August 12, 2019

An American Song, an American Crisis

In times like this, brave and bold experimentation is the closest we’ll get to finding a solution.

Moon river wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style someday

I’m in the waiting area of the doctor’s office and it comes on the Muzak system and I’m sitting peacefully, not scrolling or looking at headlines, and I hear the music and remember the lyrics and my eyes start to fill.

That old American song, mid-20th century, and those words …

Someone once said a hallmark of good music is that it is confident of the values it asserts. In this case those values include tranquillity, order, harmony. But really it’s a song about yearning.

It has always seemed to me such an American song. I see a lot of songs as “such an American song.” Here are two examples off the top of my head. Al Jolson’s “She’s a Latin From Manhattan,” is about a 1920s vaudeville hoofer. Sultry, glamorous Latins are all the rage on the stage, so she’s changed her name and walks around with a tambourine passing herself off as a mysterious lady from Madrid or Havana. A guy in the audience falls in love but then thinks: Wait, I remember her! “Though she does a rumba for us / And she calls herself Dolores / She was in a Broadway chorus / Known as Susie Donahue.” It’s about wanting to make it in America and being whatever you have to be to do it.

Another “such an American song”: “Tik Tok,” by Kesha. “Wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy / Grab my glasses, I’m out the door; I’m gonna hit this city.” I guess it’s about a pretty worldly person, but in my imagination she’s a 15-year-old kid from Jersey, she’s on the Route 4 bus from Paramus, she’s from a beat-up family, no one’s taking care of her, she’s on her own, but she’s imagining an alternative self, this tough, careless, glamorous self she’s going to turn into when she gets to New York. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves to keep going, the worlds we imagine to keep up our morale.

But “Moon River"—I’ve always thought it such an American song because there’s not only yearning in it but loneliness. This comports with my sense of America as a vast place settled by people from somewhere else, most of whom were on a losing strain—no money, no prospects. Bandits who hadn’t been caught, adventurers, dreamers, earnest younger brothers who stood to inherit nothing, lost girls on their own. They got a chance and left families behind, left centuries of a certain way of being behind. In this way our parent-forgetting country was born and invented itself. They got to America, pushed west, lit out for the territories, searched for Sutter’s gold. Or, dragged from Africa, lived in the South, joined the great migration North. Always on the move, all of us.

"Moon River” is about how you’re going to move. It’s a promise to yourself: “I’m crossing you in style someday.” It’s not enough you’ll cross that river, you’ll cross it in style. “I will rise and everyone will see it, everyone will know. I’m going to make money and be respected.”

Oh, dream maker
You heartbreaker
Wherever you’re going I’m going your way

That’s America, the dream maker and heartbreaker, but you’re intertwined with it, you’re not alone.

Two drifters off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see

I’m nobody from nowhere but it’s all out there waiting for me. You’re not really American until you have a poignant sense of the bigness of things. When “Moon River” came out, in 1961, the American president had a little plaque on his desk: “O, God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting round the bend
My huckleberry friend
*Moon river and me

It’s all within grasp, all possible. Again, I’m not alone. The lyricist Johnny Mercer nodded to Huckleberry Finn, the abandoned boy who shoved off down the river and came upon the man who became his best friend, the escaped slave Jim. “The huckleberry reference was an attempt to engage in a suggestive, even protometaphorical manner with America’s central and founding dilemma, race,” Mercer said.

Actually he never said that. I made it up. But years ago that’s what I thought was on his mind, that we’re all on this journey together and have to get it right. And maybe it is what Mercer meant.

That song came from our culture.

And I’m thinking of what the words mean to me as they call my name and I meet with the doctor and have my exam.

Then, because this is America and we are citizens, our conversation turned to what has been happening.

The doctor is worried about his three kids in grade school. They see the headlines and hear everything. They do shooter drills in their schools. “And it’s everywhere.”

Yes. I said one of the painful things we’re witnessing is the loss of the fantasy worried parents had, the fantasy of “I can give all this up and move to Ketchum, Idaho. I can leave the unsafe place and go to a safe place and bring up my children apart from all this.”

I said the lesson of the last 20 years is that there is no safe place.

He agreed: “This is us.” Then he said, “So we’ll have to solve it.”

You’re hating that I left the music, aren’t you? I hate it.

But here a responsible person would note that we are in a crisis, as the doctor suggested. It’s not a problem, it’s a crisis, it’s continuing, it has a hundred causes, we have to chip away at it hard. In a crisis you try this thing and then that; you experiment, boldly. You become daring.

We argue about which solutions are right, but all the solutions are part of the solution. We are in a mental health crisis; it’s not a right-wing talking point. We need more hospitalizations and more hospitals. We do need red-flag laws so that those who are potentially harmful to themselves or others have their guns taken. We do need deep national background checks, and let judges adjudicate disputes. We do have to help the single mother who knows her son is a ticking time bomb—she needs a better response than “There’s nothing we can do until he hurts someone.” We should try banning assault weapons. I don’t care if we don’t have statistics proving it will help—do it anyway, as a crisis measure, do it for 10 years again and see if it helps. If the National Rifle Association were wise, it would be supple now, in crisis. If the president were wise, he’d look to the country and put distance between the NRA and himself. If Democrats were wise they wouldn’t turn this into a game.

I want so badly on this pretty August day to tie this back to the old songs and their confidently asserted values. I can’t. There’s no nice song about people scared for their kids and afraid for their country.

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