He was playing real good, for free

In 1970, Joni Mitchell released an album, Ladies of the Canyon. On song, “For Free”, or perhaps her 1974 version on Miles of Aisles, “Real Good for Free” is getting quoted a lot in the blogs recently:

But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony...
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.

What is it all about? Last Sunday, the Washington Post had an article entitled Pearls Before Breakfast (NewsTrust Review) talks about Joshua Bell, playing at a Metro stop in Washington DC and nobody stopped to hear him, though he played so sweet and high…

The article invokes Leibniz, Hume and Kant, and besides bringing back memories of Joni Mitchell, it also brings back memories of philosophy classes I had with Richard Bell at College of Wooster, some thirty years ago. As I read the article, I could just hear our class talking about it. Professor Bell once made the comment once about how perhaps we are all ‘museum runners’. You know the type. You’ve seen them in the museums. They look briefly at one painting, read the label next to it, and move quickly to the next painting. My mind wanders to a story from the very early days of “All Things Considered”. It was a report about a sunset, and I seem to recall something about anthropomorphized clouds wondering if anyone would stop and notice, and appreciating the one or two people that did. My mind wanders to an outcropping of rocks somewhere near St. Davids Wales, where I sat and watched a sunset twenty-four years ago when I was hitchhiking around Europe. There was a small area of dried oil paint, the residue of some painter trying to capture the sunset.

So this evening, I sit. I ponder the story in the Post and discussions about beauty and people taking time to see it. I think of the emails that are piled up, one political issue after another. I think of the bills that have piled up. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” … “It's when I'm weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood” …
Auden comes to mind,

and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

But the article, the musician playing real good for free, the sunsets all come back to me and another phrase from Joni Mitchell comes to mind, “It's life's illusions I recall. I really don’t know life, at all”

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