God Made Mud

Let’s complete our series honoring American writer Kurt Vonnegut on the 99th anniversary of his birth with another piece taken from his novel Cat’s Cradle.  In the world of this novel there’s an imaginary religion created called Bokononism whose elusive founder writes psalms and prayers that reference Caribbean musical styles. Even though Vonnegut never set music to them, he seemed happy that others did during his lifetime.*

Cat’s Cradle is still in print, so why not buy or read it? Also for the curious, here’s a nice “behind the making of the book” listicle

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The LYL Band, the loose organization of herded cats that Dave Moore and I have played under for about 40 years, performed several pieces using Bokonon’s psalms and other short passages we’d read in Vonnegut’s novels three days after his death was announced back in 2007. I wrote the music for these in that interim and did the vocals when they were performed “live in the studio” within two one-hour sets. As I mentioned in other episodes of this series, the performances aren’t perfect. For one thing, Dave is creating his keyboard parts on the fly after maybe hearing a quick run down and with nothing more than a chord chart. Given that I’m not a very good chord/rhythm player that’s a testament to him and what decades of playing together will do for a band. Another problem was that I was suffering from cold/allergies that day and my vocals had issues with congestion and phlegm.

I recorded those two sets, though I thought it a shame that my phlegm issues reduced the quality of the performances. Over the years since 2007 I’ve listened to those performances, and I found that I either had become inured to their sound or that the emotional moment of us honoring Vonnegut overcomes that.

“God Made Mud”  was the next to last song we did that day.** It’s probably the best of our Vonnegut Memorial stuff in terms of my vocals. “God Made Mud”  appears in Vonnegut’s novel as the text of “The Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith.”   The Bokononism that Vonnegut invented is used in the novel in various ways to satirize human nature and our search for meaning. For some readers — oddly enough, atheists and secure believers both — those insights into belief are the emotional core of the book. For those in non-Abrahamic religions, there are echoes of Buddhist teachings, intentional or otherwise, mixed in there too.

But by the time Vonnegut gets to “God Made Mud”  the sincerity of the final human situation, the miracle and the limits of our lives, completely overcomes the satire, and removed from the novel’s plot it moves me. It moved me then as we were performing it in the week of its author’s death, moved me later in consideration of other deaths and thoughts of gratitude for lives, and moves me again this autumn as I consider death and the approach of death by folks in my circle.

Click this highlighted hyperlink to hear the LYL Band’s performance of “God Made Mud”  —  or some of you may see a horizontal player gadget below this paragraph to play it. One last thing before I go: if you appreciate what this Project does and you think you know someone or some audience who might also appreciate these varied combinations of words and original music, help it continue by sharing links to the audio pieces or posts on social media or elsewhere. I almost never have the time to do that, and I’m bad at it anyway, so a good deal of this effort’s audience comes to it this way. Thanks!

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* Oddly, most of those settings that I’ve heard make no reference to Caribbean musical styles implied in Vonnegut’s imaginary Bokonon texts. One of those styles, calypso, has lost most of its currency in North America, but in today’s piece I used a reggae feel as a reasonable substitute.

**The last song back in 2007? Dave Moore’s own meditation on last things “The Final Minute,”  which we presented here this summer.

Vonnegut and Veteran’s Day, or The Children’s Crusade

Even before I was interested much in literature, I developed a love for history. Today’s Veteran’s Day post will only briefly touch on literature, and instead offer a slice of history. Older readers may think they know all this, or know it better than what I’ll write today. Some younger readers won’t care, but perhaps a few will learn something they didn’t read or hear elsewhere. As with any short piece, I’m going to need to leave out many things. While this post was not written intending to be a puzzle, I noticed that one thing was left out of this Veteran’s Day post. By that I don’t mean some opinion or judgement, or even some biographic item — I mean a particular significant historical Veteran’s Day fact that I expect few will notice is missing. When I reveal it late in the post, I’m also thinking you’ll take that elision as something to consider.

