The Greatest Generation, or Thomas W. Higginson lands on Omaha Beach

I appreciate the attention readers here give to what I present, and so I’m going to warn you: this is a longer piece covering some historical topics that have not been as popular here as others. I plan to be back soon with a shorter post and  I promise a love poem set to music. Thanks for your attention and spreading the word about the Parlando Project. I value that!

Today is the anniversary of the WWII allies’ D-Day invasion of Northern Europe, and as each anniversary gets later the tributes to the sacrifices and courage of those who waded onto the beach amid the gun and cannon fire grow more glowing.

As one of America’s diverted poets once said, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” And I say this knowing that this will likely be one of the least-read posts here. The audience for a blog about encounters with poetry and music is not a martial audience by and large. Even a poem like Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  recently presented here—a poem that is about war, though not really about battle or courage or warrior feats—will end up being one of the least noticed, read, liked, and listened to.

I speculatively assign that response—and the lessor response other stark war poems have received—to a number of things: that old battles are yesterday’s newspapers—or as we might say these days, just newspapers; that one of the things we might look for in the arts is a respite from, or at least a beautiful decoration for violent and horrific events. I’m casting no shade on you who have paid with your attention to what we do here for that—or your other judgements on the work we present. After all, I make those judgments myself all the time for my own reasons.

So now, having sincerely bowed to both those who were in the water on June 6th 1944 and you, dear reader and listener, I will diverge.

There is no Greatest Generation,* never was. Too much is assigned to generations, and if widely shared experiences and common events current to lifetimes has some glue to hold an aggregate together, extending “generations” to inner character and intrinsic resources of their membership, virtues and vices conferred merely from birth years is simplistic nonsense that should never be relied on.

I suspect wiser users of the term would correct me and say they do not mean that when they use the term, they mean the great things the WWII generation endured and did. Yes, I join them, there is value in noting that.

But one thing that literature teaches us, by doing its basic trick of letting us experience someone else’s life, is that the good and bad in human character and the challenges brought to bear on us are not unique to time and place. Are the challenges of WWII greater than the challenges of those of the trench soldiers of WWI that this project has featured? Are the privations of the Great Depression, followed by another World War and the following challenges of nuclear peace after great destruction worse than the challenges of 19th century American slavery followed by a Civil War followed by the continuing existence of a continent-wide republic after such trauma?

An Internet discussion mentioning these things often leads to claims and counter-claims of greatest evil: slavery, colonialism (which should include our “internal” American colonialism inflicted on our indigenous population), The Holocaust, Stalinism’s mismanagement, gulags and secret police, Pol Pot, and other evils whose incidental lack of notoriety should give them no cover. I’m sure there are appreciable differences in them, things philosophers could construct evaluative frameworks on. Don’t bother to comment or look for a poll feature to vote on the Greatest Evil or any generation associated with it. This will not be my point.

My point is: you, particularly the younger of those that read this, are the only generation that matters. If I need a silly name for you, a souvenir hat to show that you belong to this, then I’ll swallow my pendant’s pride and call you “The Greatest Generation.”

Do I want my own son, or you, to advance into shore batteries over an open beach or to try to hold Little Round Top without ammunition left? Do I wish it to be necessary to risk mobs, the bullies of privilege, or jail to secure basic freedoms? No, of course not. Nor can I be sure you will figure out what level of forgiveness and generosity vs. justice and retribution will succeed in the peace that all wars fail into. I would rather you figure out how to secure the things warriors were putting their lives in bond for without the war.

So why do I include these poems about war here? Here’s one reason, a personal one: I too often hear that arts and poetry in particular are a trivial activity, the first thing to be dispensed with when “reality” comes to call. And the arts in general, it’s said, aren’t they about vanity? Well, some of those warriors wrote, made and listened to songs. There were readers in foxholes. Call it pleasure, hope or need, some will hold onto poetry and music in any extremis.

And even the arts skeptics give us this: they pull those things out, music and poetry, for the funerals and anniversaries. Can we also realize that some of us hold to these things in life as well?

And here’s the more general reason: reading and listening to literature may remind you that those who pushed forward and those who opposed every good and bad thing are not historical figures, they have no powers or weaknesses because of the year they were born, no more than you do. They lived and died in their Imagist instant, just as you do, weighing duty, possibility, weakness, strength, love, hate, pretense, modesty, anger, resolve, justice and mercy. Seeing, doing, maybe not knowing. Literature shows us that all these things existed in each generation, gives us the evidence of what they feel like, how they exist, side-by-side.

