Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Leadbelly Sing Along

At the folk music festival, one of the bluesier performers attempted to engage us all in singing the chorus of the old Leadbelly songs, "In the Pines" (also known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"). It's been recorded by just about everybody, but my favorite version is the one by Nirvana on their MTV Unplugged in New York album--ah, those glorious olden days when MTV still played music . . . but let me not digress. If you want to see the Nirvana performance of the song, go here, but it may break your heart.

My spouse and I belted out the refrain and then realized that almost nobody else was singing. And despite being encouraged by the performer each time as the refrain came around, almost nobody sang.

Now, it's not a complicated refrain, some variation of: "Oh girl, my girl, don't lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night? In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don't ever shine, we shiver the whole night through." It has two or three notes. You can whisper them or scream them, the way Kurt Cobain did. Like many old, old folk songs, it's hard to go wrong.

It was Woody Guthrie, after all, who said if your song needs more than three chords, you're showing off (or was it 2 chords?). Folk music, like punk music, has a do-it-yourself ethic. We should all be able to participate.

So, why did so few people sing? If we'd been in a regular gathering of people, I'd understand. The idea of a group of people singing together, regardless of skill and talent, has largely been relegated to church these days (and even in churches, there's a disturbing trend of having star performers and congregations who don't sing . . . but let me not digress). But we were in a group of folk music people, many of whom perform/sing/play on a regular basis.

I've spent days thinking about that reluctance to sing and thinking about how we live in a culture where people are likely to know fewer and fewer songs. Arts programs have been cut out of schools so that students can bubble in test questions more efficiently. Radio stations have been gutted, so that we have less access to free music. In some ways we have access to more music than ever before, thanks to the Internet, but I'd be willing to bet that most of us are listening to less music these days.

I've also been thinking about my PhD and about teaching Brit Lit survey classes year after year. One of the advantages of the PhD has been that it opened that teaching door to me. One of the other advantages of my particular PhD program is that we read a lot of literature. And when I taught the survey classes, I had to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, so I read even more literature.

One of the things I miss with my move into administration is that teaching life where I was surrounded by literature (even when that life was surrounded by Composition too). One of the things that shocks me about some MFA programs is how some of them produce graduates who haven't read much more widely than the works of their fellow grad students.

In both music and literature, so many of us are losing our heritage. I was lucky, in that I went to a liberal arts school, where I met lots of people with music collections even more extensive than mine, in genres unfamiliar to me--so I have a familiarity with country music, for example, that I wouldn't have otherwise. Both my undergraduate and graduate programs believed in a broad literary focus, in addition to following my particular passions. I could analyze the work of a little known female writer, but I'd also be delving into the work of the dead white guys that generations of English majors before me had studied.

I suspect we're also losing our heritage in other fields too. On Monday I wrote about my students and their glancing acquaintance with history. I bet the same is true in most fields, especially in the humanities.

How to combat this loss? I wish I knew. Perhaps when Obama has finished transforming the medical system and the financial system, he can turn his attention to education. Perhaps in an age of access to more and more knowledge, we will just have to accept the loss of some of it. Lest I glorify my undergraduate days too much, let me remember that my research plan was to go to the library and read the 6 books and 9 articles (on microfilm!) that the library had--and then I was done and wrote the paper. Now we have access to so much more--maybe I'm wrong to expect more comprehensive understanding of subjects.

It's the human condition, isn't it? Everything we love will be lost, and we must figure out how to go on living with the knowledge that it will all be lost.

But I can't afford to go down that existential path any further. I must make soup for the homeless (tonight is my church's stint at the soup kitchen), poems for myself and anyone else who's interested, changes to a manuscript, and then there are the errands to run . . . some day, I will feel profound sadness at all the errands I can no longer run.

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