As the fellow said, one of things we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. And this was true on its own terms, back in the day when when history stayed more or less the same. How much more is it the case when we have seen a transformation of history in terms of sheer scale — and speed?
What I mean by “transformation” is this. George Washington got around pretty much the same way that Julius Caesar did, and at approximately the same speeds. Since the Industrial Revolution, along with its cascading consequences, we have seen radical changes in how things look and sound. We have frequently made the mistake of thinking that this has altered the foundational principles, which it has not, but it has altered the appearance of everything drastically enough that we need to pay much closer attention in order to learn from history, and we had a hard enough time doing that back when everything stayed pretty much the same. The constants are still constant, for that is what they do. The variables have gone on a bender.
Take the question of music, for example. I think it would be difficult to deny that our generation is producing massive amounts of treacle, dreck, and schlock. And I do not deny it. Indeed, I have made this very point multiple times myself. At the same time, we are living in a time of golden opportunities when it comes to music. Things have never been better. Do I contradict myself? No, but you may think that if you like.
On a recent trip, I had occasion to listen to the music that different drivers were taking in. One was listening to avant something something jazz, and another guy was listening to classical. Now what were people in their (relative) pay grades listening to (all day long) five hundred years ago? The answer is nothing. The wealthiest would get to listen to good music on particular occasions, and the poor would get out their instruments, also on particular occasions. Music was the sonic wallpaper of no one’s life back then.
Now some might argue that this is to our disadvantage — music inflation to the point of ubiquity might mean that we are now hearing all the time but listening to nothing. I understand the argument, and think there is an appropriate warning for us in there somewhere, but at the end of the day I don’t buy it.
What are we comparing our situation to? In many ways, this is not an apples to oranges thing — it is an apples to nothing thing. We shouldn’t be such purists that we think that a stable hand five hundred years ago, who was never serenaded while he worked, somehow had a musical advantage over a stable hand today who has seventeen playlists at his disposal, and who uses them all. And I don’t care if his playlists have labels like George Jones, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, and Loretta Lynn. My driver who was listening to classical had better music at his fingertips than Nebuchadnezzar did. In the interests of full disclosure, I am listening to Asleep At the Wheel performing Route 66 while typing this sentence, a song that I am convinced could also have held Nebuchadnezzar’s attention.
All our technological developments have resulted in the democratization of music, sure enough. And those who are musically trained are tempted to look down on the rising tide of multiple voices trying to find the pitch. But this gap is nothing new — we have always had it. The thing that is different is that the gap is steadily closing. The musically trained and able are about where they always were. But behind them, still at a distance but closing, there is a great multitude — listening to their music, almost all the time. Vox populi, vox progressus.
Now I grant that there have been certain enclaves in history where musical literacy was present from top to bottom — certain ethnicities, certain religious movements, and so on. That is what we are laboring for here in our little section of the great choir practice room of history. It is a worthy endeavor — with a lot of work to do, but also with a glorious opportunity handed to us. One of the worst mistakes we could make right now is to misread the nature of that opportunity.
While I have your attention on this most important topic, let me tell you about a forthcoming album by Brother Down. The album is called Old Paths New Feet, and is set to release this coming Reformation Day. It consists of ten Reformation-era psalms, with original melodies, and contemporary instrumentation. It is just one sample of the kind of thing I am talking about here. Canon Press is starting a record label, and when they are ready to unveil the name and location of it, I will provide all the appropriate links.