A song came on the radio today that I have loved all my life – except this time, it was a cover, and it spoke something to me that I would like to share. It was a jazz cover of “Ode to Billy Joe.” That might be fine, and might work well, but the singer was trying to make the song sexy, and it struck me as bizarre as well as unfitting. Ode to Billy Joe is about a man who commits suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and the woman who clearly loved him, and grieves for him still. It is a very sad and moving song. The jazz artist covering it had no emotion in her voice, other than the delight in her admittedly fine voice, and an air of sultry sexiness in her vocals. I have nothing against sultry, sexy music, especially when done well, by a vocalist with a melodic or soulful or sensuous voice – such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday or even Janis Joplin. But you don’t turn a funeral dirge into a sensuous romp. You don’t try to make a funeral dirge sexy, and Ode to Billy Joe is a funeral dirge, a lament. It seemed bizarre, and it was mildly annoying to hear. It’s like trying to make Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into a hip hop tune. Some things just don’t go together – like ice cream and beer, or ketchup and cheesecake… Bert Bacharach singing Rage Against the Machine’s Take the Power Back, O.J. Simpson in a tutu… or funereal laments with light and fluffy sensuous vocals. But this is not what really annoyed me about the song. What was really striking was its self-contradiction. It is a heart-breaking song, and it was sung with a disturbing indifference.
“Because you are neither hot nor cold, but only luke warm,
I spit you out of my mouth.”
- St. John of Patmos
Listening to the cover artist croon in light, swaying tones, more interested in the sound of her voice than the lyrics and the story they told, she sang, “And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas….”Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense – pass the biscuits, please.” And it struck me – this is why this cover bothers me: the cover artist is showing no feeling for the tragedy that this song speaks of – and the cover artist is as blasé and indifferent as the family members at the table in the song.
And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right”
It made me shudder, in fact, to hear the indifference in the artist’s voice, the lack of feeling and concern; and the contrast in the song – between the family’s largely uncaring reaction to this tragedy, and the heart-break of the young woman who loved Billy Joe and that of the song itself – was drawn out in a clarity that I have never before heard or appreciated. It is a stark and poignant, painful contrast, between love and compassion on the one hand, and unfeeling indifference on the other. Juxtaposed, it makes the song all that much more moving. And to hear the contrast heightened by a cover of the song that was sung with glorious indifference and banal, blasé self-involvement, made me realize that there is a great deal of this in the world: unfeeling apathy and uncaring indifference – as if there is nothing worth getting concerned about other than football, sit-coms and shopping, or what the weather might be like for the barbeque this weekend, and whether or not we have enough relish. Relish becomes significant only when it is a verb, and when we actively engage in the celebration of life and virtue in this world, and not when it is a hot dog topping.
“The world is a dangerous place.
Not because of those who do terrible things.
But because of those who let them do it.”
Apathy is living death. Indifference is cowardice. Let us be real, and truly live. To live is to feel. It is to have a heart, and to let that heart be tender. If we treat the world or others, social issues or environmental issues or human suffering with indifference or apathy, it says a lot about the state of our hearts. It says we are cloistered and closed into a prison cell of our own making. If we wish to truly live, or if we wish to embrace the fullness of our humanity, then we shall have to open our heart to both the joy and pain of life, and allow ourselves to both think and feel – deeply and authentically, with courage and inner strength which allows us to do just that.
When we allow ourselves to both feel and think more freely and deeply, with openness, sensitivity and thoughtfulness, then our lives will be rich, and not before – and then too, will the world be reborn and justice shall rain down in blessings for all. A renaissance of humanity, as with a renaissance or rebirth in our personal lives, requires the courage to think and to feel. If we are not up for that, then we are among the living dead.
Allowing ourselves to think and to feel doesn’t mean that we all have to be extroverts, or start swinging from chandeliers or barking at the moon, or making a big show of emotion or bawling before Opra on a global broadcast. If we are naturally quiet or reserved, that is fine – it is openness of the heart and mind that matter, and not openness of mouth. Everyone has their own distinct style or way, and all of us have depth of mind and heart – it is just a matter of what degree we are open to our own depths. To shun them is to barely live. To open to our depth of heart is to find life’s treasure, and our own true riches and power. With these we will live more fully, and with these, we can heal the world.
Let us be real. Life is too short and too precious for us to live in any other way. Let us think, let us feel, let us truly live: and we and all of humanity, and all living beings, will be the richer for it.
“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.”
- Henry David Thoreau
“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
- Emma Goldman
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
- Helen Keller
September 12, 2011