Check out the song above while reading. The song is “1B” by Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor from their album “Appalachian Journey”
Story and song are in love with each other. After all, they are a married couple. Look throughout history and you will scarce find a party or funeral that they haven’t been invited to. These two romantics will use any available vessel to tell their love story, from ancient cave paintings, to the bards of medieval lore, to all forms of contemporary yarn-spinners. You will often find them together; lyrics and lullabies wrap around each other in a beautiful embrace. Else, where it seems there is only one, the other is hidden close at-hand; an epic tale will beckon his wife near, emerging as a song on the lips or in the mind of the listener. A distant melody will sing fondly of her husband, illuminating long-forgotten memories and inspiring pens to fill their blank paper canvases.
I was reminded of this love narrative at a cousin’s wedding. Just outside of Philadelphia on an oasis of a beautiful day amid a soggy week, the bride and groom were married on the tracks of an old train station that had been transformed into a magnificent garden. With vows promised and rings mounted, the pair began their journey into married life, song leading them by the hand down the aisle in her dancing steps. The song she sang at this particular moment has no words. The melody lilts between a trio of string instruments and the vast soundscapes of their harmonies, as a kestrel dashing through valleys and mountains. The central theme, beginning with the rapid fire bowing of the fiddle, passes through several frames that speak of beauty, courage, humor, loss, and redemption. Give a listen to the song in the video above and you’ll see what I mean. Relying purely on instrumental content absent of any disclosing lyrics, this particular song invites the listener to seek her partner, to figure out the story he is telling. And the story he tells you may be uniquely yours, spun just for you. Here is mine:
Early American settlers of the Appalachian region, whose music and culture inspired this album, are often held up as iconic pioneers. They are remembered for venturing the seas to an uncharted land and braving the untamed wilderness of the western world to lay the foundation for a new nation. Life was no prairie dance for these families. The sweeping beauty of the mountains and valleys they settled were starkly contrasted with disease, poverty, and hunger. Although history often paints a glamorous view of settlement and westward expansion, we must remember that it yielded the genocide of the Native American people, a new market for the slave trade, and countless other sins that still haunt the nation to this day. Nonetheless, this era and these people are remembered for chasing an enigmatic entity known as “The American Dream.”
But what is it?
In writing, America is founded on noble principles. The Constitution outlines the lawful methods through which “We the people” would pursue a “more perfect union.” The Declaration of Independence lays the foundational presumption that God created all men equal and gave them the right to strive for “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Ask any American to explain that title and you will be given countless definitions. However, it is highly likely that the vast majority can be traced back to those three end-goals: Life, liberty, and happiness. It’s worth noting that these are not uniquely American ideas. You don’t have to be a citizen to identify with these things. Everyone from every nation wants them and, in some way, orients their lives to strive toward them. But for various reasons, America has identified these pursuits as its principle cause. When anyone refers to “The American Dream”, they are likely speaking of this trinity of timeless values.
Yet something is awry.
Life, liberty, and happiness seem beyond the grasp of so many. Death, captivity, and tragedy are still here. We still get caught in the ripples affects of our nation’s historical vices. The American Revolution, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement; these changed the methods of tyranny, segregation, and poverty but did not end them. Any liberty that guarantees the life and happiness of the few while diminishing those of others is merely another form of oppression*.
I am not the greatest patriot so perhaps I am biased. Among the liberties that I receive with gratitude in this country, I find a measure of shame in the mix. Shame for our past crimes and the hesitant pace of our repentance. Though there is much to be thankful for in this country, we are still a far cry from the “more perfect union” that we strive to be.
But that’s the point, isn’t it?
A “more perfect union” is one that is not yet perfect but is trying to be. And though we are imperfect people, we the people (you and I) have a role to play in the outcome of this union. Moreover, this union has a role to play in the outcome of this world. And if we want our world to improve, then our own nation is the best place to start.
If want our three-fold dream for a perfect union, we must chase it as a unified people.
To strive toward a higher standard. To reorient when we are drifting off-course. To seek the life, liberty, and happiness of others, not just our own. And to invite the perfect God who created us all equally, in all races, all languages, all nations, to show us how to become more perfect.
* I believe I am paraphrasing Martin Luther King here but am unsure. If you are aware of the source, please let me know!