Threw a spending bender
Pulled some paper from their arse 'n
Called it legal tender.
Spend from dawn to dusk
Politicians feast on steak
While "We the Folks" eat husks
My youngest child is nearing 13 years old, and like tens of thousands of American children her age she likes to watch the Disney and Nickelodeon channels. I do my best to limit her viewing and am very selective about what programs she sees, but don't believe I can forbid everything. Instead I try to watch some things with her and make an occasional comment here and there. I also try to play a lot of Mozart, Brahms, some Gilbert and Sullivan and even Prokofiev and Stravinsky for her to counter the prosaic pablum that makes up the steady diet of mediocrity offered on these and other channels. (She loves Gilbert and Sullivan and Mozart, and wants to be an opera singer, so I'm not doing what might be called cultural force-feeding by any means.)
Anyway, not long ago I was watching a program with her that ended in the usual musical performance by the star, who looks like another cookie cutter model straight out of some fashion magazine singing (well-miked, of course) while other teens in the audience cheered and gyrated chaotically, lights flashed, loud electronic music blared, special effects were generated, and the youthful principal danced up, down and across the stage with several dancers behind her and back up singers gesturing, and all in glitzy stage dress. As I watched I was taken back to an event that happened to me many years ago when I was still in high school.
The year was 1964 and our high school band had traveled from the coal mining area of southeastern Kentucky westward to the grand southern city of Memphis, Tennessee, overlooking as it does the sprawling Mississippi river. The Mississippi at Memphis was a striking change from the creeks and rills that meandered snake-like down the hollows of my mountain home land. None of us had seen anything quite like it. The Great River dividing these United States is fast moving, narrow and deep as it flows through Minnesota, but after being joined by the Ohio river at Cairo, it grows amazingly broad and slow moving by the time it reaches Memphis. It is almost as if Nature Herself is giving happy acknowledgment by means of this great river that it is now entering a very different land than the one it has left, a land with a warmer climate, a more genteel and neighborly people and leisurely, agrarian life.
Most of us in the band had never really left the region of our birth. Memphis was amazing to us. We were there to take part in the Cotton Carnival, which included a big parade with floats and bands from all across the Southland. I hated marching, but, as I saw it, seeing a large city like Memphis was worth the sacrifice.
Much to our joy we had a few days where we could see the sights and sounds of Memphis. For instance, I recall a trip to the Memphis zoo. In the evening we were even allowed something unheard of in our own time: unsupervised time in the big city. I was unsure what I would do but some how I learned the Preservation Hall Band was going to be giving a concert at a certain address.
I played clarinet in the band and began playing clarinet largely because of listening to my great uncle's Lps of Eddie Condon, the Dukes of Dixieland and many others. My great uncle was a barber in town, but had played trombone and toured as a young man with circus bands, and played the popular big band music of the time with many small time professional dance bands. He introduced me to Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Bix Beiderbeck, Glenn Miller, Hoagie Carmichael and, of course, Tommy Dorsey. I liked the big bands, but I liked Dixieland best and the clarinet was my most favorite of all the instruments.
I would spend hours in Cumberland Valley Music going through the recordings and listening to them with a few of my friends. I was always glad that very few people there in the mountains liked jazz, because I could get the recordings at a discount.
I was friends with one of the best trumpet players in our high school band. His mother had graduated from Cincinnati Conservatory in piano and took a real interest in the kids in the band that showed enthusiasm and talent. She had even taken several of us to Knoxville to hear Al Hirt and his band in concert. Hearing him live made me even more enthusiastic about music and being a musician. I had heard Hirt before on Lawrence Welk's show, where he regularly appeared with my most favorite musician of all: Pete Fountain.
Pete's playing on Welk inspired me and I lived through the week looking forward to Saturday night and the segment of the Welk program that featured him. It broke my heart when he left Welk to return to New Orleans. At that time there was no internet. If you wanted recordings and no local stores had what you were looking for mail order record clubs advertised in magazines were your only recourse. Consequently, I looked through periodical after periodical in search of companies selling Pete's recordings. I still have them today––but no record player.
Jazz wasn't all I had ordered from those magazines. I had even had purchased a recording that had a stranger, modernist painting of a man's face on its cover––just because it looked cool. When I got the album I loved it and played it over and over. It became one of my most favorite (Years later I would learn to love more of Schostakovich's music than his fifth symphony.)
I relate all this to let you know that despite my decidedly parochial, isolated upbringing, I wasn't altogether unfamiliar with the music of the past. So it shouldn't be surprising that I had heard of the Preservation Hall Band and was really excited to hear they were coming to Memphis during Cotton Carnival. What made it even better was the concert was free!
