I got to thinking about the old song, “Oh Shenandoah,” this weekend, for no important reason. It’s one of The Divine Sissel’s favorite numbers (as witness the video above). She says she learned it from a Norwegian sea captain, which is no surprise, since one of its many permutations over the years has been its service as a sea shanty. It’s certainly one of America’s most beautiful native songs, and also one of its most versatile and mysterious.
In fact, one has to ask, “What in Burl Ives’ name is the song about, anyway?” It addresses Shenandoah, which we all know to be a river and a valley in Virginia, but then it talks about “the wide Missouri,” thousands of miles away. This is the question I set out to answer, sparing no expense in consulting a sophisticated new technology called Wikipedia.
Winners of the 2014 World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band from Lisburn, County Antrim, under Pipe Major Richard Parkes MBE and Drum Sergeant Keith Orr. This was their fourth championship win in four years.
English Nightingales don’t actually exist. They are migrants from Central Africa up in the north country for a bit of holiday. Most of them go to Europe, but some come from families that have always holidayed in England and they aren’t going to upset Grandma by suggesting the Black Forest or the Provence Alps (especially not after Freddie ran off with that scarlet thrush last autumn; Grandma’s barely gotten over that).
Musician Sam Lee holds special performances in the woods of southeast England where the nightingales sing around this time of year. “Lee’s show presented an opportunity to focus, fully, on what a nightingale actually sounds like, miles from the nearest road,” writes Sam Kinchin-Smith. “Much to my surprise, its stop-starting, self-counterpointing quality reminded me of nothing so much as James Brown’s ‘get on up’ scat.”
Sorry I didn’t post last night. I got into customer service purgatory with my antivirus provider. Oddly, I didn’t have to wait on hold at all; it was the actual work that took forever. Of course I had to yield personal control of my machine to some guy in India, which I wouldn’t gladly do even if he were in Minneapolis. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d tried to follow instructions to do it all myself, I’d have ended up just running to Micro Center and buying a new computer.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my post on The “Lover’s Concerto” music clip. I’m still watching it – not as many times a day, I guess, but it never fails to run a semi-physical thrill through me, along the shoulders and up my neck to the brain.
I’ve had such reactions to various things in my life – often to music (“The Theme from Exodus”, Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell”). Sometimes to art, such as a painting of a Viking ship in a history book my folks bought us once. Sometimes to books, like a couple of passages in The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes to scenery – my favorite was, and remains, a day when the sky is a leaden blue-gray but the sun shines brightly through a gap onto the trees and grass, so that they glow against the iron background.
If I had to explain my life – the choices I’ve made, the successes and mistakes, I’d say that my lodestar has always been an impossible beauty. One that can never be attained in this world, but that can never be forgotten either, that drives unending effort for something that I know can’t be completed, but which for some reason does not make me despair.
I’m more… obsessed. Or compulsed. Compulsively obsessed.
With a music video.
No, not a music video. They didn’t exist back in 1965, when this was recorded. It’s a clip from a TV show called Hullabaloo, which I vaguely recall from my teenage years. We didn’t watch it very much.
And I wasn’t actually much aware of this song when it rose to Number Two on the Billboard chart. When I first noticed it, it was already an oldie. What it actually is, is an arrangement of the Minuet in G Major, which was long attributed to Bach but actually appears to have been first composed by a guy named Christian Petzold. The arrangers changed the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4, gave it lyrics and a Motown arrangement, and handed it over to a girl group called The Toys. And this is the result:
The hard-shell Baptist doctrine upon which I was raised plays very little part in my worldview these days. But that church music draws me still, and those singing conventions in my memory were its purest expression. Hundreds of voices coming together in rough harmony, most all of them untrained except perhaps for a weeklong “singing school” at some church. No “program” to dictate the day’s events. The “president” of the local singing convention would just call on a singer from the crowd to stand before the choir and lead the song of his or her choice. After a moment of hymnal browsing, you’d hear something like, “Please turn to page 36 …” A piano player would roll through the first few bars of the song, and off they’d go, making a joyful noise. You never knew what you would hear next.
