Everything Old Is New Again

 

RomanescaPodium
Romanesca Orchestra Holland, with from left to right, Eric Bergsma, Femke Wolthuis, Willem Wolthuis, Tim Nobel, and Don Hofstee. February 2010 photo by Femke Wolthuis. Romanesca is a European folk music style with roots in the 16th century, and was the origin of songs like “Greensleeves”.

In Western culture, even people who don’t recognize the name of the song “Greensleeves” usually recognize the tune. For some it may have another name, but for people brought up in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon system such as that in the United States, the song “Greensleeves” is ingrained. Not bad for a tune that dates back at least 500 years. Music theorists can argue about what gives the song its staying power, but everyone else accepts it as indelible because it is simply beautiful and yet evocative and melancholy in a way they can’t quite put their finger on.

In the 1962 film How the West Was Won, Debbie Reynolds sings “A Home in the Meadow”, to the tune of “Greensleeves”, adapted by the great film composer Alfred Newman, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Gregory Peck plays Reynolds’s wayward romantic interest.

No wonder songwriters over the years have pinched the melody for their own tunes, with perhaps the most famous example being the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?”, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. “What Child Is This?” borrows its power from the simplicity of “Greensleeves”, and a Christian listener does not need to recall the history of the original lyrics to “Greensleeves” and how they may relate less holy concerns than the lyrics of the Christmas carol. Christmas itself is a custom largely borrowed from pagan beginnings, and overlaid with a thick veneer of Christian rituals and symbols, but what does that matter really to the ordinary worshiper? It’s like jazz in how riffs and digressions can build up over an underlying kernel of something old and familiar, making it new again, and even if the original is barely recognizable, it is nonetheless there, providing a touchstone.

“What Child Is This?” performed by Naomi and Wynonna Judd for their 1987 album Christmas Time with the Judds.

A person goes to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and hears the uplifting carol “What Child Is This?” and has one thing or several in mind about it, but all about the perceived divinity of a humble baby and the overwhelming sense of mission He embodies already at a tender age. The ultimate origin of the tune in an old folk song about lovers matters not at all. That’s something for scholars to run rings around. The main point is how the tune has appealed to such a basic need in people that it has lasted centuries and been co-opted by tunesmiths and the lyrics rewritten numerous times. Who can put their finger on it? Songwriters everywhere want to know, since they could be certain then what always appeals as aesthetic pleasures known in the human heart and mind, and would predictably be able to strike gold both in fortune and art time and again, rather than stumbling upon one or the other blindly, and rarely if ever both together.
— Vita

 

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The Spirit of Giving

 

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
― Luke 2:10-11, from the King James Version of the New Testament.

Just in time for Christmas, the Congress passed its giveaway to the rich known as the Republican tax reform package, and the Thief-in-Chief signed it into the law of the land. Afterward much merriment was enjoyed by them and their kind on the South Lawn of the White House, where boot licking was the order of the day. The corruption and depravity oozing from the swamp of Washington, D.C. is too disheartening to dwell upon at this festive season of the year.


Moving on from the fairy tale that the Republican tax plan does anything at all for anyone but the wealthy, there is the fairy tale that has taken hold in some quarters that the Nativity of Jesus Christ was devoid of political ramifications at the time or in today’s world, and that therefore Christmas should be devoid of politics. A straightforward reading of the Gospels should dispel those ideas. Herod the Great apparently had no illusions about the threat posed by the birth of Jesus to the political future of himself and his progeny. Even taking the Gospels at face value, the Nativity story is loaded with politics.

Alexander Laureus Satuloitu aasi 1820-23
Saddled Donkey, a painting of the Nativity by Finnish artist Aleksander Lauréus (1783-1823). Donkeys were the mount of the lower classes when they could afford them, while the upper classes rode horses. In addition to providing transportation for the Holy Family to Bethlehem and then to a temporary exile in Egypt, a donkey would be the mount of choice for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem to complete His mission.

