Sports among the early North American Indians

I’m absolutely uninterested in sports, and am not as interested as I probably should be in early North American Indians, but I sure am glad I glanced at this article on the subject, from of all places the December 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated. The more sports-oriented will want to read the whole thing, but it was the first few paragraphs that caught my attention:

There may never have been and may never again be a culture in which sports so obsessed individuals and communities, produced so many sports nuts, both participants and spectators, as that of the American Indian, a fact that, among others, scandalized early white explorers.

When the Baptist minister David Jones arrived in the Shawnee lands in 1772, he was ill and weak from hunger. He admitted grudgingly that he ate well among the Indians, but he was otherwise generally outraged by the Shawnee culture. Among other signs of their savagery he noted that they had no jails, no proper laws nor government. But what seemed to aggravate the Reverend Jones most was the uncivilized frivolity of these people. "It appears as if some kind of drollery was their chief study," he wrote indignantly. "The cares of this life, which are such an enemy to us, seem not to have yet entered their mind." These merry people were forever singing, dancing and playing games.

Time and again early white observers would make the same essential point: It was the infernal, incessant playfulness of these people that made them so weird. Whites looked at North America as a howling wilderness that had to be quickly and drastically improved if its potential wealth was to be developed. Indians saw it as wealth in place, a providentially created storehouse. Food, shelter and clothing did not, of course, fall on the Indians from the sky. They had to work in their fashion to get what they wanted, but generally they did not have to labor in the imperative, unremitting way the whites did. In consequence they had a lot more disposable time on their hands.

A few more advanced white thinkers (Benjamin Franklin for one) found there were certain admirable aspects to the Indian ways. For example, it was occasionally noted that most Indians lived as only the richest and most powerful whites did, which is to say, in pursuit of their pleasures. However, the mainstream view was that the native Americans were lazy louts whose idleness was an affront to the laws of man and God.

Indians seem to have held equally low opinions about the whites. They found them to be a grim, joyless, heaving and grunting lot with not much more style or gaiety about them than mud turtles. The bottom line was that white societies were organized to produce work and wealth, and Indian ones to provide leisure and freedom—that is, to allow individuals to do whatever they damn well pleased most of the time. [Emphasis added]

At this late date, when drudgery is a prerequisite for—but no guarantee of—survival, it’s hard to imagine that things might not always have been this way. And it’s hard to summon up gratitude for the thinkers and teachers who not only saw leisure and contentment as an affront to God, but persuaded us all that the Bible tells us so.

Tradition and innovation, part 2

Previously, I gave an overview of what pitch correction is and how it has become ubiquitous in modern commercial music. Below I try to put this latest technical innovation into context.

I’ll admit up front that I am not a fan of pitch correction. When it has obviously been used I do not like what I hear, and when something about recorded singing puts me off I will start looking for telltale artifacts that will let me blame it on pitch correction. But that is just personal preference. To conclude anything objective about pitch correction, good or bad or mixed, it’s necessary to spend some time thinking about the nature and purpose of music, of recording, and of sound modification techniques.

I’m guessing that even the most technology-averse music listener is comfortable with what is probably the oldest form of pitch correction, namely frets. And as with most technologies, the use of frets opens up new possibilities while closing off others; in this case, you gain the ability to play notes at precise intervals while giving up all the notes in between those intervals.

The balance of the tradeoff shifts with the importance of playing chords on the instrument. On the guitar they are vital. On the violin they are a hindrance. On the banjo the style of playing becomes more chord-focused when they are present, less when they are not.

Given this background, are frets a form of cheating? To ask the question in that way is to miss the essence of what has happened. The addition of frets changes the ecology of an instrument; the result is not simply the old instrument with frets, but an entirely new instrument.

And we need to ask ourselves: Is there any value to this new instrument? Perhaps it retains nearly all the good qualities of the old instrument while opening up new possibilities; in that case the new should supplant the old. Or perhaps it jettisons too many good qualities of the old to justify what new things it brings to the party, in which case it should be abandoned. Or perhaps the balance lies somewhere in between, and both instruments should continue to exist, choosing one for use in contexts where its particular strengths outshine its weaknesses.

Let’s move a bit further into the future, into the late 1920s. Beginning with the Carter Family and continuing on with duet acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys, country music singing underwent a dramatic shift of emphasis towards close harmonies. Alton Delmore points out that the shift was possible only because of the electric microphone, which was able to pick up the quieter, more delicate singing style and put it on a record or through an amplifier.

