Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis Pt 2: Jazz

In the first part I suggested that the Coen brothers spotted something in Elijah Wald's biography of Dave Van Ronk that Wald himself hadn't noticed. This something had to do with the shame that comes from thinking of yourself as a loser.

Which is why it's time to talk about jazz.


Take a look at that excerpt from Van Ronk's Wikipedia page that shows up in the movie as the bio for Llewyn Davis's dead partner (remembering that Van Ronk was Wald's dead partner in writing the book that inspired the movie):
His first professional gigs were with various traditional jazz bands around New York, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" But the trad jazz revival had already passed its prime, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across while shopping for jazz 78s, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context. 
Notice the self deprecation? Of course you did, it's kind of hard to miss.  What you might not know is that this spectre of inferiority ran through Van Ronk's entire life. Here is a piece that Wald wrote about Van Ronk almost ten years ago:
"Without that training I got from Jack and hanging around with other would-be jazz musicians, all the other things wouldn't really mean much," Van Ronk says, and he means it. In terms of musical knowledge, he has often felt like Gulliver in Lilliput beside the unschooled folkies around him, but he can remember his days in Brobdingnag, playing rhythm guitar at jam sessions that could occasionally include giants like Coleman Hawkins or Johnny Hodges. Asked what they thought of his efforts, he grimaces and says "They were always very polite."
That phrase, "other would-be jazz musicians" tells you a lot about the man who said it. It's sort of like the guy who lumps himself and his wife's ex-boyfriend together as other would-be studs. Van Ronk wanted to be a jazz musician more than anything and he failed at that. That failure haunted him all his life; the problem is that when he gave up on jazz he moved to the genre that later came to be called folk but rather that he carried with him a sense of worthlessness.

Go to any well-attended classical music concert, any jazz concert and, indeed, any folk music concert in the land and you will find in the audience a significant number of people who play musical instruments or who sing and get enjoyment out of doing it but know that they could never be good enough to headline the show they paid to see. They have no trouble adjusting to that. Van Ronk did have trouble; he spent the rest of his life being incapable of internalizing his own considerable achievements. Like Llewyn Davis, who can't see that Jean loves him because he secretly hates himself and can't quite believe that anyone would love him even though he wants to be loved more than anything else.

The Coen brothers picked up on this spectre of jazz that haunted Van Ronk and it haunts Llewyn Davis as well. You can see it right from the opening in the Gorfein's apartment which has pictures of jazz greats on the wall. Meanwhile, Llewyn is their "folk music friend" and the ambiguity that goes with that is further underlined when Llewyn visits them later and another of their guests plays Early Music, which is to say music that, unlike folk, has something that vaguely resembles a claim to authenticity behind it. The point is further underlined when Llewyn gets on the elevator and we see, on the wall behind him, a painting based on a photograph of the semi-mythical jazz musician Buddy Bolden and his band. (I say semi-mythical because, while he actually existed, virtually every other thing claimed of him is found in self-serving stories told about him later by others.) Finally, when Llewyn makes the trip to Chicago that becomes a visit to the underworld in his imagination, the man who torments him on this trip is a jazz musician.

The folk singer with imposter syndrome

All of which wouldn't amount to much if this were JUST a story about a guy with a case of impostor syndrome. There are lots of such guys about: the relationships I had with my first two girlfriends were both driven by my imposter syndrome. You have your story too. What makes Van Ronk interesting is that he became an icon for guys like Elijah Wald:
I first saw Dave Van Ronk perform at Boston's Jordan Hall, sometime around 1972. He remembers the gig as well, because there were about 15 people in the theater. I don't remember anything about that. All I remember is Van Ronk's incredible stage presence He seemed to grow and fill the whole room, singing with a hypnotic intensity that made it impossible to think of anything else.
Notice the contradiction between "Van Ronk's incredible stage presence" and there being "about fifteen people in the theater".  There were some 800,000 people living in Boston at that point and many hundreds of thousands more in the suburbs around and yet hardly anyone showed up to see a man with "incredible stage presence"?

The problem is here is not that Van Ronk wasn't talented. He was very good at what he did. The problem is that Van Ronk himself was never satisfied with his own success because he could never quite believe in it. And he passed that unbelief on to his disciples. The puzzling question is, "Why did they lap it up?"

Folk music's bizarre obsession with authenticity

There is a great scene in the classic Frank Capra movie It Happened One Night. A spontaneous sing along breaks out on a bus and the song the passengers sing is "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze".  It's an entirely credible scene as the song had been the subject of a hit movie two years earlier. More than that, however, it was an old song written some 70 years before the movie. People already knew it. Why isn't that song a folk song? It was actually known by and popular among the folk.

Any rational person would say that yes, it is folk. Folk music aficionados, however, say no. The reason they say this, in so far as there is a reason, which isn't very far at all, is that "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" lacks authenticity. Yes, people like it and they actually know it, which is more than you can say for most folk music (indeed, more than you can say about most folk culture).

