Memories and Modern Songs

1893 Wasburn Mandolin - n/a
My grandfather’s and now my mandolin.

A longtime friend who moved from Colorado to Florida recently posed a question about the current state of the music industry. Good friends can inspire thoughts, and following are some of mine.

He included a quote by Joni Mitchell:

“I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist — not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music. That’s why I spend my time now painting.”

Modern popular songs seem to fall far short of the meaningful ballads I remember from my youth. There was crap back then too, but there were a lot more thoughtful offerings that distinguished themselves from the din of Tin-Pan Alley. I can’t listen to radio stations today; it hurts my ears and gives me all manner of frustration. When I listen to piped music at restaurants today, it is so painful to hear the thump-thump booty bounce celebrations that pass for music today. Synthesized drums, repetitive baselines with notes so low they aren’t heard as much as felt, and mindless lyrics oblivious to the concept of elevating consciousness.

Am I just another old guy pining for the old days? Maybe. The music of my parents was big band swing. There were rarely exceptional lyrics, but the bands and musical presentations were amazing. Rock-and-Roll was born from blues origins during the first decade of my life. There was a strong knee-jerk negative reaction from the ‘establishment’ generation that lasted for a while. There were episodes of witch hunts and record burnings, but the fear mongers were as worried about the messages of the new music as they were to the musical directions they travelled. The songs I remember from this period (1950s) celebrated the pursuit of fun, and that theme continues to enter the airwaves even today. There were love songs (remember Buddy Holly, or those Felice and Boudleaux Bryant songs delivered by the Everly Brothers?). There were party songs (Tequila, Louie Louie). There were coming of age songs (most of Chuck Berry’s catalogue).

During my second decade on the planet the revolution continued, as did the fear mongering. The critics during this time mostly gave up complaining about the musical content, but the ideas being expressed scared the crap out of them. This was the era of the “singer-songwriter”. These were the days of The Beatles, of Dylan, Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, and a host of others who prompted us to examine the world around us.

I’m not forgetting there was also the bubblegum contingent of contributors. Songs like “Hanky Panky”, “Wild Thing”, and “Hang On Sloopy” come to mind. Even these offerings gave us a fresh musical idiom to listen to. I find nothing fresh in most of the music I hear today.

My third decade of life brought disco and electronic music, which was a departure from the ‘message songs’ that filtered through much of the 1960s. But there were also the Eagles and other Country-Rock artists, there was The Band, there was Southern Rock, and CSNY. Some of those sixties visionary artists even survived into this decade.

In the decades that followed, the thinking person’s songs seem to dwindle even more. Commercial noises dominated higher and higher percentages of the airtime until somewhere in the late eighties I just stopped listening. It seemed to me, the goal of most of the noise was to suppress thoughts and feelings in the audience. I remember long hours of drive-time during this period, when I was working jobs throughout Southern California and the Southwest. By shutting off the noise I was able to channel my thoughts to problem solving, or just let the universe into my head. There’s no room for ideas to germinate if one allows a constant barrage of crap to overload the senses.

Recently some of that piped in restaurant music provided me with several nice surprises, with songs like: “Even Though We Breakup In The End”, “Thought About You”, “Five More Minutes”. More than any other song, Tim McGraw’s offering “Thought About You” captured my attention. For my tastes it’s a little over-produced, and I’d like to hear an all acoustic delivery. Even so, the lyrical imagery and emotional impact is as good or better than anything I’ve heard in a long time. But even with these little bright specs glistening in the bottom of the gold pan, I’m not convinced to keep shovelling sand from the river and sifting through the crap-soup. I’ll enjoy these gems when they cross my path, but I’m not willing to fill my plate with indigestible sawdust hoping for a nourishing morsel once in a blue moon.