Doc Watson

The great guitarist Doc Watson, who pioneered flat-picking and who was the master of finger-picking, died at age 89. I also love his singing. By the way, he was blind.

In defense of Phillip Phillips

So another Safe Scruffy White Guy with Guitar (SSWGWG) won American Idol yet again, beating out far better singers because so many pre-adolescent girls with cell-phones thought he was cute.  That’s what critics are saying.  I acknowledge the underlying problem, but I would argue that this year’s winner, Phillip Phillips, is different from all of the other SSWGWGs and that he is a worthy winner.

The format of singing contests favors the “big voice,” the kind with loud, swelling tones, vibratos, runs, riffs, and grandiose finales.  That style shows off various kinds of talent, for sure, but how much of that can you really listen to at one time?  I hear the American Idol style with little kids singing in school choruses and with “special music” for church.  In that sense, American Idol has had a detrimental influence on contemporary music.

Phillip Phillips, though, doesn’t sing like that.  And he has attained what has become rare:  a fresh, distinct sound.  He also shows actual musicianship and artistry, playing with the melodies and making interesting new arrangements of the old chestnuts that Idol made him sing.  And you have to like his integrity.  After Tommy Hilfiger, no less, told him to stop wearing grey shirts and to glam up his wardrobe, Phillip wore nothing but grey shirts!  And he refused to take part in those idiotic Ford commercials.

I shifted my allegiance to Phillip after realizing that I would much rather listen to an album of his laid-back, restrained, original singing than an album of Jessica’s virtuoso pop-operatic power ballads.

I’m curious about who all of the contestants will get recording contracts.  In the past, the country singers (Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery [last year’s SSWGWG]) have launched big careers, as I suspect will be true of Skylar Laine.  But most “big voices” do not seem to have done all that well.  We only need a few Celine Dions and Mariah Careys.  And few of the SSWGWGs have found much success.  I suspect that Phillip Phillips may be a different story.

That form overwhelms content

I have spared you my American Idol reflections up to this point, that show being one of my pop-culture vices, but a recent performance was so emblematic that I cannot help but comment upon it.  Joshua Ledet, arguably the best singer in the contest (who made the top three but, unfortunately, got voted off before this week’s finale), sang as his personal choice John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  Now that has to be one of my least favorite songs, a treacly anthem to atheism.  Joshua, though, has made much of the fact that he’s all about the church, his father being a pastor, and singing gospel songs or non-gospel songs with gospel stylings every chance he gets.  He sang “Imagine”–“Imagine there’s no Heaven;it’s easy if you try/No hell below us; above us only sky”–not to go against type, though, but, according to what he was telling the judges, because of its uplifting and inspirational message!  He obviously didn’t understand what he was singing.  The reason, I would suggest, is because the music sounds uplifting and inspirational–in a peculiarly sappy way–and that overwhelms for most listeners the nihilistic lyrics.

This is the same principle demonstrated by the avant garde East German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote with musical collaborator Kurt Weill the song “Mack the Knife” for his play The Threepenny Opera.  You know the song, which has become a “standard” of light jazz and lounge crooners.  It’s got a light swinging tune.   But notice the words, all about how a shark has teeth that are razor sharp and is like Mack, who will kill you with his blade.  The melody is sunshiny and peaceful, but the lyrics are dark and violent.  Brecht was purposefully playing form off against content.  Usually, the two go together, mutually re-enforcing each other.  But Brecht was trying to write a song in which the two go in opposite directions.  In his experiment, he believed that the form would overwhelm the content, that audiences would pick up on the happy melody and consider it a happy song with the disturbing lyrics having no impact!  And he was right, as evidenced every time “Mack the Knife” gets played in an elevator or as Muzak in a shopping mall.

This is important to realize when it comes to contemporary Christian music.   The assumption has been that to make Christianity relevant and to communicate with the culture, all we have to do is take “secular” forms–rock, metal, hip-hop, whatever–and put Christian words to it.   But Brecht’s experiment with “Mack the Knife” and Joshua Ledet’s performance on American Idol prove that it’s not so simple.   Death metal with Christian words will come across as and will have the effect of death metal, with the Christian words hardly registering.  Form is not neutral.  Form will drown out the content.

