As of spring 2014, NewsHour, a program on the United States’ non-profit Public Broadcasting System, was underwritten by the BNSF Railway Company and the stockbroker Charles Schwab. Each firm introduced the nightly broadcast with what on a commercial network would be called a commercial.
The railroad commercial was all nostalgia. In black and white and faded color, film clips from the 1940s and ’50s evoked the iron horses and iron men of the old Santa Fe Railway . They showed us a steam engine on a turntable; they showed us an overalled brakeman angled at thirty degrees as he leaned from the ladder running up to a freight car’s rooftop running board, hanging on with one hand and waving with the other, all smiling life, to his engineer. Juxtaposed with the antiquities were color-enhanced clips of modern automated trains. Photoshopped to a high gloss, these trains were free of running boards and free of brakemen, but as they highballed through fields of wind turbines they shared their pastureland with herds of wild horses. And the soundtrack as they rolled was all iron-horse sound effects of choo-choo and whoo-whoo.
The whoo-whoo, especially, could have come right out of something sung by the Pips in Midnight Train to Georgia forty years earlier, when the sound had already passed beyond the allusive range of recognizable onomatopoeia and become a mere burden, a now meaningless noise like “Hey nonny nonny.”
Like the soul song, the BNSF commercial is a music for dream.
But the Charles Schwab commercial begins in the present tense with the sound of an alarm clock.
Awakened, the listener hears a basso declaiming, in American demotic, one more sound out of the corpus of tradition: “There’s a saying around here: you stand behind whatcha say.” Over the sound, the video displays one more rolling-stock anachronism: a car in the rain at dawn, faithfully delivering to a row of houses with heritage architecture a printed newspaper. The words on this paper’s newsprint, however, are the softest of soft copy. These particular words can never yellow or crumble. The audio track assures us that they’re perennials: words that grow and grow again in the rain, season following season. They are the language of what the entity that lives (so to speak) among the heritage homes calls Around Here. In its aspect of uttering itself into being, Around Here tells us that it exists as that which stands behind its constituting words. And its final words are a reassuring command, in the present tense on behalf of the future tense: “Own your tomorrow.”
But the voice of command has nothing like a bodily standing. On the evidence of the audio track, it’s only a voice — and, at that, a voice reciting only the script of an unsecured, unsecurable promise. Invisibly, over a scrolling background of video Americana, the voice says to us who still live in our poor mute uncomprehending bodies:
“For the sake of the past whose language I speak, I ask you buy the articles that I have awakened you to buy. I call those things ‘securities,’ because after all I have to call them something. If you attend fixedly enough to my song while you’re being awakened in order to buy, its sound may grant you a dream, maybe even tonight!, of midnight trains followed, season by season, by newspapers at dawn. In that dream I will stand behind my word ‘security,’ and just like my phrase ‘stand behind’ it will have a meaning, the way words once did in the days of trains and newspapers.
“In the dream you’ll understand what I’m telling you now. You and I together will be parts of its sound. As we board the midnight train, we’ll all be singing from a score whose burden is the peaceful iamb ‘secure.’ The brakeman in his overalls will have closed the door behind us, and we on the midnight train will be on our way for the last time, riding singing into the quiet that will follow the final commercial.”
Technical PS: so as not to lose the links to the commercials for BNSF Railway and Charles Schwab, I converted them to Flash videos for this post. However, neither my Android tablet nor my Android phone will play them in that format. For Android, then, here are the links.