Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
I'm one week into recording my plastic folk album. Five songs are finished so far:
Finnegan The Folk Hero
I'm incredibly excited about this new stuff, and the urge to put up mp3 files of the finished recordings on this very page is strong. But I know that if I did they'd go straight into the modern oral tradition which is Napster, and I'd be fiddling myself (so to speak).
The next best thing, of course, is playing them live, and I had the opportunity to do just that at Tonic on Friday night, when I opened for Arto Lindsay. I tore straight into Appalachia, which is a massive, insane, distorted and relentlessly fast ode to an 'electronic mountain girl' decorated with lunatic baroque interludes played through excruciating ring-modulation.
The response couldn't have been more gratifying: the applause went right off the clapometer. In fact all four of the new songs I played went down a storm with this Lower East Side audience, most of whom were there to see Arto do his bossa-noise thing.
The story of Finnegan the folk hero ('of HTML') got laughs immediately, helped no doubt by the fact that quite a few people listening probably make their living in web design. A line pointing out how Moon Of Alabama has 'lyrics by a communist and music by a Jew' had someone clapping before the song was even finished, and a passing reference to Bruce Haack evoked whoops of delighted recognition.
What was going on? Was it simply that this new stuff is great, or was it further proof of my perfect attunement to the zeitgeist of Lower Manhattan? Was it evidence that the time is just massively right for the Electronic Folk meme, or perhaps a worrying sign that it's easy to entertain (and flatter) sophisticated urban audiences with mocking pastiche of the hoe-downs of their country cousins? Is it a battle perhaps too easily won, is it a caving in to populist gesture, is it simply an excuse to do more of my silly highland dancing on stage? Have I been tarred with the brush of Dylan, Beck and Harmony Korine, who all used downhome imagery ironically to amuse sophisticated urban audiences? Am I a craven and opportunistic rootless charlatan posturing, when it suits me, as a Scot?
I'm certainly pastiching, not to mention sampling, this music. It seems to me that the Appalachian Mountains serve, in American popular music mythology, the same function as Kosovo does in the lore of the Balkans. Appalachia (a strong contender for the album's title) is a source of mythic strength and purity, and once you start claiming that the association of strength and purity is a positive cultural force, you're getting close to fascism and ethnic cleansing.
That will never do, and yet the power of the myth remains strong. We're fascinated by discrete ethnic traditions even while we extoll diversity, cross-fertilisation and bastardisation. What the satirist and ironist can do to get around this ambivalence is simultaneously denigrate and celebrate his subject. He mocks but also mimics it, fences with it, catches a glimpse of its pale Celtic eyes through the fencing mask, falls, like all rivals, in love with his enemy, turns his sparring into a jig, then finds himself surprised to notice sympathy and complicity emerging through the disapproval and mockery. If he's not careful, the mocking mask will turn into his real face.
The Appalachian fiddle music which feeds directly into that most conservative and attackable of modern American musics, Country and Western, was brought to America by 18th Century Scots and Irish. Close relatives of my Gaelic-speaking ancestors, cleared out of the highlands and islands by heartless landlords, they arrived in US coastal cities like New York and Philadelphia. A somewhat chilly reception there drove many of them south and west, into the pine-forested mountains of Virginia and Kentucky, which probably reminded them of their lost homelands in Ireland and Scotland. There, in primitive log cabins, they played their fiddles and danced their dances.
Of course, I'm a Scot too, a recent arrival on these shores, and on a basic sentimental level the symbolism of Appalachia appeals to me. Unpersecuted as I am, I can still understand the appeal of America as a place where the bastards can't get us any more. People still come to the US to escape oppression of various kinds -- most of my Japanese friends here say they're seeking freedom from the expectations of their parents, for example.
So the music I'm making is wild and celebratory. It's saying 'We can dance our dances here and nobody can stop us!' You hear the same celebrations all over New York. The hispanics of Alphabet City play their Dominican fiesta music with fierce pride, Toyotas with unfeasibly feisty bass bins roll by blasting rap. Music here, more than anywhere I've been, is a racial and cultural flag to wave in the world's face.
