The songwriter Harlan Howard famously described great country songs as “three chords and the truth.” (In the blues, one chord and the truth will do.) I’ve been thinking a lot about Truth, truths, and what they have to do with life and music.
I spent my teens and 20’s in search of The Truth, a grand framework for understanding the world. I read voraciously (and still do) of philosophy, world religions, and political ideologies. But I learned the hard way that ideologies, political and religious, are poor tools for understanding the world. In the hands of the power-hungry, ideologies excuse (and even celebrate) destructive choices and bad policies.
Ideologies try create one big Truth, a story that makes it all understandable. But their explanations are always selective of the facts, omitting the inconvenient ones that don’t fit the story line. I have not yet found an ideology that can account for the tangled, messy, contradictory, beautiful and terrible facts of our existence. Here in my middle years, I am no longer searching for The Truth (capital T), and I actively avoid ideologies that claim to possess it. I’m not alone in going in this direction. In the developed world, religious affiliation is in decline, and the failures of both communism and democratic capitalism have led to widespread questioning or rejection of both.
While The Truth is now on shakier ground, the idea of truths - of any kind - has also recently taken a serious beating. As we’ve all seen, powerful figures in politics and business deliberately flood the public square with falsehood and malicious nonsense. We’ve all experienced how social media is inundated with trolling and disinformation, which people amplify and repeat in good faith (or not). As author Peter Pomerantsev points out, this new propaganda isn’t designed to be believable. Its purpose is to discourage us, to surround us with so much falsehood that we give up. They want to make us believe that truth doesn’t matter. They want us to pick our politicians without any regard for truth. They want us to let the mighty abuse their power with impunity.
In the face of that, I still strongly believe in truth. Truth matters, especially when holding the powerful to account. Truth matters with our friends, loved ones, and anyone we expect to trust us. I try to keep my beliefs to a minimum, and as evidence-based as I can make them. I’ll take my truths with a lower case “t” and a plural “s.” My truths are hard-earned. They’re specific to my experience. And they also include the experiences of many others, including timeless truths available through books. Some of what I believe to be true I revise based on the available evidence. Some truths I will stick with through thick and thin, because they represent values I hold dear - though that doesn’t mean anyone else must hold them.
The joys of music live as small truths in our lives, like in the Steely Dan song “Dr. Wu”: “All night long / We would sing that stupid song / And every word we sang I knew was true…” I don’t have The Truth, and I don’t believe anyone does. I believe in truths, including the verifiable ones and the more elusive ones that live in our hearts. If my music manages to combine some chords, melodies, and truths, and if those land in someone else’s heart, I’ll have done what I can do. (Are you with me, Doctor?)
What are the Truth and truths in your life?
One chord and the truth: Buddy Guy, “Done Got Old” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itN1Sh1TvAk
Peter Pomerantsev, “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” https://tinyurl.com/yye46r3u
Steely Dan, “Doctor Wu.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geT6cJ0f7Nk
Eyes and Ears: What I'm Reading, Listening to, and Watching
Seneca, “Letters on Ethics” https://tinyurl.com/y2wpfoor
Jonathan Safran Foer, “Everything is Illuminated” https://tinyurl.com/y6hafgot
Keb’ Mo’, “Keb’ Mo’” https://tinyurl.com/yywsu86c
Chris Whitley, “Perfect Day” https://tinyurl.com/y6mwqkte