That’s sort of like a poem may be. Those soldiers heading for the beach, like the words alone in a poem could not know fully what they meant. I do not mean by this a romantic claim that art or poetry equals their indominable authorial intent. There’s no measure of their last full measure, something we use art to teach ourselves. And anyway, as a working method our diverted poet settled that issue in his Gettysburg Address too, but chose to do it in his orated poem.

That said, now let me justify the post’s title. I’ve continued to read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s writing this week, particularly his 1899 memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays.  Higginson is mostly known today as a footnote—kind of like the record company guy who passed on signing the Beatles—as the man in publishing who Emily Dickinson reached out to with a handful of poems and who then corresponded with her over a period of years when she was writing her groundbreaking poetry. Why didn’t he know right away what was on offer literature-wise with Dickinson?

I’ll confess I started his memoir in the middle, and I will now go back and read the start. From its “cheerful” title you may not have a good handle on its matter. It’s both breezy and polite and gripping and harrowing, a strange mix. I knew Higginson was (among other things) a slavery Abolitionist, and because of what he calls “The Sisterhood of Reforms” that he was involved in other social movements, including Feminism/Women’s rights. It’s in the middle, where I came in, that I learned about just what kind of Abolitionist he was.

Abolition included Fabian elements that sought to corral this basic evil legally and eventually end it, non-violent radicals and self-described “agitators” who put their lives on the line but would not morally take another’s life, and the “by any means necessary” crowd. The later was were Higginson lived, at least after 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. He was part of (seems to have been a principle in, though he characteristically refrains from claiming leadership) the Boston Vigilance Committee that sought to prevent captured slaves from being returned to their masters as that law required, and he grippingly relates his first hand participation in trying to prevent the last government-assisted attempt in Boston to do that, which includes his plan for a lightning strike by a cadre including himself on the city jail, where the enslaved man was held. The plan counted on an agitated mob in the streets as cover—a crowd who would be motivated to cause a ruckus by his own rable-rousing speech at Faneuil Hall, from where he would dash to the jail to lead the break-in!

Following chapters detail his organizing and gun-running during the “bloody Kansas” guerilla war fought around a plebiscite to decide if the new state would allow slavery, and his joining the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry conspiracy that he says was portrayed to him at first as an armed extension of the Underground Railroad, where a coordinated “jailbreak” of slaves would be accomplished, but which due to lack of funds and organizational ability became what was to be the opening battle in a general slave rebellion which disastrously failed. Particularly in the Brown story, Higginson’s quick-moving/hit the highlights narrative style seems an odd fit with the material. He’s sometimes ambiguous about Brown, and from his vantage point decades after the Civil War and Brown’s execution, he remarks that Brown’s outlook and mental state may have been compromised by Brown’s years in the struggle—but the events say that at the time he was putting himself at risk of felony imprisonment or even a charge of treason with only the surety of his faith in Brown and the necessity of his cause. During much of these activities, Higginson mentions that he was armed, and though he never mentions firing at anyone, presumably he wasn’t carrying pistols for sport.

If your vision when you have read the tale of Higginson in the Dickinson saga is of a rarefied literary critic whose wars were “laid away in books” you’ve understood him too quickly.

When the Civil War breaks out in 1861, the 38-year-old Higginson is raring to serve. He begins working to recruit soldiers almost immediately.* Within a year, he’s tasked with leading the first Afro-American regiment in the U.S. Army, which he takes up gladly.

This explains the oddest part of his rambling, Polonius-like  1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor”  magazine article that is often thought to have inspired Emily Dickinson to write Higginson. Near the end Higginson launches into a discussion of war as a subject for writing and a vocation for writers.

No doubt, war brings out grand and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment.”

This seems like a combination of distain for the difficulties of military command (from a man who had already risked his own life and engaged in concerted acts which led to the death of others) and a bit of a backhanded and Americanized version of “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” line. But at the time this article was published, that was what Higginson was preparing to do. He was heading to South Carolina to take over that regiment of freed slaves.** Read in that knowledge it seems a bit like he’s trying to psych himself up for the task, or that someone has told him those things to convince him to go forward with the commission.

So, the first thing my wife asks when I tell her I’m reading Higginson’s memoir, is one you may be asking too. “Does he mention Emily Dickinson?” In this 1899 memoir, he does not. Due in some part to Higginson himself, the posthumous 1890 original edition of a large chunk of Dickinson poetry was an unexpected, multi-printing success, but this didn’t make Dickinson what she is today: one of the giants of American poetry. The “unexploded bomb” of Emily Dickinson took almost a century to explode slowly. She’s just one author he worked with, and since he knew many of the literary figures of the day, Dickinson wouldn’t be the only notable to mention. He knew Longfellow and Emerson, spent a day with the reclusive Tennyson, all persons of unfathomable fame then.

