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March 2017

52 Albums, Week 13: Bach Collegium Japan - St. Matthew Passion (Bach)

Classical recordings just don't fit into the performer-plus-album-title format. Bach's name rightly should be first here, but I put the performers first because this is about their specific recording of the St. Matthew Passion.


Every year for the past four or five I've planned to listen to the St. Matthew Passion during Holy Week. I think I initially had intended to listen to it on Holy Saturday, but that was foolish--there are always too many other things going on. Every year except last year I've managed to hear only part of it, maybe one disc of the 3-CD set (Klemperer, 1962), or two of the 4-LP set (Karajan, 1973). The first runs 3 hours and 42 minutes, the second 3:24, so you can see how it can be a little difficult to find the time. I think it was the Klemperer version that I finally got all the way through last year.

This year I decided to start early. And that's one reason I'm writing this now: if you want to hear this Passion between now and Good Friday, you still have plenty of time. I also considered trying a different sort of recording. The ones I have are similar to each other and very much in the manner that was preferred in the mid-20th century: very large, dramatic, passionate, expressive, emotional. The orchestras are big and lush and loud, as are the choruses. The soloists are among the most famous singers of their time: Peter Pears, Dietrich Fishcer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwarkopf, et. al. Several of them appear in both recordings.

I'm not necessarily a big fan of the "period instruments" movement, which tries to approximate the resources available to composers in, for instance, Bach's time. But I did want to hear a different approach. I hate to say "more modern"--as I hate to say "old-fashioned" about the older ones--but it is a fact that tastes and fashions in performance have changed, and I was curious as to what a less lavish production would be like.

So, to get to the point: I'd heard good things about this recording, and had been considering buying it for some time. It's conducted by Masaaki Suzuki (and yes, a Japanese Bach specialist is to say the least off the beaten path). After reading about three dozen reviews of it and several others, I decided to go ahead. And I'm really glad I did.

It is very different from the others. Even someone like me who is not all that sensitive to nuances of interpretation can't help hearing it immediately. This performance is, compared to the others, small, restrained, and intimate. One reviewer also called it devout, and I think that's justified. A better word maybe is "contemplative." It's not that the others lack religious feeling--far from it--but the emphasis is on feeling, in a theatrical sort of way: the passion of Christ as a drama. This one feels more like church than theater; more like Fra Angelico than Raphael. 

But what I like about it most of all is its clarity. The orchestra and chorus are smaller, and the soloists less operatic. If you want to call the others romantic, you'd have to call this one classical. With bigger forces I often feel like the sheer quantity of sound is overwhelming the music. Things tend to get, to my ears, somewhat blurred and murky. But the Suzuki-Collegium recording is crystalline. The tempos are also faster. The Klemperer-Karajan approach tends toward the slow and majestic, with some of the choruses almost dirge-like. The quicker tempos don't make the music exactly light, but more focused and graceful. The others can seem a bit elephantine in comparison. 

Well, enough talk. Here is the soprano-alto aria "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen". This wasn't my first choice for a sample, but it will have to do. Although the whole work appears to be on YouTube, all 103 segments, many or most of them won't play, and those that do are cut off abruptly. So, sorry, but at least you can get the basic idea. The choral part is not actually at the end but is interjected several times, as you'll hear.

Text in German:

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen.
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Sie fuhren ihn, er ist gebunden.

Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!

In English:

So my Jesus has been captured.
Moon and light
Have given way before pain
Because my Jesus has been captured.
They are leading him, he is bound.

Loose him, stop, do not bind him!

My only real reservation about the Suzuki performance is the sound of the strings, which is thin and dry. I would not want this to be my only recording. If you want to compare, here is the Klemperer recording of the same aria, plus the following chorus in the same clip. I would not blame you at all if you like it better. I'm not sure I don't like it better myself. If I could only have one, maybe that's the one I would pick. But right now I'm seriously enthused about Suzuki's. By the way, it's only 2 hours and 45 minutes. I don't think the faster tempos would account for a full hour of difference between it and Klemperers. Maybe it's a different edition, or there are some optional repeats that Suzuki omits? I haven't investigated that.

Here and here are a couple of interesting articles about Suzuki. The whole idea of a Bach Collegium in Japan is a little startling, but far from being some kind of dancing bear, it and its conductor are considered among the best in the world: Suzuki is described in one of those articles as "one of three supreme living interpreters of the Bach cantatas, masses, passions and motets."

The recording is on the Swedish label BIS, catalog number BIS 1000. It's a 3-CD set. Titles from BIS and other independent classical labels can be very conveniently bought as downloads from They provide a model for an online classical music store, including, for instance, the ability to download cover art, liner notes, etc., in PDF format. I got it from for $17.97, which I admit is part of the reason I picked it instead of other similar performances. But eMusic is a subscription service. (By the way, they are about to launch a completely redesigned site. I've been beta-testing it, and it is a massive improvement.)

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog. 

Sunday Night Journal, March 26, 2017

Some time ago, a year or maybe two, before I cut our cable TV service back to the minimum, a 1965 movie called The Loved One caught my eye in the Turner Classic Movies schedule. Was it Evelyn Waugh's Loved One? I wasn't aware that a movie had ever been made from it. I checked, and it was, so I recorded it, but I didn't expect it to be very good. Months went by and it remained unwatched. I was seriously considering deleting it but decided to give it a chance. So my wife and I watched it. When it was over, we said "Well, that was strange." It was funny, but...I wasn't quite sure what I thought of it, and whether I wanted to recommend it to anyone else. I thought I might watch it again, so instead of deleting it I left it there. Another six months or so went by, and a couple of weeks ago I watched it again.  

This time I said again, "Well, that was strange." But it's also very funny, in a monstrous kind of way. And yes, it is good, quite good on the whole, and so I do recommend it to anyone who likes Waugh.