"Authenticity" is a slippery word. You can see the problem in the last sentence of the excerpt about Van Ronk  I cited from WIkipedia above:
Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context. 
What is the original context? That is an expression with no meaning. The actual original context was that this was music created by people whose ancestors had been kidnapped and sold into slavery and then brutally oppressed for many generations and who, living in extreme poverty and entirely without rights, created this music because they needed entertainment and nothing else was available. And Van Ronk—a man who lived in an era so prosperous that he was able to leave his day job and make his living as a singer and guitarist even though he himself believed that he wasn't nearly as talented as some of his peers—somehow duplicated this authenticity in his performance? How?

The study of folk culture began in the Romantic era and, tellingly, it began fraudulently. The romantics wanted to believe that music was made by two kinds of people: isolated geniuses and "the folk". When they didn't find it, people made it up. Eventually, others came along and did the work more diligently but no one ever found any folk culture that was terribly popular with actual folks. They tended to find folk culture that is actually practiced by the folk in places that were so poor and isolated that they couldn't get access to or didn't like what was available from commercially produced popular culture, which, not incidentally, is also where you tend to find it today.

Which isn't to say that we don't have stuff that might legitimately be called folk culture today. Fan fiction should be called folk culture as should blogs, FaceBook, YouTube, Tumblr and Pinterest. Our folk music culture consists of people sharing digital recordings and not making their own sounds. Not incidentally, one of the interesting things these modern folk cultures all have in common with more ancient examples is a disregard for copyright. Folk culture can't thrive where someone owns the rights to melodies, phrases and stories. In that sense, the Romantics were right. But they also missed something even more important about it.

That something is that folk culture doesn't care where it comes from. Real folk culture is about anything but authenticity. Oppressed peoples cheerfully pick up the culture of their oppressors. To take one painfully incorrect example of this: a huge part of what came to be known as American folk culture in the 20th century came straight out of a 19th century travesty called the minstrel show.

The minstrel show is rightly called a travesty because its purveyors took what they partly believed and partly imagined to be the folk culture of American blacks. But, however it began, it became a huge part of actual American folk culture. In fact, Van Ronk's project of doing authentic performances of folk music was really just updated minstrel show without blackface.

The problem isn't that some people like to take up the cultural products of other ethnic groups. That is what folk culture is all about. The problem comes when someone does this because they are searching for "authenticity" to fill an empty spot in their souls brought about by a sense of imposter syndrome.

Why this matters, or should matter, to men

The really important thing about folk music and trad jazz before it, is that this is guy music.These genres are examples of the sort of music men like to listen to for our own entertainment. Pop music almost always tends to be girl-driven and we men tend to listen to that because it gets us close to girls and not because we like it.

Trad jazz is a good example of this. College boys ate it up starting just before the 1920s. There was a lot of popular music of the sort girls liked in the 1920s called jazz but young men went after something particular they liked. That music never became really popular. It was rapidly eclipsed by swing in the 1930s but there were enough men who liked traditional jazz to keep it alive for four solid decades.

As I say, folk culture doesn't care where it comes from and Trad Jazz was male folk culture for a long time. Van Ronk's real achievement, and this is something very substantial, was to make a new kind of male folk culture out of the remnants of Trad Jazz, ragtime, blues and other genres. He was concerned with "authenticity" and thus he focused on what he took to be black music but we don't need to take up his pathologies when we carry on male folk culture.

Hell, it doesn't have to be folk. But, as men, we need a culture of our own, a culture that isn't driven by the sexual agenda of wanting to be near girls. Wanting to be near girls is the only reason we pay attention to bestsellers in pop culture.

But we shouldn't be like girls. Girls are obsessed with peer approval and social policing. They need to believe that their interests are approved by other girls; no girls is ever happy swooning over Bieber or whomever unless she believes her peers do as well. Men have different needs and the culture that is going to attract girls is useless to us. We like culture that gives us a project. The project might be learning to play the music we listen to, it might be studying it, it might be getting good at making distinctions so we can tell one sax player from another just by hearing them. It might not be music at all; it could be watching and discussing Coen brothers movies. It could be making and playing folk instruments or it could be building a boat. It could be singing madrigals. It doesn't really matter, so long as we have a project to go with it.

In closing, an example. This is Lil Rev. He is firmly in the tradition that Van Ronk established and he's having fun with it. He's having because he is also (probably unconsciously) part of a tradition that grew out of college boys playing and singing music that had nothing to do with them just because it was fun to play at it. The most famous example of this is "My Darling Clementine" a song whose sad subject matter became a joke for the college boys who sang it. That is the attitude a healthy person takes to culture; they have enough of a sense of themselves as men that they can treat culture as something that exists for fun and not to give us an identity.

Bonus: Listen and learn from der Bingle. He does it straight for 1:18 and then makes it fun.

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