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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2009/10/27
by Jesse Jarnow

The Man Who Killed Folk Music

BRAIN TUBA: The Man Who Killed Folk Music

During the breaks in rehearsals for Kzzzknkh’s fppppo orchestra, I sat down at one of the joookk shell-gongs, which were arrayed in the lot between yurts on the broad cliffside shelf where I’ve been living. The shell-gongs’ pitch arrangement wasn’t chromatic, more like what the QWERTY keyboard is to the alphabet, if the alphabet were spread over a dozen typewriters. But, between the two shell-gongs I could pull close to me, I could play a nearly completely Western octave, with only two or three notes leaping awkwardly to higher registers in order to patch in missing tones. Naturally, I tried to figure out how to play “Tangled Up In Blue.”

When Kzzzknkh asked what I was playing, I realized I’d never had the occasion to explain Bob Dylan to him. Bob Dylan, I told him, is the man who killed folk music.

Which meant that I then needed to explain folk music.

Folk music, I told Kzzzknkh, was traditional music that was adopted and adapted by various people’s movements in the early 20th century, often socialist. And when Dylan was done with it, I told them, it was not what had it been before. I tried to explain the gradation between the Biblical overtones of “A Hard’s A-Gonna Fall” that protestors could sing at parties, the deeply abstract quasi-political epic “Chimes of Freedom,” and the counter-cultural test balloon of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but I’m not sure Kzzzknkh understood that part. Mostly, I told him, before Bob Dylan, you weren’t supposed to wonder where a song came from. It was just supposed to be a song.

If it wasn’t folk music, he asked through a series of clicks, then how did I remember it?

I explained that, ironically, through the brute force of popularity, Dylan’s music became universal.

Anyway, by then it was time for their next practice session, which was scheduled to last six hours. I listened for a while, but wanted to save my full attention for their formal performance (which I’ll report on next time). So I went inside, angled the wifi satellite out the fire-hole and up the cliffside, and cranked up the celestial mp3 server. Checked out some woolly new music by guys with beards and acoustic guitars, and thought more about what folk music is and isn’t these days.

Douglas Rushkoff recently wrote an article called “An End to Movements,” about how “between the 1960s and today… the mediaspace through which … causes disseminated ideas and gained momentum has changed. The best techniques for galvanizing a movement have long been co-opted and surpassed by public relations and advertising firms. Whether a movement is real or Astroturf has become almost impossible for even discerning viewers to figure out.” (He underlined this last part.) Worth reading, though with its own set of problems.

And connected, undoubtedly, to the way music’s role in society has changed, too, just as integrated into the industrial/surreal mainstream as movements themselves, just more noise. See, for example, Sufjan Stevens’ recent I’m-freaking-the-fuck-out moment: “What is a song even? I’m questioning, what’s the point of a song? Is a song antiquated? Does it have any power any more?”

Of course it does, man. Just not how it used to. Probably, while the channels for broadcast have multiplied exponentially the audience for any individual channel has shrunk. Become local. (As always, whatever local means to you.) While a good song is a good song, what’s needed, too, is a good audience: an audience with context, an audience who can see the tendrils in the work and connect them to other parts of their world. Or maybe that’s not needed either. The world has always had shy poets, and sometimes that’s the whole point.

But not here. Everybody finds some medium of expression, even the ones who don’t want to. Recently, I witnessed a nine-year old girl who seemed to have no interest in creativity. She sulked in the shade of the yurt. But she denied that she was unhappy, and said she simply preferred to sit quietly, alone. But then Gboulllhbbbb, an elder, had the thought to ask her if there was anything she could do to make the act of sitting quietly, alone, more comfortable. Eventually, the girl created a small place for just this time of sitting, continuing to refine it. When she’s not using it, or working on it (which is a good deal, actually), others are allowed to sit there in silence. Having just sat through two more hours of bullshit calling itself folk music, I’m heading over now.

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