I didn't remember the book well enough to know whether the movie was at all faithful to it, so before this second viewing I read the book again (the last time having been decades ago). It's quite short, hardly more than a novelette. And the film is quite faithful to it, as far as the book goes. But the film goes further. While faithful to the basic plot, even down to using a fair amount of Waugh's dialog, it adds a whole new plot element, and, amazingly, does so quite successfully.The book is a satire of the American funeral business, especially as it is most lavishly and weirdly seen in Hollywood. The story involves a young Englishman, Dennis Barlow, a poet, who gets involved in a love triangle with two employees of Whispering Glades. He and Mr. Joyboy, who is the chief mortician, are both in love with Aimee Thanatogenous (rhymes with "heterogeneous", at least if you pronounce it in the usual American way). She is one of the cosmeticians who spruce up the dead (the Loved Ones) for viewing by their mourners (the Waiting Ones). I think her name means something like "death-born." 

To this basic structure the movie adds a major extension of the plot involving the impresario of Whispering Glades, the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Dr. Kenworthy in the book), and his less successful brother Henry (invented for the film, I think), who runs the Reverend's side business, a pet cemetery called The Happier Hunting Grounds. The movie also expands the roles of several minor characters, and introduces some new ones, such as some top brass of the U.S. military. Whispering Glades itself gets more attention, with Waugh's relative lack of description leaving the way open for the director to go in for a great deal of visual indulgence. And it all ties together: Glenworthy's machinations are not an extraneous subplot but are directly connected to the triangle. 

It's an English film, and I probably wouldn't have had such low expectations of it if I'd seen the names of the people involved: the director is Tony Richardson; the writers are Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood; and the list of actors includes a number of well-known names--John Gielgud, Robert Morse, Robert Morley, James Coburn, Liberace(!), Jonathan Winters, Rod Steiger, Milton Berle, Roddy McDowall, Tab Hunter. Steiger's performance as Mr. Joyboy is especially striking: I think of him as playing tough guys, but he is utterly and creepily convincing as the effete and neurotic mortician. Liberace has a brief but very funny appearance as a coffin salesman. Jonathan Winters plays both Glenworthys, brilliantly. Robert Morse is Barlow, who may or may not be a decent poet but certainly has a gift for low cunning; Morse is capable of looking both lupine and simian. Miss Thanatogenos is played by an actress of whom I had never heard, Anjanette Comer, and she is not only beautiful but has the "rich hint of lunacy" which Waugh specifies for her.

My only serious reservation is with the treatment of Joyboy's home life, and his mother. She's barely present in the book, and seems at worst to do a lot of complaining. The filmmakers chose to make her something of a monster, an enormously fat woman with repulsive habits, and to give the relationship between her and her son a pathological twist. Those scenes are off-putting to say the least, and almost enough to make me dis-recommend the film. So be warned about that, but if you like Waugh and have a taste for black humor in general, have a go at The Loved One. My copy of the book has a quote from Orville Prescott's New York Times review, presumably on its initial publication: "A thoroughly horrible and fiendishly entertaining book." The movie is more so. It was truthfully advertised as having "something to offend everyone." 


(By Source, Fair Use,

Here's the not-all-that-informative trailer:

Oh, and something else worth mentioning about the book: it was Waugh's next novel after Brideshead Revisited. The two could hardly be more different. It would be fair to say that The Loved One is the anti-Brideshead. I found myself wondering if he wrote it mainly to voice his disdain for the United States. 


In the context of the Benedict Option discussion last week, we were discussing when it's justifiable to dismiss a book without reading it. I don't mean not reading it because one is simply not interested in the subject, but because one feels safe in concluding that it does a bad job of whatever it has set out to do, or that its stated thesis is obviously false or absurd. Someone pointed out that The Benedict Option is high on the New York Times best-seller list, which caused me to look at the list. It surprised me that several conservative and/or right-wing books are in the top 10, including one by Michael Savage at #1. 

Currently at #12 is a book called Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. It meets my criteria for dismissability. It seems to be another manifesto of the "transhumanist" school of thought, which believes that humanity as we know us is about to be transformed by the power of technology into "gods." 

Having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

This is going to happen through technology of various kinds, of course. When I hear this kind of thing, and consider that one of the tools at the disposal of the would-be transformers of humanity is genetic manipulation, I wonder if we might be approaching not utopia (impossible) or the end times (maybe, but don't plan on it), but some sort of Tower of Babel moment, when God intervenes to cast down the mighty from their thrones, to knock the props out from under the perennial human effort to become as gods and thereby prevent us from becoming demons. 

...let us go down, and there confound their language. (Genesis 11:7, KJV)


Speaking of The Benedict Option, the BookTV interview with Dreher is available online here. I've only watched half an hour of it, and may or may not watch more. It's almost two hours long, though I expect a big part of that is some kind of Q&A. I don't mean to be dismissive, but I guess I am: there doesn't seem to be much here that I haven't heard before. Dreher is a decent speaker so maybe this is a good way to get the gist of the book if you don't want to read it.


One of the very mild Lenten disciplines I've been attempting is to pray the morning and evening prayers in Magnificat. I've been moderately successful--that is, I've done it maybe two-thirds of the mornings and evenings. Well, half, at least...I keep forgetting...I should set a reminder on my phone. 

Anyway, the evening prayers always end with a Marian antiphon. These vary from month to month, and are usually--this will sound negative, though I don't mean it that way--fairly ordinary. But I love this month's:

The Savior of the world shall arise like the sun, and shall descend into the womb of the Virgin, like rain upon the meadow.

I can't think of a better verbal picture to go along with the Solemnity of the Annunciation, which of course was yesterday.


This picture is out of focus but it's the closest I came to capturing one of my favorite things about spring: the shades of green in new cypress needles. 


That's actually a little cypress tree. It was growing next to the fence around our yard, a "volunteer" where it wasn't wanted. I forced myself to pull it up, though I always hate to do that, because eventually either it or the fence would have to go. Then I didn't want to throw it away, so I took it over to the edge of the woods and planted it. It may be too damaged to survive. I'll keep it watered and see if it can survive the summer.

