Our modern ears

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Almost anyone knows more than I do about punk, Country, film music, and so on. But when I write about them, however naively, my own narrow classical upbringing only serves as a reminder of what a very basic part of the soundscape all such popular genres are for anyone born since around 1900. This is just as true for WAM performers or the Li family Daoists—and even scholars who interpret them.

Hence the growing role of popular music in ethnomusicology since at least the 1960s; from Wilfrid Mellers on the Beatles or the wide-ranging studies of Susan McClary, to all the important work on genres in Asia and Africa, and so on. We really can’t bury our heads (ears) in the sand any longer.

I come back to “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse“: Amy Winehouse, Erbarme dich, and Daoist ritual really do deserve to be part of the same celebration.

That’s very different from the old cliché of “music is an international language”. For better and for worse, it really isn’t: in any tiny region of the world there is incomprehension—and that’s what I’d like to overcome.

Countrier than you

As I browse the back catalogue of Rusty Debris, I find Rich Hall makes an engaging guide for my latent dilettante interest in Country. He’s also a fine Tweety-baiter, of course, like this. And his film is both instructive and hilarious.

Country may often seem banal to us poncey liberal elite—although we’re on thin ice if we’re going to laugh at the outfits. But like flamenco, or tango (or, come to think of it, almost any genre worth its salt), beyond the cosy domestic image it’s about pain, and poor suffering Hugh Manity.

Another entry in the list of drôle Country song titles:

If you won’t leave me, I’ll find someone who will.

In time the industry managed to cash in on the outlaw image (at first latent, later a badge of honour) that came to supplement the homely veneer—embodied in The Highwaymen and the great Johnny Cash. And so on to Willie Nelson (“Then one day, thankfully, his house caught fire”).

Rich’s comments on Tom Hiddleston’s ill-advised Hank Williams biopic I saw the light are priceless. He also manages to give short shrift to John Travolta, Taylor Swift, and even Bono.

Like a gen-u-ine ethnomusicologist, he notes the diverse ethnic origins of Country, its local distinctiveness, migration, and patronage. Again, there are some fine taxonomies here.

He notes the shift from Nashville to Austin, and the Cosmic Cowboy collision of redneck and hippy.

And wow, there’s some hot fiddling.

It only lets himself down a bit on female singers, who were (and are) such a major aspect of the genre’s success.

There are also some nice details on changing instrumental technique—a trademark of the best discussions of music—like “He [Chuck Berry Junior, not the Chuck Berry, R.I.P.!] told him [Waylon ] to replace the top E string with a banjo string to bend it easier, and to shave down the frets on his guitar to get a lower action.”

The secret is to replicate, not to regurgitate.

This quote from the online blurb could be an encapsulation of ethnomusicology:

As he unearths the roots and inner workings of country music, Rich finds it’s more than just music—it’s a lifestyle.

There are loads of wonderful documentaries on such topics, avoiding hagiography while evincing proper respect—but where are all the programmes about shawm bands or Daoists, eh?

You don’t own me

I promise I won’t make a habit of this—and sure, there must be thousands more sites where this came from—but here’s a great list of 17 feminist songs that were ahead of their time. All the more important under the current assaults on what should be common sense, and the major role of women in leading the protests.

However can I have missed You don’t own me? (Lesley Gore, 1963) all this time? Or at least, how did I miss the 1964 cover by Dusty Springfield?

I’m finally getting why people get so hooked on Country (like you do on the suites of north Chinese shawm bands. Possibly.)—it’s good to see it featuring so strongly here. Kitty Wells, and Dolly Parton—feminist in, um, plain clothes…

How good to include Ethel Smyth’s 1910 suffragette anthem!

(Hmm, given that one seeks to discard outmoded gendered nouns, the term “suffragette” seems a bit ironic… BTW, you don’t hear much about “usherettes” these days, eh? They were a vital part of the Away from it all cinema experience)

And of course “no” playlist “is complete without” Billie Holiday

But how did I will survive (1978) not get onto the list? Anyway, here it is…

And here’s an updated list “to get you hyped for the women’s march“.

To return to country: of course, the antithesis of all this is Stand by your man (1968, not great timing), but it’s still a great song, somehow—as long as you ignore the lyrics…

Tammy Wynette spent most of her life vainly trying to defend it. Here’s some more “negative teaching material”—with this quote (despite its opening demurral) she just digged herself further into a patriarchal hole:

Personally, I’m not particularly fond of the thought of digging ditches or climbing telephone poles. I’d rather stick with something a little more feminine. I wouldn’t want to lose the little courtesies that we’ve always been extended, like lighting cigarettes and opening doors, and pulling out chairs and things like that. I enjoy that. I guess I just enjoy being a woman.

Oops. Retired Rear Admiral James Foleyso retired he’s dead—will be nodding his head wisely and playfully slapping her cute lil’ ass.

At the time I may not have clocked You don’t own me, but at least I was aware of Dusty Springfield (!).* Digressing only a tad from the feminist path, I do vividly remember Cilla’s Anyone who had a heart (1964, her cover of Dionne Warwick’s 1963 version)—but great as both are, you must hear Sheridan Smith’s astounding cover (from the 2014 TV series Cilla):

The sheer creative energy of music in the often-discredited 1960s is an endless topic. But we can always put in wider context—not just civil rights and hippies, but further afield, in Nigeria, or the ongoing struggles of Eastern Europe… And ritual specialists in Chinese villages!

* My friend Rowan points out wisely that I’ve never been aware of anything at the time. Now I’m still living in the past, for all my so-called “contemporary ethnography”…

Country titles

Further to tune titles (from The China Daily, and in Irish music),

on the many websites devoted to drôle country song titles, I like

How can I miss you if you won’t go away?

Also of note is

Get your tongue outta my mouth ‘cause I’m kissing you goodbye.

Many such titles, of course, are a stark record of the misogyny of the milieu, though some express mutual alienation—if that helps…

À propos, I note Nicholas Dawidoff’s splendid book title In the country of country—another piece of musical ethnography.