Politics and Cultural Americanism
Buy Their Fruits?
As the present volume considers the issues of politics and Americanism, I begin with a definition of terms. The dictionary defines “election” as “the selection of a person or persons from among candidates for a position, especially political office.” We find “fatigue” rendered as “extreme tiredness after exertion,” and “weakness in materials, especially metal, caused by repeated variations of stress.” All who endured the catastrophic spectacle of the American presidential election process of 2016—a rhetorical gladiatorial combat of unprecedented gruesomeness—might reasonably conclude that the realm into which we enter can in fact admit no hope, Dantean allusion intended. But as scholarship demands objectivity and precision, as our Faith demands hope, and given the present charge to consider not only politics but the American condition, we can define ‘election fatigue’ as follows: “The state of mental weakness resulting from repeated stressful exposure to candidates of questionable virtue for a formerly recognizable and venerable political office” (see: debasement of the political process, philosophical chickens coming home to roost).
In the immediate American political past, we have been compelled to watch a horrible accident: two reckless trains colliding head-on—carrying venom, bile, ignorance, and incivility—running over the fair damsels Truth, Goodness, and Charity tied to the tracks of a manifestly political and philosophical destiny. Recovery from trauma this profound can only come about through persistent recourse to prayer, bourbon, and Beethoven’s slow movements. That said, I leave the more specifically theological and philosophical considerations of politics and Americanism to others in these pages. I will focus rather on how Catholic principles of civic duty can apply to our American cultural heritage, certain political aspects of music, and the existence of recognizable American contributions to musical history, both bad and good.
As nature and religion prescribe to children dutiful conduct towards the parents who brought them into the world, so nature and religion impose on citizens certain obligations towards their country and its rulers. These obligations may be reduced to those of patriotism and obedience. Patriotism requires that the citizen should have a reasonable esteem and love for his country…[which] will lead the citizen to show honor and respect to its rulers. They represent the State, and are entrusted by God with power to rule it for the common good. The citizen’s chief duty is to obey the just laws of his country.1
But how does this relate to culture? Does civil allegiance in fact oblige loyalty to the artistic traditions of one’s homeland? To the extent that such loyalty remains licit, I believe it does. Children should learn to love the genuinely good music of their homeland; folk music provides, in fact, an essential tool for the formation not only of the musically literate child, but also the developing citizen.
All of this assumes, however, the existence of a recognizable tradition, and one of sufficient substance to inspire love and fidelity. This allegiance does not, however, oblige us to embrace as culturally valid any music employed for overtly manipulative means, or far worse, to compromise faith or morals in the attempt to justify modes of artistic expression based only on their distinctly American origin (“my music, right or wrong…”). A bad philosophical tree can hardly yield good cultural fruit, the highly selective harvest and ingestion of which requires not only prudence, but caution: rotten apples bite back.
Music and Politics
The use of music to serve political or ideological ends spans all of history, and includes examples from every genre. In the cultivated realm, these include Mozart’s velvet operatic glove covering the iron fist of Beaumarchais’s social engineering in The Marriage of Figaro; Shostakovich’s forced labor in service of the Soviet propaganda machine; Hitler’s conscription Bruckner and Richard Strauss, whose music he thought provided his movement a sufficiently imperial soundtrack.
Vernacular music, whether traditional folk music or more contemporary popular forms, lends itself particularly well to politicization. Thousands of songs defiantly protest (positively) real injustice, or (negatively) perceived encroachment on personal license. Without the bulwark of Catholic morality—and given the predictable downward pull of fallen nature on the creative impulse—the devolution of cultural output toward licentiousness comes as no surprise. With ultimate ends removed as potential sources of inspiration—existential absolutes Truth, Goodness and Beauty, to say nothing of the contemplation and praise of God—what remains follows a predictable course.2
American culture stood at an ideological intersection of tradition and progress at the end of the 19th century. “Unlike commerce and industry, national taste and accomplishment in music were more aspiration than fact.”3 For composers, this aspiration manifested itself in derivation. “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to inspire the American mind to original greatness rather than ‘hollow’ imitation.4 But since most serious American music depended upon European models, what would be left to inspire an American composer if he ignored the “courtly muses,” the only traditionally known sources of artistic inspiration? In true democratic fashion, traditional and progressive forces filled the vacuum created by the confusion: a battle raged between the forces of cultivated and vernacular music for the ears of America, and the old-style ramparts of fugues and counterpoint began to crumble under the pressure exerted by ragtime and minstrelsy—and worse would come.
The Seduction of Rock n’ Roll
As recently as 1990, Webster’s dictionary defined “Rock n’ Roll” as: “A style of popular music of Afro-American origin, characterized by an insistent, heavily accented syncopated rhythm and an obsessive repetition of short musical phrases, tending to build up tension in an audience and induce a state of group frenzy when played very loud.”5 Not a distinct form or school, Rock includes foundational elements of multiple vernacular trends, all of them technically fundamental, and with predominantly southern and urban black roots such as blues, jazz, and gospel. By the late 1940’s, country music, itself an Americanized form of folk music incorporating pre-colonial and pioneer elements, fused with the already heterogeneous amalgam, bridging crucial racial and commercial divides.