Suppose a 20th century music figure who knew Bob Dylan, had met all the Beatles, and worked with Stevie Wonder, while also having run with the Weathermen, the Panthers, fought with Che Guevara and was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, was to write a memoir in 1999. How assuredly must there be a paragraph in that imaginary book that started. “Oh, by the way, one time, Joni Mitchell*** wrote me some letters. I wrote back asking if all those open-tunings were really necessary?”

But even without hypothetical metaphors, it does say something about the attention Higginson spent on an unknown woman poet’s poems in 1862. We might say, with hindsight: too little. But with the above context, we may be surprised at the attention he did  pay.

Back to metaphor: instead of taking the usual story of the boneheaded critic and the revolutionary artist, we might ask if someone was training to parachute into occupied France in 1944 to work with partisans,**** why would he care about poetry? Higginson apparently did.

If you’re a buff about 19th Century American history and culture, particularly the Abolitionist circle around Boston, Cheerful Days  is a brisk read and is available in the books section of archive.org. As I mentioned in introducing it, its tone is somewhat incongruous considering the deadly American crisis at its center, but no matter how much Higginson may be trying to shape his story modestly and discretely, it still gives insight to the times. I say that even though if you don’t have a basic understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War if may be confusing to you in places, as Higginson assumes some common knowledge of things his cohort lived through.

 

*Military recruitment at the start of the American Civil War was a much more localized and “free-enterprisey” kind of thing, and his connections with armed slavery resistance and the Kansas war meant he already knew who was ready to take up arms.

**Not yet citizens, not yet even really “freed” as the compromise taken at this point in the war before the Emancipation Proclamation was to treat slaves who crossed the lines as “contraband of war,” a term, however dehumanizing, that prevented them from being returned to their masters.

***I use Joni Michell pointedly here. Like Dickinson, she was considered a niche artist held in limited esteem in the 1990s. and only decades later is she more fully recognized for the level of originality and effectiveness in her work.

****Once more, I’m making a considered point here. Officers of Afro-American troops were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but to be summarily executed by decree of the Confederate government. In his memoir Higginson says he didn’t think they’d really do that.

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Beach Burial

In the United States this is a long holiday weekend, ending with Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who died in wars. Other countries have similar days, but in the US it has largely become the embarkation point for the joys of summer. Yes, oh yes,  there are those who have specific and somber memories in Memorial Day, but despite our generally observed notion of honoring all who fought in our wars on our side, whatever the war, for whatever the reasons, this day, set aside for those who gave their lives, may include only brief offerings to them.

Intentional death, for whatever reason, is a complex subject. Perhaps it’s best if we don’t think about this unless we’re really ready to think about it. There are so many questions, some of which I have no answers for even after a long life, and even if I did have answers, what matters more (if you are younger than me) is your  answers—and what you do while waiting for answers.

Is it always “Sweet and proper to die for one’s country?” Note, we know that phrase from Latin, written as it was by Ovid. It’s used in several English-language poems, often still in Latin, as it is engraved over an entrance to the U. S. Arlington National Cemetery: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  So, it’s not an American phrase,* not even written knowing what America was!

Oddly Memorial Day comes out of Decoration Day when the graves of the dead from both sides of the American Civil War were visited and decorated by those who lived through that war, honoring those who, as in all civil wars, were seeking to kill their own countrymen.** That’s a complicated act, is it not?

So, it’s perhaps understandable that for many of us our outdoor grilling, our sports and play of summertime, our readying for graduations and vacations are not deeply troubled by the Memorial in Memorial Day, as huge and final as those sacrifices are, for those sacrifices are both simply total—and complicated.

Today’s piece doesn’t use words by an American either, it’s by Australian Modernist poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, and it comes from observations he made while serving as a war correspondent accompanying Australian ground troops during the battle of El Alamein during WWII.***  I believe it to be a masterful poem by a writer too-little known outside of Australia.

Kenneth Slessor war corespondent

Kenneth Slessor as the official Australian WWII war correspondent

 

I could go into it line by line and point out what Slessor does that makes this poem work, but I also believe “Beach Burial”  needs only your attention to make itself felt.

