Chimes of Freedom: Adventures in Popular Music

The following is the first of many essays on the history of popular music that uses specific songs to illustrate the rich history of modern popular music. These essays are presented here in serialized form. The first one uses the song "Chimes of Freedom" as the basis of an introduction to the series.

Trinity Church, New York City

Except for once when I was ten years old, I cannot remember traveling to New York City and failing to visit Trinity Church and its adjacent cemetery, located on Broadway in lower Manhattan and a stone’s throw from both the former site of the World Trade Center and the New York Stock Exchange. This Episcopal Congregation was formed before 1700 and the current building that houses it was completed in 1846. Anyone that has spent moments in old churches will agree with me, without explanation that they connect to you the past and the thoughts, prayers, negotiations, fears, and inner turmoil of long dead individuals in ways that other buildings cannot.Church bells, common in Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches (Trinity included) originate from Northern Europe where bells were believed to drive evil spirits away, but in time were adapted as a Christian tradition. Traditionally, church bells have been a signal for the faithful to recite the Lord’s Prayer, gather for Church, be reminded of grace, or mark a specific occasion. Episcopal Churches have historically rung church bells prior to each church service as well as funeral.

Church bells, common in Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches (Trinity included) originate from Northern Europe where bells were believed to drive evil spirits away, but in time were adapted as a Christian tradition. Traditionally, church bells have been a signal for the faithful to recite the Lord’s Prayer, gather for Church, be reminded of grace, or mark a specific occasion. Episcopal Churches have historically rung church bells prior to each church service as well as funeral.

The bells of Trinity Church have rung for decades and tolled for both joyful and sad occasions. Michael J. Fitzpatrick commemorated the ringing of Trinity’s bells in 1895 by writing the song “The Chimes of Trinity”:

In a city grand and gay where the mighty throng hold sway
Stands a church whose spire points towards the sky.
And down the belfry towr oft the chimes have toll’d the hour
Many saddened hearts were charmed while passing by.
Many millionaires and ladies grand and noble man of state
With outcasts from ev’ry land and monarchs grand and great.
All have whiled the hours away way down on old Broadway
As they listened to the chimes of Trinity

Tolling for the outcast, tolling for the gay,
Tolling for the millionaire and friends long pass’d away.
But my heart is light and gay
As I stroll down old Broadway
And I listen to the chimes of Trinity

Fitzpatrick’s words, of an imagined time when both the millionaire and the outcast could be “charmed” by Trinity’s bells, are today smothered in irony, mostly because the Episcopal Church has always been among the most WASPish in the United States[1]. That history lingers into the present. Of the two million members of the Episcopal Church 90% are white (compared to 63% of the overall United States population), 35% have household income of at least $100,000 per year (20% for the United States), and 27% have a post-graduate degree (compared to 11%). The 19th century Episcopal Church was also near obsessive about maintaining the unity of the Church – to the detriment of its moral standing. Many religious organizations split over the appropriate Christian position on slavery – the Episcopal Church punted and took no position, instead stating that it was merely a secular matter. When segregation was later widespread, the Church punted again and took no position so as to avoid disunity within the Church. The Brazilian author Paulo Coelho perhaps made the most appropriate comment on those who refuse to lend their support for what is righteous: “Everybody is a political person, whether you say something or you stay silent. A political attitude is not whether you go to parliament; it’s how you deal with your life, with your surroundings.” The “outcasts” to which the chimes of Trinity Church rang for in 1895 was a very narrow group.

According to Greenwich Village folk legend Dave von Ronk, “Chimes of Trinity” was the model for Bob Dylan’s 1964 song “Chimes of Freedom.” He stated in his autobiography The Mayor of MacDougal Street:

“Bob Dylan heard me fooling around with one of my grandmother’s favorites, ‘The Chimes of Trinity,’ a sentimental ballad about Trinity Church…He made me sing it for him a few times until he had the gist of it, then reworked it into ‘Chimes of Freedom.’ Her version was better.”

Von Ronk has many reasons to be perturbed by Bob Dylan, but in this instance he is very badly mistaken. Dylan’s version is a vast improvement upon the original. Rather than tell the story of a “light and gay” man strolling down the street hearing Trinity’s chimes, “Chimes of Freedom” tells the story of a narrator and a companion unexpectedly finding themselves in the midst of a thunderstorm during the middle of the night and ducking for cover at a cathedral entrance.

