Today is my wife’s lucky day, Friday the 13th. I’m more a fan of the Thelonious Monk composition of the same name than the day itself, since I’m not currently employed on a Monday-Friday schedule. A more descriptive title of the piece might have been “Minimal Monk,” except that minimalism wasn’t recognized as a musical style when the four-bar long ditty was written. It’s a fascinating tune, structurally. Only four chords: G6; F7; Eb7; and D7 that are played for two beats each. So the progression is played twice during the statement of the melody, which takes up 2-1/2 measures. (The remaining measure and a half is taken up with fills over the rest of the chord progression.) The melody’s antecedent is made up of two gestures: a three-note pickup from the dominant followed by a four-note gesture that ends on the third. It is answered by a consequent that repeats the antecedent, but inserts a variant between the two. The whole thing is repeated over and over.
Thelonious Sphere Monk was born in 1917 and, like the music that he has become nearly synonymous with, jazz, will have a centennial celebration in five years. But tomorrow is the centennial of another great American musician, Woodrow Wilson (a.k.a. “Woody”) Guthrie. His life is being celebrated throughout the year at various locations and some of the so-called left-leaning media is making some noise as well. Guthrie’s best known song is probably
“This Land Is Your Land”, a tune that is similar to Monk’s “Friday the 13th” in its use of minimal (but not minimalist) resources. While the IV – I – V – I progression of Guthrie’s tune is a bit more static than Monk’s, the melodic contour of “This Land Is Your Land” displays a similar, if not entirely invertible, passacaglia-like motion found in the chord progression to “Friday the 13th” (the motion from G-natural, F-sharp, E-natural to the inevitable D-natural being the inversion of G-natural, F-natural, E-flat, D-natural).
While these analytically contrived similarities might be interesting to some people (at least, I hope I’m not alone in that respect), these two iconic musical figures have something else in common; something that goes to the heart of their music and American music in general. But a comparison of the biographies of Woody Guthrie and Thelonious Monk finds little overlap. Guthrie’s parents were musically inclined and so was Monk’s mother. (Little is known about his father, save that he had the same name as his musician son and that, after the family settled in New York City, he moved back to North Carolina for health-related reasons.) But, after a brief run with a traveling evangelist, Monk spent most of his time around New York City. Guthrie, who also traveled at the outset of his musical career, continued to roam the nation after gaining commercial success. Both Monk and Guthrie were extremely individualistic and found it difficult, if possible at all, to compromise their artistic visions to satisfy the whims of their handlers. In Guthrie’s case, a radio show might find its hand “bitten” by his improvising satirical lyrics about it instead of going along with a presentation that he found demeaning, while Monk’s unique and easily identifiable approach to the piano made marginalization of his music impossible. Both of them performed music that was direct and concise, but Guthrie sang and accompanied himself on the guitar, while Monk played the piano and did not sing. What I see as the principle commonality between these two American musicians, though, is how their respective musics made an identifiable argument against the status quo of the American Culture Machine.
Monk used techniques he garnered from growing up in