Herman Melville and Gordon Clark

 

This two men are not often paired together in discussions.  My reason for putting here is that I have been teaching books by both of them in recent days at Veritas Academy.   One can find similarities between the two men.  Both were authors of numerous books.  Both were deep thinkers, immersed in philosophy and possessing wide eclectic learning.  Both suffered a certain degree of rejection in their lives.  Melville’s career tanked after writing Moby Dick.  Clark was only slightly known in either philosophical or Christian circles and is less known today.  But generally, these two men are not paired in discussions.

Herman Melville was a successful writer of adventurous books about sailing, being on Pacific islands, and undergoing adventure at sea.  The he wrote a really big book on a sea adventure, and then he revised that really big book, and then he published that really big book.  Titled Moby Dick, the Whale, this lengthy, ranging, rolling novel sent Melville’s literary career down the same path as the Pequod, the ship in the story.  Melville took a government job to pay the bills since writing was no longer an option for him.  It was in the early decades of the 20th Century that Melville resurfaced from his watery literary grave.  The discovery of his powerful novella Billy Budd led to an appreciation and astonishment about his whaling epic.

Gordon Clark was a philosophy teacher and a Calvinist when Calvinism wasn’t cool.  Neither was a philosophical and theological approach to Christianity.  Clark thought it was critically important that not just preachers, but folks in the pews should be reading, studying, and thinking about theology.  After theological liberals had cut away almost all doctrinal convictions, neo-orthodox theologians so changed the content and approach to theology as to render it inscrutable, mystical, and plastic.  Like Athena’s birth out of Zeus’ skull, Clark was birthed right out of the head of Logic.  Not emotion, not heart-felt leading, not experience, not tradition, but logical, rational thought was needed to affirm the truths of Christianity.  Clark was, however, no Rationalist.  He was a Supernaturalist.  God had to do the work in the heart before the rational faculties could stand on the foundation.  Clark was unwavering in his Calvinistic soteriology.  But once saved, the believer was obligated to think logically, which to Clark meant think Biblically.  For a few years, Clark taught at Wheaton College.  At that point in time, his Calvinistic somberness set him at odds with the Fundamentalist spirit of the college at that time.  But before he left, he knocked some sense into a student or two, including a young guy named Carl F. H. Henry.

My connection is the teaching of two books.  They are described below:

In Defense of Theology

This book is not designed for today’s high school students, so I used it for my high school students.  It is a challenge, a climb, a reach.  Often Clark is battling the theological monsters of the earlier parts of the 20th century.  But one doesn’t read Clark to find out how to answer the latest complaint an unbeliever has against Christianity.  You read Clark to know what you should believe and how to think through it.  Clark was convinced that the normal man in the pews and the somewhat Charismatic touchy-feely Christian needed to clamp down and study some basic theological doctrines.  His main contention is that God has spoken and we should know what He has said.

Clark was a presuppositionalist in apologetic approach. Like his earthly sparing partner and heavenly buddy Cornelius Van Til, he believed that all people begin with basic, assumed presuppositions that are non-demonstrable, but accepted by faith.  From the most basic axiom, or presupposition, Clark believed that the Christian faith could be aptly defended.  One can look elsewhere for the differences between Clarkian and Van Tillian and other apologists for Christianity.  I was once interested in this intramural sport, but no longer am.  I think John Frame’s book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God aptly brings the varying schools of thought together.

It is good for students to know that God raised up Gordon Clark in a time of Christian intellectual drought.  Clark excelled at philosophy, breathed logic, loved theology, expounded on historiography, and promoted Christian education.  He lacked stylist gifts or popularizing techniques.  He was a thinker, and for students just getting their hands on serious theology, he is quite a good teacher.  Clark’s books are published by The Trinity Foundation.

 

Melville said that to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.  Moby Dick is, as everyone knows, about a great white whale.  But there is more: There is the overwhelming obsession of Captain Ahab to find and kill Moby Dick.  There is the sad fated crew of the Pequod, a whole host of odd, interesting, quirky individuals.  Then there is the lone survivor, at least one of the greatest narrators of all time, the exiled teacher from the classroom who addresses the whole world of readers from his grand classroom.

