Saturday, June 25, 2016

Man of Constant Sorrow

Driving home early in the morning from my other job one Sunday, I turned the radio to the local AM channel. I don't listen much to AM radio except to listen to sports events, but I hit the Scan button and the first channel it landed on was the local one.

I guess it's a Christian station for it was playing Christian Bluegrass songs. I don't know how much folks on this forum know about American music, but Bluegrass is one of those more traditional musical genres that has its roots in folk songs brought by Anglo immigrants to the US. Remembered and nurtured by the hills and dales of the Appalachian mountains, the music thrived for many years only in the minds and souls of some of the more destitute and dispossessed of Americans. ...

The more religious songs were a staple at that uniquely American phenomenon of the tent meeting Christian celebrations. Very emotional and evocative these meetings were the brainchild of Methodist circuit riders. itinerant preachers who wandered the wilderness of America bringing the salvation experience to those Americans who had no church nearby. The music recently gained some exposure as the musical landscape of the film, Oh Brother Where Art Thou.

I have a close place in my heart for this music since my mother would listen to it on Saturdays, a day off from her job as a hospital receptionist. She'd spend that time cleaning and arranging our lives to order and cleanliness. She's was not and is not a religious woman, so I imagine that the reason she listened to it is for its melodies, beautiful harmonies, and simple but evocative lyrics.

I never knew that the music was anything special until many years in college when friends played the music. From upper-class backgrounds, their interest in the music was as connoisseurs of a music that could legitimately call itself traditional American music. It had, after all, influenced many of the popular folk musicians of the 60s like Bob Dylan.

On that Sunday I drove home from work, one of my favorite melodies was on. It's gained much notoriety from the Oh Brother film. In one of those small epiphanies I am prone to, the song was especially evocative for me this Sunday morning. Its story of someone who has no roots and is enmeshed in unspoken sorrows brought home in a simultaneous moment the drift and weft of much of my own life.

I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all my days
I bid farewell to old Kentucky
The state where I was borned and raised

For six long years I've been in trouble
No pleasure here on earth I find
For in this world I'm bound to ramble
I have no friends to help me now

It's fare thee well my own true lover
I never expect to see you again
For I'm bound to ride that northern railroad
Perhaps I'll die upon this train

You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay
Then you may learn to love another
While I am sleeping in my grave.

It's fare you well to a native country
The places I have loved so well
For I have seen all kinds of trouble
In this cruel world, no tongue can tell.

Maybe your friends think I'm just a stranger
My face you'll never see no more
But there is one promise that is given
I'll meet you on God's golden shore.

Those words of a person wandering without roots and neither place nor home to lay his head describes several times during my own life. The loveless existence and the sorrows that you bring on yourself or into others' lives ring still true to me. And the feeling that only in the end will all find resolution and meaning still hover about my thoughts as I try to put shape and form on all I have seen and felt in my life.

In my thoughts were also some of the things I had written here before concerning the rootlessness of modern existence. The words of the song do indeed seem to embody the experience of that rootlessness that some might say is the bane of modern life. For without roots in tradition, culture, and the land what are we humans but sad wraiths looking for a home that is not of this earth?

It does seem in many ways that it is this rootlessness that defines the so-called American experience. For, as immigrants torn from the social, cultural and physical matrixes that human societies have formed to anchor the search for meaning, Americans undergo a kind of levelling that looks upon all those things as old and useless.

The uniquely American, it might be said, is the power to cut yourself from all those old life-forms that define the old world, thereby opening up the possibility of a new world. In this new world, it's believed, we create out own reality, relying on nothing but ourselves and the innate genius and character that nature bequeathes us.

This, at least, is perhaps the message that that eminently American writer Emerson hoped to bring as the good news to Americans. It was perhaps also his vision as the meaning that America itself might represent for human history, a message that others who groaned under the burden of slavery to social, political, and cultural constraints find themselves in.

Emerson was not oblivious to the potential for anarchy inherent in this experience. Rootless and without an anchor in anything except self-reliance what was to keep people from simply living out their own selfish, brutish worst selves? Emerson, I think, believed that we must understand ourselves as creatures of nature, interconnected in wonderful and ingeniously complex ways. Doing so, we could salvage a sense of purpose that transcended simple self-centered behavior and realized itself in a kind of mystical bond with all beings, human, animal, and non-human.

Many will perhaps see this Emersonian vision as naive. How many, for example, have the time or inclination to overcome that seemingly selfish nature that exhibits itself in all cultures and all times? I think that Emerson felt that the republican values instituted by the American constitution had solved many of those problems. Indeed, I believe that Emerson saw American democracy itself as a type of religion that would replace other religions. In fact, I imagine that for him this was an inevitable result of the arc of history.

I think that Emerson is the uniquely American philosopher. I say that since people from many political persuasions count his writings as support for their philosophies. Yet, in my own experience, the Emersonian vision has fared poorly when regarded in the light of that very history he perhaps identified too closely with natural forces. Instead, history has shown that to disregard the human dimension of history is to disregard the potential for death and destruction that those who idolize it wreak.

I will leave these thoughts here for the moment, as I have to go off and cook dinner. I'll finish with the following thought: the rootlessness I know in my own life and that brings so much sorrow may form the kenotic basis on which a deeper awareness of realities beyond this one have yet other dimensions of life to reveal.

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