Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Bob Dylan, Billy Emerson, and the Problem of Credit

              On May 8, 2020, Bob Dylan released a third new song for 2020 and announced that a new album was forthcoming. The song, “False Prophet” sounded quite different from the first two and a lot more like the kind of music we are used to from late career Dylan. This one, I feel, both in sound and lyric would easily fit onto his last original album Tempest whereas “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul” would have sounded a bit out of place there.

              Almost immediately intrepid Dylan fans discovered the inspiration for the music on this one: the song “If Lovin’ is Believing“ by Billy “the Kid” Emerson. (NPR put up a story about it with links to both songs:

              There seems little doubt that Dylan based the music of “False Prophet” on Emerson’s 1954 song. I have no idea of the legal logistics. I am an attorney but intellectual property is not my area of expertise and the copyright of song recordings and song composition is a notoriously complex matter for songs written and recorded earlier than the mid-to-late 20th Century when the problems of omission of protection for some of these forms was addressed with legislation.

I wouldn’t hazard a guess about whether there is any legal copyright liability here. For all I know Dylan’s team might have reached out to Emerson and given a lump sum payment for the use of the music. Or not. Maybe Emerson based his music on some earlier song that no one has found yet. Or not.

But there is another issue here, and that is the ethical question. If he isn’t violating any copyright rule here, should he still have acknowledged Emerson in some way from a moral standpoint?

The NPR article notes that “[b]oth songs are built on blues form – a standard chord sequence that has been used by gazillions of artists for more than a hundred years. Using this framework as the basis for a composition is generally not regarded as stealing or copyright infringement; the singer and songwriter Pete Seeger once described such appropriation as ‘the folk process.’” The author goes on to note that there are differences between the music in the songs: “Dylan's "False Prophet" sits in the same tempo, and key, as Emerson's song. It faithfully replicates the rhythm guitar phrase and leans on the same lead guitar line for punctuation. But there are a couple of crucial tweaks or modifications: Dylan truncates the form to 10 measures instead of 12, and shortens one measure from four beats to two. The effect of this editing is something more than a clever, technical flim-flam: It transforms something standard, a form we've heard forever, into something ear-catchingly new.”

I don’t have an argument with any of that, and again I am not a specialist in intellectual property, but I am a bit skeptical that these differences would, alone, shield a copyright infringement claim. Hell, after the “Blurred Lines”case where a jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had essentially stolen the “groove” or the “feel” of an earlier Marvin Gaye song I don’t know how anyone can be sure about close-call infringement cases.

That all being said, this is nothing new for Dylan or music composers as a whole. On Dylan’s first album, “Song for Woody Guthrie” uses a Woody Guthrie melody set to new lyrics. Or does it? Woody himself adapted folk tunes for his own songs. As noted in an article in Acoustic Guitar magazine: If an existing song had the simple, natural quality that Guthrie loved, he was apt just to use it directly, and write new words to an old melody, for instance. Many of his most famous songs were based in part on other songs. Even “This Land Is Your Land” uses the melody from the hymn “When the World’s On Fire” as performed by the Carter Family. Another example of this folk-process adaptation from Guthrie’s songbook is “Pastures of Plenty,” based on the one-chord traditional tune “Pretty Polly.”’ Guthrie was a famously huge influence on Dylan’s performance and writing styles.

And, of course, it wasn’t just Guthrie that did this sort of thing. I heard my 16 year old son recently singing the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” around the house. I asked him (since he seemed to like it) whether he had heard the song it was clearly based on, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” He was completely unaware of the latter song. For the fun of it I looked them up and sure enough, “Istanbul” has Nat Simon listed as the music writer with nary a mention of Irving Berlin’s 1920s composition “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” I will let you judge for yourself the connection from the videos below, but I think, despite some differences, it is clear that “Istanbul” is based on “Puttin’”.

Ella Fitzgerald, "Puttin' on the Ritz":

The Four Lads: "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)"

When artists do this in the modern era they get sued. Famously George Harrison (perhaps unintentionally) set the melody of a song called “He’s So Fine” to new lyrics to come up with “My Sweet Lord.” He was sued by the copyright owner, lost the case, and was very embittered by the process. (I can’t imagine that he never spoke to his friend, Bob Dylan, about this case and I wonder how it affected Dylan’s attitude about the subject.)

This borrowing has nothing, I believe, to do with the quality of the art. “My Sweet Lord” is a classic of a song, and I enjoy and admire the songs Dylan has done like this in the last 20 years or so (such as the afore-mentioned “False Prophet,” and “Floater (TooMuch to Ask)” etc.). Doing this sort of thing is fine, but the question is, should they ethically acknowledge it?

I am a huge Dylan fan and admirer, and I love the work he is and has been doing, but I must admit I do wish he was more straightforward about some of these sources. I’m not talking about the phrases or lines he borrows here and there (for instance in “False Prophet” he borrows a couple of lines from a particular English translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead) but when the music to one of his songs is really a reworking of the melody of someone else’s song. If Emerson’s song is out of copyright and fair game (and again I have no opinion on that not knowing enough about the law in that area or the facts) wouldn’t it be nice for Dylan to just note that?

