Hearing and listening*

by Richard on November 28, 2007

And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountain’s green?

Blake’s Jerusalem is sung with patriotic fervour, despite the fact that William Blake did not intend his original poem that way would be horrified at this appropriation of it. But the combination of a stirring tune by Parry and the words about England’s green and pleasant land make the patriotic association pretty well inevitable - provide, that is, you don’t actually listen to what the words say! There is a gap between what Blake meant and what most of us hear when the hymn is sung.

There are other examples of this. You remember when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was adopted in a certain election campaign? Some can even listen to This Land and admire the fervour of its patriotism. Which is a shame — it really doesn’t have any, at least in the conventional flag-waving sense. Similarly, when Irish band Stiff Little Fingers sang (yelled!) White Noise they delighted skinheads and appalled woolly liberals with the overt racism of its lyrics (I invite the easily offended not to be too hasty here)

Rastus is a nigger.
Thug mugger junkie
Black golly gob.
Big horny monkey.
Pimp pusher coon.
Grinning piccaninnies
Send him home soon. Back to the trees.

Black wogs, black wogs.
Face don’t fitBlack wog, black wogs.
Ain’t no Brit.

You can see why the skinheads loved it, and why those of a more liberal persuasion were horrified. But you can only take this as racist if you don’t listen to the rest of the song, remembering that those singing (yelling) are Irish

Stick together we’ll all be white me and you
The only colours we need are red, right and blue.

Paddy is a moron. Spud thick Mick.
Breeds like a rabbit.
Thinks with his pick.
Anything floors him if he can’ fight or drink it.
Round them up in Ulster.
Tow it out and sink it.

Green wogs. Green wogs.
Face don’t fit.Green wogs.
Green wogs. Ain’t no Brit.

If the victim ain’t a soldier why should we care?
Irish bodies don’t count. Life’s cheaper over there.

Green wogs. Green wogs. Face don’t fit.
Green wogs. Green wogs. Ain’t no Brit
Green wogs. Green wogs. Get ‘em boys.
Green wogs. Green wogs. Turn up the white noise.

(I predict that Bloggedy Blog (RIP) will be the one to spot the accidental-on-purpose amendment I’ve introduced here. I’m a sensitive soul really)

It isn’t just song lyrics. John Wesley’s (in)famous formula “Gain all you can / Save all you can / Give all you can” was quoted by Mrs Thatcher more than once as proof that Wesley would have approved her brand of capitalism, though I doubt she ever bothered to read any deeper to find out what Wesley might have really meant. (In this case, it was Wesley’s own fault but that doesn’t affect my argument here). She took the words as affirmation of her position and used them accordingly. If they hadn’t seemed so amenable, no doubt she would have just ignored them.

But we all do that to an extent. Every preacher I know speaks of occasions when it has been obvious that the sermon they preached was not the one the congregation heard. Unless we stay “alert and watchful”, it is easy to listen to others knowing it advance what they’re going to say and judging it accordingly for good or ill. I’ve even — believe it or not! — seen people react to blog entries this way. Really listening is hard work sometimes, especially when we have to hold our prejudices in check to do it. But the song lyrics show us it’s going to be essential to mutual understanding.

* (reblogged for the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth)

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }


DH 11.28.07 at 8:04 pm

Richard what is so wrong with ““Gain all you can / Save all you can / Give all you can”? Should we all be capitalistic in our saving, gaining and even our giving to where we do all of those “all that we can”? I guess one must define “all that we can”. To me if giving affects future ability to give even more in the future then at times “all that we can” is not as much as you might believe is reasonable, Richard. Just some thoughts on the appropriateness of the great MP Thatcher. To me an increase in real dollars for “programs” is an increase only to liberals is that considered a decrease. I focus on absolute dollars where liberals focus on percentage increase hense the scare tactics of the liberals. Oh well, spin is spin.


DH 11.28.07 at 8:06 pm

To me using Springstens “Born in the USA” as a patriotic theme IS appropriate and NOT a shame. A little patriotism never hurt anybody. “Give me liberty or give me death”.


