Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Hundred Years from Now

Before reading below, please listen to this audio file:

Now the back story. I have this song in my iTunes library, which I generally have playing softly in the background as I work. The music helps drown out any background noise or distractions, and I usually don’t pay much attention to it. But when this song comes on, I often pause and listen to the lyrics and the recitation in the middle, and I ponder. This performance was recorded in spring 1999 by the Northridge (Orem) Elementary School Chorus. Our daughter, Tricia, sang in the chorus, so we attended the performance, and some time afterward I purchased the CD that included the spring concert and the Christmas concert from the previous December. Northridge had two music teachers when our kids attended—Don Harvie, who directed the chorus, and Al Huish, who accompanied on the piano. They pulled this off every year with fifth and sixth graders. Tricia was in the sixth grade in 1998–99. She’s turning thirty this summer (hard to believe) and has three kids of her own. So this song takes me back a bit, in more ways than one. Tricia’s best friend, Chantel, delivered the recitation from the New York Times.
I think the Northridge chorus was shooting for an even hundred years after both the song was written and the Times article appeared, but whoever did the research was a bit off. The Times piece actually appeared on New Year’s Day, 1901. The article was titled “Twentieth Century’s Triumphant Entry” and recounted a celebration on the previous evening, the last New Year’s Eve of the nineteenth century. Of course, the nineteenth century ended on December 31, 1900, not 1899.
The program recounted in the article began at 10:45 in front of New York’s City Hall with an overture by Sousa’s band. Following the overture, Randolph Guggenheimer, president of the city council, addressed the large gathering. Among other things, he spoke the words Chantel recited in the middle of the song. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The lyrics to the song “A Hundred Years from Now” were written by one E. Spencer in 1899. That’s all I can find on the song and its lyricist. I haven’t been able to locate his first name or anything about him. I’ll copy his lyrics here for reference.

A Hundred Years from Now
by E. Spencer, 1899

I’d like to see this earth again
A hundred years from now,
And walk and talk with living men
A hundred years from now.
I’d like to see how farming’s done,
How business is and how it’s run,
How votes are cast and office won,
A hundred years from now.

Of course there’ll be no wood to burn
A hundred years from now.
There’ll be some tricks of trade to learn
A hundred years from now.
There’ll be big towns and steeples high
And buildings that will scrape the sky
And stores where all the world could buy,
A hundred years from now.

There’ll be machines to shuck the corn
A hundred years from now.
Machines to nurse the babe that’s born
A hundred years from now.
Machines that fly and walk by day,
Machines that work, machines that play,
Perhaps machines to preach and pray,
A hundred years from now.

Whoever E. Spencer was, I’m impressed with how visionary and optimistic he was. Of course we still have wood to burn, but we don’t burn it very much, and we’re moving in the same direction with coal. We’ve found better and cleaner ways to heat our homes. We certainly have big towns and buildings that scrape the sky and stores where all the world can buy. We have machines to shuck the corn and machines to nurse babies. Our third child was born three months premature, and, because of the ventilator tube in his throat, he developed an aversion to swallowing, so he was fed through an NG tube by a machine that pumped formula into his stomach. Yes, we have machines that fly and walk, machines that work and play, and even, I suppose, machines that preach and pray, if you consider the Internet and what is offered there.
Whenever I hear this song, I think about the century both E. Spencer and Randolph Guggenheimer were bidding farewell to. The nineteenth century brought immense progress, primarily in the form of the Industrial Revolution, but it also brought a horrible Civil War that almost tore the country apart even as Americans settled the country from coast to coast. My pioneer ancestors helped settle the Great Basin in the nineteenth century. I imagine that both of these men, looking ahead to a new century, envisioned continued progress, and not just in technological terms, but especially in human terms. Little did they know that their country would experience a devastating depression, two world wars, social upheaval, the Vietnam War, a president who resigned in disgrace, and the rise of international corporate domination that has brought technological marvels as well as a growing inequality that may eventually harm our country more than the Civil War did.
But standing on the doorstep of a new century, they saw a hopeful future. Among other things, this is what Randolph Guggenheimer said:
“Tonight when the clock strikes 12 the present century will have come to an end. We look back upon it as a cycle of time within which the achievements in science and in civilization are not less than marvelous. The advance of the human race during the past 100 years has not been equaled by the progress of man within any of the preceding ages.
“The possibilities of the future for mankind are the subjects of hope and imagination. We shall soon be not only citizens of a Nation recognized throughout the world as the greatest, of a State pre-eminent among States, and of a city not only the metropolis of the Western world, but of the whole world. Our advance in all directions which make a city great already places our city without a parallel in the Western hemisphere, and the same progress continued will make New York without a peer among the cities of the earth, its citizens unequaled in intelligence, in education, and supplied with all the benefits and advantages that flow from civilization.
“On this occasion, which is one of solemnity, I express the earnest wish that the rights of the individual man shall continue to be regarded as sacred, and that the crowning glory of the coming century shall be the lifting of the burdens of the poor, the annihilation of all misery and wrong, and that the peace and good-will which the angels proclaimed shall rest on contending nations as the snowflakes upon the land.”
Guggenheimer aimed high in his wish, and we have failed him in many ways. At present, we are burdening the poor and, in our culture of fear and selfishness, are embracing policies that increase misery and wrong. Spencer, imagining our day, wanted to see “how business is and how it’s run, how votes are cast and office won.” But if he could have seen how some of our businesses are run and how some of our highest elected officials won office, I think he would have asked to have the vision closed.
Maybe we will learn from our mistakes. Maybe when the current period of pessimism and corruption and willful blindness are past, we too can look to a brighter future. Perhaps, if we look past the ugliness of the present, we can find a future as optimistic and as visionary as Spencer’s was. I certainly hope so.