The Disappearance of Song

 
My wife and I have become eager viewers of old movies. In particular we have grown to love the films directed by John Ford, not only those recognized as masterpieces, such as Stagecoach, Rio Grande, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — we have enjoyed all the rest, too. We loved Drums Along the Mohawk, set in upstate New York during the Revolutionary War, with a boyish Henry Fonda and a breathtakingly passionate Claudette Colbert fighting first to scrabble out a living from the land, and then to protect their homes with flintlock and sheer grit against their British and Indian enemies. We laughed through Wagon Master, wherein a couple of mischievous but goodhearted young cowboys (Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson) lead a troop of Mormons to Utah, overcoming a family of outlaws and taming a shrew (Joanne Dru) along the way.
 
There is, I think, a lot more going on in these films than the critics and even the actors understood. That’s because Ford’s imagination was old, seasoned in the epics of Homer and of the Scripture. He worked always with the great elemental realities of human life. His characters must come to grips with terrible, anarchic evil. Or they give themselves up to a good that is too big for reason to handle — as in Liberty Valance, where Tom Doniphon’s sacrifice for the woman he loves is too big even for himself, and he grows old alone and unhappy, and dies almost unremembered.
 
Men and women, in Ford’s movies, are titanic mysteries, kings and queens walking the earth in ordinary garb; endlessly fascinating to one another and so powerful in their masculinity and femininity that talk of equality misses the beauty and the danger altogether. How can you talk of equality when you encounter a whirlwind and an earthquake? The marriage of such creatures is always an unadulterated good, as it portends both creation and procreation: a farm, a village, a culture, and children.
 
Notable, therefore, in Ford’s movies is song. I don’t mean simply music; I don’t know whether any of the scores he commissioned can come up, say, to the haunting music of Miklos Rosza in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. But while nobody does much singing in that biblical epic, in the work of Ford — which, as I’ve suggested, is irrepressibly biblical and epic no matter where it is set — people are forever singing. How Green Was My Valley is a tapestry of Welsh hymns and folk tunes: "Cwm Rhondda," "Men of Harlech," and "Bryn Calafria" are the three I happen to know, though there are many others.
 
Why are the people singing? Because they have something to sing about. They sing their union as a people. They sing their faith. They sing the beauty of man and woman, as they gather to celebrate (with good strong drink) the wedding night approaching. They sing for the birth of children.
 
In one scene in How Green Was My Valley, they do all these things at once. The matron of the noble Morgan family had taken ill; she has only recently, after many months, been able to stand and walk again. The men of the village are partly to blame for that, because this same Mrs. Morgan had gone to their union meeting in the woods on a snowy night to accuse them of conspiring against her husband, a coal miner the same as all of them, but one who had not joined their union. "If any harm comes to my Gwyllim," she says, shaking her fist, "as God is my witness, I will kill those that did it with my bare hands, that I’ll do!" And in walking away with her small son she fell into an icy stream — with the boy lifting her up until the men heard his cries and came to save them. She it is who now stands outside her door as all the men and women of the village gather to greet her. And the men sing "Cwm Rhondda," in Welsh; we know it as one of the melodies for "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," with its climactic refrain celebrating the bread of heaven. While they sing, two of the Morgan sons, who had left the village in disgust with the mine owners’ greed, are seen returning home; it is the last time the family will be all together.
 
 
What are we looking at, when we see the bemused face of Mr. Morgan, one arm around the portly waist of his brave wife, as he says, "Woman, aren’t you going to say anything to these people? You were free enough with your words the last time you saw them"? It is a love that makes possible not only marriage and the generations but culture itself: a love that sees good in a dingy Welsh village, and that can bring, but for man’s hard heart, the glory of God into a little front yard and a simple parlor. "Come in, all of you," cries Mrs. Morgan, the essential mother, choking back her tears and finally finding her tongue, "and have something to eat!"
 
It is, I believe, no accident that Ford was a Catholic, what with his sense of the sanctity of bodily things: the workman’s hands, the meal, the marriage bed, the child. But for us right now, almost as important as what he celebrated was that he celebrated. He not only knew what it was good to sing about. He knew why it was good to sing. And here again I think that Christians, and Catholics in particular, hold out the only hope for our remembering what a culture even is.
 