So, a bit over 50 years ago there was a war going on, the Vietnam War. The way it was presented then: our great geo-political rival had invaded another country and we were morally obligated to resist that aggression. This doesn’t seem to have been the case, at least not in any way that could be simplified as such. Another summary would be that Vietnam had invaded Vietnam, as it had been doing since the days of WWII, seeking to become an independent country. In the course of things, they succeeded, and now are one of those more or less unremarkable governments around the world that may be good or bad to their citizens in some mixture that we don’t generally concern ourselves with.

This obligation eventually led to a considerable number of American troops fighting in South-East Asia, but luckily the post WWII Baby Boom had raised a bumper crop of what were considered prime fighting age 20-year-olds. I was one of them. Even though this was a war, there were only so many troops that could be used. The amounts that could be used were filled to a significant degree by draftees, young people conscripted (other words: forced, obligated, duty-bound) to serve in the military, and since there was a war going on, some percentage of those draftees would be asked to kill other people or to be killed themselves.

To a surprising extent, this was not remarkable then. I can imagine how many living adults now find that odd, what with present controversies about wearing cloth masks and getting vaccinations — as not only were these conscripted men plausibly in for the kill/killed experience, they were also vaccinated forthwith and forced to wear entire uniforms. And yes, in certain training situations they were instructed in how to put on masks.

I can say that as a teenager in that crop of draft-age men then, I thought about this, and remarked on it. Others in my cohort did too. But there were whole days when one didn’t think about it, and instead thought about sex, fun, school deadlines, the price of a pizza, the general meaning of life and what that meant for you personally, and so on and so on. Still, it was an issue considered by the young.

But no, in general the adult country was fine with this, and even to observable empirical level it was not the biggest deal for a lot of my immediate cohort. You see, I was in college, a small one in a not very big town in Iowa, and because only a certain number of troops were needed, college students were given “deferments.” They didn’t need to serve while in school, and if this was a political post one could get into why that might be so. I’ll also add that dropping out of school, or failing out, or being short of tuition funds, or just deciding to take a gap year — those things would make the draft imminent for a college student — but for college 20-year-old men it wasn’t a next Thursday kind of worry, though it could be a next year one.

Now I and a few of my friends did think this was a bad thing, the war, the draft — oh, and a lot of other stuff: racism, what recreational drugs were legal, female students having “hours” where they had to be back in dorms by a certain time each night. The “we should do something about this” group was probably around 5% of the student body at my college in 1968.

Then in the spring of 1970 something happened that surprised me. The President made public (as if it was a new decision rather than a more substantial incursion that couldn’t be kept secret) that US troops were going to invade countries next to Vietnam. To those who had been paying less attention, this seemed a sign that this was maybe going to be around a lot longer, like past graduation, with more draftees needed. Opposition to the war on college campuses had been growing for about a year, and this gave it another bump, and on an obscure Ohio campus, Kent State, this boiled over (as it occasionally had elsewhere) into disorder and vandalism which wasn’t enough to cancel classes, but was enough for the National Guard to be sent in.

Something happened, likely a confused Guard squad, and the Guard opened fire, A bunch of students got shot, some were just walking between classes — because again, whatever disorder this was, classes were in session — four died.

Of course, I was appalled, but did that surprise me? Not greatly. Even in my youthful life there had been the drumbeat of the civil rights movement martyrs and assassinations of Presidents and Presidential candidates. In my crowd the fatal Chicago police shooting of Fred Hampton was considered duplicated multiple times against the Black Panthers. And in 1969 there had been a shooting death in the People’s Park confrontations.

Here’s what surprised me more. Not only around the country, but in my little Iowa college, much larger numbers of students thought something had to be done right now about this. One by one colleges and universities suspended normal operations and any number of alternative actions were taken that spring. This was called a strike. Here’s something little remarked on about male students choosing to do this for what was then an unknown duration in 1970: it could’ve led to them becoming subject to the draft.

Veterans Day 2021 2

There are no pictures available of my 1970 memories, so the guy on the left will have to stand in. The statue on the right is a clue to this post’s subsidiary riddle. The Nov. 11th born veteran Vonnegut tried to speak between generations.