52 Albums, Week 12: Laïs

It is not often that music on the radio stops me in my tracks. I remember it happening when I was seven or eight years old, with Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar”, and twenty years after that, with “’t Smidje” from Laïs, the debut album of the trio Laïs – three young women in their 20s from a village in the heathland north of Antwerp, who managed to record an album that sold over 50,000 copies, something previously unimaginable for Flemish folk music. 

I’d gone into a newsagent’s to get something other than a newspaper – a bus ticket, or a parking disc, or mobile credit – at any rate, something that required interaction with the man behind the counter beyond the passing of coins and a muttered please and thank you. I’d gone two steps into the shop when the music stopped me in my tracks, and it was only when I became aware of the newsagent staring at me in mild concern that I realised how odd it must look. “Is this a CD or the radio?” I asked. “It’s the radio,” he said, somewhat cautiously. “You don’t happen to know what it is they’re playing?” I asked, thinking it a long shot. “That’s Laïs,” he said, in tones suggesting wonder at what cave I might have been living in. So I got him to write the name down, concluded my business, and went straight to the nearest music shop.

Part of the attraction was that this was the sort of folk rock sound I like so much (supplied to the three singers by a group called Kadril), accompanying songs in Dutch (or Flemish), a language that has had some horribly experimental folk renditions but otherwise has tended to stick to virtuoso or dirge-like authenticity. Not that the whole album is in Dutch – of the fourteen songs there is one each in English, French, Swedish and Piedmontese. The other part of the attraction is the beauty and enthusiasm of the three-voice close harmony, language to some extent being irrelevant to the sheer sound and energy.

The song above, released as a single (and hence the radio exposure) is the lament of a smith that his beautiful but irritable new bride is denying him the pleasures of just working his anvil and drinking with his friends. It has become a popular dance tune in Poland, where the lyrics must mean nothing. My favourite song on the album is probably the opening number, “De Wijn” (Wine), a paean to the comforting, pleasing and restorative properties of the drink, brought from far away (specifically the land of Cologne over the Rhine) to be enjoyed by friends here.

The a capella “’t Zoutvat” (The Salt Cellar) is a comic morality about a newly wedded man who tries to tell his bride how to organise her kitchen, and the shipwreck of their relationship in the ensuing struggle for supremacy. “De Wanhoop” (Despair) is a rejected lover’s weighing up of the monastery or the army as the best next step, finally settling on the latter.

A few of the songs are ballads with close cognates in the English folk tradition. “Isabelle” and “7 steken” (Seven Stab-wounds) are murder ballads, like “Lord Randall” (or “Lord Ronald”). The hauntingly sung “Bruidsnacht” (Wedding Night) is a story of a ghost lover, very like “She Moved Through the Fair”.

The album was recorded in a studio, but a concert performance can be found at this link.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

Sunday Night Journal, March 19, 2017

The excitement of the week in Christian circles seems to be Rod Dreher's new book, The Benedict Option. If you haven't heard about it, its subtitle is A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and the Benedict of the title is St. Benedict. Here's a bit from the publisher's blurb that gives you a pretty good summary what it's all about. I call it a pretty good summary based not only on the fact that it's the publisher's idea but on intermittent reading of Dreher's blog. This is something he's been talking about for some time:

Rod Dreher argues that the way forward is actually the way back—all the way to St. Benedict of Nursia. This sixth-century monk, horrified by the moral chaos following Rome’s fall, retreated to the forest and created a new way of life for Christians. He built enduring Christian communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability, and prayer. His spiritual centers of hope were strongholds of light throughout the Dark Ages, and saved not just Christianity but Western civilization.

Today, a new, post–Christian barbarism reigns. Many believers are blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist. Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis. What is needed is the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church. The goal: to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.

Well, okay. There is obviously a lot of truth in this. I won't be reading the book, though, and the fact that I no longer spend much time thinking about Building A Better World is only part of it. There's a good review, both sympathetic and skeptical, of the book by Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic. I made the following comment there:

I find all this a little tiresome, even exasperating, because this discussion was being held twenty-five years ago in the pages of the magazine Caelum et Terra and other places. We must withdraw–but we must remain connected. We must turn off the tv–but we mustn’t turn our backs on the culture. We must form communities–but we mustn’t isolate ourselves. We must be critical of technology–but we should use it when appropriate. We must find ways of educating our children apart from the proselytizing secularism of the state school systems–but we must not be overprotective. Etc etc etc.

All these things have actually been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio. The children of those talkers and experimenters are grown now, and the results have been mixed. Those having this conversation with such fervor now seem to be younger, and I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook, and applauding the punishment of bakers and florists for their “discrimination.”

Of course we had nothing like the visibility of Rod Dreher’s project, or Front Porch Republic, or many other such outlets. And maybe things have actually improved in some ways (in proportion to the escalation of the threat?) if these ideas have as wide an audience now as they apparently do. The “Benedict Option” seems almost like a packaging and branding of the fundamentally uncontroversial (among Christians) idea that the world is not our friend and that we must seek to shore up the foundations of our families, churches, and communities. I suppose it is controversial, though, and not new, to those who were fully engaged in waging the culture war via the Republican Party, and who find the idea of detaching themselves from that way of looking at things a little startling or scary.

But I hope no one thinks it is a solution. There is no *solution*. There is only coping, and there is no one way of doing it, and no assurance of success.

Then I added in another comment, "But, you know, Godspeed to all those who try it in one way or another." And I don't really have much more to say about it.

Here are a couple of other things on this topic that are worth looking at:

First, if you're going to get involved in discussions about the "BenOp" (that abbreviation really grates on my nerves), you should probably read the book, but if you don't want to read it and yet still insist on talking about it, don't attack Dreher for saying things he doesn't say. Here is a handy guide to what is and isn't in the book.

