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December 2008

November 2008

Music of the Week: Various Artists - Mariachi Music of Mexico

Based on snippets heard here and there, I’ve wanted for some time to hear some genuine mariachi music. There’s a ton of it on eMusic—a search for “mariachi” turns up 153 artists and 117 albums, and that would catch only titles that actually included the word—but I had no way of knowing what was good. Where folk music is concerned, my taste tends toward the rougher and less polished—in general, the more it’s slicked up, the more it loses its flavor. This album caught my eye first because of its cover. It looked just old enough and low-budget enough to be authentic. When I noticed that it was distributed by Smithsonian Folkways, I really got interested. Then the samples convinced me to download the whole thing. Good move, as it turned out.

In the tradition of the Folkways label, these are field recordings of a sort, from the early ‘50s. I don’t know anything about mariachi in general, so I’ll just say this is great stuff. It’s not polished at all—the violins are often a bit off-key, and the sound quality is mediocre—but it’s not crude, either; I’m still trying to get my head around some of the rhythms. It has in common with reggae an infectious high-spirited quality, sort of an automatic mood-brightener. One Friday night a few weeks ago I was feeling rather low and found that a few tracks from this album combined with a few sips of bourbon was a wonderful cure.

Listen to the sample of the first track here.  If you don’t like it, this music is not for you. If you do, you’ll enjoy the whole album. You can hear a different set of samples and read the fascinating liner notes here, as well as order a cd if you don’t do mp3s.

I’ll mention in passing that the world owes a huge debt to Folkways Records. Read more about its history and work here.



Alabama 36, Auburn 0.

I’m sorry, Auburn fans, I don’t like to gloat but this is sweet. I used to be willing to admit that Alabama fans are more obnoxious than Auburn fans, but that was before y’all started winning so much.


Possible weirdness

If I can find time for it over the Thanksgiving holiday, I plan to experiment some with this blog and with my home page(s)—I’m looking for a solution to the problem of publishing longer non-blog pieces in a way that doesn’t require a lot of hand-coding of HTML. Part of that will involve publishing it to instead of to, so that I can experiment with some Blogger features that only work if they're hosting the blog. So if you happen to hit the blog while I’m doing that, you might get some weird behavior. I think you'll get redirected but I’m not sure. Just letting you know.



I think we need a God, if only to have someone to thank.

—Jessica Denenholz Levin

Jessica Denenholz Levin was Dawn Eden’s grandmother; here is the post in which I read the statement above, which I immediately posted on my web site (before I added this blog). That elemental sense of gratitude is something that I’ve managed, thank God, to hang on to through all but the very darkest times of my life.

Down at the bay one Saturday afternoon a month or so ago I took about thirty pictures in an attempt to capture the way the light was coming through the clouds. None of them really did, but I’ve tinkered with this one until it’s somewhere close. (Click for a larger image.)

And God said, Let there be light. And God saw the light, that it was good.

—Genesis 1:3-4

Lord, it is good for us to be here.

—Matthew 17:4


Everyone Must Make Their Own Decision

Is the above sentence grammatically acceptable? I would say no. It really grates on my ear, and has the added negative of seeming to be one of those clumsy usages insisted upon by some feminists in order to avoid the use of a masculine term where both sexes are meant. I was taught (or at least grew up hearing) “Everyone must make his own decision,” and that’s what sounds right to me.

In the comments thread in which this is being discussed (see most recent Sunday Night Journal), I mentioned that I thought I had read somewhere that the “Everyone...their” actually has a history way earlier than the 1970s, and complained that I didn’t know how to find the answer quickly. Well, this morning it occurred to me that Fowler might have something to say, and indeed he does.

It would take too long to type in the whole entry, which is very entertaining, but suffice to say that he supplies an instance (via the OED) from Fielding—that is, from the 18th century: Everyone in the house was in their beds. And another from Thackeray, fifty years or so later: A person can’t help their birth. And he notes that “...the inconvenience of having no common-sex personal pronoun has proved stronger than respect for the grammarians.”

So those of us who don’t care for it must at least admit that it isn’t necessarily a product of political correctness, which perhaps will help it to go down more easily.

By the way, I’m using the 2nd (1965) edition of Fowler. I haven’t seen the 1996 update but naturally regard it with deep suspcion.


Defiance and Damnation

Sunday Night Journal — November 23, 2008

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred, and have suppressed all the love within themselves... In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

—Benedict XVI

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it.

—C. S. Lewis

I ran across the above passage from Benedict a few weeks ago at the same time I was re-reading, for the first time in twenty years or so, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, from which the second quotation is taken. I expect most readers of this blog have read The Great Divorce or at least know of it, but for those who don’t: it’s an imaginative attempt to understand how the idea of Hell can be reconciled with the idea of an all-loving and all-merciful God. The answer Lewis gives—and of course he’s hardly the only one to have said it—is that God doesn’t so much send people to Hell as allow them to choose it. Or, to put it the other way around, to refuse Heaven.

