Their Brains Were Small and They Died Words & Music by Mark Graham
We’ve been long-time fans of Mark Graham. Mark is a gifted musician, a monster harmonica player in the tradition of Sonny Terry, and has mastery of the clarinet, but in addition to that he has acquired wonderful skill with wordplay. Not just puns and jokes, but there is a wisdom, a sagaciousness in his vision of the world, and it comes through in a loving spirit of humor and encouragement.
Cindy and I put his song on our live CD, the first thing we recorded together. The song has a pretty sophisticated harmonic scheme with shifts of mode and some interesting choices of chords. I’m guessing it’s where Dixieland music went when it left New Orleans with Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong a hundred years ago.
But most of all, the song bravely calls out the danger of nuclear proliferation, one of the most difficult topics one can address next to climate change. Many whom I respect believe that these are the two most urgent issues of our time. In our time, unless you include the ducking and covering some of us did under our tiny desks in the first grade, we haven’t been reminded that much of this great danger.
Humor has been a way to approach some of these difficult issues in song. One voice that so many of us recognize as an influence is Tom Lehrer. A mathematics professor at Harvard, he created his songs for an audience that didn’t need the music business gate-keepers. My family had his first album, actually a seven-inch pressing on red vinyl, when I was a teenager.
We were delighted by Lehrer’s teasing of the military establishment that pervaded our lives in the post-war years. Here’s a verse from his song, “Wernher von Braun:”
Gather 'round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience
Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown
"Nazi, Schmazi!" says Wernher von Braun.
Don't say that he's hypocritical
Say rather that he's apolitical
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department!" says Wernher von Braun.
This was early in the era of the protest songs and the Vietnam War had not yet produced a public reaction. I have to admit that when I first heard Malvina Reynolds’ song, “What Have They Done to the Rain,” I was skeptical. I was under the impression that our nuclear arsenal was a proud symbol of our stewardship of peace in the world, and not to be questioned. It was still some years before Stanley Kubrick brought us Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. By then the penny had dropped for me and many others of my generation.
“Ban the Bomb” was a familiar meme of the counter-culture throughout the sixties, and the symbol and the movement were quite well established. That presence seems to have faded somewhat as other issues have intruded into our consciousness, but if anything the danger has only increased. There have been moments along the way where things looked better, the SALT treaties and some disarmament agreements, but today, the saber rattling is hideously irrational, and could be precipitous.
I give myself permission to believe that songwriters can help. Of course there are many tangible ways to help as well, and some of the songwriters I’ve known who have earned well from their songs use the money for good work. Still, when developing the song it may not be helpful to focus on what one will do for the world when the song achieves its promise of great success. It may be enough to let the song be what it can be in terms of reaching the listener with a message of hope and inspiration.
Mark offered some commentary on how the song came about for him.
“‘Brains’ is one of the few songs that I wrote that the melody came first. I had been listening to Louis Armstrong and was enchanted by the tune "It's Tight Like That." Then I saw a Mobil Oil commercial that featured underground dinosaurs evading geologists and then Walter Alvarez discovered the iridium layer that indicated a huge asteroid impact.
“This was all combined with my natural skepticism of human intelligence and there you have it. I believe the year was 1984. I was also suffering a minor pang of guilt for maligning dinosaurs earlier in my career (tiny cerebellums weren't smart enough to tell 'em that their terrible demise was close at hand).
“Songs can move people by clearly and poignantly telling stories that inspire sympathy, outrage or dread. You always hope that the targets of the art are worthy of the effort.
“Much of my writing attempts to illustrate absurdity that evolves into received wisdom. The supremacy of human intellect as exemplified by technological achievement is a favorite topic. Generally I find that the related and seemingly inevitable disasters change more minds and inspire more action than a good punchline.
“Unfortunately, music's power to move the masses has been diminished by its modern role as a ubiquitous entertainment commodity, and its producers are increasingly dubious about its commercial value.