I can't recall if I was alone or if a friend came with me, but I do remember wandering through the streets using the directions I had been given by the concierge at the hotel. The concert was to begin rather late (9:00 PM) and the summer sun was just going down as I walked from street to street, pausing at each corner to check the street names to see if I was on track or hopelessly lost. The evening sky was perfectly clear and I could see all the buildings black against the thin sliver of orange-red on the horizon as it morphed into pale blue overhead and finally into the blue black of early evening that had already filled the eastern sky and which was creeping gradually and inexorably westward.
I was very excited to hear these legendary musicians live and so I came early––a habit of mine I retained until I was married. (Those gentlemen readers who are in like state will know well what I mean.)
I was perplexed, to say the least, when I arrived at the address. There was no marquee, no lights, no signs or billboards advertising the concert––nothing. There was only an open door showing a dimly lit room and people milling around outside on the street and others entering a few at a time. If you were just passing by you would never suspect a concert was about to start––not there, at least! I was in such doubt myself I asked someone standing in the small crowd outside if I was in the right place. He nodded indicating I was. So, I thanked him and went in to see if I could get a seat.
When I entered the room I received yet another shock. There were no seats to be seen except a few placed on a wooden, make-shift stage that looked like it had been hastily fabricated and shoved against one of the four bare brick walls enclosing an equally bare, concrete floor.
I noticed there was also an old upright piano and a beat up tuba on the stage, which looked so rickety that I would not have been surprised if the piano would crash through it to the floor at any moment.
This was very different from the plush concert hall I had heard Al Hirt in only months before. (At that time I did not know that the Preservation Hall band played in the exact same spartan conditions in New Orleans.)
I made my way so I was standing about ten feet in front of the stage. It was a good thing I had come early, because as the minutes passed and the performance time grew closer more and more people crowded into the hall and stood on the bare concrete floor facing the stage. I noticed there were people there from every social class and racial group. There was no resentment or hateful looks, no preening and posturing commonly seen at the symphony––this was as far as you could get from a "social affair." There were also no fire extinguishers that I could see, no official city supervisor making sure the room was not over capacity, no government employee going around with a noise meter or testing the air or inspecting for rats and other vermin. We were in a government-free zone, at least for a few hours. There was just a growing crowd of souls standing on a concrete floor, staring at a dimly lit make shift stage waiting to hear the music they loved.
Finally, from a side door the musicians entered without fanfare. They unceremoniously climbed the three or four steps as the stage groaned under their weight and sat down in their respective chairs. Most of them were old, among them were both blacks and whites. The tubist, as I recall, was the youngest and white. The leader was an old black man with hair as white as snow. He played cornet.
He did not speak or give introductions, though later the musicians were introduced. He did not announce the first tune, nor were there any programs. He simply raised the cornet to his lips, glanced over his shoulder for a moment to make sure every one was ready and kicked off the first tune. The reason the tune was not announced became clear the moment they began to play: it didn't matter. From the first note it seemed as if we were all suddenly lifted up, transported out of time and place into another state of being. We were all one, players and listeners, united by the wondrous sounds that echoed against the bricks and poured out onto the street through the still open entrance.
There was no fancy stage, no special effects, no dazzling stage lighting, no glitzy suits and dresses, no make up, no huge speakers blaring electronic sounds and sound effects, no back up singers or dancers, no microphones or amplification of any kind, no slim, trim, beautiful young people with perfect teeth and well coached stage presence moving with perfectly coordinated gestures, no shrieking, hysterical crowd of empty-headed teens gyrating back and forth. What we heard needed none of that, for it was real and true. It came with its own transcendent beauty, pouring from the musician's souls through their instruments and into our hearts.
As their music filled the room I was nothing short of ecstatic and I could feel tears involuntarily well up and pour down my cheeks. In my delight I managed to compose myself long enough to look around the room. Every person I could see was wholly focused upon the music and the performers. But there was more––everyone I could see, standing with me on that concrete floor, in that dimly lit, smoky room, listening to those souls, many in the twilight of their years––every one was smiling, and their faces beamed with a transcendent and unalloyed joy. A spirit of love had entered with the music and, miracle of miracles, it sustained us the entire evening.
As the final tune was played and the final cheers and applause of sincere joy and gratitude died away and we filtered slowly out of the door and into the street I noted the silence among the attendees was hardly broken, and the look of joy was still upon their faces.
The performance had been free, but was worth the combined audience's weight in gold and more. It was, as the credit card commercial says, "priceless."