These Southern singing conventions thrived because the untrained singers, who had to sing from written music, could learn how through a technique called “solfège,” to use the music-school word for it. Plainer folks called it shape notes. You know the system. You’ve heard it a thousand times.
“The thing that I love about Sacred Harp is that when you walk into that church door, you have people from all different kinds of walks of life. You have people from different denominations, you’ve got people that are young, people that are old, people who have grown up loving the Lord their entire life, and you have people that do not know the Lord, who have rejected the Lord. Strong contrast, from any way you look at it.”
Michael Kelley has a Tolkienesque post on Christians singing. “Our songs are one of the most powerful weapons we have by which we declare the truth of what we believe. . . . We sing about joy, victory, and the greatness and supremacy of Jesus, all the while we are walking through cancer treatments. And job loss. And deaths of friends and loved ones. But we sing on.”
Andrew Peterson just released a new album, The Burning Edge of Dawn. It’s marvelous. He sat down with Jeffrey Overstreet this weekend to talk about it. Overstreet enthuses over the friend.
Peterson’s songs and lyrics are full of sweeping metaphors, making his songs accessible enough for people of all ages and all experiences, even as they are specific enough to speak of his own specific pilgrimage as a musician; as a novelist (his fantasy series had the same editor and publisher as mine, and was released at the same time, which is how I was blessed to meet him); as a Nashville “community organizer” . . . as a sort of folk pastor; as a “book guy” . . .
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Or is it something else?
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a wonderfully catchy tune that many have sung on the Fourth and even in church, because it talks about God’s truth marching forward, right? Just like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” isn’t it?
The writer, Julia Ward Howe, was a Unitarian, poet, and active supporter of abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and education. Her public support of these issues was opposed by her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, and put a strain on their marriage for years. He wanted her to keep her work domestic. When she published a book of poetry anonymously (but discovered a short time afterward), Samuel felt betrayed.
In November 1861, Samuel and Julia were visiting Union encampments close to Washington, D.C. as part of a presidential commission. Some of the men began singing, and one of their songs was “John Brown’s Body,” a song in praise of the violent abolitionist John Brown.
“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
But his soul goes marching on.
“He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
His soul goes marching on.”
Reverend James Freeman Clarke was touring with the Howes and remarked that while the tune was great, the lyric could be stronger. He suggested Julia write new words to it, and she replied that she had had a similar idea. Continue reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic→
I offer the song above, dredged from my college years, as documentary evidence of the facts I’m about to tell you. Because you won’t hear about this much of anywhere else. This is Lost History, things that happened but are now officially non-things, like Stalin’s old revolutionary comrades and Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“A piece of paper.” “Just a piece of paper.” It’s a phrase I first recall encountering in an article about an actress in a magazine (Life, perhaps), back when I was a kid. “Why haven’t we gotten married?” she replied to a question about her love life. “What’s a marriage license? Just a vulgar piece of paper.”
I’m sure she wasn’t the first to put it that way, but after that I noticed that I encountered it again and again. Actors said it. Writers. Rock musicians. Poets. Intellectuals. “What’s a marriage license? Just a vulgar piece of paper. What does such an object have to do with real love?”
This form of expression stopped appearing, I think, sometime in the 1980s. It’s clear now what happened. The Big Heads of the left realized that the promotion of homosexual marriage would be a splendid hammer with which to bash traditional Christian sexual morality.
And suddenly the cry was no longer, “It’s just a piece of paper!” but “It’s the Most Important Piece of Paper in the universe! Anyone prevented from having this wonderful, transcendent piece of paper has been denied their deepest human right!”
This sudden dialectical U-turn was not accompanied by any admission that they might have been wrong in their old position. No, the old slogan just went down the memory hole, along with Pres. Obama’s college records and Che Guevara’s murders. “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, and progressives have always revered marriage.”
Because it’s all about the political narrative. And the narrative runs in whatever channel will best serve the Cause.
This piece by the late Stephen Paulus bears repeated listening. The video was recorded last year in the Milwaukee Art Museum with the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Choir under the direction of Dr. Gary R. Schwartzhoff.