Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to Indoctrinate People

The role of records in my early life was strictly utilitarian. My parents weren't record fetishists like I am; they had reasons for buying records that had almost nothing to do with collecting. It was pretty much just a combination of their personal taste (classical) and the need to have some pop stuff on hand for when they had parties. The pop ones I remember are Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's Going Places!, Blood Sweat & Tears 3 and, I don't remember any others. When I was a teenager and asked my dad why in the heck, out of all the records that came out in the 60s and 70s, Blood Sweat & Tears 3 is the one rock record they felt the need to own, he said they needed some music for their bridge parties.


For me, they had a few kiddie records. I remember exactly one kiddie record from my toddlerdom, and it's a record I still have. It's by Marc Field and it's called On Top of Spaghetti and Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and Other Favorite Songs for Children. (It's really hard to find information about Marc Field on the internet, because he had the misfortune of having a name that would later be a computer science term [and a metadata/library science related one at that!]; a yahoo search on the name at least turns up more persons [though none appears to be him], possibly revealing interesting differences between Google's and Yahoo's different approaches to search technology.) The Internet does have this video of a song from the record, a song whose title ("Drag the Magic Puffin") I recall but I can honestly say that despite dozens of plays of the record as a toddler, and perhaps a dozen more in my adult years including twice in the last month, it doesn't even sound familiar to me. I just now had to play the record again just to verify that it's on there. It is - it's the second song on side two, between "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" and "Blue Tail Fly", both of which I remember quite well. It's the only original song on the album (Marc Field wrote it!), and it's, um, not that good of a song, so maybe that's why it escaped my notice until now.

Yeah so that's not the record that Frances picked out for me. Syke!

On the dissecting table today is Marc Field's label-mate at Rocking Horse Records, the Rocking Horse Orchestra and Chorus, and their album Puff the Magic Dragon and Other Favorite Folk Songs. I picked it up about twelve or fifteen years ago when I decided to explore other records on the same label as my very first record. This mini-collection effort ultimately turned up seven LPs, including the alarmingly titled Magic Toy Shop Where Music Brings the Toys to Life, a record of hymns called Children's Songs of Reverence, a couple of fairy-tale story records, and the Marc Field record. They're all loosely organized by themes - some are hymn-y religious-y, some are folksy, some are fairy tale-y - but the aesthetic is pretty unified. It's a synthesis on records of various strands of folk and religious tradition that together perpetuate the values and legend of America. Middle class values, with a heavy emphasis on religion.

On this album, the Rocking Horse Orchestra is a guitar and a banjo, and the Chorus, as far as I can discern, has a single female and two or three male voices. They're singing in that 50s folk idiom, like Burl Ives or the Kingston Trio. I'm picturing them in black and white vertical striped shirts, with those round stiff flat hats.

What's interesting is the repertoire. In particular, two of the songs are ones that I know from Lead Belly's recordings: "Ha-Ha Thisaway" and "Pick a Bale of Cotton".

Whoa. Hold on. Wait a minute. "Pick a Bale of Cotton"? Hmm...

So you put the record on. It's called "Puff the Magic Dragon", and that's the first song: a version of Peter, Paul and Mary's bittersweet ode to the orphaned creation of a child who no longer needs childish things. You're all set for a loose, fanciful journey through the institution of middle class childhood: joy and sorrow; wondrous stories; love and learning; candy and popcorn. Instead, you're immediately thrust into the problematic chorus of the next song: "Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton, oh Lordy, pick a bale a day."

A song can be a challenge, a message with multiple meanings. This song is undeniably happy-sounding. It's not just the kiddie singers that make it happy. The most famous version is Lead Belly's, and it was also famously recorded by the British folk singer Lonnie Donegan and, bizarrely, ABBA; none of these versions have a hint of sadness or melancholy about them. In contrast to the manic mood of the tune, the scant lyrics evoke a back-breaking labor ("Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton, jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day"). Enslaved people weren't the only ones that picked cotton, especially in the South of the early 20th Century; plenty of white people broke their hands and backs in this way - historically, it's a labor associated with people of limited means and limited choices. But if that's all the song evokes, a kind of populist poor-people solidarity, why should I even have to mention race? What's the first thing you think of when you think of cotton picking? As a cultural reference, there's no separating it from the institution of slavery and the narrative of race in America.