An example of doing something like that comes from another singer-songwriter I admire, Lucinda Williams. On her new [excellent] album (2020’s Good Souls Better Angels) the lead off song is called “You Can’t Rule Me.” It is based in part on an old Memphis Minnie song also called “You Can’t Rule Me.” There are a lot of differences in parts of the melody, lyrics, and general sound but there is an obvious relationship (for example the chorus is clearly based on Minnie’s song). So Williams, in the songwriting credits, lists “You Can’t Rule Me” as “adapted from the original composition by Memphis Minnie.” I heard an interview with Williams in which she said they couldn’t find anyone to pay or share royalties with, but that if someone popped up they would essentially take care of it.

In Dylan’s case, “False Prophet” could easily be listed as Lyrics by Bob Dylan, Music by Bob Dylan adapted from the original musical composition “If Lovin’ is Believing” by Billy “the Kid” Emerson. Or maybe “inspired by…” I can’t say for sure that Dylan won’t do something like that in the credits since the album hasn’t been released yet, but based on the past similar episodes I doubt we will see that. I can’t imagine it would affect Dylan monetarily at all. Most song recordings don’t generate much revenue at all anymore anyway in the age of Spotify and YouTube.

To the best of my knowledge Billy “the Kid” Emerson is still living, and wouldn’t it be a great treat at the age of 94 to be acknowledged by a Nobel Prize willing artist as having inspired one of his work? To steal from (paraphrase) an old country music song, it may be too much to expect, but it is not too much to ask.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Bob Dylan's (Gnostic?) New Song "Murder Most Foul"

The Gnostic Bob Dylan and “Murder Most Foul”

              On March 27, 2020, Bob Dylan released a song called “Murder Most Foul.” It was an original song written by Dylan, the first since the release of his album Tempest in 2012. It was an end to a drought of new material that had been the longest of Dylan’s nearly 60 year career, a very welcome surprise. Since then he has released a second original composition (“I Contain Multitudes”). Perhaps an album awaits us later in the year?
             It is not clear when it was written. The lyric style feels very similar to some of the songs on Tempest and so some theorized that “Murder Most Foul” was a Tempest outtake. But while there is a Tempest feel to the lyric, Dylan’s voice is much clearer than it was during the Tempest sessions. Listen to his singing on Tempest, then compare that to the relative clarity of the Great American Songbook albums (Triplicate for instance) and it is clear that “Murder Most Foul” was recorded much more recently than Tempest. So another possibility was that it was written around the time of Tempest but recently re-recorded. But while possible, the release of “I Contain Multitudes” with its very similar instrumental sound and voice quality, increases the probability that Dylan recently went into the studio with a set of songs. Whether he got a sufficient number down for an album, or just got a few and then stopped, I guess we will have to wait and see.
“Murder Most Foul” is also the first original song Dylan has released since being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. I had wondered if being a Nobel Laureate was going to affect his songwriting, perhaps make him a bit self-conscious about what he should be writing. “Murder Most Foul” is his longest song in terms of time and probably in terms of word count as well. It has almost no discernable tune. It’s more of a running talking narrative in which Dylan controls the phrasing and intonation, and the minimal music is free flowing piano and strings well below his voice in the mix – this is no three-chord folk tune. Is the emphasis on the lyric and away from the music a result of his feeling the need to live up to the Nobel designation?
It may also be just that Dylan is recognizing that this is the way his voice works best for him right now. There is no straining for high notes or fumbling with fast phrasing. He sounds good. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s last few albums that made such great use of his voice, then so limited by his age.

              “Murder Most Foul” is very lyric driven, but the “cover” sets the tone. Dylan released it as a single across all electronic platforms (as far as I know there is no physical release yet) and the electronic “cover” photo is of John F. Kennedy in black and white, but with a sepia background and “Murder Most Foul” written across his chest in the same hue as the background. Without hearing a word, just from the title of the song and the picture, a mood and expectation for it are set.
              As I listened it struck me how much sense the song makes if you interpret it through a Gnostic lens. A Gnostic perspective was suggested to me probably because I had just read a book called God Knows Everythingis Broken: The Great (Gnostic) Americana Songbook of Bob Dylan by Rabbi Aubrey L. Glazer. My wife gave it to me for Christmas (one of the first times she has found a Dylan book that even I didn’t know about!) on a recommendation from one of her colleagues who knows how much of a Dylan fan I am. It is full of interesting interpretations of Dylan songs (more like lines, really) from a Gnostic point of view. (As an aside, when my wife got it for me she did not know that the author spent a good portion of his Introduction in the book discussing my wife’s book The Gnostic New Age. She got quite a laugh about that!) Rabbi Glazer’s book shows that there are a lot of Dylan’s songs that have lines in them which one can associate with a Gnostic world view or framework, and as I listened to “Murder Most Foul” it seemed to me that this, too, was a very Gnostic-compatible song.

