This week’s Convivium Question came to me in this form:
? Where do YOUR ideas of how people ought to be come from ?
I think the foundations are laid well before adolescence, though surely influences and examples in teenage and after-years are significant as refinements and augmentations, and some people may experience basic changes at inflection points in later life–Road to Damascus conversion, or the discovery of Ayn Rand (ew…) … But the foundations are laid in ways that may be behind the conscious memories, and still be recoverable by thinking about, by examining evidence (for me that’s bookshelves and family photographs), some of which may be so well-buried as to remain inaccessible.
For some people it’s a matter of “learn from the teachers by negative example” as Mao said (“I’m NEVER going to be like her/him…”); for some it’s something that grows out of admiration, out of positive example. The child of mercurial parents, of a household suffused by anger, develops different expectations and coping mechanisms than the child whose early life is calm and nurturing. Imagine how somebody whose basic experience is being bullied would respond –say Donald Trump, or Prince Charles– or consider Queen Elizabeth, who learned DUTY from a very early age (this in the context of watching The Crown and The Windsors). And if Michael Apted’s ‘7 Up’ series isn’t in your repertoire, it SHOULD be: 7-63 Up.
And consider this from today’s Guardian:
Biographers have told how he was raised by his father to be a “killer” and regard losing as a sign of unforgivable weakness. The family attended a church whose pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, wrote the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking with advice to “stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding.”
I assume that we build our own personalities on notions of ‘how people ought to be’, though perhaps not very consciously. And I do wonder if ‘ought to be’ is different from ‘expect to be’, and how. We might read the Question as seeking the origins of a personal set of desirable virtues: “How people ought to be” is really asking how one ought to be oneself, since (however much we might deplore it) mostly others aren’t going to be how I think they ought. But the point of the Question is to recognize the models and inspirations of one’s own life, to acknowledge from whom one has learned to be.
I look forward to how you may unpack your own experiences. Here are some of mine:
and Richard Powers’ marvelous book (published in 1985) with the same title, which constructs an epic reading of the photograph. A couple of weeks ago the book was released as an Audible book, and I’ve been listening to it and re-reading my 1987 paperback too. The book has lost nothing of its power in those 33 years since I first read it.
That post followed one a week before, written while I was reading Powers’ Orfeo (2014), which contains this bit of insight:
…people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces… (Orfeo, page 2 or so)
In 2014 I wasn’t seeking rock faces (though that was the first year we visited Brittany, and I did photograph megaliths), but it was about that time that I discovered the 12th Imam on a rock in Martinsville, and that was probably the beginning of my engagement with faces in rocks:
Since then I’ve done thousands of rock portraits, and just today we did an expedition to Marshall Point and I collected these:
Yesterday the day began with this advice from Kate:
Establish what actually matters to you and then do that. And support your local bookstore
What actually matters to me includes thinking things through and constructing summaries of the process, perhaps for an audience of one. The blog is a basically harmless venue for such maunderings, and has the advantage of being distributable to any like-minded others out there. So things like this have a home where they can be found again at need:
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann darüber muß man schweigen
Whereof one cannot speak Thereof one must remain silent
…which has, among other things, to do with Silence, investigation of which has occupied me for the last couple of days. The subject came up via an eloquent post by Andy Ilachinski, which mentions “the infinite variety of silences that permeate existence” and references Notes on Silence and the accompanying film In Pursuit of Silence. I got and inhaled both.
And so I’ve spent the last couple of days bouncing around in various texts. Herewith some of my findings, each worth lingering over:
SILENCE and LICENSE are anagrams; both are forms of Freedom.
