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Listening selections for the Resident Masters book

Tuesday 8/10/21

As someone who follows my career would know, much is always being created at once. That must seem a strange way to work. It's like lifting weights--the mind can be, that is. My mind can lift a lot of weight at once. That's where I've progressed to. These works are in various stages. Eventually, they all get across the finish line. It's as if I have a tiered finish line, if that makes sense. Or a runway. I land the planes. One after another. But it's not like just one is up in the air.

One of the music books I will be doing--am doing--is called Resident Masters: Six Epic, Extended Sessions that Channeled and Changed American Music History. I'm fascinated by deeply American music from a time when there was much more cross-pollination of art and ideas. A freedom in art-making. A de-shackling. Or an anti-shackling. Whereas now--and my work is the lone exception, I believe--everything is so locked in as one simple, restrictive, means of creation. There is no freedom in art or entertainment, there's no range. No one has a range of styles, voices, characters, settings, modes, shapes, mediums. There is no layering, no richness that comes with levels of depth and the wide gaze and comprehension of multiple planes at once. There is lockstep. There is rote. There is a type of a type of a type of a type. There is limitation. There is no horizon. It's just that same old boring piece of bark from a tree, pushed up into your face, but it's not even an astute study of that bark. Then everyone starts to think this way--one-note, one-dimensional. (How many millions of times do you need to see that Leonardo DiCaprio clapping gif? How many times does publishing need to put out the same shitty book in the same shitty, boring ass, predictable MFA voice?) The blinders are cranked up so that they pinch the horse's nose right off of its face, and its eyeballs out of is skull. That's why you see all of the unnuanced, lazy, spirit-grinding political "takes" and viewpoints. Takes and viewpoints which I would argue almost always fail to take humanness into consideration. What being human is and means. Or can mean. People copy others now. They don't have an original thought anywhere inside of them. They parrot. They repeat and steal. Nothing is new. No one makes anything new or fresh. No one says anything new or fresh.

What this book is going to do is look at artists who functioned in their version of that vein, who were assimilators, yes, but originators as well. They're collage artists, they understand the past, their present, all of the various streams that make up each. The blend the streams to their own vision, adding what is uniquely theirs, and they move their art forward. They move the sound of America forward, too.

I'm going to look at precise-but extended--points in time, in the lives of these artists, where you can see this process happening. In other words, the focus is on a single, protean recording session where music history changes. Not a regular session. A massive session. Or, in that same spirit, the concert residency, where a band plays at one venue over the course of, say, a weekend, or a week, whatever it may be.

Alan Lomax will feature prominently twice in this book. He was a musicologist who went around the country for the Library of Congress recording musicians "out in the field." Recently, The Wall Street Journal told me I could write a piece on a Sam Cooke blues album or Lomax's recordings of Muddy Waters on a plantation in 1941--that is, one, but not both. These were each pitches of mine. I had to pick the Sam Cooke, because of my 33 1/3 book coming out next month from Bloomsbury, but the Waters if fascinating and I'd like to write about it at some point for someone.

Anyway, that's the kind of thing Lomax would do. He got together with Jelly Roll Morton for a huge cache of recordings, which are akin to Morton's version of Dylan's Basement Tapes, but with more stories. One of the quintessential documents of American music. Morton was certainly larger-than-life as a piano player, singer, storyteller, but for all of his flash, his retained an admirable realism. He told tall tales, but he also always seemed to convey forms of unimpeachable truth.

As he says at the start of this performance of "The Dirty Dozen," he first heard the song in 1908, in Chicago. He's drawing on the past, and yet there had never been any jazz like this. Quite the mouth on him, too.

More from Lomax's stash--this time with Woody Guthrie on behalf of the Library of Congress. Guthrie is a gentler soul than Morton, but you can really hear with each how story is interwoven with song.

In 1951, Hank Williams signed on with the Mother's Best Flour Company, which had a radio program. The idea was that they'd make Williams the star, and he'd hawk flour and cornmeal and feed, and introduce songs, sing numbers. It's his version of the Beatles' BBC sessions, with a pitchman component. This is an extended session that is necessarily spread out over the course of that year, with Williams cutting 143 songs. It's an invaluable repository.

Last night I finished a piece on Miles Davis's best live recordings, which included a discussion of the seven sets he recorded with the Second Great Quintet at Chicago's Plugged Nickel club over two days near Christmas in 1965. As I said in the piece, if you learn how to listen to this music, you can hear aspects of everything that Davis had done previously, and everthing he'd go on to do. He's the jazz musician with the most stylistic range, a constant evolver, and his various strains and strands of evolution pool at this remarkable residency.

I still think people have no clue how good Elvis Presley was. If you go through the recordings he made for the Comeback Special in 1968, with a special focus on the material made "in the round," you'll take his journey back to Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams, but also on to the Beatles, and so much more. Elvis spread a distinctly American sound across the globe, but it was never a surface sound. It's the heavy, wild stuff at the bottom of the deepest well.

The Grateful Dead were brilliant assimilators who understood the various currents of American music, and America's musical past, as well as any popular ensemble. As I've said in these pages, they are the closest thing rock and roll has to Duke Ellington's orchestra. They are not what people often think of them as. In September 1970, the Dead did four shows at the Fillmore East, which will be the last residency explored in the book. The Dead dominated 1970, putting out two of the finest albums this country has ever produced in Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, and playing a lot of shows that are museum-worthy. Valhalla-worthy. However one wishes to put it. I think "Box of Rain" is the best song an American has ever written, and it was premiered in live performance on the first of these four nights, and then that would be it for the number for a couple years. When they returned to it, it'd have a different arrangement. Talk about a precious moment in time that stands out of time and is part of an engagement that contains elements of all of these others. (NB: The line, "What do you want me to do, to do for you, to see you through?" from "Box of Rain will serve as the epigraph to There Is No Doubt: Storied Humanness, because I think it is the finest line ever written in the history of song. It is the entire point of life expressed in fifteen words. It is also the single greatest inspiration for me personally in any work of art I have ever experienced.)


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