The dramatic tension of the story derives from the methods that the adult Jesus would teach to change people’s lives, with eventual political change as a by product, as opposed to the immediate political change some of His followers hoped for and most of His opponents feared. And it starts in the Nativity when individuals on both sides refer to Him as a King, though they mean different things by that term. Herod the Great was correct to see the birth of Jesus as a threat to his world, however he may have perceived that threat.

The relation of the Nativity as an innocuous story about a baby and some shepherds is alright for small children who cannot grasp the larger political and humanitarian dimensions of the birth of Jesus, but for adults to ignore the story’s radical aspects and still profess an understanding of it borders on cognitive dissonance. The events set in motion by the birth of Jesus and the principles he taught in His later ministry were a radical departure from the politics of His time. Blessed are the meek? The rich have no chance at salvation until they give away all they have? Those were not standard beliefs then, nor are they now, despite what many people profess.

There is no “War on Christmas”, at least not in the way some conservatives formulate it. That is nonsense made up by people who, if they were confronted by the real Jesus today, rather than their Jesus of fable, would be horrified and demand that He be hauled away to prison. Based on what He is quoted as saying in the Gospels, He certainly would not have been there last week on the South Lawn of the White House ghoulishly celebrating the passage of a tax bill that steals from the poor to give to the rich. He would not have sided with evangelical voters who deem the election of any Republican, no matter how cretinous, better than the election of a Democrat. Who are these people to make war on Christmas by celebrating the birth of a baby who preaches war, hate, and intolerance rather than peace, love, and understanding? That story feeds the needs of empire and is on the side of the Romans. That’s not the true Christmas story, and there’s nothing funny about it.
― Ed.

 

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Twelve Angry Days

 

Right wing media has its knickers in a twist the past week over the findings by a Boston University theater history professor of some racist performances of “Jingle Bells” from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. The professor, Kyna Hill, was researching the origins of the song and trying to settle whether it was written by James Lord Pierpont in Medford, Massachusetts, or in Savannah, Georgia. Ultimately the song’s point of origin remained unclear, but during the course of her research Professor Hill discovered that the first performance was in 1857 at a theater in Boston, and the white performers wore blackface.

Rudolf Ferdinandovich Frentz - Sleigh Ride in Winter
Sleigh Ride in Winter, a painting by Rudolf Frentz the Elder (1831-1918).

Professor Hill never claimed that the song as it is performed today is racist, but that did not deter some right wing media outlets such as Breitbart News from attributing that and other claims to her in an effort to paint her as an advocate of political correctness run amok. Right wing media enjoys fanning the flames of anger among its adherents, and since anger is the fuel of authoritarians, the readers and consumers of Breitbart News and other such outlets are always ready to flame up from a slow burn to a white hot conflagration. If there are not enough true stories available to fan their outrage, then the right wing will have to invent some false stories. The trendy term for that is “fake news”.

All this anger over ginned up controversies surrounding Christmas has been going on for a century, ever since the industrialist Henry Ford began muttering vaguely anti-Semitic remarks about a “War on Christmas”, as the right wing has since dubbed it. Ford thought Jewish owners of department stores were engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the Christianity of Christmas, all while lining their pockets by turning it into a largely secular, mercantile holiday. Never mind that no one twisted the arms of white Christians to engage in an orgy of spending for Christmas. The important thing was to direct right wing anger at an Other as American society turned away from the Currier and Ives mid-nineteenth century vision of Christmas (the same time as the early performances of “Jingle Bells”) to a more cosmopolitan, polyglot vision brought by the waves of immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In Henry Ford’s day, Jews could be openly cast as the Other. After World War II and the Holocaust, that was no longer acceptable, and vilification of the Other settled on Communists, or Reds. The latest target of right wing objectification of an ideological and cultural Other is political correctness, a movement that started in the 1980s and has at times veered into ludicrously priggish stifling of dissenting opinion and alternative behavior, making it easy for the right wing to get outraged about it. Some people mock the excesses of political correctness, while right wingers alternate between mockery and spitting rage. Since political correctness is neither a religion, like Judaism, nor an entire political system, like Communism, the casting of its adherents as the Other by the right wing does not follow the same strand of unalloyed hatred.

