Monday, December 8, 2014

Economic Justice In Music And Its Effects

On Thanksgiving, I spent a couple of hours visiting some neighbors who had their satellite radio on an old-timey, bluegrass station.   While I'll listen to anything except the worst of commercial crap, I'm not so big on bluegrass.  But I noticed that there were an unusual percentage of the songs that were about economic injustice, especially complaints of labor about management and the way the company tries to cheat workers and consumers.  Something you don't usually get in pop music, rock music (The Band were, after all, at least influenced by country music as by rock), or the jazz that I love so much*.   Say what you will, country is a genre that has kept touch with working people.

As mentioned, Mary was a member of that class of folks and so the economic justice content of her song is not to be wondered at.  Just about all of the people mentioned in the Second Testament as followers of Jesus were working class or destitute, you have to get to Paul's gentile converts to come up with really posh members of the movement.   When Jesus was approached by them, he advised them to get rid of their wealth and to follow him on the road to the cross, not a message with wide appeal for that demographic.   Christianity, to be acceptable to them, would have to suppress the radical demand for justice, something which is certainly of appeal to the class that liberals are supposed to be for in ways it will never be for the rich.

In this meditation on those verses that I've now been engaged in for a week, I'm wondering if the modern sense of economic justice and democracy don't flow from, or at least through those words.  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, that is The Law and The Prophets." That statement was as much a result of Mary's pregnancy as anything else that could be mentioned.  That rule, if universally followed, would produce a far more democratic, equal and just society than any sciency formulation ever produced.

The Magnificat is probably the passage most often set to music in the entire Bible. I've gone from originally intending to post one a day to being so overwhelmed with the quality and variety of just what is available online that if I posted five a day it might scratch the surface.

But what was the effect on the minds of individuals, poor and rich, of hearing those words, what was the effect of it being prayed by Catholic priests and religious, as often as once a day, and quite frequently by other clergy?   The effect was, clearly, not of immediate and complete conversion to its radical vision of economic justice and the even more radical insistence that she, a Jewish girl of no economic standing, of no social standing,  with no rights under Roman law and few under even existing Jewish law, was the first priest, chosen by God, no less, from all of humanity to witness and preach and bring Jesus into the world.  Her claim wasn't just for herself, it was for all of humanity that they were more than objects of commerce, physical objects but were a different order of being, the violation of whom corrupted their exploiters and which would deserve dire consequences.   The good things the poor were filled with was clearly not food, it was the fact that they were privileged to be a different order of creation, who had rights and the favor of God.  Something that no materialistic rival for radicalism can hope to match in its audacious demand for justice.

Perhaps it is that as long as those claims are taken seriously by enough people that her song bends the arc of history towards justice and the further achievement of it, a progress, like that of biological evolution, that is too long term, too slow and too subtle to be noticed or believed in on the basis of one person's experience based in merely empirical evidence.  Maybe you have to be inspired to see it.

I do reaffirm that I don't believe anything less than belief in those things strong enough to force someone to act in accord with them will produce decent behavior in an individual or democracy in a society.   I don't, not for a second, entertain the idea that people will act better if they don't believe in sin and that sins have consequences.


The Setting by Nicolas Gombert, posted last night, ties together a number of threads in things I've been posting, much to my surprise when I looked more into him after I posted it.

Gombert was known to me as one of the major composers in the period between the very great Josquin des Pres and the triumvirate of great composers of that other height of renaissance polyphony, Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina.  I didn't know anything of his biography other than that he was Franco-Flemish.   It was a bit of a shock to me to find out that he went from a very high position in music to being convicted of sexual conduct with a boy in his care, sentenced to years as a galley slave (I would imagine with an oar like in a jillion cartoons and movies) to be rehabilitated and having his sentence reduced by Charles V.   It would seem that, according to some sources, it was either the very setting of the Magnificat I posted that moved the king to do that or a series of penitential psalms - which I'm not familiar with.  As to the possibility that Gombert was a child molester brings up the standards of legal conviction in place at the time.  I don't doubt it's possible that he was but I wouldn't trust the courts in France of producing either a reliable conviction or acquittal.

If he was guilty, perhaps his repentance was sincere and it reformed him.  It would seem to have prevented him from gaining a high enough position to have left much information about him after he was released, except that he continued to compose.  If he were guilty and repentant, it could be that the direction the texts he chose to set would offer some clues, though we don't really know enough about any of it to know.  Nor could we do anything about it if we could. Judging by the conduct of the kings of France, it's a better bet that Gombert may have repented and sinned no more than they or their judges did.

The Gospels, other writings based in those texts, note the necessity of doing what we can in life, now, among people living now.  You can learn from the past but you can't do anything to change it.  Better to deal with crimes and criminals, justly, now than to dwell on the lost and unrepairable past.

* There is, actually, an important percentage of jazz that does have those messages.  Billy Holiday singing Strange Fruit, civil rights era pieces by some of the greatest,  Charlie Mingus, Max Roache,  Abbey Lincoln, ... are not inconsiderable.  There is a story that once Charlie Parker was at a joint with some of his friends and that Parker kept putting coins in a jukebox, playing one country song after another, after another, about as uncool a thing as was possible among the hipsters (real ones) he was with.  They asked him why he was playing that unhip junk.   He was reported to tell them to listen to the stories.   And there were few to no musicians more astute and able than Charlie Parker.

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