I’ll add only one thing, though I’ve long lost the notes to where I found it. Some other explications of “Beach Burial”  are puzzled or make out the nakedness of the bodies as only metaphorical. The account that I read said that the sea-torn bodies from the burned and sunk ships that were washing up were indeed naked or nearly so, and that this was part of the effect Slessor chose to make with his poem and account, that the men doing the hasty burials in the midst of battle could not tell friend from foe from non-combatant.

Still they probably understood, as Slessor did, that some of those they were burying were their mortal enemies. It they, or you, were to think about the moment in Slessor’s poem, it’s complicated. This is an example of the sort of act I speak of above, things you might do while you are waiting for answers.

As it happens, today’s audio piece is an older live LYL Band performance recording from before the Parlando Project got underway. I hear some imperfections in it that are different than the imperfections I still hear in more recent pieces, but perhaps a different sort of imperfection will seem fresh to you. The player gadget to hear the LYL Band performance of Kenneth Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  is below. The text of the poem, for those that want to read along is here.

 

 

 

*One American phrase, made famous in the movie Patton  as spoken by the titular general is “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

**I’m sorry, but I must add that one side was fighting of course for the chattel slavery of other of their countrymen. This doesn’t make the acts of these early Decoration Days less complicated, only more so.

***And I point out, one side in this battle was aligned with the cause of an odious tyranny that sought to extract via meticulous death and slave labor the lives of many, due to some crackpot racist nationalism. That doesn’t make this poem less effective, it makes it more so.

A Letter to Those Who are About to Die

Certainly not the most self-love inspiring/invest me with hope/promise to give me beauty title for a poem. Mid-century American poet Kenneth Patchen could supply those sorts of things, but in his first book, Before the Brave  published in 1936, he was looking around him, and the things he saw and felt were ominous.

In that collection and this poem, Patchen seems militant and politically committed in tone, though the poems seem too immediate to the times for me to fully decode his advocacy. “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die”  indicates something’s coming, but it doesn’t simply say what. Violent revolt or revolution? Another World War? State-run oppression? Radical social change? If we study history, we know that it turned out to be some all of that. By the time Patchen was writing “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die,”  the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China were at hand or a few months away. Hitler was firmly in power in Germany. America was in economic crisis—and if you were poor, black or another ethnic minority perhaps only a generation away from another country that might be equally troubled, your life was now doubly challenged.

Kenneth Patchen 1939

A photo of the young Kenneth Patchen in the 1930s

 

I know the later Patchen, the pacifist, the poet of love, the painter of illuminated outsider pages, but this was an angrier voice, more desperate than I expected. He was all of 24 and he’d just found the love of his life—but this wasn’t a newlywed world of hope. Could we look back from our perch informed by 20th century history and say he was wrong, that he was over-reacting? No. The ovens, the bombs, the death marches, the battle beaches, the truncheons, the gulags, the lynchings, the public gunshots.

Someone called Patchen’s mid-century cohorts The Greatest Generation. They fought for and against these things, perhaps in roughly equal numbers, and there are claims in all alignments that some of the above list of horrors were necessary to defeat some others also of the above. Objective history can tell us this all happened, even if it can’t speak with one voice on which horrors were justified. As far as I know, Patchen was against all of those horrors, which made him an outsider in his generation. Idealist? Naïve? An individual who opted out from being blamed for history?

I’ve been taken this spring by a song of Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless.”  Bird’s an artist that I’ve previously admired more than I’ve wanted to listen too, but this song has a laid-back Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye groove and heart that I can’t deny, with lyrics about the poets exploding like bombs “And it feels like 1936 in Catalonia.” That feels, in my present, like today’s Patchen poem.

 

Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless” official video.

 

So, even with that title that refuses to be attractive, I’m willing to give Kenneth Patchen a read and a performance, and you may be willing to give it a listen.*

Musically, my band and voice aren’t going to be keeping Andrew Bird awake on those nights when it’s music and not the parallels of the Spanish Civil war that interrupts his sleep. However, Patchen is one of those pioneers in combining spoken/chanted poetry with jazz-influenced American music, including collaborations with John Cage and Charles Mingus and a series of LPs with other musicians issued in the ‘50s. I do not expect or wish to frighten the ghosts of Cage and Mingus, only to honor their, and Patchen’s, independent spirit. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. There is no easy place to read the text of this poem on the Internet, but this link may work for those that want to read along.