Far between  sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll

We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sound

Seemin’ to be the chimes of freedom flashing

In the midst of darkness, lightning bolts give momentary light and the senses of the narrator are so overwhelmed while waiting for the storm to pass that he begins to view the sounding thunder and flashing lightning as metaphors for the ringing and flashing of the church bells. These flashes of light through the darkness and the storm come to represent the hope of freedom for an array of societal outcasts: unwed mothers, figurative and literal refugees, independent thinkers, innocent prisoners, and those without the ability or resources to make their voices heard among others.

The specific device used to such effect in the song is termed “synesthesia” – the technique by which one stimulation of the senses (literally seeing flashes of lightning in the thunderstorm) is expressed by another stimulation of the senses (the chimes of echoing from the cathedral). This may be a poetic device, but it is also often the natural manner in which our senses process the world. If you smell someone cooking, you are liable to experience the sensation as taste rather than smell and become hungry. It seems likely that French poet Arthur Rimbaud was the direct inspiration to Dylan in employing this technique.

The narrator is, in fact, so overwhelmed by what he experiences that he remains without a sense of time until the thunderstorm finally passes.

Starry eyed and laughin’ as I recall when we were caught

Trapped by no track of hours for they hang suspended

As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look

Spellbound and swallowed ‘til the tolling ended

By the time the song has finished, the following twenty-five groups (by my count) of characters has received chimes of freedom from the flashing lightning:

  1. The warriors whose strength is not to fight
  2. The refugees on the unarmed road of flight
  3. E’vry underdog soldier of the night
  4. The rebel
  5. The rake
  6. The luckless
  7. The abandoned and forsaked
  8. The outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
  9. The gentle
  10. The kind
  11. The guardians and protectors of the mind
  12. The poet and painter far behind his rightful time
  13. The disrobed faceless forms of no position
  14. The tongues with no place to bring their thought
  15. The deaf an’ blind
  16. The mute
  17. The mistreated mateless mother
  18. The mistitled prostitute
  19. The misdemeanor outlaw, chained and cheated by pursuit
  20. The searching ones
  21. The lonesome hearted lovers with too personal a tale
  22. Each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
  23. The aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
  24. The confused, misused, strung out ones
  25. Every hung up person in the universe

Substantial documentary evidence exists that the assassination of President Kennedy was the initial spark of the song, although Dylan himself has always been hostile to the suggestion. Among the features of Kennedy’s funeral were the ringing of church bells at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Indeed, following the assassination church bells tolled throughout the entire Country. I suspect that Dylan had filed the song Von Ronk had taught him in his head and the traumatic events of November 22, 1963 called it to mind. Of course, the inspiration or initial spark of an idea does not necessarily equate to its ultimate meaning and Dylan’s denials perhaps are meant to protect the song from confining it to being about an event that in its finished form was no longer the subject. In any event, the assassination of John F. Kennedy is not the key to understanding “Chimes of Freedom.” The key to unlocking the power of the song is in understanding what precisely is meant by the word “freedom.”

The word “freedom” has forever become bound to the word “truth” by the biblical pronouncement: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Truth, though, is every bit an amorphous concept as freedom is, as Pontius Pilate noted before sentencing Jesus Christ to death by sarcastically asking, “What is truth?” One could just as easily ask, “What is freedom?”.

Clinton Heylin reveals a fascinating fact in his book Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. In Dylan’s original manuscript for the song he scribbled the line, “You just can’t please everyone.” He was about to embark upon a war with his own fans over the sanctity of folk music and it is entirely possible that the line is in reference to how he felt his audience would receive the song, as well as the many songs of a more personal, and less political, nature from the forthcoming Another Side of Bob Dylan. The more likely explanation, though, is that the note relates specifically to the meaning of the song itself and how freedom should be interpreted in context.

“Who taught you to hate yourselves?”

“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? To such extent that you bleach, to get like the white man. Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?”

– Malcolm X, 1962

These questions of Malcolm X are not meant to be rhetorical. There are objective answers to his questions, which were asked at the funeral of Ronald Stokes, a Nation of Islam member from Los Angeles who was shot by police officers in his back while he was handcuffed.

Kenneth and Mamie Clark had already completed their “doll experiments” by that point that illustrated that not only had racism taught white children that black children were worth less than they were, but that black children also believed it to be true. The experiment was simple. Children were shown four dolls, two dark and two light, and then asked various questions about them. Both white and black kids alike preferred the white dolls. At one experiment in Arkansas, Dr. Clark asked a black child which doll was most like him and the child pointed to the black doll and said, “That’s a nigger. I’m a nigger.” The results helped persuade the Supreme Court of the United States, whose opinion in Brown v. Board of Education included the statement that black children were given “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”

Race may be one of the most obvious examples of self-hatred, but countless others exist, contributed to by the “truth” of what everyone knows. French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote frequently about the relationship between truth and power. His belief was that power acted in a diffusive rather than centralized manner as many of his predecessors had assumed; a kind of Zeitgeist where accepted forms of knowledge and truth wield enormous power both within and without us. “Truth” is transmitted to us through our parents, our churches, our schools, and our media. Sometimes the power of this “truth” acts in our benefit, sometimes it does not.