Okay, full disclosure up front. I am not arguing that Bob Dylan is a Gnostic in any conscious way. I think if you were chatting with Dylan and said something about Gnosticism he would probably respond with bemusement or disinterest. He is a singer-songwriter not a theologian or philosopher. What I mean when I think about Dylan in Gnostic terms is that Dylan is (like all of us) living in a country that is permeated with Gnostic ideas and frameworks that essentially work in the background of our consciousnesses.
              I am thinking of the way that Professor Harold Bloom, describes Gnosticism and Gnostic influence. Of course there are lot of Bloom quotes about Gnosticism that illuminate this point, but I use the following one from his introduction to an edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Green” because of the song that Dylan released immediately following “Murder Most Foul”:

“Walt Whitman was the crucial celebrant of what I think we yet will call the American Religion, the momentary fusion of all denominations in an amalgam of Enthusiasm and Gnosticism that marked the beginning of the end of European Protestantism in America, and which began in the Cane Ridge Revival of 1800. The Southern Baptists, Pentecostalists, Mormons, Adventists, and other native strains are ongoing emanations of what began there. Our theologians and prophets of the American Religion include Emerson, Joseph Smith, and Horace Bushnell, among others. The philosopher William James is its psychologist, and Walt Whitman forever will be its poet-prophet, who sings only songs of myself. We now have an American Jesus and an American Holy Spirit, and have largely banished Yahweh, except that he marches as Warrior God, endlessly trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” – Harold Bloom from his introduction to "Leaves of Grass (July, 1855 ed.)," published by Penguin Classics.
              Whitman is a poetic hero of Dylan’s and Dylan borrows from him for the title and refrain phrase of his newest song “I Contain Multitudes.” Dylan is influenced directly by Whitman, of course, but also indirectly through one of Whitman’s most ardent admirers, Dylan’s friend, Allen Ginsburg. Ginsburg went beyond Whitman in his Gnostic sensibility by actually referring to Gnostic entities in his poetry, notably in “Plutonian Ode” where he rattles out the names of several ancient Gnostic figures (including Ialdabaoth himself!). Ginsburg was also heavily influenced by the Gnostic material through William Blake (whom Dylan has also stated his admiration for) but Whitman was almost certainly influenced by Blake as well, so there you go.
              Now Dylan has not quite “banished Yahweh” but he has certainly adopted many Gnostic characteristics from this “fusion of all denominations” that is “an amalgam of Enthusiasm and Gnosticism” that characterizes so much of American religious and “spiritual but not religious” thought.
              I don’t approach this completely neutrally, of course. My own (what I refer to as) “Gnostic UU” world framework looks something like this: first in terms of the literal world which we observe around us and live in [and in mythological terms that are not literal]:
The material world is indifferent to our hopes and desires, sometimes giving us blessings and sometimes giving us pain and suffering [The Demiurge and the Archons are the rulers of the world and because they are ignorant or evil create and manage a world that gives us blessings, but also, as often, cause us pain and suffering].
Human beings, being a part of the natural world, are flawed too, and so we make mistakes which cause ourselves and others around us pain [Our human bodies are imperfect material creations of the Demiurge, and we are therefore subject to ignorance which influences us to make bad decisions which hurt ourselves and others].
But humans also have the capacity, from thousands of years of communal living and cooperation and social growth, to experience love and to behave in loving ways that bring peace to our internal lives and comfort and joy to those around us [In each human there is a divine essence that with proper learning, and practice, we can cultivate and strengthen, so that we can overcome the indifferent and evil suffering the Demiurge and Archons cause and rejoin the God Above God in whom Love is perfected].
While the material world inevitably causes suffering at times throughout our lives, we can train our individual consciousnesses, whether through meditation, prayer, philosophical or artistic expression, or just becoming more loving and generous, to change the way we view suffering so that we can enjoy our physical lives when things are good, and endure the difficult times with grace and humility when pain and suffering cannot be avoided [The material world is the realm of the Demiurge and Archons and will inevitably cause us to suffer while we exist in the material world, but through Gnosis we can learn how to overcome them and escape the limitations of the world and rejoin the realm of the God above God which is immaterial, and in that way defeat the Demiurge and overcome the suffering we endure in our material lives].
              This Gnostic worldview promotes resistance by individuals against the “rulers of this world” [the Archons] and continuously challenges the citizen to cultivate the best within them through use of their own reason and conscience. To assume that the authorities are suspect and it is the individual who must rise up to overcome them is very American. No Kings for us – we are all about revolution.
              With that in mind I go back to the lyric of Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul.” Dylan is doing a lot of interesting things here. He begins by writing about the Kennedy assassination in the language of the traditional British/American murder ballad.
              These ballads tended to often have lyrics that described the murder in graphic (almost awkwardly) simple terms. For instance in traditional ballad “Down in a Willow Garden” the Kossoy Sisters sing (in very sweet voices):

And there I poisoned that dear little girl
Down under the banks below
I stabbed her with my dagger
Which was a bloody knife
I threw her into the river
Which was a dreadful sight
-          From “Down in a Willow Garden” as sung by the Kossoy Sisters on their album Bowling Green. (1956)

Or, on the same album in the traditional song “On the Banks of the Ohio”:

I drew a knife across her breast
As gently in my arms she pressed crying
"Oh, Willie, don't you murder me
For I am unprepared to die"
I took her by her lily-white hand
I let her down to the river strand
I plunged her in where she would drown
And stood and watched as she floated down
-          From “On the Banks of the Ohio” on Bowling Green

Dylan adopts that murder ballad style in the song on his Tempest (2012) album “Tin Angel.” Short, brutal descriptions of violent murder such as:

"We're two of a kind and our blood runs hot
But we're no way similar in body or thought
All husbands are good men, as all wives know"
Then she pierced him to the heart and his blood did flow
-          From “Tin Angel” on Tempest (2012)

To be honest, I never liked “Tin Angel” that much. The problem with it is I never really cared too much for any of the characters described and so there is no sense (at least for me) of the tragic. All that is left is awkward brutality.
              In “Murder Most Foul” however, Dylan re-adopts the murder ballad with all the gross murder details but this time about a person we are all familiar with from history, and about whom we have some sort of emotional connection. Whether it be love, nostalgia or curiosity it is hard not to have feelings about the assassination of Kennedy. For instance he has:

Then they blew off his head when he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
‘Twas a matter of timing and the timing was right
You got unpaid debts and we’ve come to collect
We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect

And here we know he is talking about Kennedy and most of us don’t hate him and we respect who he was, so we are instantly put in a position of disagreement with whoever “they” are.
              And that is where things get very interesting. Clearly Dylan is referring to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories here. There are references to the Grassy Knoll, magic bullet, and the title itself (while it is a Hamlet quote) is likely related to a Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy (KAC) book (“Murder Most Foul!”) by Stanley Marks. Now I am not going to go into whether the song presents evidence that Dylan believes or doesn’t believe in any particular KAC theory. I don’t know and it is not all that important to me. I love Dylan’s music and lyrics, but I don’t really take his accounts of history all that seriously in the specifics. I don’t form opinions about Joey Gallo, Billy the Kid, or John Wesley Hardin based on his songs. I mean this is a guy who wrote a song about the sinking of the Titanic and included probable references to Leo DiCaprio as a passenger. It is a song, not a history book.
              But the question (in a larger song philosophy sense) of who the “they” he is referring to is, seems interesting to me. For example think of the lines:

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?
Of course we do, we know who you are
Then they blew off his head when he was still in the car

I’m ridin’ in a long black Lincoln limousine
Ridin’ in the back seat, next to my wife
Heading straight on into the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
Oh Lord, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap
We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give
We’re right down the street from the street where you live
They mutilated his body and took out his brain
What more could they do, they piled on the pain
and, finally,
Don’t worry Mr. President, help’s on the way
Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay
Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?
Tell ‘em we’re waitin’- keep coming - we’ll get ‘em as well.

In that first section “they” are the ones who kill Kennedy not “he”. Since the official account is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, this tells you the song is rejecting that account. But in what sense? Yes, it could mean he is talking about a conspiracy of killers, multiple shooters, and all that, but there might be something a bit deeper going on too.
              First thing to note is that all of these accounts are clearly intended as fanciful not connected to any real event. Kennedy never said to Oswald or anyone else “do you know who I am?” No one ever told him that they would ask for, nor give, any quarter. No one said to Kennedy that his brothers would rescue him and no one said that they would “get ‘em as well,” conspiracy or not. No, these are symbolic conversations included for another reason. From near the beginning of his songwriting career, Dylan has seen assassinations in terms of larger social structures. Most famously, perhaps, in “Only a Pawn In Their Game” in which (in reference to the man who shot Medgar Evans) Dylan has a refrain that goes:

But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
-          From “Only a Pawn in their Game” on the album The Times They are a-Changin’ (1964)

One has to wonder, if the shooter himself isn’t to blame for the killing, who is? If he is a pawn in “their” game, who does the game belong to? Dylan’s answer is the society and rulers (Archons?) who manipulated him. In “Murder Most Foul” he might be returning to a similar theme. The killer of Medgar Evans was, Dylan asserts in his song, a pawn of the “southern politicians, “deputy sheriffs,” “soldiers,” “marshalls,” and “governors” presumably among others who teach him to hate African-Americans. The “they” of “Murder Most Foul” are not as easily named.
              Of the three “Murder Most Foul” quotations above, I find the one about the “brothers” (not “brother” singular) most interesting. While the “they” in most of the references could refer to assassination conspirators, I think one would be hard pressed to come up with a conspiracy theorist who could tie together the assassination of John Kennedy, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, AND the Chappaquiddick incident with the same set of conspirators. And unless I am woefully mistaken these have to be the incidents he is talking about there. Robert Kennedy was on a path to possible election as President when an assassin gunned him down, and I think most folk believe there is a good chance that if the Chappaquiddick incident didn’t happen Ted Kennedy would have more strongly contended for the Presidency and perhaps won it at some point in his career.
              So who are the “we” that are going to get Robert and Ted too? Even if you buy some far-fetched theory that Sirhan Sirhan is connected to some shadowy figures that manipulated Oswald and others to assassinate John F., I find it really hard to fathom that the same folk were connected with Ted Kennedy’s car accident and subsequent behavior at the accident scene.
              But what if we do a “Only a Pawn in Their Game” type analysis and assume that the “they” and the “we” of the song are more akin to the rulers and manipulators of society and fate, rather than a few conspirators? To me, the song then makes a lot more sense and says a lot more. If the “they” and “we” of the song are metaphorically like the Archons (rulers of this material world that cause suffering and pain to exist) then it all kind of fits together. Conspirators in the assassination of Kennedy can still be a part of that (and I suspect for Dylan they are) but they are not the whole. (More full disclosure: I pretty much accept that Oswald was the main force behind the Kennedy assassination, but I am not sure he was completely alone in his knowledge of what he was going to do. I have a hard time believing he never told anyone, not his wife or a friend or someone, what he was planning on doing, but I don’t believe it was a large government conspiracy.)
              In the first “Murder Most Foul” quote above such a reading means the author is imagining Kennedy addressing the Fates or the Powers of the Material World when he asks “do you know who I am” and it is the material world that says back to him that of course they know, but they don’t seem to care. Doom comes to all, kings and princes and even Presidents. The “they” who take out his brain and mutilate his body are not just the shooters, but the doctors who autopsy him, from which those awful last photographs circulate – after he is killed society and its officials continue to tear his body apart. In the last quote above, the Kennedy family almost seems cursed by fate (the “we”?) when his brother Robert is shot to death also and his brother Ted is politically and morally undone by his own actions.
              Another curious line this reading illuminates comes after “they” have killed the President: Dylan sings:

