"I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can't go home again...But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places."
--Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
True: absolute submission is not much part of our culture's repertoire.
It's difficult to describe how floored I was when, after becoming acquainted with the song, I learned that Sam Amidon's "Relief" was written by none other than R. Kelly. That's right, the very same R. "Checks under the bed/Then under the dresser/He looks at the closet/I pull out my Beretta" Kelly. Here is the original.
See, then I listened to it again and thought, "I'm alright and you're alright, so let's celebrate"... why didn't I notice how lame that lyric is the first time? Because in Sam's version, it isn't lame. Because of his casual but precise vocal delivery, because of Nico Muhly's ebbing and flowing arrangement. Because of an outpouring of that most elusive and essential of musical qualities, sincerity. When it meets sensitivity and intelligence, big things can happen.
I try to imagine the moment when he encountered that song and somehow managed to hear something in it. When he thought, "I can do something with that"--not just "I can," in fact, but "I'm going to." That's impressive. Even more so, the decision to place it on a record full of rearrangements of traditional songs, the only exceptions being one original and then this, "Relief," an R. Kelly cover. Can we reflect on the meaning of this gesture in our era of incessant ironic/masked-nostalgic '90s pop covers? No irony here. It's subtle and absolutely sincere, and I bought it entirely. Bold. I'm very impressed.
From the New York Times review: "he transforms all of [the songs], changing their colors and loading them with trapdoors."
Also, if there's a better argument out there that all music is folk music, I haven't found it.
In his biography of Harry Partch, Bob Gilmore writes that the composer's "reconciliation process involved an acceptance of his own essentially childlike perception of the interconnectedness of music and other art forms and, more profoundly, of the fusion of art-making activity with everyday life. What was 'artificial' about music education, he contended, was its insistence on the need to unlearn this perception and to undergo a training in which extramusical impurities must be extracted, one by one, leaving only a central body of abstract musical relationships."
Ben was present for the informal recording session of my violin/viola duets back in May. Afterwards he commented that he enjoyed the music, but wasn't sure he had any interest in hearing it in a concert hall. I enthusiastically agreed. He went on to suggest a better listening experience for this music might take place, say, mid-party in a backyard.
I'm a card-carrying fan of music for backyards and porches, of course. But isn't that an interesting idea, that some notated, "classical" music might be better heard, more clearly understood, if it were conveyed in a specific place or atmosphere?--the corollary being that, with no strictly musical changes, the piece might be less successful in another venue?
It's increasingly obvious to me that our music's moral content is not divorced from, but is in fact heavily reliant on the circumstances of its dissemination. Musicians have as many creative parameters to work with in this area as they do in the field of, for example, pitch relationships. To ignore the question is to arbitrarily and detrimentally lop off a significant portion of the experience.
Anyway, I don't have a backyard, nor a house violinist and violist -- so for now, the recordings will have to do. Pop on your headphones and find a hammock someplace.
I'll not be celebrating our government tomorrow, or our military power. But there is something in American culture that I can fully and unequivocally extol, the expressions that make American life make sense, the moments in music and art that let us realize what a complicated and beautiful river we're really swimming in around here.
Greil Marcus wrote, "The Anthology [of American Folk Music] was a mystery--an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America was itself a mystery." Still.
Check out Brian Harnetty and Sam Amidon for a little new/old American music this weekend.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues