Saturday, August 20, 2011

Folk Music: Against the Hit Parade

Pete Seeger wrote the following in 1956. It was true then, and it's still true today. Possibly even more true now than it was then, because the technology by which music is made, distributed, shared, and listened to has kept evolving, and changing at a rapid rate. The record companies have now lost their bootheel-n-the-throat control of music production and distribution, which is the good side of the current technological miracle; the bad side is of course that those same record companies, in their flailing about to try to maintain their dissolving monopoly, have become vicious about trying to keep that monopoly, while at the same time producing an endless stream of newly-hatched, overly-produced, hype-marketed, vapid, cheap and tawdry, hollow, talentless pop stars (is Lady Gaga, the latest incarnation of Madonna and/or Marilyn Manson, a postmodern commentary on this trend or herself part of it, or both?)—most of whom have been influenced by Pete Seeger without probably ever hearing his name. Seeger's influence on folk and pop music remains incredibly strong, and his opinions, even his older ones, are still worth listening to:

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.)

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

At the same time as I was struggling to extricate myself from the cocoon which is puberty I discovered pop music. Before that I had only listened to classical music if you can believe that. I have no idea why. My parents never owned a record and even in later years when I bought them tapes (Bing Crosby for him, Ella Fitzgerald for her) they hardly listened to them. But when Gary Glitter released ‘I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)’ which made No.1 in 1973 I was smitten: every Sunday I would sit with my radio and record that week’s Top 20 hits and I could rattle off the position of any record for any week which is surprising because I was not known for feats of mental agility but I guess I simply wasn’t interested enough before. I kept it up for a couple of years and then got bored with it probably when I left school and that’s when I started to broaden my listening certainly as far as popular music goes because throughout this period I still listened to a broad range of classical music. Before that friends had introduced me to a few bands that were better known for their albums than their singles – Wishbone Ash; Genesis; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Pink Floyd, Hawkwind – but the only rock album I owned prior to leaving school was Deep Purple’s 24 Carat Purple. Folk music I had to wait years to get a taste for because there was very little of it on TV and as I only listened to radio stations like Radio 1 and Radio Luxembourg (seriously! that was the cool station – you’d never hear Captain Beefheart on Radio 1 before about 11 at night when John Peel came on) when was I going to hear it?

Charts are for the young. Music charts, book charts, film charts. Charts reflect what is popular and no one wants to be more popular than a young teenager. Nowadays the news that anything was in a Top 20 would actually work against me ever wanting to listen to it.

4:05 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's a great narrative of your youth. It supports Seeger's idea that, as you say, charts and hit parades are for the young.

12:11 AM  

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