Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fate and Destiny

In 1967, Albert King recorded the blues classic "Born Under A Bad Sign."  The refrain goes:    

     Born under a bad sign,      
     I been down since I began to crawl.      
     If it wasn't for bad luck,       
     I wouldn't have no luck at all. 

Terse lines, with phrasing in the second couplet so well-turned it has been borrowed by later songs.  The lyrics were written by William Bell, a singer-songwriter for Stax Records in Memphis; the music, by Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the M.G.'s, house band for Stax Records. 
(Note: "If it wasn't for bad luck/ I wouldn't have no luck at all" may itself have been borrowed from a 1954 Lightnin' Slim song, "Bad Luck Blues.")

"Born Under a Bad Sign" came out the year the Billboard top 100 led off with light-pop fare: "To Sir with Love," by Lulu; "Happy Together," by The Turtles; "Windy," by The Association.  True, other charts listed top songs with more heft: "Respect," by Aretha Franklin; "Brown Eyed Girl," by Van Morrison; "The Letter," by The Box Tops; "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," by Gladys Knight & The Pips.  That said, the mood of "Born Under A Bad Sign" ran counter to most of what one heard in 1967, the year of The Summer of Love. 

Blues songs inherently have more body, less fizz than pop music.  And while there are pop classics as memorable as "Born Under a Bad Sign" –– think of the Beatles' early catalogue –– "To Sir with Love" and "Windy" are not among them. 

Now if the mood of "Born Under A Bad Sign" did run counter to much of 1967's offerings, what mood is that?  That of being fated; meaning, the feeling that forces beyond one's control set the arc of a life.  The game is rigged, not just now but for the duration; at best one endures, but as an object with little navigational control.  

Another fate song, arresting if unremittingly bleak, is Richard Thompson's "The End Of The Rainbow" (1974).  Its refrain is:

     Life seems so rosy in the cradle,      
     But I'll be a friend, I'll tell you what's in store.      
     There's nothing at the end of the rainbow,      
     There's nothing to grow up for anymore. 

This refrain sandwiches verses equally harrowing.  Richard Thompson is ranked #19 on Rolling Stone's The 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time (2003) and his songwriting is of a piece with his guitar playing.  

Certainly, fate songs are cousins to other songs of heartbreak and injustice.  They differ, though, in one respect: whereas the average heartbreak song depicts life's painful moments, fate songs declare these moments to be but typical examples of a lifetime of unalterable misfortune.  It was ever thus and there will be more to come.  This distinguishes "Born Under A Bad Sign" from "I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” 

Does this matter?  Perhaps not –– but for me such songs are a necessary part of a dialectic between fate and destiny.  Let's look at these terms.  Whereas definitions for fate are fairly similar, those for destiny are not.  Here, I borrow from psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and define destiny as some future point toward which you travel with a sense of agency, lively interest, even enthusiasm ("enthusiasm" having the root meaning in Greek of "the god within").  You are driven by fate, you do the driving when living out your destiny.  The fate-destiny dialectic centers on whether we are passive objects or enlivened subjects of our circumstances.  

Sometimes people overcome initial fateful conditions to forge a destiny, others are fortunate enough to have never been treated as objects in the first place.  They have grown up feeling they mattered –– bearing out the proposition that to become a somebody you have to have been a somebody to somebody.  For these fortunates, agency and a sense of destiny is their default position.  It is what they have come to expect. (See Forces of Destiny [1989], by Christopher Bollas, for a deep treatment of fate versus destiny.) 

One rousing example of a destiny song is "Defying Gravity" (2003) by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, from the Broadway show Wicked. Another is the positively giddy "Hey, Look Me Over" (1960) by Lucille Ball, from the musical Wildcat.  Both are energized, positive, I-can-make-this-happen songs.  Importantly, the singers are bent on changing a reality that otherwise constrains desire and promotes stagnation.

Here are the first lines of "Hey, Look Me Over”:      

     Hey look me over, lend me an ear      
     Fresh out of clover, mortgage up to here      
     Don't pass the plate folks, don't pass the cup      
     I figure whenever you're down and out, the only way is up      
     And I'll be up like a rosebud high on the vine ... 

The lyrics show indomitable spirit and the tempo is rollicking.  Other destiny songs may be less upbeat in tempo, but lyrics carry the positive load.  Two of these are: "Turning Toward The Morning" (1975), written by Gordon Bok and sung by Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir, and Ed Trickett; and "Rainbow Connection," co-written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher and first sung by Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) in The Muppet Movie (1979)

The Gordon Bok song was written in response to a friend's distress. Its refrain goes:      

     Oh, my Joanie, don't you know      
     That the stars are swingin' slow,      
     And the seas are rolling easy      
     As they did so long ago?      
     If I had a thing to give you,      
     I would tell you one more time      
     That the world is always turning      
     Toward the morning. 

Lovely –– and Bok's baritone voice is comforting and believable.  

Then there is the similarly reflective "Rainbow Connection."   Of the many versions of this ballad, I prefer the one by Willie Nelson (2001). Near its end is this verse:      

     Have you been half asleep,      
     And have you heard voices,      
     I've heard them calling my name.      
     Are these the sweet sounds that called      
     The young sailors,      
     I think they're one and the same.      
     I've heard it too many times to ignore it,      
     There's something that I'm supposed to be. 

I hear in this a quiet call to wake up, pay attention, follow something true to yourself –– even while venturing into a realm that is vast, unknown, not solid beneath your keel.  

Common to these destiny songs is the element of choice.  This distinguishes them from otherwise similar songs which speak to happiness or peace of mind.  This distinction sets apart "Hey, Look Me Over" from "To Sir with Love."  And this choice-element also sets these songs apart from fate songs, with their emphasis on the impossibility of agency.  When you are fated, you have no choice.  When you have a destiny, there may be darkness but what you pay attention to is the morning. 

1 comment :

Galen Johnson said...

Kit, I really like this post. A friend told me Lightin' Hopkins did a version of the bad luck - no luck line in Born under a Bad Sign, but I have had no luck myself in finding it. Maybe with your vast musical memory and internet resources . . . Philosophically, your lovely way of speaking about destiny, agency, and looking toward the morning is, for me, resonant with Aristotle's account of final causation in his theory of four causes. Fate is efficient causation, what is generally called determinism of various varieties these days. Final causation is about teleology and more like a "pull cause" than a "push cause." Because final causes inhabit the temporal dimension of the future, contemporary science doesn't know quite what to do with them, and for the rest of us, when and how can we know our destiny? But final causes and destiny, big fan here! And of Kermit and Lucy too.
- Galen Johnson

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