Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: America (page 1 of 6)

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.

Man’s Search for Responsibility

Finally got around to reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In one part he talks about a hypothetical “Statue of Responsibility”:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Clever, I thought when I read it. But when I was researching Frankl after reading the book, I learned the Statue of Responsibility is (becoming) a real thing:

I like how it flips Liberty’s arm motif. There isn’t a permanent site for it yet, but I hope it comes together.

Some other quotes from the book I enjoyed:

  • “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
  • “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”
  • “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
  • Prisoners looking at sunset: “How beautiful the world could be.”
  • “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”
  • “Self-actualization is possible only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence.”

 

Our National Anthem?

As national anthems go, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is strange. It’s hard to sing, it uses antiquated language, and it doesn’t have its nation’s name in it. Though there are several good alternatives (my pick would be “America the Beautiful” sung by the Schuyler Sisters in perpetuity), the Banner is still here, so we must contend with it.

It’s worth reading the lyrics because when you sing a song over and over, the words lose meaning and the ritual becomes rote. Let’s look at the last four lines:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Two points can be made out of this. The first is that not only did the flag survive the bombardment, but its survival was made evident by the bombardment itself. Such a metaphor is especially relevant in present times, and it gives me hope that our nation so conceived and so dedicated can endure its great testing. (And I’m not talkin’ about Colin Kaepernick.)

The second is that it ends with a question. In my one year of high school choir, the director pointed out before we began rehearsing the anthem for a performance that this feature is unique among national anthems, and that’s what makes it so important. That it ends with a question doesn’t come through in the musical rendition, which finishes on a triumphantly resolute note. That question symbolizes America: a nation as an unresolved ideal rather than a declarative statement. A nation with the gall to conclude its musical theme song on an ambivalent note.

Because of this, I fully support those who wish to kneel during the anthem. Kneeling is the perfect symbolic gesture given the intent of Kaepernick’s original protest, which was to draw attention to police brutality. It’s peaceful but effective, participatory but not derogatory. Being halfway down could symbolize the historic and ongoing subjugation of African Americans, whether through mass incarceration or disproportionate police brutality. Or, as Kaepernick’s fellow kneeler Eric Reid wrote, “like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Since NFL teams weren’t even on the field for the anthem until 2009, when the Department of Defense and National Guard began paying the NFL (with taxpayer money) to have ostentatious flag ceremonies before games (!!!), I’m not going to get worked up about coercing displays of patriotism at sporting events, and the traditional “Don’t Tread On Me” crowd should understand why.

On Living in the Messy Middle

I can’t tell you how much I was nodding along to David Brooks’ column “What Moderates Believe”. The whole thing is quote-worthy, but here are some highlights:

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. Moderates believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The moderate is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.

And:

Truth before justice. All political movements must face inconvenient facts — thoughts and data that seem to aid their foes. If you try to suppress those facts, by banning a speaker or firing an employee, then you are putting the goals of your cause, no matter how noble, above the search for truth. This is the path to fanaticism, and it always backfires in the end.

And:

Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. Moderates are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.

That last part is so true, much to the chagrin of some of my debate partners. Even if we partly or mostly agree on a certain topic, with the perspective of “the other side” rattling around in my head I’m liable to push back against whatever views we share on the topic. Though it sounds like devil’s-advocating, I don’t do it for the sake of being contrarian. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the part of me that compulsively empathizes with the viewpoint of my idealogical opposite.

I can’t decide if this is a gift or a disease. Part of me wishes I could dedicate myself to a particular cause and banish all doubt about it. Being in the messy middle is a frustrating and sometimes lonely experience, and the walls are always closing in. Turning beliefs into deeply held convictions and advocating for them would provide a reassuring clarity of mission and reduce or eliminate the need for constant vacillation.

But I have to be honest with myself and others about where I stand, even if that means not standing in one place. “Humility is the fundamental virtue,” writes Brooks. “Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.”

Realizing how little I know, how wrong I probably am, is freedom. It’s freedom from the self-imprisonment we impose on our minds when we insist we know everything, and that everyone else must agree with us or else.

