Friday, August 21, 2015

Sing a song of local

When I was in the 7th and 8th grades, young and impressionable, Elvis Presley's popularity began to really grow. I was a huge fan, in part because he drove my parents (most parents!) to abstraction. In those days, and most since, rebelliousness was a major theme I explored and supported. Having grown up in Boston from Irish (and other) stock it seemed to come naturally. Eventually, I entered high school and Elvis entered the US Army. Although I don't recall thinking a lot about it at the time, I sensed or intuited that rebelliousness and serving in the army might not be a perfect match. It's been I long time since I've played any of my Elvis records or CDs, but every autumn I play Joni Mitchell's Urge for Going, just as, for years now, each November I play Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. All of that started running through my mind yesterday as I was writing the posting about local foods and local economies (that's plural on purpose) and began to wonder where "local music" fit in.

sun turned "traitor cold"
sun turned "traitor cold"
Photo by J. Harrington

I've only visited California once, but I doubt Californians have much sense of Mitchell's sun turning "traitor cold," although they might be able to partially grasp Lightfoot's "When afternoon came it was freezing rain // In the face of a hurricane west wind." Both Mitchell and Lightfoot are Canadians. To my ear they're much more folk than rock. It seems to me that the folk aspects of their songs do more to capture the particularity or locality of a place, a season or feeling than rock does. Or perhaps I find that folk captures a broader range of places, seasons and feelings than rock. (For the record, this line of reasoning seems to be pushing me to accept that Simon and Garfunkel are more folk than rock, which is something I never considered much before.) Anyhow, as a large part of the attraction of local places derives from the fact that they are uniquely themselves in this age of global economy, each of these singer-songwriters is uniquely him- or herself and that, these days, may have become the height of rebelliousness.

freezing rain and snow, not quite a hurricane west wind
freezing rain and snow, not quite a hurricane west wind
Photo by J. Harrington

I need to do a lot more thinking about this, including exploring the questions surrounding "local music" as emanating from a place compared to being about and accurately portraying a place. Have your heard Peter Ostroushko's score for Minnesota, History of the Land? How well does it capture us and our land in all our variety? More broadly, what do you think about the relationship among arts, artists, and particular places? The blues are uniquely American. Americana music is "an amalgam of American folk music," which seems to raise the question of whether the United States is more melting pot or mosaic. Lots to contemplate here.

Place and Time

By Lisel Mueller

History is your own heartbeat.                
                   —Michael Harper 

Last night a man on the radio,
a still young man, said the business district
of his hometown had been plowed under.
The town was in North Dakota.
Grass, where the red-and-gold           
Woolworth sign used to be,
where the revolving doors
took him inside Sears;
gone the sweaty seats
of the Roxy—or was it the Princess—
of countless Friday nights
that whipped his heart to a gallop
when a girl touched him, as the gun
on the screen flashed in the moonlight.
Grass, that egalitarian green,
pulling its sheet over rubble,
over his barely cold childhood,
on which he walks as others walk
over a buried Mayan temple
or a Roman aqueduct beneath
a remote sheep pasture
in the British Isles. Yet his voice,
the modest voice on the radio,
was almost apologetic,
as if to say, what’s one small town,
even if it is one’s own,
in an age of mass destruction,
and never mind the streets and stones
of a grown man’s childhood—
as if to say, the lives we live
before the present moment
are graves we walk away from.

Except we don’t. We’re all
pillars of salt. My life began
with Beethoven and Schubert
on my mother’s grand piano,
the shiny Bechstein on which she played
the famous symphonies
in piano reductions. But they were no
reductions for me, the child
who now remembers nothing
earlier than that music,
a weather I was born into,
a jubilant light or dusky sadness
struck up by my mother’s hands.
Where does music come from
and where does it go when it’s over—
the child’s unanswered question
about more than music.

My mother is dead, and the piano
she could not take with her into exile
burned with our city in World War II.
That is the half-truth. The other half
is that it’s still her black Bechstein
each concert pianist plays for me
and that her self-taught fingers
are behind each virtuoso performance
on the stereo, giving me back
my prewar childhood city
intact and real. I don’t know
if the man from North Dakota has
some music that brings back
his town to him, but something does,
and whatever he remembers
is durable and instantly
retrievable and lit
by a sky or streetlight
which does not change. That must be why
he sounded casual about
the mindless wreckage, clumsy
as an empty threat.

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Please be kind to each other while you can.