What we need from contemporary Christian artists (musicians, painters, filmmakers, authors) is not slavish following of other people’s styles, attempting to Christianize them; rather, we need original styles, ones that can carry the Christian message and that other people will imitate (thereby promulgating, even unintentionally, the Christian content).

Springsteen on Hank Williams

David Browder quotes from a keynote speech Bruce Springsteen made at the SXSW shindig in Austin in which he gives his reflections on the great Hank Williams and the music of his tradition:

I remember sitting in my little apartment, listening to Hank Williams Greatest Hits over and over. And I was trying to crack his code because at first it just didn’t sound good to me. It just sounded cranky and old-fashioned…with that hard country voice. With that austere instrumentation. But slowly, slowly my ears became accustomed to its beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth. And Hank Williams went from archival to alive for me before my, before my very eyes. And I lived, I lived on that for awhile in the late ’70s.

One thing it rarely was…it was rarely politically angry, it was rarely politically critical. And I realized that fatalism had a toxic element. If rock ‘n roll was a seven-day weekend, country was Saturday night hell-raising, followed by heavy Sunday coming down. Guilt, guilt, guilt. I [fracked] up, oh my God. But, as the song says, would you take another chance on me? That was country. Country seemed not to question why, it seemed like it was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying. And as Jerry Lee Lewis, the living, breathing personification of both rock and country, said, “I’ve fallen to the bottom and I’m working my way down.”

via Who Put That Hole in My Bucket? The Difference Between Bruce Springsteen and Hank Williams | Mockingbird.

Yes!  Exactly!  Bruce didn’t quite understand it, but Browder does, going on to name what it is about Hank Williams that is so compelling:  The backdrop of Christianity and the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.

 

Levon Helm

Levon Helm, the lead singer and drummer of the group so iconic that they just went by the name “The Band,” has died.  They were first known as Bob Dylan’s backup band, but they went off on their own and virtually invented the genre of Americana.  Their Music from Big Pink was one of my favorite albums back in the day.

Here is a fine tribute from an excellent website (the home of, shall we say, Lutheran Anglicans):  Catch a Cannonball (to Take Me on Down the Line): In Memory of Levon Helm | Mockingbird.

And here is Levon Helms singing a cut from Big Pink from 1969:

Life Full Voice

Some of you may remember Lori Lewis who occasionally has frequented this blog.  At one point she was all involved in radio and contemporary Christian music, but then she became a confessional Lutheran and an outspoken critic of that musical scene.  More recently she has gotten involved with opera, both as a singer and as a popularizer of that artform via radio and writing.  Her latest project, though, is a webzine entitled  Eveyday Opera.  It’s not  about opera; rather, it uses opera as a metaphor for what she describes in the site’s slogan as “Life Full Voice.”  Here is how she described it to me:

A little over 2 years ago I started Everyday Opera out of the need to find a platform for my own art.
I had gone through a down time but out of it grew this idea…Making Classic Art an Everyday Event.
Personality driven, non intimidating, but with the theory that Art lifts us in our everyday experience.  In a culture full of junk food, and I eat plenty of my share, I’m a mini-evangelist for expanding one’s horizon’s.
Opera is the metaphor here for living Live Full Voice. That is how an Opera Singer sings…Full Voice
We encourage the thinking that all of life can be lived Full Voice, whether you are a great singer,
a great chef, wine maker, farmer, mother, teacher, and on and on. (Isn’t it really modeled after
The Spirituality of the Cross? The book that help me be free as a christian to be free as a person.)

Kind words about my book.  She makes an interesting connection between Christian freedom through the Gospel, personal freedom, and vocation.  Anyway,   Eveyday Opera has articles about travel, food, art, literature, wine, music, and other pleasures of life.  It doesn’t get into theology, as such, though I’d say it has a Christian view of the world, though many Christians have arguably hung back from living life “full voice.”  (Why is that, do you think?  Do you agree that Christians are freed to appreciate things like these?)

Anyway, Lori has enlisted me to write for the site occasionally, so I wrote a piece on literary style that I’ll link to in a separate post.


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