DH 11.28.07 at 8:08 pm

My stance of politics in music is one of “keep your politics to yourself”. If I wanted to hear a campaign for a particular side I would attend a rally not a concert. It is disengenuous to those who come to a concert solely for the music as opposed to any “theme” of the artist. That goes for those who are performers who happen to agree with me politically. My conclusion would be the same for those people as well. It isn’t a “right” or “left” response to “politics in music”.


Oloryn 11.28.07 at 8:58 pm

Richard, you’re hitting on one my own main emphases. The vast majority of us really don’t listen very well, particularly to people we disagree with. And we’re largely unaware of how poorly we listen, which makes it hard to correct.

For me, rule 1 of learning to listen is acknowledging that miscommunication is extraordinarily easy. It should not come as a surprise or an irritant. No matter how precisely you speak or insist that other people speak, background, education, and other perspective differences guarantee that someone will misunderstand what you say, or you will misunderstand what someone else says. You can’t take an entirely preventative approach to miscommunication, you have to be prepared to correct miscommunication after-the-fact, without rancor. And you have to learn to pick up on the subtle hints that tell you that what one person has said, and what another has heard, aren’t the same thing (put yourself in either position), so you *can* go back and fix the miscommunication.

This has other benefits for Christians, particularly when approaching scripture. We’re trying to listen to One who has told us “Your thoughts are not My thoughts”, so we’re in a prime position for miscommunication. Being able to catch the hint when what God is saying is not what we’re hearing is quite useful.


Beth 11.28.07 at 10:26 pm

If you’re going to ask musicians to keep their politics to themselves, you’re going to lose out on a whole lot of wonderful music. Bob Dylan and the Beatles, just to start with, as well as some of the great hymnodists. Songwriters with no political, philosophical or ideological slant end up writing for the Spice Girls and Boyzone. God forbid we should end up with nothing but such drivel.

And I think that the problem of using Born in the USA for a rally is not that “a little patriotism” is a bad thing, but that the song is in no way patriotic.


Richard 11.28.07 at 11:52 pm

Hi DH.

What’s wrong with the “Gain..save..give all you can” slogan is that it means almost exactly the opposite of Mrs T’s interpretation. “Gain all you can” was surrounded by so many caveats and qualifications that many practices of modern capitalism would be ruled out. “Save all you can” didn’t have anything to do with salting money away. Wesley meant ’save’ in the sense of not spending money unnecessarily. And ‘give all you can’ meant precisely that. The fact is, Mrs Thatcher misappropriated the words of John Wesley because she either didn’t know or care about their meaning.

As to ‘Born in the USA’, Beth is right. It just isn’t a patriotic song in any conventional sense of the word. It isn’t.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the USA…

Doesn’t sound too patriotc to me.


DH 11.29.07 at 5:41 pm

What I meant to say about Born in the USA is that I already know that the meaning of the song is not patriotic but for people to take it and construe it to be patriotic to basically “spit in the face” (not unlike “Yankee Doodle” was) I’m okay with. I consider it patriotic like “Yankee Doodle” is patriotic. Yankee Doodle was a song by the British to make fun of the Americans and in turn Americans made it their song and identified with it in the opposite way than it was intended. For me that is okay.
I consider “Born in the USA” patriotic as a way to “fly in the face” of the intended meaning of Bruce Springsten. So in that sense it IS patriotic,

Beth, we don’t need to end up with on extreme or the other Bob Dylan vs. Spice Girls. There are levels in between that can be apolitical and for me I appreciate those as opposed to all of the political mumbojumbo that comes out of Hollywood and musicisians alike. What really makes me mad is when a person goes to a concert to here music and the artist goes on some political rampage for no reason. I also get just as mad when Celine Dion goes on and on about her children for hours at a time. Isn’t the reason for going to a concert to hear music not listen to an artist talk whatever the subject may be? Musicians need to stick to the area that they are an expert at and that is music.

