Tuesday, November 29, 2016

C.S. Lewis: Aiming For Heaven

Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales
                                                                           C.S. Lewis

I was introduced to the mind of C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis through a gift. My best friend gave me a copy of The Four Loves as medication for some perplexing developments in a relationship with Marti, the girl of my dreams at the time. Eventually, Marti moved on with a professor of English at UNC Chapel Hill. I was left with a life-long literary relationship with Lewis and can only trust that Marti found equal satisfaction. C.S. Lewis, one of the last century's leading scholars, novelists, and Christian apologists, was born on this day in 1898. Many readers likely know his name and even more know some of his work - The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity - but many may not be familiar with the depth and breadth of his literary accomplishments.

C.S. Lewis                                                        National Portrait Gallery, London

mmersed the the world of the university scholar where he was a close friend and colleague of J. R.R. Tolkein, Lewis enjoyed the community but also appreciated his privacy. For that reason, very few interviews and recordings of the man survive. One tape still with us is a fifteen-minute talk he gave over BBC Radio during a three part series of presentations between 1942 and 1944. The recording reveals the great warmth, friendliness, and integrity of the man.

The talks soon appeared as three separate books shortly after World War II. In 1952, the series was edited into a single book, Mere Christianity. It's now considered a masterpiece in Christian apologetics.

If you cannot enjoy a Lewis book you simply haven't read enough of his work. And there is enough to accommodate readers as his Wikipedia bibliography has almost eighty entries of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Choose...and enjoy.

Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither

                                                                                C.S. Lewis

Monday, November 28, 2016

William Blake: An Unmasked Rebel In Eternity's Sunrise

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

                                               from Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, 1803

On this day in 1757 the British artist and writer, William Blake, was born in London. He is without a doubt my favorite anarchist. He helps me dream.

In his own time he was so eccentric his neighbors and friends thought he was a madman. As an engraver and illustrator he was caught between the decline of the guilds and the rise of industrialization. It was a time when men saw the value of their labors swept away from the cottage and into the factory under the watchful eye of the manager. For workers, the loss of autonomy, the shift in control and production, and the helplessness in the face of change led to a revolt against the Age of Reason and a rage against technologies it spawned. Two centuries later he would be recognized as both one whose vision, imagination and sensitivity were unmatched in the age of Romanticism, and a truly unique influence in the history of the Western world.

There is one certainty about Blake's work and that is its complexity. He is by far one of the most interesting visionaries to come out of the West and its traditions. I hope you will take time to examine him and his extraordinary contributions to our experience. To explore his work appropriately is beyond the intent of this blog and capability of its author. For readers who want to learn more about Blake, to me there's no finer work available than Jacob Bronowski's A Man Without A Mask, published in 1944, and it's expanded version, William Blake and the Age of Revolution, published in 1972.

William Blake                  Thomas Phillips, English, 1807

I have learned much from the artist and philosopher, William Blake, in an effort to balance my life between intellect and emotion. So far it's been a beautiful, productive, and fascinating journey. These works have been a part of that experience:

In the following illustration Blake depicts his character, Urizen, [You rising] as reason shaping the world and its experience. This engraving is also interpreted as God the Father [and often God the Son] as divining existence. It is a prime example of the complex and often confounding world of Blake's imagination.

The Ancient of Days                                                                  William Blake, 1793

Here Blake depicts Isaac Newton [and the Age of Reason] at the bottom of the sea shaping (the dividers, once more) the world of humankind on the earth. Newton has turned his back on the organic beauty of God's natural world. 

Newton                                                                                 William Blake, 1795

Here, the Angel of Peace descends forcibly out of heaven illustrating God's reason (the dividers) brought into the world in the form of his Son to reconcile Nature (the recline female nude) and a redeemed humanity 

The Descent of Peace                      William Blake, ca. 1815

One of Blake's most familiar pieces is his preface to Milton A Poem. The preface says much about Blake's philosophy opposing the Age of Reason as embodied in Greek and Roman thought and the dangers a reliance on intellect can bring to a world based equally on emotion. Furthermore, the preface is a perfect illustration of Blake's religious mysticism as well as his veneration of Milton.

The stolen and perverted writings of Homer and Ovid, of Plato and Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible; but when the New Age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right, and those grand works of the more ancient, and consciously and professedly Inspired men will hold their proper rank, and the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration, Shakspeare and Milton were curb'd by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword. Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ and His Apostles that there is a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever, in Jesus our Lord.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills.

