Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hendrix Anniversary

Writing about the 40th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix's death for the Asbury Park Press this morning. That article will appear as my Music Notes column in Sunday's Entertainment section.

Meantime, I stumbled on an interesting article that outlines the conspiracy theory around Hendrix's death. The author concludes that, whatever the exact circumstances, it was the system of capitalist marketing and greed that killed Hendrix.

For those who missed the news last week, a BBC article on the house in London where Hendrix once lived next door to the Handel House Museum. The museum currently has a Hendrix exhibit up in his old apartment. The BBC article includes a short video, with some clips of Hendrix in action.

Also, you can read my blog entries on Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner", written last July.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

More on 'Shape-Note'

Last week's Music Notes column in the Aug. 29, 2010 Asbury Park Press on Sacred Harp singing mentioned that the "singing schools" style went out of fashion in the Northeast in the beginning of the 19th Century, but was preserved in the South and Southwest. The songbook The Sacred Harp from which the style takes its name, was published in Georgia in 1844 and has never gone out of print.

A couple more things need to be added to that history to give a more reasonably complete picture. First, the style died out in the North because it was considered vulgar. Had the more educated elite in the South had their way, it would have died out there too.

The taste of the time presumed that culture of any real value had to come from Europe. Anything made here was cheap imitation. As the economies in northern cities took off, those place shunned the second-fiddle, homemade culture in favor of the imported variety.

Shape-note was built on European traditions, but it was nothing like them. It was rowdy, democratic and required no education--not even an initiation or a profession of faith--to participate. You showed up, you were in. You learned the songs by singing them.

The areas that embraced this music and never let go were, at first, the wilder parts of the U.S., populated by working men and women who necessarily put less emphasis on education and refinement--Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. Undoubtedly many of the folks in those parts envied the rich and would have followed them if they could. But as a rule, they were not rich. And to a very real extent, their lives literally depended on their ability to revere far simpler pleasures.

Here I could stretch the point to emphasize the empowerment provided by shape-note singing, the vitality of a congregation that needed no leader and the fear that such unmarshalled power could have aroused in the leaders of America's frail religious, economic and political societies. Probably there is some truth in that.

But maybe we don't need to go there. Maybe it's enough to say that this music, powerful for unlearned, represented the image of the dumb, backwoods hick that the socially elevated and "cultivated" Americans were hoping to banish.

As a side note, this history can't help but remind me of the current suspicions--by Tea Party-ists and others--about the secret society of "elitists" of New York and the Northeast forcing the rest of the country to live according to its standard. While it may be empty rhetoric now, that bad blood goes way back and has some basis in truth. It seems only slightly ironic that the North's great centers of education--New York, Princeton, Boston, Philadelphia--now embrace shape-note singing as a living American tradition. But with great centers of wealth and learning now located in the South and the West and the tracks of commuting paths blackening the continent's vast distances, all such purely geographical distinctions have to be taken as trivial.

And so to the second point: shape-note is a living tradition. Each generation since that of the first New England composers has added to the body of music that congregations perform. While the style is tightly constrained, it is not simply a recreation of the past--not a "living history" of the usual type, not merely a reenactment. The music is ever-changing. Each performance is really alive in the here and now--to which composers respond with even more here and more now.

I would love to see this tradition spread to every community--to hear the sweat and toil, the aggravations and indignities of common life expressed in full-voiced song challenging all the powers that be, to have political anthems and moral arguments composed and sung by opposing congregations in boiling shape-note battles. To have politicians answer the congregations in call and response. And if the candidate can't sing--bring on the hook.

Why not.