You mention the Beatles and Bob Dylan. What I like about them is while the music has a meaning to the artist alone there is also multiple meanings by the listener that the listener internalizes that is different than that. When I listen to Beatles and Bob Dylan I understand the history of the songs but the words written in the songs are not one diminsional but can be multidiminsional. Sometimes the artist never intended for it to have more than one meaning or context but the listener still has that understanding. For example when I listen to “All we need is love” I understand it from my Christian context or non-political context. To me this song is a wonderful song and knowing the history of the song as a political outcry doesn’t change the fact that I internalize it in a different way than the artist. Heck that is what art is all about. People internalize it in many different ways and sometimes in different ways than the artist’s themselves.


DH 11.29.07 at 5:43 pm

Gaining without capitalism. Seems impossible. I still stick by what I said regarding the great MP Thatcher. I also don’t buy the socialistic version of Wesley that you seem to imply.


Richard 11.29.07 at 11:19 pm

You might enjoy these quotes from John Wesley, DH.

“But how astonishing a thing is this! How can we understand it? Does it not seem (and yet this cannot be) that Christianity, true scriptural Christianity, has a tendency, in process of time, to undermine and destroy itself? For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which, in the natural course of things, must beget riches! And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity. Now, if there be no way to prevent this, Christianity is inconsistent with itself, and, of consequence, cannot stand, cannot continue long among any people; since, wherever it generally prevails, it saps its own foundation.”

“We charge you to “be rich in good works;” as you have much, to give plenteously. “Freely ye have received; freely give;” so as to lay up no treasure but in heaven. Be ye “ready to distribute” to everyone according to his necessity. Disperse abroad, give to the poor: deal your bread to the hungry. Cover the naked with a garment, entertain the stranger, carry or send relief to them that are in prison. Heal the sick; not by miracle, but through the blessing of God upon your seasonable support. Let the blessing of him that was ready to perish through pining want come upon thee. Defend the oppressed, plead the cause of the fatherless, and make the widow’s heart sing for joy.”

Just a little sample from that horrid socialist, the founder of Methodism…
“By riches I mean, not thousands of pounds, but any more than will procure the conveniences of life. Thus I account him a rich man who has food and raiment for himself and family, without running into debt, and something over. And how few are there in these circumstances who are not hurt, if not destroyed, thereby? Yet who takes warning?”

“The Lord of all will next inquire, “How didst thou employ the worldly goods which I lodged in thy hands? Didst thou use thy food, not so as to seek or place thy happiness therein, but so as to preserve thy body in health, in strength and vigour, a fit instrument for the soul? Didst thou use apparel, not to nourish pride or vanity, much less to tempt others to sin, but conveniently and decently to defend thyself from the injuries of the weather? Didst thou prepare and use thy house, and all other conveniences, with a single eye to my glory — in every point seeking not thy own honour, but mine; studying to please, not thyself, but me? Once more: in what manner didst thou employ that comprehensive talent, money? — not in gratifying the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; not squandering it away in vain expenses — the same as throwing it into the sea; not hoarding it up to leave behind thee — the same as burying it in the earth; but first supplying thy own reasonable wants, together with those of thy family; then restoring the remainder to me, through the poor, whom I had appointed to receive it; looking upon thyself as only one of that number of poor, whose wants were to be supplied out of that part of my substance which I had placed in thy hands for this purpose; leaving thee the right of being supplied first, and the blessedness of giving rather than receiving? Wast thou accordingly a general benefactor to mankind? Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, assisting the stranger, relieving the afflicted, according to their various necessities? Wast thou eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame, a father to the fatherless, and an husband to the widow? And didst thou labour to improve all outward works of mercy, as means of saving souls from death?”

(A note on Acts 2:45) “And sold their possessions - Their lands and houses; and goods - Their movables. And parted them to all as any one had need - To say the Christians did this only till the destruction of Jerusalem, is not true; for many did it long after. Not that there was any positive command for so doing: it needed not; for love constrained them. It was a natural fruit of that love wherewith each member of the community loved every other as his own soul. And if the whole Christian Church had continued in this spirit, this usage must have continued through all ages. To affirm therefore that Christ did not design it should continue, is neither more nor less than to affirm, that Christ did not design this measure of love should continue. I see no proof of this.”