What exactly has changed when a roomful of people can comfortably hear harmonies that before only a small group could hear up close? For one thing, to the extent that such singing is intimate, before amplification the emotional intimacy corresponded to actual physical intimacy. With amplification, it is now possible to communicate “intimately” with people who are a hundred feet away. Moreover, the intimacy now only flows in one direction; the listener cannot communicate with the performer because the performer cannot see or hear them. Is the tradeoff worth it? It’s tempting to think that the history of musical performance responds with a resounding “Yes!”, but in fact I don’t think anyone thought much about what they were giving up in order to gain artificial, almost voyeuristic access to this intimate activity.

There are endless questions of this type that can be pondered. What did we give up and what did we gain when we introduced the idea of a recorded performance, frozen in time to be replayed and studied at will? When Bill Monroe took mountain music and, by speeding it up and adding instrumental solos, turned it from dance music to performance music? When it became possible to record instruments and vocals individually, to be cut and pasted and layered in myriad combinations? When someone figured out how to adjust the pitch of a sung note?

It’s much easier to consider these questions in retrospect, looking at exactly how a particular innovation fared as it matured. But I think we can also do some preliminary thinking about new and largely undigested techniques like pitch correction.

When evaluating the promise and danger of a new technique, we need to be careful not to dismiss it because of superficial flaws, because it is quite possible that further work will eliminate them. When electronic reverb was first introduced it sounded gimmicky, not very much like the resonance it was designed to imitate. Worse, it became a fad, and many otherwise good recordings from the 50s and 60s are almost unlistenable because of the huge amounts of echo that were applied.

But the technology got better, eventually engineers figured out how to use it, and now it is an accepted and even desirable way to enhance a recording. We use it on our own CDs, exactly because it tends to smooth out flaws in our performance. A similar progression is likely in store for pitch correction, and so we need to be careful to distinguish problems that plague early versions of the technology from problems that are inherent in the concept.

Let’s take another listen to the Dixie Chicks clip mentioned earlier. I assume because this group is so popular that the budget is there for extensive engineer labor on each song, and so the pitch correction here is as unobtrusive as an engineer can make it at this point. So it is not the telltale artifacts (on the phrases “parents” and “but I”) that I am interested in; those too will disappear with time. Instead, I am thinking about the sharp, buzzy, synthesizer-like quality of the phrase “I could never follow” at the end. It sounds like so much else that is on the radio these days. Whether or not this is an artifact of pitch correction that will eventually go away, it also represents a quality that people are actually aiming for; I think it is the same buzzy precision that makes Dailey & Vincent-style harmonies so popular.

Here’s an example from a group that is more or less on the same rung of the professional ladder as we are. I won’t mention their name for risk of embarrassing them, but it’s nothing they should be embarrassed about, any more than one should be embarrassed by releasing a CD as a short-run CD-R if the budget isn’t there for making a thousand manufactured CDs. It is just an example of what pitch correction is able to give you right if you don’t have the money to pay an engineer to painstakingly fix each note carefully. But given the decision to use pitch correction, I think the results are not bad, but simply the best that the money available could buy.

The only thing that bothers me about this example is that I’ve heard this group perform this song live, with no pitch corrector involved, and they sound perfectly fine to me, much preferable to this recorded version. But there are many things I don’t know that might factor into their decision to use it. Is their audience so accustomed to autotuning that not using it would make a group sound amateurish to them? Was there a problem with getting a good take in the stressful studio environment, making it preferable to autotune an existing take rather than trying again and again (at much expense) to get a better one? Is the singer overly concerned about her vocals, and unable to live with a recorded performance whose flaws are mostly noticeable to her? Do they simply like the sound of an autotuned performance better? Any of those reasons would be legitimate ones for deciding to go with it.

Finally, an example from a group that is several steps above the ladder from us and experiencing a go
od amount of success, even scheduled to give a showcase performance at IBMA this fall. Here is a video of a song that they perform very well; I assume autotuning was not involved, partly because I don’t hear it and partly because they are singing around a single microphone. It sounds good to me. I am sure if I carefully studied a soundboard recording of this performance I would be able to pick out flaws in the vocals, but as I watch the video I don’t notice any. And I am personally grateful for the absence of razor-sharp harmonies, although others might miss them.

Here’s a clip of the same song as it appears on their CD, with obvious pitch correction. Notice the fluttering of the lead singer’s held notes; I think that this is an artifact caused by correcting her vibrato. And after the instruments kick in, her first line (“When troubles seem to overcome”) sounds particularly robotic, especially the word “overcome.”