Who taught you that an unwed mother is a whore? Who taught you that thin women constitute beauty? Who taught you that people who look different than you aren’t worth the risk of knowing? Who taught you that refugees and other displaced communities pose too large a risk to be helped? Who taught you that the wealthy are hardworking and the poor lazy? Who taught you that the value of a life is positively correlated to the lightness of skin?

This exercise of power over our collective psychology is most precisely what I imagine Dylan had in mind when he visualized those “majestic bells of bolts”. The other side of the storm does not present a societal or political freedom, but the freedom that comes from self-realization and the strength to resist whatever labels or stereotypes that perceived truth places upon you.

Acts of Appropriation

“…Acts of appropriation are part of a process by which we make ourselves. Appropriating – taking something for someone’s own use – need not be synonymous with exploitation. This is especially true of cultural appropriation. The “use” one makes of what is appropriated is the crucial factor.”

– Bell Hooks

This is not a book that intends to capture a complete history of modern poplar music. Some very good books have made valiant attempts to record that history, but much of what we consider to be the foundation of today’s popular music may never be known – performed by men and women long since forgotten.[2] While the analogy of the cultural melting pot in the United States can be overdone, it is still true that the juxtaposition of cultures throughout America’s history is one of the primary reasons the rich musical heritage that came to be was developed here. Traditional African music, with constant syncopation, bent and flatted notes, and the development of interlocutory improvisation was able to mingle with European folk and classical music as well as unique forms derived from those forms throughout Appalachia. Common language and a united Country has also meant the United States has been unique in forcing regional forms of music together through a constant process of migration – which is really just to say that it has always been more likely for someone from one part of the Country to migrate to another than it would be for a Spaniard to migrate to Germany. With these historical precedents in place, modern technology ensured the explosion of popular music that has been seen in the last century or so.

Although there is no recognized chronological starting point for the river of popular music in America, the Minstrel Shows that became popular in the 1840s are as good of a jumping-off point as any in a condensed discussion of the path of the river. The greatest examination of Minstrelsy, indeed one of the great books ever written about American culture, is Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. The Minstrel Show was undeniably a racist affair, generally consisting of white performers in blackface mimicking, mocking, and characterizing their black counterparts. Modern observers are rightly uncomfortable with this racist entertainment and have often seen the Minstrelsy as a precursor of further expropriations of black culture – from Elvis all the way down to Eminem. Lott points out the obvious, though: imitating and mimicking black culture reveals a fascination and desire on the part of white America in addition to more blatant forms of dismissive disgust. Ever after, music in America would exist inside the space between admiration and thievery between the races.

It is true that blues music found its origin in African traditional music that was adapted to the needs of slavery, including a call and response structure that is well-suited to work songs. But, the explosion of popular music performed by black musicians themselves coalesced following the end of slavery, when a legal cleavage took hold between white and black and black performers and a unique black identity and culture developed in parts of the Deep South, particularly the delta valley. Jazz music came shortly afterward, incorporating both blues and ragtime into a format that developed, in part, within New Orleans from musicians in military bands from the Civil War.

Further north, in Appalachia, poor white communities were adapting traditional European music to the harsh conditions of rural poverty. In 1927 music producer Ralph Peer traveled to Bristol, TN to record this music and through the discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, laid the foundation for modern country music.

Finally, the lucrative business of sheet music publishing birthed Tin Pan Alley in New York City and new forms of popular music driven by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter who created many facets of the modern pop song.

All of these unique forms were allowed to blend together. But, rather than blending in a melting pot, they blended in the space between desire and appropriation. A space where white America often envied the independent and beautiful culture found in black America while simultaneously recoiling at that desire and where black America imitating white America in a desire to stand above the circumstances that white America had left for it.

Vibrations of Memory

“Music, when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory –“

– Percy Shelley

It is now somewhat routine that lists are constructed of the greatest songs ever written or the best from among a specialized genre. These lists probably represent our best attempt so far to build a canon of modern popular music. While ranking songs in this manner may have some value, creating an objective list from subjective criteria is not something that I would be able to accomplish. How, then, does one go about building a representative list of American popular music?