People think that their experiences are the reality and in fact, experiences are always interpretation, they’re always a construct. (Ross NS 264)
“Sound imposes a narrative on you and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.” (Maria Popova)
Any musician will tell you that the most important part of playing a piece of music, especially classical music, is the rests, the silences. (NS 276)
Louis Armstrong maintained that the important notes were the ones he didn’t play. (Popova)
“you are confronted with your inner noise, with your inner resistances.” (Sturtewagen NS 161)
“…persistent self-noise of the internal sort… ‘the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue’.” (Shen NS 207)
“I think it’s hard for us in the West to see silence as an end in itself… We think of silence as an absence and something negative…
Silence is like a rest in a piece of music—it’s not blank space, it’s a concrete space that’s filled with something other than words. (Pico Iyer NS 123)
“…as simple as shifting your attention from the things that cause noise in your life to the vast interior spaciousness which is our natural silence… the process of ungrasping, the process of opening your hand, of unclenching the fist…” (Ross IPS)
In a world of movement, stillness has become the great luxury. And in the world of distraction, it’s attention we’re hungering for. And in a world of noise silence calls us like a beautiful piece of music on the far side of the mountains. (Pico Iyer, IPS)
“Silence is a sound, a sound with many qualities… Silence is one of the loudest sounds and the heaviest sounds that you’re ever likely to hear.” (Evelyn Glennie)
“Modern people don’t feel moved or impressed just by living. In order to do so, we need to keep the silence and examine ourselves.” (Roshi Gensho Hozumi IPS)
Give up haste and activity. Close your mouth. Only then will you comprehend the spirit of Tâo. (Lao-tzu)
I also took this opportunity to reacquaint myself with R. Murray Schafer’s The Tuning of the World (“a pioneering exploration into the past history and present state of the most neglected aspect of our environment: the SOUNDSCAPE”), and to put my perceptual apparatus to work on the soundscape of a 4-mile trash picking up expedition. The sound of car and truck tires on the road was the loudest, most frequent, but still intermittent interruptor of silence; dogs barked at my passing in four places. My own footfalls were the regular punctuation of an otherwise almost entirely silent passage.
Schafer’s chapter on Silence provoked a brief dip into acoustical theory via Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), whose On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music is a still-relevant exploration of the psychophysics of sound. von Helmholtz distinguished ‘non-periodic vibrations’ as “noise”, distinct from the ‘periodic vibrations’ that characterize music. Others (among them Claude Shannon) developed the notion of signal-to-noise ratio as a measure of the operational health of an information system. Noise is generally formless, seems to carry very little information, is inclined to the random rather than the patterned, and is that which we try to edit out of soundscapes as we pass through them. Anechoic chambers are sound environments that reduce noise to a minimum. John Cage’s description of his experience in such a space
is perhaps an exaggeration (the high frequency may have been tinnitus), but the reported basic disorienting experience of hearing ONLY the sound within (the “persistent self-noise” cited above) is worth the price of admission.
Evelyn Glennie is another wonderful and inspiring re-discovery in the context of silence:
This 3 CD reissue anthology is the first to track twentieth century American vernacular music of old time country, bluegrass, jazz and blues by tracing their beginnings in 19th century blackface minstrelsy and Tin Pan Alley.
Country Music is a genre driven by songwriting and publishing. This fact alone has given opportunity for songs to be refashioned again and again showcasing stylistic as well as lyrical changes over the past 100 years. The foundation of the American popular songbook traces its beginnings to the Vaudeville, Circus, Minstrel, Music Hall and Theater stages of the mid-late 1800s. The songs spread throughout the country and world creating a new musical tapestry that included both black and white performers of all backgrounds. Their songs and styles are presented in this three CD anthology.
