Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Robinson Crusoe's Headphones

If you eavesdrop enough in coffee shops or bars, you'll realize that my generation suffers an irrational fear of being stranded on desert islands. To our credit, we spend a lot of time preparing, mentally, for this eventuality. We plan, we consider, we debate. Commonly, the biggest question is which music to take. And that question's gotten weird, as my peers have watched it go from “which CD's do you take?” to I guess, “what do you download before leaving?” or something. And of course previous generations worried over tapes and albums, but I do think this latest shift is the most significant. So I've been giving this some thought and have come to the conclusion that I could make due with only two recordings:

'Big Country' By Bela Fleck, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ('The New World Symphony')
If I get to pick, I'll take the live version of 'Big Country', recorded at The Quick. And as long as the No. 9 is handled competently, by a professional orchestra, I'll be happy. I do like classical recordings where you can hear the occasional cough, though.

Both of these are pieces that will keep your hope from flagging and you'll possibly even remain in love with everything. They're broad, like landscape paintings put to music. They're inspiring; one is jubilant, the other is resolute and stirring. I'll tackle 'Big Country' first.

As the name implies, this song evokes the broad, glorious American landscape, and thanks to Bela Fleck's Jazz banjo styling, it strikes me as first and foremost a Southern journey. I'm not typically a fan of jam bands; I generally feel that it's true for both the Dead and Phish that their studio work outshines the live 'experience'. Heresy, I know, but I guess really for me it's about separating the event of the concert from the artifact of the song. That being said, this song, to me, is the ultimate expression of what a 'Jam' should be. It reminds me a little of the Bremmentown Musicians, and it seems to have a life of it's own outside of the artists performing it.
It feels very much like listening in on a conversation between a few very good friends who speak an incredibly beautiful language. The excitement builds, they reach agreements, they finish each others sentences, the saxophone is convincing the guitar to just go, the guitar gladly acquiesces, and the banjo comes in to lead them like Dean Moriarty. It's jaunty, it brings to mind all of our best folk traditions. If functions perfectly as an instrumental of course, and thats just as well, because the only man who could ever fittingly compose lyrics for this tall-tale hymn would be Mark Twain.

Antonin Dvorak, as a Russian, managed to capture what so many foreigners do and so few Americans ever can: the true scope and grip of our country. Outsiders don't take anything for granted. The New World Symphony is a sort of imaginary train ride through the whole nation, from coast to coast, New England, bayou, desert, Rockies, and plains. It evokes the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, and the first World War. It's darker than 'Big Country', but with a glimmer of hopefulness that keeps it from receding into melancholy. To me, this piece has always been a kind of call to action, a stirring anthem to embrace that which makes us great. In its minor tonality, it also highlights the problems we've faced, and all in all, this work encapsulates my feelings on the Republic. Everything I love about our country is there: the people, the vision, the landscape, the brotherhood. But in it's downturns, it also mediates on our struggles with our social contract and our departure from the original vision of our founders. It's both a celebration and a dirge for what the industrial revolution has done to what should have been a nation of farmers; but for better or for worse, has become a nation of builders.

Of course there's much more to each of these pieces than my thoughts of American history and culture. They're both just incredibly wrought expressions, and just plain fun. But for a response more intellectual than emotional (Cohen's 'Suzanne', while an amazing song which I love, would only hasten the desert island suicide.) I'd choose to be left with these two, as they'd help me hold on to hope and sanity. They'd keep me thinking, keep me ambitious, and remind me that we're all on the shoulders of giants, no matter how far from them we may be.

Incidentally, I write all of this while traveling in a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to New York. I'm watching it all slide by silently out my window, and I'm very, very glad I didn't choose to fly.


  1. Your descriptions of these two songs is really quite incredible. I've read song reviews before and it seems the author only talks about what the he/she hears, but never really digs deep into what the song makes them feel. I've also enjoyed dissecting a song down to its core, even if it wasn't what the artist intended. Isn't that what art is for anyway? I'm tempted to listen to "Big Country" now that I've heard the inside story of the melodies. I'm not a country fan, and I'm hestitant to listen to jam bands and folk artists because it seems so one-sided to me. But you've piqued my interest. And of course, being a huge fan of Russian literature I'll have to take another listen to Dvorak as well. Thanks for your unbridled insight.