There was more than a geographic frontier in the New Land. As the push West from Eastern shores took place on horseback, so did the European troubadour tradition get ridden aside for a specifically American Song. It is not the intent of this poetic document to scholastically work through the transition involved from past European song to current American. Rather, it is to indicate that English, Scottish, Irish and other immigrant voices got absorbed on American soil. An entirely new voice sung the news, be it highly personal or of social relevance, and this music by the people ultimately did away with all that had induced it in order to actualize an entirely new approach to songwriting. And where is it now, the devil’s advocate might query?
This is nothing new to anyone with even the slightest sense of American music. But it is worth restating because we do listen during an era where American Rock and Roll has hit a sonic borderline. Witness the untoward interest in music from Europe (for example, the countless Celtic recordings that proliferate). The re-discovery of early American original music (for example, the numerous folk song anthologies being released and elder folk artists making comebacks as a result of a popular movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?, that utilized roots music for thematic essence). The relentless issuance of back catalogs replete with highly touted re-mixes and often lost, bonus tracks in box sets (for example, nearly the entire canons of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan). The recently revealed fact that on one side the recording industry is taking legal action against common people downloading internet music, and on the other secretly consulting with them to find out what they prefer as thieves who listen (and the latter aspect just revealed but a week ago).
It is all coming around, like the Beast who slouches toward Bethlehem to be reborn, in William Butler Yeats’ poem. And that The Passion is in theaters is no coincidence. We are living not in a decade nor a year, but a month, where what has been done before musically is being regurgitated. Culturally, we are looking for roots but fail to recognize that we have already pulled them, splatting dirt upon us, and that what is new is beneath the muck of ages. We are unable to see what is before us, so we turn back. The future of American Song is not even on the radio tuned to a Greendale station, although that Neil Young musical entity certainly proves that there is still a vital, American folk music within the Rock and Roll century. We buy soap at Victoria’s Secret to get the new Bob Dylan album free with purchase. Bruce Springsteen may have risen, but he has irritated New York Policemen in the process. It is one thing to express melancholy about 9/11 issues and quite another to assign blame to the cops who made a sacrifice on that day but on another did their job with focus and fury. “Let It Roll” on Are You Passionate? is celebrating the individual. “Be The Rain” on Greendale celebrates all individuals but with idealism that resolves in a guitar solo. Musically, who is saying what? What says who gets to say it?
It used to be the recording industry. It used to be the radio. It used to be 45rpm records with picture sleeves or lp’s with hidden, ecstatic meaning. There are fewer cool mediums and messages are fraught with cruel possibilities. American Song is at a definitive Crossroad. It is not unlike the one at which Robert Johnson stood. The devil taught Johnson some riffs (and also the inhabitants of Greendale some tiffs). Where is he now that we really need him? Certainly not at the movie noted above (no pun below intended) as he knows that story. Definitely not on the radio as Little Richard can play ‘the Devil’s music’ all he wants now and is no longer banned because he does so with abandon. Where is the force that should not be confused with evil, please, but that challenges with anarchy and originality?
Is it in the basements where lost bands practice songs not found yet? Is it still just in the imagination of a potential listener, knowing what he or she has to hear, must absolutely hear, but as of yet is unable to tune in because it does not transmit?
Or is it emerging still from Americana where there are no ideas but in things that never permit stillness for long? Yet it has been too long. American Song is what we have sung during April, 2004, not what we will sing. And we will.
The devil rides a horse shod by pilgrims who made music in America get louder and say more than any music could elsewhere. For elsewhere, there is no horse that is not trained to follow the procession. This devil’s mount is an American breed. It carried Cole Younger singularly into battle and turned up in plural as the title of Patti Smith’s first album. Where does it ride and who is on it now? We will sing about it, if it cannot be ridden again for now. Sometimes even a loss makes for the new song gained.
Most times, what’s new is older than we knew.
Copyright 2004 By Martin Jack Rosenblum
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