Friday, February 25, 2011

The Urban Folk

Again, coincidences are uncanny.  After a deliberation on Tuesday about how “rural” music has found hotspots within urban centers where people of all origins can relate to country, folk, bluegrass, blues, and other stylings otherwise deplete in the “popular” music scene, an article discussing just this phenomenon popped up in the New York Times today.

"From City Folk, Toe-Tapping Country Sounds" -Amanda Petrusich

It appears that although these styles of music are traditionally associated with rural, country settings they have found a niche even within the most urban of all metropolises: New York City.  One venue focuses on freestyle jam sessions in which the entire audience is invited to participate in the music-making, whether through singing, clapping, stomping, or even bringing along an instrument to jam along with.  This distributes the “performers” throughout the audience instead of confining them to a space in front and separate of those they are performing to.  It’s reminiscent of the informal performances associated with rural settings, where interaction between performer and audience is common.  It seems to me that perhaps this relationship is cultivated inadvertently, since the performers tended to be community members themselves, thus severing the formal performer-audience relationship we see today with popularized shows where performers play on a stage clearly separated from the audience.  During these performances, the musicians often attempt to “play” for their audiences, using general bits of trivia about the specific community for which they are performing that night but rarely ever truly connecting with the audience members.  The jam session counters this trend by utilizing what the article contends is a “front porch roots” feel—one that “feels like home.”   The jams are not limited to a specific genre of music either, but are instead open forums where participants can bring in any particular styling so desired.  Bars that do try and promote a specific genre have reported that the latest trend is to bring in songs otherwise not associated with the genre, thus broadening the genre’s accepted repertoire by borrowing elements from other stylings and proving that these musical exchanges are leading the movement for musical heterogeneity.  Although the musicians are combining sounds and elements from across the genres, the resulting sound continues to be a unique one, serving as an exploration of genre boundaries as opposed to a demarcation of them.  Other boundaries, such as ethnic preferences, are also challenged by these communal jams.  Though the article lumps the genres mentioned before under the tidy heading of “Americana,” it is clear that these freestyle jam sessions can reach across national divides: one of the audience members interviewed remarked how she appreciated the music because it reminded her of her church experiences growing up as a child in Norway.  In this case, it becomes more about how the music is performed rather than the sound:   “In our church, there was no choir — everybody played guitars and sang harmony,” she said. “That’s what we would do, get together at people’s houses and play. This feels exactly the same to me.” 

What fascinates me about these jams is the fact that it seems to attract both young and old generations of music appreciators.  So often music can serve as a division between these generations: parents complain that they don’t understand their kids’ music these days while teenagers lament about the stale nature of their parents’ musical preferences.  As one audience member points out, however, these public jams seem to attract people of all ages.  It leads me to wonder if perhaps the element of making music as opposed to just listening to music has anything to do with it.  Having been a part of bands and choruses while growing up, I can remember intense moments of connect during performances.  It happened quite frequently, in fact, not only during formal performances but also during rehearsals.  As a listener, however, although often moved by a performance, I often felt alone.  Making the music established a relationship with my fellow musicians, forming us into a community.  Perhaps this is why music is such a pragmatic tool for building and establishing culture: its creation breeds strong bonds between the performers, forming a single identity of a conglomerate mass.  Cultures that make music together can use this act as a way to reiterate their connection and historical traditions.  To be sure, listeners can form bonds through music too, but it’d be curious to find out if these bonds are as strong as those who perform together.  Americana (folk) music is inextricably tied to collaborative performance, and this could explain why it has persisted so strongly throughout the years.  

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