Newsletter Archive

Feeding the Muse with the Great Books

I've always been interested in what's come before. Whose shoulders are we all standing on, and what did they create? It's much harder to create things, if you don't know what you've got to work with (ie, everything that's come before).

Reading is the main way I feed my curiosity, and my songwriting muse. (I also just love to read!) Together with my good friend Phil Terry, I've created a reading group that's dedicated to reading the "great books."Stop by our website to see more about the group.

Like most people, for most of my life I figured that the classics are not for me. Dry! Boring! Right? To my surprise, NO! There are gripping tales and sharp insights locked in those volumes of Greek and Roman classics. I didn't have the desire or the support to read them when I was younger, but I'm glad I have a chance to read them now.

So far we've read Homer's "Odyssey," Herodotus' "Histories," Aeschylus' "The Persians," and Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War."

The songs on my new CD, "Heaven Is So High...And I'm So Far Down," were written and collected in the course of reading all of these.

Why read the classics? I've discovered a few things:
•-The creativity and wisdom of the ancients were extraordinary--it's something to marvel at and to learn from.
•-The philospher George Santayana's famous quote comes to mind: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." These books demand that we see ourselves in a new light. Those who came before us grappled with many of the same things we struggle with--how to best govern themselves, how to relate to foreign peoples, questions of war and peace, how to live spiritual and moral lives--and left eloquent testimony of their struggles.
•-The command of thought and language in these works are astounding. Thucydides' book is filled with speeches by Pericles and other Greek politicians that crackle with brilliant arguments and rhetorical devices. The speechmaking of today (and indeed, most political discourse) seems shallow and lacking principles, by comparison.  
•-Seeing the commonality of all people. Though our world is divided ethnically, religiously, and economically, the classics let our ancestors bear witness to genius in every corner of humanity, in all of our ages. It's inspiring, and gives me optimism at a time when the world looks pretty bleak.

Some of the insights are breathtaking. Herodotus writes his "Histories," he says, "so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds...may not be without their glory." He goes on to say that "human prosperity never abides long in one place," so he speaks of small cities that once were great, and great cities that once were small.

Thucydides states up front that he wrote his history to be "a possession for all time."

Wow. How many creations from our own time--engineering achievements and cultural achievements-- are designed to last, with future generations in mind? How many songs will be relevant and listenable years from now?

Like many people singing folk music, I've never chased any trends, nor even kept up with them. I've done my best to write songs that speak to eternal human concerns, in a style and language that I hope will stand the tests of time.  The ancients and their great books will be there, helping light the way.


Read Homer, "The Odyssey", trans. by Stanley Lombardo

Read Herodotus, "The Histories," trans. Aubery de Selincourt

Read Aeschylus, "The Persians," ed. by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore

Read "The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War," ed. by Robert Strassler.

My newly-released CD, "Heaven Is So High...And I'm So Far Down."

at CD Baby
at Subway Records

   Ears and Eyes (what I'm listening to and reading )

•-- Music

  • Muddy Waters, "The Anthology: 1947-1972"
buy the cd here:

  • Syd Barrett, "The Madcap Laughs"
buy the cd here:

•-- Books

  • "Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews," ed. by Jonathan Cott.
buy the book here:

  • "The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry: From Whitman to Walcott," ed. by Richard Marius.
buy the book here: