Categories
America Music

We Americans

This Fourth of July, the words that are echoing in my mind more than any others are the lyrics of “We Americans” by The Avett Brothers, from their recent album Closer Than Together. They beautifully capture the cognitive dissonance I feel about being an American, and even made me tear up the first time I heard them.

Here they are in full. Happy Fourth of July.

I grew up with reverence for the red white and blue
Spoke of God and liberty, reciting the pledge of allegiance
Learned love of country from my own family
Some shivered and prayed approaching the beaches of Normandy
The flag waves high and that’s how it should be
So many lives given and taken in the name of freedom
But the story’s complicated and hard to read
Pages of the book obscured or torn out completely

I am a son of Uncle Sam
And I struggle to understand the good and evil
But I’m doing the best I can
In a place built on stolen land with stolen people

Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco
Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco
Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco

A misnamed people and a kidnapped race
Laws may change but we can’t erase the scars of a nation
Of children devalued and disavowed
Displaced by greed and the arrogance of manifest destiny
Short-sighted to say it was a long time ago
Not even two lifetimes have past since the days of Lincoln
The sins of Andrew Jackson, the shame of Jim Crow
And time moves slow when the tragedies are beyond description

I am a son of Uncle Sam
And I struggle to understand the good and evil
But I’m doing the best I can
In a place built on stolen land with stolen people

We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken homes and broken hearts
God will you keep us wherever we go
Will you forgive us for where we’ve been
We Americans

Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar
Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar
Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar

I’ve been to every state, seen shore to shore
The still open wounds of the civil war
Watched blind hatred bounce back and forth
Seen vile prejudice both in the south and the north
And accountability is hard to impose
On ghosts of ancestors haunting the halls of our conscience
But the path of grace and goodwill is still here,
For those of us who may be considered among the living

I am a son of God and man
And I may never understand the good and evil
But I dearly love this land
Because of, and in spite of we the people

We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken bones and broken hearts
God will you keep us wherever we go
Can you forgive us for where we’ve been
We Americans
We Americans

Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory
Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory
Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory

Categories
Film Love Music Religion Television

An ‘Unorthodox’ Harmony

It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.

I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.

(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)

Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.

One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.

When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:

In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.

And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,

is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella ­Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.

I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.

As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”

Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).

Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:

one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.

Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.

(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)

Categories
Music

Songs for Singin’

The Okee Dokee Brothers (probably my favorite band right now) are releasing their new two-disc album Songs for Singin’ two months early “so families can listen to some positive tunes while they stay home.”

The first single is “Hope Machine”, a jaunty tune that was written before COVID-19 but still pointedly speaks to the current moment:

Loved these lines:

Talk quiet and listen loud
Teach humble and learn proud
Scuffle with the struggle
And wrestle with the pain

There’s lots more sophisticated and pithy life advice that’s both timely and timeless tucked into a song supposedly written just for kids. But that’s the Okee Dokee Brothers for you.

Couldn’t pre-order fast enough.

Categories
Family Life Music

Inch by inch

My son walked for the first time today, the day before his first birthday. I was in front of him, bouncing on our exercise ball along to some music (Kira Willey’s “Everybody’s Got A Heartbeat” to be exact). He wanted in on the bouncing action. He was already standing—he’s been standing strongly in place for weeks and walking assisted for longer—so he took three small steps like it was nothing and collapsed into my lap.

I’m glad I was home to see it. I’m glad he did it right in front of me, right to me. And I’m glad my wife had her phone out to record it.

After that moment, I thought it fitting to play “Walking With Spring” by The Okee Dokee Brothers (probably my favorite song of theirs), mostly because of the chorus:

Inch by inch by
Foot by foot by
Step by step by mile
We’re takin’ it inch by inch by
Foot by foot
‘Til we find ourselves
In the wild

Welcome to the wild, little man.


A shot from his first birthday party. I guess we were accidentally celebrating something else too.

Categories
Music

Favorite Albums of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and films of the 2010s.

Listed alphabetically by artist, here are the albums from the last 10 years that sustained and entertained me:

Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge. Favorite track: “City of Refuge”

The Book of Mormon Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “You And Me (But Mostly Me)”

case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs. Favorite track: “Atomic Number”

Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong. Favorite track: “A Little Bit of Everything”

Good Old War, Come Back As Rain. Favorite track: “Amazing Eyes”

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “One Last Time”

Ingrid Michaelson, Songs for the Season. Favorite track: “Auld Lang Syne”

Joe Pug, Messenger. Favorite track: “The First Time I Saw You”

John Mayer, Born and Raised. Favorite track: “Queen of California”

The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain. Favorite track: “Jack Sparrow”

Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams. Favorite track: “Ends of the Earth”

Lucius, Wildewoman. Favorite track: “Turn It Around”

The Okee Dokee Brothers, Through the Woods. Favorite track: “Walking With Spring”

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Favorite track: “First Snowfall”

The Tallest Man On Earth, The Wild Hunt. Favorite track: “Troubles Will Be Gone”

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Heard about this documentary from the Armchair Expert episode with the Avett Brothers. Made me appreciate them anew.

Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers. “We Americans” should be the new national anthem.

The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.

Toy Story 4. Liked it a lot. They still should have stopped at 3.

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher. Well-told narrative about an essential event in Great Lakes lore.

Hard Eight. I would say this is shockingly well made for a debut film, but it was by Paul Thomas Anderson so I guess it’s not terribly shocking.

Categories
Books Music

My son’s media of the moment

Based on the ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

The Best of Raffi. The man is famous for a reason. I’ll bet even the mere mention of “Baby Beluga”, “Down By the Bay”, or “Bananaphone” has you singing along in your head.

Dance for the Sun by Kira Willey. It’s kinda stunning how immediately this album calms my six month old, specifically starting with “The Dancing Mountain”. Been the case since he was born. Now any four-syllable word can send me into a “Caterpillar Caterpillar” cover.

Elizabeth Mitchell. Another children’s music legend you can’t really go wrong with, whether her solo work or collaborations with Dan Zanes and Lisa Loeb. “Little Sack of Sugar” from You Are My Flower is fun if you have a chubby baby you can jiggle along with it.

Super Simple Songs. These cartoon videos on YouTube stun the Boy into a motionless daze, so we play them usually only when we need to trim his tiny fingernails. “Apples and Bananas” is the go-to.

Toot by Leslie Patricelli. This board book has an impressive 4.9/5 stars on Amazon from 715 reviews, a rating I fully endorse. Nice to have fart-positive books out there to teach little ones the ubiquitous and hilarity of flatulence. I’m proud to say the Boy loves it and giggles at the mere sight of the cover.

Bunny Roo, I Love You by Melissa Marr. This very cute board book features a mom comparing her baby’s behavior to different baby animals. The first time I read it to my son, the line “Then you yawned and slopped, and I thought you might be a tired piggy” made me laugh out loud. Not only because he’s a chunker who loves to breastfeed, but he squeals and snorts when he’s happy and gets a little floppy and sloppy when he’s tired. Love my little piggy…

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

Klazz Brothers & Cuba Percussion. Their Mozart Meets Cuba and Classical Meets Cuba mashups are great for people who want to get into either classical or Latin/jazz.

What is the Bible? by Rob Bell. I much prefer Bell in audiobook form, where his engaging and grounded storytelling chops can really shine. This revisionist history is good for skeptics but better for entrenched believers.

Knock Down the House. The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez origin story I didn’t know we needed.

Avengers: Endgame. Will need a rewatch to decide if it’s better than Infinity War, but my first instinct is that it isn’t.

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams. Amazon Prime has the whole series on streaming, so I decided to watch the first episode again just for kicks. Cut to just now wrapping up season 4… This shiiiiiiiiiiiiiii is good.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Good combination of cultural analysis and practical takeaways.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Finally knocked this off my AFI 100 list. I’m pretty sure it was, shockingly, my first Elizabeth Taylor film. Mike Nichols directs it into something more artful than its “married couple argues the whole time” conceit.

Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara. The long-lost story of the female artist who designed the Creature in Creature from the Black Lagoon, alongside reflections on being a woman in Hollywood.

Categories
Family Film Music

This is his song

One day I was trying to soothe my fussy baby with some bouncing and singing. I faced him toward me and then out of nowhere started singing a melody that popped into my head. The combination of the song and how I swayed and bounced him calmed him right away, and even elicited a smile.

At first I couldn’t place the melody. But then I remembered: it was the “This Is My Song” ditty from the 1958 movie musical Tom Thumb, officially titled “Tom Thumb’s Tune”:

Here’s the film version, featuring the dance stylings of West Side Story and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers actor Russ Tamblyn. I remember loving that movie as a kid, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that perhaps it’s time for a rewatch.

The song-and-bounce routine has now become something of a family joke given how effective it is at soothing, if only temporarily. Funny how things can emerge from your brain at just the right time.

Categories
Music

Love & Revelation

So excited to receive Over the Rhine’s gorgeous new album Love & Revelation in the mail. I don’t get many CDs these days, so it was a treat to admire the design and new-CD smell:

This album was part of Over the Rhine’s fundraiser from a few years ago my wife and I contributed to. Two more future albums are included in our donation level, along with the treat of getting our names in the liner notes:

Get it when it’s released wide March 15!