By aligning performances from the earliest cylinder recordings with later 78 rpm, LP and CD versions, PROTOBILLY brings to life 81 historic recordings, more than half never before reissued…
Assembled by collectors and music scholars Henry Sapoznik, Dick Spottswood, David Giovannoni, and Dom Flemmons, this wowed me from the first cuts. I hadn’t realized that those Edison cylinders (and other brands too) had any relevance to the music recorded in the 78 era, or that the material captured in cylinder recordings had itself a considerable pedigree in sheet music and mid-19th century stage performance. Dom Flemmons puts it beautifully:
…songwriters, black and white, performed in the streets, theaters, music halls, medicine shows and circuses of a budding America reimagining the American Dream through song. The songs reflected and exaggerated the social climate of the world at that time. Like the internet memes of the digital era, Tin Pan Alley was not limited to unapologetically featuring songs that included ethnic humor lampooning working class people whether they be Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, African-American or Asian-American for the amusement of a paying audience. But it would be blackface minstrelsy, the songs that lampooned African-American experience, that would reach worldwide fame much to the chagrin of modern culture…
Black songsters pull songs of black buffoonery inside out and create humorous toasts of black ingenuity and excellency. Rural hillbilly singers take Broadway harmonies and give them the “high lonesome sound” of the Southern Mountains…
Here’s an example from Protobilly: The Arkansas Traveler seems to be datable as music and text from the 1850s, and was popularized on the vaudeville stage by Mose Case from the 1850s to 1880. There was a piano roll version by 1900, credited to Case. Here are three versions from Protobilly: Len Spencer (Edison cylinder 1902), Jilson Setters (Victor 78RPM 1928), and Clayton McMitchen & His Georgia Wildcats (Crown 78RPM 1932). And here’s a New Lost City Ramblers rendition:
The cylinder recordings I’ve heard before were so scratchy-noisy as to be almost unlistenable. The examples in the Protobilly compilation have been cleaned up beautifully, and I’m inspired to (re-)explore MAC’s (Michael Cumella) Antique Phonograph Music Program on WFMU, which has 23 years of archived programs (see list of artists played in those 23 years). MAC uses antique disk players, so you get a sense of how the original technology sounded to early 20th century ears.
Earnest and Bogus have been away on a Guitar Heroes and Other Musical Influences field trip, an effort to summarize my own musical history, which remains a subproject “Under Construction” in perpetuity, but has for the moment stabilized enough to feel distributable. I’m plunging back into the larger project of corralling Nacirema musics, but also being diverted into exploration of thousands of downloaded video clips.
(some necessary background, with links and illustrative videos)
“Hm.” I remember thinking. “Need to provide entrée to the collectors who found, preserved, annotated, packaged, released, and loved this music. And to the venues and mass media outlets that brought it to broader publics…” and the more I look into the background, the more stuff I find to explore and include, so more searches get done, more stuff gets ordered and read and heard. Case in point:
Just flew in through the transom: The Harry Smith B-Sides (“the flip side of 78-rpm records that Harry Smith included on the Anthology of American Folk Music”).
The B-Sides are fully as revelatory as the 84 cuts on the original Anthology:
a mirror image of the Anthology… a way to hear the complete statement of each 78RPM disc… as they were originally released in the 1920s and 1930s…
Most people interested by the Smith Anthology will agree that it stands as an esoteric beacon outside the whole dysfunctional culture system. Just like when it was first issued in 1952, you still won’t hear the music of the Smith Anthology on the radio, on TV or on the front pages of the internet…
By releasing his Anthology to the audience of Folkways Records, Harry Smith dropped an extraordinary rural working class culture bomb on a New York City world of artists, bohemians, radicals, and city musicians… (Eli Smith, B-Sides liner notes)
The saga of recording Black musicians in the 1920s was somewhat more haphazard. There was a booking agency for the Black vaudeville circuit, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA, referred to by Ma Rainey as ‘Tough On Black Asses’) that dealt with jazz, comedians, dancers and (mostly female) blues acts (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith). Country blues artists were mostly too small-time and local for TOBA, and were recorded in studios outside the South (e.g., “Paramount Records, based in Port Washington, Wisconsin. The company was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, who also made phonographs…”) but the musicians were recruited by
“field scouts” [used] to seek out new talent, though this is a somewhat grand name for men the likes of HC Speir, who ran stores in the South and simply kept an eye out for local musicians. Through Speir they recorded Tommy Johnson and, most importantly, Charley Patton. It was Patton that took Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson to Paramount’s new studios in Grafton WI in 1930.
Several record companies had catalogs of “Race Records” made for a specifically Black rural public, and it is these disks that were rescued by record collectors in the 1960s.