Now, I vastly prefer the live version to the recorded one, but not because I think that pitch correction is cheating. To my ear, using it was just a bad and unnecessary decision. And there may be some behind-the-scenes factors I don’t know about which justify the decision. But I suspect that what is actually happening is that pitch correction has taken on a life of its own, a trend where expectations both real and imagined are pressuring performers to use it.

Part of the reason that most modern bluegrass music sounds more or less the same is that with respect to airplay it is a very bad thing to sound markedly different from the song before and the song after. Listeners don’t like it, and DJs don’t like it. Pitch correction is now so pervasive that I’m guessing performers feel pressure to use it just so they don’t raise a red flag with those folks.

At this point I am going to move on from pitch correction to some more general matters. But I think it is a fascinating technical innovation that is worth studying, for these reasons:

  • It is new enough that the concept still unsettles people.
  • It brings out the purist in many; somehow it seems like cheating.
  • There are many valid reasons for using it, none of them fraudulent.
  • Our specific objections tend to evaporate when we think them through.
  • And still, in the end, its use strikes us as vaguely problematic.

In the next post, I will describe some of the technical choices that Chris and I have been confronted with as we continue to play and record music, choices that have forced us to think much more deeply about our initial purist reactions to them.

Tradition and innovation, part 1

This is the first in a series of posts, probably four of them, which intends to end with a look at the worship wars. But it begins with an extended look at an aspect of modern recording technology that is simultaneously marvelous and disturbing: the ability to adjust the pitch of a sung note.

I’ve been studying up on an odd social phenomenon lately, namely pitch correction. I’ve known for quite awhile that it existed as a studio technology, but I remember being quite surprised a few years back when I heard Pete Wernick mention that there were now devices that could correct a singer’s pitch in real time, and that they were commonly used in just about all types of pop music performance.

Then last year I was talking with one of Pete’s camp assistants, an accomplished professional musician, about a new bluegrass group, Dailey and Vincent, which was causing quite a stir because of their razor-sharp harmony singing. He told me that he listened to their debut album, all the while thinking that there was something odd about it—and finally he realized that it sounded weird because the producers had gone overboard in applying pitch correction.

But I forgot about both those things until recently, when I stumbled across some articles and internet mentions that described how pervasive the use of pitch correction has become. I began listening more closely to recordings, by famous artists and by local unknowns, and after I learned to detect the sound of it, pitch correction really does seem to be omnipresent. And now I’ve started to wonder what it means, at least culturally.

As I’ve looked around, I’ve discovered that there hasn’t been much written on the subject, and only a bit of what has been written discusses the cultural implications. Mostly the subject has arisen because of a small fad in hip-hop music that uses pitch correction software with extreme settings to give vocals a robotic, synthesizer-like quality. It began with a single recorded by Cher in the late 90s, and has been carried on by various singers. You can read a short version of the story in this Sasha Frere-Jones New Yorker piece; I also recommend this short audio interview with Jones which has examples you can listen to, including a section where an engineer applies various amounts of correction to Jones’s singing.

More interesting, though, than its use as a novelty is its use to improve a singer’s performance, both on recordings and live. To see the Antares autotune program in action, look at the first part of this YouTube tutorial which shows how the pitch of individual vocal phrases can be adjusted. Another program, Melodyne, seems to have an interface that is much easier to grasp intuitively.

(And if you want to see something jaw-dropping, take a look at this demonstration video of a new version of Melodyne, which is able to take a recording of multiple simultaneous notes, e.g. a strummed guitar chord, and break it up into its component notes, each of which can be changed independently.)

This post rounds up ten examples of overblown pitch correction, what the writer calls “autotune abuse,” into a single short mp3 file that is worth listening to. Some of the examples are intentionally obvious, but some (as with the opening Dixie Chicks fragment) are not meant to be noticed.

According to the folks that make the recordings, the use of pitch correction to improve a vocal is standard practice these days.

Of the half a dozen engineers and producers interviewed for this story, none could remember a pop recording session in the past few years when Auto-Tune didn’t make a cameo–and none could think of a singer who would want that fact known. "There’s no shame in fixing a note or two," says Jim Anderson, professor of the Clive Davis department of recorded music at New York University and president of the Audio Engineering Society. "But we’ve gone far beyond that."

Some Auto-Tuning is almost unavoidable. Most contemporary music is composed on Pro Tools, a program that lets musicians and engineers record into a computer and map out songs on a visual grid. You can cut at one point on the grid and paste at another, just as in word-processing, but making sure the cuts match up requires the even pitch that Auto-Tune provides.

