It’s April 4, the 95th day of the year. Yesterday the temperature of Lake Michigan was 43 degrees at the Chicago crib and 45 degrees at the Chicago shore.
This date is one of the saddest and most startling in U.S. history, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.
Also on this day (from history.com):
1974, Hank Aaron ties Babe Ruth’s home run record.
1975, Childhood friends Bill Gates and Paul Allen found Microsoft.
The photo here of the coyote at Forestview Road and Payne Street brought to mind “Welcome Me,” a song written in 2010 by Amy Ray and recorded by the Indigo Girls and, later, others. Settling first on the coyote (“I’ll be the first to praise the sun, the first to praise the moon, the first to hold a lone coyote and the last to set him free …”), I went further into the song to a phrase that had long intrigued me “Somebody get me a weapon, a pacifying weapon.”
While it seems on its face to be an oxymoron, one could also think of it as a “portmanteau” phrase, combining two ideas into one – like such portmanteau words as “smog” or “brunch” or “Brexit.”
Wondering whether music itself could be a pacifying weapon, I Googled the phrase and found that the American musician Sean Hickey was willing to accept that idea. In 2015 he composed a concerto for recorder, commissioned by and dedicated to Michala Petri, the soloist of the piece. Mr. Hickey says on his website, “The idea of its title came to me one evening when my wife played the first Indigo Girls album, an indie folk classic, and its song ‘Welcome Me.’ Two words among its lyrics gave me my title and completed my idea that has since become a bit of an obsession.
“What if there were a tool or instrument that, instead of delivering a sudden death, was capable of providing an instant and irreversible peace? Something concealed or open, equipped to eradicate the effects and misery of war?”
The link to Mr. Hickey’s concerto is
Still curious, I asked in my family and close circle of friends about the phrase and how and whether they would apply it to music.
Their answers were more than thoughtful or thought-provoking – they were uplifting.
Jeffrey Leeman responded, after looking at the lyrics, that the term “might refer to reversing an attack or exploiting it … a ‘riposte’ of sorts. … Visually maybe there are natural wonders that have such application: something that not only pacifies, but pacifies abruptly, perhaps almost violently. Aurally, in classical music, this could be represented via a ‘sforzando-piano’: a loud crashing chord followed immediately by a soft, longer passage.”
Christine Kraemer wrote, “Remembering my church music background, my thoughts about music (in the church and in general) are influenced by the theology of the Protestant reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther. Both believed and stated in prefaces to their hymn books that music is a gift from God and therefore, very powerful. Calvin: music has the power to ‘inflame men’s hearts.’ I take that to mean music can be used for good or ill. Be careful what you do with it.”
Marilyn Hobbs also looked at the divergence of the two words but rejected the premise that it could apply to music. She wrote, “It is understood that all throughout time music can have a soothing effect on troubled kings, or used as propaganda in world crisis. It can be a tool to evoke calm, as evidenced by many who practice Music Therapy as their occupation, and those who sing a lullaby to a crying baby. … The phrase seems to be in conflict with itself, and contradictory. … Therefore, in my opinion, a ‘pacifying weapon’ would not be synonymous with music.”
Mark Kraemer’s response, took note of the Indigo Girls’ dedication to “sexual freedom and LGBT issues. … The IG’s were proud and wanted to express their feelings and sometimes they used their music to discuss being free to live their lives as they wanted. So, the term ‘pacifying weapon’ was one that had special relevance to them.
“In terms of the Sean Hickey concerto, I think the music (and the choice of the solo recorder) means to highlight the contrast between the pacifying recorder and the more aggressive band accompaniment.
“I’ve listened to the piece, and I think it does express this concept. The recorder’s soothing sound provides a striking contrast to the sometimes brutal nature of the winds and brass. The composer also does not use
string instruments. Strings have a soothing texture, and maybe Sean wanted to highlight the contrast between the pacifying recorder and the more warlike accompanying ensemble. So, I think the concept of a pacifying weapon is brought out very effectively in this piece. There also seems to be a progression from conflict (at the beginning) to resolution at the end. Maybe the composer wants to suggest that the pacifying recorder can bring about this resolution.”
Mr. Kraemer also sent this link to a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No, 4 II, Andante con moto, as an example of “a soloist having a ‘pacifying’ effect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkfAVoAwhh0 …
“The solo piano is able to ‘pacify’ the ill-tempered orchestra and achieve resolution at the end of the movement.”
Returning to popular music, Mr. Kraemer wrote, “If ‘pacifying weapon’ is viewed in a political context, the song ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’ is one of my favorite examples. … I was surprised [when I first listened to it] how such a beautiful song could make such a overt political statement at the end (“When will they ever learn?”).
“So, music can draw us in with pacifying beauty, but can simultaneously become ‘weaponized’ and accomplish all kinds of political objectives.”
Words can do that, too.
“Big Brother is watching” – what a menacing comfort.
Particularly on this date, we can turn to Dr. King. His “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” written in April, 1963, to white clergymen who criticized his civil disobedience, alternately soothes and challenges.
At the outset, Dr. King aligns his critics with himself; he calls them “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” and “men of goodwill.”
He lays out their case against him and then explains why his civil disobedience is grounded in the very religion they espouse.
Dr. King writes that he is in Birmingham because of the injustice there. He cites examples from the Christian Bible, which all clergy have in common and expands upon that to show that all humanity is interrelated. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Bringing race into the picture, Dr. King begins to shift from the “pacifying” to the “weapon” or challenge. He writes of the courage and vision of white men and women who have written about the struggle for civil rights and even been jailed for their actions. He adds his disappointment with leaders of white churches and refuses to validate their position. He decries the “horse-and-buggy pace” at which civil rights are advanced in this country and describes the daily abuses and humiliation inflicted on black members of American society, these continuing generation after generation.
Invoking Thomas Aquinas, Dr. King considers just laws and unjust laws and says, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” In what could be considered a crescendo, Dr. King recounts that Jesus Christ and two others were crucified together because all of them were extremist and asks, “Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
And maybe that is the answer, that love is the pacifying weapon that will eclipse our petty fears.
As our friend in Alaska signs off in his email from one of the northernmost tips of the inhabited world, Love is everything.