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by Pril Stevenson
This, I think, is our greatest gift to the universe. You could get all heavy and say it was our constitution or something like that, and that’d be fine, but I would still say it’s been music.
Our music comes from the dirt. It came from the slaves and the hill people and the fishermen and the first nations, and later the Okies and Arkies and the Mexicans, and it got filtered and reworked and refiltered and electrified and stripped down and added to with a dash of something here and a dash of something else. Some of it went overseas and came back so loud and incredible we almost didn’t recognize it, and so we hammered at it some more and put some glitter on it or yanked out the solos and it was ours again. Rock n Roll, the Blues, Jazz, Bluegrass, Rap, Country, Metal and Punk are wholly American inventions. And they have two roots- Blues and Country, both of which are simply the lament of the common people.
Listen, it took about 200 years for us to take what we came over here with and make it ours. Those European folk songs that belonged to the dirt over there in the 1600s turned into Elvis after he mixed it up with what the black people were doing. By the mid 1800s, we had the blues in its earliest forms. In the 1950s, American music was total anarchy, and I wish I had been alive back then to witness it. People were even excited about music. There were riots over it. Musicians were ferocious about getting heard. Bus loads of people were traveling all over the country and seeing and hearing things they hadn’t ever even imagined, learning things from each other and reincorporating it. People from rural churches with angelic voices were cutting records for the masses (no pun intended). Everyone I know who was a kid in the 50s and 60s played one instrument or another in their garage with their friends. There’s no exception. Maybe the ones you know are different. Maybe not.
When recorded music was still young, a guy who called himself the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, was the biggest seller. Millions of records in the 30s. When people could barely afford to feed themselves, they still picked up one of his records when they could. And they all probably went to someone’s house with a victrola with a dozen or so other friends and listened to it together. Or they sat around a radio and listened to the Grand Ol Opry and those people in the radio sang them the stories they already knew because they all were living them too. When Jimmie came to town, you better have bought your ticket quick or you weren’t going to get to see him.
Johnny Cash didn’t go to the country capital, Nashville, to make it big. He went to Memphis because the music coming out of Memphis at the time had a better feel to it, he thought. Well, Memphis has always been one of the seats of the blues, and then later the soul and R&B. There’s an awful lot of blues in Cash’s country. Johnny’s mother-in-law, Maybelle, invented one of the most widely used guitar strumming styles. It’s called the Carter Lick. You pick the melody on the two bass strings and strum the chords on the rest. I bet if you’ve played guitar for any length of time, you can do it and you might notice how handy it is.
I’m a little disappointed in what gets played on the radio now. I don’t hate it. Just disappointed. Where’s the excitement and the passion and the ferocity? Even the protests songs are weak and tired. Where’s the freakin rock n roll, man, the dirt? Where’s my American Music?
(This is part one in a group of thingies where I am going to talk about American music)