Politics and song

Now, the whole business of Irish nationalism can get very serious if you’re not careful.

– Liam Clancy [1]

My father, Joseph Connelly, abandoned his family when I was two years of age.  I probably should have hated him and be done with it; but that’s not how children respond to their abandonment.  There’s a lot of self-questioning – ‘was I the cause of his leaving?’ – and attempts to prove worthy of a love that will never be acknowledged.

So up to his death of a heart attack in 1989, I went through periods when I tried to adopt Irish culture as somehow my own; as my inheritance.  In the long run, these efforts failed, and they left me realizing that I had no cultural inheritance beyond the common culture of the United States.  When people ask me where my family came from, I answer without hesitation, “Brooklyn” [2].

Nonetheless, the efforts to identify with an Irish heritage left me with considerable sympathy for a people that had long suffered the most miserable oppression as a colony of the British Empire.  (The British long maintained that Ireland was a willingly subservient kingdom, aligned to Britain in the laughable pretense of a “United Kingdom,” but this was believed only by British colonialists stealing farmland from the Irish and putting them to work as, in effect, serfs.)  The oppression really began with Cromwell’s bloody conquest of the Catholic Irish, whom he called “barbarous wretches”; the massacres were bad enough – and the Irish were no saints in these engagements – but the immediate aftermath really established the Anglo-Irish relationship that followed:  the policy of suppression “included the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement, and killing of civilians” [3].  It cut the population by nearly half.

Difficulties, including the occasional Irish rebellion, continued throughout the history of this “union” of Ireland and England, but reached a turning point with the notorious Potato Famine of 1845.  The potato had become a staple, because it could be grown in private gardens.  When a serious blight stuck, the Irish faced starvation. Cash crops in Ireland were routinely sent to England for wholesale, and if they returned to Ireland for retail sale, they were priced way beyond the ability of the Irish peasantry to pay. These practices were unaddressed by the British government for some five years [4].  By the end of the famine, roughly 1852, the Irish population was estimated as having lost more than 2 million, half to starvation, half to emigration.  The British – many of whom agreed with Cromwell’s assessment of the Irish character as barbarous and wretched (and shameless Catholics to boot) – thought that with the famine ended, markets would naturally stabilize, and relations with the Irish could be restored to way they were under the Acts of Union of 1801. They were wrong.  Survivors of the Famine and their heirs remembered what they had gone through and who had put them through it.  Irish political activists were no longer interested in “protesting” impoverished economic conditions that the British colonialists could exploit.  They knew that any such conditions would inevitably recur as long as the colonialists controlled the economy.  So began the long hard struggle that would lead to Irish independence.

Irish rebel songs had been recorded since at least the 17th century (“Seán Ó Duibhir a’Ghleanna” on the Battle of Aughrim during the Williamite War, 1691).  Indeed, there are so many of them that they form a genre of their own.  (Going by Wikipedia, they seem to comprise about a third of all catalogued folk songs of Ireland [5].)  However, they truly embed themselves in Irish culture in the decades leading up to the War of Independence (1919-21).   They include exhortations to fight for “dear old Ireland,” reports of battles, like “Foggy Dew” (Easter Rebellion, 1916), elegies for slain soldiers; as well as opinions on differing perspectives on the politics of the era, especially concerning those that erupted into violence during the Civil War of 1922.

One might object that I haven’t remarked on “the Troubles” in Northern Island, so I will.  There have been political songs on both sides of that conflict, as well as, in recent decades, admonitions to peace. [6]  They are all Irish.  Because as much as some citizens of North Ireland like to think of themselves as somehow British, no one else does – not even the British, who in signing the accords that brought peace to Ulster (1998), effectively agreed to the right of all the Irish to self-determination.

