Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/19/2011

“all those darn-fool ditties”

Please note: This piece has an inordinate number of hyperlinks. And every idea here is shop-worn and pedestrian. This is one of those days when I would have to argue brilliantly to prove to my atheist friends this is not about religion. Get over it. This is about me, not about religion.

Like Dr. Oliver Sacks, I am not particularly excited by the music of Felix Mendelssohn. I play his organ sonatas. Mendelssohn’s music always seems to me to lack some “depth” (how on earth can I explain that?). Oliver Sacks, however, writes of the experience of hearing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor that he says gave him back his life—at the very least his body—after his leg was shattered in a mountain-climbing accident (1). defines ineffability as “incapable of being expressed or described in words; inexpressible;” noesis as “the exercise of reason;” transiency as “for a short time only; temporary or transitory;” and passivity as “unresisting and receptive to external forces; submissive.”

Ineffable, noetic, transient, and passive: William James’ description of mystical experience (2). Mystical experience cannot be expressed in words, arises from the exercise of reason, lasts for a short time, and does not resist—rather, is receptive to—external forces.

In a conversation with John Rockwell on April 6, 1977, the American composer and music critic Virgil Thomson said that one can consciously reject one’s heritage but it is always part of what one communicates because one doesn’t

have to belong to a story to tell it. . . When you reach down in your subconscious, you get certain things. When Aaron [Copland] reaches down, he doesn’t get cowboy tunes, he gets Jewish chants. When I reach down, I get Southern hymns and all those darn-fool ditties we used to sing—“Grasshopper sitting on a railway track. . .” (3).

When I reach down in my subconscious, I get some of the same stuff Virgil Thomson got. I used to play his Variations on Sunday School Tunes for organ, especially No. 4, “Shall We Gather at the River.” Gospel songs. That’s what I get. The ones on which Thomson wrote variations are there when I reach down: “Will There Be any Stars in My Crown,” “Come, Ye Disconsolate,” myriad more.

When I reach down, I don’t get Jewish chants. I don’t get the Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin, either. And I don’t get Janis Joplin (she’s too close to the surface). What I get, Gospel hymnody, is hardly the stuff of great music. But it’s the music my mother played on the piano when I was in utero.

But it is my music. I used to be embarrassed to admit that. In the language of H. Wiley Hitchcock (I no longer have his book on American music, so I have no footnote), I thought  music, to be acceptable, had to be “cultivated” rather than “vernacular.” Cultivated as in needing to be planted and tended to help it grow to be harvested. Vernacular (“home-born, native”) music one does not have to plant. One does not have to tend it. One does not have to water it or harvest it. Vernacular music simply is.

I wonder if vernacular music can be ineffable. I wonder if it can be noetic, transient, or passive. Can I apply James’ definition of mystical experience to any music, especially the (vernacular) music that is in the memory closest to the core of my brain. And being at the core of my brain, I wonder if it is at the core of my mind. And if so, is it at the core of my Self.

When I reach down into my subconscious, I find a great deal of stuff my grown-up self would rather not find.  Among the Bible readings from which one may choose for the Burial Rite of the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal church is one from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. It says we are children of God, but we suffer in order to be glorified. I’m basically over the need to suffer that’s down there in my subconscious. I’m not sure about the future glory, so I don’t think I want the suffering.

The kicker to all of this is the ending, lofty prose worthy of Shakespeare.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39, NRSV).

When I reach down into my subconscious, those words are there. I have no idea how many times I’ve heard my father read them. More than many. You can’t listen to your father read words like those over and over from the time you are born and not find them when you reach down into your subconscious.

Lodged in my subconscious is a combination of “Shall We Gather” and “neither death, nor life . . .” and I cannot express their meaning. When [I] reach down in [my] subconscious, [I] get [those] things, and they are mine and ineffable. They form a reality that

defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect (3).

Whoa! I wasn’t talking about “mystical states.” But the stuff I find when I reach down defies expression. And at least one other of James’ criteria for mystical experience applies. Finding this stuff when I reach down, my mind does not resist—rather, is receptive to—external forces. When I reach down I feel “as if [my] own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if [I] were grasped and held by a superior power” (5).

So here’s my commonplace, my heresy, my shopworn and pedestrian thought. My mystical reality is that stuff I find when I reach down. Upon re-hearing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto when he was struggling to walk again, Oliver Sacks says neuro-science

could not begin to explain the climax of my experience, the sudden sense of being a living and free agent, and not a mere robot struggling with motor tasks. It could not prepare me for the sudden sense of delight and spontaneity, which came to me, as from heaven, the moment the Mendelssohn came. It could cast no light on the nature of the experience, or on the experiencer, myself; it could cast no light on the nature of action, or on the actor, myself (6).

I’m going to stop worrying about cultivated or vernacular, musical or mystical, neurological or from heaven. If Virgil Thomson and Oliver Sacks can’t explain their experience, I think I don’t have much of a chance. But I would like some of that “delight and spontaneity,” please. All of this pondering was engendered by my trying to choose music for memorial services for my father.  Reaching down into the subconscious, indeed.
(1) Sacks, Oliver. A Leg to Stand On. New York: Harper & Row, 1984 (118-120).
(2) James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Ed. and Intro. by Martin E. Marty. New York: Penguin Books, 1982 (380-381).
(3) Rockwell, John.  “A Conversation with Virgil Thomson.” A Virgil Thomson Reader. New York: Dutton Paperbacks, 1984 (530).
(4) James, loc. cit.
(5) James, idem.
(6) Sacks, 218.


  1. the day Dad died I couldn’t get “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” out of my head. He never sang it to us and I have no memory associated with the song, but that day it was my song.


  2. Thanks, Harold. I thought you did a fine job with music for your dad’s funeral. it all seemed right to me.


  3. […] If still confused (yeah, I know, listening to lofty speeches by guys in robes can do this to your mind) read on […]



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