moments before the wind.

April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #12 – Guthrie’s Heroic Dams

Filed under: architecture, business, folk, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 12:42 pm

Carl Zimring spoke of Woody Guthrie’s conservationism through an analysis of the Depression-era politics and the songs Guthrie wrote, particularly the ones commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration like “Roll On, Columbia” and “Grand Coulee Dam.”

With a clever framing of Mermaid Avenue, the album where Billy Bragg and Wilco put Guthrie’s long lost lyrics to music, Zimring suggests that the sociopolitical agendas of these contemporary liberal folksters do not overlap with Guthrie’s sentiments about nature. Consistent more with the Bush Administration’s agenda to “work the land,” to use it’s resources to their fullest capabilities (i.e. logging in national forests, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), Guthrie’s beliefs are so clearly part of the populist 30’s ethic that this is obviously an unfair comparison.

Zimring posits that had Guthrie lived through Carson’s Silent Spring or Hurricane Katrina, he may have changed his views on the place that nature should occupy.

But neither can you say with any certainty that Guthrie would have ended up a staunch liberal in this day and age, Zimring was sure emphasize. It was a clear message, that we should not be so quick to adopt presumed agendas from historical figures.

An audience member’s comment on Guthrie’s treatment of Native Americans (he had a very derogatory attitude towards them) brought Zimring to a brick wall. Unable to avoid the fact that even Woody Guthrie had his prejudces, he said that for Guthrie, “Indians, like the salmon, are in the way.”

Speaking of salmon and dams, check this article in today’s New York Times.

EMP Pop Conference #11 – County Lines

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, business, country, folk, music, producers, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 11:28 am

A recurrent topic at the conference is the black reclamation of a southern identity, namely, southern hip hop. Countless papers brought this up in conversations about racial politics and pop culture, which makes sense due to the huge and growing popularity of african-american musicians re-forging their southern roots and identities.

To talk about Leadbelly here would be going in the wrong direction, because the idea is that this new generation of hip hop is fueled by a kind of empowerment and self-conscious purpose. But to talk about Cowboy Troy might be entirely appropriate? Or maybe just bizarre. Jon Caramanica was so giddy to get to be talking about Cowboy Troy, I can only imagine the sorts of things that might be going on at Vibe Magazine.

But I think there is something else to this element of absurdity. Charles Hughes gave a fantastic presentation on the love triangle of Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals – namely, the particular symbiosis of country and soul (and disco?), black and white, that largely determined the mainstream sounds of both genres in the 70’s. And when someone asked him what contemporary artists could be compared to the genre benders Billy Sherrill, George Jones, Ray Charles, etc etc…he said Bubba Sparxx’s album Deliverance. Now that to me is absurd. Not that Hughes is wrong, but that I never took Sparxxx seriously – I think one too many frat parties may have tipped the scales for me in that respect (one?! okay, maybe 20). And then Hughes himself addressed this, as if he’d read my mind, bringing up artists like Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint, lamenting that “they’re all so damn serious.”

Lightbulb! I get the “too damn serious” comment a LOT, so I get what he means here, though I may be on the other side of the coin. Bubba Sparxxx? Definitely not. Fans of Bubba Sparxxx too – POPISTS! Which is the whole reason why we’re at the Pop Conference in the first place.

We all draw our own lines between what’s pop and what’s serious. Different for every person. This makes me think of a little tibit that Meghan Askins taught us yesterday, that Nevada County, CA, drew their county lines in the shape of a pistol aimed at Nevada State, angry for stealing their name. The way that we all draw our lines tends to have a kind of larger metaphysical purpose as well, aimed with a certain discourse in our sights.

EMP Pop Conference #10 – The Pure Land

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, digital, distribution, folk, indie, live shows, music, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 10:46 am

Phil Ford quoted an old professor of mine, Scott DeVeaux – so much UVA love this weekend. DeVeaux taught a really wonderful class, Music and WWII, where I thought about many things for the first time and will never forget. The quote he read, I wish I had been able to record it, was so typical of the way DeVeaux spoke – it was perfect.

Ford’s presentation was about some obscure acetate recordings that the Beats made. I sort of lost track of the talk, just a personal ambivalence about the Beats – it’s hard for me to really pay attention to it. He made a general point about the purity of experience though, which is what they were striving for, and all of a sudden the quality of the recordings became an issue, then extrapolated to the larger circumstance of all recorded music. Ford talked about the expression of a particular kind of inability to attain this purity, which he then likened to “the melancholy of recorded sound itself,” a loaded and entirely plausible statement.

Recording brings a kind of distance to the musical experience. Yes, OK, well, this is an obvious point, however existential you’d like to make it. The physical distance between the room in which the sound was made and the room in which it is heard cannot be stressed enough. Is this distance detrimental to the musical experience? On both ends, for the musican and the listener, I think something is lost. Other things stand to be gained, of course, but some people may never be able to reclaim the visceral experience of proximity.

