Friday, January 1, 2010

Blue Moon

Roughly every four weeks, or about every twenty-eight days, a full moon rises, which normally means there are twelve full moons a year. But last month, there was a full moon on December 2—and another last night, on December 31. The second full moon in the same month is conventionally referred to as a “blue moon,” the source of the expression, “Once in a blue moon.” Since a blue moon occurs only every two to three years, there are therefore only forty or so blue moons in any given century. It also means that the year that features a blue moon has thirteen moons, as did 2009, for instance. Has the association of the number thirteen with the blue moon led to the popular superstition that a blue moon is a sign of bad luck, or at least some sort of misfortune?

Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” released by Columbia Records in 1947, is a conventional country (hillbilly) ballad that speaks of the sorrow of heartbreak:

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and proved untrue.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and left me blue.

It was on a moonlight night, the stars were shining bright,
And they whispered from on high, your love had said goodbye.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and said goodbye.

As is clear, the song isn’t about a blue moon in the conventional sense—rather, it puns on the conventional meaning of a blue moon—but is an instance of the so-called pathetic fallacy, the description of inanimate natural objects in a manner that attributes to them human emotions, sensations, and feelings. John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy,” and used as an example of it the lines from Kingsley’s Alton Locke:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam —
The cruel, crawling foam.

George P. Landow explains:

According to Ruskin, grief has so affected this speaker’s mind, so distorted his vision of the world, that he attributes to the foam the characteristics of a living being. In so doing he tells us more about his state of mind, his interior world, than he does about the world which exists outside his mind, and it is this psychological truth that moves and delights the reader. The distorted version of reality does not itself please us, but we can ignore it, for “so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley’s above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow.”

But when Elvis got hold of the song, he read it aberrantly, no longer as a ballad. He transformed “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into a song, not of loss, but of love regained. In the process, he also invented rockabilly, which, as Michael Jarrett observes, “was to country music as bebop was to swing.” For rockabilly “signaled a paradigm shift: not harmony and melody, but rhythm and sound—echo from a twangy guitar, slapped bass, pounding piano, or a dixie-fried voice—became the raison d'être of popular music” (Sound Tracks, p. 162).

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