"It usually ends up just like plastic surgery," says a Grammy-winning recording engineer. "You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it’s very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck." Like plastic surgery, he adds, more people have had it than you think. "Let’s just say I’ve had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you’ll just run their voice through the box."

Why would singers not want it known that pitch correction had been used on their singing? The simple answer, I suppose, is that pitch is an important aspect of singing—perhaps the only aspect that is obvious to a non-singer—and so an inability to sing on pitch can be taken as an inability to sing. Neko Case is pretty hard on singers who resort to pitch correction:

Pitchfork: You seem like somebody who would be especially annoyed by the "American Idol"-ization of modern pop.

Case: You mean the horrible singing?

Pitchfork: Yes.

Case: When I think about Jackie Wilson or the Platters and then I think about modern, Top 40 music that’s really horrible, it makes me mad. Singing isn’t important anymore. I’m not a genius– if I had been around during the time of Jackie Wilson or Rosemary Clooney or Patsy Cline, I would be s—. I would be singing in some bar somewhere for $5 a week and that’s as far as I would ever go. But I’m living now and I write songs, it’s different. There’s some part about the craft of singing– craft is too important of a word, I hate that word but I just used it anyway– in a lot of places, it hasn’t really made it. It’s not to do with the people who are doing it as much as the people who are producing it. There’s technology like auto tune and pitch shifting so you don’t have to know how to sing. That s— sounds like s—! It’s like that taste in diet soda, I can taste it– and it makes me sick.

When I hear auto tune on somebody’s voice, I don’t take them seriously. Or you hear somebody like Alicia Keys, who I know is pretty good, and you’ll hear a little bit of auto tune and you’re like, "You’re too good for that. Why would you let them do that to you? Don’t you know what that means?" It’s not an effect like people try to say, it’s for people like Shania Twain who can’t sing. Yet there they are, all over the radio, spewing saccharine all over you. It’s a horrible sound and it’s like, "Shania, spend an extra hour in the studio and you’ll hit the note and it’ll sound fine. Just work on it, it’s not like making a burger!"

Pitchfork: She’s pretty busy making videos though.

Case: It’s rough, I know. She’s so rich she could get somebody else to do the other stuff while she spends that extra hour in the studio. Or Madonna! Just hit the note! Don’t pretend it’s William Orbit being crafty– we know you’re
not hitting the note because you have other stuff to do. You can do it, I have faith in you. But don’t leave the studio before you hit that note. And you know what? When you do hit it you’re going to feel so much more valid that it’ll come through in all the other stuff you’re supposed to be doing later in the day. Seriously!

And if Celine Dion is supposedly the great singer that she says she is why is there auto tune on every word in her songs? Can’t you just hit it, Celine?  What are you doing that you can’t be singing in the studio? It’s your job!

Pitchfork: Anyway, I take it you’re not a fan of auto tune.

Case: I’m not a perfect note hitter either but I’m not going to cover it up with auto tune. Everybody uses it, too. I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, "How many people don’t use auto tune?" and he said, "You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who’ve never used it in here." Even though I’m not into Nelly Furtado, it kind of made me respect her. It’s cool that she has some integrity.

[Edited for profanity.]

Case claims that pitch correction is primarily a means of covering up lack of singing skill, which stems either from laziness or sheer inability. This is a common criticism leveled at pop singers, particularly country singers, namely that what makes a star is more a matter of packaging and marketing and studio wizardry than it is artistic quality. This 2004 article on the use of pitch correction in country music, from a Nashville newspaper that is largely sympathetic to the country music business, agrees somewhat with that assessment but brings a bit of depth to the usual caricature of the pop music machine:

The late Owen Bradley, the Nashville producer responsible for some of country’s greatest recordings, once was introduced at an industry panel discussion with a flowery speech that listed the great singers he’d worked with, among them Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells,Conway Twitty, Brenda Lee, k.d. lang and Mandy Barnett. To start the questioning, Bradley was asked what it was like to work with a great vocalist like Patsy Cline, who had such perfect intonation. He replied that Cline not only sang flat or sharp on occasion, but that they often worked like hell to get those classic performances out of her; she often fought with him about having to sing lines over until she got them right.

But Cline was a great vocalist, and her pitch wavered less than most singers. Her voice also had an amazing richness, and she brought a preternatural depth of emotion to a lyric.

Still, Pro Tools undoubtedly would have made recording her easier and faster. Would the results have been as good?