“Why is the book so long?”  “Why are there so many pages and chapters detailing and examing every aspect of the whale and whaling?”  Just go back to the title–Moby Dick, the Whale.  This is not about catching a catfish, netting a dolphin, or capturing any old whale (and there is a really old whale who is killed and captured in an earlier chapter).  Critics wonder what Moby Dick stands for.  Melville included a beautifully lyrical and poetic, historical, literary, theological, and philosophical chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

Some have thought that Moby Dick represents God.  A symbolizing image does not have to perfectly resemble whatever it symbolizes.  The novel does deal with transcendence, man’s place in the universe, community, obsession, love, vengeance, adventure, and death.  But those topics would have only allowed it to be a somewhat great novel.  Moby Dick is frightening, repulsive (whale butchery ain’t pretty), alienating, and dark.  Camus and Hemingway look like comic writers compared to Melville.  The book tosses about philosophers’ names and thoughts with the ease of a sail flapping in the wind.  Any Platonist, and that probably included Ishmael at the beginning, is in for a series of paradigm shifts and challenges.

Conventional thinking is challenged.  Melville struggled against the Presbyterianism of his youth, but he never overcame it.  From his fellow theology-grappler and close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville realized the absolute necessity of real fiction reflecting that most Calvinistic and dark of theological truths–Original Sin.  But one of the most powerful, puzzling, and humbling aspects of the novel is Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg, a heavily tattooed prince from a cannabilistic tribe.  It is Queequeg who mentors Ishmael in what fellowship, love, and true friendship are all about.  Even as he sees oddities in Queequeg’s view of the world, Ishmael recognizes that he is being taught by him. Ishmael reflects on it all and says, “Heaven have mercy on us all–Presbyterians and Pagans alike–for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about in the head, and sadly need mending.”

Although Melville did not have Mark Twain’s gift for hilliarity, Melville was incredibly funny.  It was somewhere around the third reading before I started catching the dry, often erudite, serious, but uproariously funny humor of Melville, via Ishmael.

The feature or factor that so elevates this novel, and causes it to grow with the re-readings, is its treatment of KNOWLEDGE.  This novel is about knowing.  It is about life-knowledge, understanding, wisdom, seeing, perceiving, finding your place in the universe but discovering the universe in the process.  John Calvin begins The Institutes of the Christian Religion with the words “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”  Melville’s quest for knowledge is of a similar pattern.

Melville, a sailor by background, saw the great white whale as a worthy representation of what is beyond human comprehension, but what invites human comprehension.  Man thought that by killing, capturing, and dismantling the whale, he could know the whale.  But man could not grasp anything so huge, terrifying, allusive, and inscrutible.  That why Melville is so often encyclopedic (the opening section of the novel), eclectic, and poetic in trying to, not understand, but describe the whale.

Melville’s prose waves and rolls like the ocean.  It is poetry, stream-of-consciousness, philosophy, journalism, and existential experience all woven together.  It is infuriating because Melville knows so much, but humbling because he is, like Socrates, simply seeking to overcome his own lack of understanding.

Two great thinkers:  Profound, questioning and questing, learned and obscure–Gordon H. Clark and Herman Melville.  What a delightful voyage this is across the oceans of thought in search of the Great White Whale.

Educational Treatises

 

No, it is not that bad.  This really is not a blog post about some awful monographs deemed to be educational treatises.  If it were, I would not read it, much less write it.  As is typical, it is about books.  In this case, books about teachers, students, and school.  The books found below are not academic studies, pedagogical theories, classroom management techniques, or handbooks for school administration.  I have never read any of those.  If you saw me in the classroom, you would realize it.

I confess to having a master’s degree in education, but I don’t know what that degree was all about.  Thankfully, I was teaching school at the same time I earned that degree, and having a master’s netted me about an extra thousand bucks a year way back when I was in the system.

