Let’s take a trip backwards. Last night at our variety show, the first act was a keyboard organ/guitar duet where our pastor and one of the members of our congregation performed an original song written about a late member of our congregation and the noted classic “Whiter Shade Of Pale,” originally by Procol Harum. In explaining the story, he presented the sober view of the song as being a boy-loves-girl, boy-loses-girl kind of story with a sound textual analysis of the admittedly ambiguous lyrics. What I would like to do is to view the song as an entrance into a discussion of the layered way that communication helps to spread culture.
Let us begin with the song itself. “Whiter Shade Of Pale” was the only hit that Procol Harum had as a band, and its obscure lyrics helped to make it a massive hit, along with the combination of literate lyrics and music that is in part based on Bach and the timing of the song at the beginning of a period of similar kind of music. What was it that was communicated by the song? It is a haunting song, and despite its ambiguity its sense of melancholy and longing is certainly easily enough communicated by its sound. We have already commented on the classical antecedents of the song, but the lyrics of the song also mention the Miller’s Tale, part of the Canterbury Tales.
Now, the Canterbury Tales are a classic of Middle English literature, and they revolve around a group of people who swap stores in a High Middle Ages way while on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Miller’s Tale is one that speaks of the heartbreak of the Miller over a past relationship, and the way our pastor explained the lyrics of the song, the songwriter was referring to a situation where the girl was broken up about a past relationship and realizing she was not in love with the guy she was with, still having feelings for a past partner. Thus a story of heartbreak from more than 600 years ago was able to resonate with someone writing a song a few decades ago, and both of those are able to resonate with contemporary audiences far removed from the specific situations of either–a drunken party in England or a religious pilgrimage to a site.
The reason why Canterbury was so important of a site was because it was (and is) the most prestigious archbishopric of England and the see of the most important religious figure of the English religious establishment whether under Roman Catholic or Anglican authority. Thomas a Becket was one of the many holders of that office of Archbishop of Canterbury and he was put to death by four knights who took the King’s commandment to do something about this troublesome monk seriously, as knights who value their lives and positions tend to do when serving fierce monarchs. Part of the political results of the death during these early Angevin times was the establishment of Canterbury as a place for people to travel to gain religious merit in the spiritual economy of the late medieval Roman Catholic church.
What we have here is then a series of chains of communication that reverberate through the centuries. A king communicates his displeasure at a religious figure who is murdered, and the result of this martyrdom is the establishment of a site for religious tourism. Later on, stories are written about phenomenon that include immortal tales of heartbreak and melancholy. As the world happens to be full of people with broken relationship histories and profound and persistent feelings of sehnsucht, this story has over the centuries up to the present day inspired a great deal of empathetic responses from other like-minded people and further been included in later creative works that draw upon its themes for similar thematic purposes. And so it is that human beings are subject to influence from communications that occur a long time ago, and speak to something persistently human within us over that wide gap of space and time.