Thinking about mass media and Nacirema musics, one of the constants for most of the last century has been Grand Ole Opry, which was first broadcast from Nashville in 1925 and came to blanket the rural South with versions of aural and, eventually with TV, visual imagery of regional culture. Separating the authentic and vital from the stereotyped and bogus is challenging, and just how accurate and inclusive the picture was/is/can be argued endlessly. The intrusions of commercial elements are everywhere, and might as well be acknowledged while we hunt for whatever purity they blanket. Resort complexes like Opryland USA and Dollywood and Branson MO and Graceland have drawn crowds seeking ‘authentic’ experiences, and have provided income for entertainers.
The cultural complexity of the Showcase experience is exemplified by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973), who was a lawyer, performer, researcher, field collector, impresario, and tyrant for the cause of what he spoke of as “mountain music.” His Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville NC (first in 1928) was the paradigm for many other folk festivals.
Lunsford himself despised the commercialism and cultural nonsense he saw in Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival, and opposed the stereotyping of mountain folk as backward and ignorant. Still, as a performer he could produce material as bogus as Good Old Mountain Dew
A documentary on Lunsford, This Appalachian Music Man Lived A Beautiful Life, in which Alan Lomax shows up:
and David Hoffman’s Bluegrass Roots 1965 was filmed in a mountain tour conducted by Lunsford:
Wikipedia lists more than 50 American folk song collectors, and American Folklife Center has a page of women collectors, including Frances Densmore (1867-1957), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (1891-1978).
…an intense, competitive, and insular subculture with its own rules and economics—an oddball fraternity of men (and they are almost always men) obsessed with an outmoded technology and the aural rewards it could offer them. Because 78s are remarkably fragile and were sometimes produced in very limited quantities, they’re a finite resource, and the amount of time and effort required to find the coveted ones is astonishing. The maniacal pursuit of rare shellac seemed like an epic treasure hunt, a quest story—an elaburate, multipronged search for a prize that may or may not even exist. (pg. 4)
Among collectors of 78s, Joe Bussard stands out as a National Treasure. A Fretboard Journal profile introduces his rather unique personality:
Joe Bussard has an interesting theory: Musical forms seem to lose their value when the electric bass is introduced. “That goddamn electric bass ruined everything!” he shouts. “I went to Trashville—I mean Nashville—in ’57 to see the Opry, and I asked for my money back, I’ll tell you that right now. They didn’t have shit I wanted to hear. Garbage! When rock come in, I didn’t have any interest in anything that damn dumb! Elvis and all that bullshit! I already knew better than to fall for that, buncha goddam shit for retarded 4-year-old kids!”
but its essence is best appreciated in videos:
Joe has been very open-handed with his collection, making tapes for people and contributing to a vast array of compilations. There’s a video Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music that I’d love to get my hands on. Looks like I had it in 2007 from Netflix, and I’ve requested it again.
Besides his Fonotone Records recording business which ran for a decade or so and lately produced a remarkable compilation
Massive 5CD set of American Primitive music unearthed for the first time (in various styles: Jug Band, Country, Old Time, Blues and Bluegrass), recorded and documented by Joe Bussard’s 78-RPM Fonotone label, 1956-1969 — not one track previously on CD before. Incredible package featuring 131 tracks over 5 discs, 160-page perfect-bound book, 17 full-color postcards, 3 record label reproductions in souvenir folder and a nickel-plated Fonotone Records bottle opener(!) — all packaged in a deluxe cigar box.
Joe Bussard recorded the young John Fahey in 1959-1960.
