Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Makes Popular, Popular? - Essay

The following essay is a lightly edited re-posting of my monthly column on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association. As always, I look forward to your comments here, on FB, and on other forums.

I watched The History of the Eagles film with huge fascination on Showtime a few weeks ago. Beyond the interpersonal conflicts, the lifestyle of a rock band, and the nostalgia of so many songs I remember with pleasure from the 70's despite my not having been a fan, the film scratched an itch that's been bouncing around in my head for months. There was lots of talk about defining themselves and refining themselves into the band they wanted to be. The issues revolved around the balance in their sound between their influences – country, rock, and even, yes, bluegrass. Although many of the issues that surrounded their breakup in 1980 involved money and power, their sound was also an issue. The second part, which involves the Eagles reunion in 1994 and continued success as a touring band, seemingly healed from the ravages of the 70's, shows a mellowed group of men performing for audiences who look to be former fans grown older and soberer, but no less enthusiastic. The story of the Eagles continued popularity and resurgence raises the issue for bluegrass of “what appeals to whom, why?”

The question comes up in many conversations. A friend (both real and cyber) posted this on her facebook page. “Loving me some Looney Toons on Cartoon Network!! Now this is what cartoons are supposed to be!! Bugs, Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd... it just don't get no better!! :D” Now what would my kids and their kids think about this choice? I remember our sons watching Speed Racer and the Rocky & Bullwinkle show in front of the big box that introduced color television into our home back in the seventies. Despite the powerful influence supported by the world of the Disney park system, I suppose these two programs and their many imitators represent “real” cartoons to them more than the products of Disney and Warner Brothers, first consumed by me in movie theaters as the brief images preceding Saturday morning serials. Were the cartoons along with Buster Crabbe, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry the “real” westerns, or just what hit me at the right time? How did TV change my perception from the movies that still dominated when I was quite young? My ninety-five year old mother-in-law looks to Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra's great 1934 film “It Happened One Night” as what “real” movies are all about. Should I discount her admiration for these films, or incorporate them into my understanding of where they fit into a larger whole? Why do Andy Griffith's mythical creations of rural life resonate so strongly among today's bluegrass fans?

I've written often about Daniel Levitin's assertion in his influential book “This Is Your Brain on Music” that the music we bond with in our teens, during our rush to puberty, is the music we love for life. For me this means the songs and music of the 1940's group The Almanac Singers which included Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Their social conscience and re-creation of sea chanty's and cowboy songs later morphed into The Weavers and then into increasingly commercial material like The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters, and The Chad Mitchel Trio who eventually were swallowed by television into an easily forgotten piece of fluff called Hootenanny. Of course there were other influences, too (Gilbert & Sullivan, Toscanini, Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Patti Page as well as Vaughn Monroe (who can forget Ghost Riders?) who entered my consciousness, but heavy doses of rock music weren't there for me. Our forty-three year old son Alex has a whole other set of musical choices which influenced him (The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Clash, etc.) but study and looking back towards the antecedents of the music he most likes have introduced him to Robert Johnson, and Old and In the Way, which brings us back to the influence of bluegrass music on the larger musical awareness of Americans. It's almost in our genes, and those with questing spirits will always find it. Plato attributed the following statement to Socrates, "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" So what has changed?

Bluegrass has always had a troubled relationship with its antecedents: blues, folk, mountain music, gospel, rock and roll, western swing, and more. It grew out of country music expressing the yearnings and longings of people who moved to the great necklace of industrial areas hung around the Great Lakes. They longed for the fields, farms, and, yes, mines they had left behind them in their search for a better life during the depression and into the increased prosperity of the Second World War. But today's standout musical groups are much more influenced by the music that succeeded Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs. They have innovative bluegrass bands as well as other music bouncing around in their heads. So the LRB, IIIrd Tyme Out, Gibson Brothers, Balsam Range, as well as Carl Jackson, and Larry Cordle reflect not only the country music they love, but the music that grew from the originals. They have found new and creative ways of expressing this.

No, it's not country any more, not any more than what Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were doing out in California when they created a new sound in reaction to the Eddie Arnold, Chet Atkins and Jim Reeves with their violin backed wailings reflecting Nashville's understanding of country was country music. It came to be called the Bakersfield sound, and it reflected the yearnings, memories, and eventual triumphs of thousands of Okies who had pulled up stakes in the high plains and moved west only to yearn for the values and life which they dreamed had existed before their overworked land turned to dust. Nor any more than the singing and song writing of Johnny Cash, rescued from the cotton fields of Arkansas by the Army or Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings, discovered in the same sounds found in rock and roll a music they could create that provided work and sold records for them. They weren't outlaws, they were professional entertainers, nurtured in the bars and honky tonks of Texas who discovered a sound that sold millions of records.

The pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman writes that everyone hates the Eagles, except the millions of people who bought a hundred million of their records to popularize the vibe and feelings they found on the beaches of California. Larry Cordle's great song “Murder on Music Row” strikes a responsive chord with many who find the changes away from a music they loved to be abominable. But the murder will be remembered and treasured by others who attached themselves to the music that replaced the victim Cordle so lovingly describes. Murder on Music Row is always being committed as new, young, vital musicians seek to find a voice that exemplifies their sensibility, their understanding of the world they live in and to express it effectively. They seek to find a voice for themselves and their times, find an audience and make some money doing it. Then there come copiers, clones, and interpreters who are never as well-regarded or remembered as the originals until they become a cliché rather than a new voicing, only to be replaced again. That's what happens with art, and perhaps all matters of taste and commerce as they interact. Mozart is still there, but who remembers Salieri. People rioted at the Paris Opera in 1913 when Stravinsky premiered his Rites of Spring. Punk and Hip Hop have left many followers of rock to mourn its loss. Fans will continue to be outraged as “their” music falls into memory and nostalgia, but there's always more to come, most of which isn't great, but some of which will help to form the great stream of consciousness we call the art of music.
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