Rodgers and Hammerstein (YGtCTO #273)

Oklahoma!


Stage musical with music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II

When they stopped including instruction manuals with software programs, I must have stared at the packaging for ten minutes, trying to decide how to contact the company and explain that my software didn’t have a manual. I must have said something out loud because someone nearby commented, “Oh, yeah, it’s online now. Besides it’s pretty simple to get started.”

They were right, as millions of users can confirm. Or perhaps they were right about the fact that we didn’t need the manual, anyway. Over the years, I noticed that you could distinguish those folks who saved manuals and referred to them from the people who did not. I feel obliged to add that I never found any other shared trait among either group, including intelligence or likability. Well, those of us who read manuals did have that annoying bit where we would often respond to questions with, “Have you checked the instructions?” Debit a few points on likability for manual savers, I suppose. Also, the loss of that retort may explain more about our dismay about no more print manuals more than anything else. Furthermore, I am glad we stopped printing those massive tomes. It saved trees and online manuals are easier to search.

So, musicals…

I had seen West Side Story and enough other stuff that I knew at a fairly young age that Broadway musicals did not shy away from serious topics. Really, anyone who has heard a love song about loss or a folk song about a tragedy must be aware that the very fact that something is being expressed in music does not remove it from the realm of drama.

Rodgers and Hammerstein

But that
doesn’t make it any easier to take musicals seriously. Let’s face it, outside of the car and the shower, nobody breaks into song at full throttle. I knew one guy who continued singing into the locker room at the gym and it was okay because he had a great voice, but I never thought we were learning about his life or character. I mean, all of us there were pretty clued into the fact that he wasn’t shy, but nothing else.

The fascinating thing about American musicals is how they evolved to use the music to take what was going on inside the character and put it outside. Then, it had to go further and use the music to express emotions and ideas that were inexpressible. That’s a lot of the reason that we all just know once the character is left alone that they are going to start singing.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were way ahead of the game though. They used the musical to tell a story that could not be told otherwise. They took the character’s inner turmoil and found a new way to express it through their compositions combined with dance.

So, the other thing about manuals is that they are basically road-maps. We really use them only until we have that eureka moment of clarity where we comprehend how to proceed. If you can get to understanding without a map (which we accomplish on so many things in life), then more power to you. I remember watching Oklahoma! and suddenly seeing ways to express all those underlying feelings and thoughts through art. I’m not certain it counts as a manual, but it did the job for me.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 27 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out release regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry post irregularly. Receive notifications on Facebook by friending or following Craig.

Images may be subject to copyright.

The Greatness of America

Patriotism

Before I get to greatness for America or anywhere else, no matter where you live, you are a patriot. You may happily decry the noise, the smell, the weather, the sanitation, the road repair, the taxes, and all the rest of the litany of dismay, but let someone visit from away. Let them say one word against your home, your neighborhood, your town or your country and you are prepared for that argument. How dare they?!

The home and the neighborhood are usually easy to carry in our hearts, as long as they haven’t recently featured in a special segment on the local news. But that’s sort of the problem with defending your country writ small. There’s just too much information out there about all the misdeeds that have brought the United States to its current place in time.

Regardless of how you view the U.S.A. today, our past is littered with land grabbing and slave trading; war mongering and war profiteering. Our predecessors did some heinous shit. They bragged about it, too. Unfortunately, for everyone else on the planet, their ancestors perpetrated some pretty awful shit, too. Whoever you are, somebody above or below ground has a justifiable beef with your ancestors (and quite possibly you, too).

So, when we talk about patriotism, a relatively newfangled concept made popular in the 19th century by European governments that were trying to unite disparate groups of people into nations, you’re talking about allegiance to an idea, not a shared history. Back then, someone had to figure out what it meant to be a German, for example. (That one took some twists and turns, didn’t it?) As you might imagine, language, education, and bureaucracy also came along for the nation-building ride.

Defining America

In our case, the idea of the U.S.A. must have felt like “we like big business; we’ve got the biggest business of them all”- something that became possible with incredible expansion which provided uncountable resources. Big business created jobs, which lured waves of immigrants. That led to one of our favorite ideas: the melting pot of America.

This remains a favorite story that we tell ourselves, as if all people are always welcome. The experiences of those who were here when Europeans arrived, those transported here against their will, and those who suffered endless prejudice upon arrival belie the melting pot.

Then we brag about our freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. For better or worse over the years, our highest court justices would tell you that those are not freedoms. In their writing, the less circumspect have come right out and called them restrictions. They stop certain people from doing certain things. Freedom is a creation of individual experience within the restrictions of any given moment. Consider that every freedom for the individual is a restriction on the group’s ability to prevent something from happening. We have to let you say your bit because we believe in the freedom of speech. We have no good way to describe any freedom without stating that the freedom is exercised at the tolerance of the rest of the people.

As for democracy… let’s just say that we cherish it like a pawnbroker cherishes his wares. Everything is for sale for the right price. The tail wags the dog and we have no savior because democracy inherently cannot be saved by one person. Democracy is an extension of the body politic, a malleable mass that may not be for sale, but is always for rent.

