Saturday, December 11, 2010

Songs of Songs

Angels. Ghent
Does anybody give it their all the way the angels from the Ghent Altarpiece (1427-29) do? Their effort, their gusto, and the concerted (ha ha!) effort of those incredible frowns render the act of singing a completely physical, and possibly existential, one.  Their refinery is pretty swell, too.  The Ghent Altarpiece is a world unto itself, and the angels have always been favorites: the most physically real of the hundreds of figures painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.  While we know that their facial expressions are actually prescribed by singing manuals (one could read the music on singers' faces as well as hear it in their voice in the Middle Ages), I don't think that we know what they're singing.  A song oft sung before, undoubtedly, a song of a song.  And so today, I have two songs of songs - two sets of renditions of songs originally sung by someone else.  For how else to know if a song lives then by someone else singing it?

The first is of wee Eleanor, singing "Cornbread and Butterbeans" (and you across the table; hugging you and kissing you, as long as I am able).  It's by none other than the Carolina Chocolate Drops (who just received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album!!!) and there I am driving her to school the other day, when out of the back seat emerges this little song.  Nice.

The second song resung is actually a gateway to a whole universe of songs resung. History teachers have taken our favorite songs from the 1980s (and yes, mistakes were made, but Siouxie and the Banshees did rock) and rewritten the lyrics to give us prescient and pithy (and rhyming) versions of history. I give you Beowulf, but they have their own channel on YouTube where you can enjoy all 48 they've done thus far (Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" for the French Revolution is pretty swell).

Happy Holidays to us all!


  1. The last several entries in your blog have left me awed. I remember going to synagogue with my family every Saturday when I was growing up, and listening to Rabbi Cohen's sermons. The prayers and the songs before and after just seemed like the dues one had to pay to listen to the sermon, and the more Hebrew I learned in Hebrew school the more irrelevant those prayers and songs became-- the songs particularly, mostly set to Ashkenazic melodies but sung in modern Sephardic Hebrew, so the accents invariably fell on the wrong syllables, which drove me wild.

    Rabbi Cohen (may he rest in peace) would usually take as his text the portion of the Torah reading for that week, and then he would explicate it, make it come alive, bring it to some contemporary context.... and then....voilĂ , in my eight- or nine-year-old brain would arrive the epiphany, the Ah-Hah moment: So THAT's what this story is about! So THAT's why we should do so and so! So THAT's what being Jewish means! Even now, more than 50 years after all that synagogue-going, after coming to a truce with my discomfort with organized religion, disenchantment with God, disbelief in the chosen-people concept, etc. etc.... I STILL light the Shabbat candles, don't eat pork, don't eat bread (not even brioche or croissants!) during Passover. Why? Because of Rabbi Cohen. Taking a text, a book, a work of art, whatever, and transforming its label "sacred" to "relevant"-- THAT's what a real teacher does.

    To read your blog and have you summon up a Van Eyck alterpiece, or a carving on a column, or a stitched-together annotated manuscript, or Mandeville's Travels.... and bring into modern context everything from the Republican's embrace of greed to Wiki-leaks.... simply mindblowing. I imagine you are doing that with your students, not just here in your blog, and that there is a whole group of people whose lives will have been changed because of you. They'll probably still eat pork-- not your fault: we can't all be Rabbi Cohen--, but they will look differently, look deeper, will write their own annotations around the stitched texts in their lives.... and that's a great thing that you are doing. A brilliant thing. I was impressed by how you took the most mundane of peculiarities about Brittany and could reinterpret them in another context. But finding Wiki-leaks in Mandeville's Travels.... that is way, way, WAY cool. Bravo!

    And happy holidays to you, too!

  2. I am completely humbled and inspired, dear David. "From sacred to relevant" - as Mac and I were discussing last night - would be the greatest accomplishment, the greatest liveliness, we could participate in. That the relevance shifts from individual to community and back again, and throughout history, makes it so exciting. Having a friend like you makes it all worthwhile.