“My original songwriting inspiration came from Homer and Jethro. In 1960 I bought an album called "Homer and Jethro at the Country Club" and memorized the whole thing including the chat between the songs. Since then I've longed to breathe the rarefied atmosphere of that level of comic artistry.
“I'm a big admirer of Tom Lehrer but my writing is more akin to early Country songsters like Uncle Dave Macon and Blind Alfred Reed. Irish Songs, particularly Dublin street ballads are another source of comic and stylistic inspiration.
“As far as satire goes I follow these principles:
- Human knowledge is limited and unclear
- All things in the universe are equally important to the universe
- Civilization requires that people be given justice, mercy and dignity
- Nature will kill you unless you play by its rules and will kill you eventually anyway.
- If it's funny, true and is aimed at the right target let it fly and if it hits it should sting.
- Always punch up”
Here is Mark’s performance of the song with his musical partner Orville Johnson. Mark plays clarinet and Orville plays guitar. Together they claim the mantel of the ‘Kings of Mongrel Folk.’ You can hear that their influences range widely into jazz as well as the traditional colors of folk music.
Mark Graham and Orville Johnson perform Mark's song,
"Their Brains Were Small and They Died"
Here are Mark and Orville with an impressive mini-set of tunes on harmonica and guitar. Boy, these guys can play: Watch on YouTube.
And here’s Cindy’s interpretation of the song from a live concert at The Ark in Anne Arbor, Michigan. It’s on our first CD, Live In Concert, available from our online store here. This video with whimsical animation is created by someone we know only as 709Austin, but it’s fun.
Cindy Mangsen performs Mark's song "Their Brains Were Small and They Died"
Audio from Compass Rose Music CD Live in Concert
Here are the lyrics:
Of the human situation
I often feel a certain sense of pride
Our achievements are many and mighty
And the evidence cannot be denied
But my reverie is shaken ‘cause my thoughts are always taken
To a tragedy that happened long ago
When there moved through the land
Beings awesome and grand, the fabulous dinosaur
They were creatures in a manner quite reptilian
In their unique and stylish way
And their numbers could be reckoned in the millions
But there are zero of these heroes in the world today
They had music, art and fashion, there was dinosauric passion
And I think they’d be enraged and mortified
That when they’re mentioned today it is only to say
Their brains were small and they died.
Perhaps some asteroid that Mother Earth could not avoid
Became the agent of their premature demise
I understand that these things can happen so who are we to criticize
When we’ll spend most any price to have the ultimate device
To insure the perfect global suicide
I would venture instead that the humanoid head
Is where the tinier brain resides
And when we’re gone our works will start to crumble
Till nothing can be found
In ten million years some other guys
May stumble on our fossils
And some expert will begin to expound
In some scientific study to his cockroach science buddies
How the evidence can never be denied
They were big, dumb and slow
They couldn’t go with the flow
Their brains were small and they died
Their brains were small and they died
© 1984, Eternal Doom Music, BMI
For extra credit:
The Union of Concerned Scientists is an organization that has committed to speaking out about issues that they feel threaten our safety. For many years they have called attention to the increasing dangers of nuclear proliferation, and the pressure from the arms industry to promote ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, ‘mini-nukes’ and ‘bunker busters’ as acceptable and useful tools. And it’s claimed that they can be used surgically without incurring significant retaliation.
But the exchange of even a relative few thermonuclear bombs would fill the atmosphere with dust and bring on a drastic drop in temperature that could eradicate organized human life – just as the artificial winter created by the asteroid that struck the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago wiped out the dinosaur. And we have thousands of warheads stationed all over the globe.
How did we get into this?
Albert Einstein was disturbed to hear that his calculations could be used to show that a nuclear fission reaction was possible and that a powerful weapon might be created. In August of 1939, Hungarian refugees Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Edward Teller persuaded Einstein to warn President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the possibility that Germany could develop an atomic bomb, and to urge FDR to consider a similar program in the United States. In his letter Einstein wrote:
“Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations:
“In the course of the last four months it has been made probable – through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America – that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future... This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”
The dangers of a nuclear exchange can not be over stated. Nuclear winter is a likely consequence of even a limited war, and we’ve come perilously close to that in some otherwise laughable blunders.