We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place

Again, this can certainly be taken to be a reference to a conspiracy to replace Kennedy with Johnson, with the CIA being behind it all, as some conspiracy theorists have it, but let’s face it, beyond the extreme unlikelihood of this (if much of the national government was behind this it seems far fetched that no one and no evidence of this has come to light for this many years) the “we” would also have to include the laws of the land (the Constitution is what requires Johnson to succeed Kennedy after all) and Kennedy is the one that chose Johnson as his running mate and the American people are the ones that voted both of them in, knowing that Johnson is there for this purpose – to replace the President if the President is unable to continue his duties. The “we” includes at the very least the killing actors, the Constitution, and the American public. More rulers, actors and pawns in this material world.
              Much of the song’s running narrative is a description of the aftermath and the repercussions of the assassination and thy are as dark as its description of the murder itself:

I’m in the red-light district like a cop on the beat
Living in a nightmare on Elm Street…

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”…

Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear
I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier…

What’s New Pussycat - wha’d I say
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day…

The powers that rule the material world seem to have triumphed and we are all pretty much screwed. (Not an uncommon theme in Dylan’s work.) If he left it there it would be a very depressing song. But, being Dylan, he doesn’t leave it there. Most of the rest of the song is an invocation of someone very different: Wolfman Jack.
              Why Wolfman Jack? Wolfman Jack is probably the most memorable name of all the Radio “disc jockeys.” He is also extremely … himself. He does not seem to belong to the ruling society. He is an outsider, like the movie wolfman an object of fear to the mainstream, and named in part after the great Bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf, whose growling voice he seems to have adopted, who was also a loud, brash, highly unique character in the blues world.
Wolfman Jack immediately invokes the idea of wild songs being played over the radio. And songs are important to Dylan. Very important. He was exposed to rock and roll early in his life through the radio and songs took on an importance to him greater than what most of us experience. He famously says in a David Gates interview with Newsweek:

“I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. … I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that…. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
So the material world is a place of murder and darkness in which mysterious “they”s go around bringing down Presidents and shaping our lives. Where to go for relief from suffering of the material world? Where to, but to songs, which express our suffering and overcome it with joy and love? In “Murder Most Foul” he asks the Wolfman to play a litany of songs after advising the kids:

Hush li’l children, you’ll soon understand
The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat

Sliding down the banister while getting your coat invokes the Hard Day’s Night movie and the exuberance The Beatles would soon bring the world with their energetic songs of teenage love. (The Mersey Ferry drops into Liverpool, home of The Beatles, at Pier Head.)
              And Wolfman is directed to not only play the music but to play it for certain people. Invoking Dylan’s early composition “Chimes of Freedom,” the Wolfman is directed to play the music for those he referred to in that song as the “countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse / An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” Here he says:

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play that Only The Good Die Young
Take me to the place where Tom Dooley was hung
Play St. James Infirmary in the court of King James…

Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe…

Play it for the First Lady, she ain’t feeling that good…

Play Mystery Train for Mr. Mystery
The man who fell down dead, like a rootless tree
Play it for the Reverend, play it for the Pastor
Play it for the dog that’s got no master…

Play Lonely at the Top and Lonely Are the Brave
Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave…

In other words, play it for everyone from the high to the low, the live and the dead, and he is also asking for it to be played for himself. It seems that the only way he has to overcome the tragedy and the suffering of the world is to sing (and be sung to) about it. This is nothing new. Dylan has talked about this as far back as the interview printed on his second album (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) when he said:

"The way I think about the blues," [Dylan says] "comes from what I learned from Big Joe Williams. The blues is more than something to sit home and arrange. What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time, they were standing outside them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat. What's depressing today is that many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles."
At his best, Dylan sings with a clear sense of using the song and the performance to get outside troubles (his and ours) to “beat” them. He asks the Wolfman to play all kinds of music that can help you do that but ends (not immodestly) by suggesting that Jack play Dylan’s own song:

Play Love Me or Leave Me by the great Bud Powell
Play the Blood-Stained Banner - play Murder Most Foul

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Gnostic George Saunders Part 2

A while ago I posted about a George Saunders story that seemed quite Gnostic to me in his collection "CivilWarLand in bad decline." Shortly after that I read another Saunders short story collection that contained a story much more blatantly Gnostic: both the story and the book collection containing the story are called "In Persuasion Nation."

