America, Music, Travel

#5. July 4th | Nationalism | Woody Guthrie

Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. “Mankind.” That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!

– President Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day (1996)

“The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

I happened to be in US during ‘Fourth of July’, last year. Though somewhat acquainted with the traditions through pop culture, I was quite excited to check on how the Americans celebrate their ‘National Day’.  I was living in Lafayette- West Lafayette area, which was a small campus township in Indiana. From my lab-mates, I came to know that celebration there was not so spectacular like that in bigger cities. However, anything was still better for me than nothing. I had my day-off and probably was the last person who could sit idly for a sufficiently long time so I checked the schedule of the events and arrived at the venue on time!

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July 4th celebrations, Downtown Lafayette (2014)

As I reached there, the ‘Indian’ in me immediately had his head hung low. Here in India, a country with population surpassing a billion and with a rich heritage of thousands of years hardly observe our independence day with enthusiasm. And there I was standing in a rural township whose streets remain hardly busy during normal days had her crowds pouring into the down-town area, elegantly dressed in ‘stars and stripes’ attire! Some head-over-heels love these Americans have for their country, I wondered! In a way, I was ashamed and envied their passion; but later when I pondered over it,  I rather felt a tinge of creepiness.

I am not a political theorist. Neither a student of social sciences. Being a layman, I appreciate that nationalism is a great unifying force. It enables people of a country to come under a common banner, harmonize with fellow citizens and take up collective responsibilities towards welfare of their country. But since this is such a motivating rallying cry, it is possible to distort the orientation by the force that dictates it, which is in most cases, the government. It becomes a weapon of mass mobilization in times of war, an opium to mask people’s consciousness of socio-economic problems and a propaganda tool to alienate all dissenting opinions and fringe groups.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

-Woody Guthrie, This land is your land (Original lyrics, 1940, excluded from 1944 recording)

Woody Guthrie, the celebrated American songwriter-musician recorded the song “This land is your land” in 1944 which till date is America’s one of the most famous folk songs. The song gives a passionate commentary of the American ethos in its verses like “This land is your land, this land is my land, From California to the New York Island” and was covered by numerous artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Kingston Trio to Bruce Springsteen. But what makes it most interesting is the fact that the song was penned by a musician who used to carry a guitar with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”. He apparently wrote this song  frustrated with the unrealistic, complacent lyrics of “God Bless America”. But even he shied away from including the subversive stanzas with its strong political overtone, in the recorded version. Probably he wanted to limit his opinion to give the song an anthemic character. We never know. 

 

woody_guthrieA key aspect of nationalism is the conviction about the superiority of one’s own country when compared to others. But a thinking along this route blinds us of the shortcomings and what can be done to address them. It ceases to be love and becomes an obsession; if anyone dares to swim against the tide of mass hysteria, they are greeted with censure. It gives news agencies the power to scathe, “It’s just those liberals who hate America.” In India, the ruling party leaders don’t hesitate to warn, “opposition to Yoga amounts to anti-national and anti-social acts”.  We discriminate against North-easterners, joke about their ethnicity but don’t fail to bask in the glory of Mary Kom, a sports icon of the same ethnic origin and bash people if they don’t stand up in respect to the national anthem at end of her biopic. Our nationalism is so cryptic!

Inflexible systems and intolerance are few of the most frightening things in the world.  We take our opinions too seriously, without bothering to lend an ear to others. We compartmentalize the world by viewing it through our tinted glasses and promptly pass on a judgement. We spend hours in comment wars on social media when we find ‘Someone is wrong on the internet‘. The action of the government is just a scaled-up version of our individual tenacities. People like us, not aliens constitute the ‘establishment’. And those whom we condemn as ‘anti-establishment’. And patriotism is nothing but love. But it shouldn’t be blind. It shouldn’t be beyond recognition of flaws and respect of differences. And that is why, I felt a little scared when I saw the Americans with their baggage of national pride that day.

 

Happy Birthday Uncle Sam! And may you remember Guthrie’s song in its totality. The different beliefs and different banners with which people gather behind it. Because protest and patriotism differs only in the way we interpret it.

