Idylls of Illusion

Jeb Bush’s current difficulties with the legacy of his big brother’s wars makes me think back to the beginning of the post-9/11 era and one of the more bizarre vignettes taken from the scrapbooks of my musical travels.

In 2002 I was invited to play an organ concert in the ultra-quaint New England village of Walpole, New Hampshire as part of the celebrations surrounding its 250th anniversary. Originally founded as a fort town in 1736, it was named in 1752 in honor of the late Robert Walpole, powerful prime minister to George I and George II.

Walpole is the place where Ken Burns lives, and as one might expect of the town chosen by America’s most prolific self-image maker, it appears to be postcard perfect, heaps of New York City money having removed itself permanently, or in some cases just for the weekend, to this upscale version of the colonial idyll in the Connecticut River Valley. Whether by legal code or long-standing convention, all the clapboard houses are painted white, the barns red. The latter no longer house hay and heifers, but have been converted to quarters for his and hers and kids’ SUVs.

The vintage dwellings set back from immaculate lawns and the luxury automobiles posing on raked gravel drives shone in the verdant New England summer when I arrived. Driving in to town was like driving into a holographic New York Times Magazine real estate advertisement.

My concert was scheduled for the Saturday morning at eleven o’clock in the Unitarian Church on the main street facing the village green. The church had been founded in the 1760s, but ditched the trinity in the nineteenth century for the more user-friendly theology of Unitarianism. White on the outside and white on the inside, the beautifully proportioned and immaculately maintained structure had a choir loft with a lovely nineteenth-century organ in it.

I had chosen a program of organ music from the first half of the eighteenth century, the era of Robert Walpole’s political dominance. Along with works by the favorite of the Hanoverian kings, the German ex-patriot George Frideric Handel, were offerings by his compatriot and exact contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach. Though the English organs of Handel’s day were without pedals (a curious fact that you can learn more about in my award-winning Bach’s Feet) I’d filled my program with lots of footwork, including that demanded by the Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, a piece famous and feared for its long and arduous pedal solo.

Arriving for my practice time on Friday evening I mounted the choir loft and sat down at the organ to discover that the bench was not only very low but also bolted to the floorboards. There was no way to move it in or out, or, more importantly, to make it higher by putting blocks under the thing.

In my many organ tours of Europe and North America, I’d never encountered this procrustean approach to the diverse physical features of organists. The fixed setting chosen in Walpole seemed to be geared for a little old lady organist of yore, that is, one no more than then five-feet tall and very short in the shin. The visiting Walpole sestercentennial organist stood at 6’4”.

In the first moments of panic, I thought about jettisoning all the acrobatic pedal bits and going for a more historically accurate rendering of English music from the time of Walpole’s life and the subsequent founding of his namesake town.

But in the end I plucked up my Puritan courage, and played the concert with each buttock perched tensely on top of its own stack of inclusive-language hymnals. That I didn’t topple from the bench at any point during the program was, I felt, reason to declare victory.

While I had been battling these unlikely Unitarian ergonomics another conflict had been raging outside the church: a reenactment of the Battle of Walpole. According to the 250th celebrations organizing committee this had been a small but crucial engagement of the French and Indian Wars. The smell of gun powder hung in the air outside the church and a few final musket reports could be heard in the distance.

I made my way across the village green to the upscale brew pub since I was in need of a bit bracing after my harrowing hour battling Bach and Handel on an undersized bench about half the height of the bar stool. I ordered a pint of the local artisanal ale and an organic, pasture-raised burger.

The television above the bar was set to CNN and showed footage of airstrikes in Afghanistan. A few minutes later two rugged guys wearing tricorne hats, jerkins, breeches, and buckle shoes, and carrying muskets came into the pub.

They propped their firearms against the nearest wall and took a seat next to me at the bar. The pair’s attention was immediately drawn to the television. “We’re kicking the shit out of the Taliban!” exclaimed the one American freedom fighter to the other.

Looking at the screen and then at the two men, it occurred to me that in the America of 2002 there was no verifiable way for anyone to separate reality from illusion.

Now in 2015 and after all these years of continuous war, Jeb somersaults and serpentines about his hypothetical support of his brother’s invasion of Iraq. It is clear that political campaigns, like American foreign policy, have detached themselves from reality to become mere reenactments. These satirical entertainments are populated by the players from ever-popular family troupes, the Bushes, Clintons, and, now, the Pauls—with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the role of Osama bin Laden. If Jeb keeps flubbing his lines and ends up not getting the chance to reenact the White House years of his older relations, then maybe he can brush up on the diction and deportment of Robert Walpole.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at