Social Music

by Mike Agranoff
as published in Sing Out!, Vol 46 #3, Fall 2002

So I host this Open Stage in New Jersey. It's part of the Minstrel, a weekly concert series run by the Folk Project. But once a month we devote the night to an Open Stage where any acoustic musician can come and play a 15 minute set. The Folk Project runs other activities as well, including monthly sings, where we get together to play music with each other. I always make it a point to invite the musicians who come to perform at the Open Stage to these sings. And the response is generally as if I had asked them to attend some arcane religious ritual: one of sheer incomprehension.

The whole concept of music as a social activity is on the endangered list. That people would get together to make music with each other simply because it's fun is a concept foreign to today's folk musician. Music seems to be considered by most of us in terms of a performance, rather than an activity. The goal seems to be to garner the accolades of the listener, rather than to experience the pleasure of making those wonderful sounds one's self.

At the risk of venturing into old fogeydom, (How many folk musicians does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to change the bulb and four more to sing about how good the old bulb was.) I propose that simple pleasure in making music for its own sake has joined other casualties of technology. Time was in America when many households had a piano that was more than just a stand upon which to place the family photos. The fiddle gathered no dust. The collection of sheet music on the shelf was dog-eared. Music was a form of self-entertainment. People would make music together as families and together with friends. To experience the visceral delight of hearing the note you're singing complete the triad; to find your fiddle line being boosted along by the rhythm of the piano; to experience the vibration in the bones of your head when the alto recorder you're playing hits that perfect fifth with the tenor of the person playing next to you; these are all intense physical joys that people don't know about any more. You see, we all have machines to make our music for us now.

John Philip Sousa, the seminal leader of the US Marine Band at the turn of the 20th Century, and inventor of the sousaphone, once issued a dire prediction that the invention of the gramophone sounded the death knell of home-made music. He may not have been far off base. When the music of Caruso and Rachmaninof were put within reach of everybody at the flip of a lever, why should anyone bother to go through the struggle to make the music himself that couldn't come close to the virtuosity issuing from the sound horn? Recorded music raised standards of achievement to impossibly high levels for the average musician; one's own meager efforts seemed hopelessly amateurish in comparison. The radio exacerbated the situation, and music videos stepped it up yet another level. Most people now equate music with production. The simple pleasure of making and hearing that melodious sound on one's own is all but forgotten.

My roots in the world of folk music were in hearing the Crosby, Stills, Mitchell & Garfunkle fare on Sousa's accursed records, but then learning them as best I could. I then discovered on my own that joy of making melodious sounds myself and playing them with friends. Later on, I got involved with a couple of folk music organizations including the Folk Project that held regular sings. In my current circle of graying friends, there are instruments brought to just about every social gathering, and music plays some part of every party. I don't see that happening in society at large, or even in the folk world to a large extent. I keep thinking, "Look what you're missing!" It's as if they are going through life never experiencing a belly-laugh at a good joke, or sex, or some other basic pleasure. They just don't get it.

There are a couple of exceptions to the trend worthy of mentioning. The dance musicians have kept it going. There are fiddle tune sessions in pubs and on porches around the country where the only purpose is to make music. There are also various songwriter circles and campfires at events like Kerrville and Falcon Ridge where people play music with and for each other until dawn. This is the real folk music at its roots. My hat's off to these folks. Keep it a alive!

So how do you keep it alive? Through the schools? Somehow I think not. Schools have a way of codifying and institutionalizing things. I suspect that most people's experience with square dancing in school is one of the major obstacles to greater attendance at square and contra dances in the folk community. Maybe the answer lies in the folk song and dance societies scattered around the county. Maybe in the Folk Alliance, (although it's major focus seems performance- rather than experience-oriented.) I dunno. Maybe it's through the people who are reading this diatribe. I tell you what: Sometime in the next couple of weeks, invite a couple of friends over for the simple purpose of playing some music together. See what happens.