Music Covers and “Renaissances”

One of the ways I think you know you may have hit upon a good theory is if it applies to a variety of areas of life.  If a historical theory holds water, it will do so by revealing something about the human experience in general, not just particular time periods.  Toynbee really impressed me with his theory of how civilizations interact across time, and this article got me thinking about how Toynbee’s theory of “Renaissances”  might apply with artists who cover other people’s songs.

As Toynbee elucidated, not all renaissances are created equal, with some giving life, and others taking it.  Music fans know that not all music covers have the same impact.  Some stink while others succeed.  But why?  Can we apply any general principles to our investigation related to our study of civilizations?  What makes for good or bad cover songs?

One of Toynbee’s theories is that interaction between two living civilization will bear more creative fruit than interactions between live civlizations and the ghosts of dead ones.  We only need to imagine the possibilities inherent in an active conversation between two people, and passively receiving a recording from the past to see the difference.  We can call a ‘living’ band one that is active at the time one of their songs is covered, and a ‘dead’ one as a band/artist no longer active.

First let’s examine some successful covers and see if they fit into the theory.Here are two great originals. . .

Toynbee claimed that one reason why interactions between the living can have more vitality is that the copying civilization (or in our case, artist) are by definition freed from the burden of rote homage.  They can’t merely repeat what the other existing band could easily do better, so they change it and put something of themselves into it.

Below Hendrix and Aretha Franklin cover Dylan and Redding.  These cover versions are deservedly better known, and superior to the originals:

Interestingly, Franklin patterns her version of ‘Respect’ right along Redding’s lines, but the switch of narrator from man to woman and slower tempo adds to the song’s swagger and gives it more life. Perhaps her gender difference with Redding allowed her to confidently assert herself rather than just mimic him.  With Hendrix, he takes Dylan’s song and gives the lyrics the weight, mystery, and energy they deserve.

Along the same lines, Joe Cocker had success interacting with the Beatles on his classic cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” at Woodstock, while the Beatles were technically still a living ‘civilization.’

Part of the reason for Cocker’s success is that he feels no need to emulate the Beatles, and is smart enough to know he cannot try and copy what the Beatles could do much better.

But not all would be so insightful.

Here is the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

A few years after they broke up and became a ‘dead civilization’ Aerosmith produced this monstrosity (and if anyone thinks that Ringo didn’t really have any chops, just compare his “light on his feet” performance with the elephant stomps of Joey Kramer):

Here Aerosmith, bringing back the ghost of the recently ‘dead’ Beatles, falls into a common trap.  They feel the need to pay homage, and lose any sense of creative space, producing the lifeless result we might expect under such conditions.  Lest you think Aerosmith an isolated example, let’s do another.

First, the classic original. . .

And now, Sheryl Crow’s regrettable cover of the then recently ‘dead’ Guns N’ Roses:

The problem is not that either Aerosmith or Crow lacks talent.  The problem is their proximity to the ‘dead’ source material creates the additional psychological burden.

Another principle for Toynbee is that of geographical distance.  Closer geographical proximity usually means closer cultural affinity, and less overall freedom.  We saw how in 15th century Europe southern Italy acted with less freedom to the classical revival than northern Europe in the post I linked above.  The Greeks and Romans were the southern Italians’ next door neighbors, but not so to those in the north.  The same can hold true in genres of music.  We see that when Aerosmith, a rock band, covers another rock band (the Beatles) the process of mimesis is often mechanical.  Hendrix and Dylan occupied different genres, as did Joe Cocker and the Beatles.  Franklin pulled off the very unusual feat of occupying similar territory as the artist she covered successfully, but as we’ve seen, the fact that Redding was still a ‘living civilization’ freed her at least from mere mimicry.

Jazz artists over time have often covered standards from popular music, but by the 1980”s-90’s this process grew stale.  Some jazz groups have started to revive the practice of using popular music as source material, but freed from attachment to the ‘Great American Songbook,’ they can choose from a whole new catalog.  Here is a ‘standard’ from my youth:

And here is The Bad Plus, completely reinterpreting it:

The ‘geographical’ difference of genre gives The Bad Plus much more freedom to create something new.

