An Entirely Unnecessary Defense

According to my dear old Dad, if there is any justice or truth in the world, the phrase “…and one more thing” will be the inscription on my headstone after I shuffle off this mortal coil.

He’s not wrong.

Last week, I spent my Saturday picking at (and probably badly misconstruing the main intent of) a blog post that offered a “defense” of country music. Because I stew slowly when it comes to this sort of thing, I figured out sometime around 11pm last night that what really bugged me about it was not necessarily the kind of defense the author appeared to have offered, although that certainly did get my attention last week. No, what really bugged me was something for which the author of the post to which I responded has no responsibility whatsoever, an itch I’ve been trying to scratch in my own understanding of the philosophy of music for years: the occasionally uncritical acceptance of a set of value judgments encoded in the musicological and aesthetic distinctions drawn between art music, popular music, and folk/traditional/vernacular music.

After stewing about it for a week, I’m not at all sure that country music as such (as opposed to particular examples or performances of country music) needs defending at all, and (quite unoriginally, I’m sure) I take exception to the suggestion that European-rooted art music represents the aesthetic standard against which other musical forms ought to be measured. It might be more useful, if we’re going to talk about this stuff and take it seriously, to spend a bit more time on studying the work of playing music in different styles or genres, with attention particularly given to technique. I won’t pretend to come to a tidy conclusion here. This is just another look at examples and an attempt to make sense of them.

Nostalgia and Rebellion

Obviously, recent work in the philosophy of music has moved past Adorno’s tendency to sneer just a wee bit at the social mechanics embedded in popular musical forms, and there’s quite a lot of wonderful material out there that takes the aesthetics of popular music seriously  (get yourself up to speed here). There is, as far as I can tell, less written by philosophers about folk or traditional music as such; aesthetic discussions of these forms are often pretty easy to merge with the history of popular and/or art music, and for good reason.*  The otherwise excellent and useful Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music doesn’t deal specifically with folk or traditional styles at all, in part because there seems little need to do so when the concept of “folk” or “traditional” music is itself so hopelessly fuzzy and so much easier to handle in the context of other styles that there’s not much reason to focus on it.

I think that the unfortunate side effect of running traditional or folk styles into the development of other forms, however, is that it a) misrepresents, at least to some degree, the actual development and maintenance of folk/trad forms as distinct from the pop and art practices whose history they inform, and b) tends to reinforce an unfortunate habit of thinking of folk or traditional performance and composition as “primitive” or “unrefined” precursors to more nuanced or sophisticated material rather than distinctive approaches to playing and composing in their own right. This is the sort of thinking that makes it seem entirely reasonable to treat more recent examples of folk/trad styles as either a kind of nostalgic preservation of fossilized musical norms or a rebellion against pop or art norms, rather than the ongoing development of a distinct approach to music.

This is the sort of puzzle I had hazily in mind when I used Hazel Dickens’ a capella recording of “Pretty Bird” from 1967 as an example in last week’s post, mostly in response to Dyck’s apparent interest in casting country music as a rebellion against art norms with regard to tone, quality, etc. A part of what I was thinking was that Dickens wasn’t being rough or unrefined as a form of identity affirmation, and she wasn’t singing in a kind of primitive precursor to  “good” (art)vocal form.  She wasn’t just hollering and running out of air due to bad technique or weak control (or setting herself up to do so for identity-reinforcing purposes). No, she was exemplifying appropriate technique and excellent control for the style in which she sang. She would sound wildly out of place performing at the opera if she were supposed to sing it as opera, almost to the point of parody, but it might be quite beautiful if one expects an aria covered in the “high lonesome” vein.**

To get at what I’m trying to figure out, let’s look at another example, this time with a lot more fiddling.

Interplay for Three Violins and Orchestra

In 2002 the Boston Pops commissioned a piece by contemporary American composer Chris Brubeck, meant to be a feature for three particular soloists: classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers (of Riverdance fame), and jazz violinist Regina Carter. The performance was broadcast on PBS, and it’s a neat piece — it is recognizably Brubeck’s work, but it is elegantly arranged and composed to highlight the particularities and peculiarities of the soloists for which it is written. Brubeck himself learned, in the process of composing it, quite a bit about the relationships among classical, jazz, and Celtic trad styles and norms for the violin. It’s a little sampler of a master class in at least three different ways in which the same instrument can be played well.***

