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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hussalonia Song # 15: Abide With Me [A Cover]

Now we begin our exploration of the bizarre world of "The Hussalonia Robot Singers." In this entry I hope to cover such topics as the origin of the song "Abide With Me," which is the first cover performed by Hussalonia that I shall write about on this blog, my own feelings about robots, and finally a brief mention of how a robot song inspired me to study philosophy.

Prior to hearing this album, I'd never heard "Abide With Me," or at least I can't recall having heard it, despite attending a number of Christian churches in my youth. Most hymns never really got my attention as a kid; I only began to appreciate many hymns and traditional songs in adulthood after hearing covers by artists such as Bob Dylan who appreciate such songs and manage to give them the street cred that they deserve and that churches and local choir performances don't really convey, at least not to me. Since Hussalonia and "The Hussalonia Robot Singers" introduced me to this song, I've bought two beautiful versions by Mahalia Jackson and Hayley Westenra. The Jackson version ended up inspired a lovely short story idea that came to me while watching fireworks on the third of July last year. So I thank you again, Hussalonia, for inspiring my own creative efforts, albeit indirectly.

The song itself was written by Henry Francis Lyte in 1847 (making it public domain, for those of you following at home) as he was at death's door due to tuberculosis, or so says Wikipedia. Perhaps the religiousness/spirituality of the song isn't your thing, but I can't imagine not being moved by the sincerity and passion in the song, especially given the circumstances in which it was written. For those wishing to read and maybe even appropriate (for your own creative works) the complete lyrics of this public domain classic, Wikisource has got you covered: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Abide_with_Me. Hats off to you, Wikisource, and all of the lovely people out there who make public domain material readily available to us all. I would certainly rank it as one of the finest hymns/religious songs I've ever heard. Oddly enough, I discovered it via Hussalonia around the same time that I discovered another personal favorite, traditional-spiritual song, "Lone Pilgrim," via Bob Dylan's album of covers of such older songs, "World Gone Wrong."

The cover by Hussalonia/The Hussalonia Robot Singers, clocking in at only 42 seconds long, only includes the first verse. Nonetheless, in the album's strange way, it remains quite lovely. I should take this opportunity to talk about the album as a whole and my personal feelings regarding robots. In most cases, I hate stories that involve robots or normally inanimate objects as protagonists or supporting characters. The Star Wars films don't bother me in that regard too much, as C-3P0 and R2-D2 act primarily as comic relief and so I don't find myself mired in troubling philosophical questions about their selfhood. In the Star Trek series, which I became interested in only very recently (and no, I was not named after either Leonard Nimoy or Captain James T. Kirk, in case you were wondering) I feel that the character Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is actually quite likable and his android-hood is treated in a way that somehow subverts whatever would normally bother me about such a character, and other artificial intelligence-based characters in the series are treated in a way that I feel treats the elements of such characters that I normally find irritatingly taken for granted with proper respect. I do hate when the Borg are featured, though. I find the Borg disgusting.

I really can't embrace Osamu Tezuka's widely beloved "Astro Boy" series despite how much I enjoy his other works. In regard to inanimate object stories, I can't stand any of the "Toy Story" films or that blasted "Velveteen Rabbit" story. Things such as that just rub me the wrong way somehow. Oddly, though I generally dislike robot and inanimate object-centric stories, I'm drawn to stories with elderly protagonists, such as the film "Bubba Ho-Tep" and the animated film "Up." Go figure.

I do, however, enjoy both "The Hussalonia Robot Singers" and the sequel album "The Somewhat Surprising Return of The Hussalonia Robot Singers." That said, when I say "enjoy," I use the word loosely. Both of these albums give me the same grossed out, creeped out feeling that most robot stories do, and that usually is enough to make me hate them. Oddly, though, in regard to both inanimate object stories and robot stories, there always seems to be one or two exceptions to my general dislike that I really enjoy and which, strangely, I really enjoy for the exact reason, more or less, that I normally would dislike such things. For one of the few inanimate object stories I love, there's the animated film "The Brave Little Toaster." For robot stories, there's another "robot song" I heard years ago that indirectly led me to one of my most important passions in life, philosophy. That other, non-Hussalonia "robot song" is "Marvin, I Love You."

"Marvin, I Love You" was written, if memory serves, by Douglas Adams, and it was a comedy single based on his "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" franchise that included both a radio play, a television miniseries and perhaps the most well-known telling of the tales, the novel "trilogy" that wound up including six books. The song is mostly a spoken word piece performed from the perspective of Marvin, the "the Paranoid Android" who is played by the same voice actor from the television miniseries. The song involves the perpetually "gloomy robot" realizing that there is a message in his "dusty old databanks" that is, essentially, a recorded love letter to him; it is a woman's voice singing of her love for him. The woman, the only of the two voices that actually sings, is portrayed, oddly enough, by Kimi Wong. For those of you who aren't familiar with her, she was once married (I think at the time she recorded this track) to Richard O'Brien, the creator of "The Rocky Horror Show" and the cult film adaptation of that musical, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," in which he also played the character of Riff Raff and Kimi Wong, if memory serves, played one of dancing "Transylvanians" during the "Time Warp" sequence.