At the same panel, Bradley was asked if he ever worked with a singer with perfect pitch. He said yes, and named the singer. Few in the room recognized the name. As Bradley explained, the singer had a great voice, but she just didn’t convey much personality or charisma. She didn’t have what it took to become a star.

Therein lies the debate: What makes a good recording? What makes a good entertainer? What makes someone a star? Is it talent and timing? Money and the right marketing campaign? Some combination of the above?

This begins to bring out the fact that there is a tension that needs to be recognized, between an individual’s artistic skills and the resulting product that is packaged and marketed. Which is the more important factor in judging the quality of a particular recording?

One producer mentions working with a singer who had performed a song at least 10 times in the studio and still wasn’t getting it quite right. "It was a complicated song, and it was hard to sing," he says. When asked to try it again, the artist said, "Man, I’m tired of this damn song. Can’t you just use that machine I’ve heard about and fix it for me?"

Another producer recently worked with an artist who had never used auto-tuning, but the singer had pitch problems. For the session, the producer used pitch correction on the first round of vocals, then played it back for the artist. The singer was delighted. Only the producer thought the performances needed more emotion and planned to bring the singer back into the studio to recut the vocals. But the singer was busy with a full concert schedule. Eventually, he said he was happy with what he’d already cut and thought it unnecessary to redo his parts.

"The record ended up not selling as well as the record company had hoped, and it was because the emotion wasn’t there," the producer says. "That wasn’t the fault of Pro Tools. It was because the singer was too lazy to take the time to work on getting a stronger performance."

And then there is Neko Case’s point, that pitch problems are something that can and must be overcome by working harder. It may not be true that every singer can achieve perfect pitch this way, but study and practice can do much to remedy pitch problems as well as making for a better overall singer—and the easy availability of pitch correction is a tempting excuse for avoiding such work.

There are indisputably talented singers—LeAnn Rimes, for instance—who have trouble making the most of their talents. There have been strong, on-pitch performers with stunning voices like Jason Sellers, Shannon Lawsonand Sonya Isaacs who slipped through the major-label system because they weren’t given the right opportunity or didn’t hook up with the right song or the right producer. The reason one singer soars while another struggles is a conundrum in which vocal ability is only one part of the puzzle.

Patty Loveless, revered by many as one of the best country singers of her time, often has struggled with pitch; on occasion, it’s on record for all to hear. One Nashville producer says he can’t listen to Loveless’ records because of her pitch problems. Another Nashville producer responded by saying that the producer who said that "needs his ass kicked. Nashville needs more singers with as much feeling in their performances as Patty Loveless."

The last third of the article compares Faith Hill, a very successful product of the country music machine, with Shawn Camp, a promising and very talented musician who was considered but passed over by the machine and has had much less success as a result. The easy answer is to say that Hill is just a slickly packaged commercial product, marketed to people who are much less discerning than you and me. But it’s closer to the truth to acknowledge that Faith Hill does a very good job of being a country star, with all that implies, and that many people are willing to shower their money and attention on a good country star.

With Faith Hill, many on Music Row emphasize how hard she’s worked to overcome her initial limitations. She’s devoted an immense amount of energy to working with vocal coaching, to understand her voice and make it work for he
r. Listen to her albums, and it’s apparent how she lowered her register and began using a breathy delivery that covered up her shortcomings. She’s also learned to open up and go for notes that early in her career she never could have reached.

But Hill also is cited whenever people debate whether Music Row is interested in great singers or just beautiful creatures who are willing to submit themselves to a rigorous process that banks more on charisma and sex appeal than on talent. […]

So is it cheating that Hill’s career relies on studio fixes? Is it a sham that she, like so many modern music stars, uses auto-tuning in her live performances? Or is it just a good use of the latest of studio technology to take an ambitious and dedicated young woman with an appeal beyond mere vocal ability and, with the right packaging and investment, help her become an international superstar?

It’s easy to get distracted here and begin railing against commercialism in general, but I think we need to take the commercial nature of music for granted. As soon as listeners are involved you have to take their concerns into account, even more so if they are paying to hear you. An audience that comes to hear you is entitled to go away from a performance happy that they came, and it is the performer’s job to provide that happiness. On the other hand, there are good reasons, both ethical and practical, not to pander to an audience or to give in to laziness.

In between those two boundaries lies a wide range of permissible options, and it takes wisdom to choose well among them. In the next post, I will give a short tour of some of them, focusing especially on choices that have confronted me and Chris in our own brief and modest recording career.

The value of not “getting it”

Sometimes the most valuable observations are made by someone who doesn’t quite “get it.” And by “get it” I mean a willingness to fill in unstated details.

