In 1971 two folklorists went to Laurel Fork, Virginia to pay a visit on Stella Wagoner and her late-life second husband Taylor Kimble. This began a years-long project of recording the two playing southeastern folk music on fiddle (he) and banjo (she, and my father's mother's aunt). You can buy the resulting CD, The Kimble and Wagoner Families, online (www.fieldrecorder.com), and I did, and have been listening to it a couple days. I fear that if you have neither a place in my family tree nor a strong interest in early 20th-century rural music and specifically North Carolina banjo styles, you'll find little diversion here. But for me the music prompts some thought on the endless old question of who musicians are, or think they are, making music for.
My aunt Stella and her sister Pearl had gained enough fluency by 1905, when Stella was 13 and Pearl 9, to entertain their neighbors frequently in the Sparta, N.C. area. Alongside Stella's grooving clawhammer Pearl played organ -- nice combo! Later Pearl likewise took up the banjo. The two girls played, in various larger groups, together and apart, at home, for dances, and at contests. In adulthood, it seems that Stella kept the 5-string mostly in mothballs, focusing on family. But in the late Sixties she started playing with regularity once again. She entertained, says folklorist Ray Alden in an essay on his site, at YMCAs and women's clubs along with her niece Betsy; after she had married Taylor, they settled down on a farm and played and sang the old tunes daily. They also travelled a little to play shows, and did three records together. The traffic went more the other way, though, with visits to Laurel Fork from aficionados from as far away as Europe. In short, they carved out a small, sweet spot for themselves in the old-time music subculture in the last decade of their lives, before their deaths in the late Seventies.
These two lives were, needless to say, coterminous with radical changes in music production. I spend a fair amount of time mulling about music as it was in the millennia before recording technologies. These days almost everyone who plays as much as a tissue and comb attends to the preservation of his craft on bits or tape. It is a secular path to personal immortality, and it's the one forum where you can present an ideally polished image of yourself (and the more recently you happen to have been born, the better for you in that regard). If you do music full-time, chances are good that recording yourself is at the center of your life. Well, although I can't say recording as a process and an industry compels me into high contemplative raptures, the Heisenberg nature of music-capturing is rich mental mulch. The conscious interplay of voice and mike, the less than perfectly convergent agendas of artist and recordist, the subtle falsifications of electronic effects and edits and corrections and multiple simulated first-takes, the weirdness of putting on a performance for no one in particular while watched by unemotional technicians -- the whole performance/recording feedback loop is wildly fascinating to me. Audiences are active agents in performances. In fact, as Albert Brooks's great Real Life tells us, an audience turns activity into performance, and, when the audience includes electronic ears and eyes, tends to pervert it.
The song times on The Kimble and Wagoner Families are a little curious. 3:51, 1:00, 2:47, 1:17, 3:00, 0:27, and 3:43 are a couple of them. The tempos vary, but not so much as to cause those disparities. Most of the tracks are fiddle tunes with two-section heads, amounting to between 20 and 45 seconds, repeated without improvisation and at the discretion of the performer. Why one song is only a minute long is that the fiddler decided twice through the head was enough; why another is nearly four is that they were having a great time. Who decides when it's time to end a piece of music, or a section of it? In a highly commercialized form, like Music Row country or urban comtemporary, the audience effectively decides, because there's reliable data on how much of one pattern a wired young person will put up with before tiring of the stimulus and changing channels. At a backwoods dance, it's again effectively the audience, whose patience and stamina the players are monitoring. But since at a dance the music is secondary -- functional rather than artistic -- long and predictable repeating forms are an asset (until someone keels). At a women's club, in a living room, in a museum, it's harder to pinpoint why or when something needs to stop. In these places, function and audience expectation aren't top priorities, and the fear of boring someone may give way to transcendent self-hypnosis.
The hypnotic effect of long notes and chords and of non-development is often a close cousin to crushing boredom, but that hardly disqualifies it as a value. The closeness of pathos and bathos doesn't, luckily, stop singers from expressively rendering tragic songs. I'm glad there are artists here and there who will slip into the gear of monotony. When it's not boring, it's divine -- a welcome respite from the shallowly shifting sensations that today's media (musical and other) desperately drum up to keep you tuned in.
My aunt Stella's read on a trudging, creepy, wobbly intonating tune she calls "Pennsylvania Rambler" (A.P. Carter called it "Don't Forget This Song") allies her with John Cage, whose tune "As Slow As Possible" is being performed right now on a church organ in Germany, at a total length of 639 years, having grandly opened "on September 5, 2001 with a pause lasting until February 5, 2003." On the recent two-disc release The Roots of Drone, similar aesthetic strange bedfellows are presented for our deliberation: the hillbilly fiddler Eck Robertson, the Sardinian launeddas blower Efisio Melis, Cage, the Borodin Quartet interpreting Shostakovich, Muddy Waters, Ravi Shankar. If you've fallen into the trap of thinking of the history of music as equal to all music recorded since Edison cylinders, it is refreshing to ponder what this enduring cross-genre resistance to polyphony may imply. The appetite for a form of 20 or 40 seconds, for clear linear development, for a few simple patterns with slightly surprising variations reiterated no more than twice and done in 4 minutes or less, has proved so insatiable from the jazz age on, has reliably produced such a plenitude of fortune and ecstasy, that it has come to seem a fundamental human drive. But preceding and counterbalancing it may be another attraction, biologically embedded, to darker and contrary things: slower and simpler patterns, eye-glazingly long tones, music that proceeds with an easeful randomness rather than horny guts-grabbing momentum. Our race has been listening to bird twitterings in forests, foghorns, wheels humming on tracks, sloshing ocen waves, and monks at prayer longer than it's been enjoying the Beatles. Such universally resonant sounds may go to a deeper animal place than a smartly tailored romantic lyric can access.
