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songBefore we begin, I am fully aware that most of us recoil at one-size-fits-all herd-activities and prefer our own individualistic, quirky tastes in music to anything applied collectively. Still, I wonder if a few popular songs might capture part of our essence. Your own suggestions will be welcome and, no doubt, better than mine.

Initially, I thought of Groucho Marx in “Horsefeathers” (1932), where as Huxley College president Quincy Adams Wagstaff he sings “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” This song has a trio of advantages.  It is easy to remember as opposed to, say, the libretto of Tannhauser. It encompasses an attitude toward change that, while not always apt, is hardly a bad default-position for reflective (and reflexive) conservatives. It also, in the context of the film, probably presents a balanced picture of (most) higher education in America then and now (do please note the college president’s line, “Like Shakespeare said to Nathan Hale, “I always get my man!”).

But we could do better, and I recalled Randy Newman’s darkly satirical “Political Science” song as a clear and instructive example of what we do not believe in: “Let’s drop the Big One and see what happens…”

“Boom goes London, boom Paree,
More room for you and more room for me;
And every city, the whole world round,
Will just be another American town…”

Then I realised that someone must have played this for Norman Podhoretz and he took it seriously: the so-called “Neo-Conservatives” probably sing this in dank cellars after they hold their secret rituals.
Just momentarily, I considered the Beach Boys’ jaunty, “Fun, Fun, Fun (‘Til Her Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away),” at least as an economic metaphor for Bush-Obama fiscal policy and the next twenty years of American history.

However, it contains undertones of rather silly hedonism not to mention authoritarianism (especially if Daddy is perceived of as being Government and not Natural Law). It is also, not that importantly, hardly a song to which I could recall Russell Kirk snapping his fingers as we motored up winter roads to Mecosta so long ago.

My irrepressibly funny friend, Grover Norquist, once cited an early blues/rock song that he said encapsulated most conservative American values. In “Boom, Boom, Out Go the Lights” (Little Walter and His Jukes), a man comes home from work, finds that his wife has been cheating on him and shoots her dead. Think about it: the virtues of holding a job, home ownership, community values, the Second Amendment, monogamy, the sanctity of marriage vows, etc. However, people might take it literally and not as a metaphorical celebration of traditional social mores.

My nomination may end up being “The Slow Train,” a touching English threnody that is probably unknown to Americans, a lament for the passing of history and community which was written and sung in the 1950s by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. It mourns the innumerable, ancient little towns of rural England, each with its own curious name of which the meaning may have been long forgotten, cut off from rail service in the name of modernisation and efficiency by the Socialist Government of the day. (By way of trans-Atlantic explanation, sleepers are railroad ties and the slow train stopped at many small towns while the faster, express ones ran exclusively between cities).

Coda: decades after these so-called efficiency reforms it was learnt that government planners had falsified the data used to justify closing the rural stations; that many were profitable to the once-private railway companies being nationalised; and that government merely needed a political excuse of false economy to justify seizing private property. Thus they isolated towns that were for a century connected by rail, thus they drove the New Proletariat onto (then) state-owned buses and thus we ride forever more down vast, soulless, concrete motorways.

No doubt, as I said before, you can find better examples.

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13 replies to this post
  1. Stephen Masty, thank you so much for this! I was ROFL, as they say these days in web lingo. Thus far, I vote for the Groucho Marx song. I will have to see if I can think of any other nominees.

  2. I hadn't heard the Groucho song for at least four decades. As John Adams says in 1776, MAGnificennnt! "Fun, Fun, Fun ('til her daddy took her T-Bird away) kept me sane for about a month in the summer of 1964 when I was working as a palletizer in a factory that made soda fountain syrups, trying to dodge a drunken fork-lift driver. Before that, the Kingston Trio's MTA (""Did he ever return, no, he'll never return, and his fate is still unlearned; he will ride forever 'neith the streets of Boston, he's the man, who never returned") completed my education in the perils of local community. And of course the great Tom Lehrer must get his due. "Lobachevsky" reminds us of high academic values: "Plagiarize! Let no one else's work evade your eyes!" And of course his ballad of the next big war, "So Long Mom (A Song for World War III)" when he assures her that we'll all be home, "an hour and a half from now." There's a new issue of the complete Lehrer collection, including the great "Vatican Rag." Which reminds me, one of the great songs of the last half century I have never heard sung. It was written as the final exam in my course on Reformation History at Hillsdale College in about 1976, "The Reformation Rag," and it memorably started, "Good Old Martin, wasn't just fartin', around." By Steven J. Masty/

  3. Indeed, it was a composition in honour of John Willson and it remains unexplainably one of the few ragtime pieces ever written about the Reformation (apart, of course, from Eubie Blake's 1897 'Huguenot Shuffle,' Scott Joplin's 1908 'Schwenkfelder Cakewalk' and Irving Berlin's 1913 'Moonlight, Melancthon and You' ).

    The Reformation Rag

    That Savonarola was a real high-roller
    But they said he was on the take;
    So the people of Italy reacted so bitterly
    They sent that bum to the stake.
    He had a final wish and they granted him one,
    He said 'I know I will be roasted by the setting sun,
    'So please make sure that my stake's well-done,
    'I wanna do the Reformation Rag!'