This phenomenon of dogmatic certainty is most evident these days in the ongoing battles between “I love punching Nazis” SJW types and the jack-booted white nationalists #MAGA crowd. These are two groups who are very sure of their beliefs and righteousness of their causes. Hat-tip to Rod Dreher for spotlighting these posts, which illustrate why they are two sides of the same coin:

It’s not fun being a political orphan, or being constantly mired in a swamp of second-guessing. But I’m a moderate because I have to be, and I will not apologize for this. I am open to hearing your opinion, even if I don’t like it and tell you so. The times are too dark to not struggle for the light.

Rhythm Sand Booms

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We stayed at a beach community in Michigan for the Fourth of July extended weekend and went to the chapel service they had on Sunday. One of the pastors began with a quote from Erma Bombeck:

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.

I get nervous in churches around the Fourth of July. Celebrating a secular holiday within a religious environment can lead to grotesque displays of nationalistic idolatry, or it can produce something more appropriate for a church that celebrates its country while respecting the benefits of separating church and state. Luckily this was the latter. We sang hymns, heard a good message, and that was that.

What was more powerful to me happened the next evening, when the whole community gathered on the beach to watch a fireworks display, as they do every year. We brought beach chairs and set up facing southward along the beach, where the fireworks would be. Slowly more people congregated and added to the festival-like atmosphere. Families took pictures against the amber sunset, teens tossed a frisbee, kids twirled sparklers, and I read The Iliad until it got too dark to read.

Then we all sat and waited for the twilight to fade to black enough to allow the fireworks to be that much vibranter. When they began, I remembered once again what it was like to share something with a group of people that wasn’t on a screen. I didn’t notice many if any devices out. The rows of heads I saw when I looked behind me were only tilted upward, not downward as they would be with a smartphone in hand.

Many of these families had been partaking in this tradition for decades. I only recently married into it, yet it still impressed upon me the power of ritual, and how, when combined with the spirit of a place, it can foster an acute state of grace. I was grateful for Lake Michigan. I was grateful for the opportunity to look at the stars and contemplate my place in the universe and my nation while watching the fireworks burst before me. I was grateful to lie back with my fellow Americans and enjoy a celebration that didn’t involve guns, tanks, and soldiers.

The scene, like the fireworks themselves, dissipated as quickly as it materialized. We folded chairs, shook off sand, filed off the beach en masse, and trundled to our beds to begin another American year.

Image: the view from the beach at sunset.

The Vanishing American Adult

51gFJx7Js5L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI can’t believe it. I think I may have just found a Republican U.S. senator I’d actually vote for.

I’m as surprised as anyone that I read, let alone greatly enjoyed, Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse, Republican (but, phew, #NeverTrump) senator from Nebraska. I really think the only reason I picked it up was because Sasse’s face isn’t on the cover. If it were, it would look like every other politician’s memoir and therefore a waste of time.

But this isn’t that, not by a long shot. Sasse, a Ph.D in history and former college president, was troubled by the lack of certain skills and self-sufficiency in his college’s incoming freshman classes. He doesn’t use the term, but it’s those darn Millennials he’s talking about. Though the book does give off the slightest aroma of Kids These Days and Back In My Day, I’m inclined to endure it because Sasse is largely right.

Part I examines education, which Sasse sees as the root of the current coming-of-age crisis. He’s not a fan of John Dewey, who crusaded to make schooling the central influence on children, rather than make it something that was supplemental to the education children should receive at home. (No surprise that the Sasses homeschool their kids.) But he’s right about the self-perpetuating nature of bureaucracy and how it runs counter to good education:

Unfortunately, centralized education and bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a product of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. Most of these experts are blind to the possibility that perhaps we are still trying to spoon-feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, to work and to become the kind of students to ask questions before being handed a three-point formulaic answer.

One man’s boilerplate Republican talking point is another’s sensible conservative approach to an evident problem.

