The One-Note Samba

Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos (aka “Tom”) Jobim once wrote a song called “One-Note Samba,” which had lyrics (excerpted below) that were later sung by Frank Sinatra:

This is just a little samba
Built upon a single note
Other notes are bound to follow
But the root is still that note

A similar idea appeared in the old TV game show “Name That Tune,” which had a mini-game called Bid-a-Note in which contestants bet on the smallest number of notes it would take them to recognize and name a song being played by the studio orchestra. The maximum number of notes allowed in a round was seven, and the minimum was one. The player who could identify the song title upon hearing the fewest notes won the round.

Both of these cultural footnotes resemble the practice popular among tarot readers of trying to explain situations or predict events by pulling a single card. A one-card reading is an all-or-nothing proposition, typically with little room for development and no compelling direction. Such a reading can adequately describe a static “state of being,” but the tarot is at its best when used to illustrate a process of “becoming.” By offering a moving story-line that shows details emerging over time and through change, a series of cards can nudge the subject of the reading off “dead-center” and move it toward some kind of resolution.  A single-card narrative is like a two-dimensional rendering of a landscape; it may have a skillfully drawn surface but no depth to give it a sense of scale and perspective. It is a flat map when what we should really be seeking is a topographic view of the territory showing the ups-and-downs, the peaks and valleys. One card equals a single musical note, producing a monotonous drone, while a group of cards can give a richer, more symphonic sense of situational awareness.

A one-card pull may be useful for learning card meanings as a beginner, but it offers scant substance in terms of predictive value. At best, it can convey the “tone” of life’s circumstances over the duration of its effect: the Tower could suggest the risk of traumatic upheaval, the Devil a danger of being mislead, the Star a time of hope, etc. It may take aim at the target but there is nothing to correct for environmental variables and no option to pull the trigger (unless the reader intuitively conjures one). If all we’re looking for is a signal and not a reason, a single card might do, but the phrase “one-trick pony” comes to mind. It also suggests a too-tight pair of shoes; foot binding went out of favor a long time ago, so why must we as tarotists pretend it didn’t? Personally, I like some “wiggle room” in my footwear and my tarot readings.

A dentist once scolded me for not flossing sufficiently, saying “I want to see some space between those teeth!” The same might be said for creating a little imaginative breathing room in our readings. A “picket-fence” reading style lets the mind wander between the slats, while a monolithic façade can stop it cold. There is another thing: I just don’t like to work that hard at coming up with meaningful insights. There are 78 different flavors to work with in assembling our confections, and “vanilla” is one of the least interesting.

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