Every instrument, a drum.

Get On Up (2014)

A banjo is a drumhead with strings.

In an early scene, James Brown explains to bewildered reporters what his new style of music is all about. Instead of being built on a melody, it’s built on a groove – a rhythmic environment that brings the mind and body to a state of readiness for feeling good. Later, Brown has to re-explain the principle to his musicians in the studio. Their training tells them, “It doesn’t work musically.” Brown insists: “Now we all got our drums.” Some may be guitars, some may be keyboards, but all should be doing the same work as drums: adding to the groove. “And when you’re playing a drum,” he says, addressing issues of music theory, “it don’t matter what key you in, what bar you in, what planet you on…” All that matters is: “Does it feel good?”

The metaphors for what music is and does are many. A traditional melody is a progression (travel) through notes and chords beginning at a root. The melody grows from the root like a plant.

In jazz, groove is said to trace back to phonograph records, on which a phonograph needle follows a track that keeps coming back around. If the needle is the band, the groove is their shared sense of direction.

Photo: Karl Stull


After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull

Your body is a battleground.

Gulliver is a metaphor for France (a great nation tied down by petty factions) in this 1830 cartoon by Ferdinand-Philippe d’Orléans; Library of Congress

The idea that you are a battleground where good and evil clash is as old as the story of Adam and Eve and as contemporary as the image of a micro-devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

In the song “My Body Is a Battlefield” (Tobias Jundt/Bonaparte, 2010), the devil versus angel conflict is expressed as a series of contradictory impulses and perceptions, negative versus noble, raising a question of true identity: Who are you really? The two sides shatter the self into “a thousand faces”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=859p9lW0Wws.

In Barbara Kruger’s poster “Your body is a battleground” (1989), the inner devils and angels turn political and the question is not which choice to make but who has the right to make it. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates battle in the courts, legislatures, and streets to determine who will own the “territory” that is a woman’s body: http://www.thebroad.org/art/barbara-kruger/untitled-your-body-battleground.

In the Book of Job, God and Satan use a man’s body as a battleground – leaving him with a bad case of boils.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus makes a battleground of his own body. He has himself tied to the mast of his ship so he can experience the thrill of the Sirens’ song without being drawn to his death, like a moth to flame. Odysseus-minded people nowadays go bungee jumping.

When it’s compared to something other than a battleground, your body may be a temple, a nation, a house, a shell, a suit of clothes, a machine with a control unit upstairs, or a gross weight carried around by the soul. Duality (or multiplicity) is built into all these metaphors. When there is duality, there will be a battle.

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This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.

– President Donald Trump, February 17, 2017

The image of a machine being “tuned” may have originated in the textile mills of 19th century Yorkshire. Workers there called it “tuning” when they did repairs on power looms, which looked somewhat like upright pianos and required tensioning of many strings. (Elsewhere this work was called “tackling,” according to the OED.)

By the 1930s, mechanics were “tuning” engines in cars, boats, and aircraft. There is nothing musical about internal combustion (unless you count the motor’s “hum”), but many sensitive adjustments are required to keep mechanical, electrical, and chemical systems performing in harmony – a challenge worthy of comparison to the exquisite tuning of a Steinway.

The term “fine tuning” took on a non-musical meaning in the early days of two-way radio and came into wider use after the 1950s, when TV sets had dials with an outer ring that you twisted back and forth in search of a better picture (like a piano tuner, in search of the right frequency).

Before long, any dynamic system with many small parts could be called “a fine-tuned machine”: the Army, the Dallas Cowboys, the human body, the economy, crop management… Niagara Farm and Garden News (1967) warned that using atrazine on corn crops at the wrong moment “would be analogous to throwing a monkey wrench into a fine-tuned machine.”

The Oldsmobile 98 Regency was a fine-tuned machine, according to magazine ads in 1978 – about the time Donald Trump launched his first big hotel project. Only three years later, General Motors demonstrated it was possible to run an Oldsmobile on coal dust. Here’s a three-minute video:


Photo: Dobby loom; becomingamerica.wikispaces.com (a teacher’s page)


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Keyed up

To be keyed up is to be in a state of tension, like the strings of a musical instrument. If you ever tuned a guitar, you’ll recall the squinting sense of dread beginners feel as they crank the high E string, one excruciating quarter-turn at a time, expecting the wire to snap any moment and whip out an eye. The tuner, like the string, is under a formidable strain.

Americans began using “keyed up” in this psychological sense around 1885, probably with a wind-up toy or music box in mind. Musical-mechanical associations with “key” go back to the 1600s, when a key was a wrench for tightening harpsichord strings (or a similar device for winding a clock). The musical scales sense of key – as in the key of G – is from the 1400s, according to the OED. The oldest references to keys on the keyboard of an organ are from the 1500s.

Another tensioning image from music – “tight as a drum” – evokes no anxiety. It means supremely secure in all directions, with no possibility of a rumple. Things that are sealed off perfectly are tight as a drum.

Photo: Lute Player (1620) by Theodore Rombouts; Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Downhill from here — is that good or bad?

“All downhill from here” means the hard work of climbing is over and the easy part of a hike or bike ride is about to begin — UNLESS it has a quite opposite meaning, based on a different metaphor.

Sometimes people say “downhill from here” meaning things are at a peak of happiness right now and can only go in one direction: down into the valley of despond.

Because there are two potential meanings, you have to discover what the speaker intends from context. The imagery contributes nothing. This metaphor, or rather these two competing metaphors, have gone south…in the sense that south = down, as on a wall map.

(Posted on FB June 29, 2015)

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Lobby of a cheap hotel, 1930s

At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs.

– Raymond Chandler, opening of the short story “I’ll Be Waiting”

How light retreats from a room – an interesting challenge for a writer. Notice in the last two sentences that the literal and imagined weirdly switch places. The loungers aren’t shadowy, they ARE shadows. There are memories in the corners like cobwebs, but probably some real cobwebs too.

(Posted on FB June 21, 2014)