Friday, July 25, 2008

Voices of Comfort and Protest

My recent experience as a judge in the Mountain Stage Newsong contest has redeemed my faith in songwriting as an art form. Although there seems to be a tendency in general for artistic writers to enter contests while the more commercial writers do not, that wasn't the case with Newsong. What I found instead was a group of writer-artists passionately pursuing personal expression whether aimed at mainstream Nashville or a slot on the Mountain Stage radio show. The contest atmosphere breathed familiar somehow until I recalled my early days in Nashville and realized that the exchange of creative energy in those days was very similar to the virtual exchange taking place in this Internet based contest. The competition wasn't so much for the fist full of dollars as it was for the title of 'best communicator'.

There is an art form thriving out there, we just have to look in some unlikely places to find it. You certainly won't hear it in the mainstream media. You may not even hear it so much on satellite radio, where many repackaged mainstream acts have retreated.

I was most curious as I judged the entries as to where the act was working and what, if any, measures they were taking to promote themselves. It ran the gamut. There were tight bluegrass acts working two nights a week in local watering holes; there were closet songwriters who'd worked in complete obscurity for 30 years before finding the nerve to go public; there were self-promoters with some flair and obvious previous training; there were even nationally touring acts that had managed to stay below the radar somehow.

I was taken with the one common thread in all of it: honesty. A writer can say true things: the sun rose today. He can also say honest things: the sun rose today but I didn't care. The difference is striking when it comes to a song. It all goes back to who you are, how much you know about yourself, how willing you are to be vulnerable and open, whether you'll risk saying what you feel, think, perceive, and hope for in life. And saying it all with that inner voice we only seem to find in desperate moments.

I wrote about character last week, and this is where the bullet meets the bone. It's easy to spot a song that's superficially packaged to appeal to a world in denial. It's also easy to spot a song that's so evasive as to be inconsequential, or so shallow as to qualify as a jingle rather than a song. What's so bad about evasive songs and jingles? Nothing really, unless that's all we hear. Then those songs contribute to the wash of opiating culture we're all going numb under. As the world gets more irrational, the opiates get more powerful. It becomes more rare for honesty to break through and shake us back to consciousness.

Yet that's how I feel today after listening to dozens and dozens of young and not so young artists being honest, if nothing else. I feel as if I've been taken to a remote compound and fed gallons of coffee, been slapped about the head, had a few glasses of cold water thrown in my face. I feel as if I've been shown dozens and dozens of microcosms I didn't notice before. I've seen short "movies" of daily life in remote places where real issues meet real lives and the result is a life and death struggle for an entire community. Ask yourself when you last heard a song that made you care about the ecology of a remote mountain valley, or the fair use of a waterway in Appalachia, or the death by late spring frost of a farmer's crop?

Whether any of these songs actually wins the contest isn't important, and I don't have final say about that. What's important is that these songs were written.

I may be fighting a losing battle here, but I'm not alone. It could be that some of you reading this wonder what all the fuss is about. I'll tell you. The very survival of the art of songwriting. If you can go back to your day job merrily and turn on the radio humming the latest tunes, I'm not talking to you. But if you feel a genuine loss of quality in your life because great honest songs are hard to find, keep reading, I'm with you all the way.

Songs used to comfort us in times of crisis. We are in the midst of a terrible crisis as I write this. Need I elaborate? No, I don't think so. Where are the songs to comfort us?

Songs used to protest injustice. We are being oppressed by an aristocracy of politicians and CEOs who won't be happy until they bleed us dry. We are being screwed by HMOs and other insurance providers, lied to by our government, conned by financial institutions, over-taxed, over-worked, over-opiated. Where are the songs of protest?

Where are the songs of protest and comfort? Where is our voice? Where is our honest song?

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt


Pat said...

Anger, loss, frustration, and injustice are the motivators needed for many people to express themselves. The culture of apathy, personal survival, and greed we encounter today isn't conducive to the volume and appreciation of great songs you're looking for. But as you've seen, the songs and their writers do exist. When you find those gems, share them with those who will appreciate them, and they will gain a foothold that way. They may not ever receive broad airplay like the other stuff, but at least they'll be appreciated and people can educate themselves about the alternatives out there. They'll see they have options and choices. It's a slow process, to be sure.

Tim McMullen said...

Having the opportunity to hear a passel of writers who are trying to tell rather than sell their songs is a rare opportunity—one that is consistently discouraged by most major labels and corporate radio—and, sadly, of little interest to the dreck-benumbed masses. I honestly got so fed up with pop radio that I stopped listening by 1980. Only the specialized shows, the local college or NPR programmer with a couple of hours of folk or blues or “new” music, offered any chance to hear truly new or innovative music or songwriting.

I own over six thousand vinyl albums, probably four thousand of which are singer-songwriters from the early sixties to the late eighties (and another 2000 CD’s covering the 90’s to the present). I picked up everything that looked like it had potential. The fact that it was discounted or cut out generally gave it a better chance of being good. There have always been people trying to tell their stories and share their passions, but even most who make it far enough in the business to get contracts and make records have a very modest following if they are ever known at all. I bought my first Townes Van Zandt record in 1969 for ten cents in a supermarket cut-out bin.

