Thinking and/or Feeling

During the 25th anniversary party, I was talking to a friend about Tom Lehrer. I told him about my theory that Lehrer was something of a musical snob, based on comments he makes on his live albums about certain music, with Folk drawing the lion’s share of his ire.

My friend said, “Well, maybe it’s because most folk music is about liberal causes,” which I couldn’t argue with – but I think Lehrer is/was a liberal as well. Certainly, he’s the funniest liberal that the movement has ever produced.

But that got me to thinking about something else: What’s the deal with folk songs? Why do they almost always support leftist causes? Why aren’t there any good conservative folk songs?

The answer to this is very simple. Liberalism is based not on thinking things through but on the feeling that fills a person. And what better thing in the world is there at rousing feelings than music?

Remember World War II? We won that one because we had all the great songs, ones that made you feel good about being a patriot and going overseas to bomb Hitler into the stone age. That was probably the last gasp of great conservative music.

By contrast, name one uplifting song that came out of Vietnam. And Tie a Yellow Ribbon doesn’t count, because the guy was in prison – at least he was in the original version. All the songs that came out of that era talked about how terrible Vietnam was. No wonder we lost.

Okay, let me take my tongue out of my cheek. Feeling counts for something, but only in the short term. In the here and now. Feeling is a fleeting thing. It doesn’t last. When feeling has fled, all you’re left with is cold, hard facts. In fact, cold hard facts are often what sends feeling fleeing. Which is why you need a lot of songs to sustain a movement of any kind.

Besides – and I say this as a songwriter – it is foolish and naive to think that a song can change the world. Sorry, but they can’t. The people who tell you that are usually arena filling rock stars who have been overcome with an exaggerated sense of their own importance (*cough*bono*cough*), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with statements like these to make up for the fact that they didn’t become something important in life – a doctor, an architect, a researcher.

Writing a song in support of a union or against the war consolidates thought, gives people an anthem to hum, and generates a feeling, hopefully good, but bad works if you’re writing about a war or freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal. The problem with this is that it pre-empts, if only for a time, rational thought. Then you’re left with all those messy facts.

So what’s wrong with that?

Thought about becoming a Mormon lately? If you put a premium on feeling, you may want to consider signing up. One of the ways they convert potential new members is by telling them to look for a feeling, a “burning in the breast” that will confirm that the words that Joseph Smith made up transcribed are indeed the truth.

If I say so myself, this is brilliant. By doing this, they don’t have to deal with those messy facts… like explaining that if you finish the Mormonism race, you get to become a god (wasn’t that what Satan promised Eve?) and build your own planets… um, except for women, who will become baby making machines to populate these planets. They also don’t have to explain how blacks were excluded from leadership until the civil rights movement because their skin color was the mark of Cain, nor how Mormon rituals are shamelessly stolen from Masonry, how there’s no archaeological evidence to support the goings-on in the Book of Mormon, and… well, you get the idea.

(Hmmm, maybe Scientology needs some great songs so they don’t have to address that whole “return to the mothership” tenet – how about What We Did for Tom Cruise We Can Do for You?)

Maybe I’m overplaying this – or over-simplifying it. But if you were running a religion or a business or a political movement, would you want the people who made a reasoned, intelligent decision to accept your leadership, or the ones who did it because David Crosby told them to in B flat?

I know which group I’d put my trust in – and it isn’t the one that’s prone to leave after the next U2 album comes out.

After all, if they were led to a decision by a folk song, what did they do when last chord of the guitar faded out? Did they listen to the song again to keep that feeling going, or did they think things out and come to a rational decision? The smarter wings of Christianity recognize this, even deferring to God’s orders (imagine that!) to question and think things through. Nobody in the Bible was ever struck down for questioning God. Only for doing things that were unthinkingly selfish.

There’s a balance there, you know. If you don’t have feeling, you have no heart. It’s a powerful motivator. Nothing would be done if it weren’t for passion. But it needs a harness. Thus, if you haven’t thought things out, whether it’s about God, or Dubya, or nuclear power, or the war in Iraq, then you have no brain.

In my opinion, the folks out there who made a decision about nuclear power based on listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Roulette deserve just what they get.

Have fun listening to The Boss in the dark.

Listening: Anita Baker, “The Look of Love” (via iPod Shuffle)

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