On Saturday, we had an old-fashioned kind of night, with our college-era friend who was visiting. She played one of our lonely guitars, I played dulcimer, and my spouse played violin. Occasionally, we gave up on instruments and just sang.
What did we sing? All sorts of things: old-timey mountain music, country songs, Gospel songs, camp songs, hymns, music from our earnest youth group past. It was great. It's so rare to be with someone who actually knows all the same music that we do. Our local folk music group tends towards 60's and early 70's music, not strictly folk: John Denver, Neil Young, a stray Bob Dylan song that has lyrics that are singable. Most of the group are Jewish or Agnostic, so Gospel music isn't part of their knowledge base. I understand that my vast compendium of Lutheran hymnody isn't common knowledge, but I thought that most people had some knowledge of Gospel music, which has made its way into a surprising variety of Hollywood movies lately.
I have lately come to realize what a wide variety of music I know. I got musical knowledge through the church, and from my parents: my mom, a classically trained musician, who married my dad because he was the first male she ever met who could discuss Handel's Water Music. I had a vast collection of rock and roll, and when I got to college, I met lots of people who schooled me in music that I knew nothing about, like country music.
I thought of this as I reflected on people celebrating birthdays today. Bono, of U2, turns 50 (gulp!) today. It's also the birthday of Mother Maybelle Carter. Without her, we might not have the same knowledge of country and mountain music.
I've always been interested in the origins and intersections of music, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that I would write this poem, years ago, when we all fell back in love with old time music, thanks to the surprise hit of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack :
New Roots Music
“You don’t have to wear a Stetson hat to play the blues.”
Chris Thomas King
I want to blend my original passions, punk
and folk, into a new kind of roots
music, mandolins attacked with the ferocity
of a generation with no economic future
and no better way to spend time than assaulting
stringed instruments and hacking their hair.
Carl will play that violin he’s carried across the continent.
It’s endured indignities greater than our mandolin
punk band, poor long-suffering violin, having to hear
itself played torturously by a boy who wanted to fiddle
like a Carter family member, but had to learn Classical techniques.
Russ can play the drums, Westernized, sanitized
versions of their wilder African cousins
with their skins stretched tight across gourds.
Shannon will play the banjo,
that instrument first brought over on slave ships.
Shannon will save it from its Deliverance debacle.
We will play the mandolins bought to honor a wedding
anniversary, back when we could still dream
of time and tireless energy required
to master a new set of strings.
Perhaps seventy years from now, our biographer
will speak of us with the breathless reverence reserved
for the great innovators. We could be the Carter
family of this new music, the Coltrane
of mandolin punk. We can save
our classics from countless car commercials,
remind everyone of the glory days, back when music consoled
and would collapse before it bowed to Capitalism.
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