Archive for March 23rd, 2007

Yes, We Have No Death Squads

The paper found that Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint and its subsequent bulldozing, suppressed unions, unwittingly allowed the use of Chiquita transport ships to move cocaine internationally, and paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy.

Amy Goodman on Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company. You can’t peel a banana these days without wondering if you’re simultaneously pulverising a Honduran village.

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Where The Heifers Graze In Clover Fields Without The Sound Of John Deeres

Is it possible to be affected by sentimental lyrics or poetry even when you know they are terrible? Words set to music have a different power to words alone, so I will consider them first.The song I have in mind is Indian Sunset by Elton John. If you don’t know it, it’s the one that was sampled in Ghetto Gospel by 2Pac.

The sunset of the song’s title is a metaphor for American Indian life getting destroyed out by the encroaching white man. As tunes go, it’s one of Elton John’s best: baleful and tremulous, with an epic production. But the lyrics are as kitsch as a row of porcelain King Charles puppies. Nothing wrong with kitsch, but the subject matter is important. I find it difficult to see what new light kitsch can shed on the topic of eliminationist expansionism.

It begins:

As I awoke this evening with the smell of wood smoke clinging
Like a gentle cobweb hanging upon a painted tepee

[what’s clinging? The smell of woodsmoke? The singer? How are cobwebs gentle? Can you have harsh cobwebs? What would wood smoke clinging like a harsh cobweb hanging upon an unpainted tepee smell like?]

You can read the rest of the lyrics here.

One thing you often find with lyrical or melodramatic portraits of other cultures and civilisations is that they often place a strange declarative language in the mouths of the subjects, purely for informational purposes, e.g.

Oh great father of the Iroquois ever since I was young

I’ve read the writing of the smoke and breast fed on the sound of guns

Let’s leave questions of historical accuracy (Who was the ‘great father of the Iroquois’? And was getting breastfed into adulthood a common feature of Iroquois life?), and concentrate on what the singer is telling his father. The fact that he has read the writing of the smoke is probably of no particular interest to the father, but it’s interesting to us, especially if the use of smoke signals was common. It would be like saying ‘oh great father of the O’Malleys, ever since I was young/I’ve eaten spuds for my dinner’.

But I guess my point is that despite the pretty silly lyrics, I still find the song quite affecting. No, despite isn’t the right word. I find the song affecting because of the awful lyrics. I don’t know. The clumsiness of their depiction of Indian life, suffused with silly melodrama and pointless detail seems to point towards the fact that I don’t really know all that much about what really happened, since so much of it has been effaced from history by the winners.


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March 2007
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