These days I’ve been enjoying Samuel Charters’ groundbreaking 1959 study The Country Blues (reissued by Da Capo Press in 1975 with a new introduction by Charters); at the same time the companion LP of the same name, released by Folkways Records, has been getting some play around the house as I make my own efforts towards cultural appropriation by learning country blues guitar. The first cut on the LP is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” released by Paramount Records in 1927. The single is important for American popular music in a variety of ways. According to the Wikipedia page for Jefferson, it’s been selected as “one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Carl Perkins, the Beatles, and Jerry Lee Lewis also covered it.
A native of Wortham, Texas, the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson worked as a street singer and visited several states in the course of his travels. His successful recording debut in 1926 launched the vogue for country blues. Before his mysterious death in 1929, Jefferson recorded 85 sides and established himself as the most popular blues guitarist of his era. An off-beat guitarist known for his free phrasing patterns, he was one of the most inspired singers found in blues.
I was warmly reminded of an early enthusiasm of mine when I came across news about the concluding programs of Pinter at the Pinter, a year-long festival of the short plays of Harold Pinter (1930-2008) currently winding down in London. Staged in part as a celebration of the playwright on the tenth anniversary of his death, the festival produced all twenty of Pinter’s shorter plays (they’ll soon be published in a Faber & Faber anthology of their own here in the U.S.), including the recently discovered sketch “The Pres and an Officer,” published in The Guardian in 2017 and … well, let’s just say Pinter remains prescient even a decade after his passing.
The political dimensions of Pinter’s work have always been obvious, ever since his first plays of the late 1950s and 1960s limned the dimensions of tyrannical, gendered power wielded and suffered by his characters. But perhaps what differentiates his work from that on offer today (for those dimensions are at the center of much contemporary work too) is that Pinter seemed to have little faith in any illusions about the milk of human kindness, which is somewhat curdled even in the best of us. Like his mentor Samuel Beckett, he was interested in staging the reality of human experience, including political and cultural experience, rather than offering easy ways out through liberalism or progressivism. Pinter and Beckett knew what was wrong with the world. What they couldn’t offer was an easy way out, not least because what was wrong with the world was the people in it.
I haven’t been writing much about the performing arts recently, though I did so many years ago. But that may change. Yesterday one of my daughters was accepted into a rather prestigious acting workshop, and tonight I’ll be taking in a show about a distinguished orphan son of a whore that I’ve been hearing a little about. I don’t know if running lines with Billie or tapping my foot to Broadway-style hip hop will lead to rueful nostalgia or something else, but who can tell? I’ll be lifting a glass to Thespis (and to Alex Hamilton, born this day in 1755 or 1757 — nobody’s sure which) at Cafe Katja this afternoon prior to my subway ride uptown; perhaps I’ll see you there.
Among the books I’ve been reading in this new year, I can wholeheartedly recommend Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America by the Wall Street Journal‘s Heidi Waleson (Macmillan 2018). Whether you’re an opera enthusiast or not, Waleson’s history of the company, which has risen from the ashes more than once, is a revealing look at the artistic and business life of a significant New York City cultural institution. NYCO was founded in 1944 as a “People’s Opera,” offering a low-cost alternative to the more stately and generously funded Metropolitan Opera, but both the company’s mission and its management found it difficult — and ultimately impossible — to negotiate the tidal changes in arts presentation over the 60 years that followed. Waleson’s book chronicles the backstage and boardroom tensions and challenges shared by many of America’s non-profit arts organizations over the same period. Since this is opera, many of the personalities involved are, as they say, “larger than life” (though life got to most of them in the end), and as a result the book is a fascinating page-turner about both NYCO’s management and artistic personnel and its deeper financial crises. Waleson, the Wall Street Journal‘s opera critic and a faculty member at the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, writes with grace and authority. And it may just make you pay a little more attention to opera criticism in your daily newspaper, if not plan to visit a local opera house yourself.