Second, a web site called Mere Orthodoxy has what so far strikes me as the most interesting commentary on the whole topic: most interesting because it points out that people have been identifying and discussing the basic problem Christians-in-a-post-Christian-society question for quite some time. I think the earliest citation here is from 1923. The piece is written by someone who graduated from college in 2010, and that's some reason for hope. 

Just Google "Benedict Option" if you want to read more about it; there is a lot out there.


Further thoughts on reading Dante, in response to Charles Kinnaird's excellent account called "My Season With Dante", which he mentioned in a comment on last week's post:

  • Charles recommends listening to it. I don't think that would work for me. I have trouble maintaining my attention when listening to anything very demanding. However, I did, toward the end of Paradise, discover that reading aloud was very helpful. Among other things it forced me to slow down. I have a bad tendency to read hastily and sloppily, and you really can't do that with Dante. It also caused me to hear more musicality in Anthony Esolen's translation.
  • But thinking along those lines reminded me of something I'd completely forgotten: I have a recording of someone reading the first 8 cantos of Inferno in Italian. I can't remember where I bought it. It's a 1959 Folkways recording, and my guess is that I picked it up in one of the sales of cutout records that a bookstore in Tuscaloosa used to have occasionally when I was in college in the late '60s. As far as I can remember, I never played it. But I have located it now and will listen to it next time I start the Comedy. Why did Folkways produce a Dante recording? I don't know, but the included booklet containing the texts lists at least fifty additional spoken-word recordings.
  • Charles picked, as an example of Dante's poetic analogies, his epic similes, one that had also struck me as particularly good--the one at the beginning of Canto 23 in Paradise, having to do with a mother bird and her babies. But it seemed to me a little more richly phrased, and a little more old-fashioned, than I remembered. And I though "I bet this is Longfellow's translation." And it is. I'd been thinking that it might be worth investigating. It  seems to be held in pretty low esteem, and Longfellow himself is certainly not valued as he was in his time. But if he's not as good as, say, Tennyson, he still has skills that have pretty well been lost. So I think I'll be looking at that translation among others next time around.
  • In retrospect now I think it was a mistake not to have started again with the Inferno. I had read it twice before, and thought that was a good enough start to justify jumping in at Purgatory, but that was something like thirty years ago, and of course I don't remember it well. I expect to start again with it sometime in the next six months or so.
  • Before I do, though, I intend to read La Vita Nuova. This whole notion of female beauty as a sign of or path to the divine is one that really speaks to me, and I want to know more of what Dante thought about Beatrice before he wrote the Comedy. I'm also very interested in reading the Charles Williams book The Figure of Beatrice, which Charles Kinnaird mentions.

T. S. Eliot makes a remark somewhere that Shakespeare gives us the breadth of the medieval mind, and Dante gives us the depth. 


Faith is a form of realism.

—Madeleine Delbrêl, quoted in Magnificat

It's not something gauzy, sentimental, and vaporous, something for weak-minded people who can't face reality. In fact it's the work of people trying constantly and maybe desperately to find and face reality. 


Chuck Berry, RIP. The man's best work was brilliant, though unfortunately the really creative period of his long life was only ten years or so, from roughly the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Here is one of my favorites, not quite as well-known as songs like "Johnny B. Goode," and more piano than guitar-based. The lyric is delightful and poignant, especially now that my point of view is that of the old folks. It's a sweet and hopeful picture of an America that's gone and isn't coming back. And "coolerator" is just brilliant.



52 Albums, Week 11: God of Life (John Michael Talbot)

Week11-God of Life cover

Although I’m only a mild fan of John Michael Talbot’s music, there are three of his albums that I place very high on my list of favorites. Two of them, The Painter and No Longer Strangers, were made with his brother Terry. The Painter was the first music I had ever heard of JMT. When I first met my bride-to-be she played it for me. She used to use it to warm up before running. We wound up using one of the songs, “The Mystery,” as the (recorded) recessional at our wedding.

It seems to me that the influence of Terry on these albums raises it above most of JMT’s work, which is often musically repetitive and lyrically overly abstract, sounding like a treatise. Terry is first much more a story-teller. He is also has a more concrete social consciousness. Even in the days when the brothers were playing with Mason Proffit Terry contributed a burning prophetic fire to their lyrics. One of my other favorite albums of all time is Terry Talbot’s solo album Sings Stories of Jesus.  The album isn’t available anywhere that I can figure out, but there are a couple of videos on YouTube that give you a taste of what it is like.

I Am He

I Saw Him

But this post isn’t about any of these albums. It is about God of Life (1984). This album was produced during JMT’s “Celtic” period. All the songs have a distinctive Celtic feel, with lots of penny-whistles, uilleann pipes, and harmonic fifths. The orchestration is never overly lush. It is vigorous when it needs to be (“Peace”) and gentle and unassuming at other times (“Betwixt Me”, “Healer of My Soul”). There is a fun, lilting instrumental called “The Meadow.” There is also some great cello work.

The lyrics on the album, borrowed from ancient Celtic prayers, are very concrete, Trinitarian, and conscious of God’s providence and closeness.

Glory to Thee O God of Life

For the guiding lamp of the ocean
Thy hand on the rudder’s helm
Thy love behind the billows
The wind within my sails


God to enfold me
God to surround me
God in my thinking
God in my words
God in my sleeping
And in my waking
God in my watching
God in my home [I think]

I love the concrete imagery of baptism in “In the Name of God.”

The little drop of the Father
The little drop of the Son
The little drop of the Spirit
In thy life, beloved one
The little drop of God
On thy little forehead
In the name of God

There is a strong sense of the role that the way Christ is in us to strengthen our social relations.


Peace between all persons
Peace between husband and wife
Peace between women and children
Descend on us the peace of Christ

Bless O Christ my face
Let my face now bless everything
Bless oh Christ mine eyes
Let all my eyes see be blessed with peace.

