As American prepare to celebrate the 239th anniversary of the founding of our nation, enjoy this rendition of “American the Beautiful.” Performed by the choir of Hillsdale College, under the direction of James A. Holleman and Debra Wyse, it is both a visual and musical reminder of why so many of us dearly love our nation.
Friedrich Hayek once called intellectuals “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.” And the Preacher proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when ideas, memes, and other cultural phenomena pop up again and again.
There is, however, a notable correspondence between an Acton Commentary that I wrote earlier this month, “The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” and a piece that appeared weeks earlier at The Federalist. In “‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ Is The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” Leslie Loftis takes down this miserable tune in devastating fashion. Loftis points out that the song “has a little of everything to loathe. Condescension. Inane inaccuracies. Smugness. Mullets.”
Whether or not you have read my commentary, you should go check out her case against the song now.
I first noticed the song, which heretofore had been background Christmas muzak, when we screened the new documentary Poverty, Inc. earlier this year at the Acton Institute offices. That film includes a section discussing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
When Christmas rolled around, I had the idea to write something about the song, and connected it with William Easterly’s analysis of the differing perspectives on development offered by Gunnar Myrdal and Hayek. But I now think that even though I hadn’t read Loftis’ piece, I had seen the title before I wrote my piece. In fact, I checked Ben Domenech’s excellent email newsletter The Transom, to which you should subscribe, and there on December 3 is the following: ‘“Do They Know It’s Christmas” is the worst Christmas song ever. http://vlt.tc/1qf7‘
No doubt I saw the link, and got the idea for calling it the “worst ever” into my head. Then some days later I connected it to the Poverty, Inc. clip and wrote my piece. So the idea for calling this the worst Christmas song ever must be credited to Loftis and The Federalist. I’m sorry that I didn’t realize that Loftis’ piece had already appeared, or I would have pointed to it earlier, and given credit for the idea straight away. So in the interests of disclosure, I certainly haven’t been the only one to criticize this song or even to call it the “worst Christmas song ever.” I guess I’ve got egg(nog) on my face. The variety of voices that find the song problematic, however, should be a indication that there’s something rotten in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It is, after all, a song that includes a toast like this: “Here’s to them underneath that burning sun.”
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is like a bad earworm that won’t go away. And now I really, really hate that song!
Taylor Swift recently made waves when her record label pulled her entire catalog off Spotify, a popular music streaming service. Fans and critics responded in turn, banging their chests and wailing in solidarity, meming and moaning across the Twitterverse about the plight of the Struggling Artist and the imperialism of mean old Master Spotify.
Yet as an avid and thoroughly satisfied Spotify user, I couldn’t help but think of the wide variety of artists sprinkled across my playlists, a diverse mix of superstars, one-hit-wonders, niche fixtures, and independent nobodies. With such reach and depth, had Spotify really duped and enslaved them all, leaving them brainwashed and helpless lest they rise to the courage, stature, and enlightened futurism of Ms. Swift?
Or could it be that some artists actually benefit from such platforms?
I’ve written elsewhere about the transformative effects of economic freedom on the arts — how unleashing opportunity, innovation, and prosperity has yielded unprecedented amounts of time, training, and resources, all of which can be used to create more art, and do so independently. For musicians, the cost of equipment continues to go down, even as quality goes up, and as artists continue to grab hold of these resources, companies like Spotify are swooping in to service the next step.
Much like Kickstarter and iTunes, Spotify continues to experiment with new ways of empowering artists, helping folks bypass record labels altogether (“the banks,” “the marketing machine,” “the Man”) and connect them more closely with audiences. Countless artists have jumped in. And yes, countless others have opted out, particularly the ones with cash, fans, and sway. (more…)
Pete Seeger performing the Woodie Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land” at President Obama’s “We Are One” Inaugural Concert, January 19, 2009.
Environmentalist, agent provocateur, leftist activist, recovering Communist and ardent redistributionist – all apply to the folksinger who died Monday in New York at the age of 94. Pete Seeger, for better or worse, answered to all of the above adjectives but it’s his legacy as a songwriter and performer for which this writer prefers to remember him.
Certainly there’s much with which to disagree with Seeger from an ideological standpoint over the decades of a nearly 70-year career, but taken as a whole his body of work stands out for its calls for equality and societal change for the better. Take for example Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a wonderful song that “sampled” a bit of Ecclesiastes to become a gentle yet powerful anthem akin to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” With “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the songwriter assisted in the bridge between folk and rock when the song was appropriated by the Byrds’ signature jangle-and-harmony pop. (more…)
When we think of our freedoms and how they are basic to our society yet freedoms seem to be out of control in so many ways since the 1960s, we probably need to pull back and consider those freedoms from a new perspective. So let’s consider playing the piano. I am free to play the piano in that pianos are available, piano teachers are available, and there is no regulation or social stigma that prevents me from acquiring or learning the piano.
