Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hero & Sage: Folksong as Pastoral

THE HERO AND THE SAGE: The Folk Music Revival As Pastoral

Contemporary popular art certainly isn't "folk art" by any definition; nor does it have the pretentions of being fine art. But that doesn't mean we can't learn anything from it, because sometimes it says something that resonates with our basic feelings. The kind of thing that Jung would have said hit on an archetype that was lodged in our collective unconscious.

This summer, amidst the myriad bombs at the movie box office was one real financial success that made a new superstar: the movie was The Empire Strikes Back and the superstar was Yoda, the Jedi master.

That the second Star Wars movie was box office was perhaps to be expected--but Yoda? Admittedly he has a lot of personal charm, perhaps best described by thinking of him as a cross between Kermit the Frog and Mr. Spock. With improvements: he still lives in the swamp that Kermit gave up for his trenchcoat and microphone, and his ears have a vitality and expressiveness that Spock's never aspired to. He is an absolute technical triumph of muppetry and Frank Oz deserves an oscar by acclamation.

But there is also something more, something that draws us to this confrontation between Yoda and Luke Skywalker. Luke has come to the swamp to learn to use the Force, and to do that he has to seek Yoda in his dismal hole. But if Yoda lives bodily in muck his mind travels the universe freely--while Luke, normally at home amidst the full plethora of super modern technology and the blessings of interplanetary civilization, is so mired in behavioral patterning that he drops his training at the first opportunity for meaningless heroics.

It is an ancient theme, this interaction of hero and sage: the Zen annals resound with deaf samurai asking Roshis questions they don't really want answered, western fairy tales tell again and again of heros who won't listen because they have to learn the hard way.

But what has this to do with the folk music revival? Consider, if you will, a similar contrast: the folk-rock "star" always on the move with their complement of groupies burdened with the latest monstrous bit of electronic technology, needing the artificial excitement of uppers when not being adored on stage and of the chemical surcease of downers when they can't stand being up; and the archetypical revivalist. playing at the local ceilidh or backyard festival, welcomed and admired for their understanding of the nuances of the music wherever the "pros" gather but content to stay home and cultivate their garden most of the time.

The Beach Boys, say, or the Kingston Trio contrasted with....well, 1 won't mention his [her] name but you know who I mean. They are here at the Eisteddfod.

The question is: Why do so many of the "stars" burn out, while the laidback, low key traditional revivalists seem to go on forever? Is there something of the sage that they have captured that gives them a long. full life compared to the short blaze and cold ashes of the hero? If there is we ought to at least know what is going on so we can make the choice consciously.

The key can be found, oddly enough, in a book of literary criticism: in Some Versions Of Pastoral[New York: New Directions, 1950] by William Empson. Empson, of course, never talks about the folk-revival...the closest he comes is in talking about the proletarian novels of the twenties. But he does talk about the hero and the sage; and particularly of the pastoral swain as sage and savior. He said "the essential trick of the old pastoral...was to make simple people express...something fundamentally learned and fashionable language [so that you wrote about the best subject in the best way.]"..."the simple man becomes a clumsy fool who yet has better "sense" than his betters and can say things more fundamentally true; he is 'in contact with nature', which the complex man needs to be...; he is in contact with the mysterious forces of our own nature, so that the clown has the wit of the unconscious; he can speak the truth because he has nothing to lose". "The usual process for putting further meanings into the pastoral situation was to insist that the shepherds were rulers of sheep...; this piled the heroic convention onto the pastoral one, since the hero was another symbol of his whole society. "

On that basis it is certainly true that the style of the folk-revival is pastoral. Our preferred art-forms are those of isolated rural communities hidden away from contemporary civilization. Our uniform is, more often than not, the farmer's blue jeans and work shirt or bib overall, the more worn and faded [impoverished] the better. Some of us [I indude myself] have gone so far as to actually farm the land; often with no more modern techniques and implements than our grandfathers might have known. Others have revived the handwork of previous generations and bring our products to festivals like the Eisteddfod to hawk them personally to those who must get their homespun and homemade at second hand.

And still, many of us can, and will, discourse on these arts and crafts in the language of the university: the middle-class mark of Cain bequeathed us by our middle class parents. What is this if not pastoral in Empson's sense? Pastoral lived rather than the basis for literary construction, but pastoral none the less. Is this anything more than the pastoral of the french court before the revolution, when the Louis' and their Marie Antoinettes dressed as Dresden shepherds and shepherdesses? Is there some kind of method to our....well, not "madness" perhaps, but eccentricity at the very least? What significance does a real- life pastoral have?

We get a hint about this in Alfred Toynbee's monumental Study Of History[London:Oxford, 1939-1956]. Toynbee compared the American colonies--in particular, comparing Massachusetts with the Carolinas. The Carolinas had the obvious advantages, better land, better weather, better financed colonization: they had everything going for them and yet they became a cultural and economic backwater until the last couple of decades. Massachusetts had nothing going for it: rocky soil, bitter winters, colonization by impoverished religious refugees; and yet it became the cradle of the American political and industrial revolutions. From this, and other examples, he enunciated a "Principle of Compensation" that said the more challenges you had to face [assuming that they weren't so bad as to completely exhaust you-- his example of that was Maine] the more you had the less you did with what you had.

