Music To Know America By

Letters at 3AM

illustration by A.J. Garces
It's hard for me to take seriously any vision of America that doesn't include its music. For our music is where our paradoxes exist with the least self-consciousness. Here, then, is a short, arbitrary list of our most basic energies, our best and worst secrets.

Carl Sandburg Sings Folk Songs. The old poet was a homey singer and strummer, and his renditions of 19th-century songs like "Turkey in the Straw," "Red River Valley," and "I Ride an Old Paint," are sung as they were meant to be. I prefer Sandburg's versions because he was born in 1878, when these songs were current; he took the mood of that era with him into our century.

These songs of the South and West show a longing, a humor, and a tenderness that utterly contradict the Indian-killing, land-grabbing, Jim-Crow viciousness practiced and/or tolerated by most who sang them. They sang what they could not be, and left their songs to evoke a gentler life than they'd lived. But (as Norman Mailer said) it is our actions and not our sentiments that create history. So it's a little maddening and very instructive if, when you read of the genocide of the Indians and the raw greed of Western town-building, you play in the background this gentle, funny, wistful music -- a little maddening because you have to face how the most disturbing history can be created by people with great tenderness of heart. (I know of no balm for that contradiction.)

Robert Johnson's Blues. Again, just a man and a guitar, but another whole history is here -- another future, too. Recorded in the mid 1930s, you hear the murders of rap, the psychedelics of Hendrix, and an impassioned dark vision that makes Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison seem like kids throwing tantrums. You hear lynching, humiliation, rage; yearning, redemption, mad joy. Johnson would have known many who had been born slaves, and you hear the cry of their experience and the pride and arrogance of those who survived in spite of history -- and to spite it. Lock yourself up in a room with this music for hours, and you'll know that until this voice is satisfied there'll be no calm in America.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band's "Tiger Rag". In 1917 these white-boy copycats from New Orleans were the first to record jazz. They were thieves and liars, claiming to invent a music they'd grown up listening to blacks play; they were also inheritors (albeit uninvited). They weren't very good but they were very, very frantic. Look no further for the roots of punk. Mad, fast, hard, one-two rhythms propelling screeching instruments in a mood that pretends cheer but is plainly hysterical -- the first flat-out abandoned hysteria in Western music. Their recordings were an enormous sensation, selling as much as a million in a far less populated America. While the First World War was massacring thousands daily in Europe, Americans were giving vent to a cheer that had all the accoutrements of rage. Take a few deep breaths, set aside your preconceptions, and then just listen, listen to the level of insanity here -- and then put on the Sex Pistols, for further study.

Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" and "Tight Like This". There's no space to describe the genius of Armstrong, our indispensable musician, inventor not of jazz but of its extended improvised solo, pioneer of jazz instrumentation, master of the trumpet, inventor of jazz- and scat-singing, melodist of unequaled perfection. "You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played," Miles Davis said. These 1928 recordings are Armstrong at his pinnacle. In his tone, his phrasing, and in something untouchable in his timing, there is Robert Johnson's unfathomable pain transmuted into an equally unfathomable joy -- both qualities together, in the same note, at the same time, with the same force. There is nothing else like it in anybody's music. I call it the sound of a possible Heaven -- a state of the heart, absolutely down to earth, where nothing is excluded, but all of life is transmuted. It cracks the mirror inside in which you can only see yourself. That a 20th-century American artist achieved this (and, moreover, an oppressed man in an oppressive time) means that we do not have to be trapped.

Billie Holiday. For Holiday to be grasped, she must be listened to across the length of her life, from the girlish voice of the early records to the voice of the witch-crone about to die of old age before her 45th birthday. At every stage she sang of love as though her life were at stake. It was as though she said, "These silly lyrics are serious business -- I'm going to turn these songs inside out 'til you admit how lonely you are." Making Shakespearean soliloquies from trite rhymes, she taught that, with passion and desperate integrity, we could make this banal American pop environment as profound as we needed it to be. It wasn't designed to express anything real, but we could force it to.

