With ten-thousand screaming fans around me, I heard the sensational British folk/pop band Mumford and Sons. It’s good to see any folk renaissance at all, even better to see one starring such a literary band. In a downtown restored movie palace, the day before the concert, the Mumfords joined groupies, teachers, actors, and scholars to discuss author John Steinbeck’s influence on their music. Double bassist Ted Dwane introduced the band to Steinbeck’s themes of naturalism, compassion, manhood, and Biblical metaphors that resonate with their own sympathies. Dwane praised Steinbeck because, in his words, “he doesn’t shy away from the ugly stuff.” Band leader Marcus Mumford confessed to underlining and annotating Steinbeck’s novels; he said that “Timshel” contains parts that were “not just influenced by, but directly stolen from, East of Eden.” During Q and A, one audience member spoke for many when she marveled at “a band that reads!”
Mumford and Sons displays fine musicianship, galloping banjo, rough and sweet harmonies, inventive instrumentation, and muscular yet affecting vocals. The lyrical Steinbeckian fatalism is often couched in terms of the “thistles and weeds” of the 21st century male experience. Leitmotifs of angst, death, doubt, winter, mind and heart, shame, spirituality, and even religiosity are woven through the lyrics (Marcus’s brother, Dr. James Mumford, is a philosopher and Anglican convert). Some songs are solemn and hymnal, while others rock out, reaching past words into howls of grief.
In “Winter Winds,” Marcus sings of when “the winter winds litter London with lonely hearts” and of the difficult morning after a one-night stand:
And my head told my heart
“Let love grow”
But my heart told my head
“This time no
This time no”
The tables have turned in 2012 – the woman pursues, the man demurs. It is the heart that knows what reason does not: that the voyage beyond the hookup may involve too much psychic risk and spiritual peril.
In “The Cave” (Plato’s, certainly, but also Polyphemus’, Jesus’, even The Sybil’s), Marcus sings:
So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say
Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be
That “meant to be” is striking with its simple confidence in a metaphysical and moral scaffolding that exists beyond life’s dailiness.
Again, in “Roll Away Your Stone,” the lyric ends with:
But you, you've gone too far this time
You have neither reason nor rhyme
With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine
Possession of a soul is not a common declaration in modern music. And it’s not only the fairer sex that threatens a man’s virtue and autonomy. “Little Lion Man” seems to involve a mother advising her son to:
Weep for yourself, my man,
You'll never be what is in your heart
Weep, little lion man,
You're not as brave as you were at the start
Rate yourself and rake yourself
Take all the courage you have left
Wasted on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head
But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really f----d it up this time
Didn't I, my dear?
Didn't I, my dear?
How are we to take this? Interpretations vary, but the band may be referencing Philip Larkin’s opening lines of “This Be the Verse”:
They f--- you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
Again, Steinbeck resonates. At the theater pre-show, Dr. Mumford and Steinbeck scholar Dr. Susan Shillinglaw discussed how Steinbeck’s characters are most often men seen in relation to other men: comrades, paisanos, and friends. These bonds, she pointed out, are not misogynistic but real and meaningful, forming a kind of alternate family in search of “a male utopia where they can work the land.” As James noted, male friendship is straightforward and “less complicated than marriage, children, fidelity, and sexuality.”
Can it be that Mumford and Sons’ popularity means that casting the Western canon in song resonates with the young who fill our classes? Are they, after Facebook and Twitter, still haunted by the eternal existential questions? Have they found in Mumford’s music the expression of their own “growing fears” and spiritual yearnings? In “Awake My Soul” they sing:
Lend me your eyes I can change what you see
But your soul you must keep, totally free.
And in the end there is comfort, as “Winter Winds” concludes:
But if your strife strikes at your sleep
Remember spring swaps snow for leaves
You'll be happy and wholesome again
When the city clears and sun ascends.