Leonard Bernstein said that all folk music was utilitarian. That term fairly, if not completely, describes the role of a fiddler at a dance, Bruce Springsteen singing on stage, Taylor Swift making a record. We are making people move around and forget their cares, voicing the aspirations of the common man and flattering his self-image, and selling things. All commendable, and pretty high on anyone's scale of social utility, I'd think. But when it's an old lady in a living room, singing forgotten songs into a tape recorder, the purpose is murkier. Nobody's dancing or paying, so why is anyone interested, why is someone recording? The notes on Ray Alden's disc address this question directly: "These recordings aim to renew the wishes of older musicians to share their tunes and styles with younger musicians and, in so doing, keep traditional music alive and flourishing." Usefulness is beside the point; we are preserving a vital and beautiful part of our culture, as well as respecting the wishes of old people. Now Mr. Bernstein needs a coat of paint. Utility has largely been offloaded to the marketplace, where the folk of modern times are gathered; by contrast, the music that folks previously played for merriment and escape is in need of some life-support -- i.e., folk music aged beyond utility is Art.
On stage a performer's work lives in a relation with the listeners before him; and someone who puts a record into the marketplace has a sales report to give him information. But when you're an artist in as pure a sense as my aunt was -- when scholars come to your house to record you doing what you do in your daily life without much thinking, and you sing into their contraptions -- whoever or whatever the "audience" is may be so abstract that the perfomer, even if he allowed it into his thoughts and calculations, can't gear himself to it, know what it wants, or get high from it. How does a performer feel, addressing such an unknowable abstraction? Conceivably the effects could be empowering (the performer has a sense of himself addressing posterity), deleterious (with no feedback information, positive or otherwise, the performer is self-conscious and stiff), or either-way (the performer goes longer or shorter than he would with information, physical intensity lessens). But an effect of some kind is made, and is audible. If this is going to be the way we transmit folk art from the dying generation to the young, then listeners will have to bear in mind that old folks singing into tape recorders is quite a different sounding thing than the same folks fueling a dance party -- much less in the prime of their lives.
This may sound like dry pedantic banter. It's really not, because how the audience enters into the artist's mind is a matter of crucial consequence, and vexing, near-quantum complexity. As true as it is that artists' work and performances are influenced (necessarily, and often gratefully) by audience response, or that the roar of a crowd or a good sales week make the cock hang weightier, it seems to me that no artist is a creature of his audience. We don't exist for them. If no one were there to listen and encourage and clap, we'd still be playing and singing, or would be at the slightest goad, such as a brassy niece coming round and getting your old banjo out of the attic. We are doing it for ourselves. Or we're doing it for an audience that we don't and could never have, the fanciful group of listeners conjured by the mind game, "What would I make if I could make what I would most like to hear?"
Once you know what an audience thinks, especially if they tell you clearly several times running, it's hard not to act on it. Danny Barnes observed that when a performer's music makes the whole room hate him, there are two prominent and contradictory explanations: he's godawful and needs to do something else, or he's onto something truly amazing. However, I personally find it hard to back up the latter choice with much willpower. Once an audience has firmly registered its disapproval of what I've done, I generally turn tail. I have plenty of other songs, and it's upsetting to me to anger or upset the audience. (I know this has happened with some regularity over the years, but I usually haven't intended it!) Anyway, this cowardice, or whatever it is, is a bit of a failing, I think. I read recently of a perfomer I admire who takes great inspiration from the projects he mounts that are worst received. Those are the ones he can think about hardest, reshape, improve. But I don't know -- what if the first audience was stupid, or the house sound was defective, or some other contextual happenstance explained the bad reception? The reworking could be in reality ruinous. This kind of thing makes audience information frustrating. You have to take it into account, and probably should, but it can really send you right down the rabbit hole, too. Like their individual components, audiences are unlike one another, eccentric, and not altogether reliable. You can look at a lot of acts who had one or two popular successes decades ago; the approval registered, the act responded, and the trap was laid. All ends in musical vacuity and no little bitterness on both sides.
Artists without audiences are thus liberated, in the way of middle-aged bachelors, or people who have managed to drop a lot of weight. They don't wake up mornings instantly thinking, "Time to get the beast fed!" They have other problems, to be sure: maintaining enough self-generated urgency and confidence to go about hard work without many rewards outside the work itself. But I think that, despite the efficiency with which the commercial sector has spat out killer music this last century, we can invest a lot of hope in these solitary souls, these old-timey people and mystics and droning madmen. People who are away from the hustle and bustle, who are highly relaxed, are in a good position to make music that opens new paths and goes deep.