Private Music, Public Music: Vandals Trash Kumbaya – Is Music Making Us Stupid?

I’m shocked to find the lovely, spiritual folk song Kumbaya trashed by pundits and politicos alike in a bipartisan effort to discredit one of the solid gold traditions my generation sought to carry on – the healing power of music. Yet it should come as no surprise, for music, like politics, suffers from an infection of the big, the bad, and the rowdy. Perhaps it was always so; one’s affections are often awakened by market reality, but we must get to the bottom of this Kumbaya business.

First, to the phrase Kumbaya (“Come by here” [Lord]) has been added the increasingly popular “ing,” so we now find ourselves Kumbayaing, though hopefully not in public. Kumbayaing is pundit-lingo for working together in teams for the mutual benefit of community members – and what could be sillier than trying to work together? The neologism distorts the song, ignores the music, and mocks the efforts of those who would organize peacefully, all in one cynical, dismissive, and cranky attitude – to Kumbaya is to waste time; holding hands betrays weakness.

It seems that what we today call Christian Music isn’t liturgical music, or music to gather by, as much as a music market. The religious experience is marketed through music. This isn’t the same thing as music creating a religious experience. Do we not want the Lord coming by here anymore? For “The spirit will not descend without song,” as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) explains in his study Blues People (1963). Jones explains that the first Christian music in the US was black music born of the slave experience and developed as communal, healing, and organizational. Of course, time and distance also distort, and, as Gary Snyder explains, when ritual is moved from its source it loses some of its power. But the beauty of the music that Jones describes is its very resourcefulness.

Richard Rodriguez’s influential essay “Private Language, Public Language” went against the grain of the bilingual education movement by insisting that we shouldn’t publicize our private language, the language of our family. Just so, perhaps we shouldn’t market something called Christian Music, for the idea adulterates the tradition and allows the pundits to infiltrate the community without understanding or respecting the values of the community. Consider the following example, where the word spiritual becomes so watered down that it loses all its color and power: Elizabeth A. Brown writes a short review, published in the April 5, 2010 Christian Science Monitor, of The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010 (edited by Philip Zaleski), and what do we find as an example of not just spiritual writing but the best spiritual writing? Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Someone’s sighing, Lord. Come by here.

Where Richard Rodriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener; or, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

“I’d prefer not,” Bartleby tells his boss. Bartleby, a scrivener, has given up, no longer reads the newspaper, has no home and lives in the law offices of his employer, staring at the wall. A scrivener was a human copy machine, a viable trade before typewriters and carbon paper and then copy machines. What explains Bartleby’s behavior? Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, as have Richard Rodriquez and other commenters on the disappearance of newspapers.

In the November, 2009 Harpers, we find Richard Rodriguez bemoaning the demise of newspapers, a haunt frequented by journalists these days: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper…I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet.” But critics who can’t wait to get the newspapers off their front porch ask not the reasons for its disappearance, but “so what?,” to which Rodriguez responds, “So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies.” For Rodriguez, the loss of the newspaper is the loss of our city, of our very flesh and blood. “We will not read about newlyweds,” Rodriguez says: “We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is ‘not a really good piece of fiction’— Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). ”

Bingle responded in a letter Harpers printed in their January issue, just arrived, and it is of particular interest regarding the dialog lacking in newspapers which encourages some critics to prefer their on-line evolution. Unfortunately, while Bingle does establish some ethos as a published writer (and we suspect he must have mentioned his Chicago law degree, but Harpers may have edited his letter for space?), his letter reinforces Rodriguez’s point, if that point was to explain that the Amazon reviewers are generally writing opinion, not criticism, what they want in a book, not what they find, if anything, in a book. We do need professional critics, but if Rodriguez’s point is that the Amazon reviewers are in part the cause of the disappearance of newspapers, we fail to see how an army of Amazon reviewers, of amateur readers, is a bad thing. Nick Hornby has also famously attacked the Amazon reviewers. While we agree that Bingle’s review of Moby Dick is not helpful, we don’t see amateur reading and writing as a philistine front eating away at the borders of our print culture.

Meanwhile, Paul Starr, writing in The New Republic (March 4, 2009), also recognizes the demise of the newspaper as we’ve known it is inevitable, but Starr also points out that what we’ve known did have its flaws (monopolies, excessive operating profits not always reinvested in the public good, and declining readership beginning probably with the advent of television – the history of the Los Angeles Times is revealing on monopoly and biased reporting, and its story as a reincarnated, functional newspaper, is remarkable. Still, its history may reinforce Starr’s point that newspapers perform a public good, but not by definition; they perform a public good only if they are good newspapers. Hendrik Hertzberg, in an April 23, 2001 New Yorker review, remarks that “for eighty of its hundred and twenty years…the LA Times was venal, vicious, stupid, and dull”). Starr’s piece is less impressionistic than Rodriguez’s, and his hope has to do with the public good that newspapers provide, for “As imperfect as they have been, newspapers have been the leading institutions sustaining the values of professional journalism. A financially compromised press is more likely to be ethically compromised. And while the new digital environment is more open to ‘citizen journalism’ and the free expression of opinions, it is also more open to bias, and to journalism for hire. Online there are few clear markers to distinguish blogs and other sites that are being financed to promote a viewpoint from news sites operated independently on the basis of professional rules of reporting. So the danger is not just more corruption of government and business – it is also more corruption of journalism itself.”

At that point, of course, it’s no longer journalism, but propaganda, the reporter someone’s mouthpiece. Whatever might be said of the amateur reader and writer, presumably his ears and mouth are at least his own, and while he might listen to the weatherman, he prefers not to base his opinions solely on the predictions of professionals, for he knows the outdoors, and knows other things as well, knows that all the writing, good and bad, ends up in the recycle bin, most of it unread. But we’ll give Melville the last word here, from the end of “Bartleby”:

“Bartleby had been [prior to his scrivener job] a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office…Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

Note: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is from Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from the Bringing It All Back Home album, 1965.