America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.

 

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Implications of Fireworks

Today in the United States is Independence Day, a day celebrated with summer cookouts and fireworks explosions. Like many obligatory holidays in our modern age, what we are celebrating becomes obscure. Yes, Americans know it’s Independence Day, but what we think of as we celebrate is a mélange of things.

What makes up this celebratory mixture? We celebrate the warmth of summer, particularly here in the northern parts of the US where eating outside is a special season. Our children are celebrating what still seems like an endless summer away from school. Stores have banners of firecrackers and flags luring shoppers who have the day off from work. And we celebrate a diffuse patriotism affordable because America is a preeminent, powerful nation. Our modern patriotism is not short of convictions—far from it, our country is prominently divided by convictions—but that too is possible by the relative wealth and power of today’s America.

signing the declaration

“Yes, treason against the crown and the divine right of kings, and we could all hang tomorrow,
but  can I add a part about dispensing with the noisemakers? I could use a little sleep tonight.”

But the event we are celebrating is a sharp and definite thing. 241 years ago a group of Americans started an anti-colonial movement, and in the furtherance of that, they soon were to found the first modern republic. Those who did this many years ago perhaps did not know, or even think of themselves as anti-colonialists. Some merely had issues with particular colonial authorities and decisions. Some were indeed bound up in an immense evil of colonialism, human slavery exploiting yet other peoples and nations. Still, we should seek to understand them as their idea became understood through the Declaration of Independence they signed today: that the rights of kings and empires were not heaven’s design—rather, human rights were.

And as their rebellion against kings and empires evolved, it strikingly lead—not to the setup of a new king, or a new, locally-sourced strongman—but to a new form of government, a republic. Once again, these were not perfect men—their government “Of the people, for the people” was at first for white male men of property—but they were men of such devotion to the republican idea that they would not let even the worthiest of their lot become king. That was unprecedented, and even in all the time since, not one in ten or one in a hundred rebellions immediately ends in such a way.

I know not all who read this are Americans, but those are the two remarkable things that we celebrate here in my country today. And of these two things, the second is the most rare, and the thing we must take care to carry within us: that winners are not rightfully kings.

That reminds me, there was another Independence Day tradition, one that has fallen by the wayside: the patriotic speech in the town square. I guess I’ve just revived that. Today’s audio piece is based on another text by Dave Moore, but it’s my music and performance of it. When I asked Dave about “Implications of Fireworks”  a few years back, he indicated it was more or less a diary of his impressions of a July 4th he had experienced. As filtered by Dave’s mind that day, those holiday explosions, cracks, and meat smoke brought different, less celebratory, feelings. If our independence was won with cannon and gun fire—if it’s maintained today by the same, and also with bombs made of seeds of sunfire—it is also must be maintained by, and be for, something more than that.

To hear my performance of Dave Moore’s “Implications of Fireworks” use the player below.

A New Colossus

The end of the poem I feature today (“A New Colossus”)  has become, slowly, over years, a sort of fourth American credo to go with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and yet it’s only its last lines that are widely known, thanks in part to a lovely musical setting of that part of the poem by popular songwriter Irving Berlin.

As a person who has edited other works for length to fit them into the focus of the Parlando Project, I can see why Berlin made his choice. The ending is  the payoff of the poem, a charged and memorable statement.  Most poets could only hope for as much as this: that many readers or listeners will remember at least a line or two of of what they wrote, even after hearing it but once.

The Old Colossus

Look, I know it’s a marvel of  classical Greek engineering,
but as an American. I think Jolly Green Giant and peas.

I am going to present the whole poem in my setting however. It’s only a sonnet, a 14 line poem after all, and there’s some good stuff in the setup. First off, it’s an independent American poem to its core, starting by dissing the glories of ancient European culture and one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” And its author, Emma Lazarus, also stands forthrightly for the power of women to express a controversial political opinion, though this poem was written in the 19th Century when women had no right to vote.  Although this is not a modernist poem, such as those that would be written 40 or 50 years later, the lesser-known part of the poem contains one powerful compressed image, a flame of fiercely desired freedom that is “imprisoned lightning.”

Emma Lazarus

For Emma, Forever Ago. David Bowie was thinking of her in his last work “Lazarus”

Honoring that lightning image, I’ve chosen to not present this piece as a musty patriotic homily, but as the impassioned cry that it was meant to be—and besides, the sentiments of this poem are likely now as controversial as ever. Irving Berlin presented the excerpted ending as a chorus of hope. I take the whole of it and storm it with Telecasters, drums and bass.

To hear the audio piece, use the player that appears below.