Archive for Thursday, December 11, 2008

Books, music live on through ages

December 11, 2008

On days when I despair of getting everything done that I had planned both for the day and for my life, I comfort myself by thinking of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s short poem “Ozymandias.” The poem recounts a desert scene where a traveler confronts the spectacle of large broken pieces of a large statue amidst drifting sand. On the remnants of a broken piece of stone, there is an inscription that declares:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

But, the traveler observes that:

“Nothing beside remains: round the decay

of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I was introduced to this poem in my middle school years, thanks to a wonderful teacher, and it impressed me so much that it has remained with me all my life. When I get overwhelmed with my tasks and feel like I’m spinning my wheels hopelessly, I think of old Ozymandias and smile. He managed to conquer a host of people and build huge monuments, but in the end, all of his work came to nothing but lumps in sand. So, if I don’t quite measure up with my relatively minor tasks, I might feel frustrated today, but in an eternity of struggle, it means little.

And in the end, I don’t really give the proper respect due to our world’s leaders, military and political, that I perhaps should. There have been many great generals and conquering heads of state in my relatively brief lifetime. However, those who have influenced me most tend to be gentler folk, who may never have given an order or picked up a weapon. Think of Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt and many other writers, artists and musicians. They aren’t remembered because they physically overwhelmed anybody; they are remembered because of the beauty and wisdom they created. They haven’t damaged bodies and razed the foundations of huge buildings. Their words, pictures and music soothed our souls and inspired us to accomplish the better deeds in our lives.

When I left my remote Kansas farm home to go to the University of Kansas, my world opened up, and I came into contact with many exciting new ideas and influences. I began learning about people and movements espoused by fellow students. My roommate, an honor student from Wichita, introduced me to her interests in music. I learned to appreciate the beauty of operatic singing as well as folk singing, ballets and modern dance. I spent weekends going to see various performing artists brought to Strong Hall by the University.

One of the artists I learned to love through my roommate’s record collection was Odetta. She had a powerful voice enhanced by classical training. As I listened to her singing lullabies such as “All the Pretty Horses,” I was saddened to learn that it was a lullaby sung to children of the Master by African American nannies separated from their own babies to take care of the children of those men who claimed to own them. When she sang “No More Auction Block for Me,” tears came to my eyes. And, I felt transformed when she sang “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.” The pathos in her voice, its depth, its power touched my soul. She touched others. She was a major influence on Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Janis Joplin and even Bruce Springsteen. She was a favorite of Martin Luther King. Her music provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. She died Dec. 2, but had last performed on Oct. 25.

Her music and soul will live on in the hearts and minds of those who heard her. It will resound down through the ages and be there long after her body has returned to the earth.

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