Photo: Aaron Defourneaux
OpEd: Richard Paul Harper, Jr.
It is on the night after the death of the great Pete Seeger and upon streaming Henry Mancini’s “Best Of” that I write this.
The duel purpose with which the occasion compels me to jostle my thoughts down can also be revealed in the opening sentence. I awoke this morning to read of the news that Pete Seeger – the legendary folk singer and activist – had died peacefully at the age of 94. This is the first monolithic musical figure that has passed this year, but in 2013 the world lost Lou Reed, Donald Byrd, Phil Everly and Ray Price, to name the smallest amount. All major figures, both in the music community and in the popular landscape as well. But none illicit nearly as much of a reaction from me as Pete Seeger’s death did. My initial thought was that stating he died peacefully seemed a bit ill-fitting, given that the current climate in which we live (double meaning intended) can hardly be navigated in a “peaceful” manner. As such, Mr. Seeger appeared to gracefully let go of the torch he (once) carried, while still maintaining his fervor for life. Either that or he probably asked himself every day upon waking, “are you fucking kidding me?”
My next thought immediately went to the onslaughts of tributes that were about to be poured out for the righteous man. A mental rolodex began to spin of all the people who claimed Seeger as inspiration or in his lineage: Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, etc. etc. and I vowed to skim everyone of them with a dull-attention span and to not go and do likewise. In fact, en route to my relatively yuppie job bar-tending at a locally-sourced burger joint (where I also am in charge of the music during the shift), I said to myself that I wouldn’t so much as even mention his passing to anyone and would play only a few of his tracks – exclusively deep cuts – as I queued up whatever jams for that morning shift. Yet here I am. Human beings are fickle, malleable beasts.
See, the thing is this: Pete Seeger was…is…an idol of my mind. There. I said it. I’m also going to admit that every person on that list of musicians I just rattled off up there, with the exception of Dylan and Nelson, I detest and would unashamedly ridicule without blinking an eye were you to ask me my opinion of them over drinks, and no small part of that distaste stems from how they portray the elements of their craft – the charge of their task – specifically with regards to Seeger (and the shoulders of the giants, known and unknown, upon which he stood).
I also understand that I’m an asshole. So bear with me as I unpack my thoughts, both as you read this and in life. Know that they are varied and multifaceted. Know that they originate from a place of goodness in me, not unlike an injurious thorn in one’s side that can spur one on to greater levels than initially imagined. That being said: I am a recently-reformed curmudgeon, and still struggle with relapses. But I digress.
How I first came to learn of Pete Seeger was through one of my best friends, Ben Trimble, who I also play music with as Fly Golden Eagle (alongside two other very blessed friends, Matt and Mitch). Back in the earliest dawnings of my 20′s, Ben had recently seen The Power of Song, a documentary on Seeger’s life. To make a long story short, this was at a time when we both were what psychologists refer to as “politically active”, forming our own opinions on issues, and generally “coming of age” both musically and socially. (Only to find out that this happens in multiple cycles and makes a new “you” every few years or so.) The fact that Seeger took such a strong stand in his personal life was obviously appealing to us, yet one of the claws that went so deep into my spirit were the stances he took in his creative life against the bourgeoning music industry and hyper-capitalism: the incessant supply-and-demand with records and hits (even though he recorded well over 100 albums) and the nightmare-that-can-be advertising and the arts. I could go on about these subjects for such a long time that we would quickly fly past inappropriate and on to navel gazing, only to come back around to being insightful and inspiring. Needless to say, my opinion is very high of the now-semiotically worthless Pete Seeger – and others like him – thus whenever his name gets touted into public light, a little part of me cringes (and listen, I’m sorry, I know it sounds as if I think to the contrary, but I’m glad when it does).
I’m not alone in the slightest bit when I say that what this man did with his life was important. It’s encouraging to have people like him. He is a literal inspiration who dug in deep to the lighter parts of his self and became what his time – our time, even – needed. So when I hear people like Bruce Springsteen, a man who has/had a personal assistant that picks out what blue jeans he will wear with each interview/performance (same thing), is it any wonder that I cry foul? Is it really supposed to be ok with me that Mellencamp writes the most bland, inane, self-absorbed songs and gets to say he’s a torch bearer of that original movement? A “Protest Singer”? That Mumford-who-has-no-Sons, writing the most asinine, milquetoast, limp-dick and gimmick riddled tunes – who someone once called the “Pinterest of Bands” – can even be categorized in the same umbrella as someone like Pete Seeger? (Some group of people did give us the term Americana to differentiate a little bit, but with that heavily nuanced of hair-splitting, they might as well go into politics.)
I know Pete Seeger wasn’t perfect, and I have my detractions with how he handled certain things or events he sanctioned in the name of Peace and Love (The 2009 inauguration? Give me a break). And for the most part, the past few years have been coming off of that egomaniacal rant I just committed to paper, both in my personal life and in my creative self. Mainly because I love people, and when I realized that I was having – and still DO have – a hard time loving them, I knew it was a problem. Especially when they are amounting to what is an offense in my opinion regarding the things I hold most dear. (It is also worth noting that the certain instances that appear vulgar to my taste usually means that I see something of myself in them, and I am trying desperately to intuit where the plank in my own eye is. That, or they actually are evil and wrong, and those people do make terrible music. I don’t know. I guess it’s just odd to say you feel threatened by men with pompadours and/or cycling hats.)
