Thursday, March 22, 2007

Of Rock, Protest, and Golden Ages

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

In response to my previous article in which the sixties were mentioned with some nostalgia, I got this email from Dr. John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston:
During the '60s I looked around at the complexity of life and dreamt about my simpler world of the '30s.
Lienhard hosts the nationally syndicated The Engines of Our Ingenuity, a radio series about how our culture is formed by human creativity. His program must be listed among all those things that are right and good about American culture. Check your local NPR radio outlet. There is a good chance that you can tune in --as we were urged to do in the sixties.

The point Dr. Lienhard made about nostalgia is timely. Like the sixties, these are times of great disillusionment. In the sixties, we were as frustrated with the course of war and politics as many are today. Perhaps the "soundtrack" was better but that's my subjective opinion honed upon the timeless classics like Blowin' in the Wind, The Eve of Destruction, and, from Woodstock, the infamous:

I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag

Hey Jude, White Room, and, of course, Joan Baez:

And, of course, Bob Dylan, who became the conscience not just of our generation, but, as Johnson said of Shakespeare, "he was not of an age, but for all time."

I was born just days before Adolph Hitler took his own life in the bunker. About four months later, the US would drop two nuclear devices on two cities in Japan. I have vague, near infantile recollections of hearing a "pop" song about "the" bomb on the radio. In the early 70's the distinguished scholar, Jacob Bronouski, in Science and Human Values would, likewise, associate a pop song with the end of a "Golden Age" that nuclear weaponry portends. That song was "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?". Bronouski was touring Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the head of the British team sent to assess the damage:

I had blundered into this desolate landscape as instantly as one might wake among the craters of the moon. The moment of recognition when I realized that I was already in Nagasaki is present to me as I write, as vividly as when I lived it. I see the warm night and the meaningless shapes; I can even remember the tune that was coming from the ship. It was a dance tune which had been popular in 1945, and it was called “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Ma Baby…?” The power of science for good and for evil has troubled other minds than ours…. Nothing happened in 1945 except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man; and conscience, in revenge, for an instant became immediate to us…civilization face to face with its own implications. The implications are both the industrial slum which Nagasaki was before it was bombed, and the ashy desolation which the bomb made of the slum. And civilization asks of both ruins, “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Ma Baby?”

-Jacob Bronouski, Science and Human Values

Johnny Mercer wrote a 1943 version of Is You is or is You Ain't My Baby. I am inclined to believe that the recording Bronouski heard was by Louis Jordan, an American Rhythm and Blues pioneer who was born July 08, 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas and died Feb 04, 1975 in Los Angeles. An Answer.com entry lists a "Representative Song" as Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby

The concept of the "Golden Age" is brought to mind. Moderns may discount this ancient idea, but it is nevertheless ingrained in the human psyche. Europeans and Americans will most probably associate the concept with the Greek spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver and Gold. In western tradition a "Golden Age" often ends in disaster, a flaming Götterdämerung. Ancient Vedic texts often interpret history in terms of alternating dark and golden ages.

Then there are the very arcane concepts that may be found in the relatively obscure work of former MIT professor of history, Giorgio de Santillana, not to be confused with Georges Santayana who wrote: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." Santillana, rather, dealt with myths, legends, story as all related to human culture. In his book, Hamlet's Mill, he posits a zodiacal precession caused by a verifiable tilting of the equator. Thus for ancient peoples, he wrote, time and the cycles of change "came into being".

The "untuning of the sky" was, in fact, an actual event. It requires a momentary suspension of our modern mentality to allow that ancients might have found in this event a beginning of time and, eventually, a re-alignment of the heavens that would usher in a new "Golden Age". Walter Cruttenden, author of Lost Star of Myth and Time, believes the cycle of the ages has a basis in fact indirectly due to the motion of the solar system around another star. The point, rather, is not whether ancients were right or wrong. The point is that the idea of a Golden Age seems ingrained. At worst, golden ages are depicted in myth and art as primitive Arcadia.

The loss of Golden Age seems always associated or caused by those things associated with civilization such as war. A return to Arcadia seems always to beckon just below the wakeful human consciousness. Is it ingrained or learned? Is "Arcadia" lost upon achieving civilization. Was Rousseau correct? Was Voltaire wrong?

I recall an infant dream in which I floated effortlessly down a wide but gentle river. The trees on either side grew taller, denser, darker as I drifted. At last the branches overhead met and merged, forming a lovely intricate, crystalline lattice. The woods on either side were, to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost, "lovely, dark and deep". Had I tapped into the human, sub-concious desire to return to a gentle, golden age?

A closing thought in video:

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