presence of the NSSF headquarters in Newtown had anything to do with the young man’s shooting spree. Instead, it merely noted that there was “a certain tragic irony to it.”

It seems to me that this link underscores the illusory nature of the sense of safety conferred by the possession of a weapon. The NSSF claims to be all about safety: teaching people to use weapons safely at shooting ranges, even running youth programs that promote the responsible use of firearms. But what happened in the very belly of the beast? A mother took her son to one of these shooting ranges, and he made full use of his training, right in the backyard of the outfit that promotes them. What was touted in the name of safety and protection was in fact the very instrument of death and destruction, both for the de-ranged young shooter and for his innocent victims. As Gandalf noted: “The Ring is always trying to get back to its master”. To know its true nature, we would do well to track the smoking gun back to its source (bang, bang, shoot, shoot).

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378. Xýpna / Ξύπνα

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 29, 2016 at 10:43 am
[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

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  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

XDuring the nearly-three years my family lived in Athens, we memorized part of a story in a Greek children’s reader we had. Whether it was because it was one of the few Greek passages he had learned by heart or, more likely, because it was one of those inside family jokes (see TMA#162 Heuch, Heuch! (and other family lingo), I remember my Dad repeatedly reciting the first few lines of the piece, about a mother waking up her daughter to get ready for the first day of school. Here’s the Greek (apologies in advance for any errors) with transliteration and translation:

«Ξύπνα!», μου είπε, «παιδαkι μου. Σήμερα το σχολείο ανοίγει. Πρέπει να ετοιμαστούμε, για να πάμε. »

« Xýpna ! » , mou eípe, «paidakí mou . Símera to scholeío anoígei. Prépei na etoimastoúme , yia na páme . »

“Wake up!” she said, “my child.  Today school opens. We need to get ready to go.”

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

Since then, I’ve always remembered the Greek word for Wake Up!: Xýpna! And perhaps because, not being a morning person, I struggle to leap up and embrace the day, I am drawn to songs and poems that call upon us to do so:

Bob Marley’s always-inspiring Wake Up and Live.

The lovely Greek folk singer Nana Mouscouri’s Xypna Agapi Mou (Wake Up My Love). (By the way, here’s Nana and a very young Donovan singing Donovan’s In the Morning, better known as “Colours.”)

Yusuf Islam (then Cat Stevens) singing the beautiful Morning Has Broken, sung to the equally beautiful words by Eleanor Farjeon.

And perhaps my very favorite crystal-clear wake-up song, Utha Utha, Sakal Jana, sung here by Asha Bhosle.

In several of these songs you’ll see that waking up refers not merely to dispelling one’s morning grogginess with a strong cup of tea, but to nothing less than Enlightenment, living fully and alertly as our best selves and embracing every moment of every new day.

Xýpna!

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373. Singing

In blogs and blogging, Media, Music, Stories on April 23, 2016 at 3:44 pm
(creactivelearning.wordpress.com)

(creactivelearning.wordpress.com)

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SHaving grown up with music all around me—with Mum singing as she did the household chores, and Dad singing us to sleep at night; Mum and Dad throwing parties when 45s spun on the turntable and everyone danced and sang along; with music not considered an add-on at any of my schools but an integral part of our education; joining every possible kind of group, from rock bands to choirs to choruses, so as to sing with others; attending concerts where the entire audience routinely joined in; singing to Baby Nikhil for hours with a special bedtime songlist; entertaining myself on long solo commutes in the car by belting out every song I knew; and my dear friend Marianne always breaking into song in mid-sentence—singing has always come as naturally as—no, more naturally than speaking. For we are born to sing.

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Because I have always talked too much and too loud, and have had to do so in my work as well, I developed a throat nodule in my forties which was distressing in the extreme; for every time I opened my mouth to sing, nothing would come out but cracks and squeaks. I had to go for voice therapy and learn to change a lifetime of bad habits: not drinking enough water; not modulating my volume; not knowing how to release tension; breathing from my throat instead of from my diaphragm; and forgetting to b-r-e-a-t-h-e altogether. In the process I learned that a lot of my problems with singing were also problems with the way I handled life. I modified my behavior enough to lessen the strain on my voice while teaching, but not fundamentally or consistently enough to bring the proper breath support to my singing. Now, some fifteen years later, it’s time for me to dig up the old voice therapy file and start doing the exercises regularly. For in order to soar like Shelley’s skylark, or to find the full-throated ease of Keats’ nightingale, one must sing with one’s whole being.

