Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not Singing the Blues Over Today's Exam

We had a test in my American Regional Literature course today.  the professor asked us to write about something very closely related to a topic on which I helped a girl I tutored to  write an essay two years ago. He dragged out a somewhat obscure E. E. Cummings (capitals intended) poem, "Anyone lived in a Pretty How Town, "  a quote by B.B. King defining the blues as an expression of anger against humiliation and shame, and asked us to use both as context in discussing course literature read so far.

I despise the works of E. E. Cummings with an intensity most people reserve for child molesters and mass murderers.  While I admit that the strength of my feelings in this regard are somewhat irrational, but I do not think the  writings of Cummings had enough substance to merit humoring his disregard for English language conventions.  Fortunately for me, none of my teachers required me to study his works exhaustively. Also fortunate for me was that I did assist a girl with an essay focusing on the very poem my professor asked the class to use as context in discussing course literature, including Go Down, Moses by Faulkner.

The key line in the particular Cummings work in the context of "the blues" is "sang his didn't and danced his did." The professor hinted that there was a particular line key to the context, but didn't identify it. The use of the word sang -- the only remotely music-related word in the poem -- was a major hint, but I'm still glad I knew before I even began to re-read the poem.  I'm very glad I read this poem with the student I when was tutoring, as I barely needed to give any thought to answering the essay question before writing it.  The line  centers on the premise that celebration  is best embodied in the medium of dance (think of professional football players and the various end zone moves that have graced our TV screens), while lamentation is better expressed with music -- specifically the blues.  Most of the literature reviewed so far in the course has been southern with an emphasis on works about or by African-Americans.

Musically speaking, the blues is an interesting experiment.  While I have much respect for the blues as a musical genre and for musicians who perform it well, as a person of western European heritage thoroughly entrenched in the diatonic concept of music, it's difficult for me to get inside the idea of it being acceptable to have a melodic tone that may be a quarter-tone flat of its corresponding tone on  the scale on which a given composition has been based. Even the structure of a blues melody  based at times on a major scale sonically juxtaposed against standard blues harmony, based on flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths, is thoroughly foreign to me.   Somehow it works, but don't ask me how.

It was nice to have been rewarded by God of Liberal Arts for having tutored the girl [without compensation] two years ago. As I left class, I heard others commiserating about that essay question in particular. (There were two other essay questions, , but they pertained more directly to elements of the course literature that were addressed in lectures and class discussions.)  If I had tutored someone in a subject vaguely related to the topic of kurtosis, I'd really be in luck.  I must agree with my friend Faery Chaos, who said that kurtosis sounds more like a sexually transmitted disease than a mathematical term.

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