An Urban's Rural View

I Love Farming, a Bushel and a Peck

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Never underestimate the power of popular culture. Just look at how Prince dominated the news cycle the day he died, temporarily (and blessedly) overshadowing the daily blather from the presidential-primary contests. Days later, Prince is still in the headlines (…).

And this is only one recent example. History abounds with them.

In 19th century Europe the prevailing pop culture was classical music. Virtuosos like violinist Niccolo Paganini and pianist Franz Liszt were the rock stars of their day, touring the continent to give performances that were rapturously received by what today we would call groupies. Paganini, legend has it, was at times "mobbed in the streets" (…).

Even back then, pop culture had political consequences. Arias and choruses from Giuseppe Verdi's operas Nabucco and I Lombardi became the anthems of the Risorgimento movement that united Italy, and Verdi himself served in Italy's first elected parliament (…). In Germany, the operas of Richard Wagner helped give rise to Adolf Hitler (…).

Pop culture certainly has political consequences today. Exhibit A is "Hamilton," the hip-hop history of America's founding that's Broadway's hottest ticket. Popular almost beyond belief, and having just won the Pulitzer for drama, the musical apparently saved its namesake's place on the $10 bill (…).

Why it needed saving takes some explaining. George Washington aside, Alexander Hamilton would seem to have as strong a claim to prominence on the nation's currency as any of the founding fathers. He not only co-authored the Federalist Papers, which played a critical role in promoting the adoption of the Constitution. As the first Secretary of the Treasury he was the architect of the nation's financial system and early economic development (…).

In deciding to displace him, the Treasury was responding to demands that a woman's face appear on one of the bills (…). The $10 bill was chosen because it was the next in line to be redesigned. Hamilton fans argued for ejecting Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill instead, and they had a strong argument: Jackson was a "specie" (gold and silver coinage) man. He hated paper money. (As someone who reveres, for different reasons, both Hamilton and Jackson, I proposed bouncing Ulysses S. Grant from the $50 bill (…)).

In the end, the Treasury reversed itself and decided to do away with Jackson, replacing him on the front of the $20 bill with escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman (Jackson will remain on the back). As the Wall Street Journal put it, in an allusion to the duel that killed Hamilton, "This time, Alexander Hamilton dodged the bullet" (…).

Hamilton has Broadway's "Hamilton" to thank for that. People are paying scalpers $500, $600, $800, even $1,000 a ticket to see it (…). Those who've seen it rave about it, and when the Treasury announced its intention to demote its first secretary from the $10, the public outcry was ferocious. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew admitted as much, saying "We said we were going to listen to people, and we actually listened to people."

Pop culture isn't everything, of course. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of "Hamilton," was inspired by Ron Chernow's riveting 2004 biography of the man (…). Without the book, we wouldn't have the musical.

But without the musical, the outcry that saved Hamilton's place on the ten wouldn't have arisen. Bibliophiles may regret it, but popular culture moves people in ways books don't. The world has understood its power ever since the days of Orpheus, who would have been the world's first rock star had he not been part of a myth. His singing and lyre playing was so mesmerizing that it was said he could "charm wild animals and even cause trees to uproot themselves and follow in his steps" (…).

There may be a lesson for farmers and ranchers in all this. If you want to tell agriculture's story to the world, use popular culture. Maybe the farm groups should get together and hire a team to produce a musical comedy with an agricultural backdrop. One possible working title: "Crazy in the Cornfield."

Urban Lehner



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John Harrington
5/3/2016 | 10:16 AM CDT
Urban--thanks for the fun read! You've got me working on new version of "Oklahoma" (e.g., "The Farmers and the Vegans Must be friends") JH