There's no clear record of who wrote "Pick a Bale of Cotton". However, no recordings or references to it exist before the early 1930s, so it most likely originated in a prison farm around that time, and it's safe to say that Lead Belly, who had been an inmate in Texas and Louisiana, encountered it there. He wasn't the first to record it, so he probably didn't write it, but whoever did wasn't far from him in time or space. A prison farm in Texas in 1930 probably didn't look or feel too different from a plantation in Georgia in 1830 - with the polarization of the post-Reconstruction South, the loss of the security of the unquestioned order and status quo that existed in the slavery era, and the fact of it being a prison rather than a business, it could have been as bad or worse. And what survived to tell the tale? A song. A song written not to make a buck, not to express a creative impulse, not to win friends and influence people; rather, a song written to make the hours of agony go by, to scratch the itch, to divert the mind from the pain and boredom of insane reality.

A pure song; a song meant to annihilate pain with absurd happiness; a response to hell. A happy, catchy pop song.

Another absurdity is the amount of work called for: a bale of cotton was 500 pounds. Nobody could do that in a day. It's this crazy exaggeration, the invoking of super-human ability to call out the ridiculousness of endless work.

It's an absurdity of contrast: the happy tune with the hellish words; the superhuman task depicted with the dehumanization of the people who had to do it; the straight-up catchiness of the snappy hook with the discomfort the song as a whole. The circumstances of its creation and the circumstances that nurtured it through time and space, a message cryptically divorced from its meaning, a folk song without context on a children's record for white middle class kids. An extraordinary reclaiming by human minds of an essential fact of humanity: a legacy from the pit of hell.

The opposite of "Drag the Magic Puffin": a song that won't let you forget it, no matter how much you want to. A song that does what a song's supposed to do, too well.

The thing about music is, it can be really, really catchy. Its distortion of the way you perceive time gives it its power: simultaneously, it simplifies and deepens its subject. I'd guess that no one in that prison farm where they started singing that song for the first time some 80 years ago cared where it would go, or who would hear it beyond a hundred yards away, and yet here we are today in a world where it reached across generations to boondoggle hundreds of thousands of people. Was it the extreme circumstances of its creation that gave it its staying power? Was it just an unusually catchy song, or is there something about those words and that music that touches a deep place inside us?

No idea. I do know this, though: a message divorced from its meaning, a work song scrubbed of its difficult origin, has a dangerous power. Songs can have so much power that without historical context, they can perpetuate evil. Ironic intent is lost or construed as its opposite; bitter, angry men become happy darkies; history is rewritten.

Puff, the Magic Dragon and Other Favorite Folk Songs is another such misguided message. Its existence as a kiddie record, devoid of context regarding its creators' intent, renders its mixed messages instantly cryptic. I think the Rocking Horse crew had a legitimate belief in the good they were doing. Preserving the folk legacy of America; instilling Christian values.

They open side two with this, another Lead Belly number:

Ha-ha thisaway, ha-ha thataway
Ha-ha thisaway, then oh then

Ha-ha thisaway, ha-ha thataway
Ha-ha thisaway, then oh then

When I was a little boy, a little boy, a little boy
When I was a little boy a few years old

My daddy went and left me, left me, left me
My daddy went and left me, I've been told

Life's not all candy and popcorn, kids. Be happy you're one of the lucky ones. The story of "Ha-Ha Thisaway" continues: his mom and his school were good to him, they taught him the Golden Rule, they saved his soul. So the dad leaving seemed like it was gonna be a problem, but he's cool with it cause his soul got saved. To which I say: right on. Still and all, it seems like kind of a downer of a bio to be presenting in kiddie song format. I guess the Brothers Grimm's and Charles Dickens's tales for tots had their share of broken homes too, and worse.

