Monday, February 28, 2011

Folk Roots, New Routes/Mockingjay Part II

The Hunger Games trilogy does a great job of telling a story I already love. Running Man, Battle Royale, Discipline and Punish–all great examples. The spectacle of a single individual withstanding the exertion of state power in a public forum, and the way that the audience's sympathy with this individual reinforces state power, is an effective and revealing situation. I think it also has a relationship to some of the underlying themes of Silk Flowers, but that's a different conversation. I'm also very interested in the post-apocalypse, and in particular stories of what follows.

In The Hunger Games, the survivors of an unnamed catastrophic event rebuild society as an interdependent network of districts surrounding a capitol. Each district is responsible for a different segment of manufacturing or agriculture, with all the wealth feeding into the capitol. We know from history that this kind of feudal system is untenable, and a failed revolution 75 years prior to the book's setting stands as a reminder. In the wake of this insurrection, the capitol established the Hunger Games, a televised example of its absolute power.

Each year, each of the twelve districts must send two tributes–one boy and one girl–to a chaotic fight to the death. Chosen by lottery, these children are costumed, interviewed, and sent to an almost-guaranteed death, with the entire process broadcast live and witnessed by the entire nation. The lone survivor from each year is made a hero, with his or her district received extra food rations for a year. Every citizen watches a child from their district murdered by another child and is reminded of their own powerlessness. Except for the capitol, which is merely entertained.

The drama is obvious, with the horror of children fighting to the death and the frustration of this oppression pushing all but the most heartless readers to the book's violent end. I've seen a lot of copies of the book that look bent up, I can imagine most readers throttle their copies during conversations between 14 year olds swearing they'll never have children so that they don't have to suffer the injustice.

The trilogy follows Katniss Everdeen, who reviewers like pitting against Bella Swan (of Twilight) because of her similar indecisiveness and because Everdeen is so empowered where Swan isn't. My favorite thing about Katniss, or the quality that made me really take her side, is her love of singing. For Katniss, singing is a part of life, a limitless vehicle for expression. In the rural countryside of the post-apocalypse, there is no pop music, and Katniss's repertoire is built of the songs her dad sings, and reliant on her ability to memorize. I assume if I only heard a few dozen songs in my life I would know them all, and often romanticize the idea of how precious music could be in such circumstances.

One of the key scenes in The Hunger Games is when Katniss sings to mourn a fallen friend on the battlefield. In a setting where everyone is an enemy and death is everywhere, the act is supremely revolutionary. Katniss completely breaks the spectacle of violence by arresting its storyline and insisting that the dead girl's humanity be recognized.

But the part I really love is in the third book, Mockingjay, when Katniss is inspired to sing "The Hanging Tree." The song betrays a deep debt to a few different Child Ballads, especially "Hangman" and to a lesser degree "Sweet William and Lady Margaret." In the song, a woman is spoken to by an admirer, who asks her to meet him at the hanging tree:

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the strung up a man they say murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree"

Of course it's creepy that he says "in the hanging tree" instead of "at the hanging tree" but the song gets a lot creepier. By the third verse, his plea grows scarier: "Are you, are you/coming to the tree/Where I told you to run,so we'd both be free" and by the final verse it's, "Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me."

When she finishes singing, Katniss recalls singing the song as a small child, making rope necklaces with her toddler sister out of scrap rope. When discovered by her mother, the necklaces were snatched away and the song banned from the household.

She goes on to unpack the meaning of the song, how her loss of innocence through the Hunger Games taught her the song's meaning. I naively listened to the Clash's London Calling for years before realizing how many of the songs were about heroin addiction. By the time I figured it out it was too late, and many of my friends had fallen victim to the drug in a way that made the record unwelcome in my life. It's an intense experience growing into art.

So going back to the first part of this post, I am really interested in the idea of the reverence that certain songs command and the necessity of reconsidering this reverence with each generation. When Katniss first learned the song from her father, he sang it with a hopelessness that comes from subjugation, and perhaps acknowledging the guilt of bringing a child into a world where that child may end up murdered on TV. When Katniss revisits the song throughout the escalation of Mockingjay, she uses it as a lens for examining sacrifice and survival. The song isn't less potent, it's potent in a different way.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of this reconsidering process is the number of home-recorded versions of "The Hanging Tree" that have appeared on youtube. Without any guide as to the tone of the song, let alone a melody, over a dozen singers have posted versions of the song online. My favorite is posted above, but I like the possibility of this song carrying on a new life in this way more than I could ever like one specific version.

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