Viewed by the right wing, and by some in the rest of society, advocates of political correctness are sociological scolds who are bent on taking away every last bit of cultural heritage of white European culture in America. The Nanny State description sums up the right wing view of the political correctness movement. When a story like the “Jingle Bells” one comes along then, right wingers are primed to pounce on it and vent their anger by putting words into Professor Hill’s mouth, making her a cipher for opinions she never expressed. In the “War on Christmas”, the right wingers proclaim “you are either with us or against us”. As a reward for her scholarship, poor Professor Hill got caught up in the culture war and got set up and knocked down as the right wing’s straw woman of the moment.
― Vita

 

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A Green Screen Christmas



Here are two videos, one from 2008 by way of 1968, and the other from 1951, with a stop along the way in 1989 for colorization. The Elvis Presley and Martina McBride “duet” is quite convincing if you don’t know who Martina McBride is, and therefore don’t know she was only two years old in 1968 when Elvis taped his Comeback Special for television. Martina McBride, wearing a wig and clothes to match 1968 fashions, taped her part in 2008 in front of a green screen. From the smoothness of the matching in lighting and other details, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a real duet, without the skeptical quotation marks around the word.

The second clip is from the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol, made in England and released there as Scrooge. Within the set of clips in the accompanying video is an example of the optical printing process, which was used to show Marley’s Ghost as semi-transparent. Effects were less convincing in those days – at least they seem so to our modern eyes – but good acting and a strong story do wonders to allow us to overlook that. Here’s to the ghosts of Christmases Past!
– Techly


 

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Germany, Christmas 1932

The Weimar Republic in Germany was all but finished at the end of 1932. In September, Chancellor Franz von Papen had dissolved the parliament, or Reichstag, after a vote of no confidence. The government was in gridlock, and power splintered among a half dozen or more political parties with little inclination to compromise with each other. Von Papen found it impossible to assemble a ruling coalition, and he eventually resigned. On January 30, 1933, by appointment from President Hindenburg, Adolf Hitler took over as Chancellor.

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-03497A, Berlin, Propaganda zur Reichstagswahl
Electioneering outside the Reichstag, July 1932; photo by Georg Pahl

At the end of 1932, six million people were unemployed in Germany, in a population of 65 million. The unemployment level was similar in the United States, where 12 million people were out of work, in a population of 125 million. Nonetheless, the Great Depression hit Germany even harder than the United States because at that time the U.S. was a creditor nation and Germany a debtor nation, with an economy propped up by loans from the Americans. As the effects of the Great Depression became clear around the world, nations moved to impose tariffs to protect their domestically produced goods, and Germany could no longer get export income. Germany had also been crippled by over a decade of reparations payments to the victors of World War I, until July of 1932, when it negotiated a suspension of payments.

 

In the July elections for seats in the Reichstag, the Nazi Party won 230 seats out of 608 available, giving them the largest representation of any of the parties. Hitler himself never was elected to power, having lost the presidential election to the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg, earlier in the year. As noted, it was Hindenburg who would appoint Hitler to power in 1933.
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1983-122-01A, Wahlpropaganda der NSDAP
Electioneering in the countryside, July 1932; photo by Herbert Hoffmann

 

Amidst the political turmoil of the dissolution of the ineffectual Weimar Republic and the rise of the authoritarian Nazi Party, a singing group of six young men – three of them Jewish – came together in Germany in 1927 and rose to prominence there as well as internationally, until the death of Hindenburg in 1934 removed the last restraints on Hitler’s ambitions and dark dreams. With that the curtain came down and the singing group dissolved, the Jewish members eventually escaping Germany. They called themselves the Comedian Harmonists, and they recorded their version of “Silent Night, Holy Night” on December 9, 1932.
– Vita

 


 

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