Thursday, August 12, 2010

The new American primitivism

I'm not very much of a literature or music connoisseur, and don't know how one goes about being a critic or writing a proper review, so I have been hesitant to post this.  Surely there are better places to look for this sort of thing.  But I figured it wouldn't hurt to offer my thoughts on music here; maybe someone will enjoy a few new songs.

I'd also note that some articles have been published recently about folk music, and while they weren't the reason why I threw this post together, they might be worth reading alongside my comments.  Daniel passed along this piece by Hua Hsu, and I ran across this one the other day.

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Most of the music I listen to could be roughly classified as American primitivism or, perhaps more accurately and broadly, indie folk.  The genre obviously has some old roots, but it's been reinvigorated over the past decade or two, most prominently by the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and probably by things like organic farming and microbrewing as new chic ways of convincing ourselves that we are more in touch with the land, or the past, or good ole' handi-craft-iness than we actually are (I say this as someone who falls for the self-deception as much as the next guy, as well as someone who finds the exercise formative even as it leaves some authenticity to be desired). 

Indie folk is popular because it taps into a rich tradition, but I've also come to realize that it is commendable as an innovation in its own right.  The celebrated music festival is aptly named Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.  It's this hardly strict embrace of past artistic form that allows these artists to (I think, at least) be creative and even improve upon the work of past traditions for our present time.

Part of my realization of this has come from listening to those artists who have influenced the artists I listen to and being, frankly, turned off by their work.  I love Dan Reeder's stuff, for instance, but can't say the same for John Prine even though Reeder was influenced by Prine, given a record deal by Prine, and often tours with Prine.  The same goes for Gillian Welch (who is absolute gold standard as far as I'm concerned) and some of the early 20th century bluegrass and folk that influences her and often serves as material for covers in her touring and albums.  Much as I want to embrace folk music culture in its fullness, some of the twanginess and hokeyness... really a lot of what's essential in the tradition... really turns me off.  I used to think this was a problem with my own musical taste, but have come to the conclusion that folk doesn't have to be what folks of another generation made it.  In fact, it's probably better if things do change.  We always have the ethnomusicologists at the Smithsonian for recording earlier folksong, but new artists are here to follow the various muses of the day.

As an example, consider The Wind and Rain.  It's an old song and has changed a good bit over time, and Gillian Welch has also recorded it.  I'm not sure how earlier versions went, but here is Jerry Garcia and David Grisman doing it...

...contrasted with Gillian Welch:

The mood of the two versions is just night and day, and I think Welch is able to capture the ballad in a way that they aren't... a similar comparison is Garcia/Grisman and Steel Wheels doing "Shady Grove".  Although I will say that sometimes earlier folk had a way of balancing a depressing story with a more lighthearted performance.  Compare, for instance, Yoakam and Welch doing "Miner's Prayer" (or her own similar "Miner's Refrain").  Perhaps one benefit of earlier folk is that it isn't nearly so emotionally heavy as some of the more recent stuff can be.  It's easy for an artist to sing about a miner's life in as morose and dramatic a way as possible... but someone who actually spends time in the mines might prefer a less depressing take on things at the end of the day.  Here earlier folk singers might have hit on something that more recent versions simply reduce to over-seriousness.

Indie folk can also sometimes redeem the utter banality that is pop music... consider Iron & Wine and The Postal Service (There. Now I've offended all sides, and probably even Gillian Welch and Sam Beam themselves, since they thought it was worth using these earlier songs).

So I've mentioned a few artists already.  Gillian Welch is worth pursuing, but also David Rawlings; any Welch album might as well have Rawlings on the title also, and vice versa for Welch's participation in projects that are nominally Rawlings's (Listen to "Ruby").  Old Crow Medicine Show is also closely connected with Welch and Rawlings through Acony Records, and while I'm not a huge fan of all of their stuff, they would be worth pursuing ("I Hear them All" is superb).

Lots of people know Iron & Wine, of course (listen to the best playing of "Trapeze Swinger" I've heard). 

