The Year of Peril: A Song Cycle Inspired by Thomas Hart Benton’s Painting Set

Thomas Hart Benton’s painting set “The Year of Peril” was completed in 1942 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His intention for the paintings was to garner support in the Midwest for the war. I was drawn to the paintings because of their shocking subject matter. They graphically display the horrors of war. My goal was to explore Benton’s intentions for the paintings and their historical context to provide my own interpretation of the works.

Benton included ten paintings altogether in the set; however, my project focuses on the original series of eight (two works were commissioned after the original set). All of the paintings present a different scene but are set to the backdrop of the despair and hopelessness of war. Benton was terrified by the prospect of invasion and wanted the heart of America to take notice. His images of war are gruesome. Instead of the sanitized nature of war propaganda which was typical of the time, he depicts dismembered bodies, blood, terrible deaths and a mother mourning the loss of her family. The works serve to reveal the honest tragedy of war. Although these paintings are rooted in a specific historic climate, their underlying message is one that stands throughout history. War causes destruction that cannot and should not be ignored.

My wish was to avoid a literal interpretation that simply imitates the paintings and other narratives associated with World War II. Instead, I wanted to use my own interpretation of the works to write music that complements the paintings and is commercially viable. I feel that the music is not so dependent on the paintings and history that they need the context to make sense. Rather, I want the images and their history to give the listener a deeper understanding of the music.

Starry Night
 

"Starry Night", 1942
“Starry Night”, 1942

With this painting and the set as a whole, Benton wanted to give Americans a taste of the realities of war and the possibility of invasion so that people would support the war. In equal parts, he sought to warn against apathy toward the war effort, instill a fear of the reality and brutality of war, and remind Americans of the need to seek revenge against the Japanese.

My goal in writing the lyric was to tell the story of the man in the painting from a detached, third-person point of view. That is the voice I felt Benton using in his accompanying pamphlet with the painting set. He seemed to be saying to the viewer “now is the time to pay attention to these issues and if you don’t, you have no excuse.”

Credits:
Writer, bass, vocals – Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering), guitar, mandolin, dobro, banjo, pedal steel – Jim Lill

 

Indifference
 

"Indifference", 1942
“Indifference”, 1942

The first thought that came to mind when I saw this painting was a feeling of hollowness. It seemed to me that the goal for the painting was to show that a war which is fought without the attention of people back home is a war which is indifferent to loss. My goal with the song was to make the point that whether a person is in favor of or against a war, if there is no action to back up those opinions and no attention given to the conflict, there will be suffering and loss in vain.

Credits:
Writer, bass, vocals, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar – Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering), dobro, banjo, pedal steel – Jim Lill

 

Invasion
 

"Invasion", 1942
“Invasion”, 1942

This painting appears as though its main purpose was to appeal directly to families in the midwest dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. There are multiple scenes happening all in front of a barn. There is chaos in the background with fire, corpses and a line of more soldiers coming to invade, but the main focus of the painting are three scenes in the forefront of the action. Pictured is an elderly man who has just been struck in the throat by a bayonet who is holding the hand of a small girl (presumed to be his granddaughter) while her back is turned. There is a woman being restrained by two soldiers – one at her neck, the other exposing her breast. Under her is a small boy lying on the ground with blood soaking his shirt. He appears to be alive, in pain and reaching for a red wagon. My goal in writing this piece was to capture all three of the powerful scenes depicted. I felt that the best way to do this would be to make the song an instrumental one as the scene seemed to be beyond capturing in words.

Credits:
Writer, bass, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, banjo – Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering), dobro – Jim Lill

 

The Sowers
 

"The Sowers", 1942
“The Sowers”, 1942

My thoughts immediately gravitated toward death when I saw “The Sowers.” In the wake of any death, even the brutal death of war which kills both the body and the spirit, life moves on. The chorus of this song mirrors that sentiment. The bridge of this song is, to me, the most powerful moment. “Molded from the earth, could this flesh be saved? Dead since my birth, is there a garden in this grave?” These questions kept coming to me as I worked on this project. Can we be saved from the atrocities of war that we have either participated in or allowed to happen? Can good come of war? Is there a rebirth in the aftermath? These are questions I haven’t been able to fully answer, but maybe that’s not the artist’s job to answer. Perhaps it’s the artist’s job simply to ask.

Credits:
Writer, bass, guitar, vocals – Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering), mandolin, bouzouki, dobro, pedal steel – Jim Lill
Writer (bridge lyric) – Drew Miller

 

The Harvest
 

"The Harvest", 1942
“The Harvest”, 1942

This painting is a rich scene full of characters. The most compelling to me is the woman in the middle of the painting who is obviously distraught at the loss of her family. In writing this song, I decided to take on her voice. I came up with a loose narrative to create a backstory for her. The general outline is that she has a son who decided to leave the house and look for work, leaving the rest of the family there. While he is gone, the farm is invaded. From the mother’s point of view, she feels a great sense of regret and shame for not being able to protect her family. Her reaction to the attack is the sense of loss and devastation that Benton wanted midwestern farm families to not have to experience on the front lines. His goal was to encourage these families to support the war effort any way they could to keep the country vigilant and strong against possible attacks.

