Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Music Circle

Falling in love with anything is a growth process; something that requires a little pondering and engagement; something we invest ourselves in. Remember when LPs (if you are under 30, mea culpa) didn’t come at us like bullets from an automatic weapon? We really didn’t have hundreds of new releases to choose from because there were no successful DIY-ers in those days. If David Geffin or Ahmet Ertegun or John Hammond didn’t sign the artist, we knew it was because they weren’t any good. We had a little faith in the taste makers back then. No one complained about a Rolling Stone issue, or a radio playlist because there was something for everyone.

Back in that misty era it was a big event when the Allman Brothers or Gordon Lightfoot or Stevie Wonder or Joni or Jackson released a new record. When Dylan's new records came out, time almost stopped. We savored those sweet moments of listening knowing it would be a long time before we felt like that again. We took some time to fall in love with the music, and sometimes it was a permanent affair. Sitting in the dark, focusing on the music, there was a chance-- just a chance-- the artist had something important to say. Listening could be intimate and fascinating. Most of the lyrics these days aren’t really meant for our full attention. We have no prophets and few real communicators.

Lately I find myself listening to more, less. I might enjoy a new CD once and never come back to it. Who has time to fall in love with music anymore? I know I’ve liked a few CDs enough to put them in my favorite stack. But then I’m swept downstream so rapidly I can barely recall the artist's name. I want that to change. Yeah, my internal clocks are winding down and everything outside moves so fast I can’t keep up... but really, there’s just too much distraction and very little of it is worthwhile. We lack time for appreciation.

I took a high school elective once called Music Appreciation. We just sat in class and listened, usually to a classical piece by a dead Austrian composer, or an Aaron Copeland treatment of a beautiful folk song. It was a relaxing class. I wonder if they still offer it?

Music is the eternal soundtrack for life, but it’s no longer a focal point of it. The music plays ever so agreeably in the background as we jog, or cook, or plan our days. We catch ourselves every once in a while thinking, “nice tune” and maybe we hum a few bars later on as we stand in line at Starbucks. But we aren’t engaged, really absorbed in listening like we were when there was little else to do. Ah, those dull, ancient times.

I've seen my daughter listen to music through one ear of her headphones, IM her friends, talk on the cell phone at her other ear, and read Harry Potter simultaneously. I can handle a stick of gum and the laundry at the same time. But I asked her once if she ever got together with her friends just to listen to music like we did in the old days. "Well, only if we're going to a concert, but then we like to dance and take stupid pictures with our phones and party..." Not what I was thinking at all.

But now my daughter loves the music circles that my old-head buddies and I still have at the house on occasion. We pick and sing till the wee hours, and it's warm and wonderful. She brings her close friends with her to these gatherings, telling them, "You're gonna LOVE this! This is SO cool!"

I guess I’m hopelessly attached to the way it was. I miss the communal experiences that brought us together. I miss the artists that understood music’s power to hold us in a trance, to break down barriers and inhibitions, to teach us more about us. It's all wallpaper now. There’s 100,000 new tracks waiting for us out there. We can redecorate our profiles in a heartbeat. There's no need for the music circle.

Photo: Clara Bien

this posting copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt


Erin said...


Simple and well-said. As it says in the Psalms, "selah"...let's pause and think about that for a moment. Love your blog - thanks for sharing.

Tim McMullen said...

"Mrs. Pinocci'S Guitar" by Cheryl Wheeler encapsulates the essence of the song circle experience: the nostalgia of shared memories, the power of song to bring us together, the joy of friends and strangers captured by music.

You are so right about the new music escaping us. Even some of my favorite artists will put out a new CD, but by the time that I've listened to it twice, I have something else to do or something else to take its place. When they first came out, I really liked Restless Heart—in part because they did songs by Randy Sharp and Dave Loggins. Then, Larry Stewart went solo and, as so often happens, both his career and the group's went nowhere. A few months ago I found that they had brought out a new album (two years ago) with the original group; they sound as good as ever; they were produced by Mac McAnally, and they included three of Mac's songs on the album. Yet, after a drive to and from work, they go back on the shelf while I listen to a reading for school, or a radio play, or the new Keith Sykes. In a stack of 4000 CD's, who knows when they will emerge again.

