Archive for the ‘literature’ Category
One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”
From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life, I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.
A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.
If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.
But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version of “The Minstrel Boy.”
It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.
So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:
The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”
Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.
One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:
The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of them modestly disappeared behind their creation.
While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.
And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song, but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together. Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.
Thinking a little more about our friend Greg Smith who just quit his job at Goldman Sachs, it occurred to me that Smith must have a very short memory. He claims that Goldman used to have a “culture” that “revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” But when exactly was this? He started at Goldman Sachs 12 years ago, in 2000. But thirteen years before that, in 1987, Tom Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities (25 years ago now!). Four years later, in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis came out with American Psycho. Both novels parody (or celebrate, depending on your point of view, the arrogance, materialism, and overall douchebaggery of Wall Street. The main character in Bonfire, a white Wall Street trader named Sherman McCoy, thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe” (and not the He-man variety, which would have been awesome). In American Psycho, the protagonist, investment banker Patrick Bateman, is driven to a psychopathic murderous rampage (or is he?) because intense elitism and douchebaggery of the corporate culture. No humility there. Heck, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, which some capitalists curiously misinterpret as a celebration of the financial sector, is in fact a criticism of the Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality that was rampant during the 1980s, including, I’m sure, at places like Goldman Sachs.
So yes, the fierce douchbaggery of the financial sector is nothing new, nor is the reputation for pulling a fast one on clients and committing either outright fraud or legal manipulation of unsuspecting customers. Greg Smith should have known that, and could have known that from simply cracking a fun book or watching a fun movie like American Psycho (I doubt there’s an investment banker alive who hasn’t seen that movie). But if the pop culture history isn’t enough, Smith can read this op-ed by William D. Cohan, which documents how
Goldman Sachs has been in and out of trouble throughout its 143 years — chiefly because it chose to put its own interests before those of its clients. What appeared to be a revelation to Smith was actually available to anyone who looked for it, buried deep within Securities and Exchange Commission and court records. Smith could have saved himself grief if he had only used his Stanford education to examine Goldman’s DNA before crossing its threshold.
Cohan’s article, titled “Goldman Sachs’s Long History of Duping its Clients,” focuses on one incident in particular, the June 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central Transportation Company, the nation’s largest railroad.” According to Cohan, Goldman Sachs has been screwing over clients since at least 1928. I read the article. Now I think I’m gonna buy Cohan’s book, Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. Greg Smith and all the other former and current financiers should probably read it too.
Still, despite my criticism here, let me re-emphasize that I applaud what Greg Smith has done. Even if his op-ed read a bit like a resume, he still did a good thing. Quitting was the right move, and telling people how sleazy Goldman Sachs has become, even if it, like all the other banks and hedge funds out there, have actually been that sleazy all along, is an extremely important message to get out there. It’s especially important coming from the inside. If it inspires others to quit, or to avoid applying in the first place, it will be a greater accomplishment, and a greater mitzvah, than even winning a gold medal in ping pong at the Maccabiah Games.
Growing up in Canada, I was never required to read Mark Twain, so I never did (I do remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where he appears as Samuel Clemens though). With the controversy surrounding the editing of the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I’ve decided to go out and read it. I’ve also realized that as someone who aspires to teach American history, this particular controversy is rather important to me. I know I don’t support the changing of the text, but I do think that teaching the “n-word” is difficult, no matter what the race of the students or teacher. With that, I link to this outstanding essay from Autumn 2005 issue of The American Scholar, “Teaching the N-Word,” by University of Vermont English professor Emily Bernard. Here’s a taste:
Over the next 30 minutes or so, Eric and I talk about “nigger.” He is uncomfortable; every time he says “nigger,” he drops his voice and does not meet my eyes. I know that he does not want to say the word; he is following my lead. He does not want to say it because he is white; he does not want to say it because I am black. I feel my power as his professor, the mentor he has so ardently adopted. I feel the power of Randall Kennedy’s book in my hands, its title crude and unambiguous. Say it, we both instruct this white student. And he does.