Credits:
Writer, bass, vocals, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, ukulele – Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering), dobro, banjo, pedal steel – Jim Lill

 

Casualty
 

"Casualty", 1942
“Casualty”, 1942

The scene is gruesome and was difficult for me to connect with but I did find inspiration in Benton’s words to accompany this work:

“If comfort is derived from reports that ‘casualties’ in some remote action were few, be reminded of the real meaning of the word. It means that living men’s bodies have been pierced and torn apart and probably also that valuable instruments of war have been destroyed with them. If too many things like this occur in far-away places because of halting productive measures at home, the war will be lost to us and the enemy come upon us and make us know at our very firesides the real and shattering human meaning of the word ‘casualty.'”

These words cut to my core more than any of the other paintings or accompanying descriptions. The idea of the word “casualty” being humanized was jarring to me. Too often those lives on a casualty list are reduced to a number and the true cost of losing even one life to war isn’t fully comprehended.

Credits:
Writer, bass- Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering) – Jim Lill

 

Exterminate
 

"Exterminate", 1942
“Exterminate”, 1942

I found this painting to be one of the most disturbing of the set. What bothered me the most about it was the way Benton made caricatures of the Japanese. I understand that both the Japanese and the Germans did some awful things during the war but I think that the dehumanization of a race of people is dangerous. This is what led to the Japanese internment camps of WWII and similar discrimination is happening in this country in the wake of 9/11 and more recent attacks by ISIS. I tend to be a pacifistic person but I do understand the necessity for war when there are no other options. What I can’t understand is vilifying and dehumanizing an entire race of people for the actions of a portion of those people. I think that this is extremely dangerous and one of the only ways we can justify the atrocities of war. In his accompanying words with the painting, Benton wrote:

“Now and then these forces, cunningly joining small powers until they have attained great powers, threaten to enslave the world. Humanity must then rise up and tear their evil out and kill them. For this task, sensual hate, ferocity and brute will are necessary. Humanity must deny itself to save itself.”

These words frustrate me because I understand that humanity must be denied to fight wars but I want so badly for there to be another answer.

Credits:
Writer, bass, vocals – Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering), writer, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro – Jim Lill

 

Again
 

"Again", 1942
“Again”, 1942

“Jesus Christ has stood through the centuries as the preeminent symbol of the brotherhood of man. Over and over again, evil people mad with dreams of power have driven the centurion’s spear into His side. Once again today — just as Man with his worldwide exchange of goods, and with his new devices of communication, has approached a realizable economic brotherhood — the old assault is loosed. Mastery, not brotherhood; Control, not share; are the slogans of the new attackers.”-Thomas Hart Benton on “Again”

This painting shows the Christ upon his cross with the same caricatures of Japanese and German soldiers thrusting a spear into his side. There is a German plane overhead also firing at Christ. Benton rightly appraises war as the antithesis to the teachings of Christ. He also notes that the war that was about to begin was not the first and would not be the last. The facade of the enemy changes, but the desire to defeat humanity remains.

Credits:
Writer, bass, vocals, guitar – Kori Caswell
Engineer (mixing, mastering), dobro, banjo, pedal steel, mandolin – Jim Lill

 

Reflection
 

One question has continued to surface itself during the writing process of this project: “what is the role of the artist during times of war?” It is a question that I don’t know I’ve fully answered, but one which I feel I have more depth of knowledge and insight to deal with at the conclusion of my time with the project. We have seen artists address wartime in different ways throughout history. Surely Benton felt his duty as an artist during the time of war was to encourage his nation to fight and support the war effort with all they had – be it on the front lines or working to provide machinery and crops from the Homefront.

During the Vietnam war, many artists felt their duty was to propel a movement of peace. In the wake of 9/11 artists took a role very similar to Benton’s. With songs like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?” a similar demographic of the ‘everyday midwest man’ was targeted by nature of the country music demographic to rally against the forces that attacked our country. Artists like the Dixie Chicks who had reservations about America’s actions during this time were effectively shunned and labelled anti-American for voicing their opinions.

So it begs the question, what is the role of the artist today? Is the role to promote peace? To condemn discrimination? To bring awareness to the plight of the Syrian refugee? To promote awareness of global conflict? Maybe all of the above and more? I felt that my duty with this project was to provide an interpretation of these paintings which conveyed Benton’s intentions with the works, parallel the time after Pearl Harbor with our current global climate and discourage against the loss of humanity in the face of terror.