One can no more remove politics from Irish song, than one could remove the Guinness Brewery from Dublin [7].  But the matter goes much deeper.  In fact, throughout the years of occupation, pretty much whatever the Irish sang about was political in nature.  They sang of the success of their gardens – that violated British economics.  They sang of their children – they weren’t supposed to have so many, those damned Catholics!  They sang out their love of their God – in the 17th Century, this got them killed; in the 18th matters improved, it only sent them to prison.  They sang of the beauty of their countryside – and were kicked off it left and right.  They sang of their trades – which they couldn’t independently practice, without a British approved overseer.  All they had to do was warble a note in Gaelic, and they were suspected of some dark satanic plot against the crown.  In other words, the very existence of Irish song, the very singing of it, was a politically rebellious act against British domination.

It must be kept in mind here that for 400 years, the British were engaged in what might be called genocide-by-attrition of the Irish people.  This is difficult to discuss in America, where the media has such a fascination for the health and marital antics of the ‘royal family’.  I suppose the long-range plan was to have the Irish simply die off, but since most of them were Catholics, that wasn’t going to happen.  So the British settled for total suppression of the Irish way of life and domination of its economy. They reduced the Irish to something less than serfs, since serfs were recognized as being a part of the land they worked.  The Irish were not recognized as belonging to the land, they were seen as somehow an annoying infection, needing to be cauterized.  The British did worse than destroy Irish culture, they stripped the Irish of the resources needed to produce culture.

But the body is a resource, and it can only be stripped from the possessor through death.  As Hitler realized, the only way you can completely erase a culture is through complete eradication of the targeted people.  But the British, although cruel and destructive, had a peculiar image of themselves as fundamentally “decent,” so all their crimes needed to be rationally explicable and moderated with some sense of “mercy” (and with some sense of moral superiority).   Goering once declared in a speech, “Yes, we (Nazis) are barbarians!”  A British politician would never admit such a thing.  So the Irish were allowed to starve to death, but there were no death camps to be found in, say, County Clare.

That may have been a mistake.  Song is of the body.  One feels it singing. It reverberates deeply in the lungs and shakes the innards.  It rises up with every breath (Latin: spiritus).  Sing a song and one is that song.  Sing a song for others, and one produces culture.  The British could take everything from the Irish, but they could not take away their breath; they could not stop them singing.

There are actually two ways to listen to a song.  One is to hear the voice simply as a part of the music itself.  One doesn’t actually pay attention to the words; perhaps one doesn’t understand the words.  This is how we listen to songs in languages we do not speak.  But the practice extends beyond that.  Where I work, my older colleagues and clients generally tend to be political and social conservatives.  Yet the public address radio is set to a “classic rock” station.  So I find myself frequently bemused watching these conservatives hum along to songs promoting recreational drug use (“White Rabbit”), sexual promiscuity (every other song by the Rolling Stones), political revolution or anti-war resistance (Steppenwolf’s “Monster”), non-Christian religious belief (a George Harrison song extolling Hari-Krishna), or even a song of anti-American hostility (“American Woman”).  They listen to something like the Chambers Brothers’ burst of outrage, “Time Has Come Today,” and don’t seem to have any idea that they are the targets of that outrage.  The words are meaningless to them, because they’re not listening to the words.  The voice they hear and hum along with, that’s just part of the music.

I have a suspicion that this is how most of us listen to songs in our own language, especially songs we have been hearing since very young.  My colleagues and clients don’t want to be reminded of the ’60s with all that era’s political turbulence.  They want to be reminded of their own youth.

What the British did in their aggressive disenfranchisement of the Irish on their own soil was to force the Irish to listen to their own songs, to pay attention to the words as well as to the melodies.  Because we listen to the words of a song when they are touching us directly in our immediate circumstances.  So even ancient songs can be made meaningful again if the events they refer to are replicated in the events of the current day: they are recognized as contemporary as a newspaper or a political broadside.