After the performance I strolled down the dark Memphis streets the happiest I could ever remember being. Besides being filled with joy that night I had also learned a valuable lesson, and as I sat with my daughter and my ears were being assaulted with glitzy sound and fury signifying nothing (that which today's media moguls try to pawn off on our children as musical entertainment) a valuable lesson once learned became a valuable lesson remembered.
Freedom is a difficult thing to accept. Not our freedom, of course, but that of others.
Our Lord put it simply. He said, in essence, everything boils down to us. It’s not all about us, of course, but it all starts with us, for, at least in a proximate sense, ourselves are all we have. We, in the final analysis, are all we can really do anything about.
In His Infinite Wisdom Our Lord knew this and so He began with us as the touch point for his moral teaching by saying we are to love others as we love ourselves; we are to are to treat others as we want to be treated.
His unequivocal teaching clearly implies that we need not go further than the impulses of our own longings and most ardent desires to know the most profound things about others and discover the laws, the standards as it were, by which we are to relate to our neighbor, whether he be next door or on the other side of the world.
This, I insist, is not Our Lord’s dogmatic teaching, but His practical one. He knew and knows us well. If his Life and Teaching tell us nothing else at all it tells us that Liberty, with all its attendant difficulties, is, even for a fallen creature, wounded as he is with concupiscence, is still the only valid thing; the only thing that works; the only thing that can lead us out of our present human dilemma and into that great and glorious liberty of the Sons and Daughters of God: Veritas liberabit vos.
We are to live here as if we are there, for in a sense, we are. The One who came to “restore all things” tells us we are to live on this earth under the One Law God established in the beginning, not the two preferred by a fallen creature as he soujourned east of Eden.
This imposition of the One Law, so succinctly given by Our Lord, presents a great and immediate difficulty to us fallen critters, for experience teaches us we are reflexively inclined to have one standard for ourselves and a quite different one for others.
What does this have to do with the Southern cause of liberty so immediately uppermost in many of our minds? What has this to do with the Founding of our once great Republic and the substance of our once functioning Constitution?
Worthy questions all! And in response I offer what I believe to be a worthy answer: “Simply everything.”
I bring this up here because experience has taught me that the One Law is a very easy thing to let slide, to conveniently overlook, to find momentary exception to, to rationalize away, to simply set aside out of fear or “practical” concerns, such as “the public good.” It is easy to pass over for these or any of a thousand and one other possible reasons.
In the face of all these “practical considerations,” I don’t recall Our Lord acknowledging any as valid enough to permit an exception to the One Law, even for a single instance.
I could, of course, be wrong, since I’m hardly any theologian or Scripture scholar. But if I am correct we don’t have a lot of wriggle room. In fact, we don’t have any at all.
Indeed, like W. C. Fields was said to have done in his cconvalescing years, we may search the Scripture looking for loop holes only to find there is no getting around the hard fact: we must grant our neighbor the same liberty, both in kind and degree, that we demand for ourselves.
The equality Jefferson spoke of in his celebrated Declaration may imply more than that, but it can never imply less than that. The moment equality becomes so distorted and misapplied as to impair and diminish liberty it not only ceases to be American, it ceases to be equality and morphs into tyranny.
Those of us who do accept the One Law have no cause for celebrating or indulging some sense of superiority. Acceptance is not accomplishment, it is only the beginning of our labors.
We must not only accept, we must conform to that which we have accepted. Anyone who has tried it even for a short time knows what failure is. He has also come to know that it takes real courage to remain consistent in supporting the One Law, and such a realization cannot help but cause us to view the Founders with renewed admiration, for they made the theme of their labors, their sine qua non, their final cause and pearl of great price that thing we call Liberty.
What would such a society look like? What form would it take? What would regulate it? Would statist tyranny be merely supplanted with a puritanical religion based one that erodes liberty under just another flag?
The exercise of mutual Liberty is a fearful thing because it demands as much trust from us as it grants to us. A society based on Liberty is, de facto, a society rooted in the necessity of trusting our neighbor to consider our good and not his only. A liberty based society cannot work under terms other than that and remain liberty based.
The fact that we now fear it and even doubt its possibility shows how far we are removed from the real demands of freedom. Yet, not long ago, it was not that way. I know, for I have witnessed it.
For instance, as a child I recall the trust and generosity of those Southeast Kentucky mountain folk I proudly and gratefully name as “my people.” The good people inhabiting those beautiful and gentle hills met strangers with curiosity, not suspicion. To say or think otherwise is to labour under the delusion of a false, yankeefied caricature.
