Sunday, October 9, 2011

Greil Marcus "The Old Weird America" (1998, 2001)

When you are looking into the cultural history of 20th century America, it doesn't take long before you run into the phrase "old weird America".  Here's where that nifty phrase originated.

The book is an examination of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, as seen through the prism of Bob Dylan & the Band's Basement Tapes.  Marcus examines the Basement Tapes recordings, & pulls through them the echoes of selections from Smith's Anthology.

I imagine that many readers are lost for large sections of this book, as comprehension requires a familiarity with both sets of source material.  Dylan fans would be by & large lost or uninterested in the material on the earlier folk records.  And the die-hard folk fans put off by the mythologizing of the Dylan recordings.

While I enjoyed the book on the whole, it seemed to suffer from a couple of common Boomer fallacies.

First, there is the mythologizing & overvaluing of Boomer cultural signifiers.  In this case, tapes of Dylan & the Band rehearsing or just jamming are treated as a sort of cultural UR text, which is supposed to speak to deep needs in the American psyche.  This seems to be the norm in texts about Dylan's career, so it is not unexpected.  And in fact, I'm sure that the Dylan connection was what secured the book deal, as publishers would be much more likely to fund analysis of Dylan's work over semi obscure folk records.

The second fallacy is treating the recordings from the Anthology as if they themselves are devoid of any cultural antecedent.  Because there are not prior commercial recordings, the material is treated as if it sprang into existence without any cause (save that of the talent of the musicians).  Not to downplay the talent involved, which was in fact quite impressive, but all of this material came from a tradition.  The recordings of the Anthology are merely an audio snapshot of that tradition at specific moments in time. 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Carter Family Project

Here's a great example of modern Americans preserving & celebrating traditional art forms.  A Brooklyn couple is recording every Carter Family song in sequential order.  Not only do the recordings hold up as covers, but I love the way their lofi approach brings hints of conversations & their domestic life.  "Can we turn on the air conditioning?" 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Big Tent Or 3 Ring Circus?

With the announcement of the IBMA's Bluegrass Nation project, there has been a great deal of talk about the nature of bluegrass, & the concept of the "big tent".

The traditionalists would argue that Bill Monroe's 1949 Opry performance was the Big Bang of bluegrass music.  All bluegrass should thus be modeled after this performance -- from instrument selections (mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle) to song selections (chosen from traditional sources or a limited repertoire of original material).

As is so often the case, this is in fact a rather selective viewing of the historical record.  Musicians firmly within the bluegrass pantheon broke the rules as they saw fit.  Drums!  Accordions!  Beatles songs!

The "Big Tent" advocates argue that for the health of the genre, there should be recognition of music further down the branches, away from the traditional roots of the bluegrass tree.  Let all the cousins sit at the dinner table, it's not just for the nuclear family.  The argument is that embracing the younger, more tangential bluegrass influenced artists will ensure the continued vibrancy of the form as well as winning new fans for the traditionalist bands.  The active fan bases for artists like Yonder Mountain String Band or the Avett Brothers would not only learn about the influence of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers et al., but would be given a real reason to explore the world of traditional bluegrass.

While this idea has been embraced by such prominent musicians as Ron Block & Chris Pandolfi, the traditionalists are, in the words of Rose Tyler "not amused".  But why?  While their rhetoric says they only care about the purity of the musical form, a look at the history of the situation indicates other factors may be more significant.

As mentioned earlier, there is a convenient collective amnesia about the more experimental recordings of the bluegrass patriarchs.  And there is a gradual acceptance of recordings into the canon that were at best transgressive upon their release.  For example, in the 1970s JD Crowe recorded with drums, electric bass and steel guitar.  Was this a country band with banjo & mandolin?  Given the musical lineage of the band members (& the undeniable quality of the music), these recordings are accepted into the bluegrass canon.  Tony Rice's Manzanita album is another example.  Fully acoustic, yet -- shockingly-- there is no banjo!   Yet this is accepted as part of the bluegrass canon, even by the "you must have the 5 string banjo to play the bluegrass music" crowd.  (In fact, Manzanita is used as the exception that proves the rule.)

So if the traditionalists do in fact show fluidity regarding the actual music, what then is the real issue?  Why such strong reactions?  Could it in fact be more about culture than music?

To be continued.