Thursday, December 24, 2009

Golden Days Of Yore

Music critics have observed, correctly I think, that the most successful pop songs have always been sentimental. For an illustration of this insight, one need look no further than the Beatles. As Simon Frith observed (“Towards An Aesthetic of Popular Music”):

Twentieth-century popular music has, on the whole, been a nostalgic form. The Beatles, for example, made nostalgic music from the start, which is why they were so popular. Even on hearing a Beatles song for the first time there was a sense of the memories to come, a feeling that this could not last but that it was surely going to be pleasant to remember.

I thought of Frith’s insight while running a few last minute errands on this Christmas Eve, during which a local radio station played Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Like many of the Christmas songs that are now standards, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” dates from the World War II years, first sung not by Sinatra but by Judy Garland in the musical Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), in which she sings the song to her little sister, played by child actress Margaret O’Brien (see it here), during a scene set on—what else?—Christmas Eve. Although filmed during the war, in 1944, Meet Me In St. Louis is set in a nostalgic and sentimentalized past, late in 1903 just a few months prior to the opening of the Saint Louis World’s Fair—more properly the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—in April 1904. The title of the film is an allusion to a popular song recorded in 1904 in order to popularize the Saint Louis World’s Fair, “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” or, in its truncated form, simply “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Although the Exposition was dedicated to scientific progress—mathematician Henri Poincaré gave a lecture at the Exposition, and various “primitive” cultures were on exhibition in order to emphasize the virtues of industrial civilization—40 years later the Exposition was used as an illustration a simpler, and better, America. Such is the strange distortion of history characteristic of the sentimental impulse.

Perhaps given the long delays and difficulty of air travel this holiday season, pre-9/11/01 America, although not a decade past, is now considered nostalgic. No doubt it shall be someday.

Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were near to us, will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things We Do On Grass

“The green grass grows all around” is the title of a well-known children’s song, and in fact as a declarative utterance the lyric is quite true, as some form of grass is known all around the world, to all human cultures. For centuries certain grasses, when cut and dried and called “straw,” have been mixed with adobe to form bricks. Hence grasses, while a major source of food around the world, have many other uses, such as feeding animals—it has been estimated that grasses have been grown as food for domesticated animals for close to 10,000 years—and, of course, for lawns. In early twentieth-century jazz culture, a "joint" (a marijuana cigarette) was referred to as a “viper.” I cannot say precisely when, but at some point marijuana, or “Mary Jane,” become known as “grass,” which is how I remember it being called in the 60s. But marijuana was also referred to as “weed” as well, so marijuana, a plant which contains a pleasure-inducing drug, seems to elude conventional nomenclature. It is known as both “grass” and “weed.”

While grass is the name for marijuana (cannabis sativa or cannabis indica) in the drug culture, grass is also the plant used for lawns, that most coveted of American possessions, a sign of invidious distinction. In Arthur Miller’s masterful Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman laments he has no lawn, for in the crowded neighborhood where he lives, there isn’t enough sunlight for things to grow. Grass needs sunlight like rivers need rain. Willy’s desire to have a green lawn, and to raise a garden, isn’t simply a desire to belong to the middle class, but also expresses a desire to return to an idealized past (although for Willy that past is fictive, but he’s convinced himself otherwise). Grass is used in this way, as a metaphor for home but also a highly idealized past, in the song, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a hit for Tom Jones in the mid-60s. The singer sees his childhood home, which he has not seen for a very long time. His parents, as well as his beloved, Mary, greet him as he steps from the train—they have come to meet him. He sees again the landscape of his childhood, including the old oak tree that he once played on. It is “good to touch the green, green grass of home.” But the green grass of home is only a dream: he has not returned home, but awakens in prison. He sees the four drab walls surrounding him and realizes that he was only dreaming. In fact, he is on so-called “Death Row,” and it is the day of his execution. His dream has foreshadowed his fate: he shall return home, but only to be buried. “Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree, as they lay me ‘neath the green, green grass of home.” Green lawns also cover the dead. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Safe in their alabaster chambers, / Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, / Sleep the meek members of the resurrection, / Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.”

Green Grass And High Times:
Animal Collective – Grass
The Friends of Distinction – Grazin’ in the Grass
George Jones – When the Grass Grows Over Me
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Gary Lewis and the Playboys – Green Grass
Tim McGraw – Where the Green Grass Grows
The Outlaws – Green Grass And High Tides
The Pretty Things – Grass
Steppenwolf – Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam
XTC – Grass