One cool thing is his use of banjo (“Belfast”). JMT was a nationally ranked banjo player in his youth. He really can make it sound Celtic. “Belfast” was in fact a piece from their Mason Proffit days that he recycled. I wish you could compare them. You’ll have to go to Spotify, I guess. Here JMT is playing it solo on banjo without the orchestration. Here is the Mason Proffit cut, with “Belfast” at the end of “Black September,” about the Palestinian/Jewish violence in 1972.

My favorite, though, is the plaintive and soulful “Healer of My Soul.” esp. the lyric:

Keeper of my soul
On rough course faring
Help and safeguard my means this night
Keeper of my soul

I am tired of stray and stumbling
Heal my soul from the snare of sin

I tear up with this one.

Lots of JMT’s music is not available on YouTube. I think he keeps tight control over his intellectual property.

I played guitar with JMT once. Kathy and I were on a retreat that he sponsored. After a prayer session I was sitting on the stage in a chapel playing some songs when he walked in and sat down. We played a couple of simple tunes together, I think. Then we asked him to play “The Mystery” for us, since we had had it at our wedding. He tried, but he could hardly remember it.

No picture this time.

 —Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac. 

Sunday Night Journal, March 12, 2017

I finally made it through Paradise. I hate to put it that way, but that's more or less how it felt. Back in May of last year I was reading Dante and was most of the way through Purgatory when I needed to switch translations (there was a blog post about that). I decided on Anthony Esolen's. Time passed while I didn't get around to ordering the books. Then I slowly finished Purgatory, and decided that I really ought to have read the Aeneid, which I'd never done and had been meaning to do for years, before Dante. So I stopped for a while and read that, also slowly. I guess it was probably into fall before I got back to Dante. I had intended to read a canto a day, but rarely kept that up. 

So here I am, feeling more like I've finished a job than that I've enjoyed a great poem. And yet I'd really like to start immediately with Inferno and read the whole thing again. It's a little like the way I feel sometimes on hearing a complex piece of music for the first time: I don't feel like I got it, I didn't necessarily enjoy it that much, but I was interested in it, would like to hear it again, and suspect I'll grow to like it. 

Still, there is a certain frustration about the effort that I can only hope to remove by learning Italian, which is not really feasible. As I said in the post I linked to above, I don't believe poetry can truly be translated. There's some further discussion of that question in the comments on that post. Reading Dante has only confirmed my view. If you know two languages really well, you can read a poem written in one and write a poem conveying the same basic sense--the prose sense--in the other. If you're really gifted, the second poem may be a good one. But simply by virtue of the fact that it uses different words it is a different poem. It's a paraphrase. Sound and Sense is an excellent poetry textbook that's been in use for a couple of generations now, and the title says the essential: good poetry is equal parts sound and sense. A good poem consists of specific and carefully chosen words, and you can't replace them with others, even in the same language, and preserve the poem itself, as such. It's just intrinsically impossible.

Anyone who has a taste for poetry and is a native English speaker should count himself lucky. If we had no poet other than Shakespeare, we would have in him one universally acknowledged as being among the very greatest of any tongue or time. No one reading him in another language is really reading Shakespeare, because he only exists fully in English, and in his exact words. Look what happens when you paraphrase him even in English, and in the same meter:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

Life's a shadow that walks, a bad actor
That stalks the stage and fusses for an hour

If you get a buzz from the second and not the first, you have a bad ear.  And moreover they don't convey exactly the same sense. Close, but not the same. (I can't think of exact synonyms for "strut" and "fret".) Esolen's Dante translation is good, and it does rise to poetry at times. But I look over on the left page at the Italian and wonder what I'm missing. 

Someone mentioned in the comments in the old post that Esolen is sometimes more complex than the other translators. I noticed that, and assumed that he is attempting to be faithful to Dante's intricacies. Occasionally I wasn't sure I was understanding something, and picked up the Sinclair prose translation to check it. That led to reading Sinclair's notes, which are very different from Esolen's, but just as good. By the time I was into the mid-twenties of the cantos, I was reading both Esolen's verse and Sinclair's prose, and the notes of both. And I think that will be my procedure next time I read it, which I definitely intend to do.

My griping aside, I do feel like I have a good sense of Dante's vision, and a very powerful one it is. Much of it is literally vision--that is, it is visual, and not being a very visually-oriented person I sometimes had trouble forming the picture in my mind. Well, not just forming, but making sense of. Esolen's translation has Doré's illustrations, but I don't care much for them. I'd like to have an edition with good detailed illustrations of the key structural elements of Dante's visions. Maybe that's not really possible, at least not in a book--a page would be too small to capture the relationship of scale between the pilgrim(s) and, for instance, the mountain of Purgatory. There are basic diagrams available (Esolen has some), but I could use more. And I'd also like to see some artistic renderings other than Doré's. But a quick search doesn't show me many. There are Blake's, which are interesting but...well, it's Blake. And anyway they're unfinished. 

I can see why Paradise is generally considered to be on the dull side in comparison to Inferno especially. It's heavy on theology, and too often Dante has to say "Well, it was really amazing, but there aren't any words for it." But if you believe he was talking about something real, though in not-necessarily-literal ways, it's powerful. 

I didn't have all that many moments of being genuinely moved by what I was reading, but, fittingly, the moments that I did have were toward the end, and especially in the last canto. And I was amused that almost up until the very end Dante was still griping about the pope. 

P.S. I greatly enjoyed the Aeneid. It was the Fitzgerald translation, and whatever its relationship to Virgil may be it's good, strong, clear verse. I admit I did get a little impatient with the long battle toward the end, as I also did, once upon a time, with much of the Iliad. It sounds callous to say so, but the long series of helmets cloven, armor pierced, and bright blood running into the sand gets...well, monotonous. I found the earlier, more Odyssey-like part of the story better. 


I'm always going on about the fact that what we call liberalism or progressivism is in effect a religion. Here, in The American Scholar, is someone who seems to be himself a liberal, but of an older and nobler kind, making a similar observation.

So this is how I’ve come to understand the situation. Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.


