There are three kinds of people in Alabama

(1) Those like the man who erected this sign, which is highly visible from I-65, a highway I travel often.


(2) Those who see the sign and are indignant and say "That's so stupid. Can you believe there are such idiots in the world? I'm embarrassed that I live in this state."

(3) Those who see it and laugh but say "Well, actually he has a point." 

Here, by the way, is some information on the man responsible for the sign.

I recall seeing it as long ago as the 1980s. A few years ago it disappeared and I was afraid that the forces of Godlessness had finally prevailed: someone had decided it was too divisive or something. But it had been blown down by a storm, and was eventually put back

Now that I think about it some more, though, and having read the second piece linked above, I see there are actually four types of people.

(4) Those who think it's crazy but like the fact that there is still some untamed eccentricity around. 

Election Comment

An angel came to me and said, "Ok, here's our best offer: Biden wins the presidency, and the Republicans keep the Senate."

I didn't have to think for very long. No more Trump craziness, from Trump himself, from his enemies, from his supporters. And the damage the Democrats can do will be severely limited.

"I'll take it," I said. 

"That's good," said the angel. "Because we weren't actually going to listen to you anyway.


Some Copland

I have a prejudice against ballet music. It's probably not uncommon: I call it a prejudice, but I could fairly maintain that it's a rational judgment. By its nature the music is episodic and tied to a story, or at least a series of scenes or tableaux, which are meant to be seen in conjunction with the music, and in fact are meant to be the main attraction. So if you're listening to the music alone you tend to get a group of little pieces that don't necessarily seem to be that well connected, and whose tie to the story is either limiting or vague or both. In any case it has to be supplied from outside.

I love The Rite of Spring and it's so intrinsically tied to its program that I can't imagine it being other than it is. But I wonder what I, and for that matter listeners in general, would think of it if it had just appeared as pure music with a neutral title like Concerto for Orchestra. I'm sure it would have still made a splash, but would  it have made the splash that it did, with the intentionally shocking primitivism of the ballet? Would it have been criticized as lacking unity? Impossible to know, obviously. I haven't heard it for some time, so I think I'll listen to it with that in mind.

But then if we're talking about a suite chosen from the ballet it's not really a fair criticism. A suite is by definition a set of distinct pieces, not a single coherent composition. I hear The Nutcracker Suite as a set of wonderful small works, and I love it. (I'm never sure about the officially correct name of the thing, and even less sure about how it should be italicized or quoted, but that's the way Wikipedia does it, so I'll go with that.)

Anyway: the next two LPs in the Fr. Dorrel collection, in the order in which they happen to sit on the shelf, are two volumes of Aaron Copland's music, three of them ballet scores, or suites taken from them.

Billy the Kid and Rodeo (The Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel, Westminster WST 14059, 1959)

Both these pretty much fit, and are limited by, the remarks I made above. Both are pretty "sectioned" and I really like some of the sections, others not so much. The opening of Billy the Kid is great, that Copland wide-open-spaces sound which somehow has come to say "America." And the gunfight, which is mostly percussion, is certainly interesting. And I wonder how it would be taken if, as I suggested re The Rite above, it were extracted and presented with a bland title. In this case people might actually say that it sounds like a gunfight.

This recording also includes a bit from the ballet which apparently is not officially part of the suite. It's called "Billy's Waltz" and it's a simple, unpretentious, and lovely piece which deserves to be heard.

Rodeo...well, broadly speaking my view of it is much the same. I like some of it, mainly the quieter parts. It strikes me as a bit ersatz, maybe a touch patronizing, when it ventures into barn-dance territory, as is true of certain portions of the other ballet.

The recording doesn't strike me as great, either sonically or as a performance. But it certainly isn't bad, either. The sound really is pretty impressive for its time.

Appalachian Spring, El Salon Mexico, and Dance from Music for the Theatre (Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, Columbia MS 6355)

I love Appalachian Spring. If you don't know it, you should. It's my favorite Copland, which really isn't definitive because I don't know a lot of his work. But if I were to hear every note of it, I have a feeling that Appalachian Spring would retain its position.

About this recording I'm somewhat ambivalent. The sound is terrific, noticeably better than that of the Westminster disk, even though it was recorded only a few years later, in 1962. I can't fault the performance, which is crisp and precise and energetic, flawless but not slick, with striking dynamics. But those dynamics are a bit too striking for my taste and the level of energy borders on the aggressive. The loud entry of the strings in the second section, after the gentle introduction, is jarring to me.

