Modernism Monday: “Overcome,” Laura Mvula, ft. Nile Rodgers

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I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: who do I want to be?  What are the facets of myself?  Woman, American, tall, professional…what else?  And which on that long list of identifiers has been chosen for me?  And which do I actually want to keep as my own?

A friend of mine in high school made me a pin, that I still have to this day, that says “Self-described and self-defined.”  What perfect freedom there is in that; and, also, risk of isolation.  The bravest people I know are those who actively, consciously, deliberately sculpt out their own lives.  People who listen to themselves and select (or create) a path forward, who hew closely to their own truth.  Those are my heroes.

“Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

____

When your heart is broken down
And your head don’t reach the sky
Take your broken wings and fly

When your head is heavy, low
And the tears they keep falling
Take your broken feet and run

With the world upon your shoulders
Nowhere left to hide
Keep your head up carry on

It ain’t no time to die
Even though we suffer
Come together we pray

Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children
All God’s children run round the mountain run
Round the mountain all God’s children
All God’s children run round the mountain run
Round the mountain all God’s children run

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Modernism Monday: “Din Daa Daa” The Roots

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The exceptionally funky band The Roots cover the exceptionally cool George Kranz.  This track is basically a vehicle to showcase Questlove’s amazing drumming and general rhythm skills.  But I love it for its spare modernism.  It reminds me a lot of what would happen if Bobby McFerrin and Laurie Anderson got together.  It’s an amazing and fun soundscape until 3:20 when the rest of the song drops.

Modernism Monday: “Que Sera Sera,” Sly & The Family Stone

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I am white woman who grew up in a series of small, almost entirely white towns.  I attended a homogenous high school and a pretty homogenous college.  My childhood hero, Kirby Puckett, was black, but maybe because he was only about two inches tall on his baseball cards, it never occurred to me that he was a difference race.  I just didn’t see it.  This isn’t a case of charming “race blindness” that we all hope little kids have.  It was a stereotypical case of a small brain rationalizing new information in its own little limited context.

The first time I truly understood there were different people in the world wasn’t because I met them in person – that came later – but because I heard them.  Sly & The Family Stone’s calmly resigned, melancholy version of the Doris Day’s chipper “Que Sera Sera” was an undeniable clue that my worldview was an exception to the norm.  Doris’s “Que Sera Sera” was indefatigably hopeful because it was founded on the certainty that it was the way of her world for things to work out for the best.  As I was the white daughter of two upper middle class parents, living in a safe neighborhood, the “whatever” that “will be” in my life, too, was pretty much guaranteed to be one of a selection of good options.  I hated Doris’s song because it was too treacly, not because it wasn’t true.

Doris Day’s version came out in 1948, three years after America had emerged victorious from World War II with a strong economy.  Things were on the up and up.  1948 also marked two fundamental milestones for civil rights.  In February, Truman sent a letter to Congress on the issue of the rights of African Americans, the first sitting president in history to address the issue.  His letter recognized cracks in the social contract that had been there for centuries:

“Today, the American people enjoy more freedom and opportunity than ever before. Never in our history has there been better reason to hope for the complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.  We shall not, however, finally achieve the ideals for which this Nation was founded so long as any American suffers discrimination as a result of his race, or religion, or color, or the land of origin of his forefathers.  Unfortunately, there still are examples—flagrant examples—of discrimination which are utterly contrary to our ideals. Not all groups of our population are free from the fear of violence. Not all groups are free to live and work where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship and participation in the government under which they live.”

And, five months later, Truman  signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the armed forces – in the face of overwhelming criticism from the various service secretaries.

The following year, the number of lynchings went up.

In Doris Day’s America, there was already “complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.”  In the entire United States of America, however, not so much.  Twenty years and the birth of a movement later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated, riots would set major cities on fire throughout the country, and finally, public schools would begin to de-segregate.  So in 1973, when Sly & The Family Stone reinterpreted Day’s message, it really wasn’t all that clear what the future would hold for all Americans.  Would the country realize that it was fragmented into different pockets of affluence, poverty, and luck?  Would it care?  Who would help whom, and how?  Would Dr. King’s message reach anyone anymore, or would he become a sentimentalized figurehead wheeled out every year so white people could express politically correct devotion to the idea of equality?