I will be visiting you again soon. Till then goodbye! 🙂

Guthrie’s picture source: http://gregwalcher.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/woody_guthrie.jpg 

Music, Relationship, Travel

#3. Dark chords | Memoirs | Fête de la Musique

“Asleep by the Smiths
Vapour Trail by Ride
Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel
A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum
Dear Prudence by the Beatles
Gypsy by Suzanne Vega
Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues
Daydream by Smashing Pumpkins
Dusk by Genesis (before Phil Collins was even in the band!)
MLK by U2
Blackbird by the Beatles
Landslide by Fleetwood Mac
Asleep by the Smiths (again!)

-Charlie’s mixtape”

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

When I was a kid, somewhere I came across this rather interesting news-story. It was 1965 and The Sound of Music had just released across theatres. One peevish theatre owner was however irked by the considerable length of the movie and he decided to chop off all the songs before the classic musical could be screened in his place! I am not sure whether his audience appreciated that, the report said nothing about it, but what concerned me then was to discover that of all things, how one can be so tightly closed to music!

Music obviously holds different value to different people. For most, music is a form of aesthetic pleasure, a means of relaxation and a way of communication. For some others, it’s an outburst of soul. I was never trained in music. But still it flows to me. It glues the surreal pieces of my memory and perceptions. In fact, one of the earliest memories I have of my childhood is my father singing ‘Shanto noditi pote aka chobiti’, a popular Bengali song of his time as a lullaby to pacify me. The pensieve has no imagery. All that has remained is my consciousness of his music. I associate him with this particular recollection. And since we evaluate our experiences of a person through the memoirs we shared, music holds a key to the associations that gets established. The places we go, the people we meet.

“I can tell Bob Dylan in an instant,” she said.“Because his harmonica’s worse than Stevie Wonder?” She laughed again. Nice to know I could still make someone laugh. “No, I really like his voice,” she said. “It’s like a kid standing at the window watching the rain.”
After all the volumes that have been written about Dylan, I had yet to come across such a perfect description. She blushed when I told her that.

– Haruki Murakami, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the world

My first travel abroad was a two month visit to the island of Taiwan as an exchange student. For the initial few days, I felt perplexed being in a country where hardly anyone spoke English out of the university. Communication was a mess. A student from Mainland China was working in the same lab as mine. Realizing my situation and coming to know of my enthusiasm to explore local cuisine, she started taking me for strolls in the night markets of the city. And on one such night, as I was  savouring some exquisite spring onion pancakes and pork dumplings, the place started playing Phil Collins’s Another Day in Paradise. It felt home instantly!

Another such incident comes to my mind. Last year, I had been to Indiana for a similar summer research program. Since my sibling used to live down North Carolina, I visited her in a weekend. We planned a day trip to Wilmington, a beach town on Atlantic which was a few hours drive away. An African-american acquaintance of my  sister was driving the car. She started playing some jazz pieces by Boney James. Till then, I wasn’t a great fan of jazz. But suddenly there was a version of ‘Auld lang syne’ that came along. I was blown away by the improvisations and the syncopation brought in to the classic Scottish folk melody. And then we gelled along; over jazz, blues and everything else! 🙂

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Woodstock, 1969

I never felt so comfortable in the company of anyone, as I did in the conversations I shared with my music. After high school, I left home for university. I had to part with my friends and family, and the cozy, familiar world fell apart. As I started reshaping my identity and tried calibrating myself with the heterogeneous, professional world around, I quickly realized that there is a difference between being social and being able to forge intimacy with someone. I gradually learnt being on my own and take care of myself. Some of those days, the world felt like crashing down around me. There were only a few things that helped me to pull myself together. Music stayed beside me as a faithful companion in those times. Even now and then, as I crouch myself in the darkest alleys of ‘mindville’, it still calms me like a doting father. 

Here’s to father’s day. Here’s to music!

Image source: http://woodstock.com/gallery/home-gallery/