But my reservation is at least in part the result of prejudice in favor of another recording: the full ballet in the original instrumentation, conducted by the composer.

CoplandAppalachianSpringFullBalletOriginalInstrumentationBernstein's recording is a beauty, but this one is the sweet shy quietly pretty girl whom you didn't notice at first but who steals your heart when you do. The original instrumentation is only thirteen instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and a set of strings--that was all the theater had room for. This is also the original score, roughly a third longer than the suite. Copland says that the only change he made for the suite "was to cut a few spots that were needed only for choreographic purposes." I haven't tried to figure out what was cut, but I think the extra length is part of the reason that this recording has a more leisurely quality. But aside from that, the chamber orchestra makes it an altogether gentler, sweeter, more intimate piece of music, and for me more moving. And I think it's more appropriate to the low-key story line of the ballet, which depicts a wedding. 

I hadn't heard this LP for many years, so I got it out to see if my old affection still held. It does. Maybe it's only because this is the recording by which I first got acquainted with the piece, but in any case I prefer it. Looking around the web I get the impression that it isn't in print as I originally bought it in the 1970s (Columbia M32736, pictured above). But I'm pretty sure it's available in some form, as I see several "Copland Conducts Copland" collections. The same no doubt is true of the Bernstein recording. 

The most well-known part of the ballet is the use of the tune "Simple Gifts," which Catholics and others are accustomed to hearing as "The Lord of the Dance." I have always disliked that song for some reason and am relieved to find that it hasn't hurt my enjoyment of Copland's music. 

Copland says that El Salon Mexico is "the Mexico of the tourists," not "the more profound side of Mexico," which "would have been foolish for me to attempt to translate into musical sounds." Fair enough. It's a short (under eleven minutes), lively, colorful piece: nothing deep, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it.

The Dance from Music for the Theatre is only a few minutes long and ends with a sort of near-iambic pair of beats--'DaDUM"--which in my mind immediately turned into "So what?" I had no reaction worth remarking upon to the piece. The liner notes say that the work as a whole "was not intended for the theatre, but rather as a commentary upon it." I'll give it another chance some time.

As you probably know, while Copland's music is thought of as being deeply connected to the American landscape, especially of the West, and to rural or rustic life, he was a Jewish homosexual from New York.

I've known that for a long time. What I did not know until I looked him up on Wikipedia a few days ago was that William "Billy the Kid" Bonney, whose real name was actually not William or Billy but Henry McCarty, was also a native of New York City. Ain't that America?

Time Management Skills, Lack of

Just a note to say that in an effort to get control of the amount of time I spend online, and to focus on some writing I'm trying to do, I'm making it a rule for myself to stay off the net until noon every day. So I won't see comments made in the morning until the afternoon. 

You're Gonna Miss Your Constitutional Liberalism When It's Gone

Somewhere or other, sometime or other, I read that G.K. Chesterton, asked whether he was a liberal, answered that he was "the only liberal." I sometimes feel that way. I long ago acquiesced to the fact that in the American political context I'm more or less correctly classified as a conservative. But as the so-common-as-to-be-hackneyed followup to any such statement goes, what American conservatism seeks to conserve is in large part classical liberalism.

It probably doesn't need saying to people who read this blog, but in case it does: "classical liberalism" refers not to what we currently refer to as the liberal faction in contemporary politics, but to a political philosophy which is, in a nutshell, that of the United States of America. Most discussions of it emphasize its economic aspects, which I'm sure is accurate, but I'm not a political philosopher or economist and am not very interested in wrangling over the definition. For my purposes it's the political system described by the Constitution, and a corresponding culture which values self-government, liberty, the rule of law, reason, the free exchange of ideas, religious tolerance, and so on--the whole list of things which until recently were generally agreed upon, all based on what were considered in the 18th century self-evident truths about human nature. The American constitution puts that basic worldview into a system of government, and so I prefer the term "constitutional liberalism." (Also "classical liberalism" has other associations, with capitalism for instance, which I want to avoid--but that's another topic.)

Continue reading "You're Gonna Miss Your Constitutional Liberalism When It's Gone" »

Elton John: Elton John

Here's another LP from the closet (not from the Fr. Dorrill collection, most of which is still sitting around in boxes), in response to a conversation I had some weeks ago in which I promised to give it a listen.