I learned about a different kind of music that seems to be entirely about the visceral experience of proximity in Lorriane Plourde’s talk about a kind of Japanese experiemental music mainly performed at a gallery called Off Site. I can’t remember the Japanese term for the genre, but it involved cramming a bunch of listeners into a typically small Tokyo apartment space, where they listen to a performance that consists mainly of sounds that you must strain to be able to hear. These performances are so quiet (made up mostly of sine waves and feedback noise from a mixer), that apparently you must strain to stay awake as well. What Plourde took away from her study of this music was the sense of physical tension, explaining the palpable sense of stress and, well, strain, among the audience members and their relation to the performing artist. More of a happening than a concert, it illustrates a lot about what remains to be sought out in a lot of American commercial recording. Conceptually, this experiemental form seemed to me to be sort of a reactionary form of art, forcing the kind of particiption and recipriocation that hardly any popular music asks of us anymore.

EMP Pop Conference #9 – Titanic As Metaphor

Filed under: distribution, folk, music, writing — alimarcus @ 10:06 am

Ali Neff gave an entertaining talk on the continuation of the trickster image from the days of salvery and minstrelsy to her contemporary folklore work in the South. Of course the thing that I latched onto was a little tidbit about the Titanic, since my songwriting has become increasingly colored with Titanic allusions over the last 6-12 months. (I find the deterioration of American politics/policy is well expressed through the Titanic metaphor, and poignantly illustrates the kind of self-destruction and greed that dominates personal as well as political issues…but anyways…)

The story of Shine and the Titanic is a well-known toast down in the southern parts, something I did not previously know anything about. See example here. Neff sort of glossed over this, making a larger point that was relevant to her presentation, but I just wanted to stop for a minute to bring to light yet another way in which the image of the Titanic has leapt into popular imagination as a signifier for something distinctly American and foreboding.

EMP Pop Conference #8 – John Henry

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, distribution, folk, live shows, music, writing — alimarcus @ 9:41 am

Saturday was one of those days that was full of echoes, like a 15-hour-long song cycle, rhyming continuously throughout the hours. I often have the feeling that my entire life is a series of these song cycles (maybe 100 or so) all happening at the same time, but let’s just talk about Saturday’s John Henry.

In the morning, Rachel Richardson, a Wallace Stegner Fellow and from the UNC-Chapel Hill Folklore department, gave us a narrative comparison between “John Henry” and “John Hardy.” It was a fairly standard lyrical analysis, and became captivating once she turned to the realm of female characters in blues ballads. She drew some conclusions about the stereotypical roles of women in these songs (wives, daughters) and, noticing that their voices are never represented, decided to write her own version of “John Henry” from his wife Polly Ann’s point of view.

It struck me as a very Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) method, and despite the obvious imitation, I have to credit Richardson with originality here, because in the context of 19th century folk song, this is truly novel. Even the songs that are sung from a women’s perspective put the women in their place, so to speak. For instance, “I Never Will Marry” (A single woman laments, “the shells in the ocean shall be my deathbed/ the fish in the water swim over my head”), or “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” (“They’ll tell to you some loving story and make you think they love you well/ and away they’ll go and court some other, leave you there in grief to dwell”). Or how about the ones where even the women who have the true love of a man get murdered, like “Banks of the Ohio,” where the male singer stabs and drowns his love because she said no to a marriage proposal, or “Polly Von,” where he accidently shoots her while out hunting?

And then Richardson did something truly original, and commissioned her re-written lyrics to a musician friend, Jocelyn Arem, who (beautifully) performed the song up at the lectern as part of the presentation.

“He let me go out of his hands
For that hammer and a crooked fight
Damn hammer and a crooked fight.”   -Richardson 

Why was this the first music performance I’ve ever seen in three years at the Pop Conference? Kicking myself for not having thought of it first, I enjoyed the spirit that it brought to the whole presentation. The idea that folk music is just a thing that happens in rooms, in life, in regular places – it just crossed a boundary that made a lot of sense, and all of a sudden made many other presentations lacking in that sense.

But back to John Henry.

In a different panel later in the day, Scott Nelson walked us through the process by which he tracked down the sequence of events in the real John Henry’s life to city records and signed contracts to buried bones in the Virginia clay. Literally de-mythologizing the hero of the song, Nelson brilliantly unveiled a mystery, revealing a narrative that is just as much a part of American history as the legend.

It turns out, John Henry was a prisioner at the Virginia Penitentiary. Along with hundreds of other convicts, he was leased out to the railroad companies to build the tunnels, work that men would not volunteer for due to the incredibly high risk of death (Nelson says that in 1866 the highest export from the state of California was Chinese bones, the dead men who came to America to work in the tunnels). Anyways, Nelson found records of a steam-engine drill at Lewis Tunnel, across the WV border but near the Big Bend Tunnel of the “John Henry” ballad. He found contracts that fined the railroads $100 for every man not returned to the Penitentiary, which explains the hundred of skeletons found buried in mass graves, Henry’s presumably among them.

