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Published in Print: January 1, 2005, as Musical Interlude

Musical Interlude

Sharing an appreciation of a Scottish folk singer helped unlock history.

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—David Kidd

Warren G. Harding gets short shrift in high school these days, in some places no shrift at all, though in my classes I usually reserved that for Calvin Coolidge. Poor Cal. He doesn’t have anything as intriguing as Teapot Dome associated with him. Scandal always trumps silence.

Yet even with all that corruption to help him out, Harding has become lost in the miasma of the mandated standardized testing that devours most of the academic year. Even the interdisciplinary course I taught, American Studies (an amalgam of English and social studies), provided very little time for exploring the successes and failings of our 29th president.

Before retiring this past June, I was responsible for the English half of that course; Mr. Harding earned at least one reference a year, when I told students that “normalcy” probably would not even be a word had it not been for the man’s linguistic “creativity.” Regardless, the birth of “normalcy” does not excite most people, not as much as if Harding had stated unequivocally that he “did not have normalcy with that woman” or knew of “weapons of mass normalcy”—more recent presidential phrases that have stuck with us.

One day, however, my teaching partner actually referred to Mr. Harding’s less-than-stellar presidency. It was near the end of the academic year, and I’m not completely sure how the subject arose, though I think it arrived via Enron and eventually through the celebrated Teapot Dome—small potatoes compared with the other one, but such is the way of scandals these days.

But once the name was out there, a hand went up. “What’s the ‘G’ stand for?” They’d already been through the “What’s the ‘S’ stand for in Truman’s name?” wild-goose chase and were probably suspicious. Questions are so rare these days, and I hate to let them slip away. Everyone looked around. Nobody had an answer. Almost nobody.

I did.

And I knew it for the most nonacademic reason. Years ago, I had latched onto the music of Al Stewart, the Scottish folk/pop singer. Most people think he sang two or three songs, then drowned in Loch Ness. I’m not one of them: I own 13 of his CDs. I have seen him a number of times in concert. And though Mr. Stewart may not consider it a feather in his tam, I seldom spend 20 minutes in my local construction-supplies store without hearing his “On the Border” vying for loudspeaker time with pleas for someone to “go to carriage return.” Honestly, how could I not shout out “Gamaliel” after Al had taught me that it was Harding’s middle name?

“How do you know that?” It was the same girl who had asked the original question.

I was evasive. “I would prefer not to tell you.”

“You’re not Bartleby,” another young lady responded, pointing a turquoise-feathered pen at me and reminding me that, one, she actually did remember the Melville story and its disaffected hero from a full six months before, and two, I wasn’t Bartleby. She was adamant: “So how did you know?”

I was going to answer, The same way I know how to spell “Riyadh” and what an Immelmann turn is and who William Randolph Hearst’s live-in girlfriend was, but one young man figured it out first. “Oh, God,” he groaned, “it’s Al Stewart.”

“Who else?” I asked. “Beyoncé? Britney Spears? Usher?” Nonchalantly dropping the names of current entertainers was my way of showing them I had not been born before ... well, before Warren G. Harding. But sometimes, recovery is impossible.

Two statements need to be made here. First, I have considered rock ’n’ roll a valid teaching tool since 1969, when “Atlantis,” a song by another Scottish folkie, Donovan, sent me scurrying off to the dictionary to look up “antediluvian” (and, I must confess, “Atlantis”). Second, in the months preceding the day Gamaliel came up in class, my students had listened with varying degrees of acceptance and impatience to “The Last Resort,” the Eagles’ lament about westward expansion and the plundering of America; “Political Science,” with Randy Newman’s irreverent suggestion that nuclear weapons be used to squelch anti-American sentiment abroad; “Lives in the Balance,” Jackson Browne’s indictment of American imperialism; and “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s sad diatribe against the 1970 shootings at Kent State University.

What always made Stewart so much fun for me as a teacher was how seamlessly his work fit into academic discussions.

Most of these performers were, themselves, three times the age of the students, yet the complaints, if any, had never gone beyond quiet grumbling. Often there were none at all. At some level, the students must have been convinced that their instructors had a reason for presenting this curiously obsolete and quaintly archaic form of entertainment.

They had even listened politely to Al Stewart ... twice: “A League of Notions”—a wry and sardonic account of the mess European leaders made of their own continent after the Great War; and “Lindy Comes to Town”—a glance at the sanguine and booming America of 1927 framed by Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris.

