Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The message and the medium

I'm going to need to be careful on this one. They say you shouldn't discuss politics or religion at the dinner table, but it isn't possible to exclude either one from a bluegrass festival.

Obviously, gospel music is at the heart of the music and many of the old-time spirituals are the most stirring songs in the bluegrass repertoire. And while I am not be a believer, I love hearing and singing along to that old-time religion when expressed in the form of traditional American mountain music.

That said, I did not enjoy the musical evangelism of The Isaacs in their SuperGrass set. On reflection, I decided that the difference was that their songs seemed not to honor or celebrate the gospel tradition, but to proselytize their born-again beliefs.

So that is not my cup of tea but, mindful of the dinner table maxim, I ordinarily wouldn't mention it. Except that I left The Isaacs' main-stage set to catch the end of Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands playing on the ballroom stage. Here I was culturally more in my element, enjoying the California style of folk and bluegrass music applied to more "sophisticated" themes.

For example, I especially enjoyed Laurie's "Willie Poor Boy," a cautionary tale about guns, and "The Wood Thrush's Song," a lament about man's impact on the environment--both set to melodies modified from Woody Guthrie songs.

Then I realized that in their own way these songs were just as preachy about the musician's beliefs than what I'd just heard from The Isaacs. I happened to like the message in one case and was made uncomfortable about the message in the other case, but what really was the difference?

I guess the answer is that every artist needs to express what is inside of them, and that audiences will pick and choose what appeals to them. But we should be honest that one kind of message song is not better or worse than another kind of message song, at least not based on the content of the message.

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