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Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Like Songs

It was 05.30 in the morning, a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday morning, and I stepped in the car to drive to Bochum, Germany. I was going to read a paper on music education in secondary schools in the Netherlands. I had chosen a small pile of CDs to listen to while driving.

As the dark turned into grey and then the grey turned into daylight, and as I drove to the south on a very quiet German highway, I listened to Bob Dylan (The Times They Are A-Changin'), Dolly Parton (The Grass Is Blue), Gill Scott Heron (I'm New Here) and Wilco (The Whole Love).

This blog kind of follows the path of the research I am doing. It started off with me wondering what other people were doing with music, how they look at themselves, how we look at others and ourselves through those powerful glasses called Culture. It was connected to the fact that I was interviewing lots of people about their musical lives for my research. But at some point this blog has become more inward-looking. I write a lot about myself, these days. That is due to the fact that I am now doing a research project in which the research method is - at least at present - what is called 'participant observation': observing others while being part of and partaking in their community. 'Walking the walk, talking the talk'; 'deep hanging out'; up to the point of 'going native'. And as the history of anthropology shows (the early 1980s, in particular), at some point this kind of participant observation is doomed to change into self-observation, and ethnography becomes auto-ethnography. It is a necessary phase in my development as a researcher, but don't worry: I will soon be leaving the auto-ethnographic phase, I will re-focus on 'the other' rather than on myself, because I feel that is where the value in my research eventually lies. And with that, this blog will undoubtedly become more outward-looking again. There is hope.

However, right now I am in the reflexive mood. So I wondered about me listening to all those songs. And also to a specific kind of songs, often. Let's say: the straightforward songs. The songs telling a simple story. Or at least: me believing they tell a simple story (Wilco's lyrics are hardly 'simple', but still the songs are songs). The song being a song, nothing more. Someone writes down lyrics, picks up a guitar and sings what he wrote down. He doesn't care too much whether someone else has sung something comparable, on a comparable tune. The song has to be sung - not meaning some kind of 'artistic-drive-has-to-be-sung', but simply the fact that the song needs to be sung in order to be a song.

You still there?

"For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same." (Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping - by the way, the quote, for reasons I might explain some other time, brings me to Sarajevo and to its grandiose sevdalinkah.)

Infinite in number. All the same. The quote expresses precisely why I listen to songs. And why I don't care that Dylan reworks 'Girl from the North Country' into 'Boots of Spanish Leather', knowing this is based upon 'Scarborough Fair'. Or that Gill Scott Heron sings the blues accompanied by samples from old recordings. It doesn't matter - actually; it is the thing to do. Taking up history and re-writing it for your own purposes. I like it when one is satisfied with that humble thing.

It explains why I like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and other American songwriters so much that they are able to move me to tears. They don't beat around the bush. If they miss someone, they write that they miss someone. If they feel they are so lonely they want to die, they write that they feel so lonely they want to die. If they cry a pool of tears, they sing they are crying a pool of tears. No metaphors, no poetry, no psychologizing, no irony and sarcasm, no tongue in cheek. Say how it is. A thousand songs. A thousand sorrows. They're all the same, sung in porches on mild evenings.

I might now write about my past, my personal background, to explain this. But I am not going to do that. I try to stick to the idea that it is enough to say how it is.

I like songs.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Writing in the Margins

We reorganized our living room. Lots of toys have been moved to the kids' rooms. Suddenly we are able to access the lowest shelves of our bookcase again. The shelves where the record collection is: I guess some 750 LPs - the collections of me and my wife, of parents, of friends, things we bought on second hand markets (about 150 hawaii- and keroncong-albums, for example, including the successive Kilima Hawaiians jubilee-albums: 10 years, 15, 20, 25, 40 years of the Kilima's).

So now I occasionally at random pick an LP to listen to. And at some point I picked a gipsy music album - the famous Tata Mirando. I guess the LP is from the 1970s or so. To me that sounds like yesterday but it means some 40 years old now. I like the music. I generally like to think that LPs such as these were made with much love.

At the back of the LP there is a nice text about wandering gypsies, their family ties, their love for music and all that. "They played like demons and produced the kind of record of which every record producer dreams - one which is 'just right'." That kind of stuff. The texts match the picture on the front - check out the combination of little boy and empty beer bottles.

But funny enough, one of the previous owners of the LP obviously disagreed with me about the music. I like it. He put a huge cross over the track list, and as if that message was not clear enough, he wrote comments after each song title.


My grandfather used to write in the margins of his books. I have some philosophical books of his (he liked them in all forms, from the academic to the very exotic and esoteric), in which occasionally he wrote "nonsense!" or "wrong!" in the margin. The remarks on the record could have been written by him - he was a violinist (he is rumored to have bought violins from gypsies at the door, including the one I am now fiddling on, and was fascinated by the fact that at some point at the conservatoire I had lessons from Andrei Serban, son of Gregor - lessons which mainly consisted of me teaching him Irish jigs and reels and he teaching me some Balkan stuff, with sometimes just for formal reasons some attention to Bach's double concerto); but I think my grandfather liked Tata Mirando too much (and anyway, if the record would have been my grandfather's it would smell like pipe tobacco) to write what the former owner has written on - now - my record. "Long; occasionally 'real'", it says at track 1. Track 2: "short! Very 'drummy'." Track 5: "Much heavy vibrating squeaking." Et cetera.




The man may, no must have been a connoisseur; when "I. Malcaroff" is mentioned as the arranger, he underlines the "I.", as if to indicate a mistake (it may have been V. Malcaroff, indeed). (In academic circles he would have written "sic!" somewhere, to indicate he has viewed a mistake. I hate "sic!"s, I must confess, they remind me too much of people who not simply say "in academic circles" or "amongst academics" but instead say "in academia". Especially in Dutch I find that pathetic, but that of course is completely my personal feeling - no harm meant, really.)

I try to imagine my predecessor. I guess he was slightly older (I read his handwriting as the handwriting of a slightly older person - I wonder how I would read my own handwriting today if it would have been a stranger's one). I imagine it is a man's handwriting, for no good reason apart from the fact that my grandfather (and not my grandmother) is my great example of a margin-writer. I see him sitting at his desk, listening to the record for the first time - disappointed he listens and re-listens, and then resolutely puts a huge cross through the track listing (and - to be sure - marks the front side of the sleeve with a cross as well), writes his comments, and then puts the record on the shelf with all the other records with crossed-out track lists and sarcastic negative commentaries. He feels a bit sorry that the record was no good, but at the same time he is happy that at least he has, in this modest way, made very clear that there is a difference between good and bad, and that there are still people in this world who are able to tell that difference.

I try to think, these days, not in terms of 'music' but of 'musicking'. Music is not a thing, it is behavior. Listening to music, dancing to music, eating to music, collecting record sleeves. I can now add a new one to the list: writing commentaries on record sleeves.

Fascination without end.