Tuesday, November 30, 2010

musical family trees

The following is a repost of a Shelf classic from the week after Thanksgiving in 2005. A recent discussion in my Humanities class discussing Media in American Culture, spurred me to give students a project based on this post- to create a Music Family Tree, taking a current artist and tracing their musical influences into the past and tracking the roots of those various influences and genres. It was a very successful experiment and they seemed to enjoy it- as far as I can tell that is, they are all bucking for great grades at this point - buttering up the crusty old instructor seems to be a popular M.O. around the holidays.
Either way, enjoy this Shelf classic before we dive headlong in Christmas!

I love music. Different kinds of music. With me - it's not so easy to describe who or what I like. It's more - I know what I like when I hear it. So to speak. OK - I am a big band, jazz, blues, croonin' junkie -but at the same time I love Sting, INXS, Queen, Barenaked ladies, Aaron Copeland, Beethoven, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Rosemary Clooney- do you see what I am getting at? Eclectic doesn't begin to describe my collection. I like me some Brazilian Bossa Nova, and am just as likely to put Celtic harmonies, the Boston Pops, or the Beatles on my playlist. Again I know what I like. I love discovering new music- even though it just may be new to me. A couple of years ago I saw O Brother, Where Art Thou, and - like many other Americans - bought the soundtrack. That led to discovering and loving the music of Allison Krauss and Union Station (one of the most beautiful voices in music today) - even though I don't consider myself a Bluegrass gourmet. Soon after I wandered into the realm of Ralph Stanley, and for a reason I don't remember, Johnny Cash. That led me to rediscover Lynard Skynard. Maybe unrelated links, but a thread nonetheless.

I enjoy something which has been dubbed- "The Great American Songbook." Thanks to Rod Stewart, a Scot, many have started to discover or rediscover great "American" songs - stuff sung by Sinatra, Martin, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Nat King Cole, and others. You probably know most of the songs, or at least heard of them. They are American classics like "As Time Goes By", "Over the Rainbow", "That Old Black Magic", and one of my personal favorites, "Stardust." The thing about these songs is that they evoke some of the common culture, influences, and spirit of our country. And that's nothing to be ashamed of. Why did it take a Scot to make us remember that this stuff is great? Don't know - but thanks anyway. I've been enjoying this music for many years- but it's great to see so many others discovering it now.

Now if someone where to ask- "Do you love Bluegrass? or Do you love Country?" I would probably answer "Not really." However, were they to ask about certain artists or play certain songs within those genres - I might answer differently. I don't know why. I know what I like - and I don't always identify or like an entire genre of music. I don't really know anyone who could honestly claim they like every performance, every performer within a genre of music. We are too human, too rooted in our own life journey for that. But that doesn't mean we can't discover music, artists, or performances. I think the very act of discovery - the discovery of knowledge, music, art, film, words, and ideas - keeps us young and alive, no matter what our age. When we stop discovering, we stop living.

Music, to me, is a journey. I particularly think that our culture, our history, and our identity as a nation of peoples is so beautifully expressed in music, as much as in words or pictures. So its a wonderful thing to make discoveries and to return to old favorites. I have always enjoyed taking an artist I like and then making a journey of discovery through them. For example, I enjoy the work of Harry Connick, Jr. So - who influenced him- who does he influence? Who has a similar sound and what do they do differently with it. Potentially one could start with Harry- and then discover one of his influences- Thelonious Monk. It's then possible to go from Monk to John Coltrane, or one of his influences, Duke Ellington. Duke could lead you to Fats Waller and then, you could study Jazz during the Harlem Renaissance and then the roots of Jazz and Blues in the Mississippi Delta and the South. It is then possible to go from there to traditional Southern Mountain music and even the African influences of music in the Gullah areas of the Charleston coast. Could you then go from the mountain music and it's parentage in Scotland and Ireland and then pull back into traditional Gaelic music in the present? Sure. Or even go to Africa and discover the drums of West Africa.
See - a journey. One that all started with a Harry Connick Jr. CD that you popped in and listened to one afternoon. Music has such potential. We can take a wonderful journey, if we just act on our curiosity and impulse to learn. We are truly only limited by our curiosity and imagination.

Take a little trip before we are truly inundated with Holiday music. Not that I don't love Holiday music- in fact, I do love it. But the wait will make it all the more enjoyable- trust me. In fact, once we roll into December you can also add Holiday music to Pandora and see what it comes up with. Enjoy.

OK- back to present- Try out this project for yourself. You can use Pandora to find artists with similar styles to artists with whom you are already familiar. Then research the artist on the internet and discover who their influences were, and the genres of music that influenced them most. Trace the musical styles back and back and you can see that even artists as different as Michael Buble, Cree-Lo, Sade or The Beatles have some similar roots up the line somewhere- sometimes closer than you think.

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

I don't care what you call me, man, just as long as my name is on the record.


Retro Hound said...

Good post. I too love all kinds of music. You must be young to have only recently discovered Johnny Cash and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

J.C. Loophole said...

Thanks RH. Actually I am about to round the corner on 40 soon. This post was written about 5 years ago, and I was referencing something re-discovering several years prior so it has been a little while. But growing up I never really listened to country music at all, although my grandparents did. It was probably more accurate to say I found I appreciated JC's music now and I really hadn't listened to LS at all growing - so even though I knew who they were, I never cared to listen til I got older.
In a way I was an oddball. Most of the music I heard growing up in my house was primarily American Songbook standards from Dino, Sammy, Ella, Frank, etc and Motown and 50's music and soundtracks to Musicals and Big Band. It was just the kind of thing that was played or I grew up around. When I was a teen I started to listed to Pop, and then I discovered Jazz and never looked back. I guess I keep finding new music or even "new to me" music- which is fine by me. I guess in a way, I can always find something new.
I still find that the music I love listening to the most though, is the American Songbook standards, Jazz and classical. Boring old me I suppose.


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