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Ad hoc organization coalesced at my school and as I recall the one concrete action to “really do something” was to try to garner support for a federal bill that would restrict funding or expansion or authorization or some other matter regarding the war in SE Asia. The bill had been co-sponsored, or co-authored, or supported by one of Iowa’s Senators, Harold Hughes.*

Let me stop for a moment and get to a reason I’m writing this on a Veteran’s Day. Sometime, maybe a generation after these events, it became a commonplace that Vietnam war opponents, or college students, or hippies, or leftists, or some Sixties group hated soldiers in general. “In general” is a dodgy term, but I think it’s meaningful in this matter. I spent time with all those supposed soldier-hating groups, in both Iowa and New York (two fairly unlike places), and I never heard anything like that, not once. And it would have seemed so odd to me personally, that if I had heard it, I think I would have remembered it. And it wasn’t reticence or propriety that would have masked those feelings. Expressions against police were so common that I couldn’t count them then, much less now. And fairly soon, as early as 1971, I was running into ex-Vietnam era soldiers who could be put in those loosely defined groups above themselves.**

Back to working with this newly motivated group of Iowa college students who naively thought they had to do something right now about this expanding war. We were going to go door-to-door asking for folks to write letters in support of this bill. Now who takes point walking on a patrol, or even boring days painting what doesn’t move, or for that matter being under a napalm attack — this isn’t on that order (well, maybe the middle one is a little), but for some reason, I have memories of the few days I did this before leaving for New York. I believe now what we were doing was essentially meaningless, if the best we could come up with at the time.

In our door-knocking in town we might run into what was later called “The Greatest Generation.” Most said little to our spiel, but a couple of them, men, wanted to set us straight as to what we didn’t understand. Well, even then I suspected there were things I didn’t know, and now I can drop the suspected and replace it with certainty. The one I remember most vividly responded with a statement that I didn’t know what it was like to watch your buddies die.

I try to replay him saying that through the fog of the years. Although there was anger in it, I think it was a sincere personal statement. I often think since of what did that statement, however incongruous, mean? Did he mean that I should watch my buddies die? That that would be enlightening, educational? I don’t think so, no more than it was his considered opinion that such an experience had been worthwhile or ennobling for him. What he meant, putting my most empathetic interpretation on it, was that a certain sacrifice and commitment added something to one’s opinion on national matters.

More broadly though, his generational experience was why there was not a great deal of concern then, other than a slowly growing one among those of draft age, for the idea that young men could be conscripted to possibly kill or be killed. The Greatest Generation had faced the same sacrifice, and so this was normalized, not even Great yet, unexceptional. In the case of WWII good wasn’t a question, necessary was the question.

In those times, some in my generation eagerly latched onto WWII veteran Kurt Vonnegut’s books (and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22  as well) to portray everything else around the necessary part of WWII. They were our cross-generational allies in seeing and saying that war needed extraordinary necessity. Vonnegut even wanted to connect us 20-year-olds with his Dresden POW book Slaughterhouse Five,  subtitling it “The Children’s Crusade”  which had been a nickname for the 1968 US Presidential campaigning by folks often too young to vote for anti-Vietnam-war candidates, and which he then applied to the 18-20 year old range of his WWII cohort.

OK, what Veteran’s Day historical event did this old man leave out of the above story, dealing as it did with differences and connections between men serving in the Vietnam War era and those who wanted to end that war, and between 20-year-olds and the WWII generation then in middle age? I completed an entire first draft and didn’t notice it myself. And I’m not alone. American Veteran’s Day stories in 1970 and up until now almost always leave it out. It’s the Korean War. As with WWII, few living veterans of that war are left now, but it occurs to me that the fervent man at the door in 1970 could easily have been a Korean War vet. And in historical analysis, that war had as much or more to do with the missteps of the Vietnam War as WWII.