The British thus made the rebel song the touch-stone, the embodiment of Irish culture.  One can see how this plays out in the Irish ‘cheer’ (that’s its technical genre), “Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” [8]  This probably originated as a shanty, welcoming sailors home from voyage (its structure is quite similar to “Drunken Sailor,” with which it probably shares a common original).  During the Williamite War, it transformed into a plea for Bonny Prince Charles to reclaim the throne and set conditions aright for the Irish.  In the early 20th Century, it was slightly revised by Patrick Pearse, who some say was murdered – or as others would have it, executed – by the British for participation in the Easter ’16 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. [9]  The song is in Gaelic, and roughly less than a third of the Irish report using Gaelic.  That may be less among today’s young Irish, and perhaps they don’t quite understand the full meaning of this song.  But anyone in Ireland forty years or older does.  A call for heroes to oust the “foreigners” (British) from Ireland, it was used as a marching song during the War of Independence.  Even if one doesn’t understand the words, the historical context reveals the meaning, a context remembered and passed on through generations.

Let’s clarify that.  Obviously, however moving the music, and however well known the context, the words technically have no meaning, until they’re explained.  So imagine a young person, unable to speak Gaelic, yet hearing his parents and their friends singing this song and noting their attitudes of pride and determination.  Such a one would feel impelled to ask after the song’s meaning.  And here’s where attempts to suppress a language and its song swing back to bite the oppressor’s hand.  The young person now pays closer attention to the meaning of the song during and following the explanation than he or she would if it were sung in a language already understood.  In other words, the effort to suppress Gaelic song actually backfired:  Rebel songs in Gaelic achieved greater respect as audiences struggled to place them meaningfully within the context of the Irish revolution and take possession of them as their own.

In fact, the problem for any empire is that colonization, oppression, slavery, and mass slaughter do not make friends.  Empires generate hatreds and enmities that last for generations.  The good natured Irish tend to adopt a “live and let live” pragmatic attitude even towards those they have battled in the past.  But they also tend to carry a grudge.

The British are a very proud people.  Writing this in America, I know it is expected of me to continue, “and they have every right to be.”  But I don’t believe that.  The history of England includes important eddies of remarkable writers and scientists.  But these appear to the sides of a great river of blood, clogged with the remains of slaughtered natives of colonized lands.  And for every one of those dead, whole families are left behind to this day, battling to redefine the wretched political and economic confusion the British Empire left behind in its collapse – a collapse that the British still won’t admit or deal with honestly.

I write this in America, the nation that long acted as inheritor of that collapsed empire, while flattering the British ego, by pretending we are all somehow the same people because of a common language.  By functioning in a more paternalistic, “caring” fashion, acknowledging the sovereignty of other countries, spreading around aid programs, enlisting allies (as long as they didn’t threaten our hegemony and wealth), Americans have deluded themselves into believing they are not imperialists and have made no enemies.  But they are and they have, and this will continue to haunt and befuddle their foreign affairs for many generations to come.

But America has another problem.  There is no such thing as “the American people.”  America is a collection of many peoples from around the world.  Some of these have been historically oppressed, although later assimilated into the mainstream.  Others have not been able or allowed to assimilate.  And others may feel themselves oppressed where there is no empirical evidence that this is so, beyond their own disappointment, given the nature of the economy or the nature of constitutional government.  Consequently, there are an awful lot of people here who have, or who have had, or who believe they have, reason speak out.  And when the means for doing so are blocked or when speaking seems unlikely to convince others – they can always sing about it. [10]   That’s what song is for.  Politics is not an add-on to song; song is an inevitable expression in politics.

Mark English wrote here recently of the dangers of relying on mythical thinking in matters political. [11]  The desire for respect, for the ability to live without oppression or risk of theft or murder, for the opportunity to realize one’s full potential unhindered by stigma – are these mythical aspirations?  Quite probably.  The world is a cold home to a lonely, anxious species of over-developed hominids.  But I would not be the one to reassure those starving in a famine that, rationally, their deaths would (in the words of Scrooge) “decrease the surplus population.”   Some myths are worth living for, even fighting for; and worth singing about.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3zOVi0C5X4

