On music being radical, the Supreme Court, AA Bondy, and folk music
I started my life as a musician, gravitating naturally toward music as a means of expression. As far back as I can remember in my life, I’ve appreciated that a single individual could create something so provocative and stirring as to manipulate my emotions and leave me, on the other side of the song, considering things which had not previously existed anywhere near the fore of my mind.
Later in life, when I’d pick up a guitar and walk onto stages to stand behind a mechanism which made me marginally louder than any other individual in the room, I would find myself open to the suggestion a friend once made: that music is, inherently, a political statement, whether you’re singing a politically charged song or not. Standing on a platform and being honest to a room full of strangers was, in itself, a radical act. Far more radical than standing in the audience, though I’ve since come to understand that standing in the audience is akin to attending the march or the rally. Any time a group of people gathers around any single thing about which they can agree, politics are happening; progress is in motion; change is possible and, in fact, imminent (if, at first, small).
Because I cut my teeth on folk music, I developed a strong conviction that the artist had a responsibility to their audience to be honest, if nothing else. But, if I was honest, given the opportunity to share information with strangers, I thought, why choose to talk about relationship struggles when you can bend their ears about justice and peace (I believed, far more pressing issues)? Much as my ideas about being in the audience have changed, I’ve also since come to understand there’s as much integrity in discussing relationship struggles as there is in underscoring the urgency of world peace. After all, we all want companionship, respect, affection, validation, some kind of something with which to combat (or, rather, stare down) the inherent loneliness of mortality. How can we as a society possibly rise up Maslow’s triangle far enough to grapple with justice and peace if we cannot relax into our own individual humanity?
And so I’ve come to appreciate the profound urgency of a good heartbreak song. We all need to know everyone else is confused, overwhelmed, uconfident, and hurting, too, before we can appreciate we’re in this together and, consequently, start focusing on what we can do together to stop making the world so hard on each other.
Contrary to how I think that last paragraph reads, I am a compulsive optimist. And I do have a point here. A few more tangents, though, first.
Last night, I went to see AA Bondy here in Seattle. It was a beautiful show. He’s an excellent performer, scaring up more energy and sound than would seem possible from a guitarist, bass player, and pedal steel/drummer (playing, incidentally, mostly heartbreak songs). He pulled largely from his most recent release, When the Devil’s Loose, which was one of my favorite albums last year. But, two of the finest moments of the night came from other projects. First was “Rapture (Sweet Rapture)” from 2008’s American Hearts, where Bondy sings, “I don’t want to talk about Jesus, I just want to see his face.” Later, in the middle of a three-song encore, he took a turn on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” veering from the traditional melody slightly enough to inhabit the song without separating himself from the universal timeless truths about which it sings.
Hank Williams wrote that tune in 1949, the same year which saw the publishing of Georg Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s greatest masterpiece tackled the de-individualization of society, the impending threat of technology and government on that of individuals. While Hank Williams was singing about a bird so sad it couldn’t even fly, Orwell was writing about a society so sad, it couldn’t trust its own individuals. Hank focused on heartbreak; Orwell focused on humanity (in many ways, the same thing). Both are radical statements, both assert similar ideas: that the things which make us human are perhaps, at once, the most powerful and debilitating things. One man’s sadness, heartbreak, and loneliness should be considered relevant, whether he’s facing his former lover, or his countrymen.
Sixty-one years later, that novel is still studied and discussed, and Williams’ song is still reinterpreted and delivered with a level of arresting sincerity which is enough to make a person understand, oddly enough, that, even in our deepest lonelinesses, we’re not alone.
Also, 61 years later, we’re still grappling with personhood – something with which, I reckon, we will and should continue to grapple, as long as we care about ourselves and each other. And, I would argue, as long as we care about ourselves and each other, our society isn’t completely shot to hell.
Which leads to my point.
And now, I’m going to type something contrary to my own political philosophy, but I think it’s important to understand my own point of view from the other side. Corporations are, as the Supreme Court ruled this week, people. I agree with that. I resent the political implications of it, but it is the truth. A corporation isn’t a smoke monster (yes, I’ve been catching up on Lost). It is, much like a city, state, or government, made up of individuals. There is an individual in charge of the whole thing, and any number of individuals who spend the greater part of their lives (8-10 hours of the waking day is a majority of your life) working for the common cause of the corporation. Of course, these are not exactly democracies (though I believe the hierarchical structure of the American Corporation will, and should, soon flatten). But corporations are people. And just because a corporation exists does not automatically mean that its aims are contrary to the things we in the world need most (a clean planet, plenty of food and clean water to share, space to live, security, common courtesy).
Also, corporations cannot exist without their customers. We must remember that. And I would dare to offer that a company like Google (which is working with Al Gore, among others) being allowed to spend money to support the political process pleases me as much as conservative corporations’ support may please my Republican brother-in-law. Ridiculous optimism, of course, but at least it’s a reminder that this ruling ain’t all bad.
Twice this week, I’ve read blog posts here on No Depression about this Supreme Court ruling, and I’m happy to see the discourse on this matter coming into this site. We are, after all, a community formed around honest music. Like any community, though, we have other interests in common as well. This is a reminder that it’s not the music we have in common, but the human condition on which the music comments. We also can’t exactly be a good community without being honest with each other, without considering “outside” issues which impact the people who make up the community, whether those issues directly influence the music we love, or not. As stated above, I’m of the mind that music is inherently radical and, as such, has the capacity to directly affect the political process and the evolution of a nation.
I, for one, don’t see this ruling as spelling the end for our democracy. I’m a fan of not calling the game until it’s over. I’m a fan of not giving up in the face of even the strongest gale-force winds. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, mama said. Or, going back to Lost, as a character said in the beginning of an episode I watched the other night (and I’m paraphrasing here), nothing ends til it ends. There’s only one ending; everything else is just progress. Indeed, we don’t have a say in our world because it’s granted to us; we have a say because we were born with voices. This isn’t only the most fundamental driving force behind American folk music, but also behind our civilization.