Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Music According To Me

I discovered what most of us call "folk music" in my junior year of high school, twirling the radio dial. Singing was just entering my life in a big way at the time. I was in the "prestige" singing groups at school, and I had just done my first public solo, "O, Isis and Osiris," from "The Magic Flute." The second came soon after, at a talent show in my high school auditorium. I sang the Baez version of "The Cherry Tree Carol."

I so clearly remember my discovery of Joan Baez. It was my first experience of being thunderstruck by music. She had the most beautiful singing voice I had ever heard, and her persona was unique. She sang completely unadorned, both physically and musically. She was immediately known for appearing in concert in what critics called "gunny sacks," with her long hair unstyled, and no makeup. Her music was equally plain, just her voice and her guitar. She mostly sang ancient folk songs from England, and I was thrilled by how she could bring to life the long-dead people she was singing about. With nothing but vocal inflection and the control of volume she acted out the stories she sang and brought them vividly to life, and it was revelatory because the concerns of those people were exactly the same as mine.

Of course, I wasn't the only one who was so impressed. Baez gained a huge audience in a very short time. She and singers like her struck a nerve in the young public of the day, so tired of the slick product that was pop music at the time. In many ways, we were still listening to our parents' music, which had long been in a rut. "Our" music, rock, was in the pre-Beatles doldrums, vascillating between old-style pop and nascent (to the white audience) rhythm and blues. People were looking for something "authentic," and Baez and then the others who followed scratched that itch. Of course, Joan Baez was by no means the first in the line of folk performers who were active at the time. The real "movement" went back at least as far as the 50s with people like England's Richard Dyer-Bennet, and we Yanks had Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But Baez was the first to reach a truly mass audience. For that reason she had her detractors. There was always the crowd who thought mass appeal ipso facto cheapened the music. That did nothing to stop the folk juggernaut.

My Baez discovery led me to the exploration of other artists on Vanguard, her label. The most memorable I found were Buffy Sainte Marie and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Buffy was another kettle of fish altogether, just as "authentic" as Baez (by my strict standards), but with a very different, more visceral sound. Judy Collins was not on Vanguard, but she was also an early discovery of mine. As good as she is, and as sophisticated her musical style, it took me a while to warm to her. Why? She used a bass as accompaniment in addition to her guitar. "Too commercial!" I thought. (Of course, Peter, Paul and Mary were completely beyond the pale with their mainstream sound, until I saw Mary Travers's intense involvement with her songs. After that, I thought they were at least OK, and then I completely forgave them when they came out with "Blowin' in the Wind." It was PP&M, not Baez, who introduced me to Bob Dylan.)

We all know what happened to those "purity" movements of the 60s. Drug pushers went to bed with the Hippies, whose innocent "peace and love" message was co-opted by the marketplace. Soon you had middle-aged hipsters wearing love beads and too-tight too-tight bottoms, and everything was "psychedelic." The "pure" folk music of Baez gave way to Dylan, who gave us the Byrds, and of course Dylan himself famously left pure folk behind at Newport. Folk-rock was born. At about the same time, the Beatles came along with their British music-hall infused tunes (thus allowing pure melody into rock) and the two styles eventually fused and created the great singer-songwriter phenomenon of the late 60s and early 70s. Joni Mitchell, where had you been all my life?

Today's music market is so segmented, and the means of discovery and delivery so numerous, that it's impossible to compare it with what I grew up with. When I started to get serious about listening to music, a single radio station was free to play all styles, from r&b to rock to Sinatra to country. It was easy to pick and choose among the genres and find the best of them all. Now, I feel like I'm in an overcrowded department store, or in a restaurant with too many choices on the menu. I still discover good music purely by chance, but the outlets are so numerous I just know I'm missing The Next Big Thing. Thank God for the TV show, "Queer As Folk." If I hadn't been watching one night, I'd have never discovered Rufus Wainwright. And where would I be without him!


Anonymous said...

Hi Ralph,

Very good post and hit some points that I've been pondering.

You may want to check out Frank Bruni's column on music while dining. Bruni is one of NY Time's food critics. Very interesting and had me pondering - do I want to hear Led Zepplin while dining at one of Mario Batali's expensive restaurants.

Wow - do I ever miss the free form radio we grew up on - especially the art of seque.

My recent return journey home to folk - music of the 40's and 50's started with attending music jams. It started me to realize how eclectic my musical taste is and how much I miss sampling all of it. It started an internet journey that is often very exciting.

I think we've been very blessed to have come of age when we did and to have the soundtrack of our lives be so filled with variety and wonderful talent. I could name a list of artists that each time I hear them or hear of them - I remember to thank them.

Thanks for a great post!


Ralph said...

Linda, I had to laugh at the thought of Led Zepplin in a Batali restaurant. I can already tell you my answer to that question: no!

I know what you mean about being lucky to have come up when we did. Such exciting times, so full...civil rights, which gave way to other "liberation" movements...Vietnam...the good, the bad and the ugly all to an incredible sound track.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking back to Charlie Byrd, Pete Seeger, Elvis and maybe the Kingston Trio. It was also early 60's when my Dad took me to dinner at a dinner club in Harlem. A blind singer with a german shepherd dog walked onto the stage and sang like I never heard singing before. Darn near beat up his guitar. He turned it over and used it like a pair of bongo drums. He was Jose Feliciano and I never forgot his name.

Ralph said...

Z&M, how ultra cool!!! My father would sooner have walked across hot coals than taken me or anybody else to Harlem, and Jose Feliciano could have been Jose Jiminez as far as he was concerned. I was left entirely to my own devices to make those discoveries, but I did. I remember seeing Feliciano on TV in those years and thinking he was great. What an experince to have seen him live! Same with Richie Havens, my God what a performer! I'd have given anything to see him live in his hay day.