Tuesday, October 7, 2014

They Don't Make Cultural Appropriation Like They Used To

A musician friend in his mid-30s linked to this clip on Facebook today, and remarked:
Musicians: Just a reminder. Bob Dylan wrote this when he was TWENTY TWO years old. He didn't have auto-tune, there were no electric tuners, or soundcloud demos to listen to, or web forums to get feedback from about his craft. Not saying those things are bad. But the reason this is one of the greatest tunes ever written is simple: he had something to say.

More and more that seems to be the thing I don't find much of anymore.

If you have something to say, the rest is easy.
I'd have thought that one's thirties would be a bit young to be a clueless curmudgeon, but I guess my friend is just precocious.  Or maybe such people are clueless from birth, and are simply recognized as malignant old farts when they actually become old.  But everything my friend said here is wrong.

Start with "the tune."  It's long been known that Dylan stole the tune of "Blowing in the Wind" from the African-American spiritual "No More Auction Block."  I suppose my friend used "the tune" metonymically to mean "the song," but given the tune's source (which he confirmed he knew), it's an unfortunate choice of words.  If it's "one of the greatest tunes ever written," Dylan can't really take credit for it.

What about the lyrics?  My opinion is that they don't say much.  They are, as one writer put it, "impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind".  I suppose that's one reason why the song has been so popular: it can mean almost anything to almost anybody.  If it were more specific, it would offend someone.  At that, the Chad Mitchell Trio was the first group to record the song, but "their record company delayed release of the album containing it because the song included the word 'death.'"  But bear in mind, Peter Paul and Mary's version spent "five weeks atop the easy listening chart."

Did Dylan really "have something to say" in "Blowing in the Wind"?  I don't believe so, but if he did, it wasn't the kind of message that can be paraphrased in brief.  Maybe what he wanted to express was a feeling, and surely that is what most people who adopted the song got from it, as witness its frequent use in religious services.  I'm not criticizing, mind you: it's very hard to put an explicit message into a song.  Dylan did it as well as anyone and better than most, but it's notable that his most popular song wasn't one of what he later called his "finger-pointing" songs.

I was annoyed by my friend's diatribe for more general reasons, though.  "If you have something to say, the rest is easy."  As a writer myself (including poems and some songs), my experience is that when I have something to say, the rest isn't easy.  Getting from what I want to say, or what I feel, to singable lyrics that work and a melody that will carry those lyrics, is quite difficult.  It's impossible, more often than not.  And I've read lots of poetry and prose, and heard many songs, where the composer obviously had something to say, something he or she thought important, but couldn't produce an interesting song or poem or story or novel out of it.  If I'm charitable, I can recognize that my friend probably didn't mean something like an explicit message when he mentioned having something to say, but like "the tune," it's why his remarks don't work, and fall into the clueless-curmudgeon category.

As for the stuff about the technology that didn't exist when Dylan wrote "Blowing in the Wind," leave aside the fact that recordings and broadcasts are technology that have had a big effect on the way music is produced and performed and transmitted; leave aside the fact that there were various ways of altering voices and sound in recordings in 1962, such as echo chambers, double-tracking, and tape editing.  In his early career Dylan found his way into a trend that rejected the slick inauthenticity of corporate pop music, one that valued unpolished "reality," though of course he signed with a major label and a few years later enraged some of his erstwhile cohorts by going electric and making rock'n'roll.  But the authenticity valued by the folk movement was dubious.  Authentic black bluesmen like Leadbelly wore suits and ties when they performed for black audiences; for "progressive" white audiences they had to wear bib overalls and work shirts.  (So says the blues musician and writer Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.)  Which was more authentic?

Wanting to say something meaningful isn't "having something to say." You don't "have something to say" until you've said it.  That's a core paradox of art-making: you can hone your craft for decades, yet you won't know whether the piece you're working on is good until you've finished it, and maybe not even then.  But contrariwise, there are many people of all ages who sincerely want to give something to the world, yet what they produce is dreadful, forgettable.  Another core paradox of art-making is that one works very hard to produce something that seems spontaneous and effortless, "artless" as it's often called.  What seems natural and authentic is generally the product of dedicated, often exhausting work.  As a musician himself, my friend should know this.

Finally, "More and more that seems to be the thing I don't find much of anymore."  At the most literal level, he wouldn't have found much of it in 1962 either.   Dylan attracted attention because of his presence and air of authority -- even "authenticity," though he was a middle-class Jewish kid from northern Minnesota pretending to be a goyish Okie of the Depression era.  Most of the songs of his contemporaries are forgotten, and deservedly so, not because their writers had nothing to say but because they didn't say it in an interesting or memorable way. "Blowing in the Wind" itself stands alone in his catalog for its popularity.  Against this, I still find plenty of contemporary songs and music that are memorable, and say something to me.  They are probably a minority of the vast flood of material that's released, but that was always true.