Melody at the Edge of Apocalypse—Music in Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon

Bibliophilist Society, Commentary

Zachary Wheeler

When I consider a world without music, it brings tears to my eyes. For me, music is my biggest passion. Music is in every fiber of my being and it influences most of my decision making. Music has given me confidence, helped me to find my true calling, and developed me as a person. Music has acted as an outlet, through which I was given full freedom in authentic self-expression. I found a safe place in music and I know that others can experience this as well. Someone else who considers the importance of music in our culture is Pat Frank, who writes about a period when music is absent in his classic post-apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon.

Frank introduces us to the world at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then goes into some alternate history from there. At the beginning of the story, the main character Randy Bragg is living a quiet if idle life in the rural town of Fort Repose, Florida when he receives a message from his brother Mark (an Air Force colonel with US Strategic Air Command) with the biblical phrase “Alas, Babylon” added at the end. Randy knows exactly what Mark’s code means, a warning between the two brothers that a grave danger is coming: total nuclear war.

When that danger becomes all too real on ‘The Day’ the Soviet missiles hit their targets, Randy’s life is instantly changed. Mark had sent his family to live with Randy where they would be safe, and now Randy has to care for them and most of the town of Fort Repose once general commerce breaks down, all electricity ceases to generate, and all connections with the outside world break down. Their way of life is completely changed: money longer has any value, food and water must be gathered, traditional government protection no longer exists, official local leaders are no longer able to effectively govern, and people must rely on their families, communities, and local resources.

The main themes of Alas, Babylon involve the survival and endurance of the human race, and issues such as natural selection are explored in the story. But what do survival and endurance mean? This is question. The human race needs food, shelter, and to reproduce little humans, but for our true continuance do we need something beyond these basic needs? Frank seems to be asking the question whether it is merely a matter of reproduction and physical sustainability for humanity to survive, or, do we need something else?

Frank focuses heavily on ritual and the arts and their importance when it comes to human survival. In addition to other aspects of our human culture, Frank makes us ponder what a world without music would be like. After all, without electricity or other power sources, record players do not run and the radio stations no longer broadcast contemporary music hits.

When thinking about music, one must consider that sounds are everywhere. We hear all kinds of sounds on a daily basis. We hear the sounds of nature: leaves rustling in the wind, the light pitter-patter of rain, and waves crashing on a sandy shore. We also hear sounds made by people: roaring engines, beeping cell-phones, and noisy construction. If you were to take any of those sounds and combine them together by adding melody, harmony and structure, you would have music.

Everything we do in life creates music, whether it be the smallest step to the largest, amplified shout. Music is such a powerful tool. It opens the mind and allows new ways of expressing emotion and communicating thoughts. Everyone is affected by music in some way. To some, it may be an uninteresting waste of time and small speck of life and, yet, to others, it is their career and passion. Frank portrays this through the sense of longing that Randy experiences. In chapter nine, Randy speaks of the things that he misses the most, listing things like coffee, but, most importantly, music.

It is important for Frank’s readers to understand the true importance of music in our world. Through research, there is ample evidence to prove that there are many benefits to music in society. Music has played many different roles throughout history and is constantly transforming to go along with the new trends and genres that emerge.

The development of music throughout history and the impact it has had on society can be analyzed. A study by Daniel Rager from Cleveland State University was conducted to more fully understand music’s true influence on the world from its earliest beginnings to modern times. Throughout most of its earliest years, music was not as highly valued as it has become today.

For the first 150 years in our country’s history arts was not a part of public education. (Rager)

Music was, instead, taught privately to families through a medium that the schools provided. Early on in education, students were mainly taught to read and write. Music was not added into the core curriculum until late in the nineteenth century. However, music was still used in churches and different traditions in life during this time. According to David Francis, music and society have always been very closely related.

It is powerful at the level of the social group because it facilitates communication which goes beyond words, enables meanings to be shared, and promotes the development and maintenance of individual, group, cultural and national identities. (Francis)

Francis goes on to discuss how music impacts society as a whole. Music is not just a personal experience, but it can bind peoples, ethnicities and even nations together. Not only this, but music also has its effects on a individual level.

It is powerful at the individual level because it can induce multiple responses – physiological, movement, mood, emotional, cognitive and behavioral. Few other stimuli have effects on such a wide range of human functions. (Francis)

Francis argues that music has many cognitive and developmental benefits. It has been proven that when children receive an education in music or the arts, they have a new way of expressing emotion and communicating that other students do. Along with this, music can have very great mental benefits such as heightened listening abilities, advanced concentration, memory and social skills. Music is one of the only things that stimulates both hemispheres of the brain. Through this stimulation, music has a direct impact on a student’s overall brain capacity. Not only this, but music education has great impacts on the communities around the schools.

