Timothy T. Isbell, a friend and an author whose books I have been honored to promote, cracked this joke on facebook. It is far too clever to leave unrepeated:
When The Who plays at halftime at the Super Bowl, I wonder how many of the really younger generation will look at their parents and ask ‘Who Dat?'”
I’m sure this brings all of us in mind of Jacques Le Goff and his exploration of Founding Legends and what these legends do to History and Memory, which is the title of Le Goff’s violet paperback from Columbia University Press.
Let’s pose The Who as, now, one of the “founding legends” of Rock. Founding legends operate in this way, according to Le Goff in his chapter “History: The Historical Mentality.” “[I]n the medieval West, when noble families, nations, or urban communities become interested in giving themselves a history, they often begin with mythical ancestors who inaugurate the genealogies.” The Merovingian kings of France (my example, not Le Goff’s) claimed a progenitor rose from the sea to rule; the Franks claimed to descend from Trojans, thus repeating an old Roman saw! “In these cases,” Le Goff says, “we see very clearly the historical conditions under which these myths are born and hence become part of history.”
So, after reviewing with your young ones the historical conditions surrounding the founding of The Who, you can move to the moment when myth transitions into history and have it demonstrated at half time. The Who retains only two of its members, Pete Townsend, the writer/creator of almost all its recorded music, and the ideal, monster vehicle for those creations, Roger Daltry. Yet, two short of the original cast, they keep playing.
As Le Goff says of primitive societies that explain their origins in myths, “a decisive phase in their evolution consisted in passing from myth to history.” So, our founding legends of rock may not have all their mates and faculties, may no longer be smashing up hotel rooms and blasting out the loudest decibel performance on the planet. But, and Le Goff quotes Levi-Strauss, “myth recuperates and restructures the outmoded leftovers of ‘earlier social systems.'” At this juncture explain what an album was to your young ones. Then play tracks from The Who Sings My Generation. Note all the R&B covers, and James Brown, even. Show your progeny your faded Maximum R&B tee shirt. Hold up a lighter, maybe.
Next point out to your by now bedazzled and enthralled brood that, as Le Goff says, “the long cultural life of myths allows us, through literature [remind youngsters that Pete Townsend was an editor for Faber and Faber] to make them the historian’s meat.” Play your beloved children cuts from Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, followed by Who Are You, and end with It’s Hard.
Now as the lights go up at half time, and your kiddos threaten to ask Who Dat?, you will know you have met the question and can appropriately announce to your amazed offspring, as The Who commences, what Le Goff says in closing about founding legends: “Thus from the points of view of the new problematics, myth is not only an object of history, but pushes historical time back toward the origins, enriches the historian’s methods, and underpins a new level of history, ‘slow history.'”
Your children will love you all the more when your slow history ends and they can just join together with the band.