DH 11.30.07 at 2:40 pm

Richard, you misunderstood me by thinking that I thought Wesley was a “horrid Socialist”. I don’t believe he was. Now I can’t speak for yourself in that I don’t know if you believe Wesley was a “horrid Socialist” but if you did or happen to think that he was then my conclusion to your statements would be one to point out your misunderstanding of Wesley. I don’t believe you to think of him that way so my statement stands. I agree we should give to the poor, etc. The second paragraph is wonderful I totally agree with that. I pretty much agree with Wesley on this other than maybe the last paragraph with regard to the 1st century church. I agree 100% we should help the poor but I 100% disagree that helping the poor (I might add that I actually believe this hurts the poor but that is another discussion) forced by an outside intity or mandated by the government I don’t agree with. Are there some things where the government can help the poor? yes but not on a Socialist or Communistic scale.


Richard 11.30.07 at 3:58 pm

No, I didn’t misunderstand you, DH. I know that you don’t think Wesley was a socialist.
Truthfully, I don’t either. But Wesley was most definitely a “proto-socialist”, and many Wesleyans since have taken the same political journey. Anyone who tries to appropriate Wesley to support western capitalism is deluded at best. I’d recommend Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics by Theodore Jennings if you’re interested in studying Wesley’s attitude to wealth and wealth-creation.


DH 11.30.07 at 4:05 pm

Richard what is a “protosocialist”? I still believe that while Wesley wasn’t a pure capitalist that he still supported some, I say some, capitalistic ideas. That seems to get overlooked I guess for peoples own predispositions. None of the quotes form Wesley that you stated here, except for the last paragraph, I disagree with nor does his statements (other than the last paragraph) go against capitalism. His statements go against (nor do I support) PURE Capitalism but capitalism none the less.


Richard 11.30.07 at 4:16 pm

“Proto-” means “primitive”. Wesley wasn’t a socialist, but I’m not certain that you could apply the word to anyone of Wesley’s era. However, his legacy did lead many Wesleyans to become socialists — to the point where at one stage the Methodist Church could be nick-named the ‘Labour Party at prayer’ with some justice.

For sure, you could take an isolated sentence from Wesley, maybe even an occasional paragraph, and make him sound like a capitalist. But if you do, you’ll be completely mis-representing him.


DH 11.30.07 at 5:17 pm

Well I also believe you could take an occasional paragraph from Wesley and make him into a Socialist just like you say about capitalism. That is why I believe he wasn’t pure capitalist or pure socialist just like I’m not a pure captitalist or a pure socialist. Remember, I agree with you he wasn’t a pure capitalist but for people to call him a pure socialist would also be misrepresenting him. I would also agree (you might be surprised) that I believe pure captialism is unbiblical. I do believe when one looks at the parable of the talents where investing was mentioned and even rewarded and other passages that a form of Capitalism is supported. Pure capitalism? absolutely not. In also believe pure socialism is unbiblical. Forms of socialism might be but not in the pure sense. I also venture to say that to a lessor extent forms of socialism might be supported but not to the extent some may believe and not in such a way it would be against forms of captialism that are supported in scripture where investment, trade, free market, etc. are supported.


Beth 11.30.07 at 6:08 pm

Not sure how Maggie would take to being called “the MP Thatcher”… kinda like calling George Bush “Senator Bush”, isn’t it?


DH 11.30.07 at 6:46 pm

Beth, thanks for the correction. Was she President or Prime Minister. Being on the other side of the lake where we have no Prime Ministers it can be difficult to understand the difference or the point of having a Prime Minister and President as opposed to having just a President here in the US. That would be unless either the President or Prime Minister is considered the American equivilent to a Vice President. However, my understanding of the positions is that is not the case.

Beth, maybe you can explain the purpose and point of having a prime minister and President as opposed to having just one or the other? From this side and observing English government it reminds me of what the Great Abrham Lincoln said “A house divided against itself will not stand.” Having two seperate people as head of the executive seems ineffiecent as opposed to just one person as head of the executive.


Richard 11.30.07 at 8:41 pm

Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, DH. We don’t have a President any more than you have a PM. Our head of state is our dear old queen. I know that British democracy looks peculiar to many of my friends in the US. You might smile to know that the feeling is reciprocated.

Returning to John Wesley’s politics for a moment, I’m intending to have a go at a post…

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