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Would to God that all the Lord's people were Prophets. Numbers xi, ch. 26

Readers may be more familiar with Blake's poem through this medium:

As this tribute comes to a close, I'd like to reference one of Blake's poems that virtually all children read before the end of their middle schools years a half century ago. It's remarkably simple in form yet its questions brim with imagination and wonder. I so hope that "The Tyger" is still read and heard by young students so they can remember its message over their varied lifetimes.

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire in thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake                            John Linnell, English, 1863

He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise

                                                                              Eternity, William Blake, 1803


Photos and Illustrations:
Blake portrait, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Newton, Tate Gallery, London, U.K.blakearchive.org/Blake

wikipedia.com, Blake entry
Jacob Bronowski, A Man Without A Mask, Seeker and Warburg, London, 1944

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Arrival Of The Light Of The World

The word, "advent," comes from the Latin "adventus," meaning "arrival." Today in the Christian world we mark two beginning, that of a church year as well as its first season, Advent. The four week journey through the season anticipates both the birth of Jesus Christ as the Light of the World and his return at the Last Judgement.

As we enter into the seasons of Advent and Christmastide, it is time once more to explore almost two thousand years of words, music, and visual arts created for this holy time.

The Descent of Peace                                       William Blake

I give you the end of a gold string.
Only wind it in a ball,
It will lead you to Heaven's gate
built in Jerusalem's wall.
                                                      from William Blake's poem, "Jerusalem"

Today's music is a plainsong dating from the 7th century. Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars at Night.

Here is some background on the hymn including its original text and an English translation. For a more detailed exploration of the hymn and its variations over the past 1500 years, go here.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Thank You, Mr. Carrier!

High temperatures across the nation have been mostly above normal this year. Across the South they were downright stifling from Memorial Day through September. That means we should take an even longer moment today to remember and thank Willis Haviland Carrier for his contribution to comfort through an invention we've appreciated for more than a century. In fact, I think it's appropriate to say that Carrier made the South livable in terms of industry, commerce, and housing. Without his genius the region's development in the 20th century would have emerged at a much slower pace if at all.

On this day in 1876, Carrier was born into an old New England family. A few years after graduating from Cornell with an engineering degree, he designed a system of conditioning air - the key was humidity control - in a stiflingly hot and humid Brooklyn printing plant. The new environment ensured stability in the paper and the perfect alignment of four-color printing. It was soon a huge success in several industries. By the 1920s, air conditioning became popular in retail trade and entertainment, especially the movie theater. It was a small jump from commercial systems to home systems. By the 1930s, air conditioning began a slow but steady increase in usage until the post World War II era when it boomed. Carrier's application would have far reaching impacts on the American experience. For one, his invention made the South a more comfortable and attractive place in which to live and work.

Carrier in 1915

Just how significant was it for the South? One of the most significant books in the historiography of the region, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips's Life and Labor in the Old South, begins with these words:

Let us begin by discussing the weather for that has been the chief agency in making the South distinctive. ... The summers are not merely long but bakingly hot, with temperatures ranging rather steadily in the eighties and nineties of the Fahrenheit scale.

The early 20th century single story Southern home, with its high-roof, wrap-around porch, and traditional "dog trot" breezeway, was a vernacular response to that baking heat. Homes of this type can still be found throughout the South, in fact, contemporary construction in the region often incorporates its features in vestigial form. But what has made the South so popular these days? I believes in particular the natural climate remains a significant draw, especially now that the social and political climate of the New South welcomes all Americans. Still, Southerners must deal with the heat. From an environmental perspective, air conditioning made the South livable and workable year round. Carrier's invention not only improved productivity but also attracted a multitude of new industries. Today, we take this livelihood and comfort for granted across the nation giving it attention only when it's either time to change the filter or repair a compressor.

Carrier posing with a 1922 model chiller

For more information on the impact of air conditioning check out these sites:


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

Due to scheduling issues our Thanksgiving celebration occurred over two days this year.We had a wonderful dinner each day for a total of fourteen people. Old traditions held strong including the preparation of more than enough food and trimmings to last through the weekend for us and any guests interested in a sweet and savory leftovers. There was one omission this year: Maryland Skipjack oyster dressing. I survived without it but do look forward to sharing it with friends and family at Christmas. 

