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From the October, 2008 issue of Touchstone


The Oldies Record by Thomas Howard

The Oldies Record

Thomas Howard on the Old Canon That Even Reactionaries Won’t Sing

As a boy, I was never an aficionado of what was then called “the hit parade,” the popular songs that were currently, and briefly, at the top of the list. There was a period, however, during my adolescence when I listened to these songs on the radio with some loose regularity. One program had a little signature ditty at the beginning of which the performers sang, “We’ll sing the old songs, / We’ll sing the new; / We’ll sing the bright songs, / And maybe we’ll sing the blue.”

There were more bright songs in those days (this was the 1940s) than are abroad now. “Cruising Down the River on a Sunday Afternoon,” “Lavender Blue, Dilly-Dilly,” “Peg o’ My Heart,” and “Mairzy-Doats.” Looking back now, one is agog at the sheer innocence that suffused these songs: How (thinks one in this jaded epoch) did such pallid songs ever galvanize the populace?

Recently I found myself also recalling the older songs that still constituted a sort of matrix for everyone’s musical consciousness in that era. This “canon” existed prior to the then currently popular selections. It seemed coeval and coterminous with the mere business of being a person at all.

Virtually everyone could join in at any moment with “Just a Song at Twilight” or “Annie Laurie” or “Comin’ Through the Rye” or “The Blue Bells of Scotland” or “Sweet and Low” or “When Johnnie Comes Marching Home.” One sang these songs first at home, and then in school, and then forever.

The old canon was not a brief cultural oddity of the 1940s: The practice reaches back to the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, and, a fortiori, to Shakespeare’s time and to the late Middle Ages, when the songs in the air extolled such gay sentiments as “Green Grow the Rushes-O” and “Sumer Is Icumen In.” (I use that adjective deliberately, with its ancient definition. But how infinitely dismal that I should have to resort to this parenthesis)

Whether in medieval Paris, eighteenth-century London, or Philadelphia in the 1940s, singing from the canon was as natural and unnoticeable as eating one’s lunch or breathing. It was a staple of one’s existence, as it were.

Notions Extolled

Recently I found myself jotting down a list of nouns that presented themselves to me as I thought over that canon. Those songs of the historic West extolled such notions as the following:

Innocence: Ben Jonson’s “Drink to me only with thine eyes / and I will pledge with mine / But leave a kiss within the cup, / and I’ll not ask for wine.” We may compare this diffidence with what one vows to do in, say, the lyrics to rap and heavy metal songs.

Duty: “The minstrel boy to the war is gone, / In the ranks of death you’ll find him; / His father’s sword he hath girded on, / And his wild harp slung behind him.” The boy did not squall out his loathing for the Establishment that was sending him away from all that was familiar and loved by him (he was a Jacobite under a Hanover monarch, forsooth).

Domestic contentment: “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, / Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” We wince with embarrassment over such a treacly sentiment—treacly, it may be remarked, to imaginations seared by ennui and sophistication. (Readers may recall the earlier meaning of “sophisticated”: It meant to adulterate something with impurities, as in “This wine has been sophisticated with vinegar.”)

Fidelity: “Maxwelton’s braes are bonnie, / Where early fa’s the dew, / And ’twas there that Annie Laurie / Gave me her promise true . . . / And for bonnie Annie Laurie, / I’d lay me doon and dee.” The English-speaking world sang this song without smirking.

Purity: “O where and O where is your Highland laddie gone? . . . He’s gone to fight the battle for King George upon throne, / And it’s oh! in my heart, / How I wish him safe at home.” (Another Jacobite here, doing his duty for his Hanover sovereign.) There is no hankering here for hasty (and explicit) carnal congress with the lad. “Where’s the passion?” we might complain. Where’s the authenticity? How vitiated it all seems. Shake the girl.

Soundness of mind (what the Greeks lauded as sophrosyne—a fundamental virtue): “Gaily the troubadour touch’d his guitar, / When he was hastening home from the war, / Singing . . . ‘Lady love, lady love, welcome me home!’” What the poor man needs is to have his libido unleashed. He needs to let it all hang out. Such lackluster yearnings he permits himself.

