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August 10, 2007

Forces of Nature

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Albert King was born under a bad sign. Aretha wants you to think it over some. Son House never loved but four women in his life. Koko Taylor's gonna keep doin' it all night long. Ray Charles just wants to know. Booker T gives the go-go girls a reason to shimmy. Guitar Shorty takes it to the Santa Monica sidewalks.

Suck on that, European concert-hall tradition. Who says America is short on worship-worthy art-giants?



posted by Michael at August 10, 2007


Michael, in a lovely coincidence, just last night I was introducing my five-year-old daughter to the wonder that is Aretha with that very clip . . . .

Posted by: mr tall on August 10, 2007 9:18 PM

You know I love it when you go all populist, Michael. It only remains for you now to do a posting on the glory that was Richard Rodgers.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 11, 2007 4:00 AM

Uh, Michael, why does your extolling of some popular genres (R&B, mysteries) have to be accompanied by bashing of "high art" (classical music, literary novels)?

Posted by: jult52 on August 11, 2007 9:25 AM

Mr. Tall-- Lucky girl, you're raising her well!

Robert -- Are you a fan? I'm one too, though of a cliche sort - love the Rodgers/Hart years, don't care for the later stuff. Am I wrong, do you think?

JT -- Well, "Suck on this" wasn't exactly meant to be taken as a considered (let alone defensible) critical position ...

But, what the heck, to indulge in a little earnestness for a sec: I love the Euro high-art traditions. What I don't like (and what I think screws up a lot of American arts discussions and arts education) is seeing American art through a Euro-derived, high-art fixated lens. Sometimes it's helpful, but much of the time it blinds people to the riches we have, or makes them much too modest about them.

A lot of our best art (it seems to me) is folk, popular, self-created, eccentric, hard-to-categorize. Much of it wasn't even intended to be taken as art. Meanwhile, our high-art style work, while sometimes amazing, is often either thin on the ground (hard to make a living at it here) or embattled, stressed, self-conscious, and self-righteous in a way that can weaken its quality.

As a result we have a culture that's very different from a Euro-ish one in many important ways -- it's scrappy, decentered, unofficial, making-itself-up-as-it-goes-along, and often coming at ya out of seemingly nowhere ...

So why do many critics, profs, and even civilians insist on applying inappropriate standards to what we have? (I think I have a hunch why, btw ... ) Like I say, this kind of atitude can blind us to much of what we have and makes us too modest about how rich our culture is. It can also kill pleasure, and by god I love pleasure.

High-art-obsessed types tend to see things awfully hierarchically. One work is automatically more valuable than another simply because of the kind of work it is. A literary novel is automatically more valuable than a collection Dave Barry columns, for instance. Or a gallery-style sculpture or piece of installation art is automatically more worthy of "serious" consideration than a hot rod.

If you take the p-o-v of the Euro-high-art people, the results are pretty dreary and predictable: American culture always looks like it's forever striving to attain a Euro-like dignity and failing to do so. It's never (or seldom) a glorious thing, and most of the time a tragic, almost-there failure. (I don't mind making the analogy to the way certain lefties want the US to become like France or Sweden. I love France, I imagine I'd love Sweden. But I think that much of what works there is completely inappropriate for us.)

Applying the Euro p-o-v to the US is OK, of course -- I wouldn't propose passing laws against it. But at the same time I think it can do a terrible injustice to what we have, as well as to other people, who might well find themselves enjoying life more if they set those kinds of values aside and applied those freedup energies to exploring (and enjoying) what we do have. To be completely honest, my gut-level hunch is that if we are to grow an even-more-rich culture -- and who doesn't root for that? -- it isn't going to come as the result of bashing what we have but of acknowledging it, enjoying it, investigating it, and respectfully contributing to it.

In my view, America is one of the zaniest, topsy-turviest, and most dynamic art scenes ever. What we have may not be a "civilization" in the traditional sense, but it's a heck of a culture. (Even if often an infuriating one.) Hence I like to bash -- or at least tweak -- evidence of people applying hierarchical, Old World-style thinking to American art whenever I run across it.

I could be demented, but I see myself as standing up for both American art, and for, y'know, the little guy who tends to be either too deferential towards the eggheads, or too reflexively dismissive of them. (The striving towards traditional Euro-style art has itself always been one part of our gumbo-like scene, after all. And it's had its glories to contribute too. Gotta take that into account!)

Incidentally, living in NYC (a branch of Europe in many ways) and hanging around Northeastern media-arty types and intellectuals, I may well give these topics more thought than they deserve. How would I know? Hmmm: I wonder what would be going through my mind instead if I were living in Iowa ...

Now back to the usual horsing-around ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 11, 2007 11:29 AM

Hey Michael. Take your comment and recycle it as a post -- more readers ought to read it!

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 11, 2007 3:04 PM


Re Richard Rodgers. Your preference for the earlier works and the Hart collaboration shows great discrimination. Alas, I like the later stuff and the Hammerstein collaboration even more. It gets worse: I'm the only person I know who liked Peggy Lee's crooning of 'Bali Hai' in 'American Beauty' while finding the movie itself to be nasty, pretentious crud. My only slight claim to some discrimination is my lifelong love of the 'Victory at Sea' soundtrack. It's not Glenn Gould humming his Bach...but it's sort of serious, isn't it?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 12, 2007 7:44 AM

Well, I've got to write about this one, don't I?

Ray Charles is an absolute giant of the arts by any standard, anywhere in the world. The rest of the musicians you've linked to are nowhere near Charles' status, but they are certainly worthy.

The blues, country, rock and jazz culture of America is astonishing in its depth and worldwide recognition. It is a proud and beautiful middle class tradition. I think that this is what is so great about American roots music, this expression of respect and love for the lives of middle class people.

If I were to name artists who approach Charles in status, I might have suggested Willie Nelson, George Jones, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, to name some of the greatest.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 12, 2007 12:19 PM

When my son was about 16, he and a friend tried to get in to a Koko Taylor / Albert Collins show. Security caught them and kicked them out. Koko Taylor saw them sitting on the curb and asked what the problem was. they told her and she gave them 2 backstage passes. God bless her.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 13, 2007 8:47 PM

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