Let’s not forget

Yet, I believe in the greatness of the promise of our country . And I do believe that other people do look to the U.S.A. as a beacon, but probably not for the reasons touted by travel brochures and government propaganda. I’m not the first to say that we live in one of the first modern countries- arguably the first.

Pre-modern countries would be those where your role in life is determined at birth. Essentially, you will do what your parents did. Social mobility may not be completely unknown, but it is extremely rare. The advantages were that you knew what you were doing tomorrow, next week and next year. In its most basic form, you could outline your life for anyone interested and be pretty dead right straight through to death. On a larger scale, this meant that the country was in a groove and likely to continue on its current path. The rulers were going to come from a small cohort and they would ensure that the status quo remained unchanged. Bureaucracy could remain relatively small. The middle class was mostly unnecessary because who needs currency? You get the idea.

Modern countries birth children who have no clue what tomorrow is bringing. They have to figure it out for themselves. They arrive in a world driven by money and an endless array of choices. A similarly long list demands their time and energy. Animals, including humans, have to learn how to thrive in such a design because we are not necessarily equipped for such a life. Nothing about our mammal brains suggests that we can cope with economics and meteorology and recipes for kugel. Except, it is either that or we go back to a world in which virtually all of us live in mud and watch our children die.

And yet

As a nation, this means that we have no idea where we are going. Periodically, we reach for comfort by electing someone that reassures us that tomorrow will be just like yesterday. Sometimes that’s a familiar name from yesteryear or someone who spouts reassurances that they can bring back the “old ways.”

We assume the ability to auto-correct quickly. We expect rapid change and facilitate it. If our lives hold the promise of social mobility in a relatively short time, then we can veer from villainy to heroism and back even more quickly. As a nation, we can do it in annual cycles. Since our successes are admired, the world accelerates around us, though not always on the basis of a foundation like that provided by our predecessors. They were nowhere near perfect nor in harmony, but they recognized something about the need to allow for change over time. Something about that might lead to better places.

Moreover, in our effort to look ahead, we assume the past is irrelevant.  Willful ignorance (and not a lack of conservative principles) leads us to avoid hard truths learned by those who came before us. Our system is heavily weighted in favor of those with money and a working knowledge of game theory. This is possible when majorities ignore accumulated learning and treat the world of ideas as a marketplace and not as a scientific laboratory.

What makes us great and we don’t talk about

At times, you can feel the rest of the world looking at us a little askance (unless they live somewhere that they feel things are moving too fast into the future, too). They know what the true greatness of the U.S.A. is. Sometimes we forget, but that beacon of hope is that we will make a future for ourselves. We can never know what it will look like, which can be terrifying. Yet, that is the whole point of being a citizen here. We grasp hands and take a flying leap into the unknown because that’s the real promise our Founding Fathers made: the future is unwritten.

James Branch Cabell (YGtCTO Words #91)

The King Was In His Counting House

Book written by James Branch Cabell

I have to have faith that some enterprising publisher will bring this back into print as an eBook. Of course, that means they need to find a copy of it somewhere, but those have to exist, don’t they? I found one in the bowels of a library. That’s a more accurate description of the sub-basement beside the river than you can imagine.

Considering that Cabell appears to have gained notoriety around 1920, his relative anonymity today should serve as some sort of warning to anyone who believes in art providing a lasting mark on the world. The obscenity trial over his work was not the last court case, but authors like Henry Miller and James Joyce are much better remembered today. Cabell may not be held in the same esteem as Joyce, but he certainly reads as well as Miller.

Despite his demure reputation, Cabell’s Jurgen remains in print as do a few others. They have become something of a secret handshake among readers. The name has a nice rhythm and people usually let you say all four syllables before they smile and nod with that knowing glance, as if you just expectorated an unexpected joke. Or else they stare blankly like you just spoke in a foreign language. Unless they’re an English professor- then they’re trained to fake it well enough that they nod knowingly and grunt.

James Branch Cabell

The biggest revelation

about Cabell, for me, was that someone was writing like this before Tolkien or Nabokov. He has the epic aspirations mixed with the desire to tear down all of the edifice that has been built up around the way we tell stories. Cabell is post-modern back when modern was just starting to be a thing. Read two or three of his books and you begin to think that he is trying to accomplish with words what the cubists were doing in art with multiple perspectives, absurdity, and dedication.

The great fear once we discover any artist in a critical review is that they will be difficult. So often, we convince ourselves that understanding will require work on our part. Certainly Picasso and Braque can’t simply be appreciated for their wacky humor and color choices, can they? After all, they started a movement.

Sometimes, it takes a Cabell to remind us that people managed to be entertaining while mattering in the scheme of things. Sure, that means we dismiss him as more disposable because it’s difficult to build an academic thesis around so, so many jokes. Besides, Gore Vidal and William Faulkner are sitting there, too.

The King Was In His Counting House contains more plot than most of Cabell’s books and it does a pretty good job illustrating everything wrong with the world, but I speak in hyperbole. Just bookmark that link to the book and hold your breath until someone publishes the book anew. One tiny corner of the world will be a better place.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 28 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out release regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry post irregularly. Receive notifications on Facebook by friending or following Craig.

Images may be subject to copyright.