A Curious Conjunction for the Secondary Classroom
by Brian Benson
See also: The Cosmology of P-Funk by Scot Hacker
Days after my classes concluded their study of Transcendentalism, I noticed the liner notes of a CD as I dropped it in the player. I had read them before, but now they struck me anew:
For virtual decades of alembic time parasecs, I have gazed upon the so-called highest life forms on this planet with unbridled disgust! For the very source of life energies of Earth have become the castrated targets of anile bamboozlery from homosapiensí rabid attempts to manipulate the omnipotent Forces of Nature!
These words had new resonance. Beneath their alien silliness, they spoke of the power of nature; they were wary of ìprogress.î As the notes rolled on, more parallels appeared. More and more, the words reminded me of the writers we had so recently studied. They spoke of individuality; they railed against materialism; they warned that: ìThe napalm jelly and barbecue sandwich of war has become the ghoul/soul food of those who profit from the eternal conflicts as suppliers of the grisly table utensils of war machines.î These notes appear on the album Cosmic Slop, recorded in 1973 on Westbound records by the band Funkadelic. I began to think that, if Thoreau had withdrawn from society to find himself, then the members of Funkadelic had withdrawn from the solar system! With piqued curiosity, I began to explore connections between Transcendentalism and Funkadelic, and how a teacher might use these connections in the secondary classroom. I was soon delighted.
Adolescents love music. Indeed, without them the music industry as we know it would not exist. But while moneymaking trends come and go, classics endure in any genre. I have been amazed at how much my tastes intersect with my studentsí. Often I have played music for them. They are keen to hear new artists. I have listened to them sing along with music they have never heard and have been moved by their written responses. I do not doubt that music can engage high school students.
A great many teachers have found a place for music in their classrooms. Janet Towell reminds us that music ìcan be used to change or reflect mood or purposeî (286). Steven Luebkeís ìIn Defense of Popular Musicî champions rock and roll as a companion to canonical texts, one that ìcan give students a window on the work they are studyingî (6). Most similar to my own endeavor, Andrew Kenen and Diane Seskes of Kentson High School, Bainbridge Township, Ohio, have developed a series of outstanding lessons linking Transcendentalism with Frostís ìThe Road Not Taken,î with short stories by Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates, and with songs by Linda Rondstadt, The Who, and Pearl Jam. Their choices are outstanding. Pearl Jamís ìWho You Areî uses the word ìtranscendental,î and the two songs by The Who (ìMy Generationî and ìBaba OíRileyî) are classics of teenage disaffection. Over three to five class periods, students write in journals, create posters, and present papers. There is not one song, or an essay or two, to complement the base material; there are three songs, a poem, and two short stories. The unit, available on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fameís website, promotes higher thinking and creativity. It is exactly this sort of enmeshed, creative instruction that I hope to encourage by outlining this curious and compelling conjunction between Funkadelic and Transcendentalism.
Other observers have connected Transcendentalism with popular culture. In her article ìTranscendentalism in Star Trek: The Next Generation,î April Selley does a charming job of linking Ralph Waldo Emerson with the latter day television show, though one wonders at times if her tongue has crept into her cheek as she compares the cosmology of the Transcendentalists with that professed by the Captain and crew of the starship Enterprise. Selley warns her readers: ìBy citing these similarities between Emersonís philosophy and that of Star Trek: The Next Generation, however, I do not mean to suggest that Gene Roddenberry, creator of both the original and current Star Treks, read Emerson, and deliberately set out to embody his principles. But Emersonís philosophy is deeply ingrained in our cultureî (31). I must provide the same caveat for Funkadelic.
Based on my present research, I cannot assert that members of the group read, or were influenced by, the Transcendentalists. However, George Clinton, their main songwriter, producer, and creative guru, was a voracious reader, who ìwould always have a book in his handsî (Marsh 53). Funkadelic album cover artist Pedro Bell ñ now a legend in his own right, and author of many of the album liner notes ñ remembers that ìGeorge never turned down anything that was presented to him... He accelerated extremely quickly in terms of checking out a lot of booksî (Marsh 53). Clinton, having coined the term funkentelechy, has plainly read philosophy. An entelechy is ìa realization or actuality as opposed to a potentiality... [or] a vital agent or force directing growthî (ìEntelechyî). While I have not found sources that speak specifically of his reading material, it certainly seems possible, perhaps likely, that Clinton encountered the Transcendentalists, and that they influenced the music of Funkadelic.