My educational philosophy was largely shaped by a teacher I had in 8th grade.  I do pity her for having me as a student at that time.  But on one occasion she informed the class:  You are not here to have fun.  To tell the truth, I was not overwhelmingly surprised when I learned that.  I had experienced next to nothing in those years that I would have equated with having fun.

But over the years, I have pondered the depth of that statement:  You are not here to have fun.  Somewhere along the way, I decided to adopt that philosophy with one exception:  I would omit the word not.  I really came to believe that school should be fun.  It is not easy for it to be fun, but it really helps that school is a place where at least occasionally we can learn things.  Learning, discovery, pursuit of knowledge, uncovering of truth, and maybe even picking up bits and pieces of wisdom along the way:  All that is fun.

And if school is not fun enough in and of itself, it builds up to the summer break where you can really get serious about learning.

I should also add that I committed early in life to avoid working for a living.  What if, I thought, I could get paid for just doing what I think is fun?  So, I became a school teacher.  I love the experience, with some days being exceptions, and I love reading about the experience.

Of late, I have been reading To Teach, To Love by Kentucky author, novelist, poet, and teacher Jesse Stuart.  Stuart was a master teacher.  His own struggle to get an education is a fascinating story, and he told it often.  He wrote at least four books that were autobiographies.  The first was Beyond Dark Hills, which he shyly turned in to Professor Ed Mims at Vanderbilt University.  It was supposed to be an autobiography of about 18 typed pages.  Stuart wrote a couple of hundred pages, bound them together tightly, and handed them to the teacher.  Mims scolded him for his actions, and then he went and started reading the story.  He loved it.  The second autobiography, The Thread That Runs So True, will be discussed below.  The third is this book.  (The fourth is The Year of My Rebirth, which I own, but have not read.)

Getting through school in rural Kentucky was a tremendous task.  Going to college was more daunting.  Heading off to Nashville to do graduate work during the heydays of the Agrarians/Fugitive Poets was unbelievable.  Stuart did all that.  He was equally at home behind a plow in a field or in a classroom.  He is inspiring, funny, boastful, confident, and accomplished.  Reading Stuart makes you want to punch out some troublemaker, plow a field, teach in a small school (the one thing I have accomplished), and then go and write a dozen sonnets or a short story.

I first discovered The Thread That Runs So True by Jesse Stuart when I read about it in the back of a literature book we were using when I was in 9th grade.  Sure enough, our high school library had the book.  I read and thoroughly loved it.  For some reason, books about life in the rural south were overwhelmingly fascinating to me.  So, I began reading all the books I could find by Stuart.  (William A. Owens’ This Stubborn Soil was also a gem.)

When I was in college, and in an education course, I read The Thread That Runs So True again.  Later, as a school administrator, I assigned it to our teachers.  I have read the book in its entirety several times and parts of it even more times.  It is, perhaps, the best book I have ever read on school teaching.  It is fun, funny, inspiring, and instructive.  Stuart recounts his ordeals such as getting over the roads and hills to the rural schools, fighting big farm boys who threatened him, inspiring a love of classics, surviving having to teach math (which he didn’t know well), and loving his students.  I never read a Stuart book I didn’t like.  Back in high school I read a novel of his titled Mr. Gallion’s School.  It, too, was largely autobiographical.

Stuart was a master at relating the lives and loves and struggles of hill people in Kentucky.  We will soon be reading Hie to the Hunters in my junior high class, and I can’t wait to introduce him to a new batch of readers.

There seems to have been about a hundred different editions of Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery.  I am glad that this book is still widely available.  Every time I read it, I think that every African-American youth should read the book, and every non-African-American youth should read the book.  And every teacher should read the book–several times.  This is a great autobiography of an educator and school founder .   Washington’s ordeal to get an education always shames me and overwhelms me.  One of my favorite parts is when Washington relates that the students at Hampton Institute in Virginia found that they had 20 minutes of free time in the early evening.  They decided to form a debate club so that they could make good use of that time.  Wow!  Too bad they didn’t have cell phones to text friends or Facebook statuses to update.