I am not going to give anything about the story away to spoil it, but if you have any interest in the influence of Gnostic mythology and spirituality in the modern world it is well worth your time to track this one down. It is literally the funniest story I think I have ever read. I tired to read it out loud to my wife and son but I couldn't get through it very well because I couldn't keep myself from laughing while reading it - even knowing exactly what was coming.

What makes it particularly engaging for people interested in Gnosticism is that it uses elements of gnostic mythology in a clear way but also parodies certain aspects of modern life using gnostic frameworks that can be applied without knowing anything about ancient (or modern) Gnostic thought.

In addition the book contains several other hilarious stories filled with Saunders' strange dark humor ("I CAN SPEAK!TM" is another favorite of mine). Buy the book. Read it. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Problem of Evil and the Gnostic UU - Part 3

So in my last post I wrote about whether or not a God who is not omnipotent over the physical world, and simply cannot make suffering go away is a God worth worshiping at all. I also asked the question, if one doesn’t believe in the existence of supernatural entities in the first place, is there any point to stories, Gnostic or not, about them.
The truth is that many Unitarian-Universalists (UUs) believe in supernatural entities and God only in terms of metaphor (including me). What is the value of Gnosticism as a metaphor for us?
Stories and myths that we adopt and circulate have great power. No matter whether we believe in them literally or not, they help shape the way we see the world.
For many in the Christian tradition (including myself growing up and attending Sunday School) we were given a particular model of the world in which a God that was all-powerful in the physical world, all knowing and all loving presided over the world. Suffering and evil had to be explained and it usually was where I grew up by asserting that despite God’s power, knowledge, and love He is a God of Justice and humanity was sinful and the wages of sin were suffering and death.
A particularly horrifying example of the use of such a model is the current way some evangelicals are blaming the Novel Coronavirus on God’sanger about human behavior. The link is to an article that describes a distinction made by this particular evangelical between behaviors that cause God’s "wrath of abandonment", and other behaviors that cause “sowing and reaping wrath” but the bottom line is that suffering (whether in the form of abandonment or sowing and reaping) is somehow a just thing caused not by God but by bad human behavior.
Although most people find such beliefs disgusting (including even the current Trumpian White House according to the article) the idea that suffering in general around the world is due to the sinfulness of humankind is fairly standard modern Christian belief. To me this is disturbing. Whether we think of it this way or not, I think it is hard to get away from holding an unconscious belief, when this is your “cognitive frame,” that humans are deserving of suffering due to our “sinfulness.” Those of us who are fortunate enough to get breaks in life, or at least suffer less drastically than most people in the world, must be enjoying God’s favor due to either our humbleness in acknowledging and asking for forgiveness for our sinfulness, or due to being less sinful in some way. This is abhorrent to me.
But in the form of Gnostic mythology there is a completely different way of seeing our relationship with suffering.
In the Gnostic mythology, since the world’s imperfections are not the result of human sin but rather the ignorant (or evil if you prefer) creation of the Demiurge and rule of the Archons, there is no need for humans to search around for sinfulness in their fellows to explain suffering. It would not make much sense to blame humans for the coronavirus in a Gnostic worldview. Instead the coronavirus is here because the world is an imperfect creation of the Demiurge and it is our job to make it better through human activity – to compensate for the imperfections and mistakes the Demiurge has made. WE are charged with coming up with solutions because the "God above God" isn’t in charge of the physical world. Only we, as human beings, have the necessary knowledge (Gnosis) to fight back against the obstacles put in our way by the imperfect (or evil) creations of the Demiurge.
Again, for most of us UUs this is all metaphor. But what a different metaphor! Imagine a world in which we grow up with these stories and internalize not stories about our sins causing death and imperfection around us, but instead stories about how we must work hard to counter a world that is indifferent to our needs or even acting against them.
Actually you don’t have to completely imagine it, because we have a lot of secular stories that have just that motif. Think about all the “anti-hero” stories and legends for example. What about the Robin Hood stories for example? An outlaw who robs from the rich to give to the poor? Not much of a leap to a metaphor for the Gnostic (Robin) defying the Archons (the rich) for the benefit of his followers (the poor populace). And don’t get me started on movies such as “The Matrix” or “The Truman Show” that seem to be self-conscious Gnostic mythological stories.
As a Gnostic UU I like the idea of promoting these kinds of myths and secular stories to model a world view that has at its center the value of human beings finding their way to their best selves to overcome the obstacles put in their place by leaders and nature itself, rather than concentrating on Eden type stories that blame it all on sinful ancestors and passed down “original sin.” Internalizing this world view (or “pseudo-environment” or “cognitive framework” or whatever you want to call it) is my major spiritual goal as a Gnostic UU.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Problem of Evil and the Gnostic UU Part 2

