Saturday, December 21, 2013

To nature, not nation

Rock and roll blossomed in the 1960s at the same time that nationalism and imperialism were under relentless attack. The flag was burned, mom and apple pie were mocked, and students around the world demanded a new order. Who says Johnny should go to war? Who says the tradition of Jim Crow is OK? Who's protecting an individual conscience?

The counterculture helped spawn the great recording artists of the day, and vice versa. The message in the lyrics was not "I'm proud to be an American." Anything but. Hendrix deconstructed the violence in the Star Spangled Banner. World War II had exposed the connection between nationalism and genocide. Vietnam exposed the connection between nationalism and the similar bloodiness of legal, mechanized war.

But by 1984, record buyers embraced "Born in the USA" with delight and hardly a passing nod to its ironic message. Reagan was a pale enemy compared to Nixon. What gives? What gave?

This troubling swing of culture -- nationalism is bad when things are going bad, good when things are going good -- seems adept only at showing what is already obvious. The ambivalent voices that expose multiple views of the truth are drowned out as if they're pussyfooting.

For the last couple of years, the music of the long-defunct band The Band has enjoyed a subtle crescendo of popularity that inevitably will raise Robbie Robertson to the same reverence shown to Bill Monroe, or Woody Guthrie, or Louis Armstrong. They're game-changers in the identification of an American music. What are The Band's successors called? Americana. I recently spent a lovely night at Phil Lesh's place, Terrapin Crossroads, listening to his sons and friends cover song after song by The Band. I love these songs. I love the fact that so many bands nowadays play The Weight as an encore. I tell my friends proudly that in my Woodstock, New York days I was an acquaintance of The Band's brilliant singer and bass player Rick Danko.

Here's a great cover of The Weight. Watch as they rehearse it how the energy and confidence builds. At first only Mavis Staples is fully comfortable (it's been a standard part of her set for years) but by the end they're all tuned into the song's joy.

But I'm worried a little about my own love for this nostalgic music. These are songs written by a Canadian that honor and embellish the rural frontier of America as a romantic and unique time. No doubt The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down has one of the great anti-war lyrics of all time: "You take what you need/ And you leave the rest/ But they should never/ Have taken the very best." At the same time, it's a song of nostalgia for a time of war. It reverently conjures Robert E. Lee, the great American symbol of honoring the enemy, despite the fact that this elegant Southerner sat atop a hierarchy designed to wage a despicably bloody defense of the horrorshow of slavery.

If you're nationalist, it's easy to be uplifted by God Bless America. If you're anti-nationalist, the counterweight is This Land is Your Land. Woody Guthrie wrote his anthem -- This land is your land/ This land is my land -- in anger at the message that Kate Smith was sending. (Guthrie's original lyrics twisted Irving Berlin's words to say "God blessed America for me." It's a hymn to nature, not nation.)

There's a direct lineage from Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan to Robbie Robertson. But isn't there as much danger from nostalgia -- drawing more from the jaunty, white-only prosperity of Stephen Foster than the soulful weariness of spirituals -- as there is from flag-cloaked, fascistic modern country songs of nationalism?

One thing that isn't nationalistic about Robbie Robertson's music is his rhythmic and melodic invention. The Band releases my body in happiness with buoyant rhythms and touches my heart with poignant, intimate tunes. The music is personal. Robertson connects directly with individuals. It's music that fits into a ballroom. I like the Stones and Who as much as anybody. But they have a legacy to answer for. They introduced arena rock -- anthemic songs that support thousands of fist-pumping disaffected youth in a collective, shared energy -- a pattern of music that coopts the same species-trumps-individual message as the military spectacles organized by Hitler  [selection from Triumph of the Will] or the self-congratulatory cheers of a Mary Kay convention. It's why I keep my distance from U2 and The Killers. They bond their live audience into a gran faloon, Kurt Vonnegut's term for a group that unites as if for common cause, but whose association is actually quite purposeless.

My distrust of nationalism isn't exactly political. Voices like Bakunin and Kropotkin, Proudhon and Ron Paul seem whistlers in the wind. They recognize the repression of the individual that is an unwelcome byproduct of any institution.  But they ignore the paradox that any effective response to institutional repression, from the inside or outside, requires the formation of a counter-institution and an identity as an anti-nationalist or anti-institutionalist.

Instead I find myself touched by the words of J. Krishnamurti [selection from U.N. speech], the Indian-born occultist who embodied the Jesus who angrily overturned the money-lenders' tables. Distrust all identification with institutions, all patriotism. Honor every capacity for personal freedom as a path to reuniting with the bigger consciousness that is available. And I translate that as finding music that allows me to be intimate with a personal joy, love and truth that might be universal but doesn't need anyone except myself in the room to be energized.

Can't resist including The Last Waltz version of The Weight. There's Mavis again igniting the heart, and Rick emoting his way through the "Crazy Chester" stanza. Rick was a goofy guy, and he might as well have been named Crazy Chester.


  1. Thanks, Neil, A good'un. I saw Danko w/.Paul Butterfield ~ 1982, I remember he seemed to play bass with his whole heart, mind and body, elbows flapping like he might start flying during the set. Woody Guthrie - Bruce Springsteen gave a good keynote speech at SXSW a couple of years back, went through an Homeric catalog of all the types of music that impacted him, the lessons and limits of each genre, ended with Woody Guthrie, the only one that had it all.

  2. Yes, that's just what Danko looked like! I talked to Butterfield once. I was scheduled to interview James Cotton, and his manager called to let me know he was sick and couldn't make it because he wouldn't make sense. (The manager recited all the drugs Cotton was taking, including "a purple one that I don't know anything about.") Needing to fill the promo news article, I called Butterfield, who was a friend of a friend. Butter had roomed with Cotton in their early days in Chicago. He got surly when I asked what their life was like as roommates. "Well, let's see," he said, "we had meals together, we talked, and we hung out. Any more questions?"