Musings, October 2011

I wonder how the new reality of our stalling economy is going to affect culture. I don’t know much about art or film aside from knowing what speaks to me, but I can say that most (if not all) of the music that has really mattered in terms of pushing music ahead and speaking to mankind has come from people who had very little but their music. From the canonical European composers, to the great American songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century, to the blues artists that paved the way for rock’n’roll, to the great jazz improvisers and composers; although some of them were well paid for their work, very few came from privilege.

Over the course of time music has served to tell the stories of people: joyous, sad, painful, and funny. Songs are passed down through generations, bringing us together as people. Ultimately, it is an edifying force. Life is not easy but music makes it a little easier.

I’m not speaking of music as a whole (how could you?) but it seemed to me that in the Clinton and early Bush years, when America was going through huge economic growth, there was a lot of popular music that seemed to wallow in despair and self pity. Maybe we didn’t need music to make us feel better because in our orgy of consumerism and easy credit we had everything we needed? Or we felt like we did? I remember being at a party in the early 90’s when Nirvana was burning up the charts; the great South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on the TV. When I turned up the sound several people there made disparaging comments about the music. I could not understand how you couldn’t like it, that made about as much sense to me as not liking fresh strawberries. (By the way, I liked Nirvana too).

It’s interesting to be old enough to see music cycle in and out of fashion. When I was a kid I loved Hall and Oat’s “Kiss On My List”. Yes, the lyrics we’re a bit corny but the the chords were hip, the melody and singing were great, and the production was excellent. (Not that I knew this at the time, I just knew that it sounded great blasting through the speakers at the roller rink!). I bought the 7″ single. I liked many of their tunes but that’s still probably my favorite.

There were a lot of years where it wasn’t too hip to cop to liking something like two guys with poofy hair singing funky pop tunes with heavy soul undertones, but now the hipsters have “rediscovered” Hall and Oats, and they’re cool again…which I think is fantastic! Are we taking ourselves a little less seriously? We’ll need to in order to get through this. By the way, check out “Darryl’s House” online for some great interviews and musical collaborations between Darryl Hall and a wide array of guests.

My point isn’t that Hall and Oats epitomize great culture but that being an act that came out of a long term musical tradition, they were master craftsmen with a deep working knowledge of the best that tradition has to offer. That’s why, 25 years later, their work still speaks to people. It’s uplifting, and in tougher times we need music to give us a lift.

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My most recent Beginning Guitar class includes a man, a woman, a boy, and 11 mostly elementary school aged girls! When did playing guitar become hip for young girls? It’s got to be Taylor Swift or someone else they’re listening to, because this group is motivated, they are practicing and they sound good. It is difficult trying to teach guitar to kids who listen mostly to rap and r’n’b because there is little or no guitar in that music; this is something I’ve dealt with many times in the last 15 years. Thank you Taylor Swift.

My son Luca, who is in 3rd grade, played his first request recently. I started teaching him guitar this summer, and a few weeks ago he brought it to school to play for his music class. While he was playing “E Boogie Blues” (a song I wrote for my students), an overenthusiastic kid started yelling “Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday!” Luca knew it so he played it (I hope the kid tipped him!). There are no words to describe the glow I feel when I think about this.

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