Harry Belafonte, 1954)

Harry Belafonte, 1954

When we were younger, we had music on all day long. In the days of vinyl, our record collections were our pride and joy. We played our favorite tracks again and again until we had memorized all the lyrics. When cassette tapes came in, we recorded special playlists for parties and long car trips. Later, with compact disks, we painstakingly transferred our cassette tapes to CDs so that we could play them in the new players as the old ones were phased out. And now, with iPods, iPod touch, iPhone, iCloud, Bluetooth, I have thrown my hands in the air. With four generations of semi-obsolete equipment knocking about the house in a tangle of loose cables, my only recourse is my own plain, unamplified voice. When all else falls away, it still remains.

In discouragement and despair, singing gives me strength; in sorrow, it offers me solace; in anger, it opens my heart; in emptiness, it fills me with joy.

How Can I Keep From Singing? Singing brings me joy.

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372. Real Country

In blogs and blogging, Music, Stories, United States on April 22, 2016 at 11:58 pm
Kentucky, Route 80 (Wikipedia)

Kentucky, Route 80 (Wikipedia)

Blogging from A to Z
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RListening to Radiolab the other day, I happened to catch a show called Songs That Cross Borders, on songs that stick in our heads, and why they have such wide appeal. My ears pricked up with the third segment (starting around 12:40, if you click on the show’s link) which was about country music. Apparently, country music officially began with Jimmie Rodgers’ first recording, in 1927 (the year of my mother’s birth). Interestingly, it was also the year when, for the first time, the urban population in the United States exceeded the rural population.

What is country music about, at heart? A deep longing for a country home left behind. This note of longing resonates deeply with people around the world whose homes have been transformed out of all recognition, or who have been driven from their homes, from the country to the city, or from their countries altogether, far across the seven seas. But, the show asked, how is it that even people who don’t know English love these songs so much? The answer was that the characteristic wailing sound in country music, accentuated by the slide guitar, touches a universal chord.

In light of this insight, perhaps it’s not so strange that I love country music so much. Mind you, not just anything they insult the name of country with these days, but real country, which for me means Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams (Senior, that is), Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Linda Ronstadt, and John Prine. Everyone who loves country music has their own pantheon, I guess, but this is mine. These are the country singers and songs that, since my family immigrated to the United States more than 46 years ago now, have spoken to me, and made me feel that I belong.

Like some kind of country music missionary, I feel the need to proselytize. I have had to be ruthless in cutting things out, but still have links to more than 30 songs. Annotating them all with what they mean to me personally would take much too long, so I’ll just say a couple of words about the ones I simply must.

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Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933)
I was introduced to Jimmie Rodgers by listening to Doc Watson.
Away Out on the Mountain (1927)
Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas) (1927)
In the Jailhouse Now (1928)
Blue Yodel #3 Never No Mo’ Blues (1928)
My very favorite Jimmie Rodgers song.
My Rough and Rowdy Ways (1929)
Blue Yodel #8 Mule Skinner Blues (1930)
TB Blues (1931)

(from hankwilliams.com)

(from hankwilliams.com)

Hank Williams (1923-1953)
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1949)
Cold Cold Heart (1951)
Hey Good Lookin’ (1951)
Jambalaya (on the Bayou) (1952)
This was the first Hank Williams song I ever heard, sung by an unknown singer in the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square, c. 1972, and I was smitten.
I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love With You (1951)
Settin’ the Woods on Fire (1952)
You clap hands and I’ll start bowing/We’ll do all the law’s allowin’/Tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin/Settin’ the woods on fire.

Buck Owens (1929-2006)
Act Naturally (1963)
I don’t know Buck Owen’s music, but his Bakersfield sound is definitely real country. He made “Act Naturally” a hit before the Beatles did, and his version is “real purdy.”

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Patsy Cline (1932-1963)
Walking After Midnight (1958)
I Fall to Pieces (1961)
(with Willie Nelson) Just a Closer Walk with Thee

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Johnny Cash (1932-2003)
Ring of Fire (1963)
(with Joni Mitchell) I Still Miss Someone (1969)
Big River (1964)
Five Feet High and Risin’ (1974)

Willie Nelson (b. 1933)
Always on My Mind (1982)

Merle Haggard (1937-April 6, 2016) Rest In Peace, Merle Haggard.
Mama Tried (1968)
Iris DeMent covering Merle Haggard’s Big City (1994, orig. 1981)

at the Victoria Theatre (from Rolling Stone 1978)

at the Victoria Theatre (from Rolling Stone 1978)

Linda Ronstadt (b. 1946)
Lowell George’s Willin’ (1974)
(with Emmy Lou Harris) I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love With You (1974)
(with Dolly Parton) I Never Will Marry (1977)

Emmy Lou Harris (b. 1947)
Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell (1977, orig. 1964)

John Prine performs live on Mountain Stage.

