As we all know (at least, those of us who are currently aware of the date, as opposed to folks like me who often simply regard days in terms of working/not working), today is the 47th anniversary of three deaths, those of John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley.
But since I figure enough folks will be working that side of the street today, I’d like to note that today is also the 42nd anniversary of the release of The Beatles, commonly known as “the White Album.” For much of my life, this was my favorite Beatles album, although in recent years I’ve come to prefer Revolver. I was three years old when the White Album was released, but more than four decades later, it’s still a dazzling work.
George Martin and some critics have complained that the double album’s sprawl indicates a lack of focus, with Martin having said on occasion that he thought it would have been a much stronger single album. While I can see the point, I think that’s a very 20th-century way of thinking about it. As a medievalist and as a devotee of the works of Northrop Frye, I think that attempting to judge the White Album by the standards of Modernism and New Criticism may be a mug’s game. I would argue that the White Album actually approaches a musical analogue to the Canterbury Tales as a kind of encyclopedic work.
When I teach the Tales to my survey students, I make Dryden’s point that “Here is God’s plenty,” that what we have is a cross-section of fourteenth-century English society, simultaneously presented in a collection of virtually every type of popular literature from the period. Likewise the White Album, which I suggest is a collection of popular music forms from folk (“Mother Nature’s Son”) to country (“Don’t Pass Me By”), soul (“Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”) and music hall (“Honey Pie”), acid rock (“Helter Skelter”) and musique concrete (“Revolution 9”). Do some pieces outshine others? Yes, of course — few people would think of “Wild Honey Pie” as a great piece from the band. But most folks skip some of the Tales as well (including editors, which can be a problem for those of us who are fans of The Parson’s Tale). And like the Tales, the White Album confronts us with a variety of characters, from Dear Prudence to Sexy Sadie.
God’s plenty, indeed, and a happy anniversary on a day generally remembered for sad ones.