The Avett Brothers are also quite popular and associated with this genre, although some of their stuff is decidedly not folksy... which brings it away from my personal tastes but also shows how versatile and broadminded the new folk is.  The Avett Brothers also seem to be a hugely friendly band- quite generous with their fans and always creating something of a family atmosphere (listen to "Murder in the City").

The Low Anthem is another one, and their single "Charlie Darwin" is worth listening to (the claymation is comparable to Fleet Foxes's "White Winter Hymnal")

Dan Reeder and Gregory Alan Isakov both have all of their work available for free listening on their websites.

The Steel Wheels is a great Virginian band headed by Trent Wagler; they have actually been doing a bike tour around the U.S., and there are some great youtube videos of their live performances from that (listen to "Red Wing").

The Everybodyfields has sadly split up for solo careers (and I've recently enough discovered the duo that I don't know anything about their after-lives), but their work is also quite good (listen to "Pontiac").


  1. I agree with you on much of this. I would even say that your tastes are a bit too purist in a way. Folk gets pushed by the likes of Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, Anais Mitchell, Damien Rice and I'd even say that alt-country can fit in here; the best examples being artists like Ryan Adams and Wilco.

    My main disagreement is with your cheap shot at craft beer and organic food which I take to be a genuine virtuous renewal of craft and care for the objectively good.

    Excellent thoughts generally. Though I expect nothing less.

  2. AD Hunt -
    I'd agree with your caution about organic food and craft beer, but part of what I think Evan's trying to get across isn't the faux-craftiness necessarily, but the faux-olden timesiness.

    We do see a renewal of craft production for a variety of products, and I agree that's very good. What some people can fool themselves with is in thinking that that's some kind of time machine. It's not. It's our version of craft production that's certainly informed by the past, but it can't be thought of as a reproduction of the past. If we do that, we risk making it kitschy.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, Tony... I'd say Daniel conveys pretty well the point that I was trying to make. Certainly I wasn't trying to take a cheap shot at such crafts in themselves; in addition to Daniel's point about craft-as-time-machine, another thing I was trying to get at (although didn't really get into as fully) was the hyper-advocacy of these rather ordinary practices. For an organic farmer or a craft brewer today, the craft of farming or brewing is a fine art. It's something that we talk about with one another and celebrate in a special way. My sense is that, one hundred years ago, a brewer or a farmer working the same sort of way would have looked upon the vocation as something much more ordinary (actually, I sort of get at this from another angle when I point out what the melodrama of today's folk might actually get wrong when it over-conveys a miner's prayer).

    That's a criticism in a way, but it's also exactly what is right about these crafts. The whole point is that we are retrieving arts, and so it's to be expected that we are more dramatic in our gestures towards them than those who didn't need to retrieve them in the first place.

    Think, for example, of the linguist trying to preserve a dying native language. She cares about that speech in a way that is both more amplified and more detached than the people who have used it as a communicative tool since they were children. Or, for an example close to myself, think of what you might call this "craft bookmanship" craze that has come up with the advent of digital media. There's something a bit hokey about librarians writing paeans to the book, treating it as some sort of sacred object, when really it's just a tool like any other. This is probably why the subfield of history of the book has gotten so old-hat. Not because it isn't valuable, but because it's so self-reflexive that people sometimes form false opinions of what it provides us, and then find themselves disappointed.

    So that's all I'm trying to say. And I don't think it's a damning criticism for crafts; I think it's a paradox that they inevitably have to deal with, and it's their strength as much as it is their weakness.

    On the issue of my purism and a wider set of folk singers, I think you're exactly right, and I wouldn't begrudge adding others to the list. I enjoy Bon Iver and while I don't get why Sufjan Stevens is such a big deal to everyone, I certainly like his stuff. But I would say that I have a very confined range of the sort of music I "like", and that songs and artists pretty quickly fall off the map for me when they don't meet certain expectations of form that I have. This is my own personal quirk, and I wouldn't want to sound as if I'm enforcing it as an aesthetic rule-- quite the opposite, I think it's a failure on my part. To put it bluntly, I can be narrow-minded about my tastes (which I think gets at it better than the term "purist", insofar as it abandons any sort of focus on "quality" that the term "purist" might offer).