John Prine performs live on Mountain Stage.

John Prine (b. 1946)
Andrew’s dear cousin Mischa took us to see John Prine at Passim’s in Cambridge in 1972, when he was touring for his debut album, and I have been a passionate fan ever since. Thank you, Mischa!
Common Sense (1975)
Mexican Home (1973)
probably my absolute favorite John Prine song of all time, though I have scores of JP favorites           
Angel From Montgomery (1971)
Bonnie Raitt made this famous, but I still prefer JP’s original.
Far From Me (1971)
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore (1971)
Paradise (1971)
JP’s beautiful anti-strip mining anthem.
Peabody_ProtestIt’s Earth Day today, reminding me that the first Earth Day was celebrated on this day in 1970, the year we arrived in the United States. Listening to John Prine’s “Paradise” has also reminded me that Peabody Coal Company, the villain in the song, filed for bankruptcy last week. This potentially gives them the ability to walk away with no accountability for the health and environmental devastation they have wreaked. I’ve just signed a petition calling for the creation of a just transition fund. Save what’s left of the country, and reclaim what’s been despoiled.

Muhlenberg County, KY

Muhlenberg County, KY

Real Country.

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370. Pre-dawn Raga

In 1970s, blogs and blogging, India, Music, Stories, writing on April 20, 2016 at 3:17 am

p10a

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PI have never been what they call “a morning person.” At least an hour and a half must elapse between when I wake up and when I start my working day, and it’s not until I’m on my second cup of tea in the morning that I can safely engage with another person without the risk of biting their head off. On one particular occasion, though, my behavior was quite out of character, thanks to the power of a pre-dawn raga.

For a time during our twenties, when we were living in the cabin on White Pond in Concord, Andrew had a job driving a truck for NEFCO, our regional food co-op federation. As I recall, he had to drive in to the wholesale market in Chelsea, pick up the week’s supply of cheese, and deliver it to the co-op warehouse in North Cambridge. He had to leave the house early in order to complete the circuit on time, but that was not a problem, since, unlike me, Andrew is a morning person.

On this morning, Andrew happened to over-sleep, and by the time he woke up, it was already past the time he normally left the house. I awoke, bleary-eyed, to find him in a state of high anxiety and near-despair, feeling that he had made an irreparable mistake and that it was too late for him to fix it. When he gets into that mood, he tends to get stuck in it for some time, shutting himself down and others out. But somehow, that morning, I mobilized in record time and managed to turn his self-defeating mood around.

I love Indian classical music, although I have never studied it formally. (Our local public radio station irritates me to no end when it uses the term “classical music” to refer to European classical music, as if that is all there is.) I love the way it starts quietly, just establishing the mood, and then builds gradually, taking a long time to warm up. A raga, or raag, is a basic melody form (here’s Anoushka Shankar explaining) and there are ragas for every time of day, even the time when I am not at my best.

Ali Akbar Khan (US., c. 1970) Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Ali Akbar Khan (US., c. 1970) Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It just so happened that we had picked up an album by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the virtuoso sarod player, called Pre-dawn to Sunrise Ragas (1967). Although we had gone to see Ali Akbar Khan in concert at least twice by then, I had never properly listened to this album, and certainly not at the proper time of day, but as I threw on my clothes and scrambled to prepare breakfast, I had the bright idea of putting it on. As soon as the needle settled into the grooves of the disc and the first benign tones of raag bairagi began to pervade the atmosphere, something shifted into an open, expectant mode. By the time the raga was over, we were getting ready to jump into the truck and make for Chelsea; but in that short twenty minutes, Andrew’s mood had neutralized and the dark cloud had begun to lift. The sun rose, the pick-up and delivery went smoothly, and all was well with the world again.

Don’t take my word for it; try it yourself, the next time you’re up early and a bit out of sorts. Begin the day with joy.