Some collectors have specialized in “ethnic” 78s (a whole other subset of my musical world), including Dick Spottswood (who grew up near John Fahey) and Ian Nagoski (of Canary Records and Fonotopia) and Karl Signell. See also 78rpm Collector’s Community (“a social network for collectors of 78rpms recordings, phonographs, memorabilia, recording machines and the history of the 78 rpm recording era”)
(continuing semi-coherent explorations of Nacirema music holdings) (and surfacing topics to be expanded anon) (but barely scratching the surface)
Here’s a list I made for myself of issues to explore:
the “real folk” and the Tradition
authenticity and interpretation
versions and versioning
collectors, researchers, profit seekers
the True Vine
the place of folklore scholarship
To begin with the last of those, I reopened a file folder of notes and documents from summer 1991, when I spent a couple of months looking into issues of librarianship and access in the world of academic Folklore studies. I also hunted up some books on Folklore that I’d acquired then (Dundes 1965, Dorson 1972, Brunvand 1978), but found them unappealing and pretty much irrelevant to my Nacirema musics Finding Aid, since academic Folklore seems uninterested in the commercial world that produced the shellac and vinyl and digital documents, and ditto in the earnest efforts of non-“folk” musicians to study and then extend the works of early 20th century progenitors. Far more useful than the academic texts are liner notes from albums and books by non-academic enthusiasts who are free of the carapace of academic disciplines. There’s still plenty of contentious territory—John Fahey’s How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life represents that well.
It’s worthwhile to look into the work of 19th and early 20th century ballad scholars (Francis James Child and George Lyman Kittredge, Harvard professors of Rhetoric and English who sparked interest in texts and comparison), the songcatcher collectors (Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, a few others), and the extra-academic road warriors (the Lomaxes père et fils most notably) who went out to record the “folk” in the 1930s. These were especially effective creators and anaysts of the body of work that the folk revivalists of the 1960s drew upon. Alan Lomax (as a fieldworker) and Moe Asch (as promulgator) laid the foundations; Harry Smith, Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger understood the potential locked away in all those 78s from the 1920s and 1930s. And a ragged band of collectors went out searching for revenant 78s and so eventually provided the feedstock for reissue compilations. In some cases they also found the still-living musicians who had made the records. Folk festivals and college tours acted as fuel for a boom in interest that also spawned coffee houses and record deals for performers.
A few LPs ignited the smouldering tinder. Joan Baez’s first album (1960) was one such for many people, and “Silver Dagger” pinioned (maybe even created) a whole generation of folkies:
The Wikipedia article on the song puts the Baez version into context: one of many variants, not a Child Ballad (though several on the Baez album were), and covering the same territory of love-and-death that runs wide and deep in folk and popular musics. Deja Morgana’s summary is helpful, and even Thomas Merton was bewitched:
“All the love and all the death in me are at the moment wound up in Joan Baez’s ‘Silver Dagger,'” the man wrote to his lady love in 1966. “I can’t get it out of my head, day or night. I am obsessed with it. My whole being is saturated with it. The song is myself—and yourself for me, in a way.”
(it’s worth thinking about other albums that had similar watershed effect)
Fascination with particular instruments is another vein in the deep mine of the folk revival. The distinctive sound of the plucked string (guitar, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin…) and the powerful magnet of virtuosity (how does he/she DO that?) fueled the (largely unexamined) mania for playing that afflicts a small proportion of those who are attracted to this music. This minority is the feedstock of woodshedders and performers and instrument collectors whose obsessions underpin the vast edifice of tunes and drive the evolution of the various genres of popular music. And evolution there is, and has always been. For such folks, periodicals like Fretboard Journal and the now-defunct Mandolin World News (1978-1985) are tailor-made, and bits of lore like Ry Cooder’s instruments and David Lindley’s instruments are eye candy, the Stuff of which Dreams are made.
The life stories of the personalities in these musical worlds are a perennial fascination: how did they first become musicians, who and what influenced their development, with whom have they played, what demons have they wrestled with… A few examples:
Turning a passion for music into a viable career is perilous, and it’s has been true for the last century at least that life “on the road” is the lot of most who try to make a living from music: festivals, concerts in a string of cities, occasional tv and radio appearances, maybe recordings. Many also eke a living from session and sideperson work with recording studios. Austin City Limits, the NPR Tiny Desk miniconcerts, and personal YouTube channels are relatively new venues for performers, designed to reach wide audiences, but most “folk” musicians live pretty much hand-to-mouth. Needed here, and probably the subject of the next post in the series, is consideration of mass media (radio, TV, YouTube…), festivals and concert venues, and the infrastructure of the recording industry (A&R, studios, record labels)—stuff I know is important in the overall story, and missing pieces in the context of the Nacirema musics in my collections. Only a few of these are part of my experience, but they’re things I need to learn about as mise-en-scène for the music I experience by ear.