Charles Murray, writing in last Sunday's Washington Post, discusses the New Elite that the new populist movement in America has coalesced in opposition to, and with which I, however reluctantly and incompletely, must identify. This New Elite has as one of its less endearing qualities a tendency to look the other way from the ugliness that life has to offer. We've got an easily offended sensibility. "Colorblindness" is a potentially really destructive attitude that's come out of this tendency as my generation has come of age. Colorblindness is the impulse of privileged, majority-racial-group middle class people to say, "Racism is icky. I'm not racist - everyone is the same!" It ignores institutionalized, entrenched inequalities, expects the same standard of behavior from everyone regardless of their background, and thus ultimately perpetuates racism. One of the most powerful ways to fight the damage colorblindness can cause is by talking about race, especially with children, and especially if you're part of the privileged group.

Kindermusik, the music education program Frances has attended since she was six months old, uses for more than half of its material traditional songs from many different cultures. In some cases, the tunes they use have problematic histories and lyrics - and their approach is usually to change the lyrics. So "Ten Little Indians" becomes "Ten Little Bubbles". Kindermusik has the resources to contextualize and create dialogue around difficult issues - but they've mostly chosen the "colorblind" approach.

I'm not sure that it's really part of Kindermusik's mission, or their responsibility even, to confront these difficult issues. In fact, you might characterize their attempt to reclaim these tunes from history and use the power of the songs to teach language, rhythm and motion, rather than divisiveness and racial stereotyping, as admirable. But whether it's Kindermusik or Rocking Horse Records, one thing is clear: catchy songs often outlive the circumstances of their origins. A catchy song is the best way to get a kid's attention - and once you get the kid's attention, they will believe whatever message you are sending.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Weird and Poppy

Frances really called my bluff this time. "You really want to know what lurks in the dark corners of your record collection? What's sitting there in between the records you want me to pull?" Apparently I can't handle the truth.

Frances stuck her little hand in the W's once again, and this time came out with a record that's been there since the very start, the pre-record-collecting days. A record that's watched, neglected, as the collection exploded and multiplied around it, since 1985.

Nineteen eighty-five.

That was a tough year. I didn't have much of an identity socially, beyond "the smart kid" - which is a pretty damaging one to the social life of a 12 year old. Fortunately, I have the obsessive tendencies of a collector, a materialism whose end is to be a kind of archivist, a life-long project to define and encapsulate my appreciation through possession. I remember when it clicked that I could buy the music I heard on the radio, and that my commercialized, materialized appreciation of this music could be translated into points for social standing. The corner of K-Mart where they sold the cassettes (interestingly, the same corner, relative to the entrance, where CDs, books and electronics are currently displayed in my local Target) became a magical wonderland.

When I was 12, I would always get the weirdest stuff I could find - it was like, weird was code for good. When I was 12, I didn't have much of a record collection. I did have some funny ideas about music. I still have the same ideas, but they have become heavier through a process of accretion - just like my record collection. The funny ideas, like the record collection, boil down pretty cleanly to just two things: weird and poppy. Poppy in the sense of pretty melody and harmony. Like Gymnopedie No. 1. Weird in the sense of, hmm. Let's say, subverting the world of commonly accepted thoughts, artistic practices, and values, precisely by referring to and juxtaposing those values in unexpected ways. Like screwing and chopping an Olsen Twins video, or Lil B the Based God.

(The stuff I thought was weird in 1984 doesn't seem too legit in its weirdness to me now. I was convinced that Pink Floyd was the weirdest band. So ok, Ummagumma still looks and sounds totally bizarre. It's weird to me, though, that I could hear everything from The Dark Side of the Moon through Wish You Were Here and The Wall to The Final Cut and still remain convinced that Floyd was the most tripped-out band in the history of anything. It just goes to show the power of marketing, cover art, and reputation to shape the opinions of 12 year olds [even smart ones like I think I was] in suburban Middle America.)

