Look away, you lonesome river

Folk musicTwo musi­cal dis­cov­er­ies today. I read about the Andrew Bird con­cert over at the Par­adiso at Jen’s blog this morn­ing. Had nev­er heard of him, but the enthu­si­asm of Jen’s post put him on my Lis­ten list. Well lo and behold, he was fea­tured in heavy rota­tion on a colleague’s iTunes library at work (we share a sub­net, so we can share iTunes libraries) and I found a new friend.

I’m lis­ten­ing at the moment to Bruce Springsteen’s Pete Seeger ses­sions. He hasn’t record­ed Seeger orig­i­nals, but the tra­di­tion­al and folk pieces which Seeger kept alive. Well damned if I didn’t get a strange pure tug of some­thing I rarely feel: home­sick­ness. Fer Amerika, fer chris­sakes.

Now, lis­ten­ing to some­thing like Shenan­doah sends me way, way back to the music I first knew as a kid. My par­ents weren’t much into music, but we had some folk col­lec­tions on vinyl, and when I was learn­ing gui­tar and plunk­ing key­boards I worked my way through a mas­sive book, A Trea­sury of Amer­i­can Music I think it was called, and most of the stuff Spring­steen has plucked out to rework was in there, and damn he makes them sound good. The manda­to­ry big exu­ber­ant fid­dle lines, twang twang ban­jos and wash­tub bases are there, but in a few cas­es with some gen­re-bend­ing brass and a hint of cajun accor­dian that wouldn’t have been native to the orig­i­nals but shine ‘em up like a new pen­ny, and bring an authen­tic lin­eage of their own.
I mythol­o­gised the sto­ries in those songs: the prarie journies, dust­bowl migra­tions, wag­on trains and the work on rail­roads and canals to build a coun­try, and home­sick songs about homes far away or lovelorn songs about new­found homes.
Whose inno­cence do I hear in those lyrics? Prob­a­bly my own — when I first heard or played the­se songs I would have been the short side of 12, and heav­i­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to the patri­otic brain­wash­ing that every nation does to its youth. Yet those ear­ly hear­ings shaped an entire land­scape and phi­los­o­phy and belief sys­tem about America’s past for me, true or not, and they all seem full of humor and truth and gen­uine val­ues. The­se weren’t songs writ­ten with the alte­ri­or motives of Look At Me nar­cis­sism or Make a Buck cap­i­tal­ism or Buy My Agen­da pro­pa­gan­da. They were craft­ed, some by many hands and many voic­es, for the sake of their mak­ing. To cel­e­brate, to tell sto­ries, to mourn, to remem­ber. And in them I hear some true voice, a people’s voice, a sum­ming of all the voic­es that ever shaped the­se things. Beyond elec­tions, opin­ion polls, and the gazil­lion con­flict­ing indi­vid­u­al accounts of his­to­ry, the­se songs cap­ture some kind of spir­it of democ­ra­cy in its purest form: some­thing made of com­mu­nal effort for the com­mon ben­e­fit of all.

That’s what I grew up think­ing Amer­i­ca was all about. But hear­ing them today is like lis­ten­ing to some dis­tant echo of an integri­ty and good­ness that van­ished long ago, swept away by a sea of adver­tis­ing jin­gles, three vers­es of “me me me” and a cho­rus of “faster, cheap­er, more…”
Who hijacked my coun­try? Who turned it into the greedy slob­ber­ing dim-wit­ted bul­ly that presents itself to the world today? Because I miss the one that the peo­ple who wrote the­se songs thought they were build­ing.

3 thoughts on “Look away, you lonesome river”

  1. yep, Jen, it was indeed Ilona’s iTunes, which I sup­pose should be writ­ten iLona’s iTunes. Eoin, I’m in dis­cov­ery phase on Bird — I’ll take any­thing I can get my hands on, though iLona’s got that one on her playlist, I’m curi­ous to see the lin­er notes.

  2. Nina (my very-soon-to-be-wife) received Andrew Bird’s “the mys­te­ri­ous pro­duc­tion of eggs” album last year, and we both like to lis­ten to it. I can bring it into work if you like, though I don’t use itunes.

  3. Hey Bri­an! I bet that’s Ilona’s iTunes playlist right? 😉 She was the one that took me down to the Par­adiso and intro­duced me to Andrew Bird.

    Fun­ny what you say about music and land­scape and mem­o­ry.

    In Scot­land there is folk revival going on. I’m loathe to call it that as it assumes that folk music went away and was in need of a revival…

    Any­way, I was watch­ing the BBC the oth­er week and they fea­tured, of all things, a harp fes­ti­val that was going on in Edin­burgh. And it’s true, there are some tunes, some songs that you always car­ry with you from home and that come to rep­re­sent some ide­alised place in your heart and imag­i­na­tion.

    I hadn’t heard some of those tunes fea­tured on the show in years and it was shock to find myself recall­ing them eas­i­ly and hum­ming along to them as my mem­o­ries flood­ed back.

    I’d thought, after years of liv­ing abroad (and even out­side of Scot­land in the UK) that I was immune to the sway of such a folk­lori­fic past but I guess the­se things run deep­er than we ever know.

    I actu­al­ly think that it’s only this capac­i­ty to imag­ine and remem­ber and dream of this musi­cal Scot­land that keeps me feel­ing Scot­tish and less estranged from my coun­try than I oth­er­wise could be.

    Now, where’s my accor­dion?.…..

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