Describing a kind of music

Up until now Chris and I have largely let musical work come in search of us, but now I’m thinking that it’s time to decide whether we’ll ever go in search of work ourselves, and facing up to that question has raised lots of questions for us about what we do and why, and whether there’s any methodical way of communicating that to someone else so that they can decide whether or not they’d like to hear us perform.

Recently I came across a free ebook full of advice for musicians trying to get somewhere in the music business, by a fellow named Derek Sivers. I’ve known about Sivers for many years, he being the founder of CD Baby (which he sold a few years ago), but I didn’t know about his book until now. There is some shockingly good advice in it. The one that hit me between the eyes was this:

When describing your music, PLEASE don’t be a musician. Don’t say, “Wonderful harmonies and intricate arrangements. A tight rhythm section and introspective lyrics!”

Real people don’t even understand what that means. That’s musician speak.

Wow. So blindingly obvious. And yet that sort of language afflicts just about every musical bio out there (including our own). In fact, since then I’ve spent a week looking at many, many musicians’ descriptions of their music, and they uniformly focus on technical aspects of musical excellence. None of them speak to a normal person.

Chris and I know from experience that our music has a direct, visceral appeal to listeners. Many times people have told us something to the effect of, “I don’t like bluegrass/old-time/gospel, but I really liked that!” Most of our songs are grabbers, using a pulse or a bluesy chord progression or a mysterious melody or a spine-chilling harmony or a deceptively sketchy storyline or stunning images. It strikes me as very, very different from what you tend to expect from an acoustic duo. (What I expect from an acoustic duo: breathiness, delicacy, lack of drive, three times as many words as we use, almost exclusively love songs.)

So, is there some sensibility underpinning our music that makes it cohere, and if so can it be summed up and communicated to normal people in normal language—or, at least, the kind of people who might be interested in coming out to hear an acoustic duo perform? That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with this week, and though I don’t yet have an answer I’ve been exploring some avenues that seem promising.

We like a song for its ability to slip past your rational defenses, sneaking past your brain and lodging itself in your heart—or gut, perhaps. If you look at the words of the songs we sing, they barely even tell a story—but the sketchier the story, the more suggestive. I don’t know exactly where this power derives from, but I think it was what T.S. Eliot was getting at when he wrote this:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice piece of meat for the house-dog.

And I think it has something to do with this well-known observation by C.S. Lewis:

For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.

Clyde Kilby, who wrote a book about C.S. Lewis’s thinking in this area, stated it slightly differently: “The brain is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of reality.” Given that, I think our songs speak not to the intellect but to the imagination, and as a result they do not so much tell a story as evoke the real world directly—not the ghost world that we have analyzed into being, but the world as it really is.

Because of this, these songs are chock-full of mysterious, unaccountable elements. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” These songs bombard you with images and sensations you aren’t at all sure what to do with—but which delight you anyway, maybe especially because your philosophy doesn’t know how to handle them.

A book I’ve found helpful in understanding this is Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic, which is nominally about Bob Dylan’s basement tape recordings but really about the uncanny and otherworldly qualities of traditional music. I disagree with Marcus on one fundamental point—he thinks that the world evoked by traditional music is imaginary and idealized, an America that never was, while I think it tells us things about the world as it really is rather than the way we wish it was and act like it is. But we agree that the music evokes another world, and he has some helpful words on that subject. Here are the excerpts I noted which point to that:

"There’s something in the gospel blues," she [Sister Rosetta Tharpe] would say years later, "that’s so deep the world can’t stand it." (p 4)

As Bob Dylan sang—like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, or any of hundreds of other folk singers, but more powerfully, and more nakedly—or as he was heard, he embodied a yearning for peace and home in the purity, the essential goodness, of each listener’s heart. It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South, a strange and foreign place to most who were now listening—music that seemed the product of no ego but of the inherent genius of a people—the people—people one could embrace and, perhaps, become. It was the sound of another country—a country that, once glimpsed from afar, could be felt within oneself. That was the folk revival. (p 21)

… allusions to barely described characters and unspoken motives drifting into dark hollows and disappearing into the woods’ surround. (p 22)

"[Traditional music is] a confrontation with another culture, or another view of the world, that might include arcane, or unknown, or unfamiliar views of the world, hidden within these words, melodies, and harmonies—it was like field recordings from the Amazon, or Africa, but it’s here, in the United States." (p 95)

He [Harry Smith] might have heard what people have always heard in strange music: the call of another life. (p 101)

Now, all that is high-flown verbiage that is probably even less helpful that the musician-speak that Sivers was warning about. But it is helping me to develop a clearer, more focused understanding of something which up until now I only suspected, and vaguely. And I think that once I have a better handle on it, the pithy descriptive phrases will come. Something like “We sing songs that slip past your defenses and grab you by the throat,” or “We sing songs about tell about things the world is working hard to forget,” or some other short description that conveys a truth unusual enough to grab one’s attention and sketchy enough to leave the listener wanting to know more.

Oh, and if you’ve listened to our music and can think of a way to convey what you like about it to some other non-musician, I’d love to hear it.

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