In 2008 when America elected its first black president, many announced that we were now living in a “post-racial America.”  On the contrary: we have spent the last seven years grappling with why this still isn’t true.

In King’s words, “Whatever you do, you have to keep moving forwards.”  Given we truly do have the power to collectively change our environments, we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to spend today in acts of service, yes, but also imagining what about the country we would want to change.  Consider how we would unify the country that still remains a loose collection of affluence, poverty, and luck.  And then, tomorrow, start moving forwards.

 

Modernism Monday: “Listen to the Man,” George Ezra

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Hi there, Yankette Nation! I’m back! I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long. Life, you know. But so many of you lovely people wrote and asked “WTF – where did you go?” that I pushed life aside to write you all small, vaguely inane blog posts about small, vaguely inane songs.

This song is small but not inane. George Ezra is a new up-and-coming singer-songwriter from Britain who has been making quite a huge splash. I can’t decide what I like better: the song, or the video. You decide.

Modernism Monday: “Rolling Stone,” Reuben and the Dark

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This band is a new discovery for me, and I’m more than a little obsessed with this song.  The group is from Canada and makes music that is as expansive and beautiful as the country itself.  My cousin compared the banjo to the telephone poles that pin a highway to the earth.  Since this song sounds like a high-speed yet solo car journey, I think he’s exactly right.

FRIEND WEEK! Modernism Monday: “Ask,” The Smiths. Submitted by Iain.

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Yankette’s Reaction:

This song is so sweet! It sounds like it was written for (and by?) an awkward high-schooler. I love the rhythm, obviously. But, “if it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together?” Well that’s different.  Songs like this remind me that it’s so hard to find current pop songs that are this interesting and direct. The song sounds so happy but there is clearly a message here.

Iain’s Justification:

I love this song. It’s a study in abnormal black/white duality that intentionally ignores the gray middle ground. Moz starts the song by claiming that “shyness is nice” but immediately follows it with “shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to” – is the implication that he likes it if you don’t do all the things in life you’d like to? The lyrics culminate in the chorus – “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb – the bomb – the bomb – that will bring us together.” Logically, that means that either love or a destructive, possibly deadly force that will bring us together; there’s no room for something like chemistry, luck, or penguins to draw us together. There’s love. Or there’s the bomb.

The song is filled with these black/white contradictions that ignore the middle ground – “spending warm summer days indoors” (wouldn’t the obvious choice be to be outdoors on a warm summer day?) or “ask me/I won’t say no/how could I?” (so it’s just yes or no, no partial answers).

The lyrics are typical Moz, but it’s also hard to not also be swept up in Johnny Marr’s exuberant guitar line. Marr has a sharp ear for hooks – as is also evident from his tenure with Modest Mouse, which moved that group into an even more radio-friendly, hook-heavy sound – so it is no surprise that his boisterous playing almost always turns Moz’s dark, twisty, and twisted lyrics into bouncy pop poems.

Why did I put this song forward? I don’t have any particular nostalgia for this song, it doesn’t bring up any particular emotions or past triumphs, and it isn’t because I am a lifelong fan of the Smiths – I got into the group quite late, actually. I circled off this song multiple times, but it always came back. I thought about Trampled by Turtles’ “Keys to Paradise,” maybe something from Tanya Donelly for the Yankette (can’t get much more New England than the Throwing Muses and its offshoots), or even the Beatles. But the Smiths’ “Ask” is just such a phenomenal song – and a bastard of an earworm at that – that I had to put it forward. (And yes, I’m cheating by linking to other songs I considered, but I live to cheat. Well, unless it’s a standardized test that requires a scan of the veins in my hand in order to even enter the testing room.)

Modernism Monday: “Echo,” Helen Jane Long

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The author of a book I read years ago described jet lag as a soul, on a tether to the physical body, making its way back home after the body has traveled too far, too fast.  That may or may not explain why I’ve felt slightly catatonic all day today, and why this post is so late.  Another explanation is a deep sense of contented stability brought about from returning to a good life that I have worked hard to create.  Either/or.

Good night.