Roots Watch: Music Scenes, Revisited
When you’re in the middle of a lively, exciting music scene, it tends to seem natural, inevitable, and bound to last. And then time happens. The scene and the music it thrived around evolve or fade away; what was exciting about them, how they seemed to matter, and, eventually, what they even were become points of contention—and sometimes the diminished stuff of comic book reduction, nostalgia or both. Others come along who’d not taken part in that scene in the first place but claim some stake in the battle over its portrayal; most often, in the process of reviving or making some new use of the music that was there.
The recent arguments over the Coen Brothers’ depiction of the turn of the 1960s Village folk music scene in their film Inside Llewyn Davis offer a good case in point. From some of the reviews, and the published interviews with now-aging musicians and scene makers who were there and find it unduly glum, you might think the picture was actually about that scene. It seems to me, though, that the place and time were mainly used as background to a story, a fictional story, that’s all too familiar and real in life, and rarely seen onscreen—that of the performer who gets to reside close to the general neighborhood of success but doesn’t quite have what it takes to live there. (It’s not “the breaks;” it’s the semi-artist and his ways.) Greenwich Village folk was essentially background in this film, as, say, 1940s Central Avenue Los Angeles R&B was in the mystery Devil in a Blue Dress. It would be baloney, though, to suggest that how that folk scene was portrayed now is of no ongoing consequence, or that what the Coens set out to do sprang from nowhere.
They’d done homework and adapted some real situations to their story needs. Jean Ritchie’s husband really did beat up the large and charming Dave Van Ronk (who bore little resemblance to the Llewyn character at all) in an alley behind a coffeehouse. (See Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir The Mayor of McDougal Street, expertly finished up by writer-musician Elijah Wald.) They were also reacting, arguably overreacting, to the likes of the well-intended A Mighty Wind, which looked back nostalgically and comically at the folk scene but added to its misunderstanding as a world populated by performers who were sappy, naive goofballs. In a full pendulum swing, the new film depicts the scene as soul sucking, hidebound, and deadly competitive for the performers—and followed by college professors who were sappy, naïve goofballs. You could wonder why anybody tried so hard to be in it.
There are, however, ways to see what the commotion was really about, with all of the complexities and contradictions, fun and failure that happens when people are pulled together in sharing the joys of music-making they may or may not be adept at themselves. You might have a listen to the Smithsonian Folkways set Friends of Old Time Music of just a few years ago, which captures Village performances by Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Dock Boggs, Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Jesse Fuller, Doc Watson and The New Lost City Ramblers (John Cohen and Mike Seeger were central in making those performances happen) and I can promise you there wasn’t a no talent goofball or terminal depressive in the lot, an audience wildly enthusiastic for what they did, and younger urban performers engaged and inspired by what they did. You can also see, on DVD as of late, a rarely seen documentary from the hands of Alan Lomax, Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass, showing a section of that semi-commercial folk revival scene (including Jack Elliott and Peter LaFarge from the emerging songster end), as it really was. Some six minutes of it can be seen in this trailer:
The recent re-issue or fresh culling of 1990s, Midwest-dominated alt.country scare music from Uncle Tupelo, The Bottle Rockets, and the Old 97s with Waylon Jennings (yes, some 20- years have passed since then, kids), and Lucinda Williams and Lone Justice recordings from the “Town South of Bakersfield” cowpunk era (25-30 years on) arrive with the history and nature of those scenes in contention and being put to use now—as the so-called “Outlaw” scene is in country. It’s sometimes suggested now, for instance, that the generally highly amplified music of those alt.country rock outfits shared more in common with today’s “rock attitude” acoustic stars than may strike you as the case if you listen to those reissues. I sometimes hear questionable representations of how steeped certain acts were or weren’t in hard country. And, as someone actively involved in aspects of that increasingly Internet-impacted, ‘90s scene (as I’d been an interested early teen during the folk revival) I might suggest that the revival of interest make the scene ripe for nostalgia (even punk nostalgia), modification for reuse, and other sorts of misrepresentation. There are scholars and other writers out there working on fuller, accurate histories, and we’ll await their delivery.
Meanwhile, I’d be interested in comments in the depiction of scenes any of you have experienced at first hand.
And by the way: Readers of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers could be interested in two new reissues on the useful and adventurous BACM (British Archive of Country Music) label, which make available music discussed in there that hadn’t been readily available—Whitey McPherson and the Rhythm Wreckers, which compiles the Rodgers-song heavy recordings of the jokey, amazing 1930s soprano Western Swing “wonder boy” and his accomplished band, and Cowgirl Shuffle, which while assembling a sweet collection of ‘30s and ‘40s Western Swing female vocalists, includes the rarely heard, astonishing recordings of Harold & Hazel, detailed in my book—and finally identified and uncovered in detailed liner notes by Kevin Coffey. Fans of Texas swing are also likely to be fans of the late, great Floyd Tillman, and are sure to enjoy the smooth, well-played new salute Songs with Memories: Skip Heller and Friends Play Floyd Tillman; the friends include Big Sandy, and Skip’s no slouch as a vocalist himself.
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