A group who publish the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created what they call the Doomsday Clock in 1947, two years after the detonations of bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and just months after Russia achieved their first thermonuclear explosion. Since that time, the clock, which represents just how far we are from the destruction of humanity as we know it, has moved from ten minutes before midnight (Armageddon) to just one-hundred seconds to midnight.
This story was reported on their website:
“A Soviet submarine captain once authorized a nuclear attack on US warships, and was stopped only by the incidental presence of Vasili Arkhipov, a higher commanding officer.
“During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, four Soviet submarines arrived in the Gulf of Mexico as part of a secret mission to protect Soviet forces in Cuba. Each submarine was armed with three 15 kiloton nuclear torpedoes, and, under certain conditions, was authorized to launch an attack without orders from central command.
“In response to the escalating crisis, the United States moved its own warships to the area, blockading the island and dropping “practice” depth charges (small explosives the size of hand grenades) on the Soviet submarine group. The US had no idea the submarines were carrying nuclear weapons.
“Although the United States informed the Soviet Union of its operation, that information failed to reach the submarines. One of the commanders – threatened by the explosions and unable to communicate due to a damaged antennae – argued for using their nuclear weapons. Soviet protocol required the submarine’s second officer to agree with any launch decision, which he did.
“Under most circumstances this would have resulted in a nuclear launch and, most likely, nuclear war. But due to a lucky coincidence, a higher-ranking Soviet officer, Vasili Arkhipov was also on board, and refused to allow the launch to happen.
“After learning years later that the submarines carried nuclear torpedoes, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated: ‘We came very close to nuclear war, closer than we knew at the time.’”
“On November 9, 1979, computers at the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) headquarters showed a large-scale Soviet missile attack underway. In keeping with rigid protocols, bomber crews readied for takeoff, but the attack was not confirmed by radar and so the retaliatory strike was called off. Investigators later discovered that a technician was running a tape on a NORAD computer that contained a training exercise scenario simulating a full-scale attack.”
“In the middle of the night on June 3, 1980, the US early warning system indicated a huge incoming Soviet attack, with 2,200 nuclear missiles headed toward US targets. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were at a crisis point, especially following the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“NORAD immediately relayed the information to high-level command posts and top leaders convened to assess the threat. Their response was swift: crews responsible for launching US intercontinental ballistic missiles were notified and nuclear bomber crews boarded their planes to prepare for takeoff. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski got the call at 2:30 am and prepared to notify the president. He later said that he had decided not to wake his wife, believing that “everyone would be dead in half an hour anyway.”
And if that is not nightmarish enough, this scenario, right out of Dr. Strangelove, is all too true:
“In the early 1980s, with Cold War tensions at an all-time high, Soviet leaders began work on a top-secret, semi-autonomous nuclear launch system dubbed “Perimeter.” Its objective: assure that the Soviet Union could and would respond to any nuclear attack, even if the United States killed all Soviet leadership.
“If the system detected nuclear explosions and was unable to contact military and political leaders, it delegated control of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles to a group of three Soviet officers, permanently stationed in an underground bunker.
“Although the system was created to deter a US attack – and only served its stated function if the United States knew of its existence – the Soviet Union treated it as a secret. The system’s existence didn’t become public until the 1990s.”
The authors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists contend that: “There are many practical, concrete steps that leaders could take – and citizens should demand – to improve the current, absolutely unacceptable state of world security affairs.” And they go on to enumerate them in detail.
If you wish to explore the very complex issues surrounding nuclear policy and the dangers of war, I can’t think of a better voice to start with than Noam Chomsky. Here he answers questions about the history of these issues and where we stand today. I don’t hear anything in his assertions that I disagree with. Think of it as a college course, take notes, and challenge every point with your own research. Watch on YouTube
The Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists