Thursday, September 4, 2014

Allegories and Prophesies in Song: "The Beehive State" and "The Devil Came From Kansas"

Singer/Songwriter Randy Newman, in 1971 (Photo by Charles Seton)

Historian Constance Rourke once observed that Americans are "a people unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation." That particular kind of estrangement is rarely taken up in song, but listening the other day to Randy Newman's deceptively obscure "The Beehive State," from his 1968 debut album Something New Under the Sun, I caught some of the intriguing aloofness in the mystery she poses of what it means to actually be an American. "The Beehive State" begins with a delegate from Kansas taking the Senate floor, where he is asked to describe what his state is all about. But we don't find out very much from him. First, we discover that Kansas is for the farmer and "the little man." The representative then, with a persistence that suggests a declaration of war, tells the senators gathered that they all they need is a firehouse in Topeka. Hardly worth the trouble. Next, the senate calls to the floor a delegate from Utah. He steps forward with a desperate plea that is also rather opaque: he insists Utah needs water to irrigate their desert, but mostly he just urges everyone to tell this country about his state. Why? "'Cause nobody seems to know." But how much do we really know when the song – which is barely two minutes in length – is over? With a relentless staccato rhythm that he builds on the piano, Newman tells this story so swiftly that he barely gives you time to absorb what the song is actually saying (which could be nothing so urgent as a laundry list). But he gives the song all the immediacy of prophesied fact and portentous calamity. "It should be longer," Newman once told an interviewer. "But I couldn't think of more to say." So is less truly more?

As short and simple as Newman's imperative tale remains, the real meaning of "The Beehive State" is tucked away and hidden between the lines of what the delegates appear to be saying. In his book about Bob Dylan & The Band's alchemical "basement tapes," Invisible Republic (1997), Greil Marcus wrote at some length about Constance Rourke's description of American vagueness which she saw in the form of a mask. "Discovered by Rourke as an eighteenth-century heirloom, the mask is what in the nineteenth century came to be called the deadpan, the poker face," he wrote. "The mask hides the voice no less than the face...a speech made as much of silences as of words, and the silence is the edge. So what? says the voice; it is dulled, unimpressed, as Rourke says, unsurprised." That lack of surprise is what's packed into the urgency of Newman's singing in "The Beehive State." It's also what creates the song's elusive mystery once it's over.

Procol Harum in 1969.
That elusive mystery became the starting point for Keith Reid, the lyricist of the British rock band Procol Harum, who decided to peer into the slim narrative of Newman's "The Beehive State" and imagine what might lurk somewhere deep inside. While many people only know Procol Harum for their Bach-inspired 1967 hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale," the group continues to tour and record albums of varying quality. Like Newman, Reid preferred writing songs that were character dramas. For their third (and best) album, A Salty Dog (1969), singer/keyboardist Gary Brooker (with occasional assistance from guitarist Robin Trower) and Keith Reid concocted a series of cryptic compositions about haunted sailors ("A Salty Dog," "Wreck of the Hesperus"), death ("Juicy John Pink," "All This and More"), martyrdom ("Crucifiction Lane"), salvation ("Pilgrim's Progress"), betrayal ("The Milk of Human Kindness"), and the portentous ("The Devil Came From Kansas").

"It came about because I always liked Randy Newman," Reid once told Beat International. "I bought his first album, which featured a song called 'The Beehive State,' it had a line about a senator from somewhere. That inspired the song." While not remembering where the senator even came from, Reid was still compelled enough to flesh out Newman's brief bulletin. "The Devil Came From Kansas" is a song about a spiritual test of faith, in a land that was settled by puritans. "The puritans came [to America] with a utopian vision that they couldn't maintain," Greil Marcus would write in Mystery Train (1975) years before delving further into the American mask in Invisible Republic. "Their idea was to do God's work, and they knew if they failed, it would mean that their work had been the Devil's." This anxiety is at the heart of the Procol Harum track, about a pilgrim who has what he describes as a "monkey riding on his back." The Devil claims to know this pilgrim so well that the piety of his faith can no longer protect him ("For the sins of those departed/And the ones about to go/There's a dark cloud just above us/Don't tell me 'cause I know"). In "The Devil Came From Kansas," the battle for the pilgrim's soul leaves no possibility for redemption. His struggle with the Devil leads him eventually "to that pool inside the forest, in whose waters I should drown."

