We Love What We Wish We’d Lived
I remember the first time I heard Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock.” I was visiting old friends on the beach in Westport, Connecticut, which I had moved away from a year or two before to live and go to school in Pennsylvania. The sound of the song was all over Compo Beach. Ever since, it has been associated in my mind with the smell of Coppertone, 14-year-old girls in bathing suits covering much more than they do today, and the feeling of being young and alive. I don’t know if that’s actually what I saw, and I’m sure it wasn’t a perfect day, but in my memory that’s how it was. That’s what music does to us.
Daniel Levitin’s thought and writings have had a major influence on my ideas about how music insinuates itself into our core and structures our picture of the world. In his 2006 book, This is Your Brain on Music, he posits that the music we hear during puberty is the music we’ll love for life. My adolescence was confused and diverse, and now so is my musical taste, and I agree with what Levitin says about music and sex. Larry Sparks, in “Tennessee 1949,” sings:
I wonder what became of Kathryn Ackers,
The girl who broke my heart at seventeen,
I barely can remember what she looks like,
Thirty years ago she was my dream
Every one of us has a Kathryn Ackers we remember and yearn for. She represents a time and place lost in our imaginations, which makes her even more beautiful than she could possibly have been. The song is timeless.
But David Peterson has a song called “1946,” written with Jerry Salley, that was a pretty big hit when we first came upon bluegrass a dozen years ago.
Oh the baby boomers were bloomin’
And the buck stopped with old Harry Truman
The best years of our lives
Was more than Hollywood’s big flick
Funny thing it really was
Back in 1946
Peterson’s song is catchy, but I’ve always felt it was what I call a “lying song.” The reference to “the best years of our lives” ignores the fact that this highly rewarded and awarded film was largely about the difficulty veterans had with adjusting to peacetime America, as they returned from the war. It also glosses over the fact that the country fell into a deep recession and millions of women were obliged to leave the workforce and return to the kitchen, which they had escaped for four years. Though it certainly celebrates the birth of bluegrass music as we know it, the song denies the whole truth of history.
What connects our experiences with the parts of life that songs represent? When we connect that question to the problem of writing and singing songs, then consider the business of actually making a living by selling those songs to the people for whom those emotions resonate, we encounter an even more difficult problem.
We Americans live in a time and place fraught with dissonance, discord, anger, disaffection, and real problems. In many ways, much of the music out there reflects those problems. Much orchestral music has reflected these problems through discordant sounds. Billy Joel has captured the real world, as have Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon. But they’ve also all also romanticized it. So have many others. Which leads me to wonder, who captures the world we live in — or the one where we actually grew up — in bluegrass music?
Banjo player Barry Crabtree, who toured with Hall of Famer Larry Sparks for a number of years, has a theory about bluegrass music audiences. They may tap their feet or nod to the music, but it isn’t going to get up any longer and gyrate wildly. After all, they might pull a muscle and end up hobbling around for three weeks. Crabtree suggests that, every day, thousands of people retire and are looking for something to do that they can afford. They no longer have an interest in whatever passes for popular music at present, but find a nostalgic look at a bright past they think they remember satisfies them. Hence, the aging pattern of a large portion of bluegrass fans, who represent a majority of those coming to festivals. The music and money supply is high, but the audience tends to be thrifty, too. In contrast, the target entertainment demographic (18-49?) appears to spend large amounts to attend a single concert close to home. With the baby boomers now entering this retired demographic, how will their taste be reflected in bluegrass music?
Changes in demographics lead to changes in sensibilities. Folks may long for a day when life was simpler, but that’s a futile effort.
Shannon & Heather Slaughter, in their new CD Never Just a Song do their best. The album is well-written and hauntingly sung, capturing a murkily remembered life, deep in memory. The horrors and poverty of mill towns are captured in the evocative “Company Town,” but first-hand memories of living in company control and virtual peonage in such towns are little remembered in our modern, middle class life. One of my favorite couples, whom we’ve come to know and love on the road, grew up and married in a mill town in North Carolina, and I’ve heard their story while we’ve been sitting together in a comfortable motor home at bluegrass festivals. Poverty is now pretty far behind them.
In another nostalgic song, “That’s What’s Good in America,” Slaughter captures an America I experienced while living and teaching in Tyler, Texas, back in the mid-1970s:
At the home town football game,
Bow our heads, speak his name
Hats off to the stars and stripes.
Hangin in there, lose or win,
Yeah, we all come back, lose or win
Just our way of life on Friday night
Cheerin’ ’em on, up or down,
That’s what life’s all about,
That’s what’s good in America today.
Bein’ strong just like the good old days.
Helpin’ friends along their way
That’s what’s good in America today.
But I also remember that Tyler had two high schools — one mostly black in a town where the students at the (mostly) white Robert E. Lee High School would drive through the north end of town waving Confederate flags before their annual game. The school district was operating under federal control.
I’d like to see our bluegrass music recognize the contrasts in real life while pointing the way towards something more. When the country seems darker and darker, we yearn for a simpler day, which Shannon Slaughter shows us. He tugs at the heartstrings while never truly representing a world as complex and difficult as the real world we live in.
Perhaps we truly want our music to present us with a fantasy world for a while. Maybe it’s at its best when it represents pure escapism or denial. Maybe the tunes we write and sing represent what we aspire to in our best moments. But we should always take into account the changing demography in terms of age, race, ethnicity, and belief systems. We should alway seek to be inclusive as we write, sing, and celebrate our music.