If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.
-- Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”
When a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it.
-- August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
When I was a child, there was a big sexy man on network television, with hair like Elvis and a voice like graveled honey. A hundred musicians sat behind him, poised to follow his slightest gesture. He talked, and his talk was like singing, and what he said was that he hungered and thirsted for Mozart. And Bach, and Beethoven, and Brahms, and Stravinsky, and Hindemith, and Ravel, and Franck, and Wagner, and Villa Lobos, and Gershwin, and Copland, and . . . He would talk until I salivated, and he would say, in effect, “You gotta hear this!” Then he moved his arms, and the musicians made their sounds, and I knew that he had spoken truly. He taught me that, no matter what my unfulfilled desire, I could find a satisfaction for it in his universe of sound. He may have saved my life.
When I was boy in America, conductors of classical music were frizzy-haired Europeans with strange affect, unpronounceable names and impenetrable accents. Such men wore strange clothes, and worked in rooms of weird silence, where those who came to listen forbade themselves the signs of pleasure. How could one tell if there was any pleasure to be had? But this guy, this Lenny, loved popular music, and often quoted from it. He wrote songs that I actually heard on the radio. He talked like a real person, and looked like a grown-up version of the cool kids at my school. He wanted to play Mozart for me because I shouldn’t have to live without Mozart. If a genius can be a regular guy, Leonard Bernstein was the model of it. His life was a violation of classical class categories.
The place – the social location – of beauty in the world is a difficult question. As in the opera house bosoms heave, of prima donna and bourgeous dowager alike, we can lose our appetite for the art. It’s so expensive, and its semiology of presentation so chock with ensigns of status, that a popular pleasure once bravoed by Milanese pipefitters is reduced to snobbery. Art can be a deliberate insult to those selected for exclusion from its presence. The cost of the curtain alone might have fed a thousand families. Then we may ask, in a world where some are brutalized and starving, how dare they sing this song? Why should I pay for it? Why should my society pay for it? Why permit it? They say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and they do not say it kindly. The purest of revolutions are the ones that say there shall be no more fiddling till the revolution is complete – and of course it’s not complete yet. And fiddlers are enemies of the people. Or the state. Or God. Taliban and Khmer Rouge agree on this.
But try and stop people from fiddling. Just try. Even a chain-gang has its songs and its steps. Chanties organize the heart-beat and the breath, serving oppressor and oppressed, saving work and life. Even when humble, art is duplicitous, a healer and an overseer.
“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy,” wrote Frederick Douglass. The enslaved man’s song “represents the sorrows of his heart.”* By giving sorrow an objective form, the singer keeps his heart from breaking, and may live – to work another day. Radicals have sometimes condemned the “Negro spiritual” as accommodation to slavery, but that’s seminar-table talk. When you have a boot on your neck, as the liberationist would say, survival is resistance – and if the seminar were really listening, it would know that the song has a double meaning.
God only knows the trouble I’ve seen, except for those who hear my song – they know. But there is a balm in Gilead (a long way from here), and someday, together, we’ll follow the drinking gourd (or is it the Dipper?), and cross the Jordan (or is it the Ohio?) Then, when we’re free, we’ll walk all over God’s heav’n, (down the street and into your store, your school, your profession and your White House).
If you’re not enslaved, of course, you must sing from another clef. You must dream that others shall be free, and to do that you must rise above your situation. The freedom-dream of an enslaved person is particular, but the freedom-dream of a free person is general. A free just person must dream that Alle Menschen werden Brüder – liberation-songs are specific, but justice-songs are universal. And that’s where Lenny comes in.
What sins we heirs of Enlightenment have committed against our legacy! To package the music of Enlightenment like so much bitter medicine, no pain no gain! To devise a critical theory for microcategories of industrial rock ‘n’ roll, and lob our treasures into a dustbin labeled “phallologocentrism.” Lenny knew the music is good for us, but not like bitter pills. The music is good in the way that joy is good. No one should have to live without Mozart.
*Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave