Further thoughts on muddling through

I was surprised to see that my first post in this space was seven years ago; even more surprised to see that it has been nearly two years since I seemed to have anything to say. If it’s true that you don’t score on 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take, I guess that means there are still a few goals in this stick.

That first post was about the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the evolution (verging on bowdlerization) of its lyrics. And here we are, near the end our Our Covid Year, and at risk of wearing out a well-used phrase over the past nine months or so, I hope this finds you safe and well. In our little corner, we seem to be safe, and can at least claim something that passes for well.

If there are two better words to describe the year than “muddling through,” I’ve yet to think of them.

It has been a year of constant adaptation, of plans made tentatively and abandoned with regret, of milestones and holidays allowed to pass without proper recognition. It has been a year of emotional fragility—and of the need to keep the mind occupied as much as possible, because any pauses for reflection led inexorably to sadness . . . and anger and loss. And another realization that there’s still some muddling through to be done.

It reached a point a few Sundays ago where I noticed that Meet Me in St. Louis was on TV, and I just didn’t have it in me to watch. Because of that damned song.

And then it snuck up on me. I was watching Stephen Colbert’s show, and Jon Batiste performed it. With the Judy Garland lyrics and not the Sinatra ones. As he has demonstrated many times this year, Jon Batiste gets it. This is not the time for “from now on”; we‘re in a place of clinging to hopes for next year.

Yeah you right.

This ain‘t the time for from now on. All we can do is pin our hopes on next year. Forget about through the years we all will be together; we’re still waiting for someday soon to arrive, and besides, we’re never guaranteed more than we all may be together.

So, assuming you celebrate the holiday, have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Hope to see some of you again someday soon.

If you’ll indulge me in a discordant postscript, there’s a holiday song that really has really grated on my nerves this year. It’s “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays.”

Because of this part:

I met a man who lives in Tennessee
He was heading for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania, folks are travellin’ to Dixie’s sunny shore
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee the traffic is terrific

The sad thing — the sick thing — is that you know people are actually stubbornly travelling great distances to be with people they don’t see more than a couple times a year. I think it’s folly, but what are you gonna do?

Anyway, whenever I’ve heard this song this year, I’ve been singing over it: “From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the COVID is terrific.”

Yeah, You Right

NPR has just posted Allen Toussaint’s forthcoming (final) album, American Tunes, which closes with a cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” and it’s poignant and resonant on many levels.

Toussaint had performed the song live on many occasions, at least as far back as the 2006 Montréal Jazz Festival. It’s not hard to understand why.

The song made its debut on Simon’s 1973 LP There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. He was writing about the sense of malaise that came along with the re-election of Nixon, the Watergate scandal, the long, national nightmare that was Vietnam, the dusking of the Age of Aquarius. The larger theme, the one that accounts for its durability, is the gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered.

To hear Toussaint perform the song is to hear a person of colour, displaced by the storm (an event whose aftermath made it patently obvious just how completely and bloodlessly the social contract wasn’t merely abrogated but torn up), singing about feeling forsaken, misused, bone-weary and so far away from home. Battered souls, broken dreams, a sense of unease. Wondering what went wrong.

It occurred to me, this is a road Toussaint has been travelling on before. Three years before Rhymin’ Simon, Lee Dorsey’s Yes We Can LP included a Toussaint composition, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” In the bridge of “American Tune,” there’s the image of the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea. In “Brother,” we’re asked to consider: What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong. It didn’t ding long. Two symbols of America, not doing what they’re supposed to. No wonder that, in the wake of the storm, there was an unfruited plain where the Lower 9th Ward used to be.

I don’t know if Toussaint thought about this thematic similarity when he chose to add the Simon song to his set, but both songs speak to a sense that a very big cheque was written that centuries of American exceptionalism haven’t been able (or willing) to cash. In “Brother,” Toussaint wrote: Deep down inside, we’re covering the pain. It’s an old thing, it’s a soul thing, but it’s a real thing. It just seems like a natural progression to the resignation of Oh it’s all right, it’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed.

That weariness and resignation is what makes “American Tune” such a fitting final musical statement (although an unintended one — far as he was concerned, tomorrow was going to be another working day).