Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma

In one of those bits of serendipity that, when you examine them, really have more to do with a greater cohesion, David Brooks’ column today deals with American music—just the topic of discussion in my composition classes, yesterday and today. Brooks, however, bemoans the splintering of the music. I see things differently.

Brooks has been speaking with ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt, guitarist with the E Street Band:

He argues that if the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn’t be able to get mass airtime because there is no broadcast vehicle for all-purpose rock. And he says that most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.

As a result, much of their music (and here I’m bowdlerizing his language) stinks.

He describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots.

Later, Brooks says Van Zandt has “drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He’s trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.” I did something similar in 1993, the last time I taught high school. In fact, I actually taught the course, doing more than simply concocting a curriculum. And I use music in my writing classroom frequently, doing things like introducing students to the backgrounds of rap music in poetry and song going back (believe it or not) to Beowulf, where the ‘sprung rhythms’ (to use the phrase that Gerard Manley Hopkins created for his own nineteenth-century poetry) and alliterations show an accent on the beat that was later masked by the stricter cadences of the poetic forms introduced with the French of the Norman invasion. I recite for them Woody Guthrie’s “Talkin’ Dust Bowl,” Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” among other things, and tell them about the story-telling of country music. And I talk about Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, written when he was still known as LeRoi Jones. And much more.

In other words, I know a little bit about the history of American music–and love to share it. The so-called ‘American Songbook’ is familiar to me, as is the jazz by the likes of Carla Bley and Paul Motian, as is the boogie piano of Rosie Sykes. Not only that, but my mother is a classical musician and I grew up surrounded by her music (it was first hearing Leadbelly’s 12-string guitar that shocked me into another listening direction). I have heard the mermaids singing, in other words, each to each—and have paid attention.

One thing I have learned from my obsession with music is that its history is one of constant flux, of melding and separation. It always has been thus. There has never really been the kind of cohesion or national musical ‘language’ that Van Zandt laments in the quote from Brooks above. When I was a kid in the 1960s, there were few I could talk to who would know both Professor Longhair and Phil Ochs… or either one, for that matter. Rare was a songwriter like Bob Dylan, who soaked up influences like a sponge. Most people—and even most musicians—knew little beyond the particular genre they worked within.

How many American musicians of the 1960s were familiar with Ska? Or John Cage? Or Johnny Gilmore of Sun Ra’s Arkestra?

Very few.

Every generation laments the passing of a golden age that was somehow more nuanced than what we see “today.” In 30 years, David Brooks’ replacement will be interviewing Kanye West about how musical knowledge has dwindled, about how much broader the influences were, back in the day, that first decade of the century.

Brooks calls what we have today “the segmented society.” As an amateur historian of the history of American music, that makes me laugh. He conveniently ignores the fact of “race” records, an enforced segmenting with a power greater than anything around today. He forgets (or never knew) that many classical musicians resolutely refused to listen to jazz (Leonard Bernstein had much to do with changing that—in the 1940s). If anything, though the average person knows no more today about the history of music than she or he did fifty years ago, the possibility of exposure to a wide range of music is greater today than it has ever been. Rappers sample Buffalo Springfield as well as Bootsie Collins—and some of them can talk in detail about Monk or even Mozart.

Yes, it is true that there are few today who can speak broadly of “Bessie, bop, or Bach”–but, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Van Zandt, it was ever so.