I ended my last post about how a Gnostic mythology solves the “Problem of Evil” with a few questions: If the solution is that the God “above God” – the God of Love – is not all powerful in the sense that it does not have power and dominion over the material universe – can that be a God worthy of worship? And if you’re UU (Unitarian-Universalist) who doesn’t believe in supernatural spiritual beings anyway, what good does any of this do? What is the point?
The first question, for me, has a pretty simple answer: yes.
Okay I guess more explanation is needed than that. But I ask myself, do you worship something or honor it because it is powerful? Why would anyone do that? I mean, in Marvel movie nerd terms (which I sort of consider myself) would anyone really think that worshiping Thanos was a good moral thing to do? Sure he was very powerful, but so what? I think that something is worthy of worship because it is good and admirable rather than because it is strong or powerful.
This question I’ll come back to next time, but let me get to the second question because I think it will make the answer to the first question make more sense.
So what about the UU who doesn’t believe in the existence of supernatural spirit beings? I pretty much include myself in that number. So what is the point to this mythology about Demiurges and Archons that rule the world and a God above the Demiurge that is the epitome of all that is good?
For most UUs these kind of stories and mythologies are metaphors. And you know what? Metaphors are important. They help shape the way we view the world. In fact there are cognitive psychologists who argue that metaphor is fundamental to the way our minds work and how we model the world. For example, one of the first things we experience as babies is a sense of up and down. We strive to stand up and when we lose our balance we fall down (which hurts and is bad). So for the rest of our lives if we are happy we are feeling “up” and if we are sad or depressed we are feeling “down.” Okay, another oversimplification, but you get the idea.
I think that mythological or philosophical stories we hear and internalize have a powerful effect on us all. No matter how much I don’t believe that there is a physical place known as the Garden of Eden, when references are made to a return to Eden I know and feel what that means. I can talk literally about repetitive tasks that are useless in the end, I feel it when I think about the myth of Sisyphus. Of course I know there was no such person, but it doesn’t matter to the power of the metaphor.
Metaphors help us (or at least me) shape our conceptions of the world. No one understands reality as a whole – we all have little pseudo-environments (Lippman’s old term) or cognitive frames (modern psychological term) that help us simplify the world so we can navigate our way through it both physically and morally. The more different stories we have, the more choices we have for how to shape our personal realities.
So what is the metaphor offered by Gnostic stories? The God above God represents (to me) an ultimate concern, or an ideal spiritual Love, an abstract undefinable experience. The Demiurge and the Archons represent the physical material world. I prefer the stories in which the Demiurge is ignorant rather than malicious. I choose that because it fits (in my mind) with the cognitive framework that makes up my world better. I don’t think hurricanes, tornados, or viruses are out to get us. They happen and if they make life difficult (or impossible) for us it is nothing personal. Such stories have the ability to frame our world for us in ways that make sense (to me) and are beneficial compared to the more orthodox stories I grew up with. I’ll write about how that works for me in the next installment.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Problem of Evil and the Gnostic UU Part 1

So last time I was writing about the problems that I confront when faced with the perspectives implied by Rick Perry’s strange belief that Donald Trump’s Presidency was ordained by God. Today I thought I would write about the relationship between that discussion and the Problem of Evil.
The Problem of Evil has a long history and I am not enough of a trained philosopher to be able to give any detailed analysis of it. However, it is often used to make an argument for atheism which I am familiar with from my atheist days in high school and college. It seemed convincing to me at the time. It goes something like this:
Given the assumption that God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (all good) evil and suffering should not exist. If God knows all, God is aware of all the evil and suffering in the world. If He is all-powerful he can prevent or alleviate all evil and suffering. If He is all good He would choose to do so. Since evil and suffering clearly exist, such a God cannot exist.
Okay, that is quite a simplification, of course. There are a couple of websites that have relatively detailed but understandable discussions of the Problem. Two particularly good ones (I think) are at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The problem of evil takes a lot of forms. Bart Ehrman wrote a full length book that is at it’s core a discussion of it, written for lay readers, called “God’s Problem.
But it seems to me that the Problem of Evil (or God’s Problem) is directed to a very particular (albeit very popular) idea of God. It turns out that for many Gnostic visions of God, it just isn’t an issue.
How does that work? Okay, let’s do another oversimplification. My wife, April DeConick, has written about Gnostic Christian mythology in a lot of places, but one particularly good description for lay folk like me is found in her “The Thirteenth Apostle” book, Chapter 2. If you want to read a religion scholars description that is a great place to start, but here I will just present a shortened and simplified version for the purposes of this illustration.
In many Gnostic systems the universe (and this world in it) is created by a being called “the Demiurge” and is ruled over by spiritual beings called “Archons.” (The word “Archon” is just an ancient Greek term meaning “ruler.”) So everything around us is created by and ruled by the Demiurge and the Archons. The Demiurge is looked upon by many humans (since we and the universe are the Demiurge’s creations) as a God. In most of these systems, this Demiurge God is, however, just an emanation of a God above the Demiurge (the so-called “God above God”). It is that God that the Demiurge emanates from who is the “true” God of Love and Truth. Humans, while a part of the creation of the Demiurge, also contain a core spiritual part (sometimes referred to as a "seed") that is a part of the God of Love that is "above" the Demiurge.
In these Gnostic systems, the object of human spirituality is to see through the world of the Demiurge and for our spiritual part that is divine to find its way back to the God above the Demiurge. To do that the human (the gnostic) has to get past the Archons and the Demiurge. In Christian Gnostic systems it is Jesus who defeats the Archons and creates a path for his disciples to slip by and get back to the God they belong with.
But the point is that this world is still ruled by the Archons and the reason for bad things happening in it is that (contrary to Secretary Perry’s assertions) the God of Love is NOT in charge. The bad things happen because the Demiurge created the place (with malice in some cases, in ignorance in others) and the Archons (who can be a nasty or naughty bunch) rule it. This God above the Demiurge is “above” not in terms of power to do stuff in the material world (the world is the realm of the Demiurge and the Archons, and they reign supreme in it) but in the spiritual sense of being perfectly loving and just, which the Demiurge is not.
The God above the Demiurge has Truth and Knowledge to contrast with the ignorance or lies of the Demiurge. But it is the Demiurge who has the Power in the material realm. The God above the Demiurge is not all-powerful here. And that solves the problem of evil, because it was only a problem due to God being all-powerful and deciding to do nothing in knowledge of human suffering. In the Gnostic system, the God above the Demiurge is doing what it can but doesn’t have the power necessary to eliminate human suffering. Humans are charged with gaining the Knowledge and/or power to overcome the Archons and the Demiurge and escape to get back with the God of Love and save ourselves.
So the problem of evil and human suffering is solved, but at a cost. The first thing that a person might wonder is: If this God above the Demiurge is not all-powerful, why does it deserve our worship? And, second, what if you don’t believe in supernatural beings at all (like most UUs quite frankly don’t)? What is the point of all this then? I will delve into the answers to those questions in my own spiritual journey in the next few posts.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Rick Perry and God's Chosen?

