I am second generation German and third generation Swedish but I grew up in New England in the Fifties and Sixties so it was inevitable that I would have a third identity, just below the level of the conscious, as English. The German and Swedish sides had no problem co-existing–Nana’s sauerbraten on Sunday but potato sausage and herring on Christmas. The English side fit in well too, even if at the level of the conscious I knew the genes weren’t there.
Of course I hadn’t yet read Albion’s Seed and I was unaware of the many ways long dead Yankees had a hold on my values, habits and tastes. All that stuff does run well below the surface. But even above the surface there was a strong collective tilt towards Albion. Boston was long gone as the Athens of America by mid-century but you couldn’t tell that to my ancient English teachers, all in their 70s or 80s. For them, John Greenleaf Whittier might still be living down the street.
I liked this cultural framework well enough most of the time. It did, however, give off an antiquarian odor that, while interesting enough in 1962 was beginning to show real signs of wear by the late Sixties. This was the Age of Aquarius, of course, and to be young was very heaven on weekends. When we said goodbye to the old it all too often meant goodbye to our Yankee past.
In 1967, though, I came across an album of Charles Ives’ choral music and that got me thinking.
Ives (1874-1954) was the quintessential quirky Yankee: by day a mild-mannered insurance agent in Danbury, Connecticut but freed of those professional shackles a pioneer in the composition of music with challenging harmonies and time signatures. I came across his work in music appreciation and found it oddly compelling.
I was always a sucker for the ripest of the late Romantic composers, like Richard Strauss, and could never stomach the rapid shift to atonalism that so quickly followed. Yet there was something curiously old fashioned and new fashioned at the same time with Ives, with his madcap blending of upright Yankee hymnals, summer bandstand music and patriotic tunes, all stirred together in several keys and time signatures simultaneously.
The Ives choral music got to me right away. For one, the recording was ambitous. The Columbia Chamber Orchestra plus the Gregg Smith Singers plus the Texas Boys Choir plus the Ithaca College Concert Choir. Enough instruments and voices to shake the rafters, and the rafters they shake. The music can go from ppp to fff in a heartbeat and it is wise, if your system can handle it, to crank up the sound to get the most from the ppp and to have the fff blow things up.
As a diehard, narrow-minded and callow Aquarian I pretty much thought my generation had a monopoly on cultural criticism, especially of the modern world. Imagine my surprise when I came across Ives’ The New River.
Down the river comes a noise!
It is not the voice of rolling waters.
It’s only the sound of man,
phonographs and gasoline,
dancing halls and tambourine,
human beings gone machine;
Killed is the blare of the hunting horn.
The River Gods are gone.
Here is one of the album’s highlights: Three Harvest Home Chorales.
I spent more hours than I liked singing hymns in a white Congregational Church in the center of the town where I grew up and generally found hymnals uninteresting. These three can make my hair stand on end–bits of Lygeti and Sweeney Todd waft in and out, and you are left with a clear impression of a God who not only inspires awe but is also kinda scary.
As far as I know this is still only on vinyl and has not been digitized and sent to YouTube until the versions I just posted, which are included here. It’s a UR exclusive!