Wednesday, December 2, 2020

#337 / That News Is Coming Down The Wire


I was quite moved by an article in the November 8, 2020, edition of The New York Times Magazine (which may or may not be available to those who are non-subscribers). I hope the article is available to anyone reading this blog posting, since it really did make a big impression on me.

The article I am talking about was written by Hanif Abdurraqib, a Black poet, essayist, and cultural critic. In the hard copy edition of The Times, the article is titled, "Hard Times: The Patient, Sorrowful Optimism of the American Folk Masters Gillian Welch and David Rawlings." Online, the title is just a little bit shorter: "How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Held Onto Optimism."

If you are not familiar with the music of Welch and Rawlings (as I was not), you can get an introduction by clicking this link, or by starting up the video at the top of the page. The video has over twenty minutes of singing, and I particularly liked, "Ruby," the second song in the video [2:59 to 7:37]. "Ruby" ends with the following lines:

I'm that old time telegraph man 
And I came here with a simple job to do
Cause that news coming down the wire 
Says that your world's on fire
And I'm trying to get a message through to you.

As you might be able to tell from my blog posting yesterday, I am in that kind of mood, myself. Check the temperature. Check the rain gauge. "I'm trying to get a message through to you."

What struck me most in the article was a discussion about "redemption," which comes near the end, as Abdurraqib talks with Welch and Rawlings about how they wrote their song, "Hard Times." 

They began talking about “Hard Times,” eagerly bouncing ideas off each other as if they were right back to sketching out the song for the first time. Not so much debating but weighing the merits of the song’s small machinery — clarifying the narrative, making the language more evocative.
“We like qualifiers,” Rawlings said, moving his hands as if he were fitting puzzle pieces into place. “There was the moment of thinking about a hard-times song and then coming up with ‘Hard times aren’t gonna rule my mind.’ And then going, ‘No more.’ And then going, ‘OK, this is now something that I understand and know how to express or deal with.’”
“Yeah, it almost relates to that moment of transformation or redemption, or some switch gets flipped,” Welch came in, lively. “Someone has said to me before that songs — there has to be a reason for them. They’re kind of about, you know, pinnacle moments. Precise moments.” She gave an example: “ ‘One more dollar, and I’m going home.’ These help us focus on this transformative moment.”

Redemption and optimism are subjects that I find difficult to approach, especially now, considering not only the masses of people dying but also the way lives have become mere numbers on a constantly ascending chart. Considering that the country itself might not be worthy of redemption. Considering, of course, that with every reason for optimism I’ve found, there is a new, darker, more cynical corner unearthed.
But now I found myself thinking about the arcs of redemption that flow through the duo’s songs. How gentle they are to their characters, their landscapes. Even when some might think they don’t deserve it. Throughout their career — even in some of “The Lost Songs” and the songs they chose on “All the Good Times,” there’s some relief at the end of the darkness. In their version of Dylan’s “Abandoned Love,” the two wring all the anguish out of the song’s first seven verses before patiently, gently, laying out the final verse: the one where Dylan asks to feel the love of his wife just one more time before he abandons their relationship. It’s hopeful — the kind of ending to a song where you know the answer was yes, just by how it is sung. It is the rigorous truth-telling that the two excel in: One cannot be redeemed without a clear articulation of why redemption is needed. And that’s the part that some other singers might gloss over. But Welch and Rawlings, as writers, dig their hands into the mess of a life that is worthwhile despite its messiness (emphasis added).

Is our country "worthy of redemption?" There are certainly lots of reasons to argue that it's not. When Abdurraqib raises the question, it seems certain that two centuries and more of racial oppression must be on his mind. And yet, of course, there is more than that. If redemption is to be hoped for, we must clearly articulate just why it is needed. And that is not hard to do.

Besides the still-living legacy of racial injustice that twines itself everywhere into our history (and into our present), our society is characterized, also, by massive income inequality, and by the unfeelingness of public policies that act as though those in need should help themselves, and that those in pain have no claim on us. 

And then, there is our arrogant presumption that the United States is "exceptional," and should be "the decider" in all events, worldwide, backed by the largest military force in the history of the world. Our wars, everywhere, are the terror of the earth, as are the nuclear weapons that we brought into the world, the only nation ever to have used them against other human beings. 

This is the nation that stole the land - everything - from the Native Americans who were here first. We slaughtered millions of buffalo to starve "Indians" to death. That legacy still lives. 

This is the nation that put Japanese citizens into concentration camps, with no basis for doing so, and the President Roosevelt Executive Order that instituted this injustice was upheld by the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the land, the court that is supposed to tell us what "justice" demands. Even now, the nation is tearing young children from their parents, as they seek asylum at our border, and are holding them in cages. 

We have desecrated the wilderness in the search for coal, and copper, oil and gold. We are the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, and we are putting the whole world in peril.

As politicians sometimes say, when listing their endorsers and contributors, "This is only a partial list."

Abdurraqib is certainly right to ask whether this country is "worthy of redemption." Let us be honest. This nation is not "worthy of redemption." But no nation is. No person is. We know this, all of us, because we are all unworthy, every one of us, and despite our knowledge of our own unworthiness, we know that "redemption" is exactly what we need - and what we must give to others. 

We will redeem ourselves - and we will find redemption - only as we do everything we can to change the things that make us so unworthy of it. That is the only way. And now is the time we must work this transformation. 

Redemption is a gift, and not an entitlement. It is the gift we can provide for ourselves only as we seek, together, to undo the things that make us, truly, unworthy of the gift. That may sound a bit confused, but it is really not that complicated! It's just like what that "old time religion" says, in those songs in the tradition in which Welch and Rawlings sing: Repent. Go. And sin no more! 

It's a hard message, but it's not that complicated. I think it's time for us to listen up!

I'm that old time telegraph man 
And I came here with a simple job to do
Cause that news coming down the wire 
Says that your world's on fire
And I'm trying to get a message through to you.

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