 

 

 

 

*By coincidence, the Poem-a-Day from poets.org today is by Fatimah Asghar titled I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What we’ve Done to the Earth,”  which title probably equals Kenneth Patchen’s in click-through rate, even though the poem itself might ask us to read the title after the poem rather than before. I sat in a bakery this week and overheard two older white guys, looked my age or a bit younger, discussing the ridiculousness of fears like unto Bird’s and Fatimah Asghar’s these days in America. I wonder what Kenneth Patchen would say if he were to stop by?

The Death of Richard Wilbur, A Difficult Balance

It was only days ago here that I was remarking that Richard Wilbur was still alive while talking about the roughly half-portion of dead white men in a collated list of the most anthologized modern American poems. His poem “Love Calls Us to Things of This World”  written in the middle 1950s was one of that list, and one of the few I had no memory of having read.

Richard Wilbur 1950s

The modest house, the pipe, the tweed jacket, the Brylcreem hair with the straightest furrow—
Richard Wilbur impersonating the 1950s so that we don’t have to

 

So of course I read it, and rather enjoyed it. You could do the same via the hyperlink. There are a few things in it that one might quibble about, the heightened language (even if that is undercut by its over-riding conceit, a meditation on hanging laundry) including words that stop the modern colloquial speaker, such as “halcyon,” and the brief but passing use of rape for an image which causes me a concerned pause and objection now. There need be nothing censorious about such thoughts, as they are about the writer with his peculiarities, his time, and his blinders. They might remind me of my own limits in these regards.

The obituaries point out a controversy over Wilbur that, like his poetry, I was not much aware of. He was increasingly thought out of touch with the later 20th Century with his, on the face of it, impersonal outlook, his wit in place of rage and heated vision, and his devotion to a classic verbal music of accentual/syllabic meter.

All that may be so. Like I said, I’m generally unfamiliar with Wilbur’s poetry. But let me bring up some possible approaches from our current century, now nearly matured to voting age, to query those opinions from the 20th Century. The first is, how much do we need our poets to act as the shaman and feel for us?  Does such a need say that we ourselves cannot feel or imagine adequately, or that we cannot validate or understand our feelings and visions until demonstrated by the artist? I do not know a complete answer for this. I know that artists expressions seem to have helped me clarify and understand visionary and intense things, but I also think that the lens of wit makes clear the limits of our perceptions and emotions. Is the ecstatic visionary who can make real and palpable the dark shapes outside the fire-circle the wise one, or is the wise one the one who sees clearly that we cannot see far into the darkness and are apt to stub our toes on rocks if we think otherwise? Can only the former move us to action, can only the later keep us from recognizing foolish action?

I don’t think I know the answers, though I do think I see some of the questions. Just yesterday I wrote about how one of the  Parlando Project mottos “Other People’s Stories” shows a paradox. I feel it’s interesting—no, I’ll go farther—it’s important for us to experience other people’s subjective experience, to inhabit it to the degree we can. To do that, I’ve chosen to predominantly present other writers’ self-expression here—but to do that, I rely on others who interestingly express their own subjective experience. So, in a sense, I require others to not follow one of the principles that my artistic project goes by.

That brings up another Parlando Project principle: “Various Words with Various Music.”  Does not soft and consonant music not sound softer and more consonant when considered in the context of loud or discordant music (and vice versa)?  To fully have either, you must have both. Wilbur may have seen enough darkness to look for truth where the light is, to try to see, as his poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” concludes, a “Difficult balance.”

These Fought

The lives, outside of art, of artists bear only a mysterious resemblance to their work. The concentration of time that must be brought to creating work drains many a writer’s life of incident. And so, an artist like Emily Dickinson can lead an outwardly constrained life while creating an inward empire. Or the man who would eventually be charged with the establishment of the first modern democratic republic could be, as a teenage poet, a love-struck supplicant. Nor does general good character align with artistic success—saints can write bad poetry and flawed people may write good poetry.
 
Today’s post features the words from an American who as much as any single person launched Modernist poetry in English. His associates and admirers, added to his detractors and opponents, make up an encyclopedia of 20th Century English literature. In the first part of the 20th Century, some of them would be profoundly influenced by his artistic ideas, and some would even be directly edited or personally mentored by him. One hundred years ago, in 1917, Carl Sandburg would say of him:

“All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends up with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.”

Pound would live more than another half a century after this, his literary revolution flowing outward until few could see back to its instigator. And there’d be reasons his influence would be discounted: by the end of WWII, when Modernism, no longer insurgent, was about to become the established artistic order, Ezra Pound was a 60-year-old man confined in an outdoor steel cage open to the elements, awaiting to be charged as a war traitor with a likely sentence of execution.