[2] My oldest sister never quite got over it, and became obsessed with developing a family tree.  She traced the Irish roots back to an 18th century poet, Thomas Dermody, aka Dead-Drunk Dermody, who, as his nickname would suggest, drank himself to death at an early age. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Dermody

The first stanza from his “On a Dead Negro;” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/on-a-dead-negro/:

AT length the tyrant stays his iron rod,

At length the iron rod can hurt no more;

The slave soft slumbers ‘neath this verdant sod,

And all his years of misery are o’er.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland

[4] The British response to the famine – heartless indifference – was a purely rational one.  Remember that this was the age of Malthus, who once wrote, however ironically:

“(W)e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality [of the poor]; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use” Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

Lest any think this was not in minds of the British during the Famine, consider the following:

“Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.” – Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, 1840s

“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” – Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s

“[Existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.” – Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior

“A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” – The Times, editorial, 1848

Source of additional quotes: http://www.politics.ie/forum/history/22143-anti-irish-quotes-throughout-history.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Irish_ballads

[6] For instance: U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Simple Minds: “Belfast Child,” The Cranberries: “Zombie.”

[7] Until Guinness bought out the brewery building recently, they held a 9,000 year lease on it.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Sje2VYw99A

About the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93r%C3%B3_s%C3%A9_do_bheatha_abhaile

Translation in English: http://songsinirish.com/oro-se-do-bheatha-bhaile-lyrics/

Revisions author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Pearse

[9] The execution of the leaders of Easter ‘16 was perhaps the most profound mistake the British could have made.  Initially, they sentenced 89 men and a woman to death; but the first 15 executions were staggered over 9 days, as crowds stood outside the prison weeping, and politicians both Irish and British protested.  Author James Stephens described it as “like watching blood oozing from under a door.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stephens_(author)  The sentences of the other 75 sentenced to death were commuted.  But the damage was done.  The effect was to galvanize the Irish people in support of independence.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Rising

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

[11] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/


This essay originally appeared at: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/03/politics-and-song/


the business and the passion – music and capitalism


I am linking to a lecture at Youtube; if it doesn’t play for some reason, here is the URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2YU1k8Nmms

Presented on BBC Four as the John Peel lecture of that year (2014), this is indeed a lecture – yes, a lecture – by Iggy Pop – the Igster, America’s most wayward wayward son, the man known to toss himself on broken glass when in the throes of performing, former front-man for punk precursors The Stooges, and occasional colleague of the late David Bowie.

It’s a strange, yet in many ways fascinating lecture.  Written in the voice of an elder musician of considerable experience, offering advice to young aspiring rock stars, the lecture also presents a critique of the music industry as capitalist system, and suggestions for surviving that; but also an engagingly ambivalent discussion of the question of piracy in the digital era.

Basically, Iggy is against piracy on general principles, yet also defends working people trying to listen to music without paying for it, in an era of spiraling consumer costs.  This ambivalence arises from a preliminary discussion about the nature of music as a “feeling thing,” an emotional commitment transcendent of monetary concerns.  That’s an odd remark from any professional entertainer these days, but especially from a ‘shock rocker’ who has devoted a life-time to transgressing accepted social norms.  Yet it is wholly believable.

There are two interesting moments, early on, when Iggy comes close to sobbing.  The first is when he remembers performers he had befriended, the Ramones – all of whom were dead by the time of this lecture.  The second is when he remarks on the kind of America that young people in the ’60s were hoping would follow the presidency of John F. Kennedy – which hopes seemed dashed by Kennedy’s assassination.  (The evidence is that this hope was entirely in vain to begin with, but never mind; this is how Iggy remembers it.)

Iggy speaks very personally (and personably), without ever losing the authority of someone who has an expertise born of experience – this is a lecture (or at least a presentation, if you will), not a confessional.  Not disappointing those of us who have followed his career over the years, he voices no regrets.  What is there to regret?  He made the music he wanted to, took his chances, lived with the consequences, and survived.  In the music industry as it has existed since the late ’60s, that’s the nearest one gets to heroism.

