Sunday, September 12, 2010


Forgive me for doubting that certain folks have in fact "always thought" that narrative virtues were overrated. (For starters, as opposed to what?) This one is an extremely conservative (!) and familiar choice as an illustration of the narrative tradition in country music. One of the most popular songs of one of the form's most revered singers. If I suggested that the fondness for story songs in country is descended from a long line of ballads in folk music, I would be saying more than I know, but it sounds plausible.


Tulkinghorn said...

As opposed to more abstract values. Like melody, structure, emotion, beauty.

(And you're wrong: I've always valued those more than a good yarn -- ever since I grew out of Tubby the Tuba. One of the things I disliked most about my college studies was the way in which almost all curricular discussions of music ended up being about the words -- whether operatic or liturgical. Boring.)

You're right about George Jones, though -- and about the clean line running from Scots/Irish music through American folk music to country.

David Chute said...

I've always said, I think, that using narrative essentially as a crutch, as I do, is an indication that I'm not truly musical. And since no one's ever stepped in to try to convince me I'm wrong...

Still, you need to go a couple of steps further to explain why narrative is boring in an opera or ballad, and exciting in a novel.

David Chute said...

Still puzzled, since I seem to be incapable of it the "purely musical" experience of a string quartet consists of --what's happening, what are perceiving, how you follow along. Especially for someone who does not read music. This is not a rhetorical question or a challange; genuinely curious; not asking for a theory or an explanation, just a description.

Tulkinghorn said...

Thought about this very thing last night..... One really good way to thread the needle is to listen to a really good singer doing one or another of the songs from the American Song Book -- the corpus of American popular music from about the beginning of the depression to the advent of rock and roll.

Listen to Frank Sinatra in any of his staggering albums from the fifties -- Only the Lonely, say, or Come Fly With Me -- and pay attention to the way he understands and emphasizes the interplay between melody, rhythm, and word.

Classical singers do the same thing, of course, but unless your Italian is better than I think it is, you'll mostly miss it -- as I do.

In a pretty short while he'll teach you what's going on in the music by pointing to what's going on in the lyrics.

This is something, by the way, that rock and folk is mostly terrible at: and which jazz is very good at, but without the crutch of the words.

David Chute said...

Will this be on the test?

David Chute said...

Meant to follow this with a less cheeky note:

Almost all popular music, if it isn't dance music, consists of songs -- which therefore have words and have a built in "narrative dimension," even if all that means is suggesting a situation, from which a story could be xptrapolated.

Which may help to account for the fact that when Tulk casts about for something more or less in a popular format that he can embrace, he tends to home in like a prize bird dog on music that has an arty, niche-market feel: Because he's looking for something with the purely musical qualities he requires.

In the very direct "I'm in pain" or "I'm in love" songs that tend to become popular, the performer is insisting on being just like the people listening, feeling things the same way, representing them. That's why they respond! You don't get this sort of response as much with music that's performed "at arm's length."

Oddly enough my darling daughter got into some of this in an Anthro paper she wrote last year about the movie "Coal Miner's Daughter." What happens to a performer whose career is built on indentifying completely with her audience, on saying "I'm just like you," when she isn't anymore?

David Chute said...

Generally the last guy in the ring in these discussions, the guy whose unanswerable roundhouse arguments just sorta hang in there while crickets chirp, is considered the winner, at least by TKO. Except by the "game called on accounta earthquake" crew.

Tulkinghorn said...

Let's see:

I look for qualities that I admire in popular music and other people look for qualities they admire. Other people apparently like stories. They would not like Miles Davis or Flatt and Scruggs.

And bad things happen when people who depend on 'audience identification' for their success are exposed as talentless liars.

It would be hard for me to respond to these unarguable propositions.

David Chute said...

Good, yes. There's a lot of junk also and some people fall for it. I assume we're talking about the best examples and not the worst.

"A man listens to a record. The critic must acknowledge that he is that man." To paraphrase Robert Warshow. A way of suggesting that there's no other way to understand this stuff.

But what did he know?