music

Go On

Growing up in Central California, where the summers are hot and dry, I equate the Fourth not with some grand celebration but with blue skies, beer, and grilling. Fireworks when I was younger–those coils that flare up and then leave black snake patterns on the asphalt, or the spinning pinwheels of death we could only light up at my Grandpa Merle’s house in the desert–and backyard parties when I was older. Driving with the windows down, singing along to the radio.

“Give Me The Banjo” 2011

I like a lot of different kinds of music. Different styles for different moods. In general, though, I like my piano lively instead ponderous, prefer fiddle music to violin classics. And a fine trumpet player has always moved me. While the banjo doesn’t catch my breath in the same way, I always thought of it as a fun instrument. Quick and clever, requiring a lot of skill and dexterity–I appreciate the technique. Plus I grew up with a fair amount of bluegrass; one of my mom’s best friends was, and still is, a bluegrass fiddler (you can watch a video of her band here).

So when I saw that “Give Me The Banjo” was streaming on Netflix, I threw it on. I am a sucker for both documentaries and American music history. Background music, I thought, while I got other things done. It turned out to be too good to half-watch, and I ended up putting everything else aside. 6 minutes into the movie, it was clear that they meant to truly explore the banjo’s history, with this introduction:

You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo. – Greg Adams, Ethnomusicologist

Then straight into clips from a minstrel show. Blackface. Newspapers proclaiming a “Much-Admired Nigger Melodist” was playing. The white Southerner, Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, and then took both the knowledge of how to build one and his neighbor’s music with him to New York. Turning an African folk instrument into a white American musical staple. “Elevating” the instrument with fancier building designs, reinventing the music into the new “classic” style… purposely reminding audiences that they’d stolen from the people they considered themselves better than, with a style of music they called “Coon Songs”… This look at the past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening.

The interviews with experts–historians, musicians, and banjo builders–along with photos, songbooks, and recordings of the popular musicians from different eras, make this a documentary worth watching if you care at all about musical history, or the racial and cultural history of the US. (Even if the banjo itself doesn’t matter to you.) Steve Martin gives excellent narration, and they’ve got an impressive breadth of interviewees. Find the movie here: Give Me the Banjo (83 min.)

Mid-Week Links (Just Because)

Shimmer interviews Cate Gardner, who has a story in issue #16 (along with several other amazing writers). I know Cate from work – I published her story, “Too Delicate for Human Form” in FISH. They also interview M. Bennardo, who I also published in FISH, and who also has a story in issue #16.

Sam Lipsyte talks to the New Republic about writing sex.

Pablo Neruda’s remains are going to be exhumed in hopes of finding out if he was murdered.

Karen Lord talks about being a Writer from an Other Culture.

Did you know there was an award for worst book review? Hatchet Job of the Year shows that the last review you got really wasn’t so bad.

Authors react to Terry Deary’s attack on libraries.

Robert J. Lennon talks about the cross-over between wanting to write and wanting to rock.

HP Lovecraft speaks out in defense of amateur press (the forerunners to today’s social media).

Apparently digital technology is making people want to read more short stories. And speaking of shorts, here’s a new super-short flash piece by Sherman Alexie: “Across The Way

My Secret Love Affair With Jazz

I could argue that Jazz is the most important musical style out there. The most groundbreaking, the most influential, the most responsible for shaping modern musical expression. I may not be able to prove it (though I’m happy to debate it), but I can say one thing definitively: it’s the biggest musical influence on my life.

And I don’t know why. It’s a question I don’t have an answer to yet.

I don’t listen to it every day. But I don’t have to. The music that I do listen to, and that I like, when it’s not Jazz, is probably created by musicians who were raised up on Jazz, taught it, loved it, and built something new out of it. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about foundations, about influence, about where our tastes come from. Just as I’ve been going back and re-reading (and reviewing) classic works of science fiction, so too have I been going back to my musical roots. I’ve been rereading some old music texts, listening to songs, studying where lines of style intersect and veer off. Did you know that Jazz in the Philippines, for example, didn’t start with the influx of American soldiers in the 40s, but most likely began earlier, with a group of Filipinos who’d fled the Spanish-ruled islands decades before and settled in New Orleans? (Before I left Penn I was writing a paper on it for my World Music class.)

Jazz is so interesting to me partly because I don’t remember why I like it. I grew up listening to rock with my mom. She woke up almost every morning, opened the doors to the deck, and turned on her sound system loud enough to wake the neighbors. Most days, this was on purpose. From her I get AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull. From a close family friend I get Bluegrass, and from a couple of years when I was about 6 or 8, I think, I got my mom’s brief country influence – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson – and a vague memory of how to 2-step. This led to an understanding of the fundamentals of Heavy Metal when I got into high school in 1991, mixed with some hard rock: Metallica, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Guns N Roses. I spent some time with Foreigner, Def Leppard, Journey, Night Ranger, Aerosmith, and Chicago cassette tapes in my Walkman. By the end of high school I was into Nirvana and the Cure, got into Bauhaus and Psychedelic Furs in my first bout of college, did some time in the goth scene, got into chick/indie rock and 70s glam rock (hello Indigo Girls, Iggy Pop, David Bowie) …

But where does my love of Jazz come from? The thing I didn’t mention above is that at the same time I knew the words to every song on Iron Maiden’s Powerslave album, and GnR’s debut, I was hanging out with the jazz band at school. I was in band, too (yes, there was marching, and an outfit), going from flute in middle school to French horn, trumpet, and percussion in high school. I could sit and listen to the trumpet line for hours, I dated a few drummers, I befriended the jazz choir kids – I loved it all. I’ve asked my mom and she has no idea where I’d have heard Jazz outside of school. She says I just liked it because I liked it.

Maybe that’s it.

But like my spotty ability to play a musical instrument, my musical history knowledge has some gaps in it. I took a class in American Musical History in Sacramento, when I was finishing up my AA degrees, and like I said, I’ve read some books, but I don’t know as much as I’d like to. Music matters to me, and always has, and though I’ll never work in it, it’s like my art history studies – it helps me to understand the world and to understand myself. So this is me, educating myself. I am going back to the beginning and I am going to teach myself what I don’t know. It’s never too late to learn, after all.

As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.

Musical Interlude

I listen to music every day. Some of it is part of getting myself in a certain mood to do a particular kind of writing, some of it is to lift me up while I bounce around getting things done, and some of it is to wrap myself externally in the way I feel inside. I make playlists for certain stories in progress, and listen to them on repeat, and other times I pick an album I like and play it all the way through.

This is some of what I’ve been listening to this week:

The Walkmen, “I Lost You”, from 2008. Video is old tornado footage.

Esperanza Spaulding, performing Lauryn Hill’s “Tell Him” at the White House, 2009

Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars”

Counting Crows with a live version of “Anna Begins”