Toynbee didn't take this principle into our individual private lives, but it makes sense. One of the persistent items of American folklore is the notion of the "poor little rich kid"--the spoiled brat who has everything on a silver platter and all it does is to make him a rich, obnoxious nebbish at best; a complete failure at being human. Whether this happens all the time isn't the point: we do believe it happens, and it is one of those myths that reenact the way we think about ourselves. It is the opposite side of the coin from the Abraham Lincoln myth: the kid who goes from the log cabin to the White House. That doesn't happen every time, either; but it forms part of the myth. "Them as has" make little of it: "Them as don't" make the most of themselves. Is this realistic? Or is it just a holdover from Victorian propaganda meant to glorify the entrepreneur and keep the proletariat from unionizing? We are beginning to see, from anthropological research, that there is more to it than a capitalist's Horatio Alger con-game.

The primitive hunter-gatherer tribe works on a basis of strong conformity, and that makes a lot of sense. Those with more give their surplus to those without in a kind of primitive communism. It makes for survival, because that kind of tribe doesn't have a surplus on the average; so if everything isn't shared out many of the tribe might starve and then nobody'd survive. Besides, our evolutionary edge over the other primates is vocal language: we can talk and throw a rock at the same time while they have to use body language. Even educated apes like Washoe have to use sign language to talk.

Speech gives us the advantage of culture: we can learn from others and don't have to invent being human from scratch. But to do that requires a degree of conformity that the other animals wouldn't dream of: as the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel points out, we can only be human if we all speak the same language. So even if we aren't in a primitive tribe where we will get teased back to normality when we get uppity we get a feeling of anxiety when we get above ourselves. We can make up rationalizations or fantasies that we deserve to be better, or some such nonsense, like thinking that people of one skin color are better than another, but that's just a way of compensating by screwing up our heads. We have an unconscious need to be "equal on the average".

There were two people in the primitive tribe who weren't equal: the shaman and the warchief. Or, to give them the titles they got in later mythology, the. Sage and the Hero. The Shaman had to know more and have more power over disease. and weather, and the scarcity of game, and what have you. The War chief had to be able to boss the war-party around under conditions where there wasn't enough time to talk about things and reach a consensus by discussion. But the principle of compensation wasn't repealed for them: they just paid for their powers in different ways.

The Hero paid by being in the forefront of the battle--he was the first one in the fight, not like the present behind-the-lines generals. He took the most risks and counted the most coup. If he got the most glory out of it he did so at the price of dying young. He was "one-up" on the warband in that he had the power to boss them around; but he was certainly "one-down" if you value coming back alive. He was"equal on the average".

The Shaman paid a different price. Often a Tungut shaman didn't get the "call" to become a shaman until he had survived a case of smallpox, or a siege of epilepsy. Even after that, like the Eskimo shaman, he might go out and fast alone in the Arctic midnight. Even when a shaman candidate was recognized young he had a long and demanding training and [as Carlos Castaneda tells us] an initiation carrying the risks of madness or death. If the Hero paid for being "one-up" on demand; the Shaman paid in advance. And it is the shaman's technique that provides the sense behind pastoral.

The pastoral swain, the wise fool, the Shakespearian clown, gain their powers from being socially "one-down" from the level of ordinary people; just as the Hero must be "one-up" to exert his leadership. If the Hero's uniform is golden armor [or a white lincoln convertible] the Sage's uniform is a tattered robe and a shepherd's crook. By being one down the pastoral swain is allowed to be more in tune with nature, and his own nature, wiser in the human values if poorer in the status symbols of the "normal" culture of his place and time.

And this is precisely the kind of symbolism that the folk-revival flaunts'. We do not listen to politicians or kings; but to the ordinary members of peasantry and proletariat. We do not learn from begowned literati and eminent divines; we sit at the feet of farmers and housewives and backwoods preachers. We do not listen to opera and symphony but to the music coming out of rural kitchen windows and the open doors of backstreet fancy-houses. We admire, and emulate, the culture that in the "normal" values of our time an;l place is nothing if not "one-down".

But what do we get from it? Well, some of us may use the pastoral role to become more in tune with nature; others to be more in tune with their own nature, freeing them from the"normal" anxiety over status and success. Some may choose the role to allow them to criticize the normal culture: Woody Guthrie and his emulators are certainly being what Empson would recognize as "pastoral swain as savior".

Most of us are not even aware that our involvement in the folk-revival is a "role" in any sense: we just know that we have been drawn to it because it satisfies some need. We don't need to know how it works so long as it saves our minds from the corrosion of middle-class values and enables us to tolerate our lives. And some of us use it as a vehicle to cruse the Hero route: but most of us aren't attracted to the kind of hero's payment that was collected from Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix and Richard Farina and legions who paid less noticeably. We prefer the shaman's technique: we stay quietly in our swamps.

This is certainly not to say that everybody who is involved with the folk-revival is a sage: we can look around and test that one ourselves. But we can also look around and compare the folkies we know, particularly those who live the pastoral role most completely, and compare them to the straight, success and status oriented, anxiety-ridden middle-class people we also have to deal with: bureaucrats and businessmen, professors and policemen and politicians. We can then decide who we prefer to be with: the pastoral swain or the striver after middle-class heroism.

PS: I'm still alive and writing after having had my 79th birthday, possibly because I've never had any public recogniion. We don't farm any more, though.

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