“I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song”

January 28, 2010 § 3 Comments

The authenticity debate rages on.

Circa 1626

British peasants way back in time sang songs about being poor, dying, and murdering people. They also wrote ballads about love lost, found, unrequited. Foreshadowing our bohemian rituals, we can imagine the 17th century romantics attending the latest Shakespeare at the Globe and afterward strumming a lonely tune on the lute. But then they scattered. The Brits left for the New World and so did their song traditions. We have folk in Surrey, Cardiff, Vermont, North Carolina. But they are different sorts of folk with disparate musical ideals. Simultaneously there was the introduction of heterogeneous African musical practices in the West through slavery. Although many of these traditions were completely destroyed, a culture of oppression and hate yielded spirituals, blues, a southern folk practice completely divergent from the English ones just mentioned. They wrote songs about being poor, dying, and murdering people. And eventually love lost, found, unrequited.

I don’t know much about the history of folk music and its many revivals. The only point of my contrived historical narrative is to bring into question why I feel this to be more authentic than something like this. Theodor Adorno asserted that a musical work was authentic if it forged its own internal consistency while simultaneously acknowledging its historical nature and social function. Although Adorno was anything but a visceral guy, I think this argument boils down to his deep-seated reaction to Mahler and Schoenberg. He felt it.

Sam Amidon

I was first introduced to Sam Amidon’s folk music when I attended a performance of the 802 Tour with Nico Muhly, Doveman, and Amidon. I was intrigued as soon as it hit my ears. Knowing nothing about the guy, it was striking how rustic Amidon’s voice and banjo-plucking sounded, especially in the context of Muhly’s complex neo-romantic/minimalist atmospheric arrangements and soundscapes. It turns out he was raised by “traditional” folk musicians in Vermont. They sang him songs about being poor, dying, and murdering people when he was growing up. Most of his songs are reworkings of these old songs. The one posted here is a love song, I guess.

Mumford and Sons (my point of contrast above) are part of what’s being called some kind of English folk revival along with Frightened Rabbit, Laura Marling, and a number of other bands who are starting to hit it big. There is something strained about this music. For a band marketed as folk, it doesn’t contain idiosyncrasies that distinguish it from anything else with chords, lyrics, and decent production quality. Sam Amidon, on the other hand, has an easiness that makes his act more convincing to me. A quality exemplified by Dylan, Bragg, and Elliot Smith.

But I could easily be contradicted. Case in point: Mumford and Sons have millions of hits on YouTube. Sam Amidon does not. But this is perhaps the beauty of debating authenticity in music. It can make us hyper-aware of our position is musical culture. One song is not necessarily more authentic than another, but our ingrained knowledge of musical gesture, schemata, and conception of music’s social function tell us otherwise. After all, we’re mostly singing about the same things: being poor, dying, and murdering people. Love lost, found, unrequited.

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§ 3 Responses to “I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song”

  • Tim says:

    I think it’s interesting the new meaning that words like “folk” and “authentic” have taken on. Originally, all music was folk music, but now it’s a genre of commercial music. I don’t necessarily think we should only use the word in its strictest sense, but to classify music as “folk” because it’s a guy with an acoustic guitar seems to diminish the word’s value.

    And don’t even get me started on “authentic.” It’s kind of funny how society’s desire for authenticity in nearly everything increases while the requirements for something to be deemed truly authentic are heavily relaxed.

    Digging the blog, of course.

    • I think it’s useful to loosely define music by the cultural paradigms they occupy. Musical aesthetics are wholly tied into cultural and social function, so why not call certain acts that sing and play acoustic guitars folk? The play to audiences, young and old, that celebrate a particular Western musical ritual and they happen to call it folk. It would be real confusing if I started calling Steve Reich or Broken Social Scene folk music.

      In this post, I was more or less agreeing with your point on authenticity. I don’t know if I necessarily agree that the requirements have been relaxed, but rather I argue that authenticity is tied into your own historical-music experience: your musical memory. Exemplars become ingrained and certain musical iterations feel right while others do not. Thus any objective idea of what is authentic is probably contrived. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to think one thing is authentic and one isn’t, we just need to imagine how almost anything could be anything from a particular perspective.

    • how almost anything could be authentic*

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