Weird and poppy. The first music I ever purchased was a cassette of Duran Duran's album Arena, which had "The Wild Boys" on it - a song that I was convinced I liked cause it had a video with weird slime and monsters lurking in black water and stuff. My other music purchases around this time - mostly vinyl 7" singles - reveal a forming taste that was equal parts poppy melody and weirdness: "One Night in Bangkok"; Paul Hardcastle's "19"; a 12" single of "Let's Go All the Way" by Sly Fox; Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome (also on cassette, and featuring a totally lame cover of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" that wasn't on the CD that I got later. The CD didn't omit the totally rockin' cover of "Born to Run", though. I didn't realize either of these was a cover, and the first time I heard the Boss's version of "Born to Run" I was shocked that his vocals were so bad - it sounded like he was sleeping!).

These 80s pop gems (ok so yeah, I also had both the album and the single for "We Are the World". Not every purchase was a winner) were the seed of my peculiar, life-long attempt to document myself. The collection I began before I read a list (in some forgotten book that I can now recognize as having been by a Baby Boomer with a critical agenda) of the definitive albums of the Rock Era, and before I graduated into a Dazed and Confused-style high school where the cool kids all listened to Classic Rock. Sly Fox and Duran Duran soon gave way to a dominant paradigm well-characterized by the first two albums I got on CD: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Workingman's Dead. (I was convinced this second would be Weird, but the music didn't deliver. Waaaaay too country and not weird at all.) From the Beatles, I moved on to New Order, Public Enemy, Meat Loaf, Guns n' Roses, the Art of Noise... But before I got all that way, I had created the kernel of my collection, and one of the records I bought before the layers began building up was this stand-up comedy record by the weirdest guy I'd ever seen: Steven Wright.

25 years on, I Have a Pony still exudes a legit bizarritude. It's not the weirdness that makes it funny, though: it's funny cause he's a talented comedian and he has all the skills that make people laugh, like uncanny timing, observations that sound fresh (but in 2010 they still don't sound dated, even when he's riffing on 80s stand-bys like microwaves or "calling information"), and dextrous Groucho Marx-style bait-and-switch. It's weird, and poppy.

And you know what else is on this record? There's a super pretty little song! It's called "Rachel", and it's really touching and heartfelt. These are the lyrics:

Hey hey, Rachel dear
How I wish you were here
Hey hey, I can almost see you

He just pulls out his guitar at one point during his act, and starts playing. So cute! He makes it work by filling up the verses with Steven Wright-style one-liners: "I met her in Macy's in New York City. She was buying clothes, and I was putting Slinkys on the escalators." "I don't know how she did it, but Rachel got poison ivy on her brain. The only way she could scratch it was if she thought about sandpaper." But when he gets to the chorus, it's totally straight, sitting-around-the-campfire love. The crowd even sings along, without being cajoled.

It's safe to say that I haven't played this record in 25 years. And as you can see from the (hopefully brief enough) indulgent self-analysis I've just subjected you to, the forced re-opening of my dialogue with it has got me thinking more about myself than the record. These jokes are branded into my brain, I can't even begin to approach it with a critical distance. I seriously just went on youtube and started looking up songs that I know I'm supposed to think are crappy, but no! This one is totally awesome! So is this one! And this one! Oh my gosh, this one!!!! We're all doomed to forever love whatever crappy music we heard when we were 12, and defend its merits till the day we die. The actual quality of the music has very little to do with it. (I didn't make that theory up, Chris Bickel did, but I agree with all my heart.)

Yeah so memories. Record collecting as self-documentation. Useful? Maybe if you're really into yourself. Or if you think you're worth other people being into. I'm into myself. I have another life-long project too, though - it's trying to learn how to be into other people, and see the world through other people's eyes. One day I'll write about how my record collection helps me do that, too. It's the antidote for its own poison.