The musical piece today is another song from birthday-boy Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle” in which his trickster guru character Bokonon muses ontologically. You don’t have to look up the word to appreciate this little song. Player gadget below to hear it, and if you don’t see that, you can click this highlighted hyperlink.

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*I knew all those details then, even if I don’t remember them now. Harold Hughes is a little-remembered figure these days. Capsule description of Hughes: imagine if Johnny Cash had been a governor and then a U. S. senator. As to the general student feeling, I think it was close to how some people felt in the post-George Floyd murder reaction. The watchword was “We’ve got to do something.”

**Some of you may find this striking, The precipitating event of the college strikes of 1970 after all was men in military uniforms shooting and killing students, In this era, various acts were taken against what was considered part of the recruitment and processing of soldiers: draft boards, recruitment offices, ROTC buildings, that sort of place. I can’t know everything, but I never heard any of this characterized as “let’s go get those soldiers” and was more at “let stop more from being conscripted as soldiers.” Given human nature someone somewhere in 1970 may have said or thought that, but speaking of my experience: war-fighting soldiers were what we young men at that point increasingly feared being forced to become. Opinions differ on the nobility of those thoughts then and now, but we might have thought of cops differently if we knew that folks like us, and potentially us ourselves, might be forced to put on a police uniform.

The Great Machine (I Saw a Huge Steamroller)

Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut during this week that will mark the 99th anniversary of his birth allows two things to cross and connect, for he was born in 1922 on what would have been called Armistice Day then and will be called Veteran’s Day tomorrow in the US. Two decades later as a 20-year-old, he enlisted in the Army, served in WWII, and was rather famously a prisoner of war incarcerated in the German city of Dresden when it was subject to a massive firebombing raid from his own side.

As one might imagine that experience impressed itself mightily on Vonnegut, who as a writer eventually dealt with the matter in his best-known novel Slaughterhouse Five.  But that was not his first novel to deal with WWII. That would be 1962’s Mother Night.

Mother Night, like all of Vonnegut’s novels remains in print. Mother Night does contain satire, but I’m not sure that as the cover blub above advertises that this one will shake up your kaleidoscope of laughter.

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The short plot summary for Mother Night  is that it concerns the story of an American who was in Nazi Germany during the war, and who tells us that all-the-while working with American undercover efforts he made fulsome fascist propaganda broadcasts. This situation gives us all kinds of resonances: with important American Modernist Ezra Pound for example,*  with America’s own fascists, and with anyone who has ever found themselves working (for whatever reason) with a cause that they themselves feel they are not in alignment with.

The novel’s protagonist wrote “The Great Machine”  in the novel as a poem explaining how he and his beloved German wife had done what they felt was necessary to survive, and once again the novelist while in character allowed Vonnegut license to write poetry.

Abstracted from the novel, and as a stand-alone poem, it mentions nothing of the fascist double-life theme of Mother Night  however. Heard in this way, as the LYL Band performed it during the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007, “The Great Machine”  speaks instead to refugees trying to escape violent situations by whatever means they can muster. In such events it’s not uncommon for the “you really must understand” class of commentators to mention that the refugees should not be fleeing but should stay and try to counter the violence in their own countries. I don’t know if it’s absolutely required, but such commentators almost never seem to have been in similar situations themselves. In the saddest reportage in Vonnegut’s poem, it says that most people do not, in fact, flee in these situations, but ignorantly or fatalistically accept becoming victims of The Great Machine that is History.

After our first two installments of our Vonnegut series it’s gotten darker here, but you can hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem found in a novel with the player gadget below, or by clicking this highlighted hyperlink.

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*Living during the war in Italy, Pound (who had been attracted to outsider political ideas, not just fresh approaches to literature) made propaganda broadcasts for the Italian Fascists. Pound, as with several other Axis broadcasters from Allied countries, was arrested at the war’s end and faced charges of treason, with a possible death sentence. American literary figures helped lobby to have Pound instead declared insane, reducing his culpability. British humorist P. G. Woodhouse was in Germany during the war and made Axis broadcasts, which his literary admirers and defenders characterized as not propagandistic.