The songs in which these essays were selected were solely on the basis of which songs have most firmly implanted themselves and vibrate within my memory, which may be unique to other conceptions of the canonical. Our cumulative, overlapping memories is ultimately the determining factor in what forms any kind of canon, including a musical one; that is the popular music that has survived to us are the pieces most worthy of being remembered.[3]

Despite the necessity of subjective criteria, the songs selected are intended to exemplify the unique power of popular music and as such can serve, as well any group of songs, as representatives to a larger canon. I do my best to illustrate in each essay why this is so.

In so illustrating I also hope to reveal simple realities embedded in any creative process. Sometime in the past I knew someone who was retired as a construction worker and was married to an amateur poet. One day he told me, “I just don’t understand why people waste their time with poetry. It has no purpose.” Before dismissing his statement too quickly, it should be noted that it does often seem that poetry, and all artistic expression, has little utilitarian value. The poet, musician, and painter do create something of less tangible worth than the construction worker who contributes to the building of a home. But is aesthetic pleasure all that the arts can provide us? Or is it just a way for over-educated people to feel better about themselves?

As someone who appreciates most artistic expression, I have asked myself these questions quite a few times. All good art is a provocation of some kind and the best provokes and releases our inner-most critical thinking and empathy. We are personally limited by the unitary life we are meant to live. We can only experience so many moments and naturally observe the situations we routinely confront from so many vantage points. The creative expressions of others can tear down these limitations and “popular” music can stimulate our thinking and feeling capacities as strongly as any art form.

The “Anxiety of Influence” and the Creative Process

Yale English Professor and literary critic Harold Bloom has deeply influenced how creativity can be conceptualized through his 1973 book, The Anxiety of Influence, which specifically examines the creative process as it’s applicable to poetry. Among his contentions is that all good poetry is preceded by a misreading of previously good poetry. What had set Bloom apart from previous critics was that they had become enraptured with the idea of individual expression and the strong belief that each work of poetry was a unique and personal statement summoned from the wellspring of individuality. This is simply not true. Everything produced today is in some way a reaction to all that precedes it. No matter what you intend to express, someone has already expressed it and expressed it in a fairly beautiful manner[4]. This cause of anxiety is resolved through the misreading of the original work since accurately transmitting the influence is little more than plagiarism or at the very least, uninteresting. Creativity is not the realm of the lone individual who through personal will creates a wholly original work, but through artists intentionally distorting and misreading their influences in an attempt to better their predecessors and take their place within our memory.

That context is very much applicable to our popular music, where constant appropriation is always preceded by both desire and anxiousness. But it is also the setting where creative agents battle through time in order to gain their share of the real estate of our consciousness just as Jacob battled the Angel for a blessing. The victors achieve their own sense of immortality in our memories.

Chimes of Freedom

If there is such a thing as a canon of popular music in the twentieth century, Bob Dylan must be placed at the center of it. He was not the most popular musician of the century[5], but he both wielded an intense influence from nearly everyone that followed him as well as serving as a repository of much of what preceded him. So, it is not coincidental that one of his songs servers as the introduction to this book or that he is the subject, in whole or in part, of five of the fifty essays. As Jacob battled the Angel and received the Blessing, so Dylan has spent his career battling unnamed folk artists, blues and country legends, as well as contemporaries only to emerge victorious through the misinterpretation of what preceded him and more so than any other musician presents despair to followers who hope to detect any incompleteness with which they can draw upon to create an original statement.

I have two goals in considering the music that I do: first, to illustrate how much the music hangs together through the anxiety of influence and to what extent musicians react to their predecessors and second, more importantly, how the provocation to critical thinking and empathy that result from these songs can re-make the inner world of an individual and set them free from the pre-conceived notions of propriety enforced upon them by the World.

The supreme irony of American popular music is that the music birthed in poverty and slavery, in imitation of others and appropriation of their personality in talents has the ability to bring personal freedom into greater clarity than almost any other art form. Popular music is constantly challenging notions and assumptions that have been ingrained within us and to the careful listener produces a greater appreciation of the self that only comes through self-awareness.

[1] There is no specific animosity intended for The Episcopal Church or to who hold it to account in a manner any more severe than other Churches of the time. The worst Christian offenders in regards to segregation were southern Evangelical Churches who were not just silent, but endorsed institutional racism.

[2] The book “All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music” by Tony Palmer is an excellent introduction.

[3] “Canon” literally means measuring rod and is generally used as a means to set standards. The word still holds this meaning in religious and legal contexts, but can apply in secular contexts as well.

[4] Ecclesiastes 1:9: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

[5] According to the Recording Industry Association of America, he is the forty-fourth bestselling musician of all time with album sales of 36 million. But, noting that both Kenny G and The Backstreet Boys have sold more albums than Dylan should reveal the limitations of considering popularity.

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