I need not introduce the Transcendentalists, but Funkadelic is another case. Condensing their circuitous history, I will call Funkadelic the far out, experimental half of the Parliament-Funkadelic, a group of musicians under Clintonís leadership. In the late Sixties, Funkadelic began pouring out an astonishing mix of black and white music as much influenced by rock and roll as by Motown. Parliamentís music, though consciously commercial, is no less brilliant, and is just as good for study. Every bit as cosmological and even more goofy, Parliament possesses its own cohesive mythology, with heroes and villains like Dr. Funkenstein and Sir Nose Dívoidoffunk. But I am more familiar with Funkadelic, and to my mind they are more suited to the study of Transcendentalism than Parliament because the music of Funkadelic was not recorded to please an audience. ìWe knew we wasnít gonna get on the radio back then that easy,î Clinton has explained, ìso we wasnít losiní nothing by just going crazy.... All the white boys had turned to metaphysical types of thangs... so we just went totally loonyî (Marsh 32-33). Drawing on all the power and tension of their era, and on each memberís phenomenal talents, the band first exploded onto vinyl in 1971 with their self-titled debut Funkadelic. According to Clinton, ìWe were playing stuff in the studio that the engineer didnít even want his name onî (Marsh 37). Experimental, inexplicable and often heartbreakingly beautiful, the bandís music took years to catch on. ìWe was too white for the blacks,î Clinton has remembered, ìand we was too black for the whitesî (Marsh 73).
Today such distinctions have faded, and the band remains relevant and respected. Well-known rappers admire and have recorded with Funkadelic members. Band members George Clinton and Bootsy Collins recently reunited to appear in, and record music for, a Nike television advertisement (Makal). The ad, part of a campaign for a mythical basketball ìFunky League,î also stars rapper Snoop Dogg. Like the Transcendentalists, Funkadelic has become a part of our culture.
Unlike the Transcendentalists, however, there is not a great amount of information available about Funkadelic. For a teacherís purposes, the three greatest sources are likely George Clinton and P-Funk: An Oral History, edited by Dave Marsh; Scot Hackerís ìCan You Get to That: The Cosmology of P-Funk,î an article available online; and David Cloughís outstanding website, The Motherpage. Marshís work tells the bandís story in the membersí own words, and in those of friends and family. It is grandly illuminating, but not comprehensive. Hackerís article is appropriately silly, but well written and sharp in its analysis of the bandís philosophy of fun, freedom, and a love for funk and Mother Nature. His article provides more quotations and lyrics than I am able to include here, but it may leave the reader vague on some details. As Hacker himself notes, the band ìhad the good epistemological sense not to define their vision of the great beyond too specifically.î His article can be accessed from Cloughís phenomenal site, which offers a plethora of information on musicís funkiest denizens. History, discography, complete lyrics and more are available, along with links to other funky sites. Although I will not directly quote lyrics within this article, as I havenít the deep pockets to pay royalties, I am certain that The Motherpage will welcome your visit (http://www.duke.edu/~tmc/motherpage/discog-funkadelic.html). To the best of my knowledge, none of Funkadelicís notorious, and voluminous, liner notes have made it to the Net. One must buy or borrow the albums to read them, but they are well worth the expense.
The Cosmic Slop liner notes first made plain to me this connection between my favorite funk band and my favorite American thinkers. As a malcontent manifesto, the complete text of the Cosmic Slop notes could be rewardingly paired with any combination of Transcendentalist works ñ just have plenty of dictionaries at hand. In a twisted mixture of nonsense, street jive, and grand erudition, they make plain a reverence of nature, a disdain for consumerism, and a desperate belief in the need to do oneís one thing. To my mind, the best in-class use for these notes might be a culminating comparison. Once the students have absorbed Transcendental philosophy, they ought to be able to connect it with Funkadelicís thoughts. Working individually or in groups, students could chart similarities and differences between the two groups, using specific quotes to back their thoughts.
Similarly, the notes of the 1975 album Letís Take It the Stage satirize the Vietnam War as a Godzilla movie, two monstrous powers bound to do battle, heedless of the people beneath them: ìThe star-spangled Kong of Babylon was unleashed to bully tidbit morsels of faraway lands. And one dawnís light brought the greedy presence forth, to confront another, the Commie Crudzilla.î With the ring of these words still in their minds, students might catch some of Thoreauís worry that, in the Mexican War, ìa whole nation is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military lawî (McMichael 835). Much as Funkadelic felt that the Vietnam conflict profited no one but arms manufacturers, Thoreau felt the Mexican War was ìthe work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their toolî (McMichael 832-33). Remind students that domestic tension over slavery in Thoreauís day eclipsed the anti-war tension in the Vietnam era as America moved toward a tragedy far greater, even, than that lost conflict. These notes are well paired with the song ìMarch to the Witchís Castleî from the Cosmic Slop album. Recorded near the end of the Vietnam War, it is a wailing, electric hymn, seeking spiritual guidance for returning veterans and their nation. It has incredible power and a plain anti-war sentiment.