Inertia is another foe of the arts. We maintain our subscription to the theatre for that very reason. We could certainly order tickets for the plays individually, but we wouldn't. It's much too easy to be too busy or too tired. By the same token, when the new listings for McCabe's came out, I did what I never do. I purchased tickets for five different concerts over a two month period—Both nights of Jesse Winchester, followed the next weekend by Cheryl Wheeler on Friday (we may also see her the next night at Caltech), Tom Paxton on Sunday, and Jerry Riopelle two weeks later.

It was my way of breaking the inertia, and the answer to Blanche Bickerson's mantra, "You say you'll do it. Do it now, John! Get up and buy the tickets!" (The Bickersons were a brilliant radio sit-com written by Phillip Rapp and starring Don Ameche, Frances Langford, and occasionally Danny Thomas—I play a brief episode for my creative writing students and for my American Studies honor students).

The thing is, that's the way we used to hear music. Once or twice or three times a month, we would go to The Ash Grove, The Troubadour, The Ice House, The Golden Bear, McCabe's, The Mecca, The Prison of Socrates, The Barn, or a number of other folk clubs and hear live music performed by the greatest singer/ songwriters and folk and blues interpreters in the world. Since the 80's, only three of those venues exist, and one is an all comedy club, one is an all rock club, and only one, McCabe's, still offers folk. As Keith Sykes wrote on a recent blog, Americana/Folk has even disappeared from the sixty or so channels of TV/Radio offered by Time Warner.

Music use to be the soundtrack to our lives. It spoke to our hearts; it helped to explain what we were feeling, from lovesick or heartbroken to politically motivated. Now, however, it is, more accurately, the muzak for our lives. It is there, especially for kids, randomly popping up in the background in one or both ears while we sit in class, ride in the car, or walk with our friends. It is not unusual to see a group of four or five high schoolers walking along together, each one plugged in to their own playlist and bobbing their heads to different tunes while occasionally speaking to one another.

As you have suggested in many different ways on this blog, technology is both a blessing and a curse. It would be nice if we could find a way to emphasize a bit more of the blessing and a bit less of the curse.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Pat said...

You're exactly right Craig, from the first sentence to the last. There are plenty of distractions, yet you must choose to make the time for the investment that's important to you. That's still your choice, and it's up to you to take the time you need when you realize you're spending too much time on the things that don't benefit you or please you. I like to go for walks with my iPod - and sometimes my thoughts overtake the music, and sometimes the music mimics my thoughts.

I have a grocery bag and a box of CDs that I inherited in February that I haven't taken the time to listen to yet. I don't even know what's in there, but I've just decided that I should take them a few at a time and throw them in the car (as that's likely the only place I'm captive enough to listen to them).

I've not yet had the opportunity to be present at a music circle or your "in-the-round" type sessions, but I know I'd love it. There is still a need for the music circle as long as someone enjoys them. By participating in them and posting about them, hopefully you've invested enough to get a return on your investment down the road and keep them alive. It's musicians and audiences alike that determine their lifespan.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Tim Wheeler said...

Several years back, I was in England for a week, staying at an 8 room 450 year old hotel with a pub and restaurant downstairs. At dinner the first night, I met an older man who was in Litchfield with his wife and sister for a family wedding. They were visiting from Ireland.

Coming home one night I slipped down to the pub for an ale and this man and a dozen of his nieces, nephews and cousins were in the corner of the pub. "TIMOTEE!" he shouted, "Come join us, me lad!". I did.

What I soon realized is that the family was in the process of a verbal guitar pull, less the guitars. One by one they went around the circle and each family member would sing a favorite song. If the family didn't know it, they'd listen and learn it and they'd go through it 2 or 3 to make sure. Then they would go on to the next family member. Each member was enthusiastic and in full voice. No hesitation. No feigned embarrassment. They just sang. It was obvious; This was something that they had all done all their lives.

I got nervous as the order progressed, coming closer and closer to me. I lucked out, as I sang a fun version Hoagy Charmichael’s Huggin' and a Chalkin' and it went over well, especially with the old man's spinster/rotund sister. (I’m glad I didn’t think that through.) I actually gained some standing as a 'Yank' in the family’s eyes... well at least until they started asking me about my politics.. but that's another story.

The point of my little tale, however, is that I realized that I'd never ever been in this situation. Outside of hotel lobby guitar pulls in Nashville, (which I need an accompanist as a piano player) I never did this as a kid, and I (regrettably) never did with my kids while they were young. While its largely a cultural difference with the Irish, I can’t help but envy the way music is a part of their tradition.

Perhaps its not too late. There's always a new generation coming up. There's still some influence left within our grasp.