    I wanna get on the track and dust off the rack
    So I can do the Reformation Rag.
    I wanna get on the stick and burn heretics
    'Cuz the Renaissance is really a drag!
    I wanna genuflect on down the hall,
    Nail my theses on the wall:
    The Spanish Inquisition doesn't start 'til the fall
    So I wanna do the Reformation Rag!

    Now Old Brother Martin was not just fartin'
    Around, 'cuz he thought he was great;
    But once he got put on his Diet of Worms
    Then Luther sure lost weight.
    He said 'There's no windmill I won't tilt,
    'Those Popes in Rome are gonna' wilt,
    'Throw a dime on the drum and we can groove in guilt:
    'I wanna do the Reformation Rag!'


    In Engand things were gettin' tough:
    One could not keep the score on
    The people who'd roar for Thomas More
    But didn't like the moron.
    The joint was in for awful shocks;
    All roastin' folks like bagels and lox;
    While the Scots were graduating from the School of Hard Knox,
    Workin' out the Reformation Rag.

    They went and got on the track and dusted that rack
    So they could do the Reformation Rag;
    They went and got on the stick, burned heretics
    'Cuz the Renaissance was really a drag.
    They went and genuflected down the hall,
    Nailin' theses on the wall,
    'Cuz the Counter Reformation didn't start 'til the fall
    So they could do The Reformation –
    Ecclesiastical constipation
    Worked out by The Reformation Rag.
    (Oh yeah).

    Stephen Masty

  4. Steve, I was rolling and hooting with laughter as I read "The Reformation Rag" this morning. I can only imagine the look on John Willson's face when he read your exam with this as your answer. Bravissimo! Your wit is deliciously wicked, puncturing the pomposities of the world. I was ever, and remain, one of your great admirers.

  5. I nominate "Hip to be Square" as the theme song for imaginative conservatives. Others I like so far are the Marx brothers doing "Whatever it is, I'm Against it" and the song from "1776" called "Calm, Cool, Conservative" with the refrain "Ever to the right, never to the left.."

  6. That wins it for me! Of course the TIC marching band can play 'Whatever It Is, I'm Against It,' until the dance band gets revved up for 'It's Hip to be Square.' Much better than my 1980 Calypso tune, 'The Neo-Conservative Rhumba' (tune of Harry Belafonte's 'Day-O')

    We saw the returns and now we're sure it's
    (Reagan come an' we wanna job)
    Jobs for me an' for Norman Podhoretz,
    (Reagan come an' we wanna job)
    Neeeeooo! Nee-eee-eee-o!

  7. I hereby nominate "Grandpa's Recipe" by Charlie Allen for Imaginative Conservative theme song (thanks Luke Torrisi!). This presents the fundamentals of conservatism. You folks with the country music phobia should get over it.

  8. It's not precisely a nomination, but 'Wimoweh' has an attraction beyond the catchy tune, the title of which Pete Seeger misheard off a 78rpm recording. Zulu janitor Solomon Linda recorded it in 1939 and, by legend, had to appear before a government panel of white Afrikaaner censors. Linda was nervous since it was the great Zulu king, Chaka the Lion, who slept and the chorus (in Zulu) kept repeating 'you are the lion!' Political to put it mildly. The honky bureaucrats listened a few times, then said condescendingly 'none of the other 'boys' write nice songs about animals like you do' and stamped his paperwork! It is good to be a lion. Many prowl around this website.

  9. The politics of Motown were fairly (culturally) conservative. “Ball of Confusion” is a litany of social breakdown and the inadequacy of the choices. There’s an implicit Gospel alternative behind it, a Truth behind or as an alternative to the cacophony. There’s lots for a conservative to embrace. Here’s how it begins:

    People moving out, people moving in
    Why? Because of the color of their skin
    Run, run, run but you sure can’t hide
    An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth
    Vote for me and I’ll set you free
    Rap on, brother, rap on

    Read more: Temptations – Ball Of Confusion Lyrics | MetroLyrics

  10. Bruce Springsteen’s “This is Your Sword” is the song Kirk would have written had he been a rock songwriter.

    Now brothers and sisters listen to me
    These are the few things that I leave to thee
    The sword of our fathers with lessons hard taught
    The shield strong and sturdy from battles well fought

    Well this is your sword, this is your shield
    This is the power of love revealed
    Carry them with you wherever you go
    And give all the love that you have in your soul

    The times they are dark, darkness covers the earth
    This world’s filled with the beauty of God’s work
    Hold tight to your promise, stay righteous, stay strong
    For the days of miracles will come along

    Now this is your sword, this is your shield
    This is the power of love revealed
    Carry it with you wherever you go
    And give all the love that you have in your soul

    In the days of despair you can grow hard
    Till you close your mind and empty your heart
    If you find yourself staring in the abyss
    Hold tight to your loved ones and remember this

    This shield will protect your sacred heart
    The sword will defend from what comes in the dark
    Should you grow weary on the battle field
    Well do not despair, our love is real

    This is your sword, this is your shield
    This is the power of love revealed
    Carry it with you wherever you go
    And give all the love that you have in your soul
    And give all the love that you have in your soul

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