Monday, February 25, 2013

Music and Story

One of my favourite albums!
I have just finished reading a book by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch and A Long Way Down amongst others) called Songbook.  Although it is primarily about his top favourite pop songs, it talks about the importance of music and in particular pop music.  He defines pop as most things which have a three verses and a chorus and comes in at around 3 or 4 minutes, with the occasional exception.  I also have a friend called Stevens Blanchard who has his very own pop group called Conniption Fits, as many in the Upper Valley of NH and VT will know.  He is also a D.J. (an acronym for disc jockey, someone who jockeys discs - nowadays CDs! I resent the words deejay and emcee.  Is a deejay a type of bird?  I have no idea what an emcee is, but I know that M.C. stands for Master of Ceremonies)! He says that country is the new pop! Anyway! Hornby writes about there was only 'one type of pop', but now there are many sub-divisions of pop - such as heavy metal, hip-hop, death metal, punk, R&B, soul, etc and even country and western (both kinds!), but it got me thinking about storytelling.

So, my thoughts: classical music was the 'pop' of the age, then came along those flappers listening to Gershwin, Armstrong and Bessie Smith and later: Crosby, Sinatra, Connif, and Streisand who shocked everyone at the time.  And ?!  And then they became pop. Then rock & roll came to be and everyone had to lock up their daughters, and ban r 'n' r as devils music.  Then rock & roll turned into pop.  Rock & rock became heavy or hard rock, and then heavy metal and daughters were again locked up. Then punk arrived and all children were kept safely at home, but that too turned into pop. Get the idea?

So here was aural storytelling, which began trying to explain the universe, then along came the legends, stories of real people which merged with other people and became surreal and mixed with magic.  And like the first pop, that stayed around for a long time.  A shake up was overdue, like an old library book, and people (I believe mostly Americans) 'launched' the personal story genre into the arena of public storytelling.  Once personal stories were added to the cache of storytelling genres, a punk movement (which in England was regarded as a political movement) was needed and we got story slams.  Or maybe slams are a story version of a combined punk and rap movement. Big stories made short with great economy of words, but with none of the passion lost.

And another of my faves.
All of this, of course, does not take in account that the original political advisers to the kingdom rulers were the poets and singers of the pre-Christian era.  The first Romans to Britain found schools larger than any today and wrote about these colleges as being filled with budding bards, so were the stories were first sung? In John Matthews' Taliesin, he quotes that a bard had to learn in their first year 'fifty oghams or alphabets. Elementary grammar. Twenty tales.'  In their sixth year, they learned 'the secret language of the poets. Forty-eight poems of the species called Nuath. Seventy or eighty tales.'  In their twelfth, yes I said twelfth year they go on to learn '120 Cetals or orations. The Four Acts of Poetry. During the three years to master 175 tales [in their ninth year!] in all, along with the 175 Anruth, 350 Tales in all.'  As Matthews says: 'R.A.S. Macalister writes: Suppose ... [we] keep them in school 300 working days in a solar year ...they learn no more than ten lines of poetry in a day, they will have acquired a total of 3,000 by the end of the year, and in twenty years they will be masters of 60,000 lines.  This is considerably more than twice the length of the two Homeric epics.'  I am assuming here he is saying that those epics would be memorized word for word!

Can you imagine a pop star doing this?  Granted there are some storytellers who do tell the Odessesy, and Gilgamesh, and other epics, but the rest of us?  I try hard to learn at least ten new stories a year.  It usually ends up being five or six, but still!

Taliesin - my logo
So what is my point?  As Nick Hornby says in his book, he needed the Clash in his teens, and all other music to his ears was sappy, or spineless, but now he looks for more in music than what the Clash has, now, to offer him.  As a huge Clash fan myself I feel a little resentment to his words, but the sentiment I agree with.  He has not 'gone over to jazz' yet, but then I was into jazz in my teens.  As a storyteller I am finding that the tales I tell have become deeper, that they are tales I tell are less for entertainment, but for the stories themselves.  As more and more slams happen, and they loose their punk/rap/hip-hop counter culture status and become pop, will these listeners begin to seek out the storytellers who are the Orffs, Bachs and Elgars, or the Fitzgeralds, Silvers, and Monks?  This was not quite what Hornby was saying, but it is what he inspired in my own mind and made me wonder the reflection of pop songs to storytelling.

Maybe I should look at that course at East Tennessee on storytelling and folk lore!  Maybe I would find my inner Clash storyteller, or might I find that I am now more Mingus or Mozart? Only time will tell!


Karen Chace said...

Thanks Simon for always "jazzing up" the conversation. I have never thought of comparing storytelling with various genres of music but it does make sense.

I also choose stories I love, that have a deeper connection for me. Maybe my audience will never connect to a particular story in the same way I do, but hopefully they will find their own riff. :)


Carolyn Stearns said...

Hi Simon, Well said and I really got into the comparative. I was spinning off my own musical followings parralel to yours. I see the correlation and evolution of the stories I tell in a similar pattern and am left to ponder this a bit more. Stories and music , music and stories, pop, classic,soul - well both music and story have soul!

Laura said...

Nice post! And I love the idea of you as punk rock storyteller. Thank you for reminding me that classical was (to some extent) the pop of its day. I've read contemporary commentary on Mozart - quite the bad boy!

see you at stf.

Simon Brooks said...

Nigel Kennedy, violinist with a HUGE passion for Elgar, once said that Vivaldi was the punk rocker of HIS time!