When, in a moment of piety to Allah, the Caliph Al Hakam (ruler of medieval Toledo) was about to forbid wine drinking, his treasurer pointed out this would result in a disasterous shortfall in taxes that might prohibit the large extension of the library. The caliph was a scholar, a poet and a bibliophile, and as a result he quickly gave up the idea. Toledo remained a town of wine and learning for the next six centuries, seeming to rebuff the image of Islam as a universally extremist faith, until the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, beginning in 1492 pushed many of the Islamic & Talmudic scholars into the more liberal, intellectual environment of Fez.

(Source: Richard Erdoes, "AD 1000 : Europe at the end of the Millennium", Seastone: Berkley, 1998.)

Track 10 of Dan Bern/Bernstein's 2001 album, New American Language is full of the kind of stream of consciousness pop culture references fans of the quirky folksinger have come to know and love. It's slow and meditative, especially in contrast to the previous track, the almost manically upbeat "Honeydoo!" Like "Albuquerque Lullaby", it addresses the listener with sympathy and encouragement. Yet interwoven with its message of coming to peace with a cruel world is a quiet spirituality and political consciousness, as comes through strongest in the bridge:

And I'm closer to God
Than I've ever been before
Walking the streets of Spain
Painting Karl Marx on every door
Groucho Marx on every door
Mark of the Beast on every door

The reference is of course to the Old Testament miracle celebrated at Passover: Moses and his adopted brother Pharaoh were locked in a battle of wills over the liberation of the enslaved Jews. "Let my people go" and all that dramatic stuff. Jahweh was not one to stand idly by while his prophet made ruckus, either: the land of Egypt had already been struck by eleven terrible plagues when He delivered the coup de grace, which involved sending the Angel of Death to kill all the first-born sons in the kingdom. Only the Hebrews' children were spared, as they'd taken the precaution of painting their doors with lamb's blood. The grisly marks probably didn't take any of the forms Bernstein suggests, but then again, there's no way to know, and Dan's ever the master of the cosmically comic "what if?" He also tours pretty extensively in Spain, where he seems to have attracted a devoted fanbase. So it's easy to imagine him wandering the streets of a Spanish city doling out charmingly surreal advice.

Words and music by Dan Bern/Bernstein, who sang and played guitar on this, one of the more sparsely orchestrated (and hence more classically early Bernstein) songs on the album.

Lyrics (reproduced here by permission)

Sitting in the Church
of the Holy McDonald's
I took off my shoes
Like the Buddhists told me to
And I make my sacred offering
And I dip my hands in Pepsi
Sailed off to Virginia
And expelled all the Jews
And maybe all the things
You thought you got coming to you
Ain't coming to you
Not in this life
And maybe all the promises
You thought were broken
Were never really made
Promises never made

You say the stars quit shining
Quit shining on your head
Even the moon stopped coming up
Some old streetlight instead
But standing in the fields
Beneath the universe, you hurt
'Cause as the Milky Way whirls over you
All you got is dirt
And don't worry 'bout the Jews
They'll do fine in Lithuania
And bring a picture of the Virgin Larry
To your cousin in Carolina
And maybe all the promises
You thought were broken
Were never really made
Promises never made

And I'm closer to God
Than I've ever been before
Walking the streets of Spain
Painting Karl Marx on every door
Groucho Marx on every door
Mark of the Beast on every door

Santa Maria
Gloria Padre
Holy candy wrapper
'Neath the foot of Sierra Madre
And there's no use even trying
To sing till after midnight
Let's start the day with music
And wake up everybody
That's fool enough to try sleeping
Before it's getting light out
It's summer in Toledo
And I saw three ships a-sailing
And maybe all the things
You thought you got coming to you
Ain't coming to you
Not in this life
And maybe all the promises
You thought were broken
Were never really made
Promises never made

To*le"do (?), n.

A sword or sword blade made at Toledo in Spain, which city was famous in the 16th and 17th centuries for the excellence of its weapons.

 

© Webster 1913.

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