Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Conservatives and Music, Part Two: Preserving the Old Ways

Clearly modern movement conservatism is a kind of bizarre brain fever, a malfunctioning program corrupted by a nasty virus called free market capitalism (well, amongst other nastier things). By being wedded to a messianic belief in the power of the market, conservatives end up with a mindset where something as fundamentally unconservative as global megacorporation Wal Mart is actually a hallowed signifier of the small-town folkways of Real-Americans, rather than one of the more obvious culprits behind their destruction. Attempting to graft libertarian free market dogma* onto conservative reverence for tradition and the past simply doesn’t make any sense: nothing provokes radical change like unfettered capitalism. So I hope it’s abundantly clear that what “conservative” means or could mean to me is completely unrelated to lattes or NASCAR or demonizing gay people—hell, I should probably have just chosen a less loaded word and skipped this screed (sort of; there is a point buried somewhere down there about how a conservative politics could act as a brake on liberals championing war and imperialism).

*Not that right-wingers’ belief in the free market is ever enacted, but that’s a whole other post.

Let’s return to music since I already had to go back and delete an earlier sentence where I said I didn’t “feel like talking about politics.” How could we go about uncovering “a much more stimulating tradition of conservative thought in popular music?” One important strand would be the work of musical archivists and preservationists: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, field recordings of old folk songs made by people like John Lomax, and ethnomusicological recordings on labels like Nonesuch Explorer or Ocora would all be important and influential examples. With the globalizing forces of capitalism and technology erasing centuries of tradition in local cultures—even while, of course, new technologies like sound recording, record manufacturing, and air travel, as well as the possibility that people might pay for these recordings, made the sounds available to a new audience—the people behind these projects sought to collect and preserve rapidly vanishing ways of life.

Smith and Lomax’s active approach to musical conservation decisively influenced the folk revival of the 1960s: the Greenwich Village scene that Bob Dylan exploded out of—and essentially destroyed in the process—and its longer-lasting and (to my ears) more interesting corollary in the UK. Much has been made of the purism of these revivalists, crystallized in notorious incidents like Dylan’s appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and the infamous “Judas” heckler at his 1966 concert in Manchester. It is just this kind of dogmatic insistence against seemingly inevitable change that makes the folk scene look (ironically of course; their politics being anything but at the time) a whole lot like modern conservatism.

This kind of mini-culture-war within a musical scene ended relatively quickly in folk, but in the jazz world it began in the 1980s and hasn’t ended yet. In the polarizing figure of Wynton Marsalis we can see the ramifications of the purist urge to police, to exclude, to define, and to delineate narratives where they don’t necessarily exist. In his role as artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and as a consultant for Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, Marsalis has written off both the avant-garde and fusion, promoting a frozen-in-amber classicist view of “jazz” that is intellectually arid and has had real financial consequences for artists who fall outside the mainstream.

Nonetheless one could argue that something was lost in Dylan’s pied-piper effect on folk fans—luring them away from their budding interest in gospel, bluegrass, and a kaleidoscope of world music toward the banal prospect of yet another kid picking up an electric guitar—and that jazz in the 1980s was in a sorry state when Marsalis came along to restore its dignity and remind everyone that Charlie Parker didn't make music to perform data entry to. Sometimes resisting change is resisting the corruption of something valuable. You tend to see “nostalgia” characterized as an always-wrong weakness of the mind these days, as if the idea that progress is constant had achieved consensus, but sometimes nostalgia exists because the past was better.

Which is a perfect way to segue into The Kinks, but this topic expanded the more I thought about it, so that will have to be another post or maybe this will just be an ongoing concern. I certainly find the way people conceptualize and talk about nostalgia fascinating.


  1. Shorter Rob:

    Remember when nostalgia wasn't characterized as an always-wrong weakness of the mind? Ahh, those were the good old days...

  2. Geez, why did I spend hours writing that!

    Actually I do think one could argue that the quality of nostalgia has decreased. Take this AV Club feature that I enjoyed: But how lame is our generation? getting teary-eyed over the Victory Auto Wreckers commercial (sniff). It's not exactly effing Proust.

    Ah well, I was really hoping someone would call me JUDAS in the comments!

  3. What will happen when people get nostalgic about That 70s Show?

    I guess someone, conceivably, could be nostalgic about the 50s nostalgic period of the 80s. Grease. Back to the Future. Peggy Sue Got Married.

    Even ordinary nostalgia for today seems scary. Today's mainstream, aged 20 years, remembers the thrills of So You Think You Can Dance. "Those shows lifted our spirits, and brought us out of the gloom of the Great Recession."

    The human spirit is eating itself.

    Incidentally, you should call your new political movement "Semantic Conservative."

  4. I'm sure nostalgia for nostalgia has already happened (and there's an old Onion about the retro movement running out of past to be retro about--sidenote: remember when the Onion used to be great? sigh). Theoretically, it could even be interesting--what exactly is one longing for in nostalgia for a nostalgic vision? It's sort of PK Dickian: homesick--which is the root of nostalgia--for a totally artificial home.

  5. Speaking as your brother, which home should we be sick about?

    Northern Illinois?
    Upstate New York?

    I'm sure they've all got something. Do we generate more - albeit weaker - nostalgia by moving around? Does growing up in one place generate greater homesicky conflict?