I have liberty when it comes to pianos. However, I am not currently free to play the piano well nor can I demonstrate any such ability nor can I know the joys of learning, memorizing, and playing a piece such as I heard at a Second Sunday concert this month. I have two liberties here: the freedom to acquire a piano and the freedom to do the hard work of learning to play it well. I must not confuse the two liberties.
As for American freedoms I must not think that because I have the liberty to get a job I should be paid as if I were already trained and experienced or just because I have endless freedoms in moral areas that I can choose any path and still have satisfying relationships at home, with friends, or at work.
By the way: almost 80% of 493,000 pianos made in 2012 were low-end Chinese ones. Chopin and Debussy’s pianos were made by Pleyel a French company that is going out of business this month.
In Businessweek late last year, Jason Zinoman noted the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino as Levine. The play, says Zinoman, “speaks as directly to the economic anxieties of today as when it opened on Broadway in 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Then, the play was widely seen by critics as a left-wing attack on a free-market system run amok.”
But as he also notes,
Glengarry Glen Ross is often compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the fundamental difference is that Mamet shows us in concrete detail the value of work. He lets the audience see salesmen doing their job, and then distinguishes between those who do it well and those who don’t. In fact, as corrupt as the office may be, there is a meritocratic ethos at its core—the most impressive salesman, Roma, is also the most successful. Levene, by contrast, repeats himself, caves in negotiation, lies poorly. It’s easy to have sympathy for him, but hard to conclude that he doesn’t deserve to get paid less than Roma. Look closely enough at this play and you’ll find a belief in the market as well as a critique of it. Like most great dramas or novels, its ideas are far too complicated to fit into a slogan.
As another great work of fiction that likewise doesn’t fit neatly into a simple binary pattern, in between Death of a Salesman (1949) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), I’d like to also highlight a short novel I recently read, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956). Seize the Day follows the travails of hapless Tommy Wilhelm as he tries to scrape out a living in New York, or at least as he tries to appear to try to do so. There’s some serious engagement with the realities of internalized expectations, competition, envy, hucksterism, and the phenomena of commodity speculation.
While reading the Wall Street Journal not so long ago, I came across an article and two opinion pieces that, each in their way, told a story far different than one rendered in Bruce Springsteen’s forthcoming album, Wrecking Ball.
At first listening, Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” chugs along with some of the best of the Boss’ rock anthems. But the song’s lyrics convey a deeply cynical despair about our nation’s charitable nature. Springsteen says we in the United States simply don’t do enough to tend to the less fortunate. And, in his Albert Schweitzer meets Florence Nightingale way, he invokes our nation’s predominantly Judeo-Christian heritage.
In “We Take Care of Our Own,” Springsteen lyrically conjures God’s sacrifice of Christ for humankind’s redemption. “I’ve been knocking on the door” – a nod to Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” – “that holds the throne,” presumably the one occupied by God. “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone/The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.” Never mind that Springsteen inadvertently forgets it’s the road to hell, not heaven, which is paved with those good intentions.
“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home/There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown.” In this verse, Springsteen conveniently ignores the churches, faith-based relief agencies, private companies and millions of individuals who opened their hearts and wallets to help those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Listening deeper into the song, the audience may discern biblical allusions – the cavalry representing the location where God sacrificed his only Son, and the bugle no one hears belonging to Gabriel. In other words, for all of our religious talk in the United States, according to Springsteen, we simply don’t put our money where our mouths are.
Springsteen’s manager told Rolling Stone that his new LP has “social overtones” and a “very pronounced spiritual dimension.” The magazine cited another source who confided that the rocker “gets into economic justice quite a bit.”
But is Springsteen’s “economic justice” based on sound “spiritual” footings?
In the issue of the January 30 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Aryeh Spero writes: “[T]he Bible’s prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy’s saying that ‘Judges and officers … shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not … favor one over the other.’ Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.”
If Springsteen missed the Rabbi’s essay, he might’ve read Warren Kozak’s opinion piece in the Journal, which appeared on the same page. Kozak writes that the “U.S. government spends close to $1 trillion a year providing cash, food, housing, medical care and services to poor and near-poor people. Of that figure, about $111 billion is spent on food in federal and state programs.” Kozak quotes 2009 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reveal that nearly 50 million U.S. citizens are classified as poor. However, the Census Bureau also finds that 96 percent of poor parents assert that “their children were never hungry” and 83 percent “of poor families reported having enough food to eat, and 82 percent of poor adults said they were never hungry at any time in 2009 due to a lack of food or money.”
