Groove

I’m spreading the second coat of varnish, moving the paintbrush to the beat of my old boombox and wondering if that might be just the magic needed to ensure a danceable floor. It already possesses a kind of visual music: a metronome in one direction, since all the floorboards are the same width, but at right angles to the grain, the very shallow grooves left by the floor sander every time I paused it, made visible by the varnish, form a more varied but still somewhat regular pattern: step step rest. Step step rest.

Strange stuff, polyurethane — paint without pigment, its presence detectable only by the gloss and extra depth it imparts to surfaces. Like some people’s idea of God, I suppose. And maybe because I just “got down on my bended knees” myself, my old cassette copy of the song Burning Hell, by John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, seems like a perfect fit right now.

The appealing thing about the song is that the narrator’s skepticism is wholly focused on the afterlife; there’s no mention of God or devil, though one could certainly argue that their non-existence is implied:

Ain’t no heaven,
ain’t no burning hell.
When I die, where I go,
nobody can tell.

The song is culturally if not theologically Christian, borrowing imagery and a vocal delivery from the charismatic churches. The protagonist asks a deacon to pray for him, and also prays himself, all night long, in the spirit of “help Thou my unbelief.” But apparently it doesn’t do any good: there’s no epiphany, the prayer goes unanswered, and the song concludes as skeptically as it began.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t come off as despairing at all, but defiant and ultimately joyful. John Lee Hooker certainly didn’t invent the style of blues known as boogie, but his concept of it was fairly unique: verses of varying length, as much spontaneity as possible in verbal and musical lines, and an overall impression of songs as mere fragments of something essentially endless. Many of Hooker’s songs are more laid-back than “Burning Hell,” but all of them tap into the same, hypnotic groove, for lack of a better term.

I’ve loved that groove ever since I first heard it, which may be as much as thirty years ago, when my older brother first started playing clawhammer banjo. Though now associated with Appalachian string band music, it’s the old, African style of playing, featuring a bum-ditty beat with the thumb hammering out a drone note. Some sort of drone occurs in many, perhaps most, styles of traditional music the world over, especially those influenced by contact with Islam and the muezzin’s call to prayer — certainly the case with most musical traditions brought to the New World by West Africans. Even the explicit focus on drones in Indian classical music dates back only to the Mogul period, though its subsequent popularity on the subcontinent probably also reflects indigenous metaphysical concepts. According to an online paper on the subject, “the function of the drone or tonicizing ground in Indian classical music is rooted in the ancient Hindu philosophies: it is the physical manifestation of OM.”

So while “Burning Hell” celebrates spiritual homelessness, Hooker’s droning boogie guitar groove is anything but OMless.

Given the title of this blog, I’m sure you’d all be disappointed if I didn’t go on to point out that doubt is a very fruitful position. In fact, I do think about this sort of thing a lot, but have moved away from blogging about it because I don’t feel I have too many original insights on the subject. All I know is that for me, affiliation with some spiritual tradition or another is an on-going temptation I feel I must resist if I am ever to learn anything about reality, whatever that may consist of. As I’ve said before, one of my base assumptions is that if some doctrine or dogma makes me feel good, it can’t possibly be true. “Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burning hell” has the appeal of a good mantra for me, teaching non-attachment to the self — something that most of the major religions also agree is a good thing, though perhaps only in the same way that Marxist-Leninism preaches the ultimate disappearance of the state.

At any rate, despite spending half an hour sweeping and vacuuming in advance of the varnishing, I’m still finding a few stray bits of dirt as I go along — a fragment of leaf, a hair, a small piece of broomstraw. I could get up and carry them over to the waste basket in the other room, but that would break the rhythm, so instead I shove them into my pocket. The really tiny grains of dirt can be pushed into the cracks between the floorboards, where 150 years of accumulated crud has acquired the status and patina of a deliberately applied grout. I’m reminded of the ancient riddle, quoted by Heraclitus:

What we found, we caught and killed.
What we couldn’t find, we brought with us.

The accepted answer is lice, but it could be almost anything. Atheists and believers both could probably take a lesson from it.

12 Comments


  1. Dave Said:
    “‘What we found, we caught and killed.
    What we couldn’t find, we brought with us.’

    The accepted answer is lice, but it could be almost anything. ”

    And all this time I thought it was the culture of distroyed Civ’s.

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  2. “OMless” priceless! :)

    And now you have me scampering to go through my cassettes, looking for my copy of John Lee Hooker (and brining back all sort of memories…)

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  3. I’ve always loved John Lee Hooker. But that’s not what I love most about this post. Maybe you don’t have original insights on doubt, Dave – few of us do – but you have a very original way of writing about it. Put this one in the “best of VN” folder.

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  4. I must admit I would probably have varnished over the small bits of dirt, particularly the hairs, but pushing them into the cracks is also good.

    Wonderful. And the Seussian window(s).

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  5. Yes. I’m with Beth. This is quintessential VN stuff right here.

    I tend to figure originality is over-rated. Shakespeare wasn’t doing anything particularly original, but what he did, he did well.

    I imagine you won’t be surprised to hear me assert that there’s no necessary disjunction (for me) between following a theistic spiritual path and acknowledging the wisdom of apophatic discourse. But I’m like that; I want to have my cake and eat it too.