Getting it can be a good thing. The case for agrarianism, for example, cannot be fully made in an article or book or series of books, or even a life’s work. I don’t think that Wendell Berry’s books taken together make an airtight or even a strong case for agrarianism; it’s perfectly legitimate to read them all, understand and agree with his observations, and yet find oneself a fair distance from understanding agrarianism as a coherent whole, much less persuaded of it. In the end, Berry can only point to deep truths and show how he thinks agrarianism explains them; it is up to the reader to fill in the details which Berry can only hint at, having arrived at them more through life experience rather than study, and then decide whether it all leads to agrarianism, or something else that overlaps agrarianism, or something else entirely.

Getting it can also be a bad thing. I’ve been in many situations where I was caught up with enthusiasm for someone else’s vision, and it always happened because I was too willing to assume that the unstated details led to the conclusion being advanced. Too often it turned out to be wishful thinking.  Not only was I wrong in assuming that the details led to the conclusion, I was wrong in thinking that there were any such details at all; the person casting the vision was just as guilty of wishful thinking as I was, having selected their vision more for its marketability than for its soundness. Some of the more notable delusions I subscribed to included approaches to church growth, discipleship, homeschooling, child rearing, corporate worship, authority, courtship, and antithetical Christian living. In all these areas I could have done better by thinking things through thoroughly before embracing an idea; my saving grace was that embracing the idea didn’t keep me from trying to understand it more deeply, and under such scrutiny the unworthy ideas eventually showed themselves to be tattered and threadbare. And fortunately a few of the ideas have continued to withstand such scrutiny and have ended up foundational in my current thinking.

Kelefa Sanneh has just reviewed Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft for the New Yorker, and he does not get what Crawford is saying in the way that I get it. For various reasons I know several things  that Crawford wasn’t able to say or chose not to say in his book, things that go a long way towards completing his case. In some sense Crawford’s book is aimed much more towards me, and the other folks who are likely to get it, than it is towards Sanneh. But because Sanneh is a fair-minded and observant reader, the fact that he doesn’t get it makes his review particularly valuable, because he makes note of several weaknesses in Crawford’s case that an enthusiast would be likely to gloss over for the sake of the greater good.

I call Sanneh fair-minded and observant because, even though Crawford is making a case that is a direct challenge to the kind of urban, knowledge-worker lifestyle that I assume Sanneh lives, he points out the weaknesses without using them to destroy or dismiss Crawford’s position. This is good for those of us who are strongly sympathetic to Crawford, since it forces us to face up to those weaknesses and think them through, to come up with explanations or to acknowledge that there is more thinking to be done.

One difficulty that Sanneh zeroes in on is the fact that whatever our principles, the life we lead must be lived in the midst of a society thoroughly devoted to consumption:

But how do you serve craftsmanship without serving the market? How can an independent artisan insure that he doesn’t become an entrepreneur—and, in time, a corporate executive? This question haunts Crawford’s book, and it helps explain why he takes pains to present himself as merely an aspiring craftsman with “execrable” skills; a professional mechanic who still feels “like an amateur.” These disclaimers are meant to assure readers that, in a society afflicted by hyperspecialization, Crawford isn’t some technical wizard; he’s just a regular guy who happens to be handy with a seal puller. The idea is that we can become him, and that he won’t become someone else—he won’t build a bigger shop, hire more mechanics, expand into Maryland and then Delaware, create a lucrative line of Shockoe Moto leather jackets, and, finally, collaborate with BMW on a gleaming series of R69S replicas. He won’t, in other words, end up like Gene Kahn, the organic-farming pioneer who appears in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” as a vexed figure: Cascadian Farm, which he founded in 1971, has thrived and grown and joined the corporate food chain; Kahn is now the vice-president for sustainable development at General Mills.

I remember having those worries about Gene Kahn’s story when I read Pollan’s book, and although I admire Joel Salatin greatly I don’t think he stands in as much contrast to Kahn as Pollan portrays him. Much of what I’ve heard about making a living selling local food is depressingly entrepreneurial, and in particular depressingly dependent on finding ways to sell food to affluent people. This particular weakness is one I currently have no answer for.