One hopes these statistics, in part, answer Springsteen’s closing questions in “We Take Care of Our Own”: “Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see/Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy/Where’s the love that has not forsaken me/Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free/Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me/Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?”
If not, perhaps the following facts may reacquaint Springsteen with the spirit of American giving. Left unmentioned in Kozak’s essay are the results of the 2010 Charities Aid Foundation global survey, which, like many other suveys, singles out the United States as one of the most generous nations in private giving and volunteer activity. Of the 150,000 citizens from 153 countries surveyed by the Gallup organization, 65 percent of Americans donated money; 43 percent of Americans volunteered their time; and 73 percent of Americans helped a stranger.
Maybe Springsteen doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal, or avoids newspaper opinion pieces altogether. Had he read a straight news story in the same issue of the Journal, however, he may have learned something new in an article titled “Charities Ended 2011 on High Note.” Journalist Melanie Grayce West reports that The Salvation Army raised $147.6 million in its Red Kettle campaign – up nearly 4 percent from 2010 and 6 percent from 2009.
Alas, this amount is still $100 million less than Springsteen’s estimated net worth. While the rocker is recognized often for his generous charitable giving – I did that too in an Acton Institute article in 2004 – it’s more than a little strange to be lectured about our “fair share” by an extremely wealthy American celebrity.
Springsteen is entitled to his opinions and all that, and, further, he is guaranteed the freedom to publish whatever agitprop he wishes — especially if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But “We Take Care of Our Own” just doesn’t pass muster with the information readily available on any given day in any reputable news source.
At some point in the past few decades, Springsteen began patterning his songwriting on the supposed social consciousness of folksingers Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Ochs once recorded an album titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing. Springsteen would perform a tremendous favor to the better-informed members of his enormous fan base – this writer included – by actually reading a newspaper.
Bruce Edward Walker writes on the arts from Midland, Michigan.
With its subject, use of Scripture, and majestic soaring choruses, George Ferederic Handel’s Messiah is easily the most recognizable musical piece in Western Civilization. It is also perhaps the most widely performed piece of classical or choral music in the West. After hearing a performance of the Messiah, fellow composer Franz Joseph Haydn simply said of Handel, “This man is the master of us all.” Not to be outdone, Beethoven declared, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”
The text of the Messiah, compiled from Scripture, was sent to Handel by his friend Charles Jennens and begins with Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” Part 1 of the Messiah deals with the prophetic pronouncements of the Virgin Birth, and the actual birth account taken from Luke’s Gospel. Part II deals with Christ’s passion and his atoning death, his resurrection and ascension, and sending out of the Gospel. Part III is a celebration of the general resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, the victorious nature of Christ and his triumphant reign. It is a bounty of Christian doctrine packed into an English oratorio. Amazingly, Handel composed the work in 23 days. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Handel said, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”
Messiah is so masterful and celebrated it overshadows some of Handel’s other stellar work. Concerning the Messiah in particular, there is quite a bit of information out there about Handel the entrepreneur. Below is an audio story about Handel’s entrepreneurial endeavors and his charitable work tied into the Messiah that aired on PBS in 2009. You can watch the video version of the story here.
Tim Slover, author of Messiah: The Little-Known Story of Handel’s Beloved Oratorio adds this note,
The Royal Family, fellow Germans from the same region of Hanover, were staunch supporters of his work, but this did not translate into financial security for Handel, as the Crown only sporadically underwrote his opera seasons. When weddings or other occasions called for it, the Hanovers commissioned music from him, but this was never enough to live on, and, anyway, Handel was no court composer. By temperament he was an entrepreneur. He spent several months of every year striking business deals with theater owners, auditioning and hiring singers, and rehearsing and performing instrumental music, operas, and oratorios. His fortunes rose or fell with the public’s reception of his music, and there were lean times as well as prosperous ones.
Messiah, while popular at the time, was certainly not as beloved as it is today. There was controversy surrounding the performance, specifically that such a sacred piece of music would be played outside of the Church and in secular music halls and venues. And while Messiah was composed for charitable purposes, it showcased more of Handel’s entrepreneurial skills and willingness to take risks.
Handel, a devout Lutheran, loved sacred music and believed every word of what he wrote and composed. As mentioned earlier, Handel took a lot of risks with his music because he liked to perform what he loved most. He was bankrupt at various times in his life and had fallen out of favor with the public. Just a few years before the Messiah was composed, Frederic the Great declared that, “Handel’s great days are over. His inspiration is exhausted.” Handel himself was even close to being sent to debtors prison. Before Messiah, Handel conducted what he thought would be his last performance and retired for a time. When Messiah was first performed in 1742, it raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison so their sons and daughters would not be orphans.
