A few days ago, Stephanie and I saw a performance of Handel’s Messiah done by the group Apollo’s Fire. They perform on period instruments and attempt to recreate the Messiah as it would have been performed when it was first written in the 1740s. It was fascinating to hear the familiar oratorio performed in a very dramatic fashion. I thought the tenor, Ian Honeyman, who did the aria based on Psalm 2:9 (“Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”) was going to come over the podium right at us, he seemed so angry.
Watching these artists passionately recreate an artwork almost three hundred years old made me wonder what will be recreated from 2008 in the year 2308. What literacies will people want to preserve just as they were created now, at the beginning of this current century?
It’s so hard to predict what will be immortalized and perhaps attempted to be recreated. While seeing some of the familiar television specials repeated over and over again at this time of year, it’s occurred to me that such great performers as Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Burl Ives, Boris Karloff, Greer Garson, Shirley Booth, and Billy De Wolfe would probably be surprised to know that they are primarily “re-created” each year only through their voice performances in some holiday animated cartoons. Did they ever imagine these kids’ shows would be what would bring them back so many years after their deaths? The same goes for the number of recording artists we only hear on the radio this time of year: Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Mahalia Jackson, Bobby Helms, Brenda Lee, Johnny Mathis, Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, the Norman Luboff Choir, and the Harry Simeone Chorale, to name a few.
Even Charles Dickens was only trying to get a bestseller at a low point in his career, not necessarily reaching for immortality when he struck paydirt with A Christmas Carol, and he tried several times after to make that kind of holiday impact again, but was never quite successful. He was influenced by the portraits of Christmas by Washington Irving that go back even further to a nostalgia for a medieval Christmas that probably never existed, except in people’s fantasies, and Irving would be amazed at how much of an impact his nostaligic portraits have had on our modern Christmas. Of course, speaking of immortality, we celebrate the birth of someone this time of year whose mainly oral literacies still profoundly influence millions.
Which of our literacies will last till future Christmases? Happy holidays to all!
(A reprint of a blog post from December 23, 2008.)
I’m proud to have been asked to write a chapter for this new anthology, Imagine It Better, published by Heinemann, of essays envisioning what schools could be. Some of the contributors include Noam Chomsky, Andy Hargreaves, Sonia Nieto, Marc Prensky, and Peter Johnston.
I’m quoted in this article, “American Themes Dominate New Crop of TV Movies and Miniseries,” published in Variety, June 12, 2014.