And This Song

Red and Black – David Burt and others from the original London production of 1985

If you want to know what’s like inside a revolution—a real revolution—take a few minutes and immerse yourself in this song.

I’ve spent more than thirty years studying, thinking, discussing, sharing and, in some cases, researching and writing, about the phenomenon of revolution. My first and deepest love in history is the American Revolution.

And I can say with no hesitation that this song gets every thread and fiber of revolution exactly right—in the words, the music, the rhythms, the arrangement, and, above all, the emotions that exist in this extraordinary work of art.

Take a listen. Reading the lyrics will be important, too.

If I had to pick one thing that stands out to me, it would be the interplay between the personal and the public in the song. You hear the characters going back and forth about when the public supersedes the personal and when the personal departs from the public. In revolution as I’m using the word (historically, as in the American Revolution, French Revolution, Russian Revolution, and so on) there is often a smashing of the lines between public and private. The smashing of these lines is where some of the greatest tragedy of revolution lies.

I can recall my days as a history graduate student at Indiana University and the seminar discussions as whether or not the American Revolution was in fact a “true” revolution. That was also a rather hot topic in much of the historical books and articles published at the time, the readings that supposedly informed our discussions.

Note my word “supposedly.” If you detect in me a whiff of dismissal, you’re on target.

I look back now and think how ridiculous those discussions were.

Revolution is revolving, the motion of revolve. By definition it is the replacement of one thing with another. Also by definition, if done long enough, is the repetion of turns over and over again.

That is what it means to revolve. That is revolution. The song you’ve heard above is a brief portion of the turning of revolution.

It can be hard to know when you are in a revolution or when it is a bit more limited and limiting, say, a period of important and major change that doesn’t quite get to the level of revolution. Some of you who are politically active and aware in American life right now are often talking about the potential of revolution in the unfolding presidential nomination campaigns of 2016. Listen to the song again and see if it helps you make a determination on that point.

One last point that I want to share. I’m guessing that some people would consider musicals like Les Miserables to be a form of pop culture. I’d agree with that.

However, I suggest to you that there is a place when pop culture becomes something quite different. It becomes High Culture. How? By touching on such an enduring thing and expressing it in a way that continues to connect with an audience time over time. That’s how pop culture evolves into High Culture.

No, I’m not talking about a drug­induced feeling. I’m using the phrase “High Culture” as it used to be seen and heard. High Culture was long­lasting, transcendent, and nearly perpetual in the society of human life. Many folks invoked the phrase to describe the leisure­time distractions of an aristocracy (certainly, the characters in the song would have done that). My use of High Culture, though, is similar to Art. It is art and artistry, the artistic.

Maybe we should think about Art having once been pop culture. Most pop culture has the life span of a mosquito. But every so often some of it proves to be greater than it is.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy the song.