Over all this lecture is remarkably heart-felt, articulate, witty and insightful.  It really shines a light on the darker recesses of a music industry that most people take for granted, while allowing another light shine from within, of those who just want to make music because they love it and have something to say.


I’ve removed a note I included here off-topic,  commenting on recent events in Oregon, as I realized it distracted from the lecture posted here.  But I may post such commentary separately later.


Punk and money – it will bleed

“Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage. ”
– Kurt Cobain, suicide note (1).

The real story of punk rock will, probably, never be told. I suppose that’s because most of the surviving participants have too much ego invested; or because, as the years fade, and the original social context disappears, the meaning of Punk – at its inception – becomes harder to decipher and easier to forget.

I was in NYC in ’76, when it was first breaking for the national press, and I hung around CBGBs under a number of pseudonyms, trying to write reviews and articles on bands that nobody ever heard of, many of them breaking up before I could dot the last “i” in the last paragraph. And I tried out a couple bands of my own (2), weird blends of Iggy Pop (3) and the Velvet Underground (4). But I was really an outsider (coming from upstate); and when the London scene started shipping singles over, I knew that, for whatever reason, my heart was really more into “Anarchy” (5) and “White Riot” (6) than the metal-surf-music of the Ramones (7) or early Blondie (8). But this disjunction of ‘right time wrong place’ or whatever, allowed me to see the development of Punk in a way others seem content to ignore.

The fundamental problem that Punk never resolved (and neo-punks struggled with it ever since), is, whether Punk was to be a continuance of the “counter culture” of the ’60s in different guise, or just another pop-music for sexually frustrated young people.

The ’60s counter culture, it may be remembered, offered itself as a ‘revolution’ of consciousness – free from the pressures fascistic politics, conformist culture and capitalistic economics, people could at last realize their full potential as creative souls and express the beauty within by enjoying all the pleasures the world had to offer – the dawning of the age of Aquarius (9).

We punks originated as a kind of antidote to much of the fuzzy-headed pretentiousness of the hippies of the ’60s. Too much of the ’60s counter culture simply ignored hard concrete truths about the kind of animal we are; about the cities we live in; about the problems with the various pleasures the world seemed to offer. Punk seemed, at first, to confront all these issues, while still offering a sub-culture in which we could survival as reasonably free from the demands of conservatism, conformity and capitalism. Unfortunately, the surrounding culture has a myriad ways to subvert and co-opt such offers, and Punk did not so much crash-and-burn as it bled into the surrounding landscape – and not without cost.

This sounds like an empty theoretical issue, but it has one all-important concrete aspect to it no one can ignore – money. Did (do) punks make music to make music – or to make money? That question was never answered; or, perhaps, every punk answered (answers) it in his/ her own way. Yet once we begin adding up all the individual answers, most of them sure come out sounding like “money”. Yet the memory of Punk survives largely because it seemed to be about anything other than money; so the dilemma continues.

That dilemma surfaces in the discovery of the wretched rip-off Pistols manager Malcom McLaren pulled, not only on the audience, but on the Pistols themselves (while he was signing contracts, Johnny Rotten was living on the streets). Watching the documentary “The Filth and the Fury” (10) again recently, moments from the (thankfully unfinished) “Who Shot Bambi?” (11) make it very clear that McLaren had not the slightest clue as to who the Pistols were, or what they represented. Yet he not only continued to guide their career after their break-up, but is warmly mentioned in Griel Marcus’ scholarly history of Punk, “Lipstick Traces” (12), which will probably bear influence on punk histories, long after the last “photo-album” paperback turns to dust. Yet it is clear that from the get-go McLaren’s only interest was the profit.

The Pistols were right, and are right, to ignore questions concerning their “materialism” or “selling out”, since they were never part of the hippies’ ‘anti-materialism’ ideal to begin with, and because they never denied a desire for some paycheck (which they almost never got from McLaren). But also plain is their desire to make the music of the UK working-class slums from whence they came.

