Tag Archives | Can’t Stop the Muzak

Éminence Grise

In We the Living, Rand describes a song that was popular in Russia during the early years of the Soviet era:

Historians will write of the “Internationale” as the great anthem of the revolution. But the cities of the revolution had their own hymn. In days to come, the men of Petrograd will remember those years of hunger and struggle and hope – to the convulsive rhythm of “John Gray.” … It was called a fox-trot. It had a tune and a rhythm such as those of the new dances far across the border, abroad. It had very foreign lyrics about a very foreign John Gray …. Its gaiety was sad; its abrupt rhythm was hysterical; its frivolity was a plea, a moan for that which existed somewhere, forever out of reach.

Rand translates the first stanza as follows:

John Gray
Was brave and daring,
Kitty
Was very pretty.
Wildly
John fell in love with
Kitty.
Passion’s
Hard to restrain –
He made
His feelings plain,
But Kat
Said ‘No’ to that!

I’ve long suspected that We the Living’s “John Gray” inspired Atlas Shrugged’s “John Galt” (and likewise that We the Living’s “Café Diggy-Daggy” inspired Atlas’s “Dagny”).

Michael Berliner, in his invaluable article “The Music of We the Living” (in Robert Mayhew’s Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living), tracks down most of the real-life music that Rand refers to in the book. But “John Gray” seems to have eluded him.

In contrast to other cases, he does not identify its composer; he also says that there are “no standard lyrics to this song,” and in evidence he offers some lyrics completely different from those Rand cites:

In a faraway southern land
Where blizzards do not blow
There once was a handsome man
John Gray, the cowboy,
John Gray, strong and rakish
As tall as Hercules
As brave as Don Quixote

But I’ve managed to track down some more info, thanks to the internet and a hazy memory of college Russian, and in fact the song Rand referred to has a known composer, and seems to have canonical lyrics as well; the “cowboy” lyrics, as we’ll see, are a red herring.

The composer is Matvei Blanter (1903-1990), one of the Soviet Union’s most popular composers, who wrote “John Gray” (“Dzhon Grei”) in 1923. And the lyrics, by Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), are the ones Rand cites. Here’s a link to a page with the song’s Russian lyrics, naming Blanter and Mass, followed by a copy of the original sheet music likewise featuring Blanter’s name.

And here’s the song itself:

This is clearly the version Rand discusses. The tune matches her description, and as for the words, one doesn’t need much familiarity with Russian to identify “Kat skazala nyet!

Here are a couple of instrumental versions; the first one does a particularly good job of capturing the “sad gaiety” of which Rand speaks:

(It’s funny how Rand thinks the “John Gray” song sounds so foreign and un-Russian, since to me it sounds utterly Russian, or possibly Russian-Jewish.)

What about the “cowboy” lyrics that Berliner cites? It turns out that they come from a completely different song, with not only different words but different music. The song’s lyrics may mention a “John Gray,” but its title is “In a Far-off Southern Land” (“V Stranye Dalëkoi Yuga”). I haven’t been able to track down any author for the song. But here it is:

As you can see (well, hear), while the two songs have some musical similarity – enough to suggest the possibility of influence (though the direction of influence can’t be determined without knowing the date of “In a Far-off Southern Land”) – the tunes aren’t the same (and to my ear, that of “John Gray” is the more complex and sophisticated of the two).

Well, that’s all.


R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

I don’t think anyone’s music has been more important to me over the past two decades than Cohen’s.

Farewell, maestro.


Dancing Queen

Evidence that Ayn Rand would like Riverdance:

She described her ideal form of the dance as “tap dance and ballet combined,” and envisioned one form of it as being performed “without ever moving from one spot.”

riverdancin

Evidence that Ayn Rand would dislike Riverdance:

It’s inspired by traditional folk dancing, and Rand hated folk dancing, memorably writing that “all folk art is essentially similar and excruciatingly boring: if you’ve seen one set of people clapping their hands while jumping up and down, you’ve seen them all.”


The Key to All Mythologies

I recently finished former Doctor Who showrunner Russell Davies’ Writer’s Tale, which is his account – through a series of emails with Benjamin Cook – of the making of the show.

I now get all the references I used not to get (most of which I didn’t realise I wasn’t getting) in this video:

I mean, the lyrics are a pretty direct commentary throughout on the book.


Hollow Victory

Kenneth Woods argues that “Haydn was a more creative, more talented and more skilled composer than Mozart.”

haydn-mozart

My first reaction was that this was insane. After reading his article, I now think that given what Woods means by this claim, it may well be right. But I also think that what he means by those words is an eccentric thing to mean by them. What he goes on to say about Haydn and Mozart seems to me to advance the claim that a) each of them was better in some respects than the other, and b) the respects in which Mozart was better are more profound. Any version of the claim that “Haydn was a more creative, more talented and more skilled composer than Mozart” that’s consistent with (a) and (b) strikes me as a pretty watered-down version.

Still, definitely worth a read.


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