Tag Archives: Music

Empty Music

While wondering why there seem to be no songs about the Mississippi (other than Big River from Johnny Cash) I have realized that music seems to be about almost nothing these days. You see, I listen to country music because I first listened to Johnny Cash, and now I am spoiled by the idea that songs should tell a story or at least sometimes be about something other than sex. I did a little thinking, and I have come up with a (certainly not exhaustive) list of song-worthy topics that should be in songs and a few examples for those of you who have never listened to Cash, or Patty Loveless, or Kris Kristofferson.

1. Home: Home is one of the topics that is glaringly absent from the songs on the radio. Home can represent so many things. The yearning of a human to feel, to be at home is a very powerful force. Here, also, home is the refuge, and unobtainable due to the blizzard.

2. Country/land: Our society has decided that having any real feelings about one’s country, or the very land that you grew up in is parochial and indicative of a variety of ills. This overbearing cynicism seems to preclude such lovely songs as ‘That Ragged Old Flag‘ (love of country) or You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive (below). The latter is a much more complicated song, and is one of my favorites in this post. The attraction of the ‘deep dark hills’ is so powerful and so entrapping, Harlan is like Circe, something you love and hate. It is a very complicated song.

3. Crime: This is a fun one. Some petty prudes somewhere at some point decided that we had to tell children that crime was bad. It’s like those ‘don’t try this at home’ warnings. So, the whole of human experience gets boiled down to what censorious people think is acceptable. Which, oddly enough seems to consist of: sex, someone you want to have sex with, someone having sex but not with you, someone who used to have sex with you but won’t anymore, and lastly someone you’ve had sex with who has died. These seem to be the allowed themes as long as you also conform to the appropriate attitude, either cynical blase or violent addiction; your audience must never be tempted to really think about anything. Here is a fun rampage song from Toby Keith, which totters on the border of just about the ‘someone you want to have sex with’ category and the crime category.

Which if anyone pays much attention to song themes is very much like a modern ‘El Paso’

4: Feeling Cursed: There is a funny thing about feeling cursed. Lots of people feel that way, and songs about this feeling would certainly resonate with most people, who have at least at some point felt cursed. But the censor doesn’t allow these songs. I think that this is because humanity IS cursed.

God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.


5: Meaning of Life…

6: Christianity: The biggest taboo apparently is anything of religious, especially Christian, value. It can only be superficial, whitewashing, so to speak. Nothing like ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’ to make people think about damnation or anything like ‘Redemption’ or Ain’t No Grave.

I will close with a poem by C. S. Lewis that I couldn’t find anywhere else online. Almost every line of this poem could be a song theme. The poem is from Pilgrim’s Regress which is a beautiful answer to the heretical Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character spends his whole life ‘progressing’ searching his own way to try and find God, only to find at the end that he has been running away from God the whole time. Anyway, this is a song sung by an angel in the story.

I know not, I,
What the men together say,
How lovers, lovers, die
And youth passes away.
Cannot understand
Love that mortal bears
To native, native land,
All lands are theirs;
Why at grave they grieve
For one voice and face
And not and not receive
Another in its place.
I above the cone
Of the circling night
Flying, never have known
Less or greater light.
Sorrow it is they call
This cup whence my lip
(Woe’s me!) never in all
My endless days can sip.


I have often marveled at the incredible variability of the English language. Languages like French, Spanish, Italian, are all fluid Latinate (duh 🙂 ) and melodious. However, on the other side of the Danube the unconquered (by Romans) German language is rough and tough and percussive. English has always amazed me with its vast range of musically expressive textures. The same language can be hard, it can be musical, it can be sing-song. English is like a fist fight, like a swallow’s flight, like a ship sailing, and like a lovers song. In the hands of a poet, it can be anything. A great poet makes the words tell the same tale both with meaning and with their music. Witness, John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The very sound of the words beat on the ears. (You really should read them aloud, even if just to yourself.) English itself batters you. And yet, the same language can sound soft and sibilant:

(Courtesy of my rival on the Sonnet Duel)
The spring has been a brief one, and a hot-
A spendthrift thief of subtle season’s change.
Flowers not yet meant to bloom are caught
Within the raging torrent- and the range
Of Summer’s rate proceeds immoderate
Without the ordered, dignified procession
Of seemly grace. Thus in my mind’s estate
Such prodigality of contemplation
Is displayed, that all my thoughts have bloomed,
And prematurely blows the seeded breeze.
And I am left to mow the leaves and sneeze
And burn my compost thought ‘til all’s consumed.
But hope in this; though now the seeds are Sorrow
Still yet they sow another Spring tomorrow.

