I love music. Not all music, but at least some songs in nearly every genre. Especially what is loosely called “American roots” – early blues, ragtime, jazz, folk, rock, country, americana, gospel, and country, though within the past few years I branched out to French music hall and opera. I don’t listen to much that was released after 1980. It isn’t that I dislike it, exactly, it just pales in comparison to the older stuff. Music used to be an art, and today it’s an industry.
The “best of the best” today isn’t in the same class with the old conjurors. There’s no soul in the music – nothing that grabs you way down inside and twists you up. We’ve got more sophisticated equipment and better quality instruments, but maybe modern producers are a little too zealous in making everything just perfect. Somewhere in all the mixing and dubbing, they edit the voodoo out.
For example, “Paper Planes” by MIA is a catchy, unique song, but everything about it is synthetic. That’s all right. Sometimes that’s okay.
But if you compare her to Geeshie Wiley or Blind Willie McTell… it’s far more than just the genres of music being different. Sort of like comparing a Bic lighter and a raging inferno.
Have you heard Mississippi John Hurt singing “Stack o’ Lee”? Somehow that old recording really brings back the killer’s cold, murderous presence for a few moments. Mississippi John Hurt conjures up Stack o\’ Lee in 1928 It’s certainly not the work of a smooth producer; the recording is far from perfect, and you can hear Hurt clearing his throat several times.
Free MP3 downloads from the national archives – lots of free roots music mp3s here.
Is it unfair to dismiss modern artists as too plastic?
Probably: I only hear the songs that get airplay, for one, and new songs are played repeatedly on the radio until everyone gags when they hear the opening bars.
Of course, Hurt didn’t have the gift for self-promotion of, say, Lady GaGa, who had this to say about herself: “Speaking purely from a musical standpoint, I think I am a great performer. I am a talented entertainer. I consider myself to have one of the greatest voices in the industry. I consider myself to be one of the greatest songwriters.”
So my new mission is to find living singers/current songs who are as good as or better than the old stuff. I found some stuff I like: Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Blanche, Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs, but the bar is set high and nobody’s topped it yet.