For an atheist, even those functional atheists who make a hobby out of churchgoing but who do not actually believe that any of the Creed is true, cannot sing, not in Ford’s sense. People may sing for diversion, or may listen to singing for entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you have no sense for the mysterious and transcendent — if you do not bow in humility before the mysteries of Man and Woman and Child, let alone God — then you have nothing that will unite you and your fellows in gratitude to sing about, and certainly no one beyond yourselves to sing to. The clodhopping farmers of Drums Along the Mohawk are happy to be together at the barn dance to celebrate a wedding, not just because a wedding is an excuse for drinking, but because any wedding is to them like a moment’s reentry into Eden, or a moment’s foreshadowing of heaven. The secular world is optimistic, sure, and can provide a lot of fun, sometimes of the harmless kind. But it knows neither hope nor joy. With its utilitarian ethic it looms over the green ways of simple people of faith like the coal breakers over the Welsh village.
 
Catholics used to know these things. Maybe John Ford can help them remember.
 


Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a senior editor for
Touchstone magazine. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery).

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Jim Walsh

    A wonderful essay.
    God Bless the Catholic way of life, and all who see us.

  • John Jakubczyk

    We are kindred spirits for I too have always enjoyed the John Ford films. Your comments though add another touch to why they are so powerful and riveting. The characters are real people. you and I have met them in our lives. They were our fathers and mothers and grandparents who taught us the joy of life and the reality that there will be sorrows, there will be sacrifices, there will be tragedies,. There is this notion that the cross always looms in the shadow, even in the Westerns, there is the morality tale that comes alive for us.

    My kids never did like Liberty Valance because of what happened to Tom Doniphon ( and I always thought it was Donovan). But it is a classic in the sacrificial nature of the hero and how that looks back to Christ.

    But the three cavalry movies by Ford should be required viewing for every young person who wants to see what his parents and grandparents grew up on before CGI and Pixar.

    then there is “The Quiet Man”…. What a great piece of cinema!

  • Nick Milne

    I’m glad John Jakubczyk brought up The Quiet Man, because I found it simply astonishing that I could have made it through this (excellent) article without seeing it mentioned once. Far from just being the sort of movie that people don’t seem to want to make anymore, it is in fact the case that they probably wouldn’t be allowed to make it if they tried. Its men are robust and masculine; its women are fierce and beautiful. Its clergymen are neither hidebound moralizers nor secret perverts, but rather pastors as respected as they are beloved. There are no corporate fatcats or environmental issues or class tensions or race conflicts or crises of faith or wallowings in despair or raisings of consciousness. Its songs are unapologetic, its setting unmatchable, its beer ever-flowing, its violence genial and its message wholeheartedly conveyed.

    In short it’s close to perfect, and the gratitude I have for its existence is almost enough to inspire genuflection.

  • Kamilla

    Tony,

    Beautifully put, and simply heartbraking for the vision of both the beauty and the danger we have lost in our flat, grey, indifferent world.

    Kamilla
    aka Brave Lass

  • meg

    I just watched How Green Was My Valley a few weeks ago. Lovely, lovely film.

    The Welsh used to be a singing people, more so than in any other country I’ve visited. At their football (soccer to us) matches entire stadiums would burst into song – real songs, not the chants we have here in the US. Young and old sat in pubs and sang, freely and unselfconciously. It bridged generations, something we seem to have lost. I hope the Welsh still sing; haven’t been there in many years.

    My husband and I also love old movies, that’s pretty much all we watch anymore. Still mourning the demise of TCM since we cancelled our cable.

  • Agnes

    Your beautiful writing always inspires – thank you.

  • Deacon Ed

    just what we need as we will be entering the Easter season. We are a peple of hope and have good reason to sing – despite all the signs around us that in our moments of lapse cause our heads to droop and despair. But more than watching old films as a reminder of where we’ve been, let’s celebrate the transcendent that is present among us now – in our religion, in our culture, in our lives. Always we have the Mass as a perpetual reminder of our reason to hope…and to sing. Let’s us rejoice in those things that are most blessed and uplifting today – those growing numbers of Catholic families who accept the fullness of family life and openly greet children into them; those young Catholics in colleges like Christendom, Belmont Abbey, Ave Maria and many others who are learning anew the time-tested faith of our fathers and mothers; those recently ordained priests who take seriously their calling – in the proclamation of the Gospel, the worship of the mass and in the living of their lives; the renewed religious communities of men and women whose commitment to the Church is so palpable. Oh, we have much to celebrate. The Spirit of God is moving among us as a gentle whisper. Listen.

  • Michael

    Beautiful essay, Prof. Esolen — perhaps the finest reflection on Ford that I’ve ever read. I know you are a busy man, but I wish you would consider writing a book concerning Ford and the Catholic themes in his films.

  • Karen

    “The Quiet Man” is nothing but an ode to wife beating. The climactic scene is a lengthy public humiliation of Maureen O’hara, depicted as something to be admired and emulated. It is, however, a perfect description of the “Inside Catholic” ideal marriage: a brute and a doormat.