For my purpose here, it’s instructive to start with a look at the differences in technique among these three players. Both Salerno-Sonnenberg and Carter are classically trained; this results in a jazz tone and approach on Carter’s part that has more in common with the swinging sound of the conservatory-trained  Stéphane Grappelli than, say, an old blues fiddler like Henry Sims. Look at their posture, at their all-finger bow grips in the usual neighborhood relative to the frog, at the quite “correct” wrist positions for their left hands. Technique shapes tone, and their tone shows their training. Ivers, on the other hand, is very distinctively fiddling — she’s choked up on the bow with a two- or three-finger grip, sometimes with a flattened left wrist, utilizing a very tight, very fast vibrato with an often flat-angled left hand to generate what is effectively ornamentation rather than tonal warmth or depth.****  Consider, in order to flesh out how it works, Ivers playing music more plainly in her usual wheelhouse:

The technique that fiddlers like Ivers employ — bow choke for fast triples, easy and frequent transitions among drones, the “wiping” fast and flying hits on the fingerboard, the relative lack of vibrato for tone (and the tendency to tightness on vibrato when it happens) — isn’t just a matter of under-tutoring miraculously overcome by talent or idiosyncratic features of this woman’s playing (OK, the vibrato may be…). It’s done the way it is to facilitate the kinds of sounds that belong to the trad style she’s playing. Seeing how all three players handle both the fast and slow bits of Brubeck’s piece and hearing how their tones are actually different (in ways not simply reducible to, say, the build and setup of their instruments) suggests to me that there’s something interesting going on here. It makes it clear that Ivers’ playing isn’t somehow “defective” or “primitive” relative to Salerno-Sonnenberg’s or Carter’s. Indeed, Carter’s and Salerno-Sonnenberg’s sort of tone sounds bizarrely mannered and weirdly delayed or rounded by comparison when it’s used to play Ivers’  trad repertoire. This is the sort of thing the nice gentleman from Texas noticed in my singing and playing at the old-time country music festival (see last week’s post) — my tone was wrong. Not bad or incompetent or unpleasant, but not right, either.



* Those interested in how this stuff works should check out Michael Gelbart’s treatment of the relationship between art and folk musics and Benjamin Filene’s history of American roots music for a useful tour of the wild, contested territory of the “folk” and its historical relation to popular and art forms in European and American contexts. It’s also worthwhile to read musicologist Suzel Ana Reily’s roundtable contribution from the 2007 meeting of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology.

Also worth a look (while I’m make reading recommendations), in relation to the mess I made last week about country: Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014).

** See, for an example of a vernacular “cover” of operatic music in a different style from Dickens’, Aretha Franklin’s various performances of “Nessun Dorma” . It’s a difficult performance done by an experienced singer with an aging vocal instrument that nonetheless demonstrates expert control within the boundaries of the tone-formations native to her preferred vernacular style. She’s not just performing art music badly. To think so misses something important about what she’s actually doing and the nature of the style in which she performs.

*** I’m going to ignore Brubeck’s notions about what he calls “Flamenco,” which he apparently has in common with his three soloists. That’s a discussion for another time.

****  Not all contemporary fiddlers in Celtic trad, blues, or country/bluegrass styles do these things in the same way, and Ivers isn’t demonstrating one of the other distinctive fiddle holds that puts the instrument in the crook of the arm instead of under the chin to facilitate dance-calling or singing. Can she? Sure — check out the various hold changes she used when she had to move around on stage for Riverdance.



About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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3 Responses to An Entirely Unnecessary Defense

  1. christinaajb says:

    The violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg I know teaches at my alma mater.


    • How wonderful! When I was learning the Franck vln sonata, there were two recordings of it that I listened to in order to help myself think about to approach the piece. The one Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg did with Cecile Licad on piano was one of them, and I still listen to it periodically. Beautiful!


  2. I’m coming to these posts of yours late but just wanted to affirm that you have said something really important here and earlier, particularly in the section on Hazel Dickens and the distinction between country “songs *about* country as an identity” and songs “*from* it.” This is a succinct and elegant way of formulating an important distinction that, I agree, ought to shape our aesthetic responses and inform our understanding of what is happening in a particular song, including the choices that are being made by the performer. The same kind of thing is going on in the performance of one of Dickens’ film colleagues–I am thinking of Florence Reese, who puts the (for me) definitive stamp on her song “Which Side Are You On?” in the film Harlan County U.S.A. As you say so well, “Country music like hers isn’t bad music or unsophisticated music that uses its messiness to signify authenticity — it’s representative of a distinct body of styles with its own natural history and quality markers, which is exactly what constitutes its authenticity.” Really rich stuff.


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