American Beauty

I listened to the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album this evening. Just played it straight through.

I don’t really know what prompted me to think of it. Some random association from years ago, perhaps. But I’m glad I did.

It’s a beautiful collection of songs, with an amazing level of musicianship, and a great tribute to many American musical genres all at once. Yet back in 1970 that album was something else as well.

It was the center of a particular way of being in the world, one that today seems nearly incomprehensible. There was a kind of idealism there that I think has been long beaten out of us.

I am sure that a younger person hearing that album would appreciate it on a musical level. But the cultural language it speaks would probably remain completely opaque.

I wonder how many cultural artifacts become lost in plain sight. They remain available — transcribed from paper, celluloid or acetate, but they represent a cultural mindset that is either fading away or already long gone.

Without cultural context, a song can lose its deepest meaning — it’s a hand-me-down. The thoughts are broken, perhaps they’re better left unsung.

I don’t know, don’t really care. Let there be songs to fill the air.

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