We once had a president

(Kronos Quartet featuring Meklit. Credit: Vimeo)

I have forgotten how long it’s been since we had a president who sought to heal the wounds of this country rather than pour salt into them. And then I listened to the beautiful, wrenching song The President Sang Amazing Grace.

It is the second track on the Kronos’s Quartet’s most recent album Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The album features arrangements of 13 songs written or made famous by the legendary American folksinger Pete Seeger or his band the Weavers, along with newer compositions.

The vocalist on The President Sang Amazing Grace, Meklit, delivers a poignant, heartbreaking performance that frankly brought me to tears. The song is a reminder that at their best our political leaders can bring us together rather than divide us. They can inspire us to be better than we are rather than pander to the worst within us.

In short, this song reminds me that we can have a president again. Eight days and counting.

Music for a Friday — ‘Gunfighter Ballads’

Boy do we need a diversion right now. At this rate October is going to last until 2022. From the debacle that was the first presidential debate to the revelation that the president has contracted COVID-19, we’re off to a helluva start.

So let’s change the mood and talk about one of the great albums of all time, Marty Robbins “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” Released by Columbia Records in September 1959, the album was recorded in a single eight-hour session earlier that year.

In an appreciation over at the website Medium, Brian Braunlich writes:

It’s truly odd listening to an album like Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs in the midst of the Corona crisis. The tunes are not hopeful or optimistic for the most part, but the feeling of listening to these warm campfire tunes is nostalgic for a more hopeful time, when the villains were simple (and human), the stories easy to follow, the problems invented or retold and not lived. It’s … kind of comforting.

“El Paso” on this record is evidently the first Country song to win a Grammy, and it’s well deserved. A beautifully tragic story filling its space with rich details of Rose’s Cantina, the beautiful Fellina’s eyes, the slow fade of death. It soars, a perfect classic country song.

Robbins as a songwriter is responsible for the real gems here — “El Paso,” but also “Big Iron,” which kicks the album off on a strong note. “The Master’s Call” later is another strong contribution. But the remainder of the more traditional country ballads or tunes here are well presented by Robbins and his band.

While I was familiar with some of the songs, “El Paso” in particular, I only recently became acquainted with the full album, picking up a vinyl copy at the urging of my college-senior son who has long been a fan. In fact, the first time I heard “Big Iron” was during a jam session in my living room, performed by that same son. He also does some mean Johnny Cash stuff, but that’s a story for another post.

It’s a classic album for a reason. Pick up a copy if you can, and for the full impact, make it vinyl. Check out this really good video from Esoteric Internet, giving the story behind the album and, in particular, the archetypal gunfighter song, “Big Iron.”

And here’s the song itself.

A 27-year walk in the woods

Lena Friedrich’s award-winning documentary of the North Pond Hermit.

In 1986 a young man drove to the end of a dirt road, left his keys in the car, and carrying a tent he’d never before slept in, walked into the Maine woods. Over the next 27 years his personal interactions with other humans consisted of a single word, “hi,” to a passing hiker who took him by surprise.

Christopher Thomas Knight chose a life alone, camping in the deep forests of the Kennebec Valley, subsisting off the food he would steal from camps and cabins in the area, fattening up in the fall in anticipation of lean times over the brutal Maine winters. He was simultaneously myth and mystery, a legend in the region and an enigma to those whose cabins he’d burgle for boxes of macaroni and cheese, propane tanks, or batteries to power his radio and flashlight.

A beautiful short film by documentarian Lena Friedrich, embedded below, doesn’t so much as tell Knight’s story as it does the story of the people and the community whose lives crossed paths with his hermit ways.

In introducing the film, a featured documentary at The Atlantic, Emily Buder writes:

In the area near North Pond, Knight’s hermitage fomented outrage, intrigue, reverence, and every response in between. Filmmaker Lena Friedrich decided that she had to learn more. In her short documentary, The Hermit, she interviews residents of North Pond who piece together the fabric of a local legend.

“Everyone had a very strong opinion about Knight, and none of them had the same opinion,” Friedrich told me. Some residents viewed Knight as a villain; others saw him as a folk hero of sorts. “I realized that, as with every legend, this one had many versions and interpretations,” Friedrich said. “I tried to find characters who would provide personal layers of understanding to the enigma.”

