Monday, January 7, 2019

Influences: How Well Do You Understand How You Became Who You Are?

The book Pretexts by French author and Nobel Prize winner André Gide (1869-1951) is a collection of essays and observations on literature and morality. The book opens with a set of four talks he gave on influence, the limits of art, the importance of the public and the evolution of the theater.

In the first essay he discusses influences in general and the influence of literature more specifically. It's an essay I've read several times over the years, and a theme I've often pondered. I think, for example of how not all things influence people the same way. For example, why does a magnet have such a powerful effect on steel and no effect whatsoever on wood?  So it is that advertising or news stories--fake or real-- stir some people and while others remain completely indifferent.

Interestingly, Gide cites the example of Goethe, the great German writer and statesman, being completely indifferent to Beethoven's music and moved by "the pure and smiling tenderness" of Mozart. He did not understand Beethoven's passion, nor did he comprehend what Beethoven's music was all about as it swelled out of him. The anecdote shows how greatness is not always understood or appreciated.

This is why in our time we have musical genres that inspire some and leave others cold. I think immediately of Dylan and Hip Hop. Some people get it, and others don't.

Even the most common influences influence people differently. An example would be winter weather here in the Northland. For some, the short days, snow and cold leave them depressed. Others get invigorated. "Bring it on," they say, either because of their passion for winter activities like snowmobiling and skiing, or because of the pristine beauty of fresh snowfall and the aesthetic sense which is awakened.

So we see that places and seasons impact people differently.

What Gide suggests is that growing means becoming more open to the wider world, to people and places, to other influences beyond our tiny sphere. He goes so far as to say, "Those who fear influences and shy away from them are tacitly confessing the poverty of their souls."

For this reason, Gide encourages us to explore. Great minds do not fear influences.

This may be why dogmatists become so hardened in their ways. They fear influences, locking themselves within themselves. Foreign cultures enrich us, and reveal other ways of being fully human. Whether traveling abroad (or living abroad for a season) or simply getting to know people different from your own circle, each experience of real engagement provides an opportunity for growth.

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Centerville All Stars at the Red Mug
I believe many of us are unaware of many things that have been influences on our own lives. The influence of our parents is fairly straightforward, usually. I have these characteristics from my dad, these from my mom. The influence of our neighborhoods is similarly straightforward, usually. Cultural influences, however, are frequently less evident. I will leave you with one example.

How much have you been influenced by African culture? If you are a white American, I'll guess that you don't think about it all that much. I'd also propose that whatever answer you guess, that it is three, four or five times more than that.

When cultures conquer other cultures, the conquered culture is not really destroyed. It is carried within the hearts of the dispersed. From there it seeps out into the culture of the conqueror. Christianity did not spread in Rome by conquering Rome with the sword. As Rome fell, the conquering "hordes" from the North got infected with this "good news" that had begun to pervade the Roman empire, and in turn even the ruthless Vikings became infected with it so that Christianity became vibrant in the Scandinavian region.

In a similar fashion, the ruthless slave trade removed blacks from Africa, transplanting them here where that which was in their hearts similarly emerged. Over time, the music of Africa has come to permeate nearly all facets of Western music.

During the past century music has come to be one of the biggest influences in our culture. Jim Morrison, who became the voice of The Doors, chose to be a rock singer because though he considered poetry his art, the audience for poetry was a sliver of what the audience for music was. When a poem is read, it is usually read once or twice, and occasionally studied in school. But when you produce a hit song, people can hear it hundreds of times.

Who among us has not had music running through their heads at least for a portion of each day?

The first generation of Africans in the Western hemisphere carried African music in the heart, but as their culture and music intermingled with other forms of music all varieties of permutations emerged. From origins such as Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia we had field hollers, spirituals, gospel and country and rural blues. Jazz was birthed in New Orleans through its own set of special circumstances, and as African Americans moved northward, cities such as Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, New York and Detroit produced new variations on African influenced music, evolving into Swing, Soul and Hip Hop.

Features of African American music that we take for granted today but which originated in Africa include "call and response," rhythmic syncopation, as well as vocal and instrumental improv. Drumming was likewise a central part of West African culture.

The big irony is how this "American Roots" music became adopted by youth in Europe so that we had The Beatles and Rolling Stones seeking inspiration from the rhythm and blues records produced by Chicago's Chess Records. In fact, my first Rolling Stones album (their second) had an instrumental track titled 2120 So. Michigan Avenue, the address of Chess Records at that time. (I love the harmonica riff.)

I've hardly scratched the surface here. Seriously. I myself was only recently introduced to these concepts via a presentation by jazz singer Bruce Henry at a November Magnolia Salon event in Carlton. Bruce is a teacher who has developed an extensive curriculum (20 lessons) that takes you deep into the roots of all varieties of music from military music, ragtime, Dixieland, Gospel, Big Band Swing, civil rights protest music, Afro-Cuban jazz, funk, Motown and rap. You can find more information on this program at

Until you open yourself up, you really don't know how much you don't know.

Life is for learning. Embrace it.

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