I’ve felt the urge to play out recently, well, duh, precisely because I can’t. I was trying to get into an online/virtual open mic up the street, at Lenox Coffee on 129th, but it kept postponing a reopening, so I complained to my brother Andy about it, and, in view of our recent cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” we decided I should convene an open mic via Zoom. I invited him and an old friend of his, Johnny Omand; two old academic friends of mine who happen to be wonderful musicians, Charlie McGovern of William & Mary, Barry Shank of Ohio State; and two new friends from Facebook–never met ‘em in person–Anne Moriarty and Kerry Candaele.
Three weeks ago we met for the first time, minus Kerry, but plus Shari Shank, who sings like an angel, and a good time was had by all. A week ago, we met again with a depleted crew, but with the addition of Billy Knoblauch, of Finlandia University, another wonderful musician I know via academe. The revelation of the evening was Charlie’s performance of “Everything is Free” by the Holmes Brothers–not just the excellent guitar, we’re all used to that, but the voice. I had never heard him sing before, and I was just knocked out. I wrote excitedly to my brother, saying “Wow, Charlie can sing!”
Andy responded by saying he always wonders about guys who can play a million notes in any key, like Charlie can–“what’s going on in the dome?” he asked, referring to that part of the brain that hears and plays music. I wrote back as follows, posted it at Facebook without naming Charlie, but meanwhile messaged him, asking if he’d like to respond. He did. Here’s our exchange.
JL: It’s funny you [Andy] would say that about what’s happening in the dome. Charlie is a musical genius, as far as I can tell–he can play anything he hears, and he can tell you where the song was first played, and how, and he’s heard everything. When he sang last night, I thought, holy shit, he’s impersonating a singer, he’s phrasing this exactly as he heard it once upon a time (and it turns out that he learned it his freshman year in college).
So on the one hand I’m thinking, well, that’s what singers do, they act as if the song is theirs, they have to be mimics, mimes, impersonators, stand-ins, call it whatever you want**–they didn’t make this, but they sure as hell are REmaking it, transforming it by repetition, changing it by reproducing it. Like your average Homeric bard, singing that poem over and over: here’s my cover of that tune.
On the other hand I’m thinking, hmm, Andy writes his own songs and he sings them in the first person.*** But which person is that? We’re all ventriloquists when we sing, I’m thinking, getting and staying in character for the duration of the song, trying to speak as if we’re conjuring a voice that isn’t always ours, and maybe never was.
CM: Hi Jim – thank you for checking in about ‘outing’ me [at Facebook] so to speak. My only reluctance for you in naming me is that your description/praise is much too generous. No false modesty, here. I have a good ear, and it has been probably THE thing that has made my life as much about music it has been. I tend to introduce songs with stories, when playing for others, so as to share a bit of how I think, some history, and maybe enable folks to hear with a little more imagination. BUT I can’t play everything i hear– never could–and sadly as I age, maybe less so. I know a bunch about some genres and I love juxtaposing them or mingling them–‘19th nervous breakdown’ as a bossa nova, that sort of thing. But that’s it. If there is one thing I try to do, it is to make beautiful melodies that surprise others and occasionally myself with what comes out.
FWIW, Ellington is a genius; Armstrong, too; Coltrane. Charlie Parker. Few others, if genius means changing how others hear AND inventing new forms at the same time. And never forget that those cats ALL worked hard, very hard, harder than anyone. Genius is not some talent that you’re born with and you can’t help.
As for singing, I suppose I was ‘impersonating,’ as you put it, Popsy Dixon of the Holmes brothers, who sang on “Everything is Free” in the version I learned. But i don’t know that I would call it imitating other than his performance gave me a starting point. The phrasing and melody largely comes from the melody written by the songwriter, Gillian Welch. But everyone presumably hopes to add their own sense of self to another’s composition–their own phrasing, their own timing. In that sense everyone inhabits a tune. You become someone else, perhaps an actor delivering a performance, embodying the person you imagine whose song it is.
It can be an intimate process. People loved the Beatles so much not just because of their songs, but rather for all the fun they had communicating with one another on stage as well as off. In the groups I’ve played with, folks were really friends (I’m still in touch with guys i played with thirty years ago). That made the music more fun, more, i don’t know, powerful (‘sexy’ was what more than one person told us). It didn’t make it any ‘better’: we were still flat, or sharp or dragged, etc., stuff that matters. But we had FUN, and occasionally locked on to each other in ways that made us all laugh or stand back for a second in wonder.
I once played with a pianist, introduced to him at my brother’s insistence. He was much older than me, and had lived a very different life than I, but his principal influence was Bill Evans, and mine was Evans’s frequent partner Jim Hall. We could not see each other’s faces but we played for 20 minutes or so, just morphing from one tune to another, in the general areas laid out buy our orientation to our mentors and our listening at that moment to one another. When we stopped for breath, someone asked, “Have you ever played together before? You must have.” And we both said, “Yes, sort of.” So that’s what the payoff can be, but I hardly knew that at the beginning of learning to play. Playing was just what made me happy.
What I’ve said here is, I’m pretty sure, commonplace and not very sophisticated at all. It is in this form un-theorized. I can and do have theories about how this ‘works,’ but I basically proceed from ‘practice’ first, agreeing with Stuart Hall that theory is usually only good if it can help one understand and engage in actual life circumstances–those circumstances whose experiences can further re-shape theory.
I often think of music in life terms. It is pragmatic: playing music for me proceeds from what I believe to be ‘true,’ i.e., the chords, lyrics, tempo, etc., but every attempt offers new choices, new outcomes, that might modify what I think I already know. And like William James, the right to believe here is not the assertion of a ‘wrong note’ or the validity of an imperfect execution (I mean, ‘clams’ are a lot more scarce where I live in VA than in any of those videos I make) but rather the faith that any exploration that is temporarily ‘wrong,’ is also a question that needs further exploration: where do you go to make it ‘right’? What is the way to re-incorporate, or understand, what you just did that seems at first like a dead end–something unwelcome or incomprehsnsible?
Monk said, “There are no wrong notes.” Ellington told Clark Terry, “What I want you to do is listen.” Those two sentiments are good guides in music and in life. But even here, what I’m saying proceeds from the fact that all this for me is an avocation and no more. I’m not a professional musician, and not really all that much of a trained one, if training implies formal education. I have devoted my life to another calling. The working day-today musicians are on a completely different level, whether they are singer song-writers, punks, hip hop MC’s, jazz folk, or composers, famous or no. Wisdom comes from everywhere and anyone, but I would go to those folks first about if you want to to get a sense of what is truly possible.
**JL: This is why singers make good actors.
***JL: Andy wrote back: “I don’t often write [songs] in the first person.” That makes the composition of the song all the more interesting, and the performance of it even more mysterious.