Elton John's name has come up here once or twice, and I was pretty dismissive. I'm sorry, but there's something about the guy's music, especially his voice, that doesn't appeal to me, even though I recognize that if I look at it with some detachment I see that the work he did in his prime was really good. Somehow his music always seemed not quite real to me. And I just don't care for his voice. And I never have been fond of the piano as a rock instrument.

Continue reading "Elton John: Elton John" »

"Good morning. It's 8:05 in the cone."

I'm told that a local radio host introduced his show that way yesterday. He's referring to the cone on hurricane tracking maps. As of this morning the cone for Hurricane Zeta is narrow and we are not actually in it, according to NOAA. We're in the blue area. If the storm actually follows that track, it won't be a big deal for us. There'll be a strong south wind which maybe will straighten some of those trees bent over by the north winds of Hurricane Sally.

We are really sick of this. This is the fourth time this year that we've been in the cone. Only Sally really affected us, and that was as close to a direct hit as we've had since I moved here in 1992. Thousands of trees were knocked down, and a good number of those fell on power lines. We've never had such an extended power outage--six days, I think. But it could have been a lot worse, as it was only a middling sort of storm as hurricanes go. 

Here's the view looking up the street from in front of my house the morning after Sally.

MyStreeAfterHurricaneSallyAt the middle of that pile is a pine tree about 18 inches in diameter. I'd guess that pines accounted for at least 3/4 of the downed trees. Streets and roads are still lined with piles of debris. I saw an estimate that there's something on the order of a million tons of it. My yard still looks like one of those morning-after battlefield pictures. 

Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

This piece is actually what I was writing when I started thinking about the so-called baby boomer generation, and the whole generations scheme, which led to a separate post on that theme. More about that further down.

A month or two or three ago when this album came out there was a promotional video for it using the first track, "I Contain Multitudes." I listened to it and thought "Well, this is an album I can skip." I mean, Dylan's recent work has been pretty good, but there wasn't all that much that I felt like I couldn't do without. There's so much music I want to hear that I wasn't going to bother with this one. But my friend Stu told me I really should give it a listen. So I did: thanks, Stu.

I do think it's a mixed bag. But the good stuff...well, I'll take it track by track.

"I Contain Multitudes"
(The phrase is from Whitman, as you probably know.) I just don't care much for this. It's not so much a song as a recitation over some not especially effective music. There are some good lines but overall the lyrics are not so great. "I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes." It's a good thing that it's not that long.

"False Prophet"
Now the album really gets started: blues riff, words somewhat on the dark side. I would quote some of it but you really have to hear it in his voice. At six minutes it doesn't seem too long. His vocals are impossible, by which I mean that it seems impossible that they are as effective as they are. As has been the case for some time, it's often a stretch to call what he does singing. But it really works.

"My Own Version of You"

All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts

I want to bring someone to life - is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you

Over a descending spooky-movie line the song goes on like that. Is he creating a Frankenstein's monster, or an ideal lover, or maybe even creating God in his own image? I'm not sure--making linear sense is not what Dylan does--but this is a strong track. Everybody knows Dylan traffics in allusion, but I suspect he does it even more than most of us recognize. Like this line: "You can bring it to St. Peter - you can bring it to Jerome."

Because I've had a copy of Bo Diddley's 16 Greatest Hits since I was 18 or so, I happen to know that the second sentence refers to one of his lesser-known songs. I don't know how many people who listen to this album would catch that. Or how many such references I miss.

"I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"
A love song that, like all love songs, could be addressed either to a person or to God. Every now and then Dylan writes what seems to be a conventional love song, and I tend not to like them. I didn't like "To Make You Feel My Love" on Time Out of Mind and moreover thought it was totally out of place on that album. Not surprisingly, it was covered by some other artists. Anyway, this is good, but not one of my favorites.

"Black Rider"
I'd call this "pretty good": an interesting lyric, not much musically. As with "Multitudes," it isn't overly long, which is good.

"Goodbye Jimmy Reed"
I love this one. It sounds like Jimmy Reed and the lyrics are sharp. It's a tribute to Reed, with musical and lyrical allusions to some of his songs, and weighted with a sense that he had something that we still need.

"Mother of Muses"
Slow, kind of pretty, a sort of prayer. But I'm afraid I don't care much for it.

