Category: Writing

A Note on Quality

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Across time, as musical styles evolve, there is a tendency for them to ossify and solidify in time. For example, when is the last time there was a new era in Jazz or Blues? We play the same type of sounds that were played years ago. 

We look at genres in the same way we look at classical music– frozen in time. This allows us to say “this is country music,” “this sounds like rock and roll,” or “this guy is ripping off Charlie Parker.”

While there is nothing inherently wrong about this, I do notice a specific trend: Technicality of the music becomes the paradigm. For example, many types of modern metal music feature quick and accurate guitar licks. Or, in Blues music, the technicavirtuosic playing of Stevie Ray Vaughn is a far-cry from the slow and vocal-like playing of Muddy Waters. 

As I mentioned, this technicality is not a bad thing, it is a natural aspect of a music evolving within a form. Over time, once what was considered a “bluesy” sound becomes agreed upon, the logical next step is for players to become virtuosos in the style and hone the skills that led to making the great players great. In other words, we focus on the means to the end.

However, this is a quantitate approach. Once speed, accuracy, and vocabulary become the paradigm of what makes a “good player,” it becomes a game of measurable quantifiers. The best player would be the fastest, the most accurate, and the player with the most licks. 

These aspects of music should be looked at as aspects of quality, a means to an end, instead of an end in itself. 

After all, many great players from across genres often did not play fast, or particularly accurately, or have an endless bag of sounds. 

Look no further than Townes Van Zandt to see a  great musician than often played slowly, sometimes ‘sloppily,’ and played with a distinct but specific bag of licks.

While many consider Townes’ music ‘simple,’ keep in mind simplicity does not always equate to quality. Simplicity, like speed, is just a means to an end. 

It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.

The goal of music should be to express something to the listener, and only a focus on quality will ensure that every note is a piece of the message. 

If you are learning to play an instrument, or just a music fan, look for quality in what you play or what you hear.

Music should represent the player to the world.

The music should be an end in itself. 

Bad songs vs. Good songs vs. Great songs

I remember telling my friend in high school that the reason I loved the Beatles was because all of their recordings were good, there were none that I didn’t like.

Now I would change this statement to:

Some of their recordings weren’t good–

some of their recordings were great–

and some are bad. 

Later, when I started listening seriously to the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, I realized there were quite a few tracks I didn’t like at all. A couple examples is this copy of Stagger Lee by the Dead or this song from Leonard Cohen.

Despite these examples’ clear badness as songs, I thought they were good because I was unable to divorce the artist from their work.

There are a lot of arguments you can make about how art is a representation of the artist.  To critique art is to critique the artist.

However, to truly understand the art you love, you have to realize that an artist can create a lot of duds. These artists we love are just mortals like you and I, no matter how much we deify them. 

Let’s take Robert Johnson as a prime example of this effect.

Johnson had a short career. He died at age 27 in 1938 from being poisoned. If dying from poison isn’t enough proof that Johnson wasn’t a god, I don’t know what is (sorry Clapton fans).

Later rock-and-roll and blues fans claimed Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and was given incredible musical skills. If you listen to his tunes like Me and the Devil Blues or Crossroads Blues you can see how this myth perpetuated:

In truth, Robert Johnson was just a great musician who played a lot of other styles besides blues. We even have a recording of his hokum tune They’re Red Hot. He lived a hard life, traveled around the south to play music, and then died violently. In his life he recorded 29 different songs, with 13 surviving alternate takes of these songs.

I don’t like the song They’re Red Hot, but I still think Robert Johnson was a great musician. A lot of people, who deify Robert Johnson do not accept that any of his work could possibly be bad.

To really appreciate music, we have to be able to discriminate against certain recordings and understand that they are not good. This outlook is especially important for old recordings because there wasn’t really any post processing, we got an honest view of an artist’s performance at the time. 

At the same time, we can always be grateful we have these recordings to formulate these opinions. 