Equally challenging to Washington was the building of Tuskeegee Institute.  The school began in a leaky old chicken house.  Washington had to convince his students of the value of work.  Many of his students, like too many even today, sought the prestige of education, rather than the substance, practicality, and work of it.

Sad to say, Washington is often despised or ridiculed today by both blacks and whites for his conciliatory view toward whites and his emphasis on economic skills rather than political power.  This is tragic.  Washington was kind-hearted and forgiving.  He depended upon support from the white community, so he was overly diplomatic.  The point is that he had vision.  His vision was not political power, but decency and success.  When you read a book like Coming Apart  by Charles Murray, you realize that America, particularly the lower middle classes, are rotting out.  To even hint at the problems of the welfare state and mentality is considered racist.  But cultural degradation is not a racial matter.  All races in America are cooperating in helping undermine the integrity of our nation.  We need to rise up from the slaveries of today.  We need to read Booker T. Washington.

Goodby Mr. Chips by James Hilton is a delightful short novel.  You cannot teach in a classical school without having read this book.  It is short, painfully too short.  It is lyrical, heart-warming, happy and sad, and filled with wonderful stories about the life of a school master in England.  Mr. Chipping began his teaching career rather poorly, and that is true of many of us.  He could not control his classes and he truly blundered and stumbled all along the way.  Slowly, he loosened up, and came to love and understand his students and classroom.  A confirmed old bachelor, at some point along the way, he married a vivacious and rather liberal younger woman.  Their marriage was short-lived, for Mrs. Chips died in childbirth.  As the years passed by, the love of the students for this teacher only grew.  He had his ups and downs with administration, but he persevered.  Simply a wonderful story.

The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss might be viewed as a darker version of the Chips story.  I just read it last year for the first time, and while I liked it, I might have to read it again to have a better assessment of it.  But it was an enjoyable read.

To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield is yet another book in the tradition of the Chips story.  In this account, a man who has been traumatized by war becomes a teacher.  The whole English boarding school tradition has always struck me as insane (and this was confirmed by Lewis’ account in Surprised by Joy), but the boarding school certainly provides a good setting for a teacher story.

Jay Parini, an English and creative writing professor at Middlebury College, is an outstanding literary biographer and literary critic.  He is also a poet and novelist.  I picked up the book The Art of Teaching several years back in that wonderful town of Oxford, Mississippi.  It sounded like a good book and was by a good author.  It is a great book.  It is largely directed to and about teaching in college, but there is lots that any teacher can glean from this book.  I have read it twice and am feeling tempted to go start a third reading.

Last, but not least, What is a Teacher: Remembering the Soul of Education Through Classic Literature is outstanding.  I have only read a few portions of this book, which was edited by Dr. Claudia Allums.  However, the chapter by Dr. Larry Allums, titled “Faulkner’s Sam Fathers:  Teaching the Skills, Revealing the Architypes” is worth the price of the book times 10.  Any book with literary essays by Dr. Louise Cowan, perhaps the greatest literature teacher in America during the past several decades,  and those she has mentored will be good.  Dr. Cowan provided the postscript, which is based on Shakespeare’s Tempest.  Her son, Bainard Cowan is an expert on Melville, so it is no surprise that he wrote about a young teacher who introduced himself to the world by saying, “Call me Ishmael.”  I am currently reading this essay in conjunction with teaching Moby Dick.  Other contributors include Glenn Arbery, who wrote on Dante, and Dennis Patrick Slattery, who wrote on that great teacher in Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima.

I will add some more books and thoughts to this list, but now I have homework.  Ishmael calls for my assistance alongside him on the Pequod.  

Fire–A Poem and an Experience a Few Nights Back

Our bonfire on Thursday night. Photo taken by Victoria Bruce, one of the most talented photographers around.

