Folk Music: Against the Hit Parade
I am against the Hit Parade because I am against anything that would make a sheep out of a human being. The world is too big, and its people too varied, to try and make one hit parade suit us all. True, the gods of mass production may proclaim that it is much cheaper, much more efficient, to produce everyone's music at one place and at one time. But which would you rather hear—cheap music or good music? (And by good you might mean anything from Calypso to blues to Bach.)
Not only every country, but every region and town, every national group, every age group, every industry, even every school or summer camp should have its own hit parade, refusing to follow slavishly the dictates of Hollywood and New York.
Fortunately, at the same time that TV has concentrated the entertainment business as never before, LPs [and now CDs and MP3s] have enabled hundreds of minority idioms to receive hearings. The so-called Hit Parade is, today, simply the most popular songs of the fourteen-to-eighteen age group, and is supported by them and a few saloon goers who help feed the jukeboxes. There have been many songs which have attained Number One on the Hit Parade, yet 75 percent of the population have never heard of them.
Another way to think about this is a parallel slogan from artist/shaman/astrologer/writer Rob Brezsny, who says: Performance is life. Entertainment is death. Entertainment, which is what the music industry tries to reduce music to, both to sanitize it and make it harmless and control it, and also to try to own it financially, is passive; entertainment is you not making your own art, but only taking in the art made for you by others. Produced for you by artists and musicians and writers who the arts industry has laughingly begun to call "content providers." As if the purpose of making art was only to sell it, to provide content to be sold. Thus goes the final decadent stages of the commercialization of creativity under what another contemporary radical philosopher has called Too-Late Capitalism.
Entertainment is ultimately deadening because it is passive. You are expected to be a passive consumer sucking at the teat of a centralized delivery system. (That's the paradigm that the five big worldwide music industry conglomerates are so desperately trying to hold onto.) Performance, by contrast, is enlivening because you do it yourself. You pull out the banjo, or the piano, or you go to choir rehearsal, and you make acoustic live music with other mostly-untrained people who are making music for their lives, their souls, and their health. (Which of course is one definition of "folk music" that Pete Seeger would agree with.) Performance is active, it's do-it-yourself, it's wild and anarchic and often very rough around the edges: folk music, in a word, which is music made by regular folk. Entertainment is very slick and over-produced, and slides down the gullet like teflon-coated candy. Performance, on the other hand, is often full of little rough edges and errors, those details that make it come alive. Put another way, performance exists where people who make music (or art) understand: Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. Slick, perfectly-recorded, perfectly-packaged entertainment is deadening. Rough-edged folk music makes your heart beat as well as your feet.
Think about it. This is all tied into what Pete Seeger was talking about 50 years ago now.
(Hat tip to Swanee, who sent me a copy of Pete Seeger's The Incompleat Folksinger, ed. by Jo Metcalf Schwartz.)