Since Trump was elected there's been a lot of talk about his victory bringing us into the world of 1984, and reportedly there's even been a surge in sales of the book. My first thought about that was "What, the Smart People haven't already read it?" My second thought was that those talking about it now seem to be misunderstanding it. As Janet said in a comment on last week's post, it's "... hysterical...that Kellyanne Conway's stupid remark sent the the avid consumers of 21st century newspeak scurrying for 1984." Granting that Conway lied--I don't think it's clear that she did, but assuming it for the sake of argument--there's nothing particularly 1984-ish about a politician telling a lie.

It's been a long time since I read the book, but as I recall the critical point about the government's lies in 1984 is that one is forced to accept them, and not only accept but to believe them, even and especially when they contradict the official line of a week before, and are contrary to the evidence of one's own eyes and mind. If you recall, the great triumph of the Party in the novel was to make people believe that 2+2=5 if the Party says that it does. Anyone discovered to be resistant to the Party's version of the truth will be imprisoned and tortured until he is completely broken and acquiesces, not just externally but internally. He must see that truth is what the Party says it is, so that he no longer sees any contradiction between reality and the Party's word, or between the Party's word of today and that of yesterday. The goal is to make coercion unnecessary. To that end the Party takes control of language itself, redefining and eliminating words so that unsanctioned ideas become literally unthinkable. The boy in the fable of the emperor's clothes will eventually see that he has been mistaken, that the robes are there, and they are beautiful. 

For the past year or so Trump has been throwing out falsehoods and distortions wildly, and they are widely and openly denounced as such. It's not even clear that he wants or expects people to believe them. Sometimes it just seems that he enjoys watching the media freakout. This is not what happens in 1984. If you want a real and current example of the 1984 syndrome in action, there's nothing more egregious than the sudden and recent promulgation of "transgender" dogma. More or less overnight it suddenly became, in progressive eyes, an act of bigotry to assert that persons with male genitals are men, and persons with female genitals are women. Millions (I suppose) of otherwise reasonable and intelligent people immediately and freely toed this line. A pseudo-scientific word, "transphobia," purporting to describe something that is both an illness and a moral evil, is now routinely applied to anyone who refuses, for instance, to call Bruce "Caitlyn" Jenner a woman. Public figures who are recalcitrant may be subject to mass vilification similar to the Two Minutes' Hate in 1984. The only think lacking is the government's ability to enforce conformity, and toward the end of his administration Obama was trying to push things in that direction.



Brightening the corner where I am.

52 Albums, Week 10: Swagger (The Blue Aeroplanes)


What’s not to like about a band made up of three guitarists, bass, drums, a singer who doesn’t sing, and a classically-trained interpretive dancer? Bristol, England’s Blue Aeroplanes had put out several well-received independent albums in the 1980’s but it was their 1990 major label debut Swagger that gained them their first large hearing. I first heard of them when I saw the video for the song “…And Stones” on MTV and liked it instantly, struck by the combination of guitar drive with a dance beat. A short time later I purchased the album on cassette (one did that in those days, being unable to sample records ahead of time) and soon realized that I had run across a new favorite, one of those rare albums that didn’t have a single track that I disliked. Not long after that I bought the CD, and kept the cassette to play in the car.

By the end of the 1980’s fans of guitar-led rock didn’t have much to get enthused about, given the prominence of synth bands throughout that decade. In the early to mid-80’s there were a few “big guitar” bands (Big Country, The Chameleons, and The Sound come to mind) but they were a minority, and unless you liked heavy metal or arena rock there just wasn’t much good guitar music floating around out there. This began to change in the late 80’s with the rise of “shoegaze” in the U.K. and “grunge” in the U.S., but neither of these really got a lot of attention until a couple years later and if you weren’t paying close attention early examples of those were easy to miss.

Swagger, on the other hand, was not only guitar-driven, but guitar-led: throughout the album it was the guitars that carried the melodies, not the voice, and even so the tunes were quite catchy. The instrumental mix featured both the jangly guitar style prevalent in the 80’s and the “chiming” approach featured in some of the post-punk bands, a somewhat unusual combination for the time.

Lead man Gerard Langley sang/spoke his lyrics with the rhythms of the songs, which were often very melodic. But it was the guitars that moved the songs along melodically. There was nothing else at the time that sounded anything like this.

After hearing only the one song on MTV, I can still remember listening to the opening of the first song, “Jacket Hangs,” for the first time. For the first 25 seconds or so you might think you’ve mistakenly popped some Southern rock disc, but as soon as the vocal starts all bets are off. Langley does not sing, as I’ve said, but the lead guitar line continues alongside the vocal after the intro is done. Lead guitarist Angelo Bruschini doesn’t drop back and revert to rhythm playing as would happen in a typical rock song. That one memorable guitar riff continues throughout. But notice how many times the guitars change what they’re doing. So much is going on that it makes the song seem longer than its short 3:43 length.


(The guy in the white shirt is Wojtek Dmochowski, a classically trained dancer, who is an official band member and who dances onstage with the band during every show. He’s still at it 25 years later, but not surprisingly doesn’t quite have the moves he used to, alas.)

The track I first heard on MTV, “…And Stones,” is a faster number, much more of a dance song, but still has that same basic guitar-led structure. The guitars carry both the chord progression and what serves as the melody, with Langley speaking the accompanying lyric. On the album this song runs to five-and-a-half minutes and is preceded by one of my favorite segues in all of pop music, but the single version cuts it back to about 3:20 here. The guitars on this song are excellent, as are the bass and drum work.


On the two or three quieter songs the same basic pattern holds:


If you like these three songs I can almost guarantee you’ll like the rest. Another highlight is a setting of the Sylvia Plath poem, “The Applicant,” performed as a rocker and spoken by Langley with the perfect amount of bite.

