A pitfall of capturing music in any permanent,
reproducible medium is that it can arrest the artistic growth and
progress of the musical form. The archetypal field-recordings that
Alan Lomax did throughout America’s south in the 1940s, more
than exemplifying exact musical genres like the blues, were, in fact,
reflections of individual aesthetics at one moment in time. (Musical
Selections from Alan Lomax in Haiti features highlights from the massive
box set of the father of field-recorders’ 1936 journey south.) The
assumption that bluegrass music always sounded like it did in the
era in which it was first documented is to disregard the fluidity of all
musical creation. Not only would bluegrass have sounded different
100 years earlier, it probably sounded markedly different even five
years earlier. In fact, it may have sounded even more different five
years later, had it not been for the permanence of the recordings which
led to greater precise mimicry, turning music making from a process
into, instead, a “thing” that could literally be held and examined.
An aspect of how influence operates that is often lost is the
way it often occurs, indirectly, in layers and waves. For example,
though the Malian group Tinariwen are often labeled a “blues”
band, they’d never heard American blues at all, and they were
shocked when they first toured the USA at how similar it was to
their own tradition. They were influenced, though second-handedly,
by such artists as Led Zeppelin, Santana, and Bob Dylan—
who had already fashioned their own reinterpretations of the blues.
Such is the house-of-mirrors of influence, which presents severe
challenges to the concepts of authorship and ownership of art.
Another important consideration in the quest for authenticity
is that often only a few select voices—of dubious authority
to boot—are granted and/or assume an autocratic, and usually
mostly arbitrary role dictating what is historically relevant culturally.
For instance, Leadbelly became a celebrity in his post-prison
years playing songs that were spoon fed to him by a self-taught,
upper-class “expert” in American folklore, whose versions of
those songs were usually ones that he himself had heavily edited
and rewritten—or were composites from the original sources that
themselves were often of questionable authenticity to begin with!
An aside related to the lyrical content of gangsta rap is its part
in a long tradition dating back not only to the hugely popular
“outlaw” songs about mythical figures like Billy the Kid and Jesse
James, but much further back to the first documented Gaelic folksongs
in the Middle Ages, which were almost exclusively tales of
rape, abduction, robbery, and murder.
Another additional misstep of limiting music as regional phenomena
is in disregarding the great diversity that can miraculously
arise from a single environment. As much as Frank Sinatra, the
Ramones, Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel, and Run-
D.M.C., can emerge from the same city, should not similar unlimited
variety be possible in “third world” communities?