Bruce Cockburn, Danny O’Keefe, Jesse Winchester, JD Souther and Glen Frey, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Maury Muehleisen, Jim Croce, Steve Gillette, Keith Sykes, Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Keith Sykes, Loudon Wainwright, Dan Fogelberg, Dave Loggins, Karla Bonoff, Wendy Waldman, Michael Johnson, Randy Sharp, and Townes, all had early albums between 1968 and 1972, before they had hits (most of whom, if they had any, had one or two hits and remained unknown to the masses). And many thousands of lesser lights, inspired by James Taylor, John Denver, and Joni Mitchell, and earlier by Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Mark Spoelstra, and Buffy Sainte Marie, turned out honest, sincere efforts to mix powerful, personal poetry with a bid for commercial success. How often does a Shawn Colvin, or a Marc Cohn, or a Mary Chapin Carpenter come along and actually keep their folk sensibilities and still make hits? Damn seldom!

The irony now is that the internet and digital music and video have made the marketplace much more democratic, yet, in some ways, the sheer number of musicians and songwriters who now have access to the media, as well as the competition from piano playing cats, skateboarding dogs, dancing stars and idle idols, make it even less likely that the budding songwriter will reach a significant audience. There is a lot of very good stuff out there; however, it is very time-consuming and energy-draining to try to uncover a really great song, and very few people even care to hear one. Just listening to a great song takes more effort and energy than most are willing to expend. The local music venue and the folk festival, college campus, church and house concert circles are still the best chance to hear and perform meaningful music. Or, instead of trolling the bargain bins—or gambling fifteen bucks on albums searching for clever titles; or recognized musicians or producers; or interesting album art; or, if you’re really lucky, printed song lyrics—now you can do your trolling online—at marketing collectives like CD Baby, e-folk, Folk Alley, or Reverbnation, or in listening to shows like Folkscene or Art of the Song, or stumbling through MySpace, or YouTube, or Facebook, et al.

I may sound pessimistic, but I’m not. I am greatly encouraged. The more songwriters and performers who try to tell an honest, heartfelt story in their songs, the more likely we are to build audiences who will demand more meaningful fare.

The Greatest Threat to Democracy is Hypocrisy! Seek Truth! Speak Truth!
(This is my political motto, but it works for writers, too, doesn’t it?)

Tim McMullen

Steve Robinson said...

As always...Well said Craig..

chromehead said...

The "democracy" of the Internet is a blessing and it's curse. There needs to be, at some point, a slight shift. We need democratic "access" to everything, but we also need some degree of filtering. People get alarmed at the idea of filtering content-- it raises the specter of censorship, which of course is something entirely different.

I envision a time when all the content will be available for anyone who has the time to go searching, but also there will be filtering done NOT by "popular vote", which is too easily manipulated and unreliable as a means of determining what's great and what isn't, but by knowledgeable people. There is no reason why we can't have large websites full of obscure music that has been carefully vetted by critics with reputation and taste (the critics should be both layman musicologists and talented artists). This would entail a lot of listening of course, and people would have to be paid for their work. But imagine the return it would bring if consumers could rely on the judgment of the filterers. Many of us recall the days when Rolling Stone could actually be trusted to give us an honest review. That, in part, is what built the magazine.

To some extent the bloggers are attempting this. But the task is too large, and many bloggers simply have terrible taste or limited knowledge, or in some cases they have good taste and knowledge but have limited time to devote to filtering. Still, currently, bloggers are the best prospectors we've got.

There are problems with every model, but the problems with unfiltered content are perhaps the worst of all.

Herbie said...

Hello Craig
I just stumbled onto your blog throught "just plain folks" I really enjoyed reading what you had to say on multiple levels
1. I am so glad that there IS good new music out there (the man who said it is too time comsuming to find it is spot on) maybe you could give us some of your fav's ! !
2. I write the kind of things that you find lacking, so I also felt hope by reading it. Hope that as one of those 30 years in the closet people, that I could step into something else where my work is appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to do this, I will sign up for your blog.


chromehead said...

Thanks Herbie. I will probably make some recommendations about a few artist's songs after the contest closes. I wouldn't want to influence the results beyond my single vote in the judging. Also keep in mind I was hearing songs, not entire CDs. It's probably still a game of good cut/bad cut unfortunately...

Doug Barnett said...

Hi Craig,

The voices of comfort are still out there. Its just harder to find them than it used to be.
As for the voices of protest, most are on Neil Young's website

There were over 2700 last time I checked.

chromehead said...

Thanks for your comment Doug, Yes, God bless Neil! I should have mentioned him. But I was actually referring to the mainstream media when I asked my rhetorical question. No doubt the songs exist, but we do not hear them on the radio or TV anymore. Remember it was Neil who had a huge hit with "Ohio". Can anyone imagine that song being supported by our mainstream media today?