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Untamable Melodies

Alone in the walnut-paneled music room, his favorite of Fair Lane Mansion’s 56 rooms, automobile tycoon Henry Ford picks up one of his two Stradivarius violins. It is 1920 or so and Henry, cocooned in his woolen three-piece suit despite the summer heat, stretches his bow arm for a little elbow and shoulder room.

Henry plucks the A string uncertainly, then steps to the grand piano at the far end of the room and searches the keyboard for A. Counting forward on the white keys from Middle C – C, D, E, F, G, A – he pokes at the A, then plucks the A string of his violin again. His ear hears the same pitch. Unison, they call it, a good name for the sound of happy hands on his assembly line. He plucks the other strings and touches a couple of tuning pegs lightly, but doesn’t adjust them. Close enough.

Tucking the fiddle just so under his narrow chin, he bows each string once, and then, pinching his eyes at the difficulty of playing in E-flat, he begins to play one of his favorites, the 19th Century hit “Home, Sweet Home.” He whispers John Howard Payne’s lyrics as he plays.

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

Henry Ford’s industrial brainstorm – a moving conveyor that brought parts for assembly to stationary workers – was matched only by his insight that mass production was worthless without mass consumption. So, he helped invent American consumers. They, like his assembly line workers, would have the goods brought to them for assembly into an all-American consumer lifestyle. In this there would be harmony.

Henry worried, though, that all this innovation would lead people to lose sight of the simple virtues of an earlier agrarian era. So, he conjured up some of those antique trappings – old time fiddling and folk dancing, in particular – and created popular demand for 19th Century folkways. Auto dealerships sponsored dances and fiddle contests that garnered enormous nationwide publicity. American musicologists like John Lomax certainly deserve more credit for the musical substance of the folk revival(s). Henry gets credit for his publicity campaign.

From his music room, Henry could look across a great meadow named “The Path of the Setting Sun” because the summer solstice sun set between a carefully landscaped notch among the trees. It was Ford’s own Woodhenge. Fiddle in hand, he knew he wasn’t making music so much as conducting a movement. Like Merlin atop Glastonbury Tor, he hoped to cast a spell across the land, using music to shape the character of his people in an image of his liking.

But a funny thing happened. Music may be the best measure of the human spirit’s fundamental irascibility and love of freedom. Like Huck Finn, music is always lighting out for the territories. It is neither domesticated nor domesticating. Music is liberating.

Ford played a vital role in the growing popularity of old-timey music. He hoped it would instill a mild docility and respect for mythic village propriety and authority. It backfired. Ford was less like a Merlin and more like Mickey Mouse’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” From Ford’s perspective, the musical magic and the future got out of hand.

Through complicated cultural traditions, routes and inventions (radio, inexpensive phonographs, Joe Hill’s IWW labor songs; W.C. Handy, 19th Century abolitionist Hutchinson Family singers, the Lomax family, etc.) the fad he created helped make possible the widespread popularity of the Blues, of Woody Guthrie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan and Rock & Roll.

Ford’s costly folkways initiatives were not sufficient for such musical revolutions, of course. But they may well have been necessary. There were many other influences upon the culture, but one wide road to musical innovation and rebellion led from Ford’s Fair Lane Mansion on Michigan’s River Rouge to the open fields of the Newport folk and jazz festivals.

Here’s another example of music’s revolutionary potential. Stalinist policies outlawed Baltic folk music and mandated mass singing to help pacify and discipline the people. As Andrew Cronshaw points out, the habit of mass singing led to 1988’s Estonian Song rally, an electrifying gathering in Tallinn of 300,000 full-throated, independence-seeking citizens credited with helping topple the authoritarian regime. Like so many Joshuas at Jericho, they sang down the Iron Curtain.

Music’s escape artistry is the creation of the human spirit. We may find ourselves unfree, confined, manipulated and impoverished by a contemporary world that seems to grow closer to an Orwellian or Huxleyan dystopia every day. But if the music we make is unchainable, then so are we. Or so can we be. From the tens of thousand of Youtube amateur musicians to church choirs to garage bands to hip hop to progressive Americana, to campfire singing and children’s piano recitals, humans seem always to be levitating on a musical spell of their own making.

Speaking at 1964’s Berlin Jazz Festival, Martin Luther King said:

Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

I am not arguing that music is always inhabited by entirely progressive ideals. Overt right-wing political strategies (George Wallace, Richard Nixon etc.) to colonize mainstream country music and use it to conservative ends have paid the Right obvious dividends. More on that next installment.

Meanwhile, I return to Henry Ford, alone in his aerie, trying to fiddle the world into conformity with his paternalistic vision. Once set free, the melodies made it clear the land he surveyed wasn’t his it all. This land is ours.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith