What's in a Name? - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
January 16, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. —

"E.A. Poe, Henri Rousseau, Sholom Aleichem and Caryl Chessman, Alan Freed and Buster Keaton too."
— Neil Diamond

I actually remembered this much of the list-lyric from Mr. Diamond's "Done Too Soon" before looking it up. It had really stuck. And in 1970, when I was fifteen and the song was new, I didn't know who Henri Rousseau, Sholom Aleichem or Caryl Chessman were. But I thought I should, since they were obviously enough part of the Culture that a pop song (albeit a self-consciously smart pop song) would invoke them. And that was the point. I thought I should know.

"Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice, Wolfie Mozart and Humphrey Bogart and Genghis Khan and on to H. G. Wells."

There's a joy in this cascade of names. They pile up, one after the other, nicely lyrical (even without a tune) and visual at the same time. The song, apart from the syrupy homily at the end, is like a breathtaking fly-over above a big canvas depicting who we are or who we've been. The buoyancy of such vistas has powerful implications. Shared frames of reference beget meaningful metaphors, beget humor, beget wit. The mix of the familiar and the not so familiar still contains a certain authentic thrill. There was and is so much to learn out there.

Nevertheless, I've noticed that in Classical Radio World we occasionally fret about presenting you with unfamiliar names, among other possibly arcane information, without telling you immediately and explicitly who they were, when they lived, and what they ate for breakfast.

This is uncertain speculation, but we're a little afraid, I think, of assuming you know. It's not simply about the components of clarity. Clarity is great, essential. I believe in sentences that begin "Debussy was a guy who..." But that's a style choice, not an article of faith in minute enumeration, a muddy runway for sure. It's a murky thing, but I sense a danger in being perceived to be assuming. Never mind that we ourselves don't know all the names and are in the satisfying process of a learning without end. This is us at our most earthbound, burdened by the weight of a core identity we sometimes regret but can't renounce any more than we can renounce breathing.

These aren't phantom fears. We're a niche market, with all its vulnerabilities. And it's one with a certain empyrean image. You know, one which traffics in modifiers like empyrean. But we cling to it and more or less brand ourselves with it because the heavenly nature of the music is its strongest selling point. We offer, for Pete's sake, multiple Transcendent opportunities on ordinary Tuesdays. So if we are (I can't believe I'm going to say the word) elitist, it's fairly harmless, in the manner of a fallen aristocracy, which boasts a decayed rep without any real power. That once-common practice of impoverished European princes marrying daughters of wealthy American industrialists is a metaphor almost too apt for comfort.

"Ho Chi Min, Gunga Din, Henry Luce and John Wilkes Booth and Alexanders King and Graham Bell."

So these fears, like morning fog keeping us grounded, are real. But behold the sun: we've profiled you, and we've determined that you are, among other admirable traits, intensely curious. Therefore you must be at least as curious as a teenager who thought it was on him to find out who was Caryl Chessman and why was he in this song. (The notorious alongside the noble on our big canvas.)

Plus, never has it been so easy to find out all about someone you've never heard of. It's practically a reflex. If you care to do so, you'll find more information than we can tell you and faster, too.

"Rama Krishna, Mama Whistler, Patrice Lumumba and Russ Colombo, Karl and Chico Marx, Albert Camus."

Other radio formats indulge in insider talk all the time. Rock, sports talk, news. But they somehow take it for granted that the market for their insider talk is large enough to sustain them.

We might make that same assumption. After all, our beat is the whole big wide world, potentially. What's insider talk to us? "Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?" Yes! And Maurice Ravel and the Danube watershed and Bertie and Jeeves and the Blitz and rock and sports talk and news to boot.

Thing is, our niche, our little specialized corner of music, is a much more capacious thing than we often realize. With a little audacity, we might claim that classical music radio is about nothing less than everything. The mouse roars! Thereby cueing, inevitably, the syrupy part:

"And each one there has one thing shared: They have sweated beneath the same sun, looked up in wonder at the same moon..."

On Now

Listen to the Stream
  • Flute and Harp Concerto 4:16 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    London Symphony Orchestra
    Michael Tilson Thomas
    James Galway, flute
    Marisa Robles, harp
    Buy Now
  • Gesu Bambino 4:09 Pietro Yon
    Kelly Yost, piano
    Buy Now

You can now listen to Classical and Choral Music on your iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) or Android device.

Classical Notes Blog

Read more