Saturday, May 14, 2011

Big Lumps of Stuff, Or Looking At Your Roots For Amusement or Enlightenment

I am back. I don't know why I haven't felt much like adding to this particular blog since this past January, except maybe I needed to think a little about what would be worth saying in it, and what wouldn't be. I guess that's come about. Because, dear readers, here I am again.

Actually I have been thinking a great deal about something. And since it is a general sort of thing, this is perhaps the best place to express it.

First things first. A little background. My dad died 11 years ago this coming December. He lived a long life and since he didn't often confide his feelings to the kids, I can't really say whether deep inside his life was a happy one or not. He did not appear especially unhappy most of the time, but then again he didn't seem especially happy either. He worked pretty hard, had a kind of work-centered stability in his life that his generation was able to have (perhaps the last generation as a whole with that, at least in the States). And his life seemed to follow "the plan" as more-or-less conceived by his contemporaries. And that was something he inculcated in the kids (me and my siblings, duh). Your life followed a path from birth to death. You could figure out more or less what it was going to be and have some confidence that that's what was to be, if you worked hard and all that. It wasn't completely true even in his generation, but his life, if you talked with him about it on some level, was an a-to-b sort of existence. He had a couple of options, he exercised those options, and things followed from there, more or less. (But I am leaving out the Depression, WWII, the Cold War, and other external things which most certainly DID have a great impact.)

Anyway when he died I fell heir to his record collection, or at last those records that I thought worth saving, as either musically enjoyable in their own right, and/or as something that captured him as a person, and/or him as a person in relation to the family, to me.

So at first I found it very hard to listen to them. He was gone. They reminded me of that too much. Just in the last six months, though, I've set myself the task or pleasure of listening to all of them again, one by one, a side or two every day. And as I listened what was once very familiar became not so. It became a mystery, an enigma. Who was this man and what was this music to him and to his life? What is music to anybody's life?

Part of that strangeness comes about because what he chose to listen to is mostly now music very few would remember. That generation is gone along with its memories. The Mills Brothers weren't just something my dad liked. They were very popular with a lot of folks. Nowadays I doubt if the generation coming up has even heard the name. We sure did in the house as kids, because he adored them. And other records in his collection were of the same sort. Things many people had in their ears in the halcyon days of their youth. Other records were popular with his generation in later years, especially hifi sorts of things. He was in the Columbia Record Club and he received many of the monthly selections and liked them. They were picked by the marketing folks at the record club because they were popular as part of the category of records that pre-rock-and-rollers, mostly males in the record club demographic, found compatible with what they wanted to hear and etc. Then there were the Broadway shows, the mood music albums, big bands, the singers. As a person of his generation his record collection was probably not all that unusual. Many others had similar tastes. And that fact, the act of listening to this music for the past five months of 2011, many years after that generation had ceased to be a driving force in the world, plus the fact that every note on those 33-rpm disks was associated pretty much with my coming of age in the world in one way or another, had a great effect on me sitting there listening today.

Here was a set of musical roots, in a way, that I had come out of. Those records, along with what was on the radio and the television, what we sang in school, what we heard, sung, or played in whatever institutions I was a part of, and finally for me the kind of music I myself picked up and interested myself in at various times and places, all that and the other experience of music in my life were in sum total MY roots. And what my dad left behind were especially a part of HIS roots.

And I thought as I listened to HIS records, what a strange set of roots they are/were. Strange because the complex of things represented there are mostly not even remembered today, yet they resonate very much with me as I think of my experiences. And I am sure that others in my generation have similar complexes of music that they got growing up. Yet when my generation is thought of, by themselves or by others, it is mostly for just what they themselves actively added to the mix of what they heard--Beatles. Stones, Hendrix and on and on. The same goes for every generation, I am sure.

I thought about it and wondered, if you did an in-depth biographical interview of others from my generation, you could start affirming patterns. This may not sound particularly astounding at first read, and perhaps it is not. Still, though, there is for any generation in space and time, by the time they reach later adulthood, a point where they might look back and realize, "this was what music was for me back in my youth. And there is much in that experience that is not something I share with people of later generations." That individual thought, if you collectivize it, gives you at least in part the experiential history of music in that neck of the woods for that time. And it might be very different than the one written from a "God's-eye" point of view. I mean that the authoritative, experts kind of narrative that might be given about music in America from 1930 to, say, 1970 might be very different from an experiential history. Not that the former narrative would be wrong. It might cover the musical achievements of that age better than the experiential version. Yet it would be missing that something that one expresses when one says, "you had to have been there to understand what I mean." That "having been there" can be understood by those that haven't, though. If somebody wrote well enough about it, after talking in depth with others who WERE there.

Well, so it was...and so it is.

1 comment:

  1. I do have to add parenthetically that the conversation does leave out that my dad was of course male, that he was white and of fairly modest circumstances and grew up outside of Philadelphia. I only mention this because if he were to have been born as a person of color and/or in a different part of the US or of another socio-economic class his story would have been different. Nonetheless there still would be an experiential set of musics that would sum up as his roots. They probably would have been and least slightly or possibly very much different content-wise. This is perhaps quite obvious but I do have readers from around the globe, so....Also my own roots include many things musically that my father knew not much or anything about, and that perhaps are not especially typical of my generation in the widest sense. That's a big factor that in part explains my own involvement in music today... and that of course is outside of the discussion.


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