Fire

The design and art of the brush pile
Offered up before the devouring triumphant blaze—
To this we gather as they gathered centuries long before.
In wartime, this was weapon against enemy and nights of cold;
In the hunt, by the fire they gathered, skinned, carved, and roasted.
Fathers crossed mountains, burned limbs from logs,
Envisioned fields where forests stood around the night’s blazing roar
In the unfinished shadow of cabin walls.
Farm boys with axes and saws cut wood for cooking,
And thought of girls and new lands westward.
Mothers labored, stoking the backlogs, warming stew,
Never letting the fire burn down too low.

Fire draws us close, hugs us, warming one side,
Leaving the other to the renewing cold.
In the flames we still see visions
And we remember beyond memory in seeing the coals.
Fire’s heat penetrates the flesh, reaches the soul.
And when in firelight on those darkest frozen nights,
We see some twig burning but not devoured
We too bare our feet and down fall,
We too make stuttering sounds.

Snowetry: The Last Posting for the Year

Reprinted from Houseblog, my previous blog site:

Bradford Pear Blossoms

Winter’s last and only certain snow
Banks the pear branches white with blooms,
Trumpeting royalty to follow
On flowered grass from earthly looms.

Bare limbs hopeful with clutches of flowers
Dance like bridesmaids before the sun,
In rhythm to the tune of showers
As birds sing that winter is done.

As buds melt the last snow into green,
Warm sirens draw us out to the trees,
Seeking a corner of grace to glean,
Like the repentant heart trying to please.

Appearing in air from the cold;
On pear branches, drifts bank and grow,
As the chilled hand lets loose its hold:
Winter’s last and only certain snow.

I think my children would be disappointed if I did not post this poem on the blog this time of year.  The poem’s opening line originally read “The South’s last and only certain snow.”  It is not true of all the South, but the area where we live often has no snow in winter.  On other occasions in the past, we might have a day of snow.  Sometimes the snow would fall in the morning hours and be nearly all gone by evening.  But this year, we have three ground covering snows.  Over the last several days, this “last and only certain snow” has appeared all around us as Bradford pear trees are decked out with white flowers.  The particular variety of Bradford pear trees in this area do not produce fruit.  Just today I noticed that our fruit bearing pear trees are blossoming.  The ground areas are also covered with small white flowers.  Seasonal changes never cease to amaze me.

Philosophy–An Area Where Christians Are Winning

I am a history and literature teacher.  To be specific, I am a high school and junior high history and literature teacher.  To get even more specific, I have a junior high understanding of the world.  Frequently, I hear people talk about their desire or ability to “get a Ph.D. and teach in college.”  I don’t believe in such a world because, even with my 8th grade perspective, I read scholars.  Most people sitting in an audience listening to a great pianist or to Ricky Skaggs playing a mandolin should not think that with 3 months of lessons, they could be the ones on the stage.  Completion of a freshman level college course, or even the teaching of such a course (which I am doing now), do not a serious scholar make.

I am in the audience.  One thing I have learned is when to applaud.  Concerning history and literature, I can not only applaud, but also lean over and comment to whoever is sitting next to me.  For example, I could say “That was a good explanation of isolationism, but more needed to be said about Wilson’s foreign policy before World War I” or “Bret Lott may not call himself a Southern writer, but Jewell definitely reflects lots of the same themes as other 20th century Southern authors.”

Philosophy is a different matter.  I don’t even dare applaud, unless those sitting near me applaud.  But I am confident in applauding Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen.  This book is both an historical survey of the key philosophers who appeared during different historical eras and an explanation of the views and issues of philosophy.  Philosophy as a field of study is a vital subset of the study of Western Civilization.  (I don’t doubt the existence of non-Western civilizations and philosophies.  I just know almost nothing about them.  And we are in the stream of Western Civilization.) This book uses a series of ficticious letters between a girl named Abby and a boy named Percy.  Abby is attending a Christian university, while Percy attends a secular university.  Like all young couples in love, they discuss philosophy courses in their letters.  The point of the book and this approach is that it contrasts the difference between a Christain approach to philosophy from a secular approach.  Certainly there is common ground and common sources that are read; however, at many points, and certainly at the presuppositional level, the two approaches to philosophy (and one could add any other subject) differ. Because of the increasing skepticism and despair in Western culture and thought, many philosophers after the French Revolution lost confidence in philosophical answers.  The quest for meaning in a grand or universal sense became a quest for meaning in a personal sense.  By that, I mean many philosophers sought ways that the individual could cope with a meaningless, purposeless universe.  Novels, drama, poetry, art, and music followed more modern philosophies (as they always do) in seeing a disjointed, cruel, hopeless universe.