Throughout the song, singer Gary Brooker sounds relentlessly stalked through that forest by B.J. Wilson's thumping drumbeat while Robin Trower's stinging guitar notes shriek and snap like electrified twigs, trapping the singer in a snare. Trower rips into the strings with such intensity, the sounds he calls forth suggest a banshee let loose. "The Devil Came From Kansas" is about the pilgrim's failure to call forth the utopian ideas he stands for, and that the Devil will now make him pay for that failure. Keith Reid presents – or better yet, imagines – a larger historical context for the veiled pronouncements made by the delegate in Newman's "The Beehive State." Given the prophetic doom unleashed in "The Devil Came From Kansas," it's fascinating to know that just outside of Topeka there is a small town called Stull, Kansas, where locals claim the remains of a church, on top of a hill overlooking the town, is one of two places in the world where the Devil could exit Hell and walk freely upon the Earth. In 2002, the church was finally torn down, leaving a small village in Germany as the last of the Devil's portals.

Joseph Smith.
Procol Harum's harrowing tale about Kansas is paralleled by the foreboding history of Utah. While being one of the more prosperous states, the story of how the Mormons made that prosperity possible reveals much of what that cost. For Utah's history is a blood-stained affair filled with the kind of violence and dread usually reserved for late-night horror stories. It's origins date back to 1820, when fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith, from Sharon, Vermont, wanted to know which religion he should join. Retreating to a secluded section of the woods, to petition God, Smith was visited by two "personages" who identified themselves as God the Father and Jesus Christ and dissuaded him from joining any Church. Then in 1823, Smith was visited by an angel of God called Moroni, who revealed to him an ancient record chronicling God's dealings with the former inhabitants of the American continent. In 1827, Smith began translating the record (purported to be printed on gold plates) that would eventually become The Book of Mormon, published in March 1830. A month later, Smith organized what was called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and became its first president.

What Smith said he found through the translation of these plates was an ancient record that amounted to the discovery of a lost text to complement the Old and New Testaments. He told followers the story of a prophet named Lehi, who fled Jerusalem in the year 600 B.C. God had Lehi and his sons build a boat to sail to the New Land in America, where Lehi was to teach one important lesson - the redemption of the soul by dutifully following the laws of God. Since rivalry existed within the family clan, God's laws were difficult to adhere to. When Lehi appointed one of his youngest sons, Nephi, as the spiritual leader, his oldest sons, Laman and Lemuel, rebelled against their father's choice. Nephi was then forced to remove his tribe from his brother's rule. But God took issue with their insurgence, and struck Laman and Lemuel with red skin, telling them that all their descendants would carry this imperfection as a reminder of His disapproval.

The historical arc of the Mormon faith started with this breach between the Lamanites and the Nephites. For a millennium, these two families were caught in an eternal vendetta like the Hatfields and the McCoys, a bloody battle that never abated – even after Christ visited following his crucifixion and resurrection. The mission of peace he preached turned out to be short-lived. By the end of The Book of Mormon, Moroni is the last living soul of the Nephites, having witnessed such carnage all around him that he calmly waits for the Lamanites – descendants of his estranged brothers – to kill him and release him from his misery.

Author Mikal Gilmore traced the Mormons' troubled legacy of murder in his haunting memoir Shot in the Heart (1994). By examining his own Mormon family, Gilmore uncovered the effect of this brutally unresolved heritage on the life of his brother Gary Gilmore, who was executed for murder in Draper, Utah, in 1977. In his illuminating memoir, Gilmore writes, "God is the hidden architect of all the killing at the heart of America's greatest mystery novel, the angry father who demands that countless offspring pay for his rules and honor, even at the cost of generations of endless ruin." In 1844, following the inevitable murder of Joseph Smith in Illinois for polygamy, the bloody tale of this book would continue in Utah, where Bringham Young delivered the flock in 1846. The Mormons' clamorous and violent mythology is not only analogous to the allegory of Procol Harum's "The Devil Came From Kansas," it underlies the ambiguous exhortations of Newman's Senate delegate from Utah in "The Beehive State."

The obscurities of Utah extends to its nickname. It comes from the state's emblem, a beehive, an important icon in the Mormon religion also depicted on the state flag, standing for thrift and industry. So what do people today know about the Beehive State? Not much, apparently. For one thing, Randy Newman's song, despite fine cover versions by Harry Nilsson and The Doobie Brothers, is so unrenowned that it didn't earn a place in the promotion of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Furthermore, John Crumpacker, a writer for The San Fransisco Chronicle, proved just how ignorant the country still remains about Utah. In a piece he once wrote about the state, Crumpacker failed to even mention the Mormon Church, Brigham College or that Utah was named after the Ute tribe, a name that translates as "people of the mountains." Instead, Crumpacker wrote that "Utah is known as the Beehive State for the archaic hairdos worn by waitresses in time-warp coffee shops." Some 45 years after Randy Newman tried to tell this country about Utah, 'cause nobody seems to know, the country is still apparently suffering from social amnesia.

 – Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.              

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