Meanwhile, a few videos of some of my own musical heroes:
John Hartford (1937-2001) Master of Ceremonies for the inaugural Ryman Auditorium performance of “Down From The Mountain”, an absolute must-see concert film.
(the beginning of a thread that will probably continue)
I was brought up short today by Alex Abramovich’s “Even When It’s a Big Fat Lie” in LRB, a review of Ken Burns’ Country Music, when I realized that I had been blithely ignoring the counterfeit nostalgia and encoded racism that clings to (or is perhaps at the core of) the genre. Music does carry multiple messages, serves various purposes, and is heard and interpreted in multifarious ways by different audiences and at different times. None of that should surprise—it’s just what Culture does, and there are cognate issues of the Dark Underbelly in Blues, in Rock’n’Roll, in the the various worlds of jazz, in “folk music” generally, and in High Culture musics too. There’s plenty of opportunity to descry the Emperor’s Clothes at work, and to call out various -isms on display, if that’s where one’s interests bloom.
…Alan’s public influence reached its peak between 1940 and 1960, when he was the single greatest force in bringing folksongs to American awareness… At times his influence can be seen in the distortions of the funhouse mirror of American culture, where a hard-fought idea can be perverted through the countervailing forces of social and technological interests and the discourse of fashion…
To those who knew Alan’s work only from his songbooks he seemed to be the pied piper of the folk, a kindly guide for a nostalgic return trip to simpler times.But he might have thought of himself as spokesperson for the Other America, the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethnic, those who always come to life in troubled times… those who could evoke deep fears of their resentment and unpredictability. At such times folk songs seemed not so much charming souvenirs as ominous and threatening portents. (pp 390-391; 3)
Robert Cantwell reflects on the experience of my own age cohort, we who were born during World War II:
…I remembered lovely Joan Baez, with her dark eyes and hair, her delicate shoulders, warbling to the plinking accompaniment of her guitar some British ballad in a voice somberly and exquisitely pure; images of Bob Dylan, the real inventor of punk, brazen, wasted, outrageous, excoriating racists and warmongers and capitalists in the drawling, swearing, muttering, doggerel-ridden songs we adored, and in the elliptic, visionary, lyrical ones that remade our world, but most of all felt again the defiant spirit in which we listened to them and the sense of strength and indomitability they gave us. (pg 15)
What wants explanation for me, and I trust to many of my readers, is the seven-year period between the release of the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and Bob Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with an electric guitar and a blues band. These are artificial but not arbitrary points; by general agreement they mark the boundaries between which a longstanding folksong movement, with elaborate political and social affiliations, emerged out of relative obscurity to become an immensely popular commercial fad, only to be swallowed up by a rock-and-roll revolution whose origins, ironically, it shared. (pp 20-21)
[I] declare that folksong, whether high or low, old or new, traditional or original, survived or revived, refects the deepest and most persistent of human dreams, and marks the human face and human habitat with their power. Often it is poetically subtle and precise, melodically and harmonically striking and fresh, elegant formally and structurally sturdy and ingenious, in performance a source of lasting inspiration and intense joy. Within its basic simplicity there is, in execution especially, a complexity that will always defy analysis. (pg 44)
The tunes I still attempt to play, the recordings that moved me, this or that unforgettable performance, have assumed over time nearly the status of persons—like brothers or sisters, perhaps, in whom one inevitably catches the old family resemblance, with whom one can always become reacquainted, in whom time collapses in upon itself, and yet who must finally remain independent, other, unconquerable. We cannot, finally, abandon them—for as surely as we must relinquish our youth, so must we honor and sustain the life force that is the gift of youth. As in any youth movement, what drove the folk revival was sheer erotic magnetism and beauty, idealism and aspiration, personal, social, and political striving, forces that, perhaps more than any other art, music is capable of communicating. (pp 45-46)
And von Schmidt and Rooney capture the feeling in the Cambridge air at the start of the 1960s:
Listening to music and trying to play and sing a few songs started to become more important than whatever was going on in school. For some it became a passion that started to smoulder inside. It was at this point that certain individuals made a difference. Some were teachers, some were organizers, some were sources of energy, instigators, and others were simply talented, musically gifted.
