Friday, September 11, 2009

This Song Is Your Song

Since no one ever comes to office hours the first week, I may as well post some scattered thoughts. This summer I attended two music festivals. The first left me elated, the second self-conscious.

At the start of August I went to the Newport Folk Festival. The experience was nothing short of amazing, even though I spent 9 hours in the sun without suntan lotion (do not repeat, details involve a late connecting flight out of Newark, bans on flying with liquids, disliking checked luggage, and closed a CVS on Friday night/Saturday morning) and went solo. The impetus for going was to see The Decemberists, a band I've managed to just misalign schedules with, which is a shame since they're fantastic. They took a break from their current tour list (their new album, played straight through as something akin to a rock opera, or so I've heard) to mix in a variety of older and newer songs. Also high on my list were The Avett Brothers, an extremely engaging stage performance of punk-tinged bluegrass, the lush choral explosion of Fleet Foxes, the storytelling genius of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the gut-grabbing power of Mavis Staples, the dreamy simplicity of Iron and Wine, and a variety of new talents including the laid-back and lushly textured textured clarinetfolkrock of Low Anthem (sort of combining the best of what I like about Fleet Foxes and Iron and Wine) and Ben Kweller's pop-country entry that marked the closest thing to pop (although much of the concert flirted with that genre pretty freely). And as I mentioned, the heartwarming magic of singing along with Pete Seeger.

The second festival was significantly smaller: The Kansas City Ethnic Enrichment Festival. There I saw some delicate and lovely thai instrumental music, amazing capoiera, familiarly catchy bulgarian dances (a couple of which I know I've done), some start-and-go Russian music. But throughout, I just felt unsure. The thai music was lovely, but I could barely hear it over the talking. The capoiera was easily the most crowd-pleasing. The Malaysian dancing was utterly confusing, as it all seemed to be done to muzaky, synthesized music with what I might consider oriental inflections. And through it all, the jokey, well-meaning emcee kept embarrassing me, about as much as the lame attempts by performers to engage the audience.

Part of it may be comfort zone, that the people at the folk festival really came to get what they expected and heard. A big part is probably the professionalism of stage presence, although Fleet Foxes had their share of awkward filling in the gaps with rambling stories. But there was such an air of community in the folk festival, singing along, listening, striking up conversations easily with those around you (even I of the closed mouth found it pretty easy to chat up others, regardless of age, gender, or attractiveness). At the KC festival, I just kept feeling out of place; whereas one seemed to draw us into commonness, this other emphasized difference in a lot of ways that made me uncomfortable. The emcee's jokes and stereotypes, the language barriers for some performers, the poor thai musician who didn't want to talk to the audience despite the constant goading of the emcee, and the fact that what seems like a good, well-intentioned idea didn't do much to enrich me. I saw a wide variety, but that's about it: the buffet is seldom as good as a well-cooked course. But it did make me reflect upon the variety at the folk festival, the interesting intersection of folk and popular genres, the diversity that goes perhaps more unseen precisely because you feel like you're bonding, and the diversity that isn't visible or maybe isn't there (e.g. politics). It struck me that the lyrics "This land is your land, this land is my land" are particularly great because they don't level out the differences--it's not merely reduced to "our" land--but something more complex, a land that is not only shared but unites different people together. That's more or less what this concert did for me. This music was my music, their music, your music.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


School begins, and I get to make a 100th post.

In lieu of anything substantial (because, well, nothing has really happened here yet), I'll relay to you the note someone left in my carrel:

Purpose for this research?

I think this bodes well.

Friday, September 4, 2009

We're walking, we're walking

I was just in Seattle, a city that has won my heart effortlessly through having ballroom dance lessons built into the sidewalks (you know, those feet with numbers and arrows?)! How can I resist?

But one of the things we did was take the Underground Tour, a tour with surprisingly little to look at. Like, almost nothing. And yet, it was great. And as I was going on the tour, I realized just how much teaching is like the process of tourguiding: adding just enough color to make things interesting, supplying deeper facts (but sometimes subtly), engaging the crowd, and keeping it moving. The tourguide we had was funny,a rticulate, knowledgeable, and seemingly unscripted. I really hate tours that just feel like a preprepared sheet that you'd get more out of reading yourself, or better yet, a book. But when guides are engaging, informed, and fun, it doesn't even matter if you're standing in a basement looking at a single dusty photo. That's what I want to be.