It’s easy for us at this remove to forget how close at hand these issues were when Vonnegut was working on his novel. WWII was as close as September 11 2001 and the wars that followed are to us now in 2021Oddly though, American fascism, which had been a considerable issue during the ‘30s and ‘40s and is again now, was considered something of a comic non-entity in the 1962 world of his novel.

Bokonon’s 53rd Calypso (Nice, Nice, Very Nice)

On to Kurt Vonnegut novels I have read and admired, as we continue this week’s Vonnegut series. In 1963’s Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut created one of the most elaborate satires I have ever read or heard of. What’s the target of the satire? I’d start to list them, but how much time do you have? What’s that you say?

“Busy, busy, busy…”

Well, let me talk a bit about Bokononism, a fictional religion created by Vonnegut as a Dadaist philosophical framework for this novel. I thought it a clever satire as a young man, but now as an old man I admire the richness of its contradictions and insights. Bokononism (named for its living, but elusive founder, Bokonon) is rich in meaningful/absurd contrasts. It’s said to have been invented by the West Indian sidekick of an accidental American imperialist* as an opiate of the masses for an impoverished Caribbean island nation. But not far under the cover of its optimistic and panegyric lies are sharp observations of life and how we think we make sense of it.

Instead of the Psalms of David, Bokonon wrote calypso songs. To many readers now calypso is but an obscure genre of Caribbean Afro-American music, but in the years immediately prior to Cat’s Cradle  it had had a fairly significant US commercial visibility. Here’s a complexity in this calypso moment: to the typical US listener at the end of the 50s the music was “read” as carefree and only moderately exotic and absurdist.** But to calypso’s originators on their colonial islands, it was a sly comment on oppressions and troubles.

Creating such a song-writing character was an excuse for Vonnegut to do what many novelists stuck on silent pages would love to do: dress up and pretend to be pop music performers, even if only in a novelist’s imagination. Cut Kurt some slack: that pretending allows us to use Vonnegut’s sensibilities in the short formats the Parlando Project prefers.

Over a decade later, this lyric escaped from the novel, and what was presented as the trickster guru Bokonon’s scriptural “53rd Calypso”  in the book had a  second life as a song lyric under the title “Nice, Nice, Very Nice.”  It made the American hit parade charts with this song by Ambrosia in 1975. Taken that way, it either can seem a simple, pleasing song; or a good reason in 1975 to form a punk band, without delay.


These guys wrote additional lyrics, sing better than I do, and were more concise in explaining Bokonon’s motivation for his religion “I wanted all things to make sense/So we’d be happy instead of tense” Still, I formed a punk band.

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Simple isn’t without complexities. All we have is one quatrain and a short refrain — “Be Bop A Lula”  is epic poetry compared to this. That one verse is a diverse catalog of the lowly and the high, the brave and the mundane, and the refrain wishes to claim they are part of the same “device” which rhymes with a repeated judgement that this is “nice.”

On one level this is a statement of shared humanity, and our connection. As complicated as the character of Bokonon is, I don’t think his creator Vonnegut would doubt the truth of that sharedness — but the “nice” and then too, the “device” part? There is the complex part of Vonnegut’s world-view.

Vonnegut portrays a world where kindness, love, and altruism are possibilities – no, necessities. Everything that is not those things exists too. We are all in a net of “butterfly effects” — even then in the novel’s 1963, even more so now in 2021. Is the world “nice?” In moments and pin-points it is. Let’s acknowledge that. In totality? “Busy, busy, busy” is said to be what a Bokononist says whenever they try to consider the complexity, the world’s intended and unintended awe of incomprehensibility. The implication: too complex to understand, to control.

At this point, in an earlier draft of this post I then tried to synthesize these things in my conclusion, but I don’t believe the book ever does, and certainly this little song that I present today doesn’t.  So, let’s move on. Busy, busy, busy.

This song, performed in the same live set, back in the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007 by the LYL Band, is unusual among the several musical settings I’ve since heard for it — I actually aimed for a calypso feel for the melody and groove, while others don’t. These 2007 performances I’ll use this week are each imperfect in some way, but as we approach the 99th anniversary of Vonnegut’s birth, it’s my hope that they still express some of his spirit.