Many readers have of course seen the Messiah performed and may have attended a performance this year or selections may have been performed in their places of worship. It was originally intended as a Lenten piece, but is now largely played in the Christmas season. What is so remarkable about the Messiah to me is not that it is just such a majestic and beautiful work of music, but that it is impossible to separate Christ from the performance. While many sacred works are embraced by a secular world and secular music performers, the meaning of the Messiah is so plain it cannot be overlooked. In fact, Jennens selected the text of Messiah to counter the rising arguments of the deists and secularists of his day.
Messiah thunderously crushes the secular agenda and goals of today or of any period. Theologian Tom Oden offers some profound words on the Western world and Christ in his systematic theology The Word of Life. “It would be strangely unhistorical if the historians accidentally ignored him [Christ] or decided to study all figures except the one who has affected Western history most,” says Oden. He adds that “Western history would not be Western history without him.” Later on Oden observes, “Deeper even than the mystery of his astonishing historical influence is the simpler, starker question that rings through Christian reflection: Cur Deus Homo? Why did God Become human?” Handel answers that so thoroughly, beautifully, and triumphantly with his Messiah.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Work and Prayer: Of Coins, Sheep, and Men,” I explore what the parable of the Prodigal Son (when read in conjunction with the parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep) has to teach us about stewardship:
Reading these three stories together teaches us many things about the nature of God’s love for us, such that when we were lost, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). But the stories also provide models for how we should relate to the different aspects of God’s created order, from the material, to the animal, to the human. In each kind of relationship, humans have a definite role to play. In some cases we are called to work actively to achieve God’s purposes in the world. In other cases, out of respect for human freedom and individual sovereignty, we have to engage in active searching for the lost things of this world by less direct means.
The Parable of the Lost Son has been the subject of popularization and cultural expression throughout the centuries (see, for instance, Tissot’s set of paintings on “The Prodigal Son in Modern Life”). In recent decades, films like Legends of the Fall (1994) have drawn at least partial inspiration from the story. In this week’s commentary, I don’t have space to treat the case of the elder brother adequately, but Andrée Seu draws parallels between the elder brother in the 1994 film and the tale of the Prodigal Son.
The film Lt. Dan Band for the Common Good kicks off with the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Honor to him, who braves for the common good.” The words are appropriate. In 2003, wanting to do even more for America’s service men and women, Gary Sinise formed the Lt. Dan Jam Band. The band name was easily decided because many soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen did not know Sinise by name and just called him “Lt. Dan.” The moniker is based on his well known portrayal of an Army lieutenant who lost his legs in Vietnam in the Hollywood film Forrest Gump.
Sinise likes to joke that expectations are low because the band leader is an actor, but in truth the band is made up of professional musicians. Director Jonathan Flora followed the band all over the world for two years as it performed for America’s military and charitable organizations that support the military.
The filmmakers focused a lot of the attention on all the band members and their commitment to those sacrificing for the nation. One touching scene comes on a bus when somebody off camera mentions that Sinise is a hero to the military and the moment leaves him visibly emotional. The film also includes interviews from Sinise’s wife and children and they share how much they miss having Sinise at home but are fully supportive and proud of his service.
Sinise, who was awarded a Presidential Citizen Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008, said in the film that after he started hearing casualty reports in the War on Terror, now almost ten years old, he had to do something. A 2008 Washington Times piece traces much of Sinise’s work with the military and the love and affection they have for him. Also quoted in the article is Deb Rickert of Operation Support our Troops. Rickert declared of Sinise:
In an age when the public often lavishes epitaphs of greatness on celebrities merely because they are famous, the military community bestows the simple title of friend on Gary Sinise truly because that is what he is to us.
While Sinise and the band members are visibly central in the film, many of the stories, tributes, and attention are reserved for the men and women in uniform and the first responders at Ground Zero on 9/11. Gripping testimonials are woven throughout the documentary, especially from family members of those who are deployed overseas in a war zone. An example of notable figures who offer words during the film include film actor Robert Duvall and American hero Colonel Bud Day, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Most importantly, Lt. Dan Ban for the Common Good is simply a powerful reminder of what one can do when gifts and talents are put in service of others. Sinise is a natural because his heart and his authenticity shines. The director does a fine job of pointing out what is already widely known among the military and their families, that Sinise is known as somebody who genuinely cares about their service and circumstances and is not hanging around for a photo-op.
St. Ephraem declared, “Blessed is the soul that is adorned with charity.” For those who wear the military uniform Gary Sinise is affectionately known simply as “Lt. Dan.” But many others have rightly noted that he is the Bob Hope of this generation. Hope was the face of USO tours and he entertained service members for half a century. It is a serious comparison and if America’s military has anything to say about it, a deserving one.