Encounters with strangers commonly resulted in sitting down at a meal of fresh garden vegetables and home grown meats together and, afterwards, a friendly talk on the front porch about all manner of things as the summer afternoon slowly turned into evening, the long shadows of the mountains turn the land into black sillouhettes against a still bright pale blue sky and fireflies illuminated the evening with their magical, mystical light, all coordinated with the music of a thousand crickets.
My people reflexively assumed a good will in the stranger passing through or the new comer. This practice was not just a habit of body, it was a habit of mind and of soul––a common disposition. The stranger was assumed innocent until he had proven himself guilty beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt by a deliberate act of malice.
Was good will ever betrayed? Of course, but more times than not it was rewarded, and the rewards served as the bulwark that guarded against bitterness and cynicism.
Let us be plain about the consequences of the exercise of universal liberty: The moment we place our trust in another we lose total control. This abdication of control, freely chosen by the will, is nothing less than a rejection of the practice of personal tyranny. It takes courage and discipline.
At a lecture I attended last month Lew Rockwell gave a speech about liberty. In it he recounted an event in one of the Russian Republics freed of Soviet domination. It seems the leaders were all for a proposed reform up to the point they realized it required that the people have freedom of movement in the process of seeking a better life themselves and their families. These leaders simply could not accept freedom. They were like starving dogs who, coming upon food, could not bring themselves to eat.
They were like the fruit fly who had tried and failed to escape from a covered jar so many times they ceased to try, even long after its had been removed. Not only that, but these men God had created free, had become so enslaved in their minds, they not only refused freedom, they feared it. They opted for the thing to which their enslaved minds had become conditioned: central planning.
They demonstrated by their actions they not only did not trust their neighbor, they did not trust themselves outside of the security of the collective.
It is a fiction for us in America to entertain the notion that we are the least bit different, except perhaps in degree. The chief feature of one who has been propagandized is the denial that he has been propagandized.
I recently went for a haircut and was served by a lovely young lady of Mexican heritage. During our conversation I tried my best to explain to her what Liberty was all about and its value. I could see that she was genuinely interested but very unfamiliar with the subject. At one point in our conversation she said, “Well, liberty might be fine for most of us, but what about those who don’t know how to act?”
I answered that the greatest single factor in limiting our personal actions and choices in life is the same factor that regulates business choices in free markets: risk. The possibility of failure and the loss that inevitably follows.
I told her the one thing that a free society does not provide, at least as government policy, is a bailout. In a free society that is what the churches are for; to bind up the wounded, to instruct the ignorant and to encourage the fearful.
In a free society we do not need a police state to maintain order. Risk and the possibility of real loss, real punishment, real and severe consequences for criminal, immoral, irresponsible, fool hearty and abusive acts do the job more adequately, more perfectly and more completely than any police state ever could. Unlike the law enforcement officers that patrol the police state, the cause and effect of our choices in a free society never sleeps, never ceases to teach and instruct those with a teachable spirit, never ceases to encourage in just the right way by the very means of its punishments: natural law and a liberty based society go together like butter and toast––or my personal favorite: peanut butter and chocolate.
As I spoke I could see the light of liberty begin to shine in her eyes. She understood. She saw that liberty was not just good for me, the old guy of European descent, and bad for her, the immigrant from Mexico, but good for us both.
I spoke to her as I speak to every one else. I have no idea what she has been raised to think of the “gringo,” and I don’t care. Those of us who love liberty refuse to think in the categories of the ant-brained collectivist. I cared only that she saw the jewel of American liberty, if only for a fleeting moment.
I ended by paraphrasing that great lover of the Constitution and liberty, Dr. Ron Paul––a northerner by accident of birth, but in many ways one of us and one with us.
I told her the concern of those who love liberty is not that we all agree––forced agreement by any means is the way of the tyrant––those of us who love liberty care only that we all be free. Let us first establish that and then we may, without fear, labour to resolve all that remains.
Many of us in the South think that the greatest challenge we face is our struggle for independence from a tyrannical, rapacious government run amuck; a government that has rejected its foundational documents, heaped contempt upon its fundamental principles, ceased to serve the people and seeks only its own growth in power, prestige and control by despotism domestically and aggression abroad.
There is no denying it, this is a great challenge. But I believe we too have our own share of Stockholm syndrome.
We have been unconsciously wounded and do not see that our labors within ourselves are at least as great as those we face from without.
We need to consider the possibility a small swamp critter from the Okefenokee named Pogo knew long ago: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
How we face and deal with that fact will determine if, when the opportunity of liberty comes, whether we are ready and have the courage to live under its benevolent aegis, or whether we will simply seek to replace the Yankee’s brand of tyranny with some legalistic, theocratic horror of our own making.