The notes of Letís Take It to the Stage also tell the story of ìa young mortal named Ali, who was indeed the greatest ñ whupping heads between signifying. But, it came to pass that the law of the land did declare that he would be obligated to exterminate strangers in an unknown land. Ali refused to participate in the wrongful bloodlusts, and he was punished and lost his boxing title....î The story of Mohammad Aliís refusal to serve in Vietnam connects beautifully to ìCivil Disobedienceî and ìSelf-Reliance.î George Plimpton has written an excellent, succinct biography of Ali, including Ali quotes like "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" (2) and "I don't have to be what you want me to be; I'm free to be what I want" (1). Look for it on Time magazineís website. Given the recent Will Smith blockbuster on the champís life, many students will know something of this man. As the Time article notes, Ali was fond of off-the-cuff rhymes. Have the students write their own verses about him, or about some one else whom they feel epitomizes Emersonís famous proclamation that, ìTo be great is to be misunderstoodî (McMichael 681).
ìMaggot Brain,î on the 1971 album of the same title, can be beautifully connected to Walden. While researching this article I felt a great happiness at finding Thoreauís complaint that his fellow humans cannot do things honestly and simply. ìThey would have to be passed through a powerful press first,î he tells us, ìto squeeze their old notions out of them.... and then there would be some one in the company with a maggot in his head, hatched from an egg deposited there nobody knows when, for not even fire kills these things, and you would have your labor lostî (McMichael 861). The thought of a maggot in the mind is horrifying. Students can imagine the feel of a worm in the skull, chewing through the tissues of the brain. They might be disgusted, but they will be engaged.
And they will be even more so after the ten minutes of genius that have immortalized guitarist Eddie Hazel. The song ìMaggot Brainî never fails to move me.
After a few words of introduction, Eddie Hazel tears nine minutes of haunting beauty from the depths of his soul in one of the most phenomenal works of music I have ever known. Dave Thompsonís book Funk tells us the tune ìcame about after Clinton asked him to think of the saddest thing he could (Hazel imagined the death of his mother), then express it through his guitarî (140). Even as I type this article, and the song pours through my headphones for the hundredth time, my spine tingles and my eyes cloud with tears.
Such is its shimmering splendor, I would use ìMaggot Brainî in class with the slimmest of reasons, but here its use is more than justified. One might ask the students to consider how both Funkadelic and Thoreau employ the same naturalistic image, and for what purposes. Because they discuss nature and a need to rise above corruption, the songís lyrics might be analyzed for Transcendental overtones. As the song is predominantly instrumental, students might be asked to freewrite on the feelings it inspires. But for the most Transcendental results, I say, have them write what they will, while they are listening. Expect heartfelt responses.
The infamously titled Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow also cries out for a writing prompt. Ten minutes long, the song consists largely of chants of the title and of the phrase ìThe kingdom of Heaven is within!î Once their initial silliness has passed, students will find much beyond the title to engage them; it is readily Transcendental. Afloat on throbbing bass and a blazing Hazel guitar track, dreamy voices tell us of the power and freedom waiting to be unleashed in all of us. While it starts goofily, the song takes a disturbing turn six minutes along; swarming, angry voices bewail their lack of identity and scream for the chance to be themselves, to escape from the identities provided for them. Of all people, adolescents may most relate to this desperate need to find, and be, themselves. Given the songís length, I would again have my students write as they listened. Their personal responses would be greatly rewarding, but the song is readily connected to what they have read. In fact, with its strong message of individualism and self-actualization, this song might be a fun way to end the unit. Thoreau tells us, ìIf you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under themî (McMichael 935). While it is much less silly, is Thoreauís call to follow our dreams truly much different from Funkadelicís? If my students took home nothing from Transcendentalism but this idea that they can find and follow their most fantastic hopes, I would be content.
