What is the opposite of Beethoven?
Readers are wondering why the articles about music these days. It's because I've had enough of the stupid emanating from the left. Facts may wander, but the impressions are based upon solid structure.
There is snobbery all around the music world. "Don't write about the Beatles, they were hedonist no-talents! Write about Bach!"
And I love Bach; every time I sit at the piano and play a chorale, it represents a refresher course in harmony; the old man is delightful company, and he moves notes around the staff like a chess master.
But I love folk music just as much. Real folk music is generated over years by the many musical hands that make a contribution. Most likely all refined music springs from a more ancient folk tradition.
And you can deconstruct any folk song's roots; you can turn it into an evil thing if malevolence is your intention. Take "Jump Jim Crow." Put it into a minstrel show, and it becomes a symbol of American racism in the 1820s. But that is dishonest; at its very root, "Jim" is the literal transcription of a stablehand making up a tune and singing it off the cuff. It is strikingly original and spontaneous.
Wheel about, and turn about, and do just so; every time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.
You can hear it as it was in the stable if you try. The setting matters. It's likely the man didn't even know someone was taking musical dictation. Such a moment is honest and fine-looking.
"Tom Dooley" was the invention of a North Carolinian named Tom Dula. In 1866, he came home from the war, tired and beat, only to find that his girl had taken up with another man. He stabbed her and went on the run toward Tennessee. Authorities caught him and sentenced Tom to hang. He was a musician; he played the fiddle side saddle, or at his waist. On Tom's last night in jail he played and sang his song: Hang down your head Tom Dula; hang down your head and cry...
Probably the whole town heard him from that jail cell. Can you imagine how it sounded from a long and tense night's distance? Wouldn't you have listened?
The next day, they rode him around town three times and headed for that oak tree. Legend is that he played and sang it the whole time.
It's all so human. There is a whole novella within that song — love, passion, murder, intrigue, sorrow, regret, and ultimately death.
When I was six, I had a vivid piano teacher. She was a rehearsal pianist for the Cleveland Orchestra. At seven I befriended a school bus driver named George who would take out his guitar and sing me the songs he learned as a boy back in the hills of Kentucky.
Snobbery is a suit poorly fit to any and all occasions. Openness and imagination are highly desirable tools to work with if knowledge and pleasure are to be extracted from both music and life.
Michael James has been a professional guitarist and public school music educator for over forty years.