The great 1961 recording by the Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman,” puts together in a wonderful way the opposites of stop and go; pain and pleasure; continuity and discontinuity. Here’s how it begins:
In “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?” Eli Siegel asks about Continuity and Discontinuity:
Is there to be found in every work of art a certain progression, a certain indissoluble presence of relation, a design which makes for continuity?—and is there to be found, also, the discreteness, the individuality, the brokenness of things: the principle of discontinuity?
This song starts with an interruption–accenting “the brokenness of things.” We hear a drumbeat followed by a group of female voices abruptly calling out “Wait!” But we soon find that we are moving along in a stream of rhythm, as lead singer Gladys Horton sings “Oh yes, wait a minute Mr. Postman! Wa-ai-ai-ait Mr. Postma-an!” while drums and handclaps mark the second and fourth beats of each measure with two claps on the 2nd beat and one clap on the 4th. This style of handclapping, used again and again on rock ‘n roll recordings is a wonderful togetherness of brokenness and continuity. It breaks the time and keeps it moving; so the overall effect is that we’re arrested and propelled forward at once.
A section of call-and-response follows. And now, delightfully, the backup singers take the lead–with that whiny, complainy, sour harmony. Their syllables are very rhythmic—most of them just a short eighth note in length—yet there is also a sense of spreading continuity, caused I think, both by the drone-y sound of their voices and also the fact that each voice sticks almost entirely to one pitch per line. They sing:
Please Mr. postman look and see,
Is there a letter in your bag for me?
‘Cause it’s been a mighty long time
Since I heard from this boyfriend of mine.
In contrast, the lead singer’s responses are more elongated:
Whoa yeah-eah-eah eah-eah-eah!”
Please, plea-ease Mr, Po-oh oh-ostman! …etc…
Amidst all this stop and go, the two parts–different as they are–are continuous with each other: they complete each other; they speak in one plaintive voice to this postman. Underneath, the drum (played by Marvin Gaye–yes, that Marvin Gaye) continues the pattern we heard in the handclaps earlier, and simultaneously adds a steady double-time tapping-out of eighth notes on a closed hi-hat cymbal. Overall, there is definitely “a design which makes for continuity” yet within, there’s brokenness, discreteness, individuality. Listen:
This music, so delightful, has a big meaning for our lives. I’ll speak for myself, see if you don’t find something like it true about you. In life, we can go after a bad kind of continuity: just wanting to be outwardly agreeable with everyone, under all circumstances, no matter how unjust–and a bad kind of discontinuity: not wanting to fit in or get along with anyone, and associating our individuality with saying “No!”
Music, when it’s good, makes neither mistake. In the first two verses, it’s the backup singers who accent continuity, singing long harmonized syllables, “Ooooooh, wah-dooooo,” while lead singer Horton makes sure discontinuity is honored simultaneously, as she spells out in shorter syllables her complaint:
There must be some word today
From my boyfriend so far away!
Please Mr. Postman, look and see;
Is there a letter, a letter for me?
I’ve been standing here waiting Mr. Postman
So-o, so patiently
For just a card or just a letter
Saying he’s returning home to me.
During that second verse, the backup singers start breaking up their long syllables with shorter ones: “Ooooh, Wait! Wait! Wah-dooooo” (and they get even more variations later). And again, those voices!–so whiny and strange but somehow so lovely too–almost like some exotic wind instruments. In all this, and together with the band, the happy marriage of stoppage and flow goes on:
What is it that we feel when the postman cometh, or when we go to our mailbox to see what might be there? Even our e-mail inbox? Are we looking for an exciting relation of continuity and discontinuity? Are we hoping to like the world through that experience? I worked a fairly long career in the U.S. Postal Service–in my earliest years, as a letter carrier–and I remember the various ways people showed anticipation, hope about what they might receive in the mail as I made my way down a street. During the time I worked there, I was fortunate to begin my study of Aesthetic Realism and, through what I learned, came to see the feelings of other people with so much more fullness than I had before.
For instance, my consultants encouraged me to study the history of postal systems from ancient times to today, and to ask what it was that mail–which I had mostly seen as mundane–stands for in the lives of people. They asked, “Do you think every article of mail carries with it the feelings of people? Can you have more awareness of that as you handle a letter or package?” As I studied this, I saw that that moment when we approach our mailbox, we’re hoping for discontinuity – for something new to add to our lives – and also, we’re hoping for continuity: to feel a connection with the wide world: “What might come to me today from across town or from someplace who knows how far away?” Further, we want to feel through that experience that the world sees us, acknowledges us, even likes us. And this feeling really is continuous with our hope for our lives at all times – that we and the world can, as Eli Siegel wrote, “make a team.” Aesthetic Realism shows plainly that to succeed in feeling the world likes us, we need first to do all we honestly can to like it.
In the song, we get another call-and-response section, followed by verses 3 and 4 where, as I said, the backup singers get into even more interesting patterns of long and short syllables. Then comes the wonderful last section. Gladys Horton calls out “You better wait a minute! Wait a minute!” While the backup singers interpose: “Wait! Wait a minute Mr. Postman!” The handclaps return with their broken-and-ongoing rhythm (which the drum has been maintaining all along). And while lead singer, backup singers, handclaps and piano overlay each other in counterpoint and syncopation, all the time we feel that steady march of eighth-note beats connecting it all together in one stream – even during those moments of sudden pause—for the exclamations, “Please check and see just one more time for me!” and of course the famous, “Deliver the letter the sooner the better!”
There’s a feeling of great urgency. We almost can see a girl running down the street calling after the postman. And Gladys Horton’s voice – plaintive, sometimes lyrical, sometimes husky, even raspy – conveys, with the help of the backup singers, that urgency. Meanwhile the song is never hurried. There is a steady, almost casual feel to the way the whole thing proceeds.
Eli Siegel, in my opinion, described the essence of rock and roll when, in a lesson, he called it “the blare of agony” while showing also that the upshot is pleasure. This song has that blare of agony, but don’t we feel happy as we hear it? I’m grateful to be seeing more about why this matters through a discussion with me in an Aesthetic Realism class, where I asked about a tendency I sometimes had to feel hurt. Ellen Reiss surprised me when she asked whether I thought Mr. Siegel’s explanation of rock ‘n roll could in any way be used wrongly by me to feel that, yes, it’s an expression of pain, but to stop there. And she continued:
Any time in art, if being hurt and pained are presented truly, there is pleasure. Is something in you less ready to get to that than the assertion of a certain hidden pain? …Whenever pain is presented with form it is no longer just pain. It is pain given so much form that there’s joy. I think you could benefit from that more.
I love this discussion, and I am benefiting from it very much! I’m using it to criticize myself happily. Yes, like everyone, there are difficulties, obstacles that I meet, pain that I experience – but any time I try to sell myself the idea that that’s the last word, it’s a lie! I have such a rich and happy life because I learned the difference between contempt and respect and I’ve seen that the world has a permanent, beautiful, lovable structure that one can always count on.
“Please Mr. Postman,” in its presentation of continuity and discontinuity, separateness and togetherness, pain and joy as one– and in its transmitting such joy to us in the process–tells the real story! Here’s the remainder, including all of that glorious last section:
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org