We “Aren’t” the World, Ian Brennan on Music from the Majority of the Planet

December 13, 2012

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?

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