Victory in the Culture Wars

Now that the World Series is over, an important part of America goes to sleep for the winter. While I do love the ritual of Sunday football as the bittersweet elision between play and work (I’m fortunately employed again, so less frequent postings), especially my beloved Giants, I still need to reach for a book now and then to put me in touch with the past and the future. Specifically, the American past and future.

Baseball is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle of American culture. We have a few more intense, thrilling days to contemplate another one – it’s not the Presidential election per se, because elections are not unique to America, it’s how this election may mean, and I do so fervently hope it does, a triumph in the culture wars, with America winning.

The culture wars are superficially about things like school prayer, abortion, Christmas displays and flag-burning, but what they are fundamentally about is a battle of American culture against anti-modern, authoritarian culture. They are a fight over accepting reality, the reality that America has been a multi-cultural, pluralistic society since it was first colonized, and the reality that what makes this country different and special is that it is an experiment in modern political thinking, one that values and requires dissent against authority. If Obama wins, American culture wins.

Obama clearly has a huge advantage among young and first-time voters, and if they vote in the same numbers they have registered, it’s a landslide. These voters will also constitute some kind of third party, identified as Democrats but drawn into the political system because of one man. They will be Obama’s party, and they will not have the racial obstacles that have afflicted all previous generations of America. And that itself is a triumph for American culture over atavism. This is because American culture is impossible without African-American culture. The first African slaves arrived in this land in the 16th century, and have had as much, or more, to do with building the nation as European whites. The genealogical roots of blacks in America go back centuries, and touch on the most important people and events in this country’s history – without them there would be no America. And without them there would be no American culture. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, it is fortunate for us that the unfortunate slaves were brought to this shore.

I’m not discounting Thomas Paine, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman and of course Charles Ives. They make America. So do Raymond Chandler, John Ford and Francis Ford Coppolla. And pace Joseph O’Neill – whose book I am enjoying – it’s baseball, not cricket, that makes America. Baseball really becomes America when Jackie Robinson makes his appearance, joining together all the people who built this country in this country’s great game. And America would really become America if Obama is elected president, joining all those who have built this country into its leadership. The voters will make that choice, of course, but this country would not even be in the position to elect the first African-American (truly African-American) president, if it hadn’t been for the blessing and long, pervasive influence of African-American culture, especially musical culture.

African-Amercan musical culture begins sometime in the 19th century, with a mixture of Protestant hymns and spiritual songs, the field songs slaves sang to make it through each hard day, and of course the flavors of French and Spanish songs and dance music percolating through and out of New Orleans. Out of that comes the blues, and jazz. Mix in recording technology, and America starts to hear the other, hidden parts of the country, hear the other people who live here (this is beautifully described in Geoffrey O’Briens Sonata for Jukebox), and they like what they hear. In between the wars, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are stars, and keep revealing the other America to white audiences – one of the great moments from Ken Burns’ “Jazz” is hearing a quote from Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who unintentionally saw Armstrong perform and realized that black people had souls. Elvis becomes the great white ‘black’ singer, and makes black music relatively safe for a whole new generation of young whites. British rock bands return their own versions of black singers and blues to these shores. Eventually the dam would break completely, first with Michael Jackson – who did more to win the Cold War than Ronald Reagan – and Hip Hop, which makes black popular music the dominant popular music across the country. So why would young voters have any problems voting for Obama? They have black people in their lives in one way or another every day.

Old, angry white men and their courtiers have been fighting a losing battle for a century now. It was inevitable that the would eventually lose their hold on the levers of power, but until this year I never imagined it would happen in my lifetime. So thank you jazz – my first love – and blues. We wouldn’t be here without you, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charlie Patton, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Personally, that’s what I would prefer the kids to be listening to nowadays, but if it’s Jay-Z who puts Obama over the top, then thank you too sir. Thank you very much.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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