Ezra Pound Booked for Treason

This guy is most responsible for English literary modernism, but that’s not what got him arrested.

 

The customary quiet and inward life of a writer, even an unnoticed one, looks good in comparison.

Though this treatment was inhumane, and the charge not without controversy, it was not unsubstantiated. Pound had spent the years leading up to WWII making common cause with the European Fascists that the United States eventually fought in that war, and when that war was being fought, he broadcast eccentric propaganda in his native English in service of his adopted country of Italy and Mussolini. Furthermore, his attraction to the Fascist cause was not an accident, a casual side-effect of his adopted country of residence. Pound wholehearted seemed to believe in the crackpot and yet deadly racist theories bolstering Fascism.
 
Remember earlier this month when we talked about the popular folk song celebrating Jesse James, versus the reality of James’ life as a racist terrorist?  Pound lacked the actual bloody hands of a Jesse James, but not the thought behind them.

So much more could be said on this, but that would take more room that we have today, and besides your thoughts and judgements on matters like this, as I said when talking about Jesse James, are more important than mine. Not only are they more numerous, but you are likely younger than me, and will get to use those judgements on things like this to guide your life.

Today’s audio piece, “These Fought,”  was written by Pound at the height of his fame and good influence—not after WWII, after WWI. Unlike some younger Modernists, Pound did not actually fight in WWI, but situated in England during that war, he saw the patriotic recruitment and the creation of cases for the war, a war that soon became mechanized slaughter beyond all previous imaginings, and he lost friends in that staggering slaughter. So, in “These Fought”  Pound caustically calls out the cases for the slaughter, and leads us to note that bravery in fighting WWI, or fortitude in opposing it, were in some sense equal in valor and, alas, equal in success.

To hear the LYL Band perform this, use the player below.

I Was Reading About Jesse James

When I was growing up and learning songs from Jerry Silverman’s folk songbooks, there was song called “Jesse James”  included in many collections and sung by a wide variety of singers—and any song that has been sung by the Kingston Trio and Nick Cave, by Van Morrison and the Pogues, by yes, by both Peter Seeger and Bob Seger, has to be the very definition of a “folk song.”

Pete SeegerBob Seger

Both these guys have sung thoughtful songs, but sometimes you need to think beyond the song yourself

 

Though “Jesse James”  takes some of its spirit from older English ballads celebrating legendary medieval populist outlaw Robin Hood, this American song is more about betrayal (James was killed by a gang associate in his own living room) and about telling us what an all-around bad-ass James was. We’re told he “killed many a man” (never why or how, though bravery is claimed) and that he robbed banks and railroads (but he “gave to the poor” and would “never rob a mother or a child”).

You can see how this sort of thing has a wide appeal. A tale of revenge on the rich and the powerful appeals to many, and banks and railroads were particular targets of late 19th and early 20th century rural populism, but the emotional core of the folk song “Jesse James”  is the betrayal and assassination.  No matter what the variation in the lyrics, there’s lots of mention of James’ cowardly assassin Robert Ford betraying the man who trusted him, shooting him in the back.

Woody Guthrie took “Jesse James’”  structure and melody and produced an incisive, though less popular, version of his own called “Jesus Christ”  which cast Jesus as a rebellious populist betrayed by a disciple—though it had to do without the “killed many a man” factor. So popular is the original “Jesse James”  ballad, that Guthrie likely knew that Jesse James’ action-hero rep would rub-off on his populist Jesus.

So, it was with interest that I followed up on the reality of Jesse James. One can assume that most heroes have feet of clay, portions of their behavior that show faults or inconsistency, but it turns out Jesse James doesn’t have feet of clay—the whole man is made of half-baked clay mixed with ample fresh dung as filler.
 
He’s a nasty piece of work. True, his character shows audacity, but that’s not the same thing as bravery. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he ever killed an armed man who was opposing him, but lots of connections to killings of prisoners and bystanders. It was somewhat true that seeking cash through his robberies was a side-point to him, but his main motivation was to extend, defend, or to restore human slavery, or to take broad revenge on those who sought to end his career seeking those aims.

If there’s a defense for his actions, it would be some listing of the bad things done by his opponents, but then monsters often breed monstrous actions against them. It’s an argument against monsters, not a defense of the actions themselves.

Today’s piece “I Was Reading About Jesse James”  starts by asking you to think about this. I thought about trimming the piece’s instrumental coda shorter, but I have left it in. Consider the last half to be time for you to begin to ask those questions yourself. To hear the LYL Band ask those questions to music, use the player below.