"The pure emotive quality of Cochran’s music pulls you into its embrace and empties your heart with every sigh"
- No Depression
"Commanding stage presence...intimate expression"
There’s this musicologist named Wiley Hitchcock who wrote about American music as a pair of complimentary streams. He named one of the streams “cultivated” music (i.e. classical stuff), and he named the other stream “vernacular” music (i.e. everything else). Meh, I guess that's as good an explanation as any.
But no matter how your music streaming service generates algorithms, music is too messy to be retrofitted into tidy categories. This is especially true when it comes to American music because most of our traditions come from someplace else. Scratch beneath the surface of an old Appalachian ballad and you’ll find an even older version being sung at a pub somewhere in the British Isles. Trace Earl Scruggs’ banjo back far enough, and you’ll find yourself in Africa. Those so-called “streams” are just an infinite variety of creative voices whose artistic vision represents their own little piece of the American experience.
My little piece of the American experience began in rural Pennsylvania, Amish country, where the favored décor of dining establishments is taxidermy. It was there I learned Appalachian ballads like “Pretty Polly” from my Kentuckian Maw, and on Sunday mornings belted out “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” with Brethren in Christ dairy farmers.
I was ten years old, clutching a bag of lawn fertilizer at Ace Hardware when I first heard Mark Knopfler’s guitar playing. “Walk of Life” was a surprise hit for the Dire Straits that year. It was originally a B-side for “So Far Away” but the tune gained steam on its own merits and wound up on heavy rotation at Top 40 stations like Wink 106.1 out of Corning, Elmira. I cleaned gutters to earn money for the single and dug post holes to purchase the LP.
My parents bought me a massive Fender dreadnaught for my birthday. It was a tank with strings that hovered about a foot off the fingerboard and brutalized my fingers as I endeavored to master the F barre.
One Thanksgiving, a family friend who recently gave his life to Christ brought over three boxes filled with records that he claimed contributed to his moral shortcomings. He was apparently not concerned about the salvation of his impressionable beneficiary, an oversight for which I will always be grateful. After dinner, I hauled one of the boxes into the dining room where the record player was housed. Standing among the ravaged carcass of what was once a turkey, I heard Sgt. Pepper, Highway 61, and Electric Ladyland for the first time. It was a tryptophan-laced psychedelic bliss-out, after which the F barre never stood a chance.
It took me a couple weeks to get to the bottom of the third box, where I found an album that featured the profile of a man who vaguely resembled Han Solo. The record was called Parkening Plays Bach and, despite the Spartan album design, I figured it deserved a whirl or two on the turntable. It was and still is a magical recording. By the final bars of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” I was determined to become a concert classical guitarist.
Twenty years, three degrees, and a mountain of student debt later, I was more-or-less able to play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to my satisfaction. Near the end of my last degree I formed a group with some guys who could also play the hell out of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. We made the rounds at guitar festivals and concert halls in the U.S. and Europe and ate good cheese and drank great wine.
One day I woke up and realized that my childhood in rural Pennsylvania with “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Pretty Polly” were more than just warm memories, they were an integral part of that weird primordial ooze that artists like to call their identity. By that point, Polly and Long-Expected-Jesus had been waiting in the wings for quite some time. They were getting impatient though, and started threatening to kick some ass unless I paid some attention to them.
So I did. I screwed up some guts and wrote some stuff that attempts to connect the dots between cultivated music and vernacular music. Between popular music and unpopular music. These days, I don’t worry too much about which is which.
There are those who preserve and those who innovate, but I’m neither. I’m a filcher, happy to cobble together music from table scraps. And I’m having a ball.