Wednesday, November 01, 2006

music and function, songwriting and art

I am fascinated by the social/political function(s) of music in a community – including “church” music, and including music whose writers and performers loudly claim has no social/political function. I am interested in the “usefulness” of music, and the role it plays (the ways it is “used”) in a community.

I remember a conversation some time ago about songwriting and art. I was speaking of my admiration for Pete Seeger, and the sense of purpose and “agenda” behind his music over the course of more than 60 years. My conversation partner scoffed at the notion that “real art” could have a “purpose” or an “agenda” beyond personal “self-expression.” Or if it does, he suggested, it quickly becomes “bad art” and pedantic, boring, “propaganda” and essentially dishonest.

Sometimes Woody Guthrie is contrasted with Pete Seeger – that Pete was the one with more of a “political agenda” and Woody was more of a “pure songwriter” who was not as “tied down” or “limited” by a particular ideological slant. I don’t think this is true (maybe I’ll write more about it some other time) – in any case, Woody of course also wrote for particular purposes all the time (including specific political/ideological purposes), and what some call the most prolific period of his life – 30 days in 1940 when he wrote 26 songs - was when he was hired as a “temporary laborer” by the Bonneville Power Administration to write a series of songs about the Grand Coulee Dam.

Of course, Woody and Pete wrote their fair share of lyrics that are now positively cringe-inducing (“…a union man has a happy life when he has a union wife…”), along with the many songs of absolute genius.

As a songwriter, I find this very encouraging. How am I to know what is “good” and what isn’t in my songwriting, until I try it out and see what happens – see how it functions – in the context of the community for whom it is written? And who’s to say something isn’t “good” – even if it makes me or others cringe (now or later) – if it serves the purpose for which it was created? (Not to mention, of course, the possibility that it might serve all kinds of purposes of which the writer had no idea…)

In any case, as I said in an earlier post (“inspiration”), my own feelings and need for self-expression are not typically what inspire me to write songs. Maybe I don’t find my own feelings particularly interesting. Or maybe I just find that writing for a particular purpose – a particular cause and a particular community – much more interesting, and compelling, as a motive for songwriting.

And besides, “art” with a particular “ideological slant” – to my knowledge – has never had a corner on the “bad art” market… and I’m more inclined to be convinced by the artist that’s clear enough to be honest (or honest enough not to be clear) about his/her “ideological slant” than by the artist who claims not to have one…

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5 Comments:

At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Rebecca said...

Oh, my kids and I love "Union Maid"! "Oh, you can't scare me I'm stickin' with the Union....."

There is that one line... but the feeling I got, when singing at the top of my lungs after the 2nd Bush election, was, I think, the feeling Seeger was going for all those years ago: we're in this together and the only way we'll survive it is together.

So the universality is one thing but these songs also provide a great starting point for discussing other times and other people's persepctives.

 
At 11:06 AM, Blogger Bryan Moyer Suderman said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Rebecca!

And these songs are not only "a great starting point for discussing other times and other peoples' perspectives," as you said, but can still speak to us directly (and draw us in and get us to sing along) as you expressed so well!

"Oh you can't scare me..." indeed!

Have you read "Woody Guthrie: A Life" by Joe Klein? Fascinating stuff... and I just got "How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger" by David Dunaway, but haven't read it yet. Looking forward to it!

I also have a copy of Pete's "Musical Autobiography" ("Where Have All The Flowers Gone"), which he sent me a few years ago... maybe I'll blog about that sometime...

Keep on singing!

 
At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Tim S. said...

Have you heard Bruce Springsteen's new CD entitled "The Seeger Sessions?" Recorded in his livingroom with a band and without rehearsal! You can feel the energy of creating music (in comparison to performing music.

 
At 10:51 PM, Anonymous Aaron said...

Shameless plug: Check my blog out in a week or so for an interview I did with Steve Bell. He had a lot to say on this subject.

 
At 10:23 PM, Blogger Bryan Moyer Suderman said...

I've heard some snippets, but haven't actually heard Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" album. The criticism in one review I read was that Springsteen managed to do a collection of songs associated with Seeger without including any overtly "political" ones... quite remarkable, given who Seeger is, and given the current context...

 

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