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

    Dr. Anthony Esolen is the author of 28 books on literature, culture, and the Christian life, whose most recent work is In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John. He and his wife Debra also produce a new web magazine, Word and Song, devoted to reintroducing people to the good, the true, and the beautiful.

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