Funkadelicís most strikingly Transcendental song would also make a grand unit culmination. ìGood Thoughts, Bad Thoughts,î is twelve minutes and seventeen seconds long, their longest studio track. Steeped in echo, Eddie Hazelís guitar lulls us into a hopeful melancholy during the songís first half until a distorted, greater-than-human voice provides six minutes of proverbs and aphorisms so strikingly Transcendental that those well-read on our favorite Concordians will be no less than amazed. Count the lights popping on in your skull as you scan the lyrics on The Motherpage or listen to the track on 1974ís album Standing on the Verge of Getting it On. It is a stunning concurrence.
So stunning are the connections, in fact, and so thorough, that I could not possibly elucidate all of them. But I will advise you to remember Emersonís sentiments that ìin every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughtsî (McMichael 677), and that humankind can find truth ìby yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every manî (Emerson 211) and by teaching each man to ìwatch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from withinî (McMichael 677). Remember that those in touch with this light ìtravel a royal roadî (Emerson 215). Think also of Hinduismís influence on Emerson, and of the infinite twists and cycles he unfolds in ìBrahmaî ñ ìthe subtle ways/ I keep, and pass, and turn againî (McMichael 703). Emerson reminds us again of this infinite recurrence with his thought that, ìThe creation of a thousand forests is in one acornî (Emerson 115-16), an image present within this song, which also speaks of an infinite intelligence within all of us and includes a call to self-actualization highly reminiscent of Thoreauís blessing, ìthat if one advances confidently in the directions of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hoursî (McMichael 934). The song shares more ideas also in Walden, such as: ìHowever mean our life is, meet it and live itî (McMichael 937); it reminds us that it is ìnever too late to give up our prejudicesî (McMichael 852) and exhorts its listeners to ìexplore your own higher latitudesî (McMichael 933). Alternatively, this song might begin the unit. Provide copies of the lyrics, play the song, and hold a sort of scavenger hunt during the unit in which students seek parallels between the song and their readings.
Two songs from the album America Eats Its Young, the bandís most political album can be quickly connected to Transcendentalism. In his attack on the fugitive slave law, Emerson proclaims his faith that Nature can rid us of evil ñ ìSlavery is disheartening; but Nature is not so helpless but it can rid itself at last of every wrong. But the spasms of Nature are centuries and ages, and will tax the faith of short-lived men. Slowly, slowly the Avenger comes, but comes surelyî (Emerson 553-4). Funkadelicís song ìBiological Speculationî shares this belief that Nature can rid man of evil, though it may take time. It speaks, in a tone as ominous as Emersonís, of God and survival, and declares the ascendancy of Nature and instinct above law. Students might consider whether they, too, believe that time and Nature will cure manís ills, or connect the song to Thoreauís assertion that if a law ìis of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the lawî (McMichael 839). The song highlights the tension between law and justice, and could make a fine introduction to the link between Thoreauís ìCivil Disobedienceî and Martin Luther Kingís practice of non-violent protest. For an outstanding article and lesson plan on this connection, consult Brent Powellís work in the OAH Magazine of History.
The final song of America Eats its Young can be nicely coupled with Waldenís ìWhere I Lived and What I Lived For.î In that chapter Thoreau writes: ìThe millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion.... To be awake is to be aliveî (McMichael 898). ìWe are,î he tells us, ìsound asleep nearly half our timeî (McMichael 939). He also disdains fashion ñ ìThe head monkey at Paris puts on a travellerís cap, and all the monkeys in America do the sameî (McMichael 861). He advises his readers to ìbeware of all enterprises that require new clothesî (McMichael 860), and to concentrate on improving themselves. Likewise, Funkadelicís eminently danceable ìWake Upî laments the somnambulistic state of most Americans, and wishes they were more concerned with what is inside their heads than what is on top of them. Given adolescentsí obsession with clothes, this song and these words are naturals for class discussion.
If creative writing plays a part in your class, consider that, as we have learned, ìMaggot Brainî involved guitarist Eddie Hazel envisioning the death of his mother. I heard this story long ago but, given the depth of feeling in this track, had always assumed Hazelís mother had died, and that he remembered this tragedy as the reel tapes rolled. In fact, Hazelís mother outlived him (Marsh vx). His pain on the record did not come from his own experience; he used imagination and his own emotions to transmit a deep, powerful message. Once they have heard the song, this point will not be lost on students. Teachers might also connect it with Emersonís belief that ìBy a deeper apprehension, and not primarily by a painful acquisition of many manual skills, the artist attains the power of awakening other soulsî (Emerson 123). Have students consider their own favorite artists ñ do these artists touch them through their technical skills, or through what they express with these skills? Their thoughts would make fabulous presentations; be sure they bring samples.