Beyond the school walls, Sasse sees a conglomeration of factors that have led to the current coming of age crisis: too much medication, screen time, video games, and porn; living with parents too long and getting married later; too much helicopter parenting and intellectual sheltering and not enough religion. One can debate each of these to death, but taken together it’s a potent cocktail for Peter Panism.

Part II gets into the practicalities of cultivating self-discipline and good character and how they can foster a healthy transition to adulthood: avoid age segregation, work hard, consume less, travel, and read a lot. Basic stuff, right? Sasse dives into each of them. As a librarian I was especially tickled by the chapter on reading: Sasse has developed his own “essential reading” library that is impressive in its scope and depth, and even inspired me to pick up The Iliad in my ongoing quest to fill in the gaps of my public education.

I don’t foresee any more books by politicians on my reading horizon, so I’m glad I lucked out with this one.

Some Quotes

Production > consumption:

Consumption is not the key to happiness; production is. Meaningful work—that actually serves and benefits a neighbor, thereby making a real difference in the world—contributes to long-term happiness and well-being. Consumption just consumes.

Self-sufficiency > permanent dependency:

Allowing our culture to devolve from one that encourages self-sufficiency into one that indulges permanent dependency is to tolerate a disengagement of the soul akin to permanent training wheels. Letting the next generation believe someone else will solve their problems imperils not only them but our whole society.

Aging > perpetual adolescence:

We latch onto evidence hinting that aging can be put off, perhaps indefinitely. It’s no surprise then that our young today inherit a fear of growing up and growing old, and a near allergy to confronting honestly the only certainty in life besides taxes. …

Denying meaningful rites of passage and obscuring the distinction between childhood and adulthood cheats the generation coming of age of something vital. Lowering expectations, cushioning all blows, and tolerating aimlessness not only hurts them, it also deprives their neighbors, who desperately need their engagement.

So?

Remember in 2008 when Dick Cheney, when confronted with polls showing two-thirds of Americans opposed the Iraq War quagmire, responded with So?

I thought about that when I read this part of the Washington Post‘s story on Obama’s struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault:

In early September, Johnson, Comey, and Monaco arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

So? went McConnell. With apologies to “Make America Great Again”, the most important slogan of the 2016 election was “When they go low, we go high”. It’s a beautiful sentiment that is also a recipe for failure when your opponents are the Dick Cheneys and Mitch McConnells of the world, who go low like their lives depend on it.

If the investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump administration’s collusion proves substantive, I predict the only thing we’ll hear from McConnell, Ryan & Co is one big fat So?

The American Health Care Act will throw 23 million people out of health coverage and gut Medicaid in order to give the rich a massive tax cut they don’t need. So?

Trump has mishandled classified info, failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, threatened the FBI director, and so much more they’d be pissed about if he were a Democrat. So?

And so on.

God help us all.

What I Think Right Now

  1. Trump was allowed to fire Comey.
  2. Comey deserved to be fired.
  3. Trump has clearly obstructed justice, which are grounds for impeachment.
  4. But good luck getting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to care.
  5. If President Hillary Clinton had done this Congress would have impeached her quicker than Trump can tweet something asinine, and deservedly so.

This all continues to be insane. It’s like being in a car with a drunk driver. I don’t care whose idea it was to let him drive; I don’t care about his protests that Relax I’m fine and You’ll thank me later for driving—I just want to get home safely, whatever it takes.

America in Five Cities

It dawned on me recently how the names and locations of the top 5 most populous cities in the United States tell the story of the nation:

New York, in the east, with the English name, representing the history of our relationship with England.

Los Angeles, in the west, with the Spanish name representing the history of our relationship with Mexico.

Chicago, in the north, from the Potawatomi for “wild garlic place”, representing the history of Native Americans.

Houston, in the south, named after Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, representing the history of the Wild West.

Philadelphia, in the east, Greek for “brotherly love”, representing the ancient origins within the founding of the nation.

This has a nice round feel to it. That is, until Phoenix comes for that fifth spot

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

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