              In November of last year, ex-Governor of Texas, and current Energy Secretary, Rick Perry said that Trump was chosen by God to be President and do great things during an interview with FOX News.

              My initial reaction (and the reaction of several people I know) was similar to George W. Bush’s reaction to Trump’s inauguration speech: “Well, that was some weirdsh*t.”  Perry went on to say that Obama, too, did not get to be President without being ordained by God (presumably in that case, not to do “great things”?) and that “God’s used imperfect people all through history. King David wasn't perfect. Saul wasn't perfect. Solomon wasn't perfect." But crazy or not, Perry’s philosophy about this is not so out of the mainstream.

This idea of God making “use” of imperfect people is hard to get one’s mind wrapped around. What does this mean? In “choosing” Trump to be President to “do great things” for America I assume that Perry does NOT believe that God is making Trump do stuff (that Trump is merely an autonomous robot that God commands to do His wishes). I also don’t think that Perry thought that God manipulated the actions of voters to allow Trump to win the election.

So what DID he mean? I suspect that Perry is speaking the language of a large number of believers (including friends of mine) who believe that God is “in charge” of everything and that nothing occurs without being a part of His plan.

I often hear this said in the context of something sad or difficult having happened to someone. Perhaps the person gets laid off from their employment and they say something like: “well, it is all just part of God’s plan. I’m sure He has a better job for me around the corner! I have faith that it is all in His hands!”

It is clearly being used to comfort the person and I can’t say it doesn’t work. And if it makes someone feel better about the future that is fine. But it doesn’t work for all of us. I can’t say this works for me. Why not? Because I can’t help thinking that if God is in charge of everything and all is part of His plan, then the Holocaust and the great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 have to be part of that plan as well. And if that is so, of what comfort can it be that it is part of God’s plan? If I lose my job and I say, well it is all in God’s hands, but everything that happens is part of God’s plan, then the next thing he might do is strike me down with a fatal flesh eating bacteria, send a car with a drunk driver my way to kill me, or give me colon cancer. It might be all God’s plan, but hardly comforting!

The adage that God doesn’t send you anything more than you can handle is clearly incorrect. Lots of people get sent situations that leave them dead or helpless. So how is this comforting?

The next step could be to say that God has a good plan for his believers or virtuous people in general. But that is problematic too, given the examples above. Human evil resulted in millions of deaths during the Holocaust (man innocent and virtuous people, obviously), and nature killed thousands in the Galveston Hurricane disaster of 1900 many of whom were children and normal virtuous adults.

I used the Holocaust and the Hurricane of 1900 specifically because one was so clearly a result of human choices (evil ones by the Nazis) and the other was equally clearly an act of “nature” (and still the most murderous natural disaster in United States history).

So between natural disasters and evil human beings causing so much suffering in the world, the God that is in control of everything and whose plan is being unfolded in human history just doesn’t work for me. That doesn’t mean, however, that atheism is the only option left. I tend not to believe in supernatural intervention into human history, but that, too, does not mean that atheism is all that is left.

My way of getting past the Rick Perry problem is Unitarian Universalist Gnosticism. But before I talk about how that operates for me, I will discuss (in the next blog post) how it all relates for me to the philosophical “Problem of Evil” and why UU Gnosticism (for me anyway) solves that too!