Suspicious Minds

Listening to history can be as cheap and easy as handing over 50 cents on a Saturday afternoon. One of the scratchy old records I bought on the street is called "I Can Hear It Now ..." -- "The history of an era spoken by the men who made it and narrated by Edward R. Murrow." For 45 vigilant minutes, the greatest broadcaster of the century wraps his elegant voice -- or maybe the only word to describe it is decent -- around the promises and prattle of the heroes and villains of the years 1933-45. From Will Rogers, Joe Louis, and FDR to Neville Chamberlain, Charles Lindbergh, and Adolf Hitler, Murrow's narration injects the world-historical with the smallest human details. He calls hearing the news of FDR's sudden death "as personal as a body blow or a wire from the War Department."

That Murrow (along with the wonderfully named Fred Friendly) compiled this collection is fortunate in terms of sensibility. But Murrow's modesty must have required him to edit out of the found tape the one person on the radio who spoke through the war years with so much beauty and so much tender strength: himself. The fact that he was the head of CBS's London bureau from 1937 to 1946 isn't mentioned anywhere on the record. But you can't help hearing his own private convictions when he introduces Winston Churchill's early speeches as prime minister, in 1940: "Now the hour had come for him to mobilize the English language, and send it into battle, a spearhead of hope for Britain and the world. We have joined together some of that Churchillian prose. It sustained. It lifted the hearts of an island of people when they stood alone."

If Churchill's words did that then, they sound old and faint on the record, echoing with a subtle imperialism. But Murrow's blitz broadcasts from London a few months later (found most easily in the fine Library of America anthology Reporting World War II) reach across decades and circumstance, reading not as journalism or even history, but as literature. In detailing the effects of Luftwaffe bombs on the lives of very real (and often very brave) British citizens, Murrow builds a city under siege into a metaphorical metropolis of defiant populist dignity. At the same time, he tells the stories of the hotel maids and shopkeepers he meets in the language of straightforward poetry which reaches its heartbreaking pinnacle in the famous lead, "I'm standing again tonight on a rooftop looking out over London, feeling rather large and lonesome."

On "I Can Hear It Now ...," Murrow describes the way in which a chaplain, addressing the pilots who would lay waste to Hiroshima, "stood amongst the target charts, the escape kits, and the stale coffee and said a prayer for the Enola Gay and civilization." There was coffee and it was stale. That trivial speck, calling out of such hugeness, might have been a petty distraction if uttered in any other voice. Murrow neither ignores it nor lingers over it, he merely presents it as a matter of fact. But the stale coffee resonates as a suggestion of the bodies who have swallowed it. And before those bodies have fully digested its coldness, 80,000 other bodies will be burned so badly and so quickly that their momentary corpses will float as smoke into the air. The phrase "My God," Murrow states, "was the only entry in the co-pilot's diary."

Trying (and gallantly failing) to come to some sort of conclusion concerning the events he's just relived (Munich, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima), Murrow makes the strange claim that these occasions "were all part of the identical moment," a phrase that mysteriously condenses 13 years of history at its most historical into one fleeting second. He doesn't explain, but continues: "The one question remaining then: Was it 23:59 o'clock? Or 00:01? Was there to be still another cycle of affliction, appeasement, and annihilation? Or had we walked through midnight towards the dawn without knowing it?"

I had no answer to that question, but I had a song and I listened to it. Whether the song is right or not, it makes an honest argument for finding the 00:01 in every day. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers' "The Morning of Our Lives" is ostensibly directed at a girlfriend with a self-esteem deficit. Jonathan keeps gently reassuring her that she's OK, to trust herself, she's all right. But his intentions are larger. He really pleads for the do-it-yourself kind of destiny, because "our time is now." At the end he stops singing and channels FDR to say, "No need to fear. Now's the time for us to have faith in what we can do." And maybe it's just because this is the last track on a live album, but I swear he's winking at Murrow's complicated question, because the last word on "The Morning of Our Lives" is this: "Goodnight!"

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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