But I went one Al too many. Sadly, like so many classroom disasters, this one began with good intentions, the same material with which, I’ve heard, the road to hell is paved. I blazed my own trail on a day I was preparing the class for a writing assignment and encountered the usual complaint that “there’s nothing to write about.”

“Find a new approach to an old topic,” I said. “Find a new point of view.”

To illustrate, the next day I brought in Stewart’s 1993 CD, Famous Last Words, to play “Trains,” a long narrative that ostensibly documents the history of rail travel but actually serves as a grim reminder of the Holocaust—and of the trains that bore the refugees from their homes. While I was distributing copies of the lyrics, I mentioned that what Steven Spielberg had used $25 million to accomplish in Schindler’s List, Al Stewart had done quite poignantly in an eight-minute song. They listened to my editorializing politely until they saw the lyrics: two single-spaced columns’ worth. One student asked, “How can anyone write so much?” Another added, “This song will never end.”

I was ready with my usual answers: Stewart is thorough, he’s accurate, he selects the best phrasing. I wanted to add, “Sometimes a writer needs more than a few words to do something important. That’s what storytellers do, and Al Stewart is a fine storyteller.” But I can always tell when a pontificating jag is coming on.

We listened to “Trains.” The students got it, but they weren’t happy with the length. “Eight minutes,” one girl complained. “That’s even worse than that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ song my grandmother likes.”

“I don’t believe I’m familiar with that song,” I said. They knew I was lying.

One young man in a Tool T-shirt even had the audacity to rasp out a complaint about the quality of the singing. Now, I don’t know if Al Stewart has a great voice. I’m one who frequently wanders off-octave singing “Happy Birthday.” But I’ve always found his voice to be agile and distinctive. My student probably wanted to say it was idiosyncratic—or would have if he’d known the word—but instead, he suggested that Mr. Stewart, at least for a start, lose the phony British accent.

“But he’s Scottish,” I said.

“All the more reason.”

At that point, I could have pulled down my map of the British Isles; but when a horse has been beaten that dead, no faded and brittle map is going to revive it. Besides, someday this young man would read Macbeth and have an epiphany beyond description.

In truth, the class treated Stewart’s music no differently than they’d treated Hawthorne’s novels, Dickinson’s poetry, or Willa Cather’s short stories. Some liked it; some thought it was stupid. I tried never to take their criticisms personally, but sometimes I was a little defensive. There’s more they should know about this man, like his influence in making us more aware of the world. That’s what writers do. The late Robert Lowell, one of America’s most brilliant poets, refused an invitation to the White House in 1965 because he opposed U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. At the time, most Americans couldn’t find Southeast Asia on a map, but Lowell could. Years later, so could we.

What always made Stewart so much fun for me as a teacher was how seamlessly his work fit into academic discussions. Talk about the baby boomers, and there’s “Post World War Two Blues,” a somewhat Dylanesque number documenting the attitudes that developed after that war, and one of the few songs with references to both Louis Mountbatten and Jimi Hendrix.

Mention William Randolph Hearst, and there’s “Marion the Chatelaine,” the story of Ziegfeld Follies performer Marion Davies, for whom Hearst left his first wife and with whom he remained until his death.

Discuss the secrets of the deep that led to such poems as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and there’s “Life in Dark Water,” which plumbs the depths of the Mary Celeste mystery. It’s 2005, and we still don’t know what happened on that brigantine found abandoned more than 130 years ago.

Listen to “Flying Sorcery,” and learn that Amelia Earhart was not the only woman to pilot a plane. It’s the story of Amy Johnson, the courageous English flier who, in 1941, died serving her country.

Learn everything there is to know about the Russian front in World War II by reading Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, but get started with “Roads to Moscow.”

This music is not crucial to the educational process— no music is. Can one possibly chart the great influx of Europeans to America 100 years ago (and document the hardships they endured) without playing “Murmansk Run/Ellis Island”? Of course, but it wouldn’t be half as fun.

I often consider what it would be like to pile up all those Al Stewart CDs in the front of the classroom on the opening day of the school year and say to the class, “This is the course. When we’re done with these, and have a good understanding of them, and have written about them and discussed them and reflected on the attitudes and philosophies and perspectives contained herein ... ”

I don’t think we necessarily would leave any more children behind; we even might find time for Warren Gamaliel Harding.

Vol. 16, Issue 04, Pages 37-39

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