As this day for thanks comes to an end and the faces in the fireplace like the flames settle quietly to ash we trust that your day was enjoyable, fulfilling, and reaffirming. Here are some words and music for the close of the day:

a prayer for thanksgiving by Martin Luther...

God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, You looked upon all that You created and declared it good. Grant that we, this day, might regard Your creation with the same esteem and appreciation, seeing You at work in every daily operation. Help us to give thanks as we recognize Your loving work in all abundant blessings. Most of all, let us see not only Your creation, but also its redemption, through Jesus Christ. Amen

...and a song of thanksgiving arranged by the renowned British composer, John Rutter:

We trust your experience today exceeded all or your expectations.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Commemorating A Birthday For A Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia.

Sketch and signature, Mercer grave, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia

John Herndon "Johnny" Mercer, the great American songwriter and favorite son of Savannah, Georgia,, was born on this day in 1909. Over three decades he wrote the lyrics to thousands of songs, collaborating with the country's top music writers including Harold Arlen, Bernie Hannigan, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Gene DePaul, Henry Mancini, Jerome Kern, Rube Bloom, and Matty Malneck.

In 1971, Mercer appeared in what he called a "parlor evening" performance as part of the 92nd Street Y's Lyrics and Lyricists Series. At the end of the program, he delivered an unforgettable medley of his "bread and butter" songs. I'd say most songwriters and performers would be pleased to have five songs in such a list. Mercer had twenty-nine. Regardless of your age and interest in popular music and jazz, you may be surprised at how many of these songs are still with us:

Lazybones (1933), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Goody, Goody (1936), music by Marty Malneck

Too Marvelous For Words (1937), music by Richard A. Whiting

Jeepers Creepers (1938), music by Harry Warren

Satin Doll (1958), written with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby (1938), music by Harry Warren

That Old Black Magic (1943), music by Harold Arlen

Accentuate the Positive (1944) music by Harold Arlen

Fools Rush In (1940), music by Rube Bloom

I Remember You (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger

Day In - Day Out (1939), music by Rube Bloom

Dearly Beloved (1942), music by Jerome Kern

Come Rain or Come Shine
(1946), music by Harold Arlen

Tangerine (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger

Hooray For Hollywood (1938), music by Richard A. Whiting

Laura (1945), music by David Raksin

Dream (1944), words and music by Johnny Mercer

On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (1946, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Harry Warren

Something's Gotta Give (1954), words and music by Johnny Mercer

One For My Baby (1943), music by Harold Arlen

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening
(1951, Academy Award for Best Music, Oroginal Song), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Skylark (1941), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Autumn Leaves (1950), music by Joseph Kosma

I Wanna Be Around
(1962), words and music by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt

Blues in the Night (1941), music by Harold Arlen

Charade (1963), music by Henry Mancini

Summer Wind (1965), music by Henry Mayer

Moon River (1961, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini

Days of Wine and Roses (1962, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini

That's plenty of "bread and butter" on one man's plate, but we need to keep in mind that he had seven more songs nominated for an Academy Award that never made it into the medley. What a talent.

Mercer had a wide-ranging career as a prolific lyricist and songwriter, popular singer, and music industry innovator, entrepreneur and benefactor before dying in Los Angeles from brain cancer in 1976. Forty years after his passing hardly a day passes that even a casual music listener will not hear a Johnny Mercer song. For those who enjoy the Great American Songbook and jazz/pop vocals, the Mercer magic remains very much alive in contemporary music. Looks like the man once described by the lyricist, Yip Harburg, as "one of our great folk poets" will be around for a long, long time. How lucky we are!

About two years before his death in 1976 Mercer recorded several of his best compositions that were released on the album, Johnny Mercer Sings Johnny Mercer.  And here is the old music master singing one of his Academy Award winning songs:

Yes, he'll be around a long, long time.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day 2016

A big "Thank You" to our veterans!

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I on "the eleventh day of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month" of 1918. Today, this holiday honors the men and women who have defended the United States through service in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.

On this day I think of the sacrifices made by many friends who served in Vietnam and of all those who have served in the defense of the United States. In particular I think of family and the service of a great uncle in World War I and two uncles in World War II. 