These are just a few suggestions on how to combine Funkadelic and Transcendentalism, but there are infinite possibilities. Once the students have absorbed Transcendental philosophy, they might, for example, write a letter from Emerson to the band, giving his impression of their music, or from the band to Emerson, sharing their thoughts on his philosophy, and using all the madness and slang they plainly adore. I would love to hear Emersonís thoughts on ìMaggot Brain,î or to get Funkadelicís thoughts on Emersonís poetry. Alternatively, before they have heard a single song, it might be a good idea to have students brainstorm what ìTranscendentalî music might sound like, and then compare their expectations with the band.
My own students did an outstanding job of role-playing Emerson and Thoreau in modern situations ñ imagine the pair at a Funkadelic concert! Perhaps Thoreau could review the show for The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine. What if Thoreau awoke on Walden pond one day to discover a strange space-time warp had dropped the band off in front of his cabin? What madness might ensue? I havenít any idea, but I know it would be fun (and funky) to find out. Given the nature of the music, dance seems a natural media to mix in. Could your students devise a ìWake Upî dance, or a Transcendental Shuffle? Could they write songs of their own, summarizing Transcendental works? Can they decide ñ perhaps by vote and debate ñ whether or not George Clinton has read these works? Just a bit of imagination can devise no end of activities with this material.
While planning these lessons, a teacher might do well to consider the technique Clinton used as the bandís producer. Though he was undoubtedly the guiding force in the studio, like a good teacher in the classroom, Clinton did not control his performers. Bassist ìBoogieî Mosson called him a ìreferee,î who coordinated the musicians more than he created the music (Marsh 92-93). Billy Bass, another bassist, remembered that ìGeorge never told us what to play. We played what we wanted to play, and what we felt to playî (Marsh 41). The bandís first manager, Ron Scribner, has recalled that ìGeorge loved taking creative spirits ñ whether musically or otherwise ñ and giving them a platform, an opportunity to createî (Marsh 83). A teacher ought to do exactly that ñ set the stage, and let the students play upon it.
Creative connections and material are a good way to set this stage, and there are myriad ways to bring them into your class. Though I have connected Transcendentalism with Funkadelic, one might just as easily have connected Transcendentalism with the Star Wars movies (the Force is a concept to quite similar to Emersonís Oversoul), or with any number of things in popular culture. Like Henry David, I encourage you to explore your own connections, not just with these New England thinkers, but with all the works you teach. Seek and ye shall find, I guarantee. Let your passion and imagination be your guides. My own mental meandering has shown me how to show my students that the ideas of men long dead still live, breathe, and dance in our culture today.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson. Ed. Carl Bode and Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
ìEntelechy.î Websterís New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996
Funkadelic. Liner notes. Cosmic Slop. Westbound Records, 1973.
---. Liner notes. Letís Take It to the Stage. Westbound Records, 1975.
Hacker, Scot. ìCan You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk.î 1994. The Birdhouse Arts Collective. 4 June 2002 <http://www.birdhouse.org/words/scot/pfunk.html>.
Kenen, Andrew and Diane Seskes. ìMarching to the Beat of a Different Drum.î The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 4 June 2002 <www.rockhall.com/programs/
Luebke, Steven. ìIn Defense of Popular Music.î Paper presented at the Annual Joint Meetings of the Popular Culture/American Culture Association. Philadelphia, PA. 12-15 Apr. 1995.
Makal, Katie. ìMethod Slam Dunks on Nike's 'Funk Ship.'î 4 June 2002 Design in Motion. 9 July 2002 <http://www.designinmotion.com/brief/mainv/
Marsh, Dave, ed. George Clinton and P-Funk: An Oral History. New York: Avon Books, 1998.
McMichael, George, ed. Concise Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: 1998.
Motherpage, The. Ed. David Clough. 1996. 4 June 2002 <http://www.duke.edu/~tmc/
Plimpton, George. ìMuhammad Ali.î Time. 10 July 2002 <http://www.time.com/time/
Powell, Brent. ìHenry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest.î OAH Magazine of History 9.2 (1995): 26-29.
---. ìHenry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., Lesson Plan.î OAH Magazine of History 9.2 (1995): 26-29.
Selley, April. ìTranscendentalism in Star Trek: The Next Generation.î Journal of American Culture. 13.1 (1990): 31-35.
Thompson, Dave. Funk. Berkeley, CA: Backbeat Books, 2001.
Towell, Janet. ìMotivating Students through Music and Literature.î Reading Teacher 53.4 (1999-2000): 284-87.