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They’re rioting in Africa
They’re starving in Spain
There’s hurricanes in Florida
And Texas needs rain

How many people remember these lines from the Merry Minuet by Sheldon Harnick. If you don’t remember them or have never heard of this song, you almost certainly have heard of Harnick. Probably best known for his collaborations with composer Jerry Bock on musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof.

I was fourteen when I first heard it in the summer of 1960. It was on the Kingston Trio’s second album Live From the Hungry. I was very taken with the song for reasons I was too young to understand, but they felt profound. And I was even more taken with Dave Guard’s introduction to it on the album, which I remember to this day. “This actual number, which we are going to play right now, will be featured in our next album, The Kingston Trio Plays John Foster Dulles. I didn’t know who John Foster Dulles was, except that he worked for Eisenhower and had recently died. Being too young for irony, I also didn’t get the joke of the intro (was their next album really going to be The Kingston Trio Plays John Foster Dulles? (It wasn’t. This was a joke.) Their next album which came out later that summer was At Large, and it introduced us all to the hapless Charley and his ride on the MTA. But I knew somehow that the Minuet was funny and that it somehow spoke to the zeitgeist of the times. (No, I didn’t know what a zeitgeist was and most certainly never even had heard the term, but I like writing it and feeling that I had-even now).

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don’t like anybody very much!!

We are living, as these truest of clichés inform us on an hourly basis, in an age of great divisions in every aspect of our lives-politics, race and race relations, definition of gender, cultural heritage, educational norms and values, and even, I say (and one that is specially close to the bone for me) multiple questions and debate about art. Who makes it, how does it get made, who is it made for? How much of all this is real (a great deal) and how much adheres to the old description of college English departments: “four bald men fighting over a comb.” (maybe a bit too much.)

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud

The country has been here before. They just didn’t tell us all about that in our history classes back in school. Here’s what Jill Lepore brings out in These Truths, the best book about American history since Howard Zinn’s People’s History. Lepore first quotes Charles Dickens on his observation of the American Congress in the period leading up to the (un)Civil War: “Meetings of the House of Representatives were the meanest perversion of virtuous political machinery that the worst tools ever brought. Its members were cowardly, petty, cussed, and degraded. They spat venom. They pulled guns.” Lepore then wraps it up for us. “They unsheathe knives. Divisions of party were abandoned, the splinter in the Congress was sectional. Before heading to the capital every morning, southern congressman strapped bowie knives to their belts and tucked pistols into their pockets. Northerners, on principle, came unarmed. When Northerners talked about the slave power, they meant that literally.”

For man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud

Will we make it out of this new Big Muddy that we’re sinking into deeper and deeper. I see a wealth of good intentions, a lot of hands to the pump, some of it fueled by the energy and singularity of purpose of righteous revolution, trying mightily to keep our heads above the muck. This energy offers hope that the forward march toward justice did not end with the election of Ronald Reagan and has not been stomped into oblivion by evil men like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.

And we know for certain that some lovely day

But I also see the potential of a seemingly lovely day that may be fraught with the dangers of too hastily made decisions and passions outpacing reason and guarded reflection. This is a time when we must also look to the sages who can provide the deliberate wisdom and knowledge that will help us navigate this dangerous future. We have to be so careful, so nuanced and we must learn to differentiate between what are strong positions and actions derived from the base of moral authority, and what are just strong differences of opinion.

Someone will set the spark off

We have to get this right, and make sure we take the time to do so.

And we will all be blown away!!

They’re rioting in Africa
There’s strife in Iran
What nature doesn’t do to us
Will be done by our fellow man


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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