A Heroic Ride to Heaven

I went through one of my biannual rituals today. I played my 20th-century analysis class a 1943, war-time recording of Charles Ives – age 69, diabetic, impaired by heart attacks, old beyond his years – singing and playing his song They Are There. Listen to it here. Here are the words, as best as I can make them out:

There’s a time in many a life

When it’s do, through facing death,

But our soldier boys

Will do their part that people can live

In a world where all will have a say.

They’re concious always of their country’s aim,

Which is liberty for all.

Hip, hip, hooray, you’ll hear them say,

As they go to the fighting front.

Brave boys are now in action!

They are there, they will help to free the world.

They’re fighting for the right,

But when it comes to might,

They are there, they are there, they are there (you bet they’ll be),

As the Allies beat up all the war hogs.

Our boys’ll be there, fighting hard,

And then the world will shout! the battle cry of freedom,

Tenting on a new campground,

Tenting tonight, tenting on a new campground,

For it’s rally round the flag of the People?s New Free World,

Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

When we’re through this cursed war,

All those dynamite-sneaking gougers,

Making slaves of men (God damn them),

Then let all the people rise and stand together in brave, kind humanity.

Most wars are made by small, stupid, selfish bossing groups,

While the People have no say,

But there’ll come a day,

Hip, hip, hooray,

When they’ll smash all dictators to the wall! [illustrated with forearm clusters]

Let’s build a people’s world nation, hooray!

Every honest country free to live its own, native life!

They will stand up for the right,

But when it comes to might,

They’ll be there, they’ll be there, they’ll be there (you bet they’ll be),

Then the People, not just politicians,

Will rule their own lands and lives,

And you’ll hear the whole universe

Shouting the battle cry of freedom,

Tenting on a new campground,

Tenting tonight, tenting on a new campground,

For it’s rally round the flag of the People’s New Free World,

Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

I’ll never forget, at age 18, hearing Ives sing that song, on the old Columbia recording. Tears streaked down my cheeks. Some think he sounds like a silly old man – his voice admittedly can’t quite negotiate his own difficult modulations. But I listen to that song and realize that no one in the world could be more patriotic than I am. Everything I love about what the United States of America used to be, and used to stand for, is encapsulated somewhere in Charles Ives’s music – in the freedom-seeking literary tradition of Emerson and Thoreau paid the deepest homage in the Concord Sonata and the Essays Before a Sonata, but also in the angry, relentless idealism of of a millionaire retired insurance executive who argued that there should be a cap on what any man should be allowed to earn in a year, and that “no man who has personal property to the amount of, say, $100,000 should have any active part in a government by the people” (“Stand By the President and the People,” 1917).

That’s my America, and Charles Ives’s – not an America in which half of the people could have voted for, and a third of the people still belligerently continue to support, a vicious bastard in the White House who threatens to use his first veto ever to strike down a bill outlawing the use of torture. As far as I’m concerned, the musicologists and critics who try to tear away at Ives’s reputation by charging him with mendacity, homophobia, whatever, are all of a piece with the uneducated, illiberal masses who voted for and support the vicious bastard. I hear that song and realize that my patriotism remains intact and unaltered – but that the United States of America that Charles Ives loved, and that I love, in which dictators are smashed to the wall and the people rule their own land, no longer exists. Thank goodness we still possess this aural document that captures its lost spirit. Listening to it, one can only think of what Ives’s father told him about the hoarse but honest singing of old John Bell: “Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.”