All of this comes to a head in the brief yet unforgettable tragedy of Sid Vicious – for whom music meant freedom, and money meant – heroin. But junky ‘rock stars’ don’t play at commercial venues to make music. He ended up in NYC, which by then had a punk scene swarming with record-co.-exec vermin dealing dope and poseur sycophants trying to score. Eventually all that was left was the heroin, and it killed him (13).

The final performance at Winterland (14) is adequate reminder of why it was many of us thought, at the time (and still believe) that the Pistols were the most important rock band in history: same-old same-old music concerts are “no fun” and Steve Jones and Rotten (knowing they’ve been betrayed by McLaren into performing for the corporate music world they hated) rub our noses in it until they’ve had enough and stalk off. If you can see this – and know what it’s about – and still pay $200 to see Mick Jagger pull his wrinkled pud at you from his rocking chair (15), you either need to develop a deeper appreciation of history, with a greater sense of the social reality of professionally made music – or you need a psychiatrist.


(1) cobain suicide note:

http://kurtcobainssuicidenote.com/kurt_cobains_suicide_note.html (16)

(2) – when the moon turns to blood/free sex gum (a much later version!):

(3) – i wanna be your dog/stooges:

(4) – white light/white heat/velvet underground:

(5) – anarchy in the uk/sex pistols:

(6) – white riot/clash:

(7) – rockaway beach/ramones:

(8)  – in the sun/blondie:

(9) – age of aquarius/fifth dimension:

(10) – the filth and the fury/trailer:

(11) – who killed bambi/clip:

(12) – lipstick traces/marcus:

http://www.amazon.com/Lipstick-Traces-History-Twentieth-Anniversary/dp/0674034805 – lipstick traces

(13) – lydon on vicious:

(14) – no fun/at winterland/pistols:

(15) – jagger turns 70:

(16) – lydon on cobain:


“Hope I die before I get old” – The Who, My Generation.

Washing I locks in the ocean


After a week of letting desire loose, and criticizing simulacra metaphysics, I thought it would be a good idea to lighten up and risk truly harsh criticism by sharing some of my more aesthetic interests.

A short post; here find two of my musical compositions. The drums are programmed, the bass and keyboard are performed by me. These are in the idiom of reggae dub, but they tend to be a little esoteric. Like anyone who has done dub, my primary influences included King Tubby, Lee Perry, Scientist – a whole slew of brilliant recording engineers. But on these two tracks I think I was most trying for the feel of the more melodic tracks on Dennis Bivell’s “I Wah Dub” album (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztVpsVEzo6U). Of course Bovell had the benefit of dubbing pre-existent tracks that included guitars and horns. As a home studio performer, I was stuck with keyboards. But I hope I got a dreamy, hypnotic feel to these tracks. Or something close. (Or if not, better luck next life.)

Of course one primarily does music for one’s self. I did these tracks because this is what I wanted to hear. I did try to share them back in the day, when there was something called MP3.com on the internet, and got some nibbles. But generally making music is first about what interests us, and then what interests others. I don’t music can be played – with total honesty – any other way. Professional musicians, it must be remembered, are professionals first, and musicians second. That is, they have a job to do. Failure to realize that has been the down-fall of many a young wanna-be-star. One has to be very, very lucky to ‘make it’ in the music biz and still be playing only what one wants to hear.

Yes, I did record other pieces; but this after all is not a music blog. These two tracks are presented here because one is my personal favorite (“Ocean”) and the other was the most popular of my work in this genre (“Natty”) (it actually got radio play in France and in the American territory islands in the Pacific). So I’m hoping to use this moment to think about the intersection between self-and-other in musical terms. Or perhaps I’m feeling vain.

And perhaps nostalgic as well. For a number of personal reasons, I haven’t really made music for some 15 years. Most of these I won’t get into. I will say that I think I said pretty much whatever it is I wanted to say musically, and just didn’t feel the need to keep saying it. ‘Not doing it anymore’ is actually one of the benefits of not being a professional. Professionals really have to keep doing it, which might get very dull after a while….