The bones are now at the Smithsonian being analyzed, and Nelson mentioned an upcoming article in the September issue of National Geographic. What a great story. Also, he mentioned that Henry’s prison record marked him as 5’1.25″ tall – that’s my height, on a good day. How could a man my size have acquired this superhuman strength? Fascinating.

Oh, and Nelson also credits the legend of John Henry as the inspiration for superman – “Steel-drivin’ man” : “Man of Steel.”

I had to leave to conference in a big rush due to a show I had to play that evening in Tacoma. But on the drive down there, I’m explaining this whole day of John Henry to my pal in the car. The coincidence of these presentations provided a lot to discuss. And then, the other performer opened his set with “John Henry”! It was a lot of coincidence for one day. When things like this happen, I am reassured that I am doing something right, you know?

EMP Pop Conference #7 – Too Much Analysis?

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, folk, live shows, music, recording, reviews, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 8:57 am

John Shaw has a really nice take on his experience at the conference this weekend. Mainly centered around Jonathan Lethem’s keynote, which I skipped, he repeatedly brings up something that I think about often, in music and also in life. “We should exult that such secrets live among us,” he writes, referring to the seemingly endless attempts my music writers to analyze, unpack, and deconstruct what exactly it is that makes this or that do a particular thing inside our bodies and minds.

A (perhaps the) central conflict in my professional life (see Quality) is between what I think as a critic and what I think as a musician. I am constantly looking to more experienced people in this situation for advice or for something that helps ease the tension, but more often than not, I have to make little decisions here and there choosing one over the other and weighing the results over time. But in general, I find that I am unable to truly separate. Either my writing about music becomes increasingly lyrical and personal, or my songs or promotional strategies have these highly analytical tics that come off as inappropriately intellectual in the wrong circumstances.

Bob Christgau would call me a bad critic. But would he also call me a bad songwriter? I don’t know.

At any write, Shaw thinks that “Maybe the ubiquity of music has masked its mystery, like a drug to which our tolerance has grown,” and I absolutely agree. I could go on forever about the ways in which recorded music has changed our relationship to music in general. In fact, I probably already have, somewhere on this blog, if you’re willing to search for something about mp3’s and albums and live performance.  

So it might be the hybrid nature of my music appreciation that both feels exactly what John is saying (exults, if you will), but also just as equally feels the necessity of critical analysis. It’s just as important. Living too much in one world or another would seem like missing out on some things.

Is this an extension of the wrap-up panel about Academia vs. Journalism?  If so, then Journalism all of a sudden just became the heart instead of the brains, as far as binaries are concerned. Interesting. More on this later.

EMP Pop Conference #6 – Quality

Filed under: authenticity, business, music, writing — alimarcus @ 8:11 am

Having just finished my most recent reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I have Quality on the brain, Quality with a capital Q, and in the semi-demented abstract manner of the electro-shock therapy patient narrator of the book.

A lunch discussion on the conflicts a critic faces within its local scene elicited some interesting comments. Below, a short dialogue:

Nate Chinen asks, “What’s good for community? What’s good for criticism?,” indicating that these things may not overlap. Talk drifts on towards thinking about how and where to draw the line between personal and professional obligations.

Christgau: “People who don’t try to preserve the boundaries are bad critics.”
Ann Powers: “Is it bad or is it something different?”
Christgau: “I think bad is the word I would use.”

A lot of laughs followed this, but there is a very real point. One thing I am finding is that the people who cross this line may not really intend to be critics at all; they may find out that they have other motivations. So Powers’ accepting tone is appropriate, but Christgau is still right. Is he always right? There’s something in the tone of his voice that makes everything sound so definitive.

April 20, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #5 – On UVA

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, digital, distribution, folk, indie, labels, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 10:12 pm

I had to make a stop to see the talk of an old college professor. Actually, he was never my professor, but he did administer a sightreading test once, and he also rejected my idea for a thesis on the grounds that there was no faculty member who would be interested in supporting it. (For the record, it was 2003, and I wanted to deconstruct the process of record labels as we knew them, and through a re-evaluation of the digital possibilties and available communication outlets, redesign the record label model for the 21st century. Heady topic for a 20-year-old intern, but I’ve always had big eyes.)

And so, I graduated without honors, but am a living example of the doomed thesis, or at least trying to be, so I am not sure yet whether he was being flippant about it, or if my career, like the thesis, is doomed as well.

His talk on the Pet Shop Boys, I dutifully report, was enlightening in the sense that I learned a little bit about them, and wonderfully pedantic in the sense that the combination of an old professor and some harmonic analysis brought me back to the basement of Old Cabell Hall. I could feel the chalk dust in the air, the creaky door panels, the musty classicism. I heard they are rebuilding the whole music department over there, which is triumphant but also a bit tragic as well.

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