So, where no scene had existed before, one came into being. What had been smouldering before burst into flames. Jan Baez was the most prominent member of a group whose numbers were growing daily, as were their abilities as musicians and performers. More important still was the fact that there was an audience for this music. People wanted to hear it. It filled some need that we all shared in common before we ever knew what it was. Whatever plans we might have had before were to be totally changed. (from the Foreword)
Quintessential for me has been the New Lost City Ramblers: Mike Seeger, John Cohen, Tom Paley (replaced in 1963 by Tracy Schwarz). The Early Years 1958-1962 is a good introduction, and the liner notes are an essential accompaniment. An extract:
The New Lost City Ramblers will leave barely a blip in the history of the entertainment business, as they predicted in their jokes about their “long-playing, short-selling” albums on the Folkways label. But they have nevertheless earned the touch of immortality for their central role in our discovery of the folkloristic riches preserved electronically in the early years of our century. As individual performers, Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen had during the 1950s become interested in performance style in American folk music, exactly that dimension of the music which recordings uniquely capture. In 1958 they formed The New Lost City Ramblers with the explicit intention of performing American folk music as it had sounded before the inroads of radio, movies, and television had begun to homogenize our diverse regional folkways.
They studied and learned from commercial 78 rpm discs of “hillbilly” musicians recorded in what has come to be called the Golden Age (1923–1940), from blues and “race” records of the same era, from the bluegrass recordings of the post-war period, from the field recordings on deposit in the Library of Congress. In turn, they began their own field trips to seek out and record and learn the music of older rural musicians who still played and sang in the old way. Over the next twenty years, the Ramblers poured forth a steady stream of their own performances live and recorded, albums of their field recordings, and festival performances and workshops in which they introduced musicians they had met in the South to urban audiences of the folk song revival of the 1960s. Their lasting influence was greatest upon a relatively small but important part of that urban audience—those few who wanted not only to study the music seriously, but who also wanted to learn to play the music themselves, actually to be the heirs of a musically rich American culture which by the 1960s largely existed only in the scratchy echoes found on primitive recordings, and in the memories of an ever-fewer number of elders.
I awoke thinking about Material and Immaterial Touchstones, and about Touchstones as property, as fungible, as shareable.
Becoming slightly more lucid, after first sips of coffee, I wondered why would it occur to my semi-waking mind to even consider Touchstones as legal entities, as assignable property? Aren’t they imagine-ary? Creations/creatures of the mind?
And by then fully awake, I realized that Touchstones are ways that the mind notes and labels Significance, such that one can make a mental map of things that matter, tantamount to personal wampeters
Reminder from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963): a wampeter is the pivot of a karass, “a central element around which a karass is formed, which can be practically anything: a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea, a book, a melody, the Holy Grail”
And just to remind anyone not with the Program already,
a karass is “a network or group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident”
A quick Google search for ‘karass’ gets 225,000 results, of which the third is my own 2004 explication, which is a subpart of something I wrote 16 years ago to the bloody DAY, and still find a clear and relevant summary, despite a few rotten hyperlinks! YCMTSU, folks.