  4. Someone else I could have mentioned but neglected to was Jolie Holland (although I'm only really familiar with her first album).

  5. I'm right there. It was such a minor blip in your larger post I don't want to overexaggerate my original 'complaint.' I think you put your finger, Evan, on the potential problems that can accompany things like craft brewing and organic farming. I just wanted to make sure that it wasn't a passing gesture calling these crafts (and the people who support them) "nostalgic."

    I suppose I'm especially sensitive to this because of my own love of, for instance, Milbank's theology, who has yet to be fatally critiqued (as far as I've read anyway) but who gets passed over by so many with a simple wave of the hand and a muttered phrase about medievalism or "nostalgia."

    I see the new wave of folk and indie music in general as a sort of "New Raphaelite" equivalent in music. This is slightly exaggerated I know since a renewal in Classical music might make the point better but I frankly don't see Classical as culturally important even if it is ultimately important.

    That's why I really love also the renwal in beer, produce, cheese, etc... It's like a tacit recognition that even ordinary life can have a certain grace about it. I'm really only working this out so pardon my elementary way of putting it.

    Also I'm glad you understood that I wasn't trying to be negative by calling your tastes 'purist.' I meant only that they hold a line of interpretation that even if different is less 'edgy' than some of the artists I mentioned.

    And as to 'why Sufjan?' I think it's because both the complexity of his music and lyrics put him in another category than most other artists. He studied literature and it shows in his multi-layered narratives which operate often on a 'literal' and 'spiritual' level, and his music has more dynamics, rises and falls.

  6. I suppose I'm especially sensitive to this because of my own love of, for instance, Milbank's theology, who has yet to be fatally critiqued (as far as I've read anyway) but who gets passed over by so many with a simple wave of the hand and a muttered phrase about medievalism or "nostalgia."

    Yeah, you don't need to worry about any strong arguments from me there. While I'm not exactly in that "camp", I'm perfectly sympathetic to it and I think the vicious animosity towards such traditionalists is quite unjustified.

    In some ways I wonder if the current generation of traditionalists is having to bear the repercussions that their predecessors in the '90s invited upon themselves. That is, one can see how we get from Milbank or Hauerwas to the rather harsh dismissal of them coming from some opponents, even if it's not necessarily justified and makes life more difficult when it is greeted upon you and others who follow Milbank. I'm personally probably something of a pragmatic traditionalist, and would want to emphasize the inessential and unfolding nature of what someone like Milbank might view as more fixed. Despite this difference, however, it is still the same tradition that I find generally worthwhile and worth incorporating; I simply don't always have the same metaphysical justification for my allegiance.

    If that makes any sense. As you can see, I'm scraping around for a description as well. I do much better picking apart the thought of dead folk than I do writing a manifesto!

  7. I feel obliged to mention Josh Ritter here...but you probably expected me to do so.

    Either way, he deserves a mention amongst any listing (or combination) of indie-alt-folk-rock types. In my opinion, he is the best lyricist in the business today. And, like the Avett Brothers, puts on one helluva concert.

  8. This conversation would make a heck of a lot more sense if you mentioned, I dunno, the Arts & Crafts movement.

    Anyway, this desire for "authenticity" is nothing new - it seems to be a rather recurring theme in human history.

  9. Xenophon - I think "new" American primitivism simply referred to the current reinvention of folkways. Not "new" in the sense that nobody's ever done it before.

    You make these comments a lot... "we've done that before". I'm not sure what the point of it is. Are you saying that if we've done something before its not worth talking about it, thinking about it, or appreciating it?

  10. I'd also suggest checking out Jessica Lea Mayfield, she's young but quite mature sounding.

  11. I'm late to this discussion and have nothing substantive to say but I'll just note that (along with many of the artists you've mentioned) I've loved everything The Low Anthem has put out so far (along with you I enjoy "Charlie Darwin" and "To Ohio" consistently ranks high on my stats).


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