(HOST) Everyone has rituals on certain holidays. Here’s one of commentator Tom Slayton’s regular July 4th observances….
(SLAYTON) In Vermont, the Fourth of July is an excuse for a statewide start-of-summer party wrapped in red, white, and blue.
There’s patriotism, of course. But there’s a lot more besides. The outhouse races that they have every year in Bristol, for example. The brash exuberance of Warren’s annual jam-packed Fourth of July parade, and the graceful, white-winged birds and amazing stilt-walking of Bread & Puppet Theatre, which usually participates in several parades.
In Montpelier, there’s always a great parade, and, as dusk approaches, the State House lawn and steps gradually fill with folding chairs, blankets, and a happy, motley throng of Vermonters, young and old, waiting for their annual fireworks show. No one goes away disappointed.
Sometime on the Fourth, I like to hear some music by Charles Ives, something loud and raucous, and dissonant. Ives, a New Englander by birth and upbringing, made his living as an insurance executive. But he’s better known for his wonderful, modernistic, very American musical compositions.
There always seems to be a brass band tootling away — off-key — somewhere in every Ives composition. “Putnam’s Camp,” from his “Three Places in New England,” sums up all the glad noise and zany commotion of the day. The piece recreates musically an experience the young Charles Ives had, when he heard two village bands, that were playing different tunes, march into town from opposite directions. It’s an exciting piece that mixes conflicting rhythyms and melodies – “Yankee Doodle,” Rally Round the Flag”, “The British Grenadiers,” and others – in a wild and giddy cacophany that sums up the Fourth of July spirit without being jingoistic – at the same time that it gently satirizes that spirit – without being sarcastic.
Still, with all his vibrant enthusiasm, his loud, conflicting voices, his over-the-top affection for America, there’s another side of Ives that I treasure also. You can hear it throughout his “Second Piano Sonata,” the “Concord Sonata.”
In that piece, which celebrates several of America’s greatest writers, like Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, quiet, complex harmonies rise mysteriously and drift away like the mists rising off a river at dawn. The music is just as harmonically and rhythmically complex as Ives’ other, more rousing pieces, but the mood is completely different.
Ives is attempting to capture, musically, the personalities of people who, in many ways, stood distinctly apart from traditional American society – yet who were, each in their own iconoclastic way – deeply American. Ives’ music is not only about celebrating America – it’s also about understanding what America means, a deeper aim.
In its own moody, individualistic way, the Concord Sonata’s subtle musings are as expressive of this country as the marching brass bands of Putnam’s Camp. Both have a place in our Fourth of July – and in the spirit of Independence that underlies Independence Day.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.