Blind Boy Fuller is another example of a prolific artist who made some poor recordings. There a lot sociological reasons why these recordings were bad, but the point is that we can separate artists from their work. 

We shouldn’t assume that because we love an artist, everything they produce is gold. Realizing this improved my own musicianship, as I became able to understand that some sounds will appeal to people for a longtime, and some sounds are relics of a time, or simply bad. 

As a final comparison, check out these three songs by 12-string wizard Blind Willie Mctell. I think the first song is bad, the second song is good, and the last is great. 

What songs do you think are bad, good, or great? 

Journey to the Country

I found out about Townes Van Zandt long after I was into the blues.

But maybe that’s a good thing.

Earlier into my listening days, I may have written him off just because he was described as country music.

We all get older, and we hopefully realize that everything we were so sure about was absolutely wrong.

Due to a country music craze in college, I was exposed to modern country radio hits constantly. For years, I would be that guy that would say ‘I like a lot of music, except country.’

Townes van Zandt’s music came to me after I had been primed by two artists: Scrapper Blackwell and Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Blackwell’s song Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out really stood out to me. For some reason it reminded me of the song You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story.

This association made me begin to wake up to the possibility that country music was approachable for me.

Alvin Youngblood Hart is a contemporary artist who I discovered by chance while roving on YouTube. When I dug into his music, my favorite tracks were his country inspired tunes.

His song Tallacatcha really stood out to me:

These two artists primed me for Townes van Zandt’s music coming to me in exactly the right place and time.

I was ready for an artist like him and I was holed-up reading about music in a rainy hotel in Salzburg.

Although it was not the first time I had seen Van Zandt’s name, this time I stopped and listened.

Waitin’ Around to Die was the first song I came across:

What Townes taught me, is that I can feel the expression of his art, even though it’s clothed in a country approach. The music permeated the hard shell I had put up against country music touching me.

Thank god it did.

When something we resent becomes something we love, it shows how many little ideals we baselessly hold onto. 

It also shows us the process of letting go. 

I love how we learn lessons through a seemingly disconnected series of events lining up perfectly.

When we see the result, we cannot imagine life having worked any differently.

Everything is easier to see in retrospect though—

—and the journey always continues.

How did I find the blues?

I love country blues music.

I’m not talking about electric guitars and shuffle rhythms.

I’m talking about the real old blues.

The country-blues were regional African-American folk musics. These sounds laid the foundation for music today, and continues to be present, even if it’s just an esoteric ghost of a memory.

I found this music during a long journey, meandering through genres and artists, not knowing what I was looking for until I found it.

My journey started with the Grateful Dead. I always liked the acoustic songs like Brokedown Palace, Ripple, and Black Peter. This was Clue #1 to what I was looking for.

Clue #2 was when I started listening to Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. I was really drawn to their earlier music— their unconventional voices and acoustic guitar accompaniment struck me.

Young’s and Cohen’s music seemed so immediate and self-sufficient. I felt that these singers were drawing on something rich.

A source I could feel but not understand. 

Clue #3 hit me like a train— it was like lenses suddenly snapping into focus. The path on my journey was illuminated.

This moment occurred when I stumbled on a video of the blues singer Lightning Hopkins playing Baby, Please Don’t Go.

Afterwards I thought to myself: This is how the guitar is supposed to sound.

My new mission was to capture and fill my head with that sound.

Have I been able to capture it? No, because that’s the journey. Discovering the blues was just the clearest step on the journey thus far.

What I did manage to capture was the realization that I’m drawn to the image and sounds of the lone singer-songwriter bearing themselves to the world. 

In order to express themselves in a way that touches us, they have to tap into that rich channel.

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I feel like when I play guitar for people, or hear the music of one of these singer-songwriters, I get to tap into that richness and get to experience it again.

If only for those moments.

My journey has led me to many interesting stations, and I am excited to share them with you.

If you haven’t heard the old country blues music, listen to it.

It will give you the foundation to understand where all the music we love came from and also hopefully make you feel like I did when I first heard it.