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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Musical Heresy

Are The Purists Full of It?
by Tom King (c) 2011

I need to just start going to the Banjo and Flatpicker Hangouts everyday, sign up for the free banjo and then leave. I keep checking in on the forums and getting in the middle of arguments about musical orthodoxy. It seems that any discipline undertaken by human beings, whether politics, religion, science, art, sports, music or gardening, has the potential to divide into hidebound orthodoxies and cat fights among aficionados.

I'm not sure what that says about human beings - maybe that if we can't find something to fight about, we'll make up something. Every type of music there is has its snobs. Even old-time banjo music which is a rough-folksie music form if there ever was one has its purists.

To quote Rodney King (no relation), "Why can't we all just get along?".  Oh, well, I'll probably keep cruising the forums because I like the people there and there's a lot of fun to be had. And I can hardly resist puncturing the occasional purist, just to watch 'em pop!

Me, I find I like the original innovators of music rather more than the imitators. I think most people are more likely to prefer specific songs rather than specific artists. I find few artists that produce music I like 100% of the time. Two of my favorite songs are by Crash Test Dummies and Lyle Lovett, but I would not call myself a fan of either artist. I was listing favorite songs for a bio request for a profile piece that's being done on me. If was odd how few of my favorite songs were by artists that are represented by more than one CD or record in my collection.

That's one of the things I love about festivals - the opportunity to discover new songs I like. I ran across "She's In Love With the Boy" at the Kerrville Folk Festival - not by Trisha Yearwood, but by the author, Jon Ims. I liked his version better. It's more heart, less Nashville. I'm afraid if I'd pursued musicology instead of communications, I'd have been run out of the musicology business as a heretic.

I think, for instance, that Bob Dylan had some good songs in him, but wasn't the genius people gave him credit for being. Leonard Cohen's a heck of a poet, but way too full of himself to stand to listen to - which is why I'd rather hear someone else do his songs.  Earl Scruggs on the other hand is a decent, generous man and musician and it makes me smile to watch him play, especially when he's working with others. He makes them forget themselves and be better musicians. And then there's John Denver who tried so hard to be the second coming of Frank Sinatra toward the end of his career and always wound up still being a country boy and something of an innocent. His duet "Perhaps Love" with Placido Domingo was a brilliant contrast between the razor perfect, but overblown opera singer and the gentle country tenor. Willy Nelson did a duet once  with Joni Mitchell on "Cool Water" that blew me completely away. Of course, Willy always makes other singers sound better for some weird reason.

Great music is subjective - what appeals to you. I heard a two year old sing "Jesus Loves Me" once that was uttely beautiful - a combination of a perfect voice and a child's heart. I believe perfect music is, to a great extent, only what is perfect to you. What touches you, makes you laugh, cry or rejoice comes from the music, the lyrics, the time, the place, the performer and even your own experience and background. I've heard performances that "experts" told me were perfect examples of some musical discipline or other (classical, rock, big band, the blues, bluegrass and even folk). I found many of those so-called "perfect" performances to be tedious, dull or just plain irritating. At the same time, I've heard such genre twisting, heretical renditions of songs such as would send the purists screaming into the night and ran straight out to buy the record.  God bless every man, woman and child who sings or plays from the heart and doesn't give a blowfly's proboscis what the critics think.

If it weren't for such musical heretics, the world would be a poorer place indeed.

Just one man's opinion.

Tom King - Tyler, TX

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