According to Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Durham University in the UK, it’s estimated that 90% of us experience an earworm at least once a week. Jakubowski’s team identified three main reasons why earworms occur. They come down to pace, the shape of the melody, and a few unique intervals that make a song stand out. “These three factors stood out above the rest. The reason that we get earworms in the first place is probably because music is an evolutionary adaptation, helping us to preserve factual and emotional information in an easily memorizable medium.”
I bring this up because Jim Morrison’s Light My Fire has been worming around in my ear for about half an hour now. It started when Barbara told me that, while I was away for the weekend attending the memorial service in St Louis of my oldest and dearest cousin, the 95-year-old Allan Brennecke, she had discovered a sleep-tonic even more efficient than mindfulness tapes and l reruns of As Time Goes By: Rick Steves’ audio walking tours. She said she especially enjoyed the one on Père Lachaise in Paris where the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde continue to draw the biggest crowds of all the famous people (Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt) who make their eternal home there.
Père Lachaise came up in our conversation, not because I was looking for a sleeping tonic but because, while in St Louis, I had visited another fine old cemetery, Bellefontaine, in search of the graves of my great-great-grandparents Thomas Pemberton Martin and Catherine Kuhne Martin. It took me a while to find them. The cemetery lacks the digital printout maps of a place like Green-Wood in Brooklyn, and the Martin stone is quite simple and plain, but it’s in a good neighborhood. Sarah Teasdale is just across the road and William Clark, of Lewis and Clark, is just around the corner. Teasdale won the first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and, in 1967, a musical version of one of her poems was recorded by Pearls Before Swine which is what I’m listening to right now and is already worming its way in. Good Song.
From the additional information I gleaned from the Martin headstone, I had a fine time playing on Ancestry.com on my way home, and by the end of my much-delayed flight, I was able to trace this particular branch of the family back to one John Vaughan, born in Wales in 1611. My favorite new ancestor’s name: John’s great-granddaughter and my great, great, great, great, great grandmother Dicey Vaughan, born in Virginia in 1756. I have all these new names, but at least for now nothing to fill out their stories but dates of birth and sometimes death and where they lived for some part of their lives. As my friend Lis Orion says, “we’re all just drops in the ocean.” We’re here and then we’re gone, alive for a while in the memories of people of knew us, then contained perhaps in a few passed down family stories, then a name and a few dates and places and then just a name. And in the words of my new earworm Sara Teasdale and Pearls Before Swine’s I Shall not Care:
When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.
As you may know, these letters have a way of getting away from me as the mind worm of my brain takes off on its own and incessantly insists I go along for the ride it’s once again taking me on.
Art is that way too. Sometimes the artist just grabs hold of the tail of the comet and goes for the ride. Michelangelo said his greatest contribution to his sculptures was picking out a good chunk of marble. Then he would start chipping away at it and the masterpiece that was there all the time would slowly reveal itself. Brecht wrote Mother Courage in what the old-time Broadway guys call the “white heat,” that time during the out of town tryouts when deadly second acts would be turned into masterpieces of American comedy writing in a few all-night writing sessions in Atlantic City. Brecht wrote Mother Courage in seven weeks. Two drafts, no other rewrites. He had no collaborators and only did those two drafts. The war tensions were increasing across Europe and he intended that Mother Courage would be a cry of warning and defiance emanating simultaneously from all the great stages of Europe. But as he was forced to admit, ‘War travels faster than the truth.” And the play was not performed until it premiered in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland, in 1943. He meant it as a political statement, a great anti-war play, and that has remained as its reputation so embedded that it’s almost as if the title were Brecht’s Great Antiwar Play Mother Courage.
After eight months of concentrated work on our adaptation of the text, I can tell you that it is so much more. To call it an antiwar play is like reducing Death of a Salesman to a Great Anti-Capitalism Play. The war is a character for sure, but the play, if it must be reduced to a simple sentence, is: Mother Courage is about a woman struggling to keep her family safe in a world that is overwhelming in its opposition. A world very much like our own. And it’s a reminder to “we who have come after” that this struggle against the odds is what the bravest of humans have somehow always managed to do in a world that makes no rational sense. And we are filled with wonder that human beings have been able to make as much sense of it as they have.
And that’s what’s on my mind today Tuesday, November 10, 2020.
Pearls Before Swine’s Tom Rapp