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  6. Yeah, this is a good post. I hope you’re not getting too attached to non-attachment, though. And I’m not being flippant here. Just as there is no such thing as “all things in moderation,” there may not be any such thing as non-attachment.

    As I’ve said before, one of my base assumptions is that if some doctrine or dogma makes me feel good, it can’t possibly be true.

    What do you mean “feel good”?

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  7. Hi folks – I’ve been neglecting comments in favor of updating the smorgasblog and catching up with my blog reading (plus i was offline most of the day). I’ll try and respond to these tomorrow, inshallah.

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  8. Yes, yes, Dave – all good stuff. I’ve just come from koshtra where I left a comment. Wish I’d read you first: I’d have written with a clearer mind!

    Sadly, the Hooker link won’t work outside the States. Could have done with some profane early morning boogie. ‘Let that boy boogie-woogie ’cause you know it’s in him and it’s just got to come out’.

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  9. Thanks for this post.

    First of all I have loved the song Burning Hell ever since I first heard it, I really identify with the at-home defiance of the song. The entire Hooker-n-Heat album is absolutely fantastic.

    Why are so many of us afraid of death? It really is the cause of a lot of our misery.

    However, below all of that, the beauty of communion is still there to be… shared.

    Friends don’t let friends groove alone.

    OMen

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  10. Keith – That sounds about right.

    maria – Which album do you have, I wonder? He recorded so freakin’ many – there’s very little chance I know it!

    beth – Thanks. O.K., I’ll make it a “best of,” if you insist, but I have a lot more to say in this line.

    rr – Well, the cracks got varnished too, of course, though I don’t think it affected their basic grooviness all that much.

    Rachel – You’re right about originality; what I really meant was novelty. If one hatches a thought on one’s own, it’s still original, even if it isn’t novel.

    Also, not to get all semantically correct (SC?) on you, but what I was talking about wasn’t so much the apophatic way — that’s, like, the Ayn Sof of Kabbalah — as just plain skepticism, I think. I extend my skepticism further than most agnostics or atheists, however: I not only question the existence of heaven and hell (and any transcendent or descendent inhabitants they might have), I question my own existence, too.

    Brett – Nope, not too attached to non-attachment, really. As i said in the comments to Dale’s post yesterday, there’s another side to this that I didn’t have time to go into: the whole beauty/magic thing, David Abram’s “spell of the sensuous.” I do feel the commandment against idolatry is key to the Abrahamic traditions, but I like to have it both ways, as you’ll see in today’s post. In other words, I think idolatry gets a bad rap sometimes. Totally inconsistent, I know.

    “Feel good”: feel secure, or vindicated, or reassured, or otherwise confirmed in one’s own preconceptions. Feeling good in the sense of an aesthetic, wondering or awestruck response, on the other hand, is often the beginning of true discovery. (See Dale’s bit about beauty.)

    Dick – I’m sorry about that. I figured a link that only North Americans could use was better than no link at all. If I find a better service, you can bet I’ll link to that, instead. I tried making a recording straight from my boombox for y’all, but even with all the effects in the Audacity software, my cheap-ass mike still made it sound like shit.

    Hal – Yeah, fear of death has spoiled religion, along with so many other things. But it has given us a lot of good ghost stories and zombie films! And communion, yeah – that’s another big part of being in the groove that I didn’t have time to go into here.

    Glad to “meet” another Hooker-n-Heat fan! Canned Heat was one of the few 60s blues-rock bands I really respect, and they knew how to get out of the way and let Hooker be himself.

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  11. As usual your start and finish did a good job in twisting my expectations right into an unattached pretzel. I love it when refurbishing an old room becomes a discussion on the merits and demerits of joining organized religion, but not before touching upon the significance of droning in music.

    Since you also lived in Japan you must have wondered about the way Japanese manage to run a society without any particular commitment to organized religion. People outside Japan often seem to think of Japanese as “Buddhist” or “Shinto”, but in truth they are both and neither and seem to slip from one philosophy to another without any of the western sense of inconsistency. I know of almost no one who “goes to church” and no one who argues about evolution or thinks it strange to go to a Shinto priest for a birth naming, a Christian church for a wedding, and a Buddhist temple for a funeral. In fact, the Japanese are the most intrinsically “unattached” people I know. And yet they lead lives filled with ethos. Living here has helped me more to find no need to look for or single out any of the organized religions than any of the long discussions I’ve had about all of them. It’s one of the things I love about Japan, that ability to look at the roots of living as a very down-to-earth relationship with the “real world”.

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  12. Miguel – Thanks for the comment. You’re right about Japan, of course, and the same could also be said about the vast majority of the world’s population historically. Most “religions” haven’t really even had a separate identity as such; there were simply different orders or medicine societies or pilgrimage associations that people could join for shorter ar longer lengths of time, depending on their need; society-wide initiation rituals; and a welter of other activities and beliefs aimed at healing and preserving harmony between individuals, society, nature, and the dead. Japan is unique only in being the largest and most modern nation-state to preserve this ancient way of being. And of course, it has also produced its share of highly original religious thinkers worthy of export: Bankei, Shinran, Dogen, etc.

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