The analog road

Waiting for me at home: The Yamaha FG800.

In my increasing dotage, my interests have been turning more towards the analog forms of the past: I’m planning to purchase a turntable and perhaps even a real tube pre-amp soon (and I could use all the advice on this that I can get), and regular readers here will note a somewhat dispiriting emphasis on the entertainment of the past: silent film, even old-time radio on occasion. I’ve just dusted off my old acoustic guitar as well — it’s been a few years, but it draws me ever on nonetheless. I wrote about it in May 2019 under the title “Less Than Zero”; you’ll find that below; and I’ll probably write more about this tendency soon. As a wise man once said, sometimes when you’re too far down the wrong road, the best thing you can do is to turn back.

I could probably use a little advice on how to play the damn thing, but let’s take it one step at a time.

Older forms of popular music never die; they just get festivals built around them. The 33rd annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, kicks off in Greensboro, NC, on May 18, and the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will be held in just a few weeks in the birthplace of classical ragtime, Sedalia, MO, beginning on May 29. They also become enthusiasms for cranky individuals like myself. (See here and here, for example.) A few years ago Marilyn gave me an acoustic guitar, hoping to encourage me to take a more personal and practical interest in this music, and since then I’ve tried to get myself up to speed so that I could play at least some of it myself. It’s been hard to find the time to practice, alas, which I confess I regret.

Taking up the guitar in my mid-50s has been accompanied by a series of challenges, many of them time-oriented but some of them somewhat psychological as well. Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus published Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, a memoir of sorts about learning the guitar as an adult, in 2012. Marcus set out to discover whether the brain (specifically his own 38-year-old brain) remained plastic enough to acquire the knowledge necessary for developing musical or linguistic skills past childhood, the optimal age for beginning musical and foreign language education. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that, by the end of his project, he was unembarrassed enough to be able to play the guitar in public.

And good for him. But I’m 20 years older than Marcus was when he picked up a guitar again for the first time, as the saying goes. And I have my doubts that I’ll ever be able to play the Piedmont-style kind of ragtime guitar that I most enjoy. Piedmont blues grew out of ragtime; as the Wikipedia page for the music helpfully summarizes:

Piedmont blues (also known as East Coast, or Southeastern blues) refers primarily to a guitar style, the Piedmont fingerstyle, which is characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to ragtime or stride piano styles. … What was particular to the Piedmont was that a generation of players adapted these older, ragtime-based techniques to blues in a singular and popular fashion, influenced by guitarists such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis.

As much as I enjoy listening to this music, it’s also primarily a music to be enjoyed in live performance. Ragtime primarily circulated and was disseminated through sheet music and, less commonly, piano rolls; although the Piedmont blues became popular some years later via recordings and radio, it remained primarily acoustic in an age when musicians were increasingly going electric. This — and the fact that the music was often taught, performed, and shared in more intimate community venues, such as living rooms and front porches — meant that live performance is perhaps the best, and in some cases the only, way to enjoy this music, both in its performance and as an audience. All music creates particular soundworlds. Ragtime and Piedmont blues styles create a soundworld of plain elegance and often melancholy; of simple joys and more complex hesitations. Not a bad soundworld, these days, for someone like me to live in.

I don’t get to either Sedalia or Greensboro very often. Fortunately here in New York there’s the year-round offerings of Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music. And I have lessons every once in a long while with an excellent teacher. But listening to more and more of this music these days inspires me to step up my game a little bit, and writing this post, too, is a way of encouraging me to learn the guitar with a little more attention and constancy. Malcolm Gladwell thinks I have to spend 10,000 hours before I become genuinely adept at playing this kind of music. But if I practice often enough, maybe I’ll be able to become a little better than zero. At least I’ll be trying.

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Categorized as Guitar

Memorial Day special: Remembering Leon

Leon Redbone.

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the death of Leon Redbone, the singer and guitarist who brought American popular song back to the attention of a jaded public through his eccentric appearances on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere beginning in about 1975. Although Redbone cultivated a self-consciously odd personality that some might find just a bit twee, it was this personality that drew audiences to his music, a collection of American popular song classics that included both standards and rarities from the early years of the 20th century. Complain about that self-conscious weirdness as you will, for me — a 13-year-old boy growing up in a declining coal town of northeast Pennsylvania far from any city — Leon Redbone’s appearances on Saturday Night Live in 1975 were my first exposures to this music, which I doubt I would have found anywhere else on my own; soon I was purchasing and listening to albums by Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and others. My enthusiasm for this music continues to this day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who must credit Redbone for this discovery. (Not to mention I’ve come to appreciate his dedication to his art and his subversive persona more than ever in the past few years.)

Redbone during his lifetime remained a stubbornly private individual, but in the years since his death some of the mystery about his past has dissipated, not least because of Megan Pugh’s in-depth profile of the performer, “Vessel of Antiquity,” in The Oxford American, published a few short months before Redbone’s death (complications of dementia). The short 2018 documentary “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” which features footage of Redbone’s final performances as well as tributes from John Prine and others, can be found below.