I first stumbled upon this song when I bought a copy of the "The Very Best of Dr. Demento," which I sought out after years of being told of the Dr. Demento show airing locally earlier in my father's life. This song instantly captured my attention and interested me greatly; something about it struck me as being very poignant, despite being, essentially, a "novelty song." It was comedic, and Marvin's downtrodden tone was itself comical, but I couldn't help but feel a little bit of real sympathy for him too. The synthesizer music was very atmospheric, and the mention of computer data being stored on "tapes" really brought to mind this 1980s-era retro-future world that I find oddly appealing as well. I should mention that one other thing I have a strange fondness for is obsolete technology. Old records, old tapes, old film, old recorders, old cameras, floppy discs, old computers, all of it has a weird appeal to me; I'm fascinated by the idea of things being recorded and created in formats that people lose the widespread ability to use and decipher. I've actually got a number of my old writings saved on floppy disks that I'm still saving despite not being able to use with my new computer. This song, the idea of a robot which acts essentially as an anthropomorphized computer regretting that his design is becoming increasingly useless, struck me right away as something perfect for me. I recall being unsure of exactly what the quality was about the song that I enjoyed so much but I knew it was something about the mix of the themes of aging technology, lost love, regret, and loneliness and synthesizer music. The combination was just perfect for me.

From there, I sought out "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series. I ordered the first book of the series at a Sam Goody store (remember those?) and on the day I went to pick it up, I was informed by the clerks working there of two things: my order had been botched and the book wasn't going to arrive, and the author of the book, Douglas Adams, had died that very morning of a heart attack at the age of only 49. Despite this depressing setback, I eventually obtained the whole book series and enjoyed them thoroughly. A few years later a collection including his unfinished final book and a bunch of essays was released under the title of "The Salmon of Doubt." During a beach vacation in South Carolina, I read through the book, and was fascinated by his essays on atheism (he was a friend of Richard Dawkins, who might be more familiar to many readers) and felt a need to engage them in thrilling philosophical combat, just to be contrary, I suppose. I joined some fan groups based on "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (which, ironically, remain online mostly abandoned, becoming "obsolete technology" themselves, covered in ridiculous spam messages worthy of the absurd humor of Adams himself) and it was in one of these that a film was recommended to me. I had seen Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant "Spirited Away" (a film which reconciled me with anime) and asked in one of the groups for other excellent animated films to bed recommended. One such recommendation was for Richard Linklater's "Waking Life." The following summer, on vacation in South Carolina again, my friend stumbled onto that film airing on television; we both enjoyed it from the moment we saw it, and it wasn't until later that I discovered that it was the same film recommended to me in the group. A man in that film appears in only one scene and says "Kierkegaard's last words were "Sweep me up!'" That name stuck out to me for some reason. I resolved to investigate the man and his work but promptly forgot about it; less than a month later, I was browsing a Borders bookstore and, inspired by my considerations about atheism brought about by my reading of Douglas Adams, I took a quick look in the philosophy section. There, I found "Works of Love" by Soren Kierkegaard. This would prove a turning point in my life as Kierkegaard's work would reinforce a number of philosophical ideas that occurred to me during my readings of Adams the year prior and, with far more eloquence than I possessed, expanded upon those ideas. It is difficult to convey here in this single blog entry just how important Kierkegaard, as well as Adams in a different way, proved to be for me in the years since, but I suppose it will suffice say that all of these experiences were very significant, life-changing ones, and it's all thanks to my initial love of novelty music and a robot song.

After that lengthy digression, I must return to "The Hussalonia Robot Singers" and "Abide With Me." For the album as a whole, I certainly appreciate the way the album (and the sequel album) was constructed. They give proper weight to the relevant "robot issues" in a way that I respect, and I can find in them various shades of that quality that I so enjoy in "Marvin, I Love You." Also like that song, they keep an overall sense of humor, albeit a rather tragicomic sense of humor. The songs on both albums tend to show more willingness to enter darker territories than the Adams song as well, which creates a nice balance, but for me at least this makes many of the songs rather difficult to listen to on a regular basis. I can appreciate them, but I can't always "enjoy" them in the usual sense of the word.

"Abide With Me," specifically, is an unusual track. Not being an original, robot-centric song, it creates an odd clash of expectations, as one normally expects to hear such a song performed by a church choir. What are we to make of this choice of material for an album like this? Is it a social commentary, creating a critical comparison between religious humans and robots? Is it simply absurd humor? Could it be chosen simply to reinforce the sadness of the robot singers' existence and existential angst? Perhaps it is there simply because the Hussalonia founder enjoyed the song? Could it be all of the above? I suppose all of those things are possibilities, and there are probably other ways of looking at it as well. I prefer the simplest explanations, that this and "Home On the Range," the album's other cover of a traditional song, were simply personal favorites' of the robot singers' inventor. For that fascinating piece of history, I encourage you to read the explanation provided on the album's own page on Hussalonia's official website, The Hussalonia Internet Concourse. It is a most informative and entertaining read.

Though it is only 42 seconds long, and only one verse of a longer work, "Abide With Me" is still a personal favorite from this album. The sudden, inverted human choir sound near the end, finishing off the rising volume of the robot voices is a startling, unusually lovely finish to a bizarre recording, and an equally lovely yet bizarre beginning to one of the stranger albums in Hussalonia's catalogue. Much like "Marvin, I Love You" led me to other important things such as philosophy and Soren Kierkegaard, so this track led me to a beautiful traditional song which in turn inspired a very important (to me, anyway) short story. One must take time, once in a while, and appreciate these beautiful threads in our lives.

One final note: I bought this album on CD via CDBaby about a year ago, and I checked in recently on a whim and discovered it was no longer on sale as a physical CD. I'm honored to be one of the final Hussalonianites to have bought a copy of the album in physical form! For those of you playing at home, I noticed that "Percy "thrills" Hussalonia" is listed as having only a few copies left in stock as well, so get 'em before they're gone, kids.

Our next entry will be on "Neglect Has Turned Me Orange And Brown, But You Have Made Me Blue." Until next time, this dude abides, and I hope that you do too.


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