Sanneh probes further with his scalpel, and underneath the puzzle of consumerism he finds another, deeper puzzle, namely connoisseurship:

Proponents of homegrown food and “(very) small business”—which is how Crawford describes his shop—sometimes talk about how artisanalism improves the lives of workers. But the genius of this loosely organized movement is that it’s not a labor movement; it’s a consumer movement. Pollan writes about the Italian Slow Foodists who realized that “even connoisseurship can have a politics,” and he voices his own hope that “an eater in closer touch with his senses will find less pleasure in a box of Chicken McNuggets than in a pastured chicken or a rare breed of pig.” In fact, pleasure isn’t merely the motivating force in Pollan’s books; it’s the goal. His chief criticism of Chicken McNuggets is that they are insufficiently delicious. (Has he tried them with the hot-mustard sauce?) He is both a gourmand and an idealist, which means that he tastes the entire food economy each time he has a meal. When he saw those migrant laborers, maybe he was thinking about their wages—but he was also thinking about his supper.

This is much closer to the bone. I was surprised and pleased to see a problem stated so clearly when I read the passage in The Omnivore’s Dilemma where Pollan asks Salatin whether it’s truly feasible to get his artisanally grown food into the hands of city dwellers, and Salatin responded that perhaps the problem is the existence of cities themselves. But as I continue to think about this I suspect that Salatin (and even Wendell Berry) have not fully faced up to the fact that their own visions, though perhaps not dependent on the existence of cities, are very much dependent on some social trends that cause cities to come into existence.

Salleh is not done with us yet.

Crawford promises more than good taste; his book sets its sights on the blue-collar worker, not on the fussy consumer. And so he writes dutifully about economic trends, changing labor markets, and the uncertain future of America’s information economy. But he can’t feign much enthusiasm for, say, jobs in the health-care sector, no matter how satisfying or useful or plentiful those jobs might be. Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admira
tion for his clients and for what he calls the “kingly sport” of motorcycle riding. In other words, his work is “useful” only insofar as it enables men to ride motorcycles—an activity that might fairly be described as useless. Crawford may have set out to write a book about work, but the book he actually wrote is about consumption. No less than Pollan, he is a connoisseur, exercised more by shoddy workmanship than by shoddy working conditions.

Salleh has put his finger on something important here, but I don’t think he  has correctly divided things up. Not having read the book, I am only guessing that what Crawford is plumping for here is the idea of “a job well done” and the peculiar satisfaction that comes from it. Salleh is mistaken to say that this makes Crawford a connoisseur. A connoisseur is someone who takes detailed pleasure in a job done by someone else, someone who has detached the goodness of the result from the goodness of producing that result. Crawford no doubt is able to appreciate the quality of work done by others, and I suppose his livelihood gives him a special ability to do so. But it isn’t the motivation for what he does, since otherwise he would be better off finding a high paying white collar job that would better fund the acquisition of quality work done by other people.

But there are two things not to be missed here, both involving what Salleh calls connoisseurship. The first is that connoisseurship is a driving force, probably the main one, in the local food movement. Nine-tenths of what you read about local food is focused on the eating of it, and most of that eating is done by people who are involved in the growing at best symbolically. Is it better to eat local food than industrial food? In some ways, certainly. The quality is probably higher, it is probably healthier, it gets you closer to nature, it supports local farmers. But it doesn’t address more fundamental problems in our relationship with food, the most important being our relatively recent decision to leave the growing and processing of it to others while we go off to do more important things. Local foodies have exactly the same relationship to their vendors as do industrial foodies, namely that of consumer to producer. By itself the local food movement gets us no closer to the agrarian ideal of supplying your own needs directly.

The more important problem involving connoisseurship is that it enables someone to make a living as a craftsman in modern-day society. No small-scale producer can compete with the modern industrial machine on the basis of price. Even the higher quality of a craftsman’s product cannot by itself justify the premium he is required to charge. Which restricts the market to people who, for whatever reason, are willing to pay unreasonably high prices for higher quality, i.e. connoisseurs.

There’s nothing especially wrong with catering to rich people (and by “rich” I only mean folks who have enough disposable income that they are able to allocate an unreasonable amount of it to a particular expenditure). But for those of us for whom the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, I worry that funding the project by catering to the local food market may end up being the devil’s bargain.

Francis Fukuyama reviews Shop Class as Soulcraft

This review of Matthew Crawford’s new book is better than most, an enjoyable read for its own sake. Part of what I like about it is that for the most part I don’t know how much is Fukuyama and how much is Crawford. This passage, for example, is plenty worth pondering for the rest of the day:

Under this new ideology, everyone must attend college and prepare for life as a “symbolic analyst” or “knowledge worker,” ready to add value through mental rather than physical labor.