More important than the coalescence of vernacular forms, however, a recognizable cultural ethos emerged, one based on purposefully obscured conceptions of racial identity, moral norms (especially sexual), and sociological hierarchy, most notably regarding traditional generational relationships. Championed by savvy producers and preternaturally charismatic performers—not to mention emerging technology and mass distribution mechanisms of radio and television—a highly sensually charged youth-focused medium emerged, one with universal appeal.
From the mid-20th-century to the present day, the primary cultural American export has been “junk,” musical, stylistic, and culinary. To those with palates unsullied enough to reject Drive-Thru fare as repugnant I say, chapeau! For most of us, however, it remains a nearly irresistible combination of sugar, fat, and salt designed to titillate the taste buds, and something we must resist by an act of the will. With its sweet melodies, voluptuous harmonies, and savory rhythms, popular music—a ubiquitous reality—appeals no less to our fallen senses. For those who deny its potential to infect I say, beware! Children, young and old, yearn to partake. Popular culture draws its adherents in from both ends of the chronological spectrum—hyper-sophisticating the young, infantilizing the old—keeping all in a suspended state of voracious immaturity. The appetite only grows with ever-increasing ease of access.
America’s Musical Heritage
Notwithstanding the obvious negative American impact on cultural history, positive contributions exist as well. For some time after the founding of the republic, natural goodness and morality remained driving forces. America’s quasi-religious founding principles pervaded society, imposing a national moral identity and relentless work ethic.6 An avoidance of doctrine as a dynamic element of religiosity reflected the mood of the age: American Protestantism underwent foundational changes as the result of the dialectic with humanist philosophies, becoming more a social think-tank than an organized religion, recognizable as such primarily by what remained of religious ceremony, especially music. Original American contributions along these lines include the genuinely effective hymnody in the mode of Charles Wesley, and even the striking if peculiar Quaker Shape-note tradition.
Emerson’s condemnation of the “European courtly muses” rings hollow, and indicates a philosophical rather than artistic prejudice. To their credit and our national pride, the best American composers chose to develop their talents using traditional models and techniques, taught by Horatio Parker and Antonín DvoÅ™ák in this country, Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and the best of the Old School Viennese. Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber rightly deserve a place among history’s great composers; though decidedly more populist both in approach and appeal, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Leonard Bernstein, and even modern film composers such as John Williams have made legitimate contributions to music.
Charles Ives (1884-1954), perhaps the most polarizing of the American greats, employed highly experimental procedures at times. He composed in isolation, and though properly trained, he never earned his living writing music (only in America could the defining composer be an undeniable success not as a composer but an insurance executive). Though he never intended that a good deal of his music leave the ‘laboratory,’ he created works of often startling beauty, and lasting importance (the Third Symphony won a Pulitzer prize in 1946): with due respect to Stephen Foster, he defined American art song.7
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) might best represent not only the “American Sound,” but the American approach to bridging the gap between cultivated art traditions, and an increasingly vernacular society. Though he studied with Boulanger and at times employed modernist techniques, he created works both of immediate accessibility and lasting value by his willingness to simplify his style for the sake of broader audience appeal. His ballet scores Rodeo and Appalachian Spring are justifiably well-known and loved; his stirring Fanfare for the Common Man is quintessentially American.
A prodigiously talented composer, pianist, and singer, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) wrote successfully in every genre, winning the Pulitzer Prize twice. He wrote in an unapologetically traditional—though but by no means anachronistic—mode. Perhaps America’s supreme lyrical composer, he portrayed a depth of harmonic melancholy matched by few others in history: his Adagio for Strings may be the ultimate expression of pathos in all of music.
As Catholic Americans, we must strive to retain the best of Christian culture, and to restore it to the greatest extent possible. We fight an uphill battle as an accident of birth, but one we cannot fail to engage. The American mind intuitively grasps the European humanist thinkers; it also understands paradox. George Washington—aware of the instability inherent in a centralized government established by a revolution fought against the concept of centralized government—wrote in his Farewell Address, “The very idea of the power and the right of the People to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.”8
Unchecked individual liberty leads to anarchy—personal, artistic, and political. Avoiding—or at least learning from—metaphysical train wrecks and maintaining our cultural sanity unfortunately requires the rejection of most of our country’s contributions to art and thought. Rather than see this a cause for despair, however, we must remain eternally grateful for the clear indication that we have an obligation of higher citizenship: God’s call for our sanctification, and Christendom, our proper cultural birthright.
Dr. Andrew Childs lives in St. Marys, Kansas, with his wife and four children. He serves currently as Associate Dean and Humanities Chair at St. Mary’s College, Head of the Department of Music at St. Mary’s Academy, and as an assistant to the Director of Education for the US District of the SSPX. He has taught at Yale University, the University of California at Irvine, Connecticut College, and Missouri State University.
1 Catholic Encyclopedia, “Civil Allegiance”
2 No less authority on Godlessness than Martin Luther advises, “He who loves not wine, women, and song, remains a fool his whole life long.”
3 Stuart Feder, The Life of Charles Ives.
4 Emerson, “The American Scholar”
5 The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary, 1990. This definition no longer exists; Webster’s had it “sanitized.”
6 The paradox of American religiosity is the principle of absolute pluralism: that which makes it most uniquely American, also makes it distinctly non-religious.
7 A recording I might suggest: Songs of Charles Ives, Centaur records #2796
8 American Historical Documents, 239.