The level of impact that an arts education has on a student and their community is astonishing. According to Tony Silbert and Lawana Welch, an arts education not only helps the student in their classroom, but it also helps them to make better choices out in the world.

“Young people who are involved in making something beautiful today are less likely to turn to acts of violence and destruction tomorrow. Quoting Janet Reno, former attorney general” (Silbert and Welch 5).

It has been proven that the level of crime rates is actually affected by the arts. There have been many studies that show delinquents who participate in an arts program show significant changes in harshness, trust, and emotion. This is not the only thing that the arts affect that directly impacts these troubled teens.

“Among many other positive correlations between arts involvement and academic achievement, it is found that those involved in the arts dropout in fewer numbers” (Silbert and Welch 10-11).

For these reasons and more, Silbert and Welch conclude that there are many benefits to having music in our society and in our schools.

When looking at these many benefits of a music education, one must ponder how the world would be without music at all. For example, consider not having music to listen to when getting ready in the morning, not have music to listen to in the car on those long drives, and not having catchy theme songs to go along with your favorite TV shows. Music is in every aspect of what we do in life. Music is a part of who we are and how we live as a people. We grow accustomed to music and often take it for granted, not considering what it would be like should it cease to exist.

Frank also points to how we get so consumed in our daily regimens that even the slightest changes can hurt our outlook on life when he writes about the things Randy so longingly wishes he still had after the Day. Randy misses music almost as much as he misses coffee, which he used to drink on a daily basis. When Peyton finds the monophone in the attic, Randy is woken with a start by the music. He can feel it in his soul that there is a strange noise coming from the house. When he realizes that it is music being played, he is overjoyed because he has truly missed it so much. It is then that Randy and the reader realize how important music truly is. This event causes the reader to truly ponder what the world would be like without music.

Music brings feelings of joy and happiness with it, which is clearly shown when Randy and Lib hear it for the first time after the Day. The music seems to give them a sense of hope that, while everything might not return back to normal, they can find peace in the world that they know now. Through this, the reader comes to understand that Frank is hinting it takes more than the basics of water, food and shelter to truly survive. Frank makes it obvious that we are influenced by many things in this world that truly make us human. One of those things is music.

Life is very hard for Fort Repose and Randy’s community because there has been a complete shift in everyone’s life. We as humans, as I mentioned before, during times of crisis, tend to reach out for something solid to cling to. However, there is nothing very stable for the community to look to after The Day. Money has no value, supplies of everything are slowly running out, and more and more people are dying each day. Despite all this, Randy is able to find hope in the little things: his family (their health and well-being), the inter-denominational Easter service (which offers insights on hope and faith), and the overall goodness of people such as when Hickey gave him the honey free of charge. These little things provide Randy with a sense of assurance that his community will endure.

It is truly a wonder how Randy so easily looks past the danger and devastation that have so recently befallen him and his closest family and friends. He immediately emerges as the leader and serves as a stronghold for a large part of his community during the times when they need him the most. There are just a few things that Randy looks to for hope and the music he so unexpectedly comes across is just another one of those things.

Music is of the utmost importance in our society today. However, we tend to overlook and undermine its true value. We must first understand the incredible benefits that music brings to us and the wonderful effects that it has on communities and individuals alike. We must also understand that music is a part of everything we do as a people. Ariela Adame writes in her article “Imagine A World Without Music” that this performing art is inherent in the very nature of humans.

Music moves people. There’s this sort of ethereal quality of it. A loud, banging scream song can make someone cry if they connect it to a certain experience, and a soft, slow-moving instrumental can make someone thrash in anger too. (Adame)

Therefore, music is essential to our survival as Frank so clearly implies in the novel. Music provides hope where there is only devastation and destruction, music provides happiness where there is pain and heartache, and music provides humanity where there is loneliness and cruelty. Music provided all of this in a split second for Randy and it does the same for us.

(1). Adame, Ariela. “Imagine A World Without Music.” The Odyssey Online, 30 Oct. 2017, www.theodysseyonline.com/imagine-world-without-music.

(2). Francis, David. “The Powerful Role of Music in Society.” Music Makes Our Lives Magical and Meaningful, 16 July 2008, musicmagic.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/music-in-society/.

(3). Rager, Daniel. “The Role of Music in Society Past, Present and Future.” Engaged Scholarship at CSU, 2008, engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=clmusic_facpub.

(4). Silbert, Tony, and Lawana Welch. “A Cost-Benefit Analysis of arts Education for At-Risk Youth.” A Cost-Benefit Analysis of arts Education for At-Risk Youth (2001): 1-23. Silbert Consulting. 30 Apr. 2001. Web. 30 Oct. 2016. <http://www.silbertconsulting.com/downloads/CBA_of_Art_Education.pdf>.