Life lessons from The Hatfields and the McCoys

Hope can be found in the unlikeliest of places, and a bottle of moonshine may top this list. Today, the day of the American election, we could use a little hope. This campaign has been a downright nasty feud. Watching from a relatively safe distance north of the 49th, it’s hard to understand just how and why people have become so combative and angry. The animosity of warring factions makes you worry for our collective futures.


This is where the moonshine comes in. The feud to end all feuds was the astoundingly bloody, real-life battle between two American families, the Hatfields and the McCoys. Launched over the questionable ownership of a pig, and fueled by decidedly un-Shakespearean star-crossed lovers, the feud lasted for decades and claimed the lives of thirteen family members. Over a hundred years later, peace seems to have been restored. You can now legally purchase “The Drink of the Devil”, legitimate moonshine distilled and distributed by a company proudly joint owned and operated by the descendants of the Hatfields and the McCoys.


With a little time and distance, it can be hard to see what all the fuss is about. Case in point in the classical music world is the so-called War of the Romantics, which pitted conservatives against progressives. Composers on the progressive side, led by Richard Wagner, advocated for program music—music that represented extra-musical ideas pulled from nature, visual art and literature. The conservative camp was firmly entrenched behind Johannes Brahms and his support for absolute music—music that was very definitely about nothing other than music. Describing it as a war is somewhat inflationary, as most of the battle was carried out through snarky newspaper articles. There may have been the occasional fisticuff outside a concert, but that was more an indication of a good evening out.


Historically, music has been much more a unifier than a divider. While today is a historic day regardless of the outcome in the U.S. (my fingers are crossed as I type), tomorrow is an equally important day in history books. November 9, 1989 was the day that suddenly and almost by accident, the Berlin Wall came down. Surprised and elated Germans spent the whole night drinking champagne, singing and dancing atop the crumbling wall. On Christmas day of that year, the great composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein lead a historic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin, changing one significant word of the text: instead of the Ode to Joy, this time it would be the Ode to Freedom. No one said it more eloquently than Bernstein himself: “In this time of world agony, we love his music and we need it. As despairing as we may be, we cannot listen to this Ninth Symphony without emerging from it changed, enriched, encouraged.”


By the end of day today, we’ll know who the 45th President of the United States will be. Some will be elated, some devastated; bitter divisions will remain. But there is always a way forward, and surely always hope. So break out the moonshine.