Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Day the Innocence Died

One of the more annoying things I hear about the Internet is that it's so unreliable, compared to media in the past. Wikipedia, especially, is criticized compared to real (i.e., print) encyclopedias because it is written by people, instead of by experts -- or something. And certainly I don't take what I read on Wikipedia for granted. But I don't take for granted what I read anywhere else, either. I see among these people a strange lack of curiosity about where the information in real (i.e., print) encyclopedias comes from; from on high, I guess.

I suppose that the people who turn up their noses at the Internet are, like me, relics of the print age. That's not an excuse, though, because the second step you have to take after learning to search for information in dictionaries and encyclopedias and other reference books was to learn to examine that information critically. That came in college, or probably graduate school, for most of us -- I certainly don't remember ever being taught that step. Judging by the right-wing critics who brought us the Culture Wars of the 90s, I wasn't supposed to take it. I was supposed to learn who the authorities were, to listen to them, and not to question them. Alas, I also came of age in the 1960s, when that kind of authority began to wash away under the pounding of the countercultural surf. Not that many of my countercultural cohort really learned to think critically either. But critical thinking, an informed or informable skepticism, isn't really that hard to learn. Is it? Maybe I'm just overgeneralizing from myself there.

What brought on these musings was reading Ellen Sander's Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties (Scribner's, 1975), because Ellen Willis praised it in one of the articles collected in Out of the Vinyl Deeps. I also remembered having read and liked some of Sander's rock journalism in the late 60s. Trips is long out of print, and even the university library didn't have it, but I lucked out and found a second-hand copy with dust jacket intact for a reasonable price. It turns out to be a harder read than I expected, sloppily written, with way too much "far out" gushing about the lost innocence and beauty of the scene just a few short years before Sander wrote the book. She's not entirely clear about when innocence supposedly died: at one point it's the assassination of John F. Kennedy, later it seems to have survived for another five to ten years, but always that generational innocence seems to be Sander's. She admits that she wasn't very political, and that comes through.

Anyway, I was chugging along through the book when I came to Sander's account of the Byrds, which includes brief reviews of their early albums. Of the third, she wrote on page 84:
5-D continued with “I Come and Stand at Every Door,” one of their most underrated compositions. The tune was an adaptation of the achingly beautiful ancient Childe ballad “The Silkie of Sule Skerry.” The words, set in a soft undulating cadence, were words from the ghost of a seven-year-old child killed at Hiroshima begging the world to make peace.
I was pretty sure that the song wasn't written by the Byrds, so I did some fact-checking. On the original LP it's credited to "N. Hikmet," who it turns out was a Turkish poet named Nazim Hikmet, 1902-1963, who "was repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs and spent much of his adult life in prison or in exile." You can hear it in Turkish on YouTube; Joan Baez sings that version here. The version sung by the Byrds was the work of Pete Seeger, using "a singable translation" by Jeanette Turner, and a melody he stole from an MIT student: "an extraordinary melody put together by an Massachusetts Institute of Technology student [James Waters] who had put a new tune to a mystical ballad [The Great Silkie]" which he couldn't get out of his head, without permission. Seeger wrote in Where Have All the Flowers Gone: "It was wrong of me. I should have gotten his permission. But it worked." Folk artists often steal, but Seeger has been known to copyright his thefts.

Some of this information was not easily available when Sander wrote Trips, but that's exactly my point: it's much easier nowadays to find things out with the Internet, a computer, a web browser, and a search engine. On the other hand, a look at the writers' credits on the album would have sufficed to let Sander know that "I Come and Stand at Every Door" was not by the Byrds.

And that's not all. On the very next page she writes about the Byrds' fourth album:
It was nonetheless a brilliantly assembled record, called Younger than Yesterday after the Dylan song of the same name it featured.
You don't even need the Internet for this one. The Dylan song she refers to is "My Back Pages," not "Younger than Yesterday," and it doesn't even contain those words. The album title alludes to the song's refrain, "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

(I just noticed that on page 121 Sander describes a Led Zeppelin concert in a Boston venue which was "formerly a synagogue, the stage sat in front of what was once the altar." Synagogues don't have altars. This is a funny error, since Sander is Jewish herself, though probably not observant.)

The last hundred pages of Trips, co-written with Tom Clark, billed as "A Rock Taxonomy," consists of capsule reviews of significant rock musicians. The writing is tighter, but still haphazard, and the material is full of factual errors: misspellings of musicians' names, misattributions, and so on. (The great girl groups of the early 60s are conspicuous by their absence, but that's a matter of judgment, not fact.) It can be argued that rock journalism wasn't taken seriously in those days, but this book was issued by a reputable mainstream publisher, and despite Sander's thanks to her editor in the Preface, it reads as though it never saw an editor. But that's my other point here: print books can and do contain egregious errors. Whether you do your research on the Internet or in the bookshelves of a print library, you can't assume that what you find there is true.