Archive for Thursday, February 26, 2009

Musical lyrics full of important history

February 26, 2009

One of the reasons I enjoy listening to music is because the writers of the lyrics echo what’s going on in the world at the time the song was written. This isn’t a new thing. Minstrels and troubadours during early times often sang about the world around them — sometimes, praising it; sometimes, criticizing it.

They even got away with unflattering and dark thoughts held out about those who controlled their world. This happened because of the beauty of the song and the words.

Today especially with freedom of speech in America, many lyricists and singers still critique the world about them with impunity in the face of those they criticize.

One of my favorite songwriters is the late Woody Guthrie. I grew up listening to some of his music on the radio station from Guymon, Okla. He wrote many songs about the hard conditions during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He spoke of the desperation created by loss of jobs and loss of farms caused by the hideous dust storms.

He became the voice of the common man, especially in mid-America. He wrote music for the people John Steinbeck brought to life with prose. One of his most famous songs is “This Land is Your Land.”

Guthrie wrote about people driven to crime by the desperation of the circumstances about them. He wrote about outlaws who emulated Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. One of these outlaws was Pretty Boy Floyd. According to Guthrie’s lyrics, Pretty Boy was driven to a life of crime by a confrontation with a deputy who was rude to his wife.

Then, although he wandered the roads robbing those with plenty, he gave to those who were poor, saving farms and feeding people on relief. I’m inclined to skepticism about the good intentions of Pretty Boy Floyd. During hard times, Robin Hood legends seem to flourish. Many people felt the same way about Jesse James who became a legend associated with the tough years after the American Civil War. I think this kind of hero-seeking may well be a symptom of distrust of the government, a feeling that ordinary people are powerless in the face of what seems to be government sanctioned greed.

Now we are in the midst of tough times, again. We are engaged in two wars, drawing off a number of our people, and global financial systems are again under duress comparable to that of the 1930s. Many have had their savings and 401K retirement funds seriously depleted or wiped out. Many have lost jobs and cannot find another. As always, crime flourishes.

I don’t really like to watch local news on television because it seems to bear down on the local crooks, thefts, muggings and murder. Too much exposure makes us numb to the reality of these events.

It is a sad state of affairs when one can’t be disturbed by another’s violent death, but we are shocked by the sheer scale of swindles such as that of financier Bernie Madoff. His elaborate Ponzi scheme drew in the rich and famous to a scale seldom witnessed before. Billions of dollars went down the tubes to finance this man. He played on the greed of others who trusted him to make them get rich fast, but in the end, they became poor fast.

In Woody Guthrie’s ballad about Pretty Boy Floyd, he sang “some will rob you with a six-gun; some with a fountain pen.” In Madoff’s case, the pen was truly mightier than the sword. I wonder if there are troubadours ready to immortalize Bernie Madoff in song. I don’t think the most imaginative troubadour will be able to conceive of Madoff as a Robin Hood who fleeced the rich and gave to the poor.


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