Reflections on Children’s Music – Part VII – Leadbelly
12 Wednesday Sep 2012
(I introduced the great American scholar, Leslie Fiedler, in Part I of these essays on children’s music. My comments are informed by concepts introduced in a graduate course Leslie taught on children’s literature.)
Leadbelly spent many years in prison, did a lot of scrapping and fighting, and nearly murdered a couple of people. If he had to comply with a modern board-of-education background check he would never be permitted to enter an elementary school and give the children the most miraculous experience of their lives. But in 1960 they let him do it. I would love to talk to any child who was lucky enough to be in the audience for the making of this wonderful record.
And the children all join him on the chorus of this hopeful but unsettling song, “We’re In the Same Boat Brother.”
We’re in the same boat brother, we’re in the same boat brother
And if you shake one end you’re going to rock the other,
It’s the same boat brother
And his gigantic 12-string guitar, the strings pitched down from E to C, booms like a rolling ocean and his voice is bright and clear.
Oh Lordy look down, from His holy place
Say Lordy me but I see a face,
I am about to launch the human race,
So they give him a boat with a mixed-up crew,
With eyes of black and brown and blue,
So that’s how come that you and I
Got just one world with just one sky.
Leslie Fiedler discussed Leo Tolstoy’s little book What is Art? Tolstoy postulated that the greatest and most immortal art is art that unites all people without exception. Great art cannot be patriotic art because such divides people against one another. It cannot be cultish “Church art” because it isolates one group from the rest of the world. 1* It cannot be decadent art because it draws together only the elitist idle rich and is incomprehensible to most people. 2** More significant is that children want nothing to do with any of these kinds of art; they are all grownup kinds of art.
Tolstoy said only Christian art can be good art. To know what he meant, it is important to know that the Christianity of Tolstoy has nothing to do with the sadistic bigoted genocidal greedy hypocritical phony Christianity of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Tolstoy founded his understanding of Christianity in the great Commandment of Love, which I have discussed elsewhere in these writings. As a logical consequence of love, Tolstoy was a pacifist, advocated non violent resistance to tyranny, despised the rich and powerful for oppressing and exploiting the unfortunate and powerless, was extravagantly generous to the poor, and believed that society should be governed by anarchy. He renounced marriage and private property, and advocated celibacy and vegetarianism. He was a great inspiration to Mahatma Gandhi. He must have been quite a challenging companion.
As Leslie pointed out, Tolstoy identified only two kinds of art that united all people:
(1) art transmitting feelings flowing from a religious perception of man’s position in the world in relation to God and to his neighbor – religious art in the limited meaning of the term; and (2) art transmitting the simplest feelings of common life, but such, always, as are accessible to all men in the whole world – the art of common life – the art of a people – universal art. 3***
Interestingly, both these values – spirituality and universality – are frequently found in children’s music. Leadbelly is not unique in singing Christian spirituals for children. Ella Jenkins, Burl Ives, Peggy Seeger and many others have included gospel songs in their children’s repertory. And Leadbelly’s message in “We’re In the Same Boat Brother” is explicitly universal: we are all interdependent; the fate of one is the fate of all, and he warns us that we must figure out how to live with one another on this “ball of blue, somewhere in space.”
Earl Robinson, E. Y. Harburg, “We’re In the Same Boat Brother,” Folkways Music Publishers Inc. (1960). From Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), Negro Folksongs for Young People: Sung by Leadbelly, Folkways Records & Service Corp., FC 7533 (1967). Album design – Not credited.
1* Count Lyof N. Tolstoi. What is Art? Aylmer Maude, trans. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. 1899. Pp. 142-143.
2** Tolstoi. Pp. 150.
3*** Tolstoi. Pp. 144-145.