28 February 2012

This is American Music

The White House performances hosted on the Obama's watch have been nothing short of Milky-Way stellar. Last time, the First Couple invited Sir Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to the East Room. This time, they showcased a fantasy blues team of substance and breadth that ranged from Susan Tedeschi to Trombone Shorty.

The celebration of a REAL, home-grown musical idiom like the Blues, with all its tribulations and slow-burning soul, gives me goose-bumps. To know I participate in an American experiment with all its lofty ideals and all its obvious warts, moves me.

Blues legend Buddy Guy paints the arc of our nation's recent journey:
"I was born on a farm in Louisiana. My family were sharecroppers, and I picked cotton by hand, not by machine. And all of a sudden you go to sleep, wake up, and you're invited to play at the White House. This is something so special, you know, I just close my eyes and say, thank you God."
~Buddy Guy at 0:37 below..

Jimi Hendrix said the Blues aren't hard to play, just hard to feel.
A guy will promise you the world and give you nothin', and that's the Blues.
~Otis Rush, Blues guitarist and singer
I don't know that there's a satisfactory definition of the Blues. But there's no other musical genre that so poignantly encapsulates hope and despair. The Blues is the narrative of the non-native American, but its hard luck themes and searing licks are universally resonant.

The Blues is quintessential American music.

18 February 2012

Manifest Destiny is Unsustainable

Manifest Destiny is the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined, if not sanctioned by supreme power, to expand across the continent.

Historian and author William E. Weeks (cf. Building the Continental Empire) characterized Manifest Destiny with three themes:
  • Virtue - the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
  • Mission - the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
  • Destiny - the destiny under God to do this work.

Manifest Destiny Revisited

Virtue, Mission, and Destiny are heady themes. It is easy to imagine 19th century Americans full of hubris and hell-bent on pursuing their God-given destiny.

John Gast painted Columbia, an American pseudo-goddess in a flowing white frock, as a personification of the United States levitating above the frontier.

In Gast's 1872 representation of westward expansion called American Progress, we observe Columbia holding a school book and stringing telegraph wire, while Native Americans flee in terror.

Most Americans have a different vision of American progress than that depicted in Gast's allegorical painting.

Nevertheless true American progress is repeatedly retarded by those clinging to the fallacy of American Exceptionalism.

Contemporary Commentary

Conceptual designer Mark Reigelman and architect Jenny Chapman conceived the temporary installation Manifest Destiny! viewable at 447 Bush Street, San Francisco through October 2012.

Manifest Destiny! is a rustic cabin temporarily appended to the side of a downtown San Francisco building. The 19th-century style cabin was made from reclaimed 100 year old barn board from Ohio. The cabin recalls depictions of San Francisco's early settlements.

Reigelman and Chapman confront the notion of establishing a home front in the unclaimed and forbidding interstices of a contemporary city. The idealized homeyness of the cabin contrasts the contemporary streetscape.

The innocence of the cabin, and its precarious perch, is both tribute to the romantic spirit of Western expansion and critique of the arrogance of the westward expansion myth. A cursory review of American history reveals the genocide of native people and the pillage of natural resources.

Virtue, Mission, and Destiny are indeed heady themes. Parasitic and dangerous themes. Dangerous for a myopically headstrong point of view dripping with an unwarranted sense of American Exceptionalism. Parasitic because American-centric thinking has cost untolled lives, good-will and resources.

The Manifest Destiny! installation reminds us of the buffoonish folly of American Exceptionalism. It also reminds us of the growing urgency to understand our ecological interdependence and to appreciate our ordinariness.

09 February 2012

Hand-Built Lament

In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford rebukes the commonly held assumptions that limit our post-industrial conceptions of work, self-worth, and ultimately, happiness.

Crawford leaves a think tank gig to open a motorcycle repair shop. He learns the value of a tangible, hands-on skill, has the pleasure of connecting with customers, and sees first-hand the fruits of his labor. It is not the first book to revere the sublimity of motorcycle maintenance.

He laments the transition from skilled craftsman to the mechanization of the industrial revolution (e.g., from pride in craftsmanship to the interchangeable parts of a human assembly line).

Crawford also laments the disappearance of shop class from our high schools. It is true that high school students today are too far removed from the ability to make things. As a programmer I can say better to take wood shop in school than to learn programming. A monkey can learn to program a computer, but it takes some coordinated mastery to turn a bowl on a lathe.

Working with our hands certainly sharpens the mind, but also buoys our sense of well-being. Anyone who has built a cedar fence, thrown a ceramic bowl, or cobbled together a desktop computer from parts with a daughter or a son knows the life-lessons to be had and recognizes the strength of the bonds to be made through a hand-built, team project.

I wanted Soulcraft to touch a chord, but it simply confirmed with mechanical precision what many of us already know about being a knowledge worker buried by mindless bit-shuffling in people-unfriendly corporations -- bit-shuffling provides a living, but ain't very satisfying.