If you, like me, are willing to call Toynbee’s theory a success, are there others areas of life where we can apply his principles?

Many thanks,


And finally, a cover so awful and so bizarre I am shockingly at a loss for words to begin to categorize it.  Laugh, cry, or go running headlong screaming into the night — I can’t decide!  I dare anyone to actually listen to the whole thing. . .

11th Grade: Trusting our Leaders


We began the week by looking at the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.  His presidency would do much to shape the future of American politics for many reasons.

Fairly or not, the quarterback gets most of the praise or blame for wins or losses, and the same holds true for the president and the economy.  On paper, Hoover had everything going for him as America faced the onset of the Great Depression.  He had experience administering relief work after World War I.  He had broad bipartisan support for many of his policies.  But personality wise, he could not be “relatable” to the public.  Increasingly Americans felt alienated from him, and turned their wrath and desperation his way.

Hoover did not remain aloof from suffering.  He pushed a variety of aid packages through Congress, though they had little success in stemming the tide.  None of this mattered.  What the people required of their president had changed.  Advances in movie and radio technology made the president more accessible, and as such, he needed to be more relatable.

Early in the week we asked the question: “What makes a president more trustworthy?  His ‘credentials’ or his life experience?”  I gave the class two choices of candidate:

  1. An ivy league graduate with a Ph.D in political science, candidate 1 also speaks fluent Chinese and Arabic.  He is personal friends with the U.N. Secretary General and the World Bank.  At every level he graduated with honors and his Ph.D thesis became a best-selling book.  But he grew up with a ‘silver-spoon’ in his mouth, has driven BMW’s his whole life, is personally quite wealthy, etc.  He never had a blue collar job or submitted a resume. He is unmarried with no children.
  2. Candidate 2 is no dummy, but never distinguished himself at school.   He is not wealthy, and grew up lower class and worked his way through college through a variety of odd-jobs.  He married his high school sweetheart and has three children.
Who do you trust more?
Most of the class said they would vote for #1, but others disagreed.  For the latter group, trust had more to do with identifying with that person rather than with their credentials.
In the last presidential race, for example, we saw how the question of being relatable plagued Mitt Romney, who has impressive ‘on-paper’ credentials.  Even when he tries to be a regular guy, it doesn’t come off quite right.
With Hoover one also can’t help but sense a certain stiffness:
Not so with FDR, as even a minute or two of this clip reveals:
We saw also how the Great Depression changed other things. . .
  • One of the subtle shifts that happened in the 1930’s was our attitude towards government itself.  It is probably generally true that previous generations thought of government as removed from the people, even if it was not opposed to them — a kind of necessary but awkward appendage.  Now, government was seen as a helpful and natural tool of the people’s interests and needs.  To be fair to Roosevelt, this idea was not merely his invention.  One can see its roots in the populism of Andrew Jackson.  The extension of voting rights to minorities and women meant that our representatives could more legitimately reflect the population as a whole.  Both of these approaches to government have their roots in the Christian tradition, with St. Augustine tending to see government negatively, and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, seeing it more positively.
  • We looked at a few specific government programs of the time and asked the question, “Why is it that some government programs stick  around past their original purpose?”  While many New Deal programs did stop during World War II or shortly thereafter, some, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, have lasted until today.  While I don’t want to neglect the fact that many people probably agree that certain programs, like the SEC and FDIC, have had lasting value, I think it more interesting to consider the previous question.  I presented two options to the students:
1. Programs stick around because governments, like people, like power. Individuals like power as much as government does, but government has a much greater capacity to hold onto it because of their monopoly of force and concentration of resources.
2. Does the answer have more to do with our particular system of government, that is, federalism?  If we take the TVA as an example, we  see that a few people (and a few congressmen) benefit a great deal from the program.  When the cost is spread out over a whole, it becomes relatively small, so it is unlikely to bother most of us very much.  A few people are very motivated to keep it, and the vast bulk are not motivated enough to contest it.  Besides, our own congressmen may do similar things for our region that others do for Tennessee.  As a country in general, we accept that deal.
The question of entitlement programs, for example, is political as well as financial.   With the population aging, the current power of the AARP, for example, is unlikely to get smaller.  We can also see different meanings or applications of the concept of equality at work.  On the one hand, government inaction on any particular issue can reinforce the idea of equality.  Doing nothing means not favoring anyone, and letting people work deal with their issues with no hindrance from government.  This has the advantage of consistency and simplicity.  We discussed, on the other hand, the fact that some situations are starkly unequal, with the situation not likely to be any different without decisive and concerted action from government.  What benefits, and what costs, do we want to absorb as a society?
Last week we went back to wrap up some issues from the 1920’s, specifically, the tremendous social impact due to the changing role of women.  We first looked at how the general mood and pace of the times, as well as the changing roles between the sexes, might influence dancing.  We had fun looking at this. . .
But the changes had a broader impact on how women interacting in society in general.
As women gained equality with men in the right to vote, we saw how women’s fashion changed.  They were ‘liberated’ and their dress reflected it:  
But interestingly, some took the idea of equality with men even further, and they began to dress like men, cut their hair short like men, and so on . . .
It seems to me that there would be something tragic if women felt that to gain equality with men they had to emulate men, and thereby lose something of their identity as women.
I wanted the students to compare the feminine ideal of the 1920’s with the Victorian era, which we looked at a few months ago.  My gut is that neither era represents a Biblical ideal.  Looking at the mountain of material on Victorian dresses (ca. 1850-1900) makes me think that they obscured true femininity just as the 1920’s did (take a look at the ones from 1850 — 3rd row on left), as to my mind there is something unquestionably ridiculous in how Victorians viewed women as incurably fragile.
A Century of Fashion
Most students asserted that if they had to choose, they would choose the 20’s ideal over the Victorian, arguing that women had more respect in that period.   This did not surprise me, as there is something distinctly modern and familiar with the 1920’s.   Some students last year astutely pointed out that there are two kinds of respect.  In the 1920’s women unquestionably had more political and social freedoms.  No one should underestimate the importance of this.  But they may have lost some of the respect that came with being a woman specifically.  With this exchange, something of the ideal of chivalry, of deference to women, would inevitably be lost.
Ideally, as God made both men and women in His image, for humanity to best reflect that image we should want men to be men and women to be women in the truest possible sense.  What that means exactly will certainly be debated, but the students agreed that neither the 1920’s or the Victorians had it right.
Many thanks,
Dave M

“Securing the Blessings of Empire to our Posterity”

Years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote,

[The problem] I mean is [modern] man’s inability to state his opponent’s view, and often his inability even to state his own.  . . . There is everywhere the habit of assuming certain things, in the sense of not even imagining the opposite things.  For instance, as history is taught, nearly everyone always assumes that it was the right side that won in all important past conflicts. . . . Say to him that we should now be better off if Charles Edward and the Jacobites had captured London instead of falling back from Derby, and he will laugh. . . . Yet nothing can be a more sober or solid fact that that, when the issue was still undecided, wise and thoughtful men were to be found on both sides.  . . . I could give many other examples of what I mean by this imaginative bondage.  It is to be found in the strange superstition of making sacred figures out of certain historical characters, who must not be moved from their symbolic attitudes. . . . To a simple rationalist, these prejudices are a little hard to understand.

Our Constitution has proved itself an enduring and effective document.  Some have an admiration for it that verges on veneration, which can obscure the fact that the success of the Constitution was hardly foreordained.  The election of 1800, and of course the Civil War, pushed its limitations to the brink.  We forget too that many reasonable and intelligent men had strong objections to the Constitution.  Some of these objections proved chimerical, but some had remarkable prescience.

I referenced George Mason’s strenuous objections in another post, but to quickly recap, Mason believed that the South should have required a super-majority to pass all trade legislation.  Mason believed that economic differences would eventually tear the North and South apart, and requiring this provision would ensure more unity.  Unfortunately the south kept slavery in exchange for a trade legislation passing like any other law.  Sure enough, states like South Carolina and Georgia cited unfair trade legislation as reason for secession in 1860.