My Great Uncle George, standing on the left with his fire brigade in Jacksonville, Florida, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in World War I, the Great War. To him, this day was Armistice Day. I was ten when he died and didn't know him, but much of what he was as a veteran is present in my house. His portrait hangs just off our foyer. The pocket Bible he carried is in a keepsake cabinet nearby along with his military issue binoculars and a silver-plated swagger stick - a gift from his unit - made from machine gun shells casings and the Seal of the U.S. Army. The last item is one he never saw, but it summarized everything he did as a soldier. That item is the flag that covered his coffin. To my knowledge, it's still in the original triangle fold made the day he was buried sixty years ago.

The other family veterans from the world war era I knew very well.  Uncle Hollis, better known as "Red," and Uncle Charles, both served in the Pacific during World War II. In 1943-44, Red was assigned to Barber's Point Naval Air Station in Hawaii while his brother-in-law, Charles, served at Pearl Harbor. The facilities were a mere five miles apart but almost one year passed before they knew they were neighbors. On hearing the news, they resolved to meet for a photograph at the first opportunity. Here's that photo, taken at Waikiki with Red (l) and Charles (r) together at last. 

Both returned safely to their Potomac Valley hometowns in western Maryland but a declining economy in the region forced them to relocate to better job opportunities. Red moved his family to Ohio where he had a very successful career with Goodyear. Charles took his family to the booming oil industry in Houston, Texas, and work prospered in real estate management. Both are gone now, along with their wives, Edith and Dorothy.  All  four of them were fine examples of the Greatest Generation.

I never experienced military service and will never know how it shapes a person inside and out but I do know that every veteran has paid a very personal price that enables us to enjoy life in this bountiful nation. On November 11 - Armistice Day or Veterans Day - we should take some time to remember those who have served their country and its people. I offer up to all of them my sincerest admiration and thanks on this day and every day.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Late Great Gram Parsons

It has been nothing short of a very busy day and I will not let it pass without honoring Graham Parsons, one of the founding members of country rock.

Parsons in 1972

Gram Parsons spent his brief musical life searching for what he called "cosmic American music," a sound emerging out of gospel, R&B, country and rock traditions. He was born on this day in 1946 into a wealthy Florida family, a circumstance that encouraged both his exploration of music and the drug abuse that killed him in 1973 (September 17). Parsons performed with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers before attempting a rocky solo career that went nowhere until he met a young singer in Washington, D.C. Her name was Emmylou Harris. Parsons soon partnered with Harris and they went on to produce some of the finest sounds from the early fusion days of country and folk-rock. With his passing, one of American music's greatest inventors was stilled, but others, including Emmylou, would use his inventions and adapt them over the next forty years into the country rock music we know today.

Here is some music to help you understand the history. The first recording is a Gram Parsons-Bob Buchanan song that appeared on The Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in 1968. The Byrds went deep into classic country here and introduced Parsons to a rock audience.

Here's a Parsons-Chris Hillman song, dating from 1969 and the days of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons can be identified by his marijuana leaf Nudie suit.

For a Gram Parsons bio, visit this CMT.com link. For a longer immersion in his world and music go to David Meyer's 2008 biography.
Parsons's body met with a notable and very illegal cremation in the hills of Joshua Tree National Park. For the story, go here. Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, the location of his death, is now a shrine and the destination of a pilgrimage for many of his fans. Here is a post from some recent visitors.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

All Saints Day 2016

The remembrance of the departed faithful is an old custom in the Christian church. Here is some commentary on this day taken from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod website:

The Commemoration of All Saints has been observed by Christians since at least the 4th century after Christ, although not always on November 1. Christians then as now desire to follow the encouragement of the writer to the Hebrews: "Remember your leaders who spoke the Word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb 13:7).

The original purpose of remembering the saints and martyrs was blurred during the medieval ages, as saints became the objects of prayers and petitions for merit before God. Pointing to Christ as the only source of forgiveness, Luther cleansed the church of this abuse of the saints. Lutherans did not remove All Saints Day from the church calendar, however.

Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517 precisely because he wanted the document to be seen by the throngs that would services on November 1, All Saints Day. Lutherans eventually chose October 31 as the day on which to remember Luther's legacy to the church, and All Saints Day in the Lutheran Church has forever after been overshadowed by Reformation services.

All Saints Day, Krakow, Poland

The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one holy Church, the body of Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow the examples of your blessed saints in lives of faith and willing service and with them at last inherit the inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord....

Our music for this day is Ralph Vaughan Williams's setting - Sine Nomine- for the processional hymn, For All the Saints, written by William Walsham How.

Most versions omit several verses that I believe are most relevant to our time. They are:

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!


For All the Saints entry, en.wikipedia.org