Anniversaries and Going Medieval on the Beatles

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Literature, Medievalia, Music, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Anniversaries and Going Medieval on the Beatles

  1. “Which Half of the White Album’s Songs Would Make Your Cut for the Single Album Production” can be an interesting thought game. Once – maybe twice. 😉
    “Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive”

  2. TheGrayBeard says:

    I grew up with the Beatles. They were the first band that I noticed, at age 10 when I got my first “Transistor Radio” (it was a simpler time). I had most of their albums, and learned to play guitar on their early work. No band from the 60s quite “does it” for me as much as they do. Later years brought appreciation of several other groups, but their music has largely held up very well for me.

    As much as I enjoy the White album, I’ve lately come to appreciate the B side of Abbey Road as akin to a classical piece that goes through several movements. I suppose it was the video of the tribute band, the Fab Faux that got me started thinking this way. I have to say I’ve listened to the B side of Abbey Road many times in last year.

  3. Jeff says:

    Thanks for this–it’s the sort of post that keeps me reading blogs. What I love about Chaucer is what you describe, and what Dryden nailed: how his wild mixture of characters and ideas suggests a messy, complicated, wholly believable world. (And although it’s on a much smaller scale thematically, I kind of feel the same way about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.)

  4. I was eight years old when the White Album came out, and I remember being up in my bedroom listening to it over and over on the record player, tripping out at the big poster that came with the album. Lennon especially creeped me out a bit, but I was a Beatles man all the way. And I grew up from there with the Beatles, and the White Album prominent, as the soundtrack of my life. I actually love the variety and quirkiness of it, and I’m very glad they didn’t make it a single album. I think Abbey Road was the apex of their musical achievement, but the White album is a testament to the greatness of the greatest pop/rock band of all time.

  5. Pingback: Forty-five Years Ago Today… | Professor Mondo

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