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368. Night

In blogs and blogging, Music, Nature, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 17, 2016 at 8:56 am

422408-night-sky

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

N

As a girl at boarding school, I loved singing in morning chapel. We often sang hymns welcoming the new day, and our dear headmaster Mr. Murray’s favorite, Lord of All Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy, was one of mine as well. There was one morning hymn, though, whose tune I liked but some of whose words never failed to annoy me. The first verse went:

New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.

I supposed it was okay to be thankful that one hadn’t died in one’s sleep, but wondered why the daytime was privileged over the night in this way. Why wasn’t one also considered alive and conscious while sleeping? Later, at university, I made a little study of the waking and sleeping states of consciousness as explored in the Upanishads, and found that, as in modern sleep and dream research, they had considered the sleeping states to be both conscious and necessary, fulfilling essential functions.

I love the night. It’s a peaceful time when the chatter of the world is stilled, and a measure of calm restored. I do not fear darkness or associate it with evil or death. After all, half the day is dark; why on earth should we dismiss half our lives? When the sun sets, a precious peace descends, cloaking the world in darkness. Only in darkness is the night sky illuminated, the heavenly bodies that are invisible by day emerging in all their glory. Also by night, thoughts that are dispelled by day emerge, demanding to be examined and resolved. These processes are carried out in blessèd sleep, balm of hurt minds. . .that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, as Shakespeare put it in Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2.

For good measure, I leave you with a handful of songs celebrating the night.

Night Shift (Bob Marley & the Wailers)
Whatever Gets You Through the Night (John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band)
Because the Night (Patti Smith Group)
In the Midnight Hour (Wilson Pickett)
All Through the Night (Welsh Folk Song, Ar hyd y nos)

Night-time brings me joy.

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367. Movement

In blogs and blogging, health, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, Stories, Work on April 16, 2016 at 8:17 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

The Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil (survivalinternational.org)

The Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil (survivalinternational.org)

MYesterday Andrew and I had made a date to sit down to file our taxes; well, not quite the taxes themselves, the deferral forms for the taxes. Deferring the start of the work on the deferral, I took a little walk out to the mailbox to pick up the mail from the day before.

It was a glorious day. The sun warmed my back and a gentle breeze played through the trees. The daffodils were out and everything was alive. As I walked, a delightful ache streaked through my limbs and quickened my step. Far from walking to the mailbox and back, I felt that I could go on walking forever. I was made to move.

One bright Sunday morning when I was nineteen, I had set out for a little stroll in the park and ended up walking some 23 miles (see TMA #39, Two at a Time). Now the weekly extent of my movement was the sum of distance from the house to the car, the car to my office, the car to the supermarket, and back again, the trips up and down the flights of stairs at home and at work; oh, and the trips down the driveway to pick up the mail and take out the trash and recycling bins. Pretty pathetic. That’s why the ache I feel in my limbs most of the time is the ache of disuse rather than the welcome ache of dormant muscles waking up after a long hibernation. For we humans suffer when we stop moving.

Think of our lives when we were hunter-gatherers. We are still at optimum health when we adhere as closely as possible to that lifestyle: continually on the move—on foot, of course—just to gain the minimum number of calories necessary for our basic subsistence. And now, I think of how many hours a day I spend sitting in the car, just driving back and forth to work; hunched over a desk; sprawling on the couch; lying in bed.

Recent research in the news has found that people who spend too much time sitting are at greater risk of dying from heart disease and cancer. They recommend that all of us, especially office workers and others with sedentary jobs, spend more time standing and moving:

  • Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch.
  • If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter.
  • Walk laps with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room for meetings.
  • Position your work surface above a treadmill — with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk — so that you can be in motion throughout the day (Levine)

418cFeVoQuLDozens of contraptions are now available that allow one to stand, or even exercise, while working on one’s laptop computer. Colleagues of mine are now routinely grading while standing up. No longer can I collapse on the couch and watch my favorite soap, EastEnders, guilt-free (not that I ever could); I am keenly aware that I ought to be pedaling furiously at the same time.

There is another kind of movement that gives one the same delightful feeling of exhilaration as a long walk, and that is a social movement toward shared goals. These times of cuts and austerity measures are alienating and enervating in the extreme, and neoliberalism turns us into lonely, isolated individuals. But there is an antidote: collective action. This song by Bob Marley, from a live performance in Boston (1978), is guaranteed to restore a spring to your step.

In the end, of course, we all gotta move, right out of this life. Mississippi Fred McDowell says it best. So while you’re here, shake a leg. I guarantee that it will bring you joy. I know that movement brings me joy, only somehow I keep forgetting.

(Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)

(Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)

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