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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