Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How Do You Measure Its Worth?

When my monthly edition of First Thing arrives in the mail, the first section I usually page to is "The Public Square." Previously home to the musings of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, the witty tidbits that fill "The Public Square" are now ably compiled by Joseph Bottum and they almost always make for an enlightening and entertaining read. But when the current January 2010 issue showed up, two article titles boldly splashed across the cover caught my attention and caused me to immediately read them.

The first was a book review by Ari L. Goldman actually titled Tuesdays With Morbid that the magazine cover labeled "Mitch Albom Is An Idiot":

I would be very surprised if Mitch Albom still sleeps with a teddy bear or saves his money in a piggy bank or believes that the stork delivers babies or does math on his fingers. But of this I am sure: If he exhibited any of these childish behaviors, he wouldn't write a book about it. He has, however, written "Have a Little Faith," a book about religion that is founded on childish ideas, naïveté, religious stereotyping, and downright ­ignorance.

Quite remarkably, he is even proud of all this. The book begins with an "author's note" in which Albom says, "while this is a book about faith, the author can make no claim to being a religion expert."

Religion expert? I would be happy with a modicum of religious literacy, but there is none to be found here. Can you imagine a book about physics or government or medicine or science or history beginning with a similar disclaimer? ("Read my book about X even though I don't know the first thing about X.") Can someone tell me why ignorance is a virtue when it comes to writing about ­religion?

While it might appear harsh to call a former sportswriter trying to write about religion an "idiot," it was part of a pattern for pieces that rated mention on the FT cover and also included Cicero Is A Superstar and Pete Seeger Is A Communist. While I was aware of Seeger's role as a useful idiot for the CPUSA and knew that other folk singers like Woody Guthrie were fellow travelers, I was a bit surprised to see one of the names named in Lauren Weiner's piece:

That part about an "ideological minority" being "celebrated" by somebody had gone over our heads, too: We did not know that the folk boom was a reverberation of an earlier boomlet, a foray into American music roots, many of whose movers and shakers were as Red as a bowl of cherries. Who on our suburban street knew that Woody Guthrie, the hero of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan, had been a columnist for the "Daily Worker?" Or that the man from whom we heard rollicking sea chanteys, a Briton named Ewan MacColl, was at one point kept from entering the United States as an undesirable alien? Then there was the cuddly-looking guy with the slightly pedantic six-record set and companion volume, "Burl Ives Presents America’s Musical Heritage." If my parents or any of the neighbors were aware that Ives had been summoned, in 1952, to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and had identified Pete Seeger as a communist, they kept the details to themselves.

Burl Ives?

By the 1940s, folk singers had become a ceremonial part of Communist Party meetings. And at nearly all of them, one would find Pete Seeger playing, under the revolutionary pseudonym "Pete Bowers," with the likes of Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Burl Ives, Josh White, Saul Aarons, Bernie Asbel, Will Geer, and a new arrival on the East Coast musical scene, Woody Guthrie.

Yes, that Burl Ives, a man likely best known to most Americans as the narrator of the beloved television classic "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" and singer of the more popular songs from the show such as "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold." Some of the material from his CPUSA days doesn't sound quite as catchy.

To achieve the effect they wanted--music that was "national in form and revolutionary in content" in Charles Seeger's conception--they dipped into the past for their material. "Jesse James," "Wayfaring Stranger," "Sweet Betsy from Pike," "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy," and "On Top of Old Smokey" were brought to urban settings, in some cases for the first time. Topical songs--many written for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign of 1948--were political editorials often set to old hymns and folk tunes: "Capitalistic Boss," "Join the Union Tonight," "Oh, What Congress Done to Me," "Defense Factory Blues," and "Marcantonio for Mayor" (for the Stalinist Vito Marcantonio).

You don't hear too many people walking around humming "Join the Union Tonight" these days, although given its recent actions I could see "Oh, What Congress Done to Me" making a comeback.

Knowing about Ives' past commie connections causes me to reconsider everything I've always thought about "Rudolph, the RED-nosed Reindeer." While some might mock such concerns, you have to wonder about what influence Ives' ideology may have had. Was "Silver and Gold" really a subtle critique of capitalistic excess? Was the intolerant Comet (the reindeer games coach) a representation of a McCarthyite archetype?

Our own Atomizer has already noted the similarities between the Island of Misfit Toys and Cuba while other have also wondered about the discreet messages that RTRNR may be trying to send about class and sexual orientation. How much deeper does this go? Sigh. Sometimes it's better not to know. Maybe I should just see if a can find a copy of "Capitalistic Boss" to download and get my mind right.

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