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“What Music?” Extended Response

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Dew, you speak the truth. What follows is my wordy response (I have been working on my wordiness, and these damn parentheses popping up all over the place aren’t helping). Please see the James Baldwin quote below (the last five paragraphs).

There is something unnatural about examining music as opposed to just experiencing it. The teacher who said, “good music is all about melodies,” maybe was a bit too simplistic. Sometimes it is the lyrics that stand out (for me, “It’s Alright Ma” by Bob Dylan), or it is the rhythm that drives the song (what would that teacher have thought about reggae rap chants which are not always so melodic but certainly rhythmic and lyrical?). But we are not exactly examining music; rather, we are examining our reactions to it, the context around it, music culture (gee, I guess this is somewhat obvious given the motto of Blogcritics).

When I was an adolescent, I used to be so deeply connected to—and strongly defensive of—my record collection. As I defined it, it defined me. This is why I was quick to condemn music from certain music and certain genres. A girl I liked listened to The Smiths. I followed suit, but then I found out that they were gay (or I think that they claimed they were asexual at the time, whatever that means). Being a high school male, I swore them off in a typical homophobic reaction. As I got older and found that some of my longtime friends were gay, I realized that it was no big deal. I guess I got more secure in my own sexuality. So now I listen to them without reservation. Similarly, I must have been warped by my limited experiences watching Hee-Haw. I thought that all country music was terrible, kitschy and phony. I felt so strongly about it that I had to testify to the world (my peers at that time) what I thought about it. I guess this was an example of struggling to form identity. Anyway, I now like a lot of country music—especially Willie Nelson. These are examples of how I was quick to stereotype music and build up preconceived notions about it and its listeners.

I teach high school students. Just as I was defensive at their age, so are many of them. When I allow a student to play a piece of music on the CD player while we write in my writing class, invariably there are hems and haws—someone saying how it is lame, gay, stupid, weak, etc. The kid who played the music is usually hurt by these comments. One time I was shocked by how vehement and vicious students could be–this one boy made a girl run out of the room crying (oh yah, he got a detention–I’m the only one who gets to make kids cry in my class). I work to make them more tolerant of other music by playing a wide variety of music: gypsy, country, classical, Arabic, Rock and Roll, R & B, and so on.

These preconceived notions and stereotypes get in our way sometimes as we try to appreciate music. My sister got free tickets to this new age Celtic band Windham Hill (a cool tune played when I opened this website). She, my mother and I sat through a few songs, and then my sister declared, “this sucks,” and we had to leave. Now, I didn’t necessarily groove with everything that I heard, but I was quite impressed by the musicianship that some of the performers showed. I liked some of what I heard. On asking my sister what was wrong, she could not stand the new age hippie culture that was prevalent–on stage and in the audience—she felt it was phony and pretentious (and for some it might have been, but that opens up a whole new discussion about how we define phony (see Holden Caulfield for that one)). It was not a reaction to the music alone. I think she may have been able to enjoy the music had it not been for the context around the music about which she had preconceived notions that were set in stone.

Part of increasing one’s joy in life is getting past these stereotypical barriers. We wind up opening ourselves to new enjoyable experiences that we otherwise would not have had. And we can truly experience new music without the interfering preconceived notions.

To any interested in the topic presented by Dew, if you have not read James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” then you should. Here is whopping excerpt taken from the last few pages of the story (I copied the excerpt from this website):

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing — he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

“And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

“And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

“Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue. And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful, calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there, beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.

“Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”


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  • I haven’t read “Sonny’s Blues” in years. I’m going to have to go read that again. Especially now that I understand more about music and its makers.

  • Dew

    Oh my gosh!! I love this! This is what it’s all about. Thank you for sharing.

  • Eric Olsen

    Beautiful and moving response to Dew’s poetic and moving post – made my otherwise pretty shitty day.