Where the Music Takes You

September 10, 2014

Where the Music Takes You

Recently, someone told me about a viral charity challenge that has nothing to do with ice or getting wet. The challenge is to draw attention to ''MusiCares", an organization that helps musicians in need.  The idea is that you find a record that was influential to you, take a picture of yourself with it, and challenge others to do so and donate to MusiCares.  I'm not going to lay all that on you, but maybe you'll feel like making a donation to a worthy cause, considering that very few working musicians actually have anything like insurance or benefits paid for them (if you do, congratulations!!). 

Growing up, Sunday mornings were potato pancakes and jazz, Dad listening to the likes of Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Claude Bolling. The rest of the week it was Mom listening to classical, opera and folk on WHYY radio.  The record player spun Tchaikovsky, Fitzgerald, Dorsey, Paxton and Baez.  How could I do anything but drink all that fabulousness into my being?  My best friend's mom used to make her kids have quiet time where they could either read or listen to music.  Many were the days I would sit in their living room with the Weavers, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leadbelly, and many, many more, flowing into and unconsciously touching my very core.   My siblings added the Beatles, Mason Profitt, The Supremes, The Band, and on and on

I was drenched, soaked to the bones in the best music out there, from the earliest age. 

So, with all of that music in my history, how could I pick just ONE album that has influenced me?  Looking through our many record albums, I finally hit on it - Steeleye Span’s Below the Salt, traditional British songs performed in a folky, at times poppy style.  As a kid I had listened to it continually, memorizing the tunes, lyrics and harmonies to every song, from 'Blacksmith on the Road' to the Latin 'Gaudete'.  This album was my introduction to a wealth of music that has stirred me on from earliest tweenhood.  From it, I first learned of the Child Ballads, really listened to drinking songs, songs of war and of the people, songs of the mystical and the everyday, all performed with haunting harmonies and intriguing instrumentation.  From there I went deeper into traditional English music and on to explore Scottish ballads and Robert Burns (rest in peace, Jean Redpath), Waulking Songs, and the beauty of Sean Nos and traditional singing from Ireland.  

All that from one album?  I'm pretty sure that's when all I'd taken in over the years came together and launched me on my musical journey.  And to this day I keep searching, and learning from musicians and singers I meet along the way.  I've come to love the ballads that crossed the ocean and found a home in Appalachia and the blues that worked their way up from the south and landed here in our own backyard, songs of the workers and of protest, the music of Africa and its influences on the American music of yesterday and today.  So many riches still to be discovered - it's a fount from which I will continue to dip until my soaked bones have gone home to rest. 

The latest ports in my travels (to stretch the metaphor a bit further)?  The Internet. The library. Fairly obvious, right?  But there were the works in the Alan Lomax collection and Smithsonian recordings right there at my fingertips.  Riches beyond compare!  I could never afford to buy these, and many are unavailable for purchase, but online for me to study and drink in. And for those of you who have access to a library, find out if they subscribe to the Alexander Street Press database. I know the College of DuPage does and community members can join for free, and those in other areas might want to check out their local community college library as well. My search into their Music Online: American Song has taken me in wonderful new directions, and continued to build my understanding in what I thought I knew.  The recordings of Moses Asch, Folkways recordings, blues, R & B – 7,830 music recordings and growing....  Many of these have been available elsewhere, but to find them all gathered in one place, free with a library card - it's an opportunity too good to miss.  This might be old news to you, but to me it’s the new world to explore all over again.

Where did your music start?  Can you identify it's beginning down to the album, song or artist?  Where has it taken you?  Are your bones sufficiently soaked or do you have room for more?  Knowing where we've come from on our musical journey might give us a way to put our toe in the water and test out where we want to go next. Or we can just jump off the deep end and see where the water takes us?

(This essay originally appeared in the Plank Road Folk Music Society Newsletter - Winter, 2014)

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