|James McMurtry, photo Don Winters|
I was going to put up a great youtube video of James McMurtry's "Choctaw Bingo." It's posted near the top of today's FireDogLake, so if you care to go check it out, be my guest. (Once you're at youtube you'll find many other vids of his music.) McMurtry's one of the best current songwriters, in my opinion, with a political edge second to none. His "We Can't Make It Here" is also worth a good look, and for his lyrical side, I can't get enough of his "Lights of Cheyenne," a very modern-life update of perhaps the greatest cowboy ballad of all, "Old Paint." (For the best version of "Old Paint" I've ever heard, check out Pop Wagner's version on his "Cinchin' Saddles" CD.) One thing I like about McMurtry is, his music contains musical history. "Choctaw Bingo," musically, is related to Chuck Berry's "Cool Breeze" in much the same way that "Lights of Cheyenne" relates to "Old Paint." But that's not the main thing about McMurtry. The main thing is, he is outraged--as we all should be, if we could simply manage to remain in an outraged state and still function, i.e., survive. It's not easy to do that--it's, as the shrinks like to say, dissonant. One of the more subtle things about the '60s was, dissonance was for a time accepted and even expressed openly in the public mainstream media. (The specific content of this dissonance was by no means subtle--it was the experience of dissonance which was mostly unremarked, even if felt with great power and ultimate effect by the "body politic.") There was no way to ignore Vietnam, or the Assassinations, or the Civil Rights Movement. So one of the big problems to be solved, as the Vietnam era shuddered to a close and the great soporific blanket of Reaganism lulled the country to sleep, was how to keep dissonance at bay.
Various solutions arose and were implemented. The most obvious would be the All Volunteer Army. Clear Channel might be another. At any event, I've never even once heard McMurtry on the airwaves. I first heard of him listening to XM, which we subscribed to for a time, until the merger with Sirius oddly enough included the end of the particular channel which aired McMurtry. He's come to Chapel Hill once, to the Cat's Cradle. I think his show was on some night where I was too tired from work to make it, but I do have his live CD from somewheres out in the boonies of the West, and he does seem to be surviving--touring, recording, etc. We all going to have to keep finding our footing without much help from sources which depend on big corporate support, particularly if the GOP actually marches back into full power in two years.
It may be that keeping an eye on the endless climate change "debate" will be helpful in maintaining that footing. Over and over again, scientists, who are mostly just engaged in their specific area of focus keep telling us that, for example, the ice is melting. As one scientist has famously said, recently, ice has no agenda or politics. When it gets warm, it turns to water. That's it. The US Navy agrees. Deep in the Pentagon, the US Navy is making plans for a world with a navigable "Northern Ocean," something akin to the current Southern Ocean. So are planners in Iceland, Russia, and Canada. Meanwhile, the so called "Climate Change Deniers," well represented in the Republican Party and in Congress work at creating a sense of ongoing puzzlement among voters and politicians who might have to vote on anything which might change the status quo of the world's current energy production economic sector. But if you want to try to stay in the real world, just keep noticing who is saying what--not so much the specifics even, just the basic point of view. The ice is continuing to melt.
It struck me the other day that perhaps the most fundamental disagreement between so-called liberals and so-called conservatives lies in the acceptance or rejection of democratic choice as an effective method of actually deciding things. Ever since Reagan--perhaps I should say at least since Reagan--the Republican side of American politics seems to have believed that the voting public was a problem, a mass of fundamentally muddled people who presented a problem in advertising. The Democrats, meanwhile, keep putting up candidates who at least have some appreciation of what's real, what's going on, and who are then derided as "wonks" or worse by their Republican competitors. The evidence for this oddly asymmetrical bipolar Two Party relationship is obvious as Sarah Palin becomes more and more a serious possibility for 2012 Presidential Candidate. (It was already pretty obvious with George Bush, who reduced his duties to the duties of a simple light switch--on/off, yes/no--I'm the decider. And it was pretty obvious to George's mom as well, apparently, given her reaction to his victory in 2000: "We never thought he'd be the one who would be President. Mrs. Bush continues to see things as they are with her recent remarks on Mrs. Palin.) The trouble with Mrs. Palin is, she's clearly not capable of being President, and the only way a majority of voters can be convinced to vote for her is to first convince them that all the conventional media is actually engaged in a conspiracy to fool the public otherwise. That is, even an innocuous question such as "What books do you read," which was probably asked of every person running for President, for ever, is now cast by the Right as evidence of an attempt to "gotcha" Mrs. Palin, and she publicly vows never to talk to Mrs. Couric again.
But I'm not talking about Palin's candidacy except to point to the fact of its existence as evidence--evidence that one of the poles of the American political universe has no interest in democratic choice, except as a problem to be overome through endless and sophisticated advertising rhetoric, 24/7, for ever and ever. That is, the only reason the Republican Party would ever think of presenting Mrs. Palin as their candidate for President is that they do not in any way respect the voting public, or trust voters or their representatives to make real decisions about the future of the United States. And they've already explained that to those who are interested in listening. For the Republican Party, the President is merely the light switch. The voters do not vote for the invisible hand who throws that switch, nor are the interests of that invisible hand to be revealed to the voters. Any light switch, pretty much, will do.
I don't mean to suggest that the Democratic Party is entirely democratic of course. It is obviously not. However, it is apparent that Democratic Presidents, going back as far as the Roosevelt Administration at least, are engaged in policy making and make every effort to make informed decisions. Moreover, for the most part Democratic Presidents and Administrations believe in democracy. (I fully acknowledge the murky character of certain crucial moments in American History which featured Democratic Presidents: the start of World War II, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, a moment of extreme mystery buried in the climax of the American Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam Escalation. There is a case that neither party really has much faith in "the people.") It still seems clear to me that Republicans have entirely given up the pretext of democracy, while Democrats at least make the effort. The evidence is Sarah Palin. Ice does melt.
McMurtry won't be doing half time at next year's Super Bowl. You can bet on it. So go listen to his stuff on You Tube while you're basting the American Bird (see Ben Franklin), or get one of his CDs. (He'll be at the Eagle Tavern in Asheville, NC, next March 17, by the way.) Then. Take. Eat.
Update. I should admit that it's quite possible that "Choctaw Bingo" might never have made it to any regular AM or FM radio station in even the halcyon days of the '60s. There was much Beatles in those days, and some Stones. Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was played. Peter Paul and Mary got to the general public with Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." "Everybody Must Get Stoned" got air time, which I think expressed the temporary disconnect between a vast body of listeners who had in fact had a toke, and a government that actually didn't realize that "kids" had found a new recreational drug to augment the drugs which paid for most television programming. None of these examples, however, get us quite to "Choctaw Bingo." That is, hind sight is often experienced with rose colored glasses. The world of live music, and of recorded music for that matter, is much much wider than the sampling found on your radio--then and now. For example, tonight Les Rambleurs Anciens (the Craver, Hicks, Watson, Newberry Group) will appear at the Cave for a late show. There is simply no place else to experience their music. You just have to be there. But come early as the Cave is exactly like its name suggests.