Most expected some form of strengthening of the national government to come out of the convention in Philadelphia.  Many objected, however, not so much because the federal government would be stronger, but because the states would cease to have any importance in the new scheme.  Defenders of the Constitution rushed to quell such fears.  Obviously the states would continue to have their contributions to make, and so on.  Once again, those that objected to the Constitution had it right.  Today states play no vital role in shaping policy or the identity of the country and merely serve as a kind of organizing mechanism for national politics.

The reasons for why some objectors saw the future diminution of states fascinates me the most, however.  Many jumped on the first three words, “We the people,” and saw a totally new basis for governance.   In making the amorphous “people” the basis for authority in the country, some argued that the United States would transform eventually into a kind of democratic empire-state.  It may sound odd for modern sensibilities to equate “the people” with empire.  But the founders thought in the context of Rome’s history.  Rome’s emperors sought to bypass the aristocracy and the Senate and appealed directly to the “people.”*  Tacitus criticizes many emperors not because of their abuses to the people, but perhaps largely because of their abuses to the senatorial class.  If the preamble had said, “We the states,” it would have indicated that ultimately the senate would take the lead in shaping the tenor of American political life.  “We the people,” would shift the focus to the presidency, which meant that the founder’s stated goal of a federated republic would inevitably get superceded by the people/nation.  This shift from states to the “people” also greatly magnified the role of the Supreme Court far beyond the intent of the founders, as some recent and controversial decisions have overridden state laws.

Indeed, something like this happened over the course of the 20th century, and we see it accelerating recently.  Bill Clinton felt our pain and played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show.  As candidates, Bush and Gore both appeared on Oprah Winfrey.  While in office President Bush worked hard to maintain a “regular guy” image.  President Obama went on Marc Maron’s podcast and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, using more sophisticated forms of direct appeal to “the people.” If Trump is our next president, he will remind me of some of the practical, irascibly likable, yet for the most part dangerously erratic Roman general-emperors.**  Such direct appeals to “the people” from the president I’m sure would have horrified Washington, Madison, and even Thomas Jefferson.

But they would not have surprised some of the Anti-Federalists.

Because the anti-federalists were right about their objections does not mean that we were wrong to ratify the Constitution.  I still believe that despite its flaws it probably represented the realistic “best we could do” under the circumstances.  But the objections of the so-called “Anti-Federalists” shine great light on where we are now as a nation.




*Caligula was certainly a nut, but the story of him making his horse a senator (if true) may have actually been a calculated swipe at the Senate itself and not necessarily evidence of his insanity.

**Thinking about comparisons for Trump . . . he may not quite fit any one particular emperor.  One colleague offered Marius as a mirror image.  Marius was wealthy, a “new man,” who infuriated the Roman aristocracy, who proved powerless to stop him through normal political means (it took a bloody civil war instead).  Another offered Emperor Theodosius I.  Though not a “general-emperor,” he was gruff and impulsive.  He did terrible things on foolish whims (the massacre in Thessalonica), but proved capable of repentance and subsequent bold and important decisions (as to whether or not Trump can prove capable of repentance . . . we’ll have to wait and see).

His American President counterpart has to be Andrew Jackson.  He was not a founder or the son of a founding father.  He lacked a “European” education.  He introduced the idea of campaigning for office, to the horror of the political elite of the time.  His time on the frontier made him a rough, blunt character.  He made a variety of controversial decisions that definitely divided people — i.e. closing the national bank, South Carolina’s attempts at state nullification, and some horrifying decisions like the Cherokee’s and the “Trail of Tears.”

Historical opinion on Jackson is as varied as his acts in office.  But, however one views him, the U.S. survived a Jackson presidency and we just might survive a Trump presidency.

His likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, lacks the personality to connect with and directly appeal to the people that would put her in unusual company among modern presidents, like George Bush Sr., and perhaps, Nixon?