By the time the NYCO was founded, entertainment options in urban areas and elsewhere were already beginning to multiply exponentially. Only 20 years earlier, radio became a fixture in homes around the country, and by 1929 the silent film was dead. In the next few decades, television and then LPs (along with stereo FM radio) made it possible for the culturally ambitious to avoid visiting performance spaces at all. And in our own day, cable television and the Internet provide hundreds more entertainment options at every hour of every day at a fraction of the price of a ticket to the opera, let alone the movies. If the NYCO was founded in response to the perception that the Met had become a haven for the elite, it would soon find itself in competition with these other cultural options as well. Instead of the institution (the Met), the art form itself (opera) increasingly came to seem an elitist project.
My own bailiwick, at least until a few years ago, was drama and live theater — significantly less expensive to produce than opera, but labor- and finance-intensive just the same. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thought to conclude that institutions that produce live theater became just as much the victim of these cultural changes as well. Waleson notes that the money needed to provide living wages to artists and musicians, as well as the technicians and management personnel required to run these institutions, increased as audience numbers, and subsequently earned income, decreased.
None of the strategies that the NYCO and other institutions explored over the past 60 years proved to be a magic bullet. The subscription model that served to finance the institutions fell apart in the 1970s, in part the victim of just these same dynamics. Opera- and theater-goers were no longer inclined to purchase tickets to five or six productions that ranged through an entire year. Instead, because they had more options, they could pick and choose the individual productions they wished to see. Good for the audience, but not so good for the institutions, which relied on stronger-performing shows to finance those that performed less well, spreading financial risk through a season. Subscription income provided that insurance.
In circling the wagons, cultural institutions tried a variety of approaches to increase earned income: relying upon star power instead of a repertory company (Beverly Sills’ emergence as a major operatic talent at the NYCO, for example, drew audiences who wanted to see her, not necessarily the opera she appeared in); the inclusion of more popular music-theater forms into what had seemed like a stodgy, Eurocentric canon; running shows in stagione instead of repertory, which lowered production and labor costs; commissioning new work in an attempt to integrate more contemporary composers and artists into the traditional repertory; and so on and so on. All noble ventures, to be sure. Unfortunately, this also led to a continuing fragmentation of the audience base, which may be interested in some of these new efforts (new operas, new directions in staging) but not others (older operas presented more traditionally). In addition, an emphasis on novelty undermined the role of these institutions in presenting the history of the form. What one aesthetic hand giveth, another taketh away.
It is increasingly clear that the large urban institutions that produce opera and theater need to find a way to balance all of these possibilities — standard rep in both traditional and experimental stagings, new work both traditional and innovative in form — and to find ways to migrate audience members from one to the other and back again. I would suggest that these institutions look more closely at one of the roles they’ve neglected: that of educating its audiences about the art forms they present. In order to do so, they must present work that, as primary text, explores the appeal of both traditional and new performance practice and forms.
Waleson concludes her book, as well she should, with an optimism that the operatic form itself is still alive, well and evolving, and that the form will continue to endure. The same, surely, can be said about theater. Live performance continues to appeal because it serves a basic human, communal need. But the ability of cultural institutions to meet this need is still a symptom of the health of a culture. The reluctance of NYCO’s Board and management to take a long, hard look at that ability — and what the art form itself could contribute to cultural life — led to its failure. The fat lady may not be in the wings yet, but, since entertainment options continue to fragment the potential younger audience, she may be warming up.
When American roots music is celebrated, it’s usually done so with the Ken-Burns-like solemnity of PBS specials like American Epic — eminently worthwhile, but also studded with the kinds of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Jack White) who can tart up the joint enough to guarantee a least-embarrassing rating. All well and good, and if PBS can do its bit to put this kind of music in the public eye, then sure, you can have my five bucks a month to keep the squirrel running in his wheel. But really, this history-minded survey class favors the past rather than the present, and if you want to hear this music and see it performed today — live, as it was meant to be heard and performed — then you have to look elsewhere. And the next best thing to hearing it live is to listen to contemporary musicians who still feel it important to keep it out there, as entertainment of the highest quality rather than a trip down memory lane. Not that it’s going to make anybody rich, as this band recognized 30 or 40 years ago.
