Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Last Verse

I was reading this article by Burkhard Bilger in the April 28, 2008 New Yorker, about the last remnants of original folk musicians still living, and the obsessive collectors who search them out and record them. Along with making me want to go out and get the gospel collection called "Goodbye, Babylon", it reminded me of a night in the early 1980s when I heard probably the most amazing music I've ever come across.

My late friend Dave Buell and I were walking down a street in downtown Alexandria, VA. I forget where we were coming from or going to. It was around 9 or 10 in the evening. We heard some music and stopped at the open screen door of a little storefront church, just one small room on a ground floor. We hesitated to go in (two dorky white guys) but someone inside said "all are welcome" so we walked in and sat down.

There were maybe fifteen people there, half of them playing some instrument or another, scattered around on wooden chairs. I remember a piano and an organ, a drum set, tambourine, and an electric guitar. It was loose, nothing fancy, just a weekday night where some people had gathered in their church for some music. Songs started and stopped informally, no one seemed to be leading it. And when they played there was soul and power and funk beyond anything I've ever heard. It moved and wailed and I felt it deep inside. I don't know how long we were in there, not very long, we felt kind of like we were intruding though no one in there made us feel that way, so we left, but part of me is still there. I felt that any music that I'd heard or been part of up to that point was pale next to this. What history and connection do we (my suburban white American brethren) have that can compare? The music I grew up with was just several generations received from what was in that storefront, just the roots as filtered through commercial dilutions several times over. What was in there was authentic, at least it felt that way to me, realizing I'd never really heard and felt authenticity before.

I've had similar feelings a few times since. Once in a gospel music concert in a church in East St. Louis in 1988 or so, once with a marching band in a wedding parade in the night backstreets of Calcutta in 1986 (that's another story, wild Bengali brass band funk like you wouldn't believe).

Much as I love to play music myself, I have done it less and less in the last ten years. Part of the reason is the feeling of borrowed-ness, of lack of authenticity, that there's nothing I can draw on except imitations of imitations. I know, that even all the musicians I mentioned above were also borrowing and imitating, that's the nature of the beast. But they were doing so inside a tradition and a history, a culture they were actually part of. There's no such thing in the American suburb. Not that there can't be depth and beauty there as well, but sightings and hearings are few and far between, and what shreds of authenticity there may be are difficult to find. Sometimes it does emerge all on its own, something speaks through all the received-ness, and those moments make all the rest worth it, but I guess I have less patience for all those other moments, when each strum feels copycat and nothing speaks through. Authenticity and the spark of inspiration feel more important to me and anything less feels unworthy, and you can't (at least, I can't) force or wish them into existence. I know they occur on their own schedule, and that not playing at all makes it impossible for them to happen, so any playing is better than none, but I have less patience now for the other times.


Barbara Selvin said...

I wonder whether the lack of authenticity you are talking about is limited to the suburbs. I am not convinced that middle- and upper-middle-class city dwellers live any more authentically. The cultures of Park Slope or Williamsburg, to pick a couple of places where people seem proud of themselves for having settled, are just as engineered as Montclair or Port Washington. I would argue that they have more edge but not more authenticity. The authenticity you speak of, it seems to me, comes from shared suffering and shared faith. Suffering and faith are not experiences I associate with the people and places that have been part of my life or the lives of my peers--certainly not shared suffering or shared faith.

Al said...

I agree. This lack is not limited to those from the suburbs, nor white, nor American. And, authenticity can be found in any of those three also, even in combination. I was referring to my own background as context and contrast to what I heard in that little storefront.