An interesting aspect of these pieces – for me – are that they are imagistic. “Ocean” is even narrativistic, in that it begins by imagining an airplane ride over the ocean, then diving into it. (“Natty” is about hair.) I’m actually opposed to the notion that music must be or somehow naturally is imagistic in nature. Surely, we’ve experienced too many experiments in music since this notion was first popularized in the 19th century to buy into that! (Yet of course music teachers in grade school and high school still talk that way, I think.) In my non-vocal pieces, I was perfectly happy titling a track ‘Variation 2’ or ‘Dissonant squawks against a back-beat.’ But I’m not opposed to letting a piece of music remind me of a moment or a story. I just think this has its dangers: I first heard Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” when I was a kid; misreading the title, I was sure it was from the sound-track for Bambi!

A note should be made concerning my musical history. I listened to classical music only, until I was 17, when I discovered how playing Alice Cooper could really annoy one’s neighbors (at 17, what could be more fun?). Eventually I drifted into punk rock, even hanging out at CBGBs when it first attracted national attention. Eventually I even played and sang with a metal-punk band in upstate New York.

Throughout the later ’70s and early ’80s, I listened – closely – to pretty much any music my ears could find; but my deepest attachment proved to be for reggae. I’ve thought about this many times over the years, and I’m not sure. I will probably write directly about that at some point, but for now I will say that what began as a curious itch turned into a comfortable groove. Perhaps that’s all one needs to know about the music one loves.

Anyway, that’s why I made these two tracks. Reggae had enriched my life, so I wanted to express something of my love for it.


The song is just what it is – a song

I confess that one of my favorite music CDs is Sherri Youngward’s “Six Inches Of Sky” (2002).  Listening it to gain recently, I was again impressed with its musical plasticity and energy. It moves deftily from the hypnotic to the energetic, from fragile folksiness to energetic rock.   Youngward’s compositional talents are wide-ranging, here lyrics frequently touching, here voice beautifully earthy and vulnerable at the same time.

If you haven’t heard of her, it maybe that you haven’t had the happy accident I had, when I discovered this CD for a buck in a bargain bin.  Or maybe you just don’t belong to the right church; Sherri Youngward is an Evangelical Christian, and her songs are all about her faith.

So I had to stop and think about that a bit, yesterday.  Here I am, a secular Buddhist, an atheist, a former punk rocker, and perpetual ne’er-do-well (in Christian terms), how can I be so moved by Youngward’s music and yet remain wholly unpersuaded to her faith?

I think part of it that there’s no reason I should be.  Back in the ’60s, a lot of people (including me) were convinced that music could be made, not only integral to culture (how could it not be?), but determinative of cultural innovations – music could be persuasive and lead ‘the revolution!’  But of course the revolution never happened.  Today, ‘classic rock’ stations are played in stores and offices across the country; old drug anthems like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” protests songs like the single’s version of “Time Has Come Today,’ or “Fortunate Son,” promises of better tomorrows, even religion-less ones, like in Lennon’s Imagine – pour from speakers like so much aural confetti.  People no longer care what the words mean.  Because we were all wrong in the ’60s; music can never ground a revolution.  Only political action grounds revolution.

That music forms a strong part of one’s culture cannot be denied.  Unfortunately we no longer live in a world filled with isolated communities where music reinforces what is spoken, and blends with what is done, so that the culture of the community is a seamless blanket in which people live.  Nor do we even live in a large homogenous culture blanket with ancient religious beliefs and rituals, as could once be found across large swaths of India.  Nowadays we live in complex and diverse society, and our cultures are patchwork quilts that cover some people many miles away, rather than anybody near-by; or may only cover individuals and (some of) their closest friends.

One reason I can remain unpersuaded by Youngward’s music, despite being emotionally moved, is because of a previous experience with this a similar issue.

