Issue No. 9 | April 22, 2022
Friends, Americans, Countrymen:
“The Acts of the Apostles recounts a particularly tumultuous mission trip Paul and Silas took to the Roman colony Phillipi. Arrested for disturbing the peace, they were severely beaten, shackled, and thrown in prison. At midnight, as they sung hymns, an earthquake opened the jail and loosened their bonds. Instead of escaping, Paul and Silas converted their jailer.
Some eighteen centuries later, an itinerant preacher named Washington Phillips recorded his song “Paul and Silas in Prison” for a Columbia Records field agent in a makeshift Dallas studio. While it caused no earthquake, his haunting and delicate performance seems to reverberate like an aftershock in those who hear it.
What makes Phillips’s recording so powerful is his conviction. Like Paul and Silas, he sang to praise God, obeying a command that appears almost 50 times in the Bible. It’s a potent reminder that music is more than just a commodity, today made cheap and plentiful by technology. It’s our birthright as men, and one of the most intimate expressions of the human soul. As such, it is far too vital a part of who we are to cede it entirely to the professionals.
You don’t need to languish in prison to experience the benefits of a making your own music. Knowing a few songs by heart can enliven any number of tedious situations, such as waiting at the DMV or hauling a sail on a merchant marine clipper ship. And anyone can learn to sing, despite what you may have heard. Add a guitar and you’ve got yourself a party: we’ve seen modestly-skilled players turn a room of sedate wine-sipping moms into a raucous Guns N’ Roses tribute act.
Guitars are just nice to have around, and America still manufactures some good ones. Family owned and operated for six generations, C.F. Martin and Co. have been making their exquisitely-crafted instruments in Nazareth, PA since 1833. A Martin guitar doesn’t come cheap, but its sound is inimitable and it will last several lifetimes.
The preferred course of study for the aspiring axeman remains an apprenticeship plunking out pentatonic scales for an aging metalhead in the musty back room of the local music shop. That said, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the educational opportunities available online. For example, JustinGuitar is an exhaustive and extremely well-organized site, and offers much of its content for free (although donations are encouraged).
The Internet can also improve your understanding of music. Rick Beato is a veteran multi-instrumentalist, session musician, producer, engineer, and educator who started a YouTube channel on a whim in 2017. Now his videos on ear training, music theory, audio engineering and other topics get millions of views. Particularly popular is his series “What Makes This Song Great?”, in which he breaks down the appeal of pop hits like 1978 Cars classic “Just What I Needed.”
“The midcentury studio musical is one of the pinnacles of American moviemaking. The first thing a viewer weaned on CGI spectacle will notice is the sheer physical talent on display: vaudeville veterans like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland did not require camera trickery or audio enhancement to wow audiences with their singing and dancing. Elaborate and beautifully executed set pieces become all the more impressive when you consider that they had to be pulled off entirely with practical effects.
These movies aren’t always easy to appreciate; their rigid conventions and stylized emotion can seem corny and shallow to the uninitiated. And yet they convey depths of feeling to rival any of the “grittier” films that supplanted them by the end of the ‘60s.
Vincente Minnelli’s 1953 masterpiece “The Band Wagon” is at once a sophisticated romantic comedy, sharp showbiz satire, and nuanced meditation on the relationship between mass entertainment and art. It also provides a dazzling showcase for the charms of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, which in itself is worth the price of admission.
Much of the popular music enjoyed around the world today has its roots in America. That it is possible in 2022 to listen to the mostly-forgotten men and woman whose singing, chanting, and playing would lead to what we now know as country, rock, and hip-hop is largely thanks to the single-minded dedication and restless curiosity of one man.
Alan Lomax was only 17 when joined his father John, a folklorist for the Library of Congress, on a song-collecting trip in South. Soon he began going on expeditions of his own, recording thousands of performances in prisons, churches, and fields. Operating independently and without institutional support, Lomax had little interest in arbitrary distinctions between high and low art. Although he “discovered” the likes of Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, and Muddy Waters, the artists featured in some of his most compelling recordings remain anonymous.
Lomax’s tireless efforts have preserved for us sublime creations that are also priceless artifacts of our cultural heritage. The Alan Lomax Archive has made his recordings available in various physical media, and has recently released a number of tracks for free on Bandcamp.