(Swans - October 7, 2013) I recently saw the 1967 film To Sir, With Love, about a black teacher (played by Sidney Poitier) of rebellious working-class youths in England, to help explain to my youngest daughter, angry about the unruliness in her high school algebra class, about the origins and antidotes to classroom disruptiveness by adolescents. We began her education on this topic by first viewing the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause (with James Dean's iconic portrayal directed by Nicholas Ray). We also enjoyed To Sir, With Love because it features a song that became a hit in its day, and retains its luster when performed by Lulu (Lulu Kennedy-Cairns) decades after she premiered it as an 18-year-old.
We also recently saw François Truffaut's 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, to reflect on the social and political pressures that attack individuals to prevent them from reading, thinking, and engaging in significant interpersonal communication. Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 is a complete work of art from start to finish, a rare achievement in commercial cinema at any time. I think such cinema art is impossible to produce today. This film is a lyrical portrayal of a sensitive love story between individual human hearts and collective human memory as preserved in literature, despite a dark age of oppression by enforced mediocrity. The music of this film was composed by Bernard Herrmann (who also scored Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho,) and is the plasma or fluid stream in which all the scenes, themes, and ideas of Fahrenheit 451 are swept along into a confluence of organic unity.
Youth today who first encounter those truly artistic examples of cinema and popular music from the past may be surprised to find how compelling they can be in presenting images of the very same problems and possibilities they have just become aware of. They can also be awakened to the sad fact that so many years have passed with so little progress on changing negative attitudes, and solving human problems, which they can so easily imagine being corrected. For me such relics of four to six decades ago are still living memories, and in that capacity they remain a part of my consciousness in the present. Bluntly, I have grown older witnessing what I judge to be the lack of progress on changing negative attitudes and solving human problems in the national and world societies I live in. This is not a new discovery for me, but a continuing disappointment. While it is easy to identify incidental improvements that have been made in the general quality of life for certain populations over the last half century, it is nevertheless clear that immense amounts of effort and energy have been expended by many groupings of political power, capital, ideology, religious affiliations, and tribalism to resist progress for the full emancipation of individual human potential and social development.
While meditating on these thoughts, I came across a recording of the traditional song Amazing Grace played by guitarist Duane Allman. I was very touched by this recording, and I will try (futilely, no doubt) to explain why.
I recall the crazy time of less than 13 and a half months, inside of 1970-1971, when Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Duane Allman all died. This was the year when all the college men my age and older made new plans depending on what numbers they had drawn (based on their birthdays) in the lottery held on 01 December 1969 to set the order for being drafted into the US military. This was during the height of the Vietnam War.
College men usually had deferments from military service until graduation (or flunking out). Those who graduated with skills the military could exploit, when they were positioned behind desks and computers rather than rifles, could be inducted into officer training programs and then work off their terms of service in relative safety far from combat zones. As a result, on the second of December 1969 many thousands of college men switched their majors into pre-law and pre-medicine. Many small specialty and arts programs died overnight.
I had lost my student deferment because of a clerical error (which the Draft Board refused to correct, so I was classified 1A) and had been called up to report for induction into the army each month during most of 1969. But, I also kept getting month-to-month postponements because of many bureaucratic delays as thousands of appeals had been filed and had to be heard before the Draft Board got to me. I lucked out on the lottery and got a very high number (362), so I was subsequently passed up. Pure dumb luck.
Because of this experience, I have vivid memories of that time, such as its music, which can mean so much during a stressful period. While people like Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Allman could be seen as "just entertainers," I intuitively knew that they were artists aware of what the people of my generation (and theirs) were feeling and facing, and that many of my peers hung onto the music and art of these performers (and weren't they truly artists at heart?), because there was precious little else certain in our lives to hang onto.
Today, there are many more expertly trained pop music technicians, but I do not see as much real artistry in pop music, nor as much social and psychological connection to real humanity, at least it's not what's showcased. Swinging naked on a wrecking ball (as was done recently to get attention) may be "entertaining" but it ain't art, and it ain't connected in any meaningful way to people's lives. It's all just for the money, isn't it? Maybe I am now too old to notice the authentic kinds of artistic and psychic connections -- if any -- in today's pop scene.
So, a track like Allman's Amazing Grace is affecting for me both because of its intrinsic beauty and pathos, and because it reminds me of how much so many of my generation got out of the music artists like Allman and his peers played in the background of our tumultuous lives over four decades ago.
Music is very important. The best music, the most helpful and deserving music, is that made by people who are striving to be the best versions of themselves that they can achieve, rather than just trying to "be popular" or "famous" or "make money." All of that -- to whatever extent one acquires it -- should just be a consequence of the audience one's artistry attracts on its merits.
My younger daughter is in a pop-rock band with three of her friends. She's having fun (lack of adult supervision seems to be a major component of this fun) and exercising her growing music skills. Thinking of this band's possibilities, and recollecting the memories already described, I arrived at the late-night daydream that perhaps these girls might find it interesting to arrange their own interpretation of a song by Jackie DeShannon, popular in my teenage years, Put A Little Love In Your Heart. Lulu did a lovely and vibrant version of it in 2005. Jackie DeShannon's original reminds me of the promise for a radiant future that the youth of half a century ago felt was possible.
One reason Lulu's music video of Put A Little Love In Your Heart is so satisfying is because she personally is just radiant as an image of triumphant personal survival. She is pure joyful energy and spirited singing. Despite a recalcitrant world resisting its own improvement of the global quality of life, some individuals can survive brilliantly and constructively, by doctoring, or teaching, or building useful things, or making life-affirming music, and by keeping such messages of pure goodness alive as Put A Little Love In Your Heart.
My thoughts in this ramble come full circle as I think of my young daughter's future in singing, and also enjoy Lulu's 2005 performance of perhaps her biggest hit, from 46 years ago in 1967, To Sir, With Love.
I have lost the naïveté of my teenage years, and confidence in collective human behavior, but I retain the same desire I had in my youth for the present to somehow unfold so its embedded and innate promise for a radiant future can actually be realized.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)