In the mid-’70s, I became fascinated with Jamaican Reggae, and indeed, became a confirmed collector of just about any disc from Jamaica I could get my ears to.  (This fell off finally when I lost my record collection entirely in the early 1st decade of the current century due to adverse personal fortune.)  I even spent a number of years in the late ’70s hanging around the local Jamaican community, which helped persuade some of that community that not all white people were against them or their political and social aspirations.  Yet, I never could fully belong to the Reggae-centered sub-culture of the time, because much of it was invested in the religion of Rastafarianism.

Before discussing that, a quick lesson on the history of Reggae.  Initially, Jamaican music came into its own (in the era of recorded music) with a music that swung the American R&B beat backwards, so to speak: Ska.  Although some great musicians were involved in the music, it’s primary purpose was to keep people dancing.

However, at about the same time as Ska’s arrival, the culture of Jamaica saw the rise of the religious cult of Rastafari, and Rastafarians would smoke marijuana communally, and engage in chants set to a drumming style known as ‘Nyabinghi,’ which had African roots extending through Jamaica’s history as a former slave culture under British occupation.

By the time Jamaican music caught up with the innovations in electronic instrumentation and recording coming out of America, a new generation of musicians came to the fore, that had were blending Ska influences with Nyabinghi, and coming up sounding what finally became recognizable as Reggae.

Well, what about the Rastafarians?  They believe that 1) Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, is god.  (Still is, despite being dead, somewhere in the spiritual realm where gods always dwell.)  2.) Marcus Garvey, a major figure of the ‘Back-To Africa movement of the ’20s and ’30s, was his prophet (although they believe in the Christian Bible as well).   3) On Judgement Day, they will be transported back to Africa, which will be transformed into paradise (gods can do that sort of thing, you know).  Of course they once believed that they could be returned to Africa just as it is now, but that sort of evaporated after the Ethiopian Revolution, and once major Rasta-believing Reggae performers toured the fabled continent, and found it less than paradisaical.

The popularity of Rastafarianism has waxed-and-waned over the years, and one can see why, just from this brief initial history of its main beliefs.  It originated in the rural hills and mountains of Jamaica, and then thrived in Trenchtown, one of the worst slums in the world, by offering what the material culture it found itself in could not – pride in one’s ethnic inheritance and hope for the future.

But while ethnic can be a good thing, it can also bring us into conflict with political realities; ethnic pride alone will not fill empty bellies.  And the problem with any hope for the future is that it is necessarily contingent on the future.  Joe Hill of the vocal trio Culture had a vision in 1976 that Judgment Day was literally the next year, and sings about this passionately in the song “Two Sevens Clash” (a beautiful song); but 1977 came and went, and Judgment Day got postponed again.

But Reggae has survived the occasionally failed hopes and religious excesses of its Rastafarian performers, and has become a world class musical genre, with now several mutated strains that invite, rather than suppress, innovation among young musicians.  I think that is because it truly is the music of a culture, as know experience culture – heterogeneous, diverse, filled with nooks and crannies, with differing people capable of taking in new influences and thinking new thoughts.  Reggae is now much more like the blues and soul traditions here in the US, capable of addressing, singing about all manner of experience, not just the religious idiosyncrasies of a certain religious sect.

But of course, any one familiar with the history of Reggae knows that was really always true.  On Jamaica itself, Reggae performers would sing about sex, politics, or a recent sporting event with equal ease.  It was only as it nudged onto the world stage in the mid-70s that it acquired the myth that it’s soul was Rastafarian and its aim was revolution.  And I suppose such myths energized the musicians of the time, and their audiences.  How exciting it is to believe, not only that one is listening to a well-written, well-performed song, but that one is also at the same time participating in a revolution – or even having a spiritual experience!

But for music to have any such impact, it must be part of a complex social web that re-enforces the sense that it can – not just the song, but the church it’s heard in; not just the lyrics, but the march where the lyrics are chanted.  Once the web is torn  music revealed as – well, just something else that humans do to make the time we live seem more meaningful.

That doesn’t make it trivial; that’s exactly what makes it important.