The Importance of Discovering OLD Music

August 1, 2005

in REFLECTIONS AND RANTS

North by North East is one of those massive “industry events” that infects Toronto from time to time. You know the drill: A handful of seminars, many opportunities to schmooze and drink, several BIG parties and dozens of little ones. And 350 bands in 50 clubs!

Fueled by alcohol, the occasional toke of semi-legal “substance” and the friendliness of strangers and folk you know (but what IS her name?), these events are the glue that holds the music business together.  And they are, of course, a wonderful place to find new musicians.

Which leads me to tell you ‘bout one of those epiphanies that strikes you as interesting, but turns out to be important as well.

As I rushed out of a speech by the remarkably witty British manager Peter Jenner on my way to another party, I passed a display table.

Manned by a sweet pink-haired girl with army boots and a surly young man with a mohawk, their table was covered with fliers and posters with the message: DISCOVER NEW MUSIC.

“Hey,” I said as I rushed past. “Y’know what the sign SHOULD read? “Discover OLD music!”  The pair stared at me, uncomprehendingly, and I kept going. No converts there, that’s for sure.

Now the folk scene, traditionally, has always understood this. We KNOW that the music of the past has so much to recommend it: Great stories, great images of the past which helped make the present, great playing by virtuoso musicians, great memories of  times that were before ours …

Ken Whiteley told me, years ago, that he was often criticized for playing older songs; why didn’t he play new songs?  His response, as he launched into a song from the early ‘20s: “Hey, this IS a new song to me!”

In one of my other lives, I teach a course called Music & Media at the Harris Institute in Toronto, and it has taught me a lot. First of all, it’s taught me that young musicians — and the 20-odd folk in my class are all planning to enter the music business — know next to nothing about music history.

Okay: Which black American guitarist lived in London in Handel’s house?  Answer (hey, YOU knew!) is, of course, Jimi Hendrix. Fact: Out of 20 kids, only four got the answer right, and three of them thought the guy was “Jimmy” Hendrix. And only three, questioned further, knew that Handel was a classical composer and musician.

Can you do better on this one: George Gershwin wrote the music; his brother wrote the lyrics. What was HIS name?  ONE person got that right!  And when I asked when the first jazz record was cut, the closest guess was 1947!

However, don’t despair. The young intern who now works in my office is only just 21, but she’s open to just about any music you can chuck at her. She went to hear Medeski Martin and Wood last night, and she’ll help out with a Guy Clark show I’m doing tonight. She goes to the Symphony, loves opera (she’s ahead of me on that!) and right now she’s playing The Band as I’m writing this.  She thinks Ella Fitzgerald is cool, and she loved an obscure Texas singer-songwriter, Terry Allen, that I ran by her yesterday afternoon.

So how do we introduce the new kids to the joys of old music? Well, the answer is: Play it to them, describe the context, tell the stories of the artists who made the music. Play new versions of old music by new artists — Eric Clapton is the best introduction to  B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Son House you could ever find.  Don’t tell kids to read newspapers or books; they don’t — instead, suggest they discover old music on the Internet, recommend websites that cover older music, point them to discussion groups like MaplePost and MapleBlues.

This isn’t a matter of nostalgia or sentiment for the good old days — it’s a matter of spreading joy.

The joy of finding old music that’s as relevant today as it was when it was created is wonderful. And the only thing that’s better is finding NEW artists and discovering new music.