There’s a player gadget for some to hear “Bokonon’s 53rd Calypso”,  but if you don’t see it, tap this highlighted hyperlink.

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*The very idea of accidental or coincidental imperialism is rich in itself. Even the minor threads in Cat’s Cradle  are often like that.

**Just as I’m not much of an expert on the novel and its expressions, I can’t allow anyone to think of me as some expert on West Indian musical genres and political movements. But I am old enough to recall a bit about how the music was used and understood by white-Eurocentric-American culture circa 1960 — roughly, a darker-skinned Jimmy Buffett kind of thing. Some may recall a signal use in the goth-comedy Beetlejuice  where the uptight urban sophisticates in a New England farmhouse were possessed and cursed to sing “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song),”  which had been a big US hit in the late 50s. It’s an extraordinarily silly scene. I laugh at it. Vonnegut could (should) draw laughs too, but he is using a deeper, darker, slyer take on calypso.

Calypso’s use first by the American pop music industry, and then by white US filmmakers, as well as Vonnegut’s use of it in Cats Cradle  could be viewed as cultural appropriation — I’d guess because it is. How would actual people of Trinidad/Tobago view Vonnegut’s reflection of their adaptation of African songcraft in a new colonialist world? I’d expect the opinions would vary, but I haven’t found anything on a simple web search.

I’ll let them judge Vonnegut in that regard. I’m an American musician, so I will not throw the first Rolling Stone from a country whose music is unique significantly because of kidnapped Afro-Americans. I feel that restricting art and tactics that oppose oppression only to each group who could claim ownership and a first, best understanding of them reduces the powers of resistance.

Hello Babies

Today I’m going to start a short series here celebrating Kurt Vonnegut, a writer generally filed under “novelist” on bookshelves.

Most of the words this project uses started out as poetry, and poetry is a form of literature. So, one might assume that I’ve read a lot of novels. I haven’t. I’ve set no ban against the form, and I’ll read one or two a year, but the ones I read aren’t usually considered great literature. Essays, poetry, poetry collections, biographies (and less commonly memoirs), non-fiction accounts long and short, historical and current — my reading dance-card is full, and at my age I’m not sure I’ll ever rebalance my reading investments.

As he aged, Vonnegut apparently fell out with the conventional ideal of the novel too. Even some of his earlier novels had elements in opposition to long fiction either literary or popular as generally considered, and so his reputation as a “great writer” or as a “best seller” were both constrained.

Luckily for this project, which likes to combine words with music in various ways, and prefers short, condensed forms of expression for that, Vonnegut is very quotable. Fictional characters who are quote collections and makers of short speeches are not the stuff of literary esteem, but then the results have other uses. Today’s piece is an infant-baptismal litany that a character in one of Vonnegut’s earlier novels* proposes to give, and it’s become one of Vonnegut’s most remembered and requoted passages.

For all his literary eccentricities and opinions, Vonnegut and his novel does remain in print.

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The performance here, and probably the rest in the series to follow, was performed live in one-take by the LYL Band on April 15th 2007, the week that Vonnegut died, and these presentations are taking place in the week of the 99th anniversary of his birth. All these performances are imperfect in one way or another, but at least for me I still hear the emotions in-between the notes as Dave Moore and I made note of a departed writer’s spirit. Today’s piece was the first one we preformed that day.

A player gadget for “Hello Babies”  is below for some of you, but not everyone reads this blog in ways that display that, so I offer this highlighted hyperlink which will also play this short performance.

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*The Vonnegut novel this passage appears in is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,  which I must confess I haven’t read. I say that just as a matter of honesty, not as a review or recommendation which I’m obviously not qualified to give. I suspect I’d like it when and if I get around to it. For counterpoint, here’s a review, contemporary with the novel’s publication, from the New York Times were the reviewer proves a maxim that I often repeat here: “All artists fail.”