The Blue Aeroplanes never quite matched the level of Swagger on subsequent albums, although the following two, Beat Songs and Life Model are still pretty darn good. But this one remains in my opinion one of the best albums of the 90’s, and I’ve listened to it dozens of times over the past 27 years, and have never grown tired of it.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Sunday Night Journal, March 5, 2017

I recall reading about The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch when it came out some years ago. I would have said, without checking, ten to fifteen years ago, but it was actually twenty. I remember reading some reviews at the time and thinking that it sounded interesting: essays by a poet who makes his living as an undertaker (or, if you prefer, a mortician): surely he would have some interesting things to say. Enough influential people liked the book that it was a finalist for the National Book Award, but I never took the trouble to have a look at it. And I probably never would have if my wife had not come across it recently and read it. She kept finding passages that she liked so much that she read them to me, and so when she put it down, I picked it up.

It is a very good book, and I recommend it. It treats death familiarly and casually, but simultaneously with respect and awe, and by no means without humor. That famous "dissociation of sensibility" that Eliot saw and described in the modern world is certainly not in evidence here. One who gets up in the morning and goes to work to spend the day collecting bodies from the places where they became bodies only, preparing them for funerals, dealing with the bereaved, burying or burning the bodies, sending out bills for these services and thinking about how to keep them reasonably profitable, could hardly be anything but familiar with death, and would be almost forced to become casual about it. The challenge perhaps would be not to let casual turn into indifferent. But while Lynch is unillusioned and unsentimental, he is not cynical, and definitely not indifferent. 

Moreover, he comes from a big Irish Catholic family, and while it is not clear that he still believes, he retains a very Catholic sensibility, by which I mean that he finds it easy and natural to invest very mundane, even crude or disgusting, things with great significance.

Much of the book consists of stories which are variously and often simultaneously touching, funny, and horrifying. Be advised that there are some gruesome moments. There is also a deep undercurrent of meditation on the ethics of life and death.

All of this comes together most impressively for me in the essay "Uncle Eddie, Inc.", which begins with a proposal by his brother Eddie, also an undertaker, for a sideline business specializing in cleaning the premises where a very untidy death has occurred.

Perhaps his service were a little too specialized--know only to local and state law enforcement agencies and county medical examiners and funeral homes; only needed by the families and landlords of the messy dead. Indoor suicides, homicides, household accidents, or natural deaths undetected in a timely fashion--these were the exceptional cases that often required the specialized sanitation services that Uncle Eddie and his staff at Triple S--his wife, his golfing buddy, and his golfing buddy's wife--stood ever ready to provide for reasonable fees most often covered by the Homeowner's Policy. If not the sort of thing you'd find in the yellow pages, still, tough work that someone had to do.

Had you ever wondered about such things? I had.


I went to a Mardi Gras parade in Mobile on the weekend before Mardi Gras proper. It had been several years since I'd been to a Mobile parade. Here in Fairhope there are a few parades that are fairly big and elaborate by local standards (nothing like as elaborate as those in New Orleans, I'm told). And going to one or two of those is generally enough for me. The whole thing can seem kind of tiresome, actually, once you've done it a few times. But it was fun going to a Mobile parade again: the parades are bigger, and the crowds are a lot bigger and more lively. 

It was a seriously diverse crowd. "Diversity" in its current cant-ish sense generally conjures up an image of nice middle-class people who may look different from each other and may come from different countries with different cultural and religious traditions, but have grown detached (implicitly above) those traditions, and mostly adopted the habits and attitudes and tastes of middle-to-upper-class white liberals.  

The crowd at this parade, though, at least at the place where I was watching it (Government Street) was most definitely not the place to be if you didn't want those attitudes and tastes to be offended. This crowd was mostly not very affluent, noisy, crude, old, young, black, white, and frequently very tacky. There were unattractive people wearing t-shirts advertising their sex appeal, women wearing all sorts of ill-advised super-tight pants and tops, bad hairdos, and a general preference for the cheap and gaudy, although some of the gaudiness  had a possibly ironic twist, like the tall Cat-in-the-Hat-type hats decorated with flashing lights. There were cheap plastic beads and glow sticks everywhere. A fair number of people were drunk. Many smoked cigarettes or cigars. Much food of a decidedly unhealthy nature was consumed: corn dogs, nachos (drenched in a liquid cheese-like liquid of mysterious provenance), and funnel cakes (which in my opinion are worthy of the gods). It was a lively, occasionally rowdy, but very good-humored crowd, and for my part the high spirits of the people, on and off the floats, and the pervasive beat of marching bands are very effective in putting me into a festive frame of mind.

Looking around at the crowd, I said to someone "This is Trump's America," and she looked a little shocked. Well, a lot shocked, actually, and I hastened to explain: not that these were Trump supporters--the crowd was at least 50% black, and we can assume they weren't predominantly pro-Trump--but that this was the messy, undisciplined, and frankly somewhat crazy America that many of the people who are horrified and terrified by Trump are not much acquainted with, and to the extent that they are aware of it find repulsive. It is the America that produced and elevated Trump, notwithstanding the couple of thousand miles and couple of billions of dollars between him and this crowd, and to which Trump can relate and appeal. Black people kept their distance from him for perfectly good reasons of ethnic politics, but a black politician with similar tactics and personality--a black Trump--would do very well among them. (Barack Obama I have always considered to be best understood as being temperamentally and ideologically a white liberal whose half-African ancestry gave him immeasurable cachet among the same, and an appeal far greater than an actual American black man like Al Sharpton could have.)

The technocrats of Washington, New York, and California who tend to run the major institutions of our society are generally intelligent, disciplined, and prudent. They tend to order their lives pretty sensibly. They may copulate wildly but they are careful about birth control and rarely permit unplanned births. They do well in school and are "educated" with an emphasis on the contemporary: on economics, politics, and law seen from a somewhat abstract sociological viewpoint that seems to leave them ignorant or naive about elemental human truths. They tend to view social problems as, precisely, problems, which, like textbook exercises, have rational solutions. And they don't understand people who reject their solutions and do irrational, imprudent, impractical things like smoking, diving for Moon Pies and worthless beads at Mardi Gras, and "cling[ing] to guns and religion," as our coolly technocratic ex-president complained.