  • Mack

    Try telling that to Miss O’Hara.

    And then, remember that an ode is a poetic form, not a cinematic one.

  • John Jakubczyk

    It is obvious from Ms. Karen’s reaction to the movie, The Quiet Man” that she does not appreciate nor understand the movie or the message. But lest it be deemed an argument from a “man” in defense of the film, I would direct her to the special bonus features on the collector’s edition DVD to listen to Maureen O’Hara’s explanation of the film. Far from being a “doormat,” O’Hara’s character is one who has a fiery pride in who she is and what it is that belongs to her. The last thing one would call Mary Kate is a “doormat.’ And if Ms. Karen considers Sean Thornton a “brute,” well, I dare say she has totally misread the film.

    butthen again this is the problem of the modern age. The polically correct world has redefined the proper roles of men and women. The idea of defending one’s honor is antiquated. The idea of standing on principle is outdated. today we are all suppose ot let the government and the [politically correct crowd dictate what is right and wrong. The result being that this society has no true respect for women and demeans them by allowing for the destruction of their children.

    The real “brutes” are those who engage in casual sex and them pay to destroy the children so conceived. The real doormats are those who do not stand in the gap to protect the children or are too afraid of what the politically correct will think.

    I choose a time when men will respect the virtue of a woman, when all innocent life is protected in law and when men defend the good, the true and the beautiful.

  • Stephanie Mann

    Along with music as song, music as dance is also important in John Ford’s movies–think of the martinet Henry Fonda plays in “Fort Apache”, dancing with Mrs. O’Rourke when he will not allow his daughter to associate with her son (who has been able to attend West Point because of the honor his father received)–the formal order of the dance requires it, even though he hates it. The dance demonstrates his character and reflects the plot.
    And the songs are so important in “Rio Grande”–they again are part of the story, not just performances: the irony of “I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen” being sung to a husband and wife estranged by the burning of her home during the Civil War adds immeasurably to the tension between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. Then at the end of the movie, Phil Sheridan orders the band to play “Dixie,” much to O’Hara’s delight.

  • Sandra Miesel

    Surprisingly, the film score for STAGECOACH, which is a medley of American folksongs, won the Oscar over the more beautiful and more original score of GONE WITH THE WIND. But Victor Young’s lovely music for THE QUIET MAN–best use of thematic melodies in the Ford canon–didn’t even rate a nomination.

  • Donna

    Am I allowed to agree with Karen and John at the same time ? I find the end of “The Quiet Man ” repulsive, but I agree that the modern variations on the brute and the doormat are certainly no better.
    Of course, the fact that I’ve never understood why on earth Hollywood paired someone as luminously beautiful as Maureen O’ Hara with someone as plug ugly as John Wayne to begin with may have something to do with it…..[smiley=think]

  • Tony Esolen

    Perhaps my best and sweetest student ever, a young lady now getting her doctorate at Loyola, is a passionate admirer of the movie The Quiet Man. It has to be understood for the sort of thing it is: a rollicking comic fantasy of good against good, with both characters needing to learn something, mainly to learn to give up their will. Sean Thornton is an ex-prizefighter who wants to leave his life of fighting far behind, having killed a man in the ring. He’s the Quiet Man — and he doesn’t want to fight his wife’s brother over her dowry; he gently but consistently scoffs at the traditions of the very people among whom he has come to live. Mary Kate Danneher is absolutely right in desiring her things, not because they are “things,” but because they represent her work and her honor. Thornton would have it that they should be all in all to one another, the “things” be damned; but that is to depreciate the worth of her unmarried life. She for her part denies him her bed until he proves himself a proper man by fighting her brother. That, of course, she has no right to do; but Thornton — after smashing in the locked door and tossing her on the bed — sleeps for the whole movie in a bag, near the hearth. She is ashamed of him for that, and ashamed of herself too.

    The end of the movie is a glorious and farcical climax, as all the community come out to see the resolution of the strife between husband and wife and brother. Thornton has not consummated the marriage with his wife, after all that time, and is perfectly within his rights to challenge both her and her brother. The result vindicates her — her honor is upheld; and she shows her husband just what she thinks of the money as money; she tosses it into the fire. The ensuing fight between husband and brother serves to unite them, and when the brother then shows up at her house for dinner, she answers his greeting with an abrupt “Wipe your feet!” It is absolutely clear who is in charge of that house.

    And it is clear what the Thorntons will be planting. Not potatoes …

  • John Jakubczyk

    Tony, thank you do the inspired explanation. sometimes people see the literal and forget the rationale behind the actions and the deeper meaning one would attribute to the events. However, you have succinctly clarified the story’s intentions. Have a Blessed Easter.

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