There are two things wrong with this notion, according to Crawford. The first is that it radically undervalues blue-collar work that involves the manipulation of things rather than ideas. Expertise with things permits human beings to have agency over their lives — that is, their ability to exert some control over the myriad faucets, outlets and engines that they depend on from day to day. Instead of being able to top up your engine oil when it is low, you wait until an “idiot light” goes on on the dashboard, and you turn your car over to a bureaucratized dealership that hooks it up to a computer and returns it to you without your having the faintest idea of what might have been wrong.

The second problem with this vision is that the postindustrial world is not in fact populated — as gurus like Richard Florida, who has popularized the idea of the “creative class,” would have it — by “bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe.” The truth about most white-collar office work, Crawford argues, is captured better by “Dilbert” and “The Office”: dull routine more alienating than the machine production denounced by Marx. Unlike the electrician who knows his work is good when you flip a switch and the lights go on, the average knowledge worker is caught in a morass of evaluations, budget projections and planning meetings. None of this bears the worker’s personal stamp; none of it can be definitively evaluated; and the kind of mastery or excellence available to the forklift driver or mechanic are elusive. Rather than achieving self-mastery by confronting a “hard discipline” like gardening or structural engineering or learning Russian, people are offered the fake autonomy of consumer choice, expressing their inner selves by sitting in front of a Harley- Davidson catalog and deciding how to trick out their bikes.

The last point there, about using the fake autonomy of consumer choice to delude ourselves about our total lack of true autonomy, is one I could spend the rest of my life studying. We knew as early as the 1930s that so-called white collar work was mind-numbing and robotic, only valuable in large aggregates. Films often portrayed middle-level white collar workplaces as seas of desks, each with an identically dressed person sitting at an adding machine or a telephone or a typewriter, doing a limited, repetitive, undemanding task all day long.

The work didn’t change. So how did modern industrial society manage to persuade us that we aren’t the drones we appear to be, but instead “bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe?” This is the part that fascinates me, and that I think has been left mostly unstudied. I don’t think it can be denied that the process was deliberately engineered, by the forces of society if not by specific individuals. One small example that struck me when it came around was the “Wild at Heart” fad. A friend was caught up in it enough that I spent a little time poking around the fringes; what I concluded was that it was not so  much a movement to introduce freedom and competence back into a man’s life as it was a program for choking back one’s natural responses to a drone-like existence through controlled doses of thrilling, challenging, but ultimately meaningless activity—on the weekends, of course.

I’ve written before that we’ve somehow managed to turn incompetence in most aspects of life into a badge of honor, taking pride in the fact that we can afford to pay others to do even the simplest things for us. But it only works if you can muster up a healthy amount of contempt for the work you’re paying for.

Highly educated people with high- status jobs — investment bankers, professors, lawyers — often believe that they could do anything their less-educated brethren can, if only they put their minds to it, because cognitive ability is the only ability that counts. The truth is that some would not have the physical and cognitive ability to do skilled blue-collar work, and that others could do it only if they invested 20 years of their life in learning a trade.

The last paragraph of the review is poignant, as well as mildly puzzling.

In the end I must confess that it would have been hard for me not to like this book. While I make my living as a “symbolic knowledge worker,” I have both ridden motorcycles and made furniture — my family’s kitchen table, the beds my children slept on while growing up, as well as reproductions of Federal-style antiques whose originals I could never afford to buy. Few things I’ve created have given me nearly as much pleasure as those tangible objects that were hard to fabricate and useful to other people. I put my power tools away a few years ago, and find now that I can’t even give them away, because people are too preoccupied with updating their iPhones. Shop class, it appears, is already a distant historical memory.

My first reaction was: I’ll be glad to take those tools off your hands! Followed closely by: Why did you put them up?

Music of Coal in Chattanooga

It was a very good weekend for us musically. On Saturday Chris and I represented the Music of Coal band at the Coke Ovens Bluegrass Festival in Dunlap, about thirty miles from Chattanooga. It was arranged at the last minute, and only the two of us could make it, but the crowd liked us and so did the festival organizers. There’s a good chance they’ll ask us back next year.

And on Sunday we played twice in Chattanooga, once at the Tennessee Aquarium on behalf of the library, and later at the Riverbend Festival, a ten-day extravaganza that the city has staged for the past thirty years.

The pictures below are from Riverbend. Despite our expressions, we weren’t bored at all. But obviously we’re still learning how to carry ourselves on stage so that we don’t look bored.

Chris-Saenz-Riverbend  Fest 091

 -Rick Saenz-Riverbend Festival

Music of Coal Riverbend Fest 09