A character in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength says "You cannot study men; you can only get to know them." A Mardi Gras crowd in Mobile, Alabama, is a good place to do it. 


After the parade I had a surprise, which was initially unpleasant but on balance a good one. We--my wife, a daughter and her two children,  a son and his girlfriend--were in the parking lot of the building where my wife works. It's a private lot and the entrances are blocked by padlocked chains, which is nice for us because she has a key and thus we always have a convenient place to park. While we were waiting for the traffic to thin out my two grandsons and I were throwing a Mardi Gras frisbee around the parking lot. (Technically speaking, not a Frisbee (tm), but an off-brand flying disk, a frequent "throw" from the floats.) The frisbee sailed out into the street. I went to get it. Just as I was stepping over the chain, one of my grandsons pulled it up so that he could go under it, very effectively pulling my feet out from under me. I hit the concrete pretty hard, on my side. I lay there for a minute thinking it fairly likely that I had some kind of significant damage, quite possibly a broken bone. But I didn't. I only had a few bruises and scratches. I was gratified to find that my bones are apparently not yet very brittle, even though I'm getting uncomfortably near to my three-score-and-ten years.

(I was not drunk, by the way. I had had a beer with dinner three hours earlier, nothing else.)



Seeking whom he may devour?


Biting wit: a local news story tells us that "A man had his ear bit off during a verbal altercation." 

52 Albums, Week 9: Slow Turning (John Hiatt)


Time is short and here’s the damn thing about it
You’re gonna die, gonna die for sure
And you can learn to live with love or without it
But there ain’t no cure

The lyrics above are from the title track to John Hiatt’s very excellent 1988 release Slow Turning. I feel like some of my favorite albums have helped me to get through life by presenting a vision that is a positive outlook confirming my worldview, and this is one of them.

Sometime back in the early 90s I was hanging out with a few friends of mine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on a weekend night and they had the radio on. The DJ said, “John Hiatt and the Guilty Dogs are getting ready to hit the stage here at the Button South in about an hour from now”, or something along those lines. I turned to Jon and Dave and said, “John Hiatt guys, are you in??!!” and was greeted with unenthusiastic shrugs. I went down to the Stumobile alone and drove to the Button South, paid $15 to get in, and enjoyed an absolutely fabulous show with about 30 other John Hiatt diehards. It is really something to be able to stand quite easily right at the front of a stage in a small venue and watch one of your recording heroes. There was a guy standing just to the left of me wearing a cowboy hat, and he kept trying to give it to Hiatt, who continued to ignore him. Finally, Hiatt gave in and took the hat saying, “This is a mighty fine hat, my friend!”, and proceeded to hand it to his drummer who wore it for the rest of their set. The guy was ecstatic!

I have seen Hiatt in concert probably another six or seven times since that night. The crowds have gotten bigger, and I am further away, but he still puts on a great show.

Slow Turning followed Hiatt’s commercial breakthrough and most critically praised album of his career, Bring the Family. While Bring the Family is a truly great album with superb backing musicians and an array of great songs, it is a little too somber and elegiac for my taste and ability to get over-enthusiastic about. It contains Hiatt’s most widely recognized song, “Thing Called Love”; but this song is widely recognized due to Bonnie Raitt’s cover version, not the original. Slow Turning is livelier, funnier, and can sort of be classified as Americana, or alt-Country. All I know is I popped the CD into my car player this morning and found that my enthusiasm for the music has not waned.

“Drive South” opens the album very strongly, musically and lyrically:

I didn’t say we wouldn’t hurt anymore
That’s how you learn, you just get burned
But we don’t have to feel like dirt anymore
Though love’s not earned, Baby it’s our turn
We were always looking for true north
With our heads in the clouds, just a little off course
I left the motor running, now if you’re feeling down and out
Come on Baby drive south, with the one you love…. (etc.)

A great song to listen to in your car while driving on the highway, preferably one not filled with other vehicles and alongside the perfect girl. This is what it sounds like (acoustic, album is full band):

It occurs to me while listening to the song again that I might have a predisposition towards male singer-songwriters with strange voices (e.g. Tom Waits). However, perhaps John Hiatt’s voice is simply well worn as opposed to really odd. I have played his music for people who thought he might be an older black man from the South. Instead, he is a white guy from Indianapolis, Indiana.

Hiatt is a great songwriter, and his skill with lyrics are on full display in “Tennessee Plates”, a rollicking story of stealing a Cadillac from Elvis at Graceland. “We were looking for a Cadillac with Tennessee plates” is the continued refrain. Then at the end, he offers up a closing to the story that I find very clever:

Well this ain’t no hotel I’m writin’ you from
It’s the Tennessee prison up at Brushy Mountain
Where yours sincerely’s doin’ five to eight
Stampin’ out my time makin’ Tennessee plates

For many years, I had one of those 90-minute cassette tapes that usually could fit an album on each side with Bring the Family on Side A, and Slow Turning on Side B. I played this tape in my car so much that I know the lyrics to both these albums pretty much by heart. I just listened to Bring the Family again, and I certainly do not want to denigrate it; it probably is Hiatt’s finest album with some really great songs. Since it has been so long between listens to either one of these albums, I found myself surprised anew with each song, how good it was and how I could sing along. I love the opening stanza of “Icy Blue Heart” (yes, from Slow Turning, I am trying to stay on message):

She came onto him like a slow movin’ cold front
His beer was warmer than the look in her eyes
She sat on a stool, he said, “What do you want?”
She said, “Give me a love that don’t freeze up inside.”

These lyrics give me goosebumps they’re so good. I can see why other artists are always clamoring to record the songs of John Hiatt. In closing, please listen to Slow Turning, and Bring the Family. That album deserves its own post. I like Crossing Muddy Waters a lot as well. Hiatt puts out a lot of music. If you get a chance to see him live, know that he is a real treat in concert.

—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog, and is just trying to do the best he can. What else can he do?