Someone with too much time, too many records, tapes, and cds, and guitars, banjos and mandolins up the wazoo (it's pretty crowded in there) should really try to justify his or her existence in some way beneficial to humanity or at least not harmful. So I've decided to enter the blogosphere with a series of meditations on music that means something to me. As a musician, composer and band leader, my experiences have been fascinating and challenging and rewarding, and I have a website for my band American String Conspiracy you can easily find via googling, but I'm not interested in writing about my music which I hope speaks for itself. Rather, I'd like to write about songs, musicians, and musical instruments I love, things that inspire, fascinate and even annoy me in the process of experiencing music. I'm very new to this sort of forum for writing, and I imagine I'll learn as I go.
I spend as many hours a day as possible listening to and making music. Sometimes this is ultra-functional--I may have an upcoming show (mine or as sideman) and songs to learn, or I might be working on new material. I play numerous string instruments and I need to practice them daily (or as often as I can) to keep up my chops and work on my technical facility. But all of this I experience as pleasure, even when I hit the wrong notes or can't get my fingers to switch from guitar technique to banjo technique. Music is one of the deep pleasures of life. We were born to make a joyful noise and a mournful one.
With the rise of broadcast and recording technology, people have the opportunity to listen to more music than they could possibly make themselves or hear live, and this can get a little overwhelming. People have a tendency to listen passively, to allow music to be something other people do for an audience desiring entertainment. I propose another sort of listening altogether, an active listening in which sounds absorbed become sounds released. This makes the experience of music more of a conversation, less of a shopping spree. By sounds released I don't just mean music. Words are sounds, too, and so are tapping feet, typing, singing along with the radio or humming some melody on the subway that you can't quite remember but can't get out of your head either.
I like details, like to explore places and artifacts and sounds to understand better human possibilities. America has long represented a possible world, a place where new beginnings are made, where a vastness might be known river by river, valley by valley, mountain by mountain--not simply known, but transformed in the knowing and in turn transforming the knowledge seeker. American song contains some of this transformative knowledge in myriad voices, some nearly incomprehensible to one another but all of them American. Listening to these voices closely can be startling, inspiring, even terrifying. "Me and the devil, walking side by side/I'm going to beat my woman 'til I get satisfied," as sung by Robert Johnson in Me and the Devil Blues is one of the scariest moments in music or any art I've ever encountered. We don't know a lot about Johnson's life, but we have some contemporaries still alive, some eyewitness accounts of his life and way of living, and there is no evidence Johnson himself ever beat a woman, let alone walked with the devil.
In fact, what we know about Johnson suggests almost the opposite, at least with women; he was seductively shy, courteous, and drawn to women who were willing to care for him for a time and then let him go to his next town and gig knowing he might be back and might not. He married young, still a teenage farm hand, but his wife died in childbirth (as did the infant), and this may have been the most significant event in his short life. Soon thereafter he began pursuing music in earnest, playing harmonica and singing, pestering older players for guitar tips, and avoiding farm labor whenever possible. Son House, an older bluesman who was one of his mentors, recalled him being far more enthusiastic than talented, especially when he tried playing guitar. House, his associates Charley Patton and Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson were all founding fathers of the Delta blues style, with big, rough voices. Johnson's voice was relatively high-pitched, even thin by their standards. These men preferred playing music to sharecropping; some, like House, tried preaching--"I'm gonna get religion, join the Baptist church/I'll be a Baptist preacher so I don't have to work," House sings in his Preaching the Blues. But most of them were born and lived on plantations, and when times got hard they would return to farming. Some never really left the farm, making music on weekends or occasional trips to Dallas or Memphis or Chicago to record if their music caught a talent scout's attention.
The blues boom of the 1920s had established a market for African-American musical recording and broadcasting (simultaneously with the opening of the country, jazz, pop and dance music markets), but the Depression seriously disrupted the recording of black music, and by the time Johnson recorded, in 1936 and 1938, Son House was back to farming (soon to become a railroad porter), Charley Patton was dead, and Delta blues was slipping out of popularity. Nevertheless, Johnson's small body of work contains some of the greatest American songs ever recorded--Crossroad Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, Stones in My Passway, If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day and other masterworks represent one of our most influential and compelling American voices. Johnson went from a young tag-along apprentice c. 1928 to a master and innovator of country blues styles by 1936. My interest is in how this happened.
We know some facts and too many legends and myths. The bit about him selling his soul to the devil for his guitar skills was firmly debunked by researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow (see his book CHASING THE DEVIL'S MUSIC for details). Johnson's contemporary Johnny Shines, a compelling guitarist and singer himself, says Johnson had an uncanny ability to hear a song once and play it. Son House recalled Johnson disappearing for about a year, and upon his return being able to play better than his mentor; this likely corresponds to the period Johnson spent studying with one Ike Zinneman, who never recorded but was a local guitarist of some reputation around Robinsonville in Mississippi. Still, a year is not a long time, long enough to establish some command of the guitar for most people, but it takes a fairly obsessive and devoted type to become a compelling solo player and singer in a year or two.
Johnson's music holds hints of his own obsessions and devotions, and while his songs concern women, good times, hard times and other traditional blues themes, his main obsession seems to be music itself, the palpable joy of making it. This is even more evident now with the digital remastering of his recordings. His songs often combine lyric and musical motifs from other sources, songs he may have learned from Son House or from the recordings of Skip James and Lonnie Johnson; his recombinant method anticipates something of Post-modernism, but he is much more than a copycat or cut-and-paste artist. His songs influenced by Lonnie Johnson are generally regarded as weaker, while his songs similar to James' are among his greatest and most haunting efforts. Johnson was a very sophisticated guitarist, with many recordings in his own name and with other artists. James was a local talent, a difficult personality who left music in the 30s, but whose songs have an eerie tragic cast that must have appealed to some deep part of Robert Johnson's psyche. Listening to James' recordings seems to have been crucial for establishing his own voice.
Finding and knowing one's own voice isn't easy, in art or life. Some people live their whole lifetimes struggling for one moment of clarity and purpose. Before I made music, I made poetry, and I passed through various stages of imitation (Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost) before figuring out what I wanted and needed to say. When I turned to music, I had a certain advantage from decades of writing poetry, but reading poetry aloud was also helpful--I knew what I sounded like when I sounded good. Now I'm entering another form of expression, the prose blog, a bit ambivalent but still interested in seeing how I sound and how I might change. This initial entry took two hours to write. This time I did it all from memory, drawing on my own listening experience but also my reading of Wardlow mentioned above, Peter Guralnick's SEARCHING FOR ROBERT JOHNSON, and other texts on blues and American music. Next time I'll put a cd on and start typing. That will be my method until a better one occurs to me.
Now it's time to practice mandolin.