The Dutch Christian scholar Groen van Prinsterer posed the key question:  “Can Christianity,  after the French Revolution, be revived  in order to have a salutary effect on the direction of western culture?”  The French Revolution is all too often claimed as kinfolk to the American Revolution.  There were similarities, just as there are similarities between a novel and a car repair manual.  The revival of Christianity after the French Revolution occurred.  It has often been marginalized to focus on the soul rather than the culture.  Groen van Prinsterer was not doubting as he raised the question.  In fact, he did some major work in applying Christianity to Western Culture.

Christians often expect to read or hear about yet another cultural defeat in one area or another.  (I even suspect some Christian friends of truly enjoying the Obama Administration because its actions feed their fears.)  “Things are getting worse and worse.”  All too often premillennial Christians are able to build bigger and better facilities because of their conviction that the end is near.  Postmillennials are usually not a very hopeful lot either.  There is an increasing cultural divide.  The anitithesis, a favored word of Francis Schaeffer, is becoming more clear.  But the story is merely not one of Christian retreats and holding actions.

Time magazine reported an amazing trend in 1980.  They said that “a quiet revolution in thought and arguments that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback.  Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers…but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almight from fruitful discourse.”  In other words, the philosophy departments in many universities had been infiltrated.  The scholarly writings among philosophers, not usually not outside the academy, were including an alien group.  Christians are storming the ramparts of philosphy.  (The history in the book Christian Philosphy clearly points to this having happened numerous times before.)

The two major Christian philosphers highlighted in the book are Alvin Plantinga, described as the “world’s leading Protestant philosopher of God,” and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  Both Plantinga and Wolterstorff have roots in Dutch Reformed theology and culture.  Both are heirs of Abraham Kuyper.  This book, which devotes 2 chapters to the work of Plantinga and Wolterstorff, contrasts “Reformed epistemology” with the more continental (European) “Reformational philosphy” of Herman Dooyeweerd.  The philosophy of Dooyeweerd gets its own chapter.

All in all, Christian Philosophy is instructive and challenging.  “Introduction” doesn’t mean easy or overly simplified.  This is or ought to be a college introductory text.  It is fun and informal, but yet very challenging.  The two authors, Bartholomew and Goheen, have previously written two other introductory books.  They are Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story and Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview.  Both books are now high on my wantlist.

Postscript:  The book Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers, edited by Kelly James Clark, contains great accounts by Plantinga and Wolterstorff regarding their spiritual and academic journeys.  Both were students at Calvin College and both studied under Harry Jellema, a forerunner of the renaissance in Christian philosophy.

 

 

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They are no longer youthful, but they have changed the landscape for Christians in the field of philosophy.

Another Day When the Music Died

It was about 5 years after the tragedy. That puts it around 1968.    I knew nothing about the tragedy; I only knew that something had come alive in side me that could not be suppressed.  I had discovered music; I was in about the seventh grade; and I had no idea how out of step with my generation and so much of the world I already was.  Henry David Thoreau called it “Marching to a different drummer.”  I came to think of it as simply being weird and not fitting in.

It was my awakening, not to the music of the 60s, but music when I was living in the 60s.   I was consumed by music coming out of Nashville reaching back to the 1940s and 1950s.  I was at Montgomery Wards in Texarkana, thumbing through some large bins of record albums.  I was still unfamiliar with many of the singers, but was, in the pre-Wikipedia days, catching up quickly on country music.  Before this time, I was somewhat aware of some of the songs and some of the singers, but a chord was struck.  I fell in love.  My parents didn’t sing or play music.  The small collection of records in our house consisted of Christmas records, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Johnny Mathis, and a few odds and ends.  My older sisters had listened to Elvis and the Beatles, according to their birth order and the high points of those musicians’ fame. But it was Nashville; it was Broad Street in Nashville where the Ryman Auditorium was hosting the Grand Ole Opry and where, down the street, Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop was the setting for the Midnight Jamboree.  The music from “clear channel 650,”  WSM, which didn’t always come in that clear, was my lifeline to a world of songs.

