A celebration of three lives: Copland, Caudill and Muggeridge Looking back on the accomplishments of 3 titans

Paul Greenberg

December 24, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

OF COURSE Aaron Copland was the son of immigrants; that explains why his music was so American. Was it more classical or popular? The sound obliterates such categories; its love, gratitude, and sheer recognition of what lies all about us overflows all classifications except American. His is the music of discovery presented with calculation.

This composer was in love with the simple things about America -- cowboy tunes, folk songs, Lincoln -- that are not so simple at all, any more than he was. He didn't just use American themes in his music but created them anew for future generations.

When he died at the age of 90, there were few words used to describe Aaron Copland's music that could not be used about America: inclusive yet distinct, centrist yet based on consensus, informal yet with a dignity that never fails.

His "Appalachian Spring" -- a dance score commissioned by Martha Graham in the 1940s -- took a simple Shaker melody ("Simple Gifts") and raised it to what one critic, John Rockwell of the New York Times, quite accurately calls "utterly unrhetorical grandeur." That is America in its undiluted, unpretentious essence: unrhetorical grandeur. All the rest is decoration.

Aaron Copland saw America in his mind, heard it in his ear, and passed it on to the future with reverence and never-failing excitement. When orchestras break into his music in a concert, it is as though the sun had just dawned and a fresh wind was forever blowing. It is the sound of the new world.

A 68-year-old patient suffering from Parkinson's died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound last month at Whitesburg, Ky., where he had been born in 1922. His name was Harry M. Caudill, and he had fought all his life for his part of the world and its people, the mountaineers of Appalachia. He had done many things -- worked as a hardscrabble country lawyer, served as a state legislator of futile reformist bent at a time when The Machine was unbeatable, and in 1977 joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky as Professor of Appalachian Studies. Familiarity had bred the usual contempt, and mountaineers scarcely appreciated their own culture. The new Professor Caudill had to put together his own textbook for the course; no suitable one existed.

Oh yes, Harry Caudill once wrote a book, It was called "Night Comes to the Cumberlands," an eloquent plea for his country and his countrymen. Published in 1963, it inspired the federal Appalachia project that resulted in an investment of some $15 billion in a depressed area whose mountains range over some 13 states.

By 1986, honest as he was eloquent, Harry Caudill would look back and say that the money had brought only marginal improvement to the lives of the mountaineers. Anyone who lives in the Lower Mississippi Delta can identify with his frustrations and admire his honesty.

Why did the Appalachian project and so many more like it fail to bring about dramatic change? There is a hint in something Harry Caudill wrote in his book: "Condescending charity in any form is harmful to the moral fiber of a people. If persisted in long enough, it sees pride and self-respect drain away to be replaced by cynicism, arrogance and wheedling dependence. It undermines good citizenship and contributes toward the thing a democracy can least afford -- a class of unproductive and dependent citizens."

Harry Caudill's are words to remember whenever someone suggests that the way to redeem the Delta is through more handouts, more bureaucracy, more government patronage, and more useless studies.

Naturally his book went unmentioned in the final report of the new Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission. For its $3-million investment, the public didn't even get a bibliography, let alone an index to the report. It's as though the country had learned nothing from Harry Caudill's book or his experience.

Now night has come to Harry Caudill. Those of faith will know that it is the healing night of the Kentucky mountains, full of stars finally seen. The strip mines and exploitation by both coal companies and unions, the waste and intrigues, the poverty and apathy. . . all that is behind him now. And one day the book of his life will be read the way it should be -- as a guide and warning. And a better day will dawn for the mountains and the deltas of what will be America the Beautiful.

* One explanation for a phenomenon like Malcolm Muggeridge ithat he was an enthusiast all his 87 years. But the English writer was saved from his successive enthusiasms by a sharp eye and unfailing sense of humor about himself. That last gift is the most saving of all.

His early enthusiasm for the Soviet Union was cured by a visit there in 1932. Before, he had thought communism "a wondrous development." After, he wrote a book "Winter in Moscow" -- revealing its essential fraudulence. He was never accepted on the left again.

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