Quaint & Naïve

And there are many others, equally (to our ears) quaint and naïve:

Hesitant delight in my lady, for one: “And ’twas from Aunt Dinah’s quilting party / I was seeing Nellie home.” What the boy wants seems very restricted indeed: merely the delicate, nay fragile, venture of accompanying her to her door. The delight anticipated in such an austere pleasure puzzles imaginations cauterized by debauchery. So pyrrhic. So timorous.

Courtesy: “If a body meet a body, / Comin’ through the rye, / If a body kiss a body / Need a body cry?” These were very advanced sentiments indeed. A kiss! How dashing! Pity the boy.

Sacrifice: “They were summon’d from the hillside, / They were call’d in from the glen, / And the Country found them ready / At the stirring call for men. . . . Keep the home fires burning.” After Woodstock and Jane Fonda we can only writhe with incredulity upon hearing such advice.

Joy: “When Johnny comes marching home again . . .We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, / Hurrah, hurrah! / The men will cheer, the boys will shout, / The ladies, they will all turn out, / And we’ll all feel gay, When Johnny comes marching home.” It is difficult to think of a rock setting for this child’s garden of sentiment.

Peace: “Sweet and low, sweet and low, / Wind of the western sea . . . Blow him again to me, / While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.” The mother rocking the cradle: very destructive and atavistic sentiments to introduce into a culture having violently come of age under the baton of Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer. Everyone sang it without demurral, though.

Plain goodness: “A Spanish cavalier stood in his retreat, / And on his guitar played a tune, dear; / The music so sweet, Would oft-times repeat / The blessing of my country and you, dear.” This calling upon patriotism will need the most rigorous scrutiny, surely, when patriotism has been exposed as a cover for imperialist ambitions?

Pure, melodious, unapologetic lyricism: “Hark, how the sailor’s cry / Joyously echoes nigh: Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!” After the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, not to say 9/11, this sort of capering insouciance seems grotesque, not to say sacrilegious. What authentically contemporary man can join in such a frolic?

And so our log could go on. I had jotted, besides the above categories: Stillness, Virtue, Civility, Grace, Dignity, Gravitas, and un-self-pitying Sadness. Such words bespeak a state of mind—an ethos, really—that has traditionally been assumed to suffuse the very air of Western civilization, and of sympathetic common life.

The picture has now, of course, changed altogether. Even wistful septuagenarians may well find that they hear such sentiments with unease. Even the most nostalgic of reactionaries might find himself embarrassed to be caught singing these songs in public. Whatever the ethos was that fostered these notions over the centuries, and that permitted adults as well as children to revel in them—that ethos has vanished with Ozymandias and the Great Auk.

A Changed Picture

I have only a sketchy view of the canon that supplanted the old one during the decades that followed Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. But things have changed, at least if one is to take one’s soundings from passing pedestrians with headphones, and from what gets piped into all shops in all malls, and from what seems to predominate both in programming on radio and television and in the “music” that introduces films and sports events.

The strains that emanate from the gravelly static one hears in those headphones and speakers in malls and restaurants seem harsh and violent (and even debauched?) to the ears of the traditional West. The cultural phenomenon called a “rock concert” would seem to draw upon and cultivate responses and notions hitherto thought by civility to be worth suppressing in public—and indeed, if one thinks about it, controlled watchfully even in the very recesses of one’s soul.

Of course it is not merely a superficial question of musical taste. Music has from the beginning both arisen from, and formed, the ethos of the cultures in which we encounter it. Whence comes that odd and minimalist music that we hear in Japanese No theatre? What mean those flutes (not great horns they tell us) that accompanied the Spartans into battle? What is the wellspring from which African tribal rhythms arise? Where did the Navajos get their modalities?

What are we to make of the rauschfifes, shawms, and gambas of the late European Middle Ages and the Renaissance? Palestrina, Victoria, Gibbons, Praetorius—what made them possible? Bach, Mozart, Strauss, Schoenberg, jazz, blues—what sort of a trajectory is this?

Can we sort out the chicken and the egg here, distinguish which music expresses a culture and which forms it? I doubt if we can. None of these phenomena may be teased out and separated from the whole question of ethos: How powerful, nay formative, is our music, culturally and anthropologically? And does it affect the moral imagination of a populace? •

Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).

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“The Oldies Record” first appeared in the October 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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