"Crossing the Rubicon"
Now this is a killer. There's a pattern in my reactions here: a preference for the more rock-oriented and sharp-tongued songs. This one is both. The more I hear it the more I like it, and want to say it's up there with some of his classics. As the title suggests, it's about a moment of decision and determination in the face of long odds, and it's very powerful:

Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond:
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
and I crossed the Rubicon

"Key West"
I really wanted to like this one. I've never been to Key West but from what I've seen and heard it must be an enchanting place. This song should enchant, but for me at any rate it does not. And at nine and a half minutes it goes on too long to suit me.

"Murder Most Foul"
Now I will contradict what I said about the pattern of my reactions. ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.") Superficially this song is like "Multitudes"--really just a recitation over a musical background. And I did not expect to like a 17-minute Dylan song. I expected it to go off the rails, like the long closing song on Time Out of Mind, which spends too much time on a silly episode apparently sparked by rhyming "legs" and "eggs."

This is where the "generations" stuff comes in. In the post I mentioned earlier I argued that if we're going to classify people in that way one of the groups should include those born between roughly 1940 and 1960--which is to say those who had the experience of growing up in the 25 years or so following the end of World War II. 

For better or worse, it's a feature of the constantly changing modern world that if you live a normal three-score-and-ten or more you're going to see the world you grew up in disappear. I've seen it happen to my parents and their parents and now it's happening to me. Naturally it often seems to the passing generation that the changes are for the worse, but whether that's actually the case or not, it's a sad thing.

This song is Dylan's farewell to the world he and I grew up in. Or rather to the America we grew up in. And it's a lament, which he hangs on the myth of the Kennedy assassination. I call it a myth because that event became almost immediately a symbol that was at least half-detached from the reality. I was never caught up in the Kennedy mystique--it wasn't a political thing, I guess I just don't care much for Glorious Leader cults. And I never thought much of the idea that the nation lost its innocence at his assassination, and so forth. (America innocent? Oh, come on.) But there is a kernel of truth there: there really was a sense of hope and expectation abroad in the land in the late '50s and early-to-mid '60s, and the assassination was a blow to it, and a symbol of its waning.

Over a quiet and somber background of piano and bowed bass, the song begins with the assassination and then begins branching out into cultural references. A little more than halfway through, it becomes a litany.

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Wolfman is requested to "play" one after another mid-century image: songs, movies, people.

Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play Blue Sky, play Dickie Betts
Play Art Pepper, play Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and All That Jazz
Play something for The Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel play Pretty Boy Floyd

The instrumentation grows slightly as it goes on, including a bass drum that sounds as big as a room. It's funeral music for a funeral song or poem, and I find it very moving. The thing about the times is, they never stop changing. 

Trump: Yes, No, Maybe

Three writers at National Review give their opinions on voting for him, or not. I hope these links work. They may be subscriber-only.

Yes: Andrew McCarthy

No: Ramesh Ponnuru

Maybe: Charles Cooke

Of the three, I'm most nearly in agreement with Cooke. However, unless something dramatic happens between now and November 3--and I can't imagine what that could be--I'm going to "vote for Trump." That is, I'm going to vote against Biden/Harris. 

It's a Scylla and Charybdis choice. As I may have said here in a comment a while back, I had been thinking of that analogy, but in a mistaken way. I was thinking that Ulysses somehow steered between them, and that our position is worse because we have to choose one or the other. But I was misremembering. Ulysses chose to steer closer to Scylla (monster), who would inevitably eat some of his sailors, rather than to Charybdis (whirlpool), which would result in the loss of the entire ship. 

So the analogy is actually precise. I think the damage that will almost inevitably be done by Trump is less than that which the Democrats actively intend.

It's not that I think Trump is a better man than Biden (I think they're both pretty sorry, actually). My great-grandfather was active in Pennsylvania politics as a Democrat, and his daughter, my great-aunt Ann, once told me that he advised her to forget the conventional counsel that one should vote for the man and not the party. On the contrary, he said, voting for (or against) the party is more important, because individual politicians come and go but the party persists and, at least in theory, shares your political principles, at least the most important ones. Here again it's a question of voting against: I don't want the Republican Party's principles, such as they are (whatever they are), to prevail, but I believe the Democrats as a party no longer believe in our form of government, but want to "fundamentally transform" it. I don't. That's a bigger problem and a deeper disagreement than anything involving specific policies. 

As Cooke says:

If the Democrats were sensible, I would likely sit this one out. But the Democrats are not sensible. The Democrats are threatening to blow up the American constitutional order in ways that would make President Trump’s execrable excesses seem quaint.