Reconnecting with the Sublime in American Music

Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.

I don’t believe America was a fair and just nation before Donald Trump’s horrid ascendency to the presidency on November 8. White supremacy, economic inequality, and military imperialism are central traits of the American experience reaching back to the beginning of our country. But make no mistake: Trump is a historic figure, one invoking dark and ugly forces in ways that surely will create profound suffering and strife. As a citizen, father, and human being, I am terrified. I’m marching, calling politicians, and listening to the voices of those who will be most deeply affected by the Trump presidency to find out what the hell else I can do.

At the same time, I’ve sought solace in uniquely vernacular music as a way to stay connected to the positive qualities of American culture. It seems to me that the history of American protest music can be split into two distinct (though oftentimes overlapping) categories. The first is rooted in the daily struggles of those who hit the pavement marching, strategizing, and rebelling. Phil Ochs singing for striking laborers and, more recently, Black Lives Matter activists singing Kendrick Lamar’s forceful and defiant “Alright” during a conference and protest in Cleveland in 2015 are prime examples. This is music whose timeliness and currency are its strengths. It is drawn into the moment and forever tethered to it. The second is less overtly topical, though equally vital. It is music, usually visionary in scope, that turns toward the spiritual, yearning for the better world that those on the streets are attempting to forge. In this sense it appeals to what philosopher Williams James in Varieties of Religious Experience calls our “religious emotion,” which in his profoundly democratic and transcendentalist worldview enables us to feel (as opposed to simply believe — critical difference) that a richer and far more just “kingdom of being” is fully within our grasps.

With this playlist I’ve tried to pull together an eclectic range of songs that to my heart, soul, and ears channel America’s transcendentalist spark. Not surprisingly, a healthy dose of this sublime American music comes grounded in religious themes and symbolism — gospel pioneer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson for instance. I also focus on songs that are religious primarily in energy. Sam Cooke’s soul music brought the church to the pop charts. On his early acoustic sides, young and prophetic Bob Dylan sounds like the living embodiment of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” Even in the mournful, despondent cries of blues legends Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell (whose musics typically are framed as embodying the dark side of the American experience) one can sense glimmers of that other kingdom of being. It also can be felt in tunes that at first blush have nothing at all to do about politics or struggle, like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives sessions from the mid ’20s.

Because transcendentalism believes in living life experimentally just as much as it does self-reliance, the divinity in all existence, and social justice, I’ve also included some fairly far out fare drawn from the wells of funk, free jazz, and minimalism. For me this just may be the most powerful stuff to listen to these days. John Coltrane’s cosmic “A Love Supreme,” Sonny and Linda Sharrock’s pleading “Black Woman,” Patty Waters’ haunted “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” Steve Reich’s mind-blurring tape epic “Come Out” — these pieces move beyond language and reason while at the same time affirming the inherent dignity and uniqueness of humanity. I don’t know if there is any tonic for what the hell is going on in America right now, nor do I think my playlist can ever fill that role, but hopefully for those who feel as alienated as I do it can bring some sense of togetherness.