Of course, I'm a bit more diluted and bastardised than your average Dominican. My take on the ethnic music of my faraway ancestors has been filtered through irony, electronics and Japan. I'm suspicious of the idea of national pride, though I can't help feeling some (I was even, at one point, going to make this an album of updatings of the bawdy ballads of the Scottish bard, Robert Burns!). Rather than celebrating the escape from religious persecution or poverty, my folk music draws its rebellious power from the idea of flipping the bird at that subtle tyrant, the concept of authenticity.
I Walk The Line
All my most interesting work comes out of ambivalence and tension, and this album is no exception. The issues here are nationalism versus cosmopolitanism, fake authenticity versus authentic fakeness, and the old paradox of the satirist's odd mixture of love and hate for his subject.
There's a fine line between enrichment and enkitschment of other people's culture, and I walk that line, brother! I walk it every day, and I was walking it yesterday when I recorded one version of Little Apples with lyrics about rendering porcupines in Bryce on an Apple G4 Cube, then rewrote it with genuinely heartfelt and melancholy country lyrics about wandering through West Virginia. And I was still walking that line when I painstakinging spliced the two versions together in software, trying to get the balance between send-up and sentiment exactly right. (And by send-up I mean a kind of honesty too, the admission that we're all rootless, all electronic gypsies, and irony is a kind of sincerity for us now.)
It's a line we're all walking in pop music, where no-one can be truly authentic (the ones who claim to be are the biggest fakers) and yet everyone wants to connect somehow with real emotion. Ask the Rolling Stones, ask Beck and Dylan, ask marketing graduate Garth Brooks or his alter ego Chris Gaines. How much surrealism, how much exciting plastic, can you get away with injecting into the hallowed ethnic disjecta of roots music before you're frog-marched out of town? How real are Dolly Parton's breasts, how real is Cher's voice? How electronic is that banjo in Bruce Haack's ludicrous children's television hoe-down 'This Old Man'?
Is route 66 just a name for the most direct line you can draw between New York, home of jewish record executives, and the musicians they audition on the Tennessee-Virginia border? Does every country success story occlude a more authentic, less compromised, more ethnic eminence grise? Who is more important in the success of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie or Allen Ginsberg? Why are ethnomusicological curators like Alan Lomax and Harry Smith suddenly trendy names to drop?
Then there are all the 'what if' questions. What if they'd had Moogs instead of fiddles in Appalachia? What if soul really were nothing more than the longing of the soulless for redemption? What if, in the electronic age, the real folk music were the sounds made by a television set? What if the oral tradition really is coming back thanks to open source programming and the death of copyright? What if Gary Numan had taken seriously Kraftwerk's claim to be making 'industrial folk music'? What if the racial fascism in ethnic music really were an integral part of its power? What if UNESCO teams sent to New Guinea began hearing bits of Jean-Michel Jarre in the riffs played by the tribesmen? What if gypsies heard more Michael Jackson records in their lives than fiddle music, and were really actors when they decided to play 'gypsy music'? What if aboriginals learned how to play the digeridoo by listening to Aphex Twin CDs?
What if, in the age of the post-bit atom, people started getting sick of slick surfaces and began to put more and more emphasis on what was handmade and misshapen (the true meaning of baroque, by the way), yet forebore to switch from bits back to atoms? How would they use their electronic devices to make more complex, human-textured things? What if, as Brian Eno predicted, the computer finally began getting more Africa in it? What if folk artists started emerging who sounded more postmodern than Cornelius? What if you could hear, today, the Country Music of the year 2050 -- not the roots music, that'll sound pretty much how it always has, but the really compromised, alienated and electronic commercial music that calls itself Country? What about the Japanese country music of 2050? How strange and disorienting would that sound? Will folk music wither away over the next century, replaced, as Brecht predicted, by Population Music? And what will that sound like? What if electronics had appeared in 18th Century Scotland just at the moment of the Highland Clearances? How many mountains can you fit on a Minidisc?
I've got a lot on my plate, and even more on my hard disk recorder. Welcome to Folktronics.