Lastly, if you listen to the music in this part of The Ballad of the White Horse (yes, this is another disguised post about this poem 🙂 ) as if you do not know what the words mean, you can hear the Alfred’s courage, sometimes soft and sometimes bold, the variation of percussion and strings (Or the variation of pizzicato, tenuto, and even martele.)

And slowly his hands and thoughtfully
Fell from the lifted lyre,
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees
Till Alfred caught it to his knees
And smote it as in ire.

He heaved the head of the harp on high
And swept the framework barred,
And his stroke had all the rattle and spark
Of horses flying hard.

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;

“He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.

“But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

“What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?

“Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,

“I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord’s broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.

“That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.

“That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.

“That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.

“Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;

“Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

“Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.

“Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”

Now all of these reflections on my mother-tongue (I don’t see why only foreigners get to use that expression about the language they are raised with. Besides, I know about 20 Greek words 🙂 ) were triggered by a wonderful article about how we owe the richness of the English language to a little thing that happened in A.D. 1066… ok, maybe not so little, but the Norman invasion, and subsequent subjugation of the Saxon kings and nobles left us a strange hybrid language. (Many other things too, of course.)

The English language is unusual in that we have different names for farm animals in the field or byre, and the flesh of these animals when they appear on the table. In Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, a Saxon peasant explains that the oxen, calves, swine and sheep are good Saxons tended by Saxons when alive, but turn into Norman-French when they are ready to be eaten as beef (or beeves), veal, pork and mutton.

So, if you were to begin by asking, in Monty Python style, “what have the Normans ever done for us?” you might first reply that the most enduring consequence of the Conquest is the richness of the English language, with its Anglo-Saxon base and Franco-Latin superstructure. This mixture gives us a huge vocabulary, and many words with essentially the same meaning, yet a different shade of emphasis: fatherly and paternal, for example.

Higgs Boson

This brief article over at NRO discusses why most people are uninterested in the potential discovery of the Higgs Boson (e.g. why everything has mass). (Read it here.)

They found the “God particle.”

That was the headline splashed all over America’s news media. It turns out that the name actually derives from substituting “God particle” for “goddamn particle,” the original name some scientists had given the elusive particle. But the media adopted the former nomenclature.


Because otherwise the bulk of humanity would not pay attention.

It obliquely strikes a sore nerve for science, especially science done without any belief in God, science done by hard-bitten atheists for hard-bitten atheists.

The discovery of the Higgs boson brings us no closer to understanding why there is a universe, not to mention whether life has meaning.

That, I think is the problem. Physics (in the Aristotelian sense) today has lost its metaphysics, and the scientists try to make up the metaphysics as they go. Frequently they are horribly bad at it too… They also seem to not be aware of how amateurish their attempts are since they suffer from impressive feelings of self-worth and educatedness… but in a lot of ways a scientist attempting philosophy today is much like a philosopher attempting science. That this is the case is a terrible shame. Science needs philosophy in order to provide a reason to do science, and philosophy needs science to winnow theories down to those plausible in the world we live in (rather than hypothetical worlds in their heads.)

But people are taught to expect everyone to be scientific or philosophical, to be artistic or mathematics. The one is supposedly the antithesis of the other. This division is poison for every discipline. When you observe how a violinist practices, read about how artists like van Eyck painted, and look at the tedious research of a Noble Laureate in Chemistry, the focus the discipline and the occasional flashes of pure genius are the same. Even the mindset is the same. Science and art and philosophy have so much in common, and they support each other. Obviously not everyone can do all arts, philosophies, and sciences well, true genius in each one of these is almost a monomania. However, I think artists should at least dabble in science and mathematics, and absolutely know philosophy (another discussion for another time, but I think art is visible philosophy), scientists should learn philosophy and music or art, and philosophers… well I guess it would be a start if any existed. Real philosophy is almost extinct, rather what we mostly have is the study of philosophy, not philosophy itself.