‘Touchstone’ has come up a few times in our Convivial conversations, in the context of things/ideas [material/immaterial] of great personal significance. The term’s literal meaning refers to assaying and purity-testing of ore samples (“gold and silver was rubbed, or touched against black quartz — the touchstone — to determine the purity of the metals. This was done by looking at the color of the streaks left on the stone.” [Vocabulary.com]), and by extension “a basis for comparison; a reference point against which other things can be evaluated” [WordNet.com]). By still further extension, “A touchstone can be a short passage from recognized masters’ works used in assaying the relative merit of poetry and literature. This sense was coined by Matthew Arnold in his essay “The Study of Poetry”, where he gives Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio as an example of a touchstone.” [Wikipedia]). Thoreau takes it still further, and into territory we’ve traversed:
Dreams are the touchstones of our characters. We are scarcely less afflicted when we remember some unworthiness in our conduct in a dream, than if it had been actual, and the intensity of our grief, which is our atonement, measures inversely the degree by which this is separated from an actual unworthiness. For in dreams we but act a part which must have been learned and rehearsed in our waking hours, and no doubt could discover some waking consent thereto. If this meanness has not its foundation in us, why are we grieved at it? (from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)
The Question du jour arose while reading about books in two Guardian pieces, one by Philip Pullman and the other by Neil Gaiman. (I’ve snagged both texts, just in case they disappear from Guardian accessibility), and here’s what I wrote as a note-to-self:
There are books which seize us, to which we may return again and again to relive the pleasures and insights they provided, and often enough to discover previously unnoticed depths and messages. How many times have I read Tolkien, or Jan De Hartog’s Spiral Road, or Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (still awaiting the unpublished third volume of the trilogy) or Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, or Delderfield, or Eric Ambler, or Manning Coles… and how many authors have I read pretty much everything by and kept in expectation of reading again (Pratchett, Gaiman, William Gibson, etc. …)
And here’s the Question as spawned:
What are your TOUCHSTONE books? [and/or images, films, music… whatever]
by which you’ve been especially influenced
which mark turning points in life/understanding
to which you’ve returned repeatedly
which you would press on others
And more generally, what’s a TOUCHSTONE to and/or for you? (book or otherwise, point being to explore the meaning/significance of ‘Touchstone’ in your life).
Here’s a nice elaboration of the term, placing it directly in Convivium territory:
The word touchstone has several meanings. In times past, a touchstone was a dark stone, such as basalt or jasper that was used to test the quality of gold or silver. From that came the more common meaning, that of a reference point from which to evaluate the quality or excellence of something.
A touchstone can be a personal symbol or emblem that represents your dream and that helps you to stay on track and stay true to your vision. Throughout the centuries, indigenous people on every continent have used ‘medicine bags’ in a similar way. … The term ‘medicine’ in this context refers to anything related to the spirit world, Medicine bags provide guidance, healing and protection for their owners. The bags or pouches can be leather, are often decorated with beads, and contain items such as quartz crystals, feathers, plants, or shells. The items in a medicine bag represent the wearer and are often gathered as part of a vision quest.
Your own touchstone or ‘medicine’ should be something meaningful to you, something that has special significance or resonates with you. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of finding a small item, perhaps a rock, leaf, flower or shell that seemed to be just waiting for you to pick it up and carry it home. Then when you get it there you have no idea what to do with it. Such a finding might become your touchstone.
Speaking for myself, I recognize a pretty broad array of literal and metaphorical Touchstones—the literal ones in actual rocks collected for their personalities and beauty, and the metaphorical ones being some sort of epitome, some sort of representation of an ideal or crystallization of value or memory. This reading might be easiest to convey in photographs that seem to operate as personal Touchstones, as epitomes of what I most value in the medium, to which I’ve returned again and again. Some are completed thoughts, as in Paul Caponigro’s “there’s a horse in that one” (his comment when I told him that the image had changed my life)
while others relate more to the puzzles and uncertainties, as in Imogen Cunningham’s Leaf Pattern
or Minor White’s abstract Moenkopi rocks
These are Touchstones for me because they stick firmly in the mind and embody some insight that I gained when I first saw them, some undertanding of photographic design. But transitivity isn’t necessarily a part of this: one person’s Touchstone is another’s enigma, or ho-hum. A Touchstone is intensely personal, something that comes alive in the mind of a person and might be shared with others, or not.
I also have a wide-and-deep array of musical Touchstones, some going back to my youth and others discovered only yesterday. The earliest seems to be the first Allegro from Bach’s Concerto for 3 harpsichords, strings and continuo (BWV 1064), which I remember hearing while lying under the piano, via a 78RPM record. And then just yesterday I heard Pat Conte’s Half Shaved for the first time, and it immediately joined the Canon.
And needless to say there’s been a long succession of touchstone films, The Big Lebowski prominent among them.