Frank Sinatra's Torch Songs. Up-tempo Sinatra is show-offy and brilliant, the epitome of panache. Torch-song Sinatra is spooky, a territory where gender disappears into a fog. He always said that Billie Holiday was his prime influence, but he never said that his macho pose was how he got away with being a man who sang more from the feminine side of his nature than any man before or since. Again: Take a few deep breaths, let go of the image he painstakingly projected, and listen to the torch songs, especially from the 1950s. A man is singing, but not with the male part of himself. You are listening to a heterosexual with a woman's voice in (just barely, at times) a man's timbre. You are listening, not to a female sensibility, but to the tortured female side of one man's sensibility. You're in a gender labyrinth of the psyche -- so, of course, the sound is terribly lonely. Then go right out and look into the eyes of the men you pass on the street -- you'll hear Sinatra's voice. He was telling our secrets. And as he often said about singing, "I go wherever it is I go, I can't help it." A macho guy who's into surrender? That's why so many women found him so sexy. He is our contradiction, making a career of simultaneously flaunting and subverting the American image of manhood.

Hank Williams. Williams knew he was trapped and sang from within the trap, and his dignity was that because of what he knew he sang stripped of pride. His was the voice of an animal, a coyote howling, caught and trying to gnaw off its own leg to escape the steel claws. Love trapped him. Whiteness trapped him. Poverty trapped him. Southern bullshit trapped him. The loneliness of macho, poor white trash, unable to communicate through anything but clichés and a howl, trapped him. A trapped creature and a freight train whistle alternated in his voice, the most naked expression we have of the white South.

Aretha Franklin. Is there another voice in American song (beside Armstrong's) that is so un-trapped? Joyful defiance. Defiance without bitterness. Defiance as an act of necessity and self-respect. This is the Declaration of Independence as pure sound. This is Martin Luther King's ethic without the sometimes sappy rhetoric. This is freedom. "I guess I travel to a lot of places when I sing." Freedom as concentrated energy, not freedom as dissipated longing. Holiday had to turn everything inside out and then drag it around. Franklin either buries it in the earth or lifts it to the sky. There aren't many sounds of triumph in our music. This is triumph at no one else's expense. This is what that sounds like, and to find it in a culture based on theft -- and to hear it from one of the stolen ones -- is to witness a miracle of regeneration, and to sense great possibilities.

Bob Dylan. To paraphrase Joyce, the American dream is a nightmare from which we have not awoken. Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps that is its nature. In a voice half banshee and half wraith, Bob Dylan made songs of that dream, and of yet a deeper kind of dreaming, the phantasmagoria of pictures and surreal events that all of us encounter in sleep. Some people walk in their sleep; it's as though Dylan sings in his sleep. Nobody in his songs is quite human, everyone is touched with ghostliness, a Halloween/Day of the Dead music in which the mask takes on more life than the face beneath it. When nothing is left of America as we know it, if Dylan's music survives they will hear fragments of our films, pages of our Bibles, whispers in our bedrooms, explosions of our wars, animals trapped and freed, and the tenderness of our oldest songs burned with the first and bitterest voice of punk. Everything in America is in his songs, but in fragments, as though he's picking through ruins. But there is a also a strange energy, as though the ruins have a life of their own and could become whole again. He once said, "All I'm trying to tell you is that anything is possible." Which is what America was supposed to be about in the first place.

Thelonious Monk's Piano Solos. Somehow he made the instrument sound as though it were made of stone -- a stone on which a pterodactyl had once perched. Such odd sounds. With unpredictable rhythms. And sudden expectant silences rise between his notes, so that sometimes you remember the pauses more than the melody. It's a music that unobtrusively walks through walls. Think of it as a funeral march for all our dead ideas. Monk's music is of an American character, an American possibility, still unformed. It says, "There is more here, right where you are, than you can guess at."

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