Fading Out: The Music We Have Lost

[This article was originally published in the November 15, 2013 edition of the Collegian — The Grove City College Student Newspaper — edited by Kyle Burko]

The invention, and subsequent rise, of radio resulted in the decline of folk and classical music and the relatively recent creation of modern, popular music. In light of this dramatic shift in musical paradigm there is one critical question that has not been given due consideration. What is the primary purpose or function of the vast majority of popular music?

Modern, popular music is ordinarily evocative and vague; it relies on the production of sensation. Moreover, there is a troubling paucity of discourse and conversation in modern, popular music. All too often, people simply end up talking past each other. Commonly, the modern, popular artist will construct a sensually pleasurable blank canvas upon which the audience will project their own personal thoughts and feelings.

Dr. Joshua Drake – professor, musicologist, and hymnist – at Grove City College, compares the manner in which most people listen to music today to the manner in which he might listen to a waterfall or to birds chirping. He argues that modern, popular music does not necessitate active listening, nor does it require any sort of intellectual rigor, on the part of its audience. On the other hand, Dr. Drake says, “listening to classical music requires you to attend to events that occur, remember them, and compare them to other events.”

The radio dramatically impacted music as we know it. The invention, and widespread use, of radio played a critical role in the rise of modern, popular music, and in the fall of folk and classical music. Once music became readily available for entertainment purposes, most people lost the incentive to creatively entertain themselves by singing and playing instruments. After all, who wants to listen to little Timmy’s feeble harmonic efforts when one can simply turn a dial and listen to a world-class musician?

General Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the influence of this shifting musical paradigm on the American Army between the World Wars. Eisenhower realized that the American soldiers had somehow lost something significant between the Wars, and that that “something” was their singing. You see, in World War I, the American Army was a singing army. However, in World War II, it was not.1

As folk and classical music were given up in favor of modern, popular music the vast majority of people began to fail to recognize their potential for musical imagination, as well as their ability to create meaningful music. Unfortunately, this also led to a decline in their listening ability, which is tragic because listening ability is particularly important. According to Dr. Drake, “your taste for music will develop around your ability to listen.”

The importance of folk music really cannot be overstated. Folk music is the soil out of which high, classical music arises. If you don’t have that soil, then you don’t have high music. Furthermore, musical imagination, roughly defined as creative capacity in regards to all things musical, is fomented in folk music.

So, what exactly is folk music, and how does it relate to higher, classical music? Folk music is made for others, typically by amateurs, with the primary purpose of communication. Folk music is a creative, grammatical discourse on meaning, and it affords everyone an opportunity to express the inexpressible. Victor Hugo, possibly the greatest French writer of all time, said: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

Furthermore, folk music is crucial for aspiring musical masters. In the past, folk music permeated life, constantly encouraging people, both amateur and professional, to create novel, meaningful music. It also frequently led to the cultivation of a keen listening ability. Ultimately, this allowed more people to deeply appreciate and think about music, from Beethoven’s masterful symphonies to their grandmother’s casual singing.

At the end of the day, one of the most effective ways to cultivate musical imagination, and listening ability, is to make music. All of us have this facility, “God gives us this really handy instrument, it’s right there, it’s your voice,” says Dr. Drake. Likewise, playing the piano, picking up a guitar, or even a concertina would be a good place to start. Grove City College offers a wide variety of introductory music courses wherein a student might learn to play anything from the saxophone to the harp, and everything in between.

In conclusion, we would all do well to take our music seriously or at least to seriously enjoy it, because there will come a day when we will feel not unlike Friedrich Nietzsche, who perhaps put it best: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

This is not the end…

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Desiderata

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present one of the greatest poems ever written. A poem so good that, to this day, people regard it as ancient wisdom of unknown origins.1 A poem so good that, despite the fact that it was written by a nobody in the middle of nowhere, it inspired a Grammy-winning album. A poem so good that the “nobody” who wrote it was sculpted in bronze, just like King David.

A poem that has had a tremendous positive impact on my life, as well as the lives of countless others. Without further ado, Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” (1927):

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

As for the Grammy-winning album I mentioned — Les Crane’s Desiderata (1971). The title track is based on Ehrmann’s poem, and it was an international sensation. Crane’s rendition of “Desiderata” hit #7 on the UK’s New Musical Express charts, #4 on Canada’s RPM Magazine charts, #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and #2 on Australia’s Go-Set Magazine charts.

The bronze sculpture of Max Ehrmann, created by Bill Wolfe, can be found in Terre Haute, Indiana – Ehrmann’s hometown.

Bill Wolfe Beside His Sculpture of Max Ehrmann

In Conclusion

Star Trek’s original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, released a spoken-word rendition of Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” in his second album: Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy (1968).

This is not the end…

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Love Conquers All

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

There are those who believe The Bible is “God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16)” — written both by God Himself and Divinely inspired humans like Moses, the apostle Paul, and Luke the evangelist. Still others find the idea of a “magic book” authored by the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator of life, the universe, and everything laughable. Regardless, only a fool would deny its impact (for better and for worse). The Bible is, after all, the most widely printed and distributed book of all-time. And — fortunately for those wondering: “What Is Love?” — it contains some moving passages on the subject.

In his first letter to the Corinthians — specifically, 1 Corinthians 13 (NIV) — the apostle Paul writes The Way of Love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

 “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” — David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes:

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

In Me: Stories of My Life, Katharine Hepburn writes: “Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.” Echoing the thoughts of Wallace, Rilke, and Hepburn, Susan Sontag writes (on February 12, 1970) in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980: “Being in love means being willing to ruin yourself for the other person.”

 “Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.” — Neil Gaiman, Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” — Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939–1944

In The Wise Man’s Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two, Patrick Rothfuss writes:

It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.

“I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self respect. It’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be… I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Love is the Great Jay Gatsby losing himself in pursuit of Daisy, striving with every fibre of his being to become someone worthy of this hyper-romanticized vision. It’s living every second of every day for something other than yourself. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking tragedy that makes life worth living. Love is not just the greatest reason of all. It’s the only reason. The only reason to do anything, ever.

 Postscript

“Omnia vincit amor (Love conquers all)” — Virgil, Eclogues X.69

Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1661–1669) - 262 cm × 205 cm - Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1661–1669) – 262 cm × 205 cm – Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

This is not the end…

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)