“For tonight is New Year’s Eve
Uncork your spirits and welcome it in
Who knows what it’s got up its sleeve
Can’t wait for it all to begin
Stand by the girl with the purple balloon
The look in her eyes just lights up the room
In the corner of her smile
She’ll be seeing you soon
Under a mistletoe moon…”
– Al Stewart, from “Laughing into 1939”
This morning I was up at 6:15 to get on the step machine and do my almost daily morning workout. I hooked up the I-pod to the headphones and…nothing. I must have left it on, the battery was drained. Irritated (but already exercising) I had to grab a CD and put it in my disc player instead. I looked at the stack of CDs, not in their cases, used in recent weeks as background music to my work out, and choose Al Stewart’s Life Between the Wars.
Al Stewart is one of my favorite song writers. Though best known for his hits “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat,” he’s got a passion for history and his songs explore personalities and events throughout time — from Helen of Troy to Josephine Baker and even Warren G. Harding. Given that I find interwar Europe a fascinating bit of history, it’s no surprise this is one of my favorite CDs. How many artists out there put out a CD that mentions Dorothy Parker, Hedy Lamarr, Hoagy Carmichael, Beiderbecke, Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge, Lawrence of Arabia, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, Paul Gervaise, Zelda Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Coco Chanel, Wallis Simpson, Stalin, Kamenez, Zinoviev, and Bukharin. He has a song about Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, and the CD captures images between the war from the Versailles negotiations to the Spanish civil war, as well as culture (literature, art, film) and everyday life.
So, I settled in to my workout, enjoying the music and songs, amazed that themes that seem so “intellectual” actually can make melodic, enjoyable tunes, I got caught up in the music until near the end of the work out when “Laughing into 1939” came on. It’s the last song on the CD with lyrics (the disc ends with an instrumental ‘The Black Danube,’) ending the era between the wars on New Years Eve, 1938.
The music is haunting and melancholy, even though the song is about celebration and parties. The mental image I get is of large parties in Paris, Berlin and London, with people laughing and enjoying themselves, oblivious to the horror that will be unleashed in the year whose start they are celebrating. The juxtaposition between the dark music and lyrics depicting celebration has always made that a powerful piece for me. There has always been something tragic about the interwar period, an era so full of life and experimentation, yet doomed to end in destruction and holocaust.
Today the song was even more powerful, especially as the line quoted above, “tonight is New Years eve…” played. Tonight is New Years eve! We’re entering a new year with hopes, expectations, and perhaps even some resolutions. Like the Europeans in 1939, we’re hoping the economy improves and life gets a bit more normal. Few people from Berlin to London wanted war in 1939, and the hope was that the Great War of 1914-18 had convinced leader and citizen alike of the folly of armed conflict in Europe.
It hadn’t. An Austrian born corporal in the German army, temporarily blinded by a British gas attack, went into a rage as he heard of the German surrender. He vowed to go into politics and redo the war, this time not making the mistakes that doomed Germany in 1914. He did the Blitzkrieg into France right this time, and then would turn on Russia, following closely the Ludendorf plan of WWI to gain Lebensraum for Germany. But on December 31, 1938 there was still hope that Adolf Hitler was like a Bismarck, simply wanting equality for Germany on the European stage, undoing the injustices done to Germany by the post-war Treaty of Versailles. So most people believed there was cause for hope and celebration, as Europe went ‘laughing into 1939.’
No one expects all out war in 2011. But there are dangers. The Mideast peace remains precarious and incomplete. Dangers from Iran, North Korea and of course terrorist groups like al qaeda linger. Terrorism is probably the most dangerous uncertainty. We know they are willing to sacrifice anything to try to damage the West, but we don’t know if and when they’ll be able to strike again. The world can change in a minute.
One can imagine other nightmares. What would happen if the dollar’s value collapsed, or if unrest in the Mideast caused a massive spike in oil prices? Will 2011 be a calm year of recovery and continued efforts to solve global problems, or will the uncertainties and imbalances in world affairs lead this to be remembered in a light akin to 1939 — a year when the old order shattered?
I wasn’t planning to blog about this today; I was thinking of something a bit lighter, either a mocking of Tucker Carlson’s call to execute Michael Vick, or perhaps a reflection on the first decade of the new century, which ended a year ago. But thanks to my last minute choice of background music this morning, images of life between the wars put me in a different mood. One song, “When Lindy Comes to Town,” captures the belief that the world “had grown no bigger than a pocket handkerchief. ”
Everyday is better than the day before it
If I see a rain cloud I will just ignore it
Everybody says it will get much better yet
It’s 1927 and my whole life lies ahead!”
Listening to that I thought of the bubble economies and optimism we had until recently. The era between the wars was vibrant, yet doomed. Is that our fate as well?
I will be laughing into 2011, fully expecting this year to be one of progress. We’re planning another travel course to Italy, maybe getting geothermal energy for the house, and dealing with the constant job of raising children. But there is a whiff of discontentment and anxiety in the air. Was it just coincidence that my I-pod battery was dead and I grabbed this CD on New Years eve? Is it a warning? Will the dangers and dilemmas of recent years come to a head in 2011, and put us on a dark path, at least for awhile? Probably not, but…
“Out onto the balcony
Come the King and the Queen
And the crowd go wild
He’s a little bit nervous
But that’s just fine
And they’re laughing, laughing into 1939…”