A toast to … slow comebacks

Cafe Katja.

This week I noted the recent release of a few books by and about R. Crumb and the upcoming release of a new recording of Scott Joplin rags, performed by my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken.

Like everyone else, I’ve been easing back into things, including this blog, after an extended period of admittedly intermittent activity. Along with the recent Plague-Year-and-a-Half (apologies to Daniel Defoe), we’ve been in medias res between living spaces as our recently purchased new apartment has been undergoing renovation. Private time has been tricky for all of us, and though Virginia Woolf insisted that a room of one’s own was a necessity, it’s not always a possibility. Still, a light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and I hope that we can open up at full capacity soon, masks not required.

Fortunately my usual Friday watering hole is now permitting bar seating. I’ve come to believe that the first mark of a civilized society is the ability to walk into a bar, pull up a stool, and sip quietly at an adult beverage as one considers with a bartender and a friend (or in solitude, if that prospect pleases) the events of the day and the mysteries of life on this earth. Without this liberty, all is chaos. See you at Cafe Katja later today.

Joplin et al.

The recordings are in the can and there’s not much left to do but pull the whole package together. A collection of Scott Joplin rarities and collaborations, Marilyn Nonken‘s Syncopated Musings will drop (as the kids say) this fall, probably in October, from Divine Art Records. The album pulls together 17 of the composer’s most intriguing compositions, a fresh look at Joplin’s career and the place of ragtime in musical history. Sez the press release:

Acclaimed for her interpretations of works by early twentieth-century composers such as Arnold Schönberg and Charles Ives, Nonken turns her attention to their contemporary, Joplin, whose music — often mischaracterized as a simply American vernacular — reveals his close ties to opera and vocal genres. In Joplin’s works and those of his students and colleagues, one recognizes a heretofore underappreciated worldliness, elegance, and virtuosity. Taken together, these compositions celebrate the lively artistic community of which Joplin was the central figure, highlighting the underappreciated lyrical and dramatic range of ragtime itself.

The first draft of my liner notes is also in the can, so keep an eye out here; I’ll let you know when it’s ready for pre-order. In the meantime, you can read my own short meditation on ragtime, and I point you towards Ethan Iverson’s essay on American piano music, which situates Joplin & Company in musicological context. “References to ragtime [are] part of what makes fully notated American music American,” he says, then goes on to explore ragtime’s influence on Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow. It’s worth a peek.

 

… and welcome to it

Crumb’s World, a record of the unforgettable 2019 R. Crumb exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, is a portrait of the artist at work, considering Crumb’s long career and embracing all of the forms in which he’s worked: the autobiographical comic, obviously, but also illustration and social satire. It’s impossible for any single volume to encompass all seven decades of Crumb’s art, of course, and the focus here (as well as the gallery show) is the evolution of his style and his draughtsmanship over those decades. Arranged in chronological order, we have early comics and sketchbook pages, along with reproductions of book layouts and cover art, tracing his progression from funny animal comics to the contemplative and semi-parodic but exquisitely rendered Art & Beauty series. There are a few more recent treats to be found, too — “Art and Money,” a two-page conversation between Crumb and exhibition curator Robert Storr, and “Bad Diet & Bad Hair Destroy Human Civilization,” a Trump-era meditation by Crumb and his wife and long-time collaborator Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Storr’s introduction is a blessedly non-academic consideration of his career. The book is published by David Zwirner Books. No Crumb collection is complete without it.

Storr may have avoided academese, but the academy too is sitting up and taking notice of Crumb these days. Just a few weeks ago, the University Press of Mississippi released The Comics of R. Crumb: Underground in the Art Museum, a collection of essays that seeks to situate him the context of his culture and aesthetic influences, and the same press issued David Stephen Calonne’s R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self back in February. Usually professorial interest in a popular culture figure like Crumb is a kiss of death (though it’s true that his work erases the distinction between popular and so-called “high” art), especially for a figure as irreverent and controversial as Crumb, but at least the first book had his co-operation, and both books seem worthy purchases.

The range, variety, and sheer volume of Crumb’s work bears comparison with Mark Twain’s; like Twain, he worked in popular culture forms and extended their expressivity into self-deprecatory autobiography, social satire, and dour meditation on art, the spirit, and the world. In this range alone, He stands apart from his peers; but the extraordinary level of his achievement in his best work transcends genre, and it must be said that he is as good a writer as he is a visual artist, a master of American vernacular. As these books all demonstrate, R. Crumb’s comic, bitter, and misanthropic grumblings, as well as his more esoteric meditations (especially his concerns with the environment and creeping conformity and authoritarianism), speak to the 21st century as much as the 20th — if not moreso.