Thursday, February 10, 2011

High Atmosphere

I used to argue with my girlfriend senior year of college, who was Mexican. She would tell about family gatherings where folks would sit around, one or more with a guitar, and play traditional Mexican folk songs that all of them knew, and she pointed out that American lacks culture in this way. I thought she was wrong - America has plenty of universal musical traditions, whether popular tunes everyone knows, or Christmas songs.

It's fair to say that in the years since, I've mostly come around to her point of view.  One experience was in the UK; I was on business in London and had a spare weekend, which I spent in Derry, Northern Ireland.  I was tracing my genealogical history and spending some leisure time.  On my way home from the movies, I heard music emanating from a bar, and I decided to stop in for a drink.  A solo guitarist was playing and singing.  After a few minutes he took a break, and a young woman got up to play and sing.  She had a shaved-head and a lip ring and it was hard to tell if she was going for punk or goth.  She looked like the last person who was going to play traditional tunes, but she did.  I can still remember some of the lyrics.  The amazing thing was how the whole bar reacted with recognition and even sang along to some of the tunes.  I finally understood what my ex was talking about; this feeling of music that is shared by the community is rare in the U.S., aside from Christmas songs and maybe the odd Stephen Foster tune.

This long-winded introduction is to lead to the following conclusion: if you are interested in the community music of America, specifically Appalachian tunes handed down from Scotch-Irish immigrants by way of poor Southerners, white and black (you don't think white folk are funky enough to invent the banjer, d'ya?) alike, you should pick up High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina Collected by John Cohen in November of 1965.  It's an entertaining album, mixing a capella ballads with fiddle and banjo tunes from the rural South.  Some of it is really affecting: Lloyd Chandler's "A Conversation With Death," a dialogue between a damned man and the dispassionate spirit come to collect his life, is unlike anything you hear on the radio today.  The album is sparse and plain by today's standards, but this just reinforces how raw and primordial it is.  It's essential listening for those who wonder where American music came from, and where it went.

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