But the hypocrisy is what I want to focus on here. Both in myself and in others. This is where Spotify comes in.
As I was listening to Henry Mancini tonight (which, for the record, in my case, is not to be viewed as overly-glamorous. Just pretentious), I thought about how exciting Spotify was as a tool. I’ve learned quite a bit from my use of it, which compared to most people, has been very short. Fairly quickly my thoughts turned to the ranting and raving that’s been going on regarding the ever-volatile landscape that is the music business, in both my friend groups and the music community, as well as culture-at-large.
The band I’m in is at a strange place right now, thus I’m in a strange place right now. We’ve garnished some local and national notoriety from the music we’ve made and the shows we’ve played (not much, mind you), and have since gotten to play some fairly high-profile gigs (Bonnaroo, Red Rocks, Cain’s Ballroom, and more), in part because some of our friends have gotten fairly successful and have taken us out (The Alabama Shakes, for example) and because we try to be a really good band. In the midst of all the fun and success we got to experience last year on the road or at home here in Nashville, we came alongside a management team. They’re the best people you can ask for and might be the best around, at least in our opinion. As time went on, we got a whole team of folks that are starting to seriously help us out because they’re behind what we do. This year is already looking more promising than last if we can keep our shit together. We have our foot in the door, as they say. All the while we’ve overanalyzed our new, insanely long record (27 songs long, just under 2 hours), calling in every favor that we can to make it sound better than anything we’ve ever done (it is) and received immense support from everybody – family, friends, fans, and other such hooligans. We’re trying to get to a place where we can all live off of music and creating, becoming profitable as both a business and a spiritual, creative enterprise, all the while trying to make sure some inherent pillar of our ethos isn’t compromised. Or, if it is – willfully or not – that we can handle it with aplomb and in a way our grandparents would be proud of.
To bring it all back home – to catch a fire – the bitch has been brewing. Meaning that, commerce and art have always made strange bed fellows, but maybe not any longer. When you have people who understand that the arts is a serious business with regards to exploring the human condition and with discovery in and of itself, are you not surprised that certain people, by hook or by crook, are going to exploit that? Whether for themselves or for the good of humankind or for money? What we have to change – and this is the true impetus for writing this – is our definition of the very things themselves. Making a living off of music – if you live in a Western, Capitalist society like I do – necessitates more than a few things from you as an artist. You should be ok with that. If you’re not, move. Or if you want to stay, maybe begin to understand that money is a disease and to minimize your need for it as much as possible will aid in canceling out complaints over album sales and Spotify streams and allow you to revel in the simple, naive creation of a piece of art or music.
If you’re foolish enough to attempt to make a living with your art – a dysfunctional idea at best – bear in mind you may never achieve this. After all, The Boss slugged it out for years before he had any success (see what I did there?) but you may not get to ever be The Boss. I may not get anywhere close to living off of something I/we create. A hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. It’s not the sum-all of being. Creating is. Living is. Experiencing is. I imagine that we, as a band, will probably – if not shrewdly – place our new album on Spotify whenever it comes out, precisely because that’s how people listen to new music a lot of the time. So do we. That’s what we’re after: people who are willing to listen. We also want to put it out on vinyl, because that’s how some people like to enjoy music. So do we. But we’d also – if the whole epic saga does get to see the light of day – like to put it out in such a way that people could listen to it from start to finish, uninterruptedly and on good speakers, because that’s how we like to listen to it now. And it would be magnificent if we all got to make a living from our creation (our managers our sure hoping so…rib rib) because it really wouldn’t take much for us to be a self-sustaining group because of how we’ve chosen to live our lives, which is rather simply. But it would also be awesome to live above the poverty line for once in my adult life (I’m not that old). However, if I really wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have chosen the path that I very consciously chose. I’m certainly not trying to play any martyr card here.
Thus, in what is an attempt to be encouraging or to begin to un-cloud my own thoughts, I write this – spurned by Seeger and Spotify – to remind all of us to make good art. That is the venerable and primary matter-at-hand. Whatever form it takes, consider the way it hits your senses; the way in which is resonates with your deeper spirit. Think about how asinine it truly is, and how beautiful at the same time. Care not for money or fame, for that is low down and for jackasses. Emulate the greats that came before, but please do it not out of some listless nostalgia, rather to get beyond your own experience; to agitate the mind of both the audience and yourself. Forget about the finicky trends and current readings of theory or pop-culture. Become indifferent to what you should do and listen to what you must do. Or, as the naturalist Edwin Way Teale said it: “The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web.”
To end, a quote from Lewis Lapham, another hero of mine (do I have grandaddy issues?) but for entirely different reasons. Which are the same:
“What blocks the passage from feeling to meaning [in art] is the replacing of the thing itself with the price or theory of the thing, which is the difference between money and art as the universal medium of human exchange proposed by Arthur Schopenhauer. “Money is human happiness in abstractco, consequently he who is no long capable of happiness in concerto sets his whole heart on money.”