In the strange world we inhabit, the insights I can offer as scholar seem (at least for the moment) to be assigned significant value. Sometimes I complain about the relative value ascribed to scholarship compared to a whole range of other things—say, building prisons or price-gouging people who need life-saving medicines—yet at the end of the day I shouldn’t complain since there are so many people whose work is given less value, with greater injustice.
Yet it does strike me as strange how, alongside this, the skills and insights I can offer as a musician—which I consider to be equally profound as my scholarly work—have an ascribed value that is trivial. Its “value” might even be negative, at least in the sense of it being pitted in zero-sum conflict with what supposedly “really matters.” Certainly the market value of my music is nearly non-existent, such that working on it could be entered into cost-benefit analyses as a negative opportunity cost.
Still I am pretty sure that songs that cut deep and ring true—never mind if my own songs really rank in this group, although I think they sometimes do—have subtle and weighty power that we cannot measure in market value, nor in what the people who control educational resources today would count as “scholarly productivity.”
A classic resonant image of the power of music—starting in the Bible but circulating widely, for example in Joe Strummer’s “Get Down Moses”—is a trumpet blast so pure and powerful that it knocks down the walls of Jericho.
I don’t have much of an outlet to play my music, but a smallish exception to the rule is that I occasionally play at my church. Last Sunday I was invited to do that. What to play? I have written a pretty good song built on the Jericho imagery, and I can play a worthy cover version of “Get Down Moses.” Both fit the theme of the service. Strummer’s song may be a little better, considered as pure songwriting. Yet if I don’t play my own music, who will?
In the end I didn’t play Strummer’s song or my own, because this was the week when Mr. Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio—spitting on the rule of law and honoring someone who proudly oversaw sadistic torture in “tent cities” that he himself called “concentration camps.” In this context, I kept coming back to Dylan’s classic song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”—my top idea for a trumpet blast at the Trump/Arpaio “wall of Jericho,” for whatever it may be worth. I hope you will listen and hear something you can use.