Some time prior to the Montgomery Wards trip, my music world had opened.  There was a 3 album set of country music that appeared in the Sunday newspaper supplement.  It contained some 50 singers, 50 songs.  I thought it was the most amazing offer of all time. My dad, who was always generous in providing for my whims, ordered it for me.  It must have been a relatively cheap production.  Many of the songs, I later realized, were shortened.  The better known singers, such as Johnny Cash, had songs from their very early days.  One was a woman named Patsy Cline.  (It was on that album that I also first heard the Stanley Brothers.)

Back to the bargain bin.  I pulled out an album called Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits.  I knew she was a country singer and that my mother liked the song on that 50 singers set.  I probably paid about $3 for the album.  I wasn’t prone to crushes, but I knew the woman on the cover was beautiful.  (I think I bought a couple of other albums that contained collections from different singers.)

Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits was and is one of the greatest collections of music of all time.   It was released in 1967, four years after Patsy Cline’s death.  It contained some of her best songs from 1957 to 1963.  When it was re-released in 1973, it went gold.  Radio stations still play “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams,” “She’s Got You,” and more.  It was Patsy’s greatest recording session.  In the midst of the session, her husband Charlie Dick came in.  One of the men in the station said, “What happened to you two? Did you have a fight?”

That was because of the emotion of the songs.  Patsy’s voice would crack at just the right moment.  It was as though the loss of love, the heartbreak, the sadness had just hit her. When she lamented about the man “who takes me to the places you and I used to go,” you would ache with pain.  “Faded Love,” a great old Bob Wills tune, sank deeply in the heart.  That song has one of the most effective fiddle and vocal combinations in all of music.

I was too young, too inexperienced, too naive, to have known love and loss, but the songs opened a world of emotional richness that is unsurpassed.  It was akin to the first real reading of poetry (as opposed to the assigned stuff from school), the first entrance into the language of a novelist unfolding a world, the first “fierce pull of blood” when Faulkner became a companion.  It was unfathomable that anyone could hurt and sing about the hurt in that way.

What kind of a world is it where someone would do a woman wrong?  Patsy sang of the pain of those wrongs.  “If you’ve got leaving on your mind, tell me now.  Get it over.  Hurt me now. Get it over. If you’ve got leaving on your mind.”

Sometimes the troubles of life drive us crazy.  Often it is love itself, irrational, controlling, compelling, that drives us past the point of sanity.  Willie Nelson, a fairly clean cut struggling young song writer, penned a couple of songs that the big name artists picked up.  Willie’s friend Faron Young agreed to record “Four Walls” and a legendary song was born.  “Crazy” was pitched to Patsy Cline, who really didn’t like it.  But it was magic.  That woman could have sung “Happy Birthday” and torn out the hearts of those hearing.  “Crazy” may be the most often replayed Patsy Cline hit.

Then there was the pain of seeing your own wrong.  “I’ve been so wrong, for so long.”  It was her holding out the notes for “so” that plunged the knife deep into the soul.  How many times, places, circumstances, would I, would all of us, be in where Patsy’s song would echo our own repentance.  Then there is the defining “Walking After Midnight.”  In seventh grade, I rarely got to stay up until midnight.  But when you can’t sleep; when you can’t stay inside; when you go walking after midnight, with little certainty of finding the answer; that’s when the song come back again to the mind.

With the pain and sorrow of so many songs, there is the relief, the promise of “I’m back in baby’s arms.”   There is a joy in knowing that it is at least possible to be “back where I belong, back in baby’s arms.”  As she sings in that song, “Don’t know why we quarreled.  We never did before.  Now that we know how much it hurts, I bet we never quarrel anymore.”  How often so many of us have experienced that and vowed that. Patsy Cline was singing the Song of Solomon, the poetry of John Donne, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and all the lovers’ laments of all times.