Lewis’s premise is that the damned are free to visit Heaven and to stay there. All they have to do is give up something in themselves that makes it impossible for them to receive God, some sin to which they are so attached, some illusion so powerful, that it cannot co-exist in their hearts with God. And one after another the characters in The Great Divorce refuse to surrender. There is the cynical man who thinks all the God and Heaven stuff is some kind of trickery which he doesn’t intend to fall for. There’s the unjust man who won’t let go of his insistence that he treated everybody fairly. And so on.

Ultimately all those who choose Hell seem to be driven by pride. To let go of their sins and illusions requires that they accept a certain amount of embarrassment, admit that they were wrong, and submit to looking very foolish in their own eyes—in short, to be humbled.

All of this is familiar to most Christians, I think. But have you ever known anyone who seemed capable of making the sort of refusal described by Lewis? Someone who seemed in real danger of actually making it, of making the choice that will send him to hell? I don’t remember asking myself that question when I first read The Great Divorce many years ago, but I’ve seen a lot more of mankind since then.

Benedict’s formulation (“...people who have lived for hatred...”) seems to suggest a monster who would be easily recognizable as such. We tend to think of Hell as being reserved, if it exists at all, for such monsters, for people who have done some enormous wickedness, like Hitler. But the people I’ve known whom I could imagine making that ultimate refusal, choosing the Hell of their self-made prison over the love and grace offered to them by God, were not wicked in any obvious or dramatic way. (I’m using the past tense because the people who come first to mind are dead, but I can think of one or two among the living who worry me.) They didn’t live for hate, and as far as I know they had not suppressed all love within them.

What they did seem to have done, as far as I could tell—and I stress seem because obviously I didn’t know the real state of their souls—was to have erected a wall of pride between themselves and God, or anything having to do with God. It appeared to me not just that they didn’t believe, but that not believing was a matter of defiance with them. Any mention of God in their presence was met with reflexive anger or contempt. They were like the cynical man in The Great Divorce: nobody was going to trick them. They seemed to feel that anyone who mentioned God to them was only attempting to dominate them or in some way to take something from them, and they were determined not to let that happen.

I hope those were only reactions, probably at least somewhat justified, to bad behavior on the part of Christians, or to clumsy or misguided or even hostile approaches by them. And I know that all the people I’m thinking of here had been hurt by life in some pretty significant way, and I’m sure that those injuries had a role in their defiance. But while everyone has suffered, or will suffer, not everyone reacts in this way; I also know people who have suffered far worse things without becoming embittered. This is the mystery of freedom.

It seems to me that it isn’t so much the entire suppression of love that is the decisive step toward damnation, but the refusal to surrender to love, the determination to hold on to some bitterness, some anger, some resentment, some pleasure, that cannot in the end coexist with love. The total suppression must eventually follow, but the real decision seems to lie in the refusal to submit: in pride, not hate. It’s a frightening thing to look at someone you know and care about and think that you might be watching him or her erect walls that will, if he persists, become an eternal prison. It makes the matter of praying for him seem pretty urgent. And it makes one fearful of doing or saying anything that might further provoke the defiance and the pride.


Music of the Week: Apocalyptica - Apocalyptica

Your first reaction to the phrase “Heavy metal cello” might be to laugh; it sounds as if it would just be a stunt. Apocalyptica is four Finnish cellists, and I wonder if maybe their rock experimentation started out as something of a stunt, as their first album was a set of Metallica covers. But what they’ve done is much more than that; it’s a potent and versatile sound, unlike anything else I know. A friend of mine put me on to the group a month or two ago and I got this self-titled album from eMusic. I can’t say it’s a great album overall, but I keep coming back to it because what I like in it I like very much.

Start with the basic sound. If the first thing you heard was one of their hard rock uptempo songs like the first track here, “Life Burns!,” and you weren’t listening closely, you might think you were just hearing heavy electric guitars playing power chords. But there’s something different about this sound, sort of a rich deep growl, that’s very powerful. And most of the tracks combine this with the warm singing natural tone of the cello, to sometimes very beautiful effect.

I like at least half the tracks here a great deal, especially the melancholy ballads like “Bittersweet” and “Farewell.” What’s missing is a fully-developed artistic identity. This is almost all instrumental music, and pop music is a partly verbal art: it needs words and voices. The vocals here are very ordinary, sort of a generic and lackluster hard rock style; I like “Bittersweet” in spite of the vocals, not because of them. With a really gifted songwriter and singer, this group could do something really important.

Here’s an instrumental version of “Bittersweet” that really showcases their sound. It’s 5:25 long and doesn’t get heavy until about 3:50. Although you don’t hear it on this track, they’re capable of some impressive virtuoso “shredding” as practiced by guitar players like Joe Satriani.

And here is the eMusic page where you can hear samples from the album.