So it was with extraordinary pleasure that I sat down last night with Coney Island Baby, the new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, a local outfit based in the deep East Village, which has been performing “a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century” for more than a decade. To call the 17 songs on the album “roots music” — in the sense that PBS will tell you that true roots music is exemplified by groups like the Carter Family — is somewhat misleading. Eden Brower, John Heneghan, Robert Crumb, and Ernesto Gomez, the core group of the ERSB, have gathered together here a wide-ranging repertoire, from traditional blues and rags to more recent (relatively speaking) standards like “Nobody’s Business if I Do” and “He’s Funny That Way.”
This is not particularly concert music like formal ragtime, nor, when it was first written and performed, was it meant to be. Back in the day, before the Victrola, the only way to hear music was to either hear it live or play it yourself: pick-up bands who took possession of a gazebo or bandstand in a small American town for a parade or barbeque, roadhouses and juke joints in more remote regions of the south, an occasional visit from a touring minstrel show, or a few hours just sitting around with a few friends on somebody’s porch. (It’s something that Charles Ives knew well.) Coney Island Baby, at its best, puts you in the room with Brower, Heneghan, Crumb, Gomez, and the rest for spirited, relaxed musical good times.
Brower fronts the band with a solid, whiskey-dampened (if not whiskey-soaked) voice, a bright, mature sensual full-bodied woman’s tone instead of the girlish puerility of most contemporary female singers (as the father of two girls about ten years old, I’ve heard enough of these to last a lifetime). She’s bawdy and even a little beyond on “Moonshine,” “Skinny Leg Blues” and the delightfully dirty “Adam and Eve,” though capable too of some sensitive nuance on songs like “Nobody’s Business,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and maybe my favorite song on the album, “Arlena.” She’s backed by Heneghan on a strong, energetic guitar that offers a few of the rougher-in-the-best-sense moments (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, “Desert Blues”) and Crumb’s vibrant and subtle ukelele, mandolin, and banjo, while Gomez contributes a terrific harmonica, especially on “Moonshine.” The “Sometimes They Show Up If They Feel Like It Players” — Pat Conte on fiddle, Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle, Geoff Wiley on bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on guitar — fill out the one or two instrumentals on the album.
It’s worth pointing out that the term “American roots” is a little specious. The music that the ERSB performs may be characterized as distinctly American, but it’s only because that we’ve grown to hear it that way. This music didn’t magically spring up from the indigenous American soil but instead was the product of the music that was brought to these shores by a variety of immigrants and exiles, voluntary and involuntary: it has its origins in the music of Europe, but equally in the musics of Africa, South America, Asia, and even Hawaii. It doesn’t take long for enthusiasts of this music to go down the paths of its true origins. Heneghan does so in his own John’s Old Time Radio Show, often joined by Crumb, which I highly recommend; along with recent episodes about yodelling and ukelele music, Heneghan has also recently featured programs on early recorded African, French, and Brazilian music. Check it out, and do your part for immigration.
If you want to support this kind of music and the research that inevitably follows once you’ve developed an interest, why not cough up the monthly sawbuck that buys you membership in Smithsonian Folkways Recordings? Better yet, support your local band by purchasing a few of these fine offerings. And best, play them for your kids. My daughters Goldie (10 years old) and Billie (a year younger) joined me in listening to Coney Island Baby yesterday evening, and immediately started snapping their fingers and tapping their toes along to Eden, John, and the rest of their stylish gang. They loved it. So I’m doin’ what I can to corrupt the next generation. Order the album for a measly $14.99 (they’re throwing postage and handling in for free) and tell ’em Goldie and Billie’s dad sent ya.
An informative 2015 interview with Eden Brower and John Heneghan can be found here.