Consider “Sweet Dreams.”  Every song hearkens to a well known sequence in this world.  Love and loss.  Love and hate.  Loneliness and despair paired with comfort and hope.  Every song bespeaks Eden’s Fall.  That short time of marital bliss Adam and Eve experience led then to alienatin, blame shifting, and sorrow.  The world fell into sin, and tragedy and sad songs were born.  “Sweet dreams of you: every night, I go through.  I should hate you….the whole night through, instead of having sweet dreams of you.”  Reading the words is so matter of fact.  Again, you have to hear, and I mean HEAR, Patsy singing.  Listen to the way she hits the phrase “I should hate you.” You will agree that she should.   And then that way of carrying out the phrase “whole night through” so that it seems like a long stretch of time as she sings.  But the singer can’t hate whoever it is; instead, she dreamily thinks of the love for the one who is away.

I played the album for years.  At different periods and times, I would drift away from Patsy Cline’s music.  The older albums I owned got replaced by casette tapes for a few years, but I still had a turntable.  When some moment of nostalgia would cause me to play that record again, it was like discovering Patsy Cline again for the first time.  Then I started noticing.  I had been that weird kid listening to old country music when I was in junior high.  But now the world was listening.  New and popular country singers were performing all across the country.  U. S. Presidents were hosting country singers in the White House.  And a few legends kept getting played again and again.  Everyone was singing Hank Williams’ songs, but few sang Patsy’s songs.  You can’t match her voice.  It was rich, deep, full, and packed with feeling.  So the radio stations still play her.  She was, is, and always will be the true Queen of Country Music.

Patsy Cline died tragically on this day in 1963.  She was on a return trip after a benefit concert in Missouri.  Two other great singers were with her, Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.  Their plane crashed after attempting to fly through a storm.  In spite of warnings about the storm and offers of a night’s lodging and a car, the three singers and Randy Hughes, Copas’ son-in-law and manager and the pilot fo the plane, flew off toward Nashville and their tragic destiny.  I cannot read about or think about that trip without great sorrow.  I would have been about seven years old on March 5, 1963.  I didn’t know about the plane crash or the three singers at that time.  I didn’t know what had been lost and what was saved.  Of course, it would be that same year–1963–that Robert Frost and C. S. Lewis would die.

Country music was a much closer knit family back in 1963.  The close friends of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Randy Hughes were stunned by the loss.  The tragedy was compounded a few days later when Jack Anglin, half of the singing team of Johnny and Jack, was killed enroute to one of the funerals.  America was a bit more innocent.  Music on the radio was still the primary source of favorite songs.   Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the 60s Protests, and the Assassinations were all in the future, albeit a near future.  Country singers were still largely hitting audiences of working class people with Southern roots, rural backgrounds, and down-home values and experiences.  One song about heartbreak would be followed by another about drinking, which was followed by another about temptation and cheating, and then there would be a song about faith, repentance, and love.  The songs, therefore, reflected the lives of the listeners.

Patsy Cline was born in 1934.  She could have very possibly still been living. I think her career and successes were just beginning.  She was only 30 years old when she died.  She demonstrated early successes on the stage and on television.  About a year before her death, she was almost killed in an auto accident. It was a near miracle that she lived.  It was a gift of God so that she could see her own mortality.  There are pictures of her on crutches, singing at her return to the Grand Ole Opry.  She loved her children and regretted the absences her career imposed on her family.  She could sing a Gospel song as good as the best of them.  I think she would have been a remarkable grand older lady of country music.  It would have been nice to have known her.

I still listen to her music and that of Copas and Hawkins.  I miss them all.  The music died on March 5, 1963, and yet it still lives.

The photograph above was taken at the concert in Kansas City, Missouri.  This was Patsy Cline’s last performance.  I love the near angelic look of the white dress.  She was a beautiful woman with an incredible voice.