There’s something deeply appealing about the idea of walking into the woods and disappearing, if only for a little while. This is even more true given what this year has brought. Not that I want to over-romanticize Knight or his experience. As Nathaniel Rich writes about him:

Knight’s hermitage was not entirely pure—he stole processed food and a twin-size mattress, listened to talk radio (a lot of Rush Limbaugh), played handheld video games, and even watched a miniature Panasonic black-and-white television, charged with stolen car batteries …

What Knight sought was solitude and peace, and for 27 years, he found it. Rich continues, “the forest granted him freedom, privacy, and serenity.” It’s not romantic to envy that even if it’s not a life I would choose for myself.

My weekend reading: Inside the Viking mind and world

What I’m reading: Neil’s Price’s “Children of Ash and Elm”

The Vikings are a people both familiar and unfamiliar to us. Familiar through all manner of popular representations on television (Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Norsemen), in the movies (The 13th Warrior, The Vikings, Outlander, Valhalla Rising), and fiction (The Hammer and the Cross, The Golden Wolf Saga).

But unfamiliar in terms of our knowing of their minds, how they understood themselves, and how they understood the worlds through which they moved. Worlds both seen and unseen. This is where Neil Price’s new history of the Vikings, Children of Ash and Elm, truly astonishes, opening an inner window into a people whose minds are in many ways deeply alien to our own.

As Price, distinguished professor and chair of archaeology at Uppsala University, Sweden, explains in an early chapter:

[V]ery different worlds were being built inside the Norse mind. Here is another distinction between appearance and reality, between the surface and what it conceals. From the problematic medieval written sources, and occasional mentions in Eddic and skaldic poetry, emerges one of the most remarkable aspects of the Vikings: the fourfold division of being and an extremely complex notion of what might loosely be called the soul.

This fourfold division begins with their hamr – literally their shell or shape – what you would see if you met a Viking on the street. But this shape, or physical appearance, was not fixed. It could alter, allowing shape-changing into a wolf or bear, or other bird or beast. Not everyone could do this, it wasn’t necessarily voluntary, and whether this ability was thought a blessing or a curse is unclear. What is certain, as Price points out, is that Vikings absolutely knew this happened. It was just another aspect of life:

[I]t is possible, although strange to the modern mind, that such abilities were treated more as a sort of skill than anything else. Some people were good at carpentry, others had a fine singing voice, and your neighbor could become a bear when irritated.

Inside a person’s shape was the second aspect of their being, the hugr, a concept which seems to combine elements of personality, character, temperament, and mind. This was who a person really was, “the absolute essence of you,” distinct and separate from their mutable physical shell.

In the Viking mind, somewhere inside each of us, was a third element, a hamingja, the personification of a person’s luck. Fascinatingly, a hamingja could leave the body and walk around, mostly invisible except to those with the special sight to see them. In extreme circumstances the hamingja could abandon its person:

The English saying that someone’s luck has ‘run out’ is actually using a Norse proverb – except the Vikings meant it literally.

The final element of the fourfold Viking soul is perhaps the most interesting of all, a fully separate being that lived inside every human, inseparable but distinct. Most fascinating of all, given the extremely patriarchal hypermasculinity of Viking society, this separate being, the fylgja, was a female spirit – always a female spirit – even for a man. As Price puts it, “every single Viking man literally had a spirit-woman inside him.” This spirit-woman was a guardian in life and then at death moved on down the family line, a literal embodiment of ancestral connection.

Summing up this discussion, Price writes:

This sense of something utterly alien beneath the skin, occasionally manifesting itself in actions or words, may have been one of the most significant differences between the Vikings and the people they encountered. Certainly for a European Christian, the composite soul with its shapes and shells would have been deeply unnerving.

Simply put, this book is a treasure. Rebecca Onion writes, in her review at Slate, “Price has a talent for evoking the Vikings’ physical surroundings as they might have been—a gift for recreation that’s probably natural for an archaeologist accustomed to eking significance from the smallest bit of disturbed dirt.” She’s absolutely right, and I didn’t even touch on that aspect of the book here.

I’m only half way through at this point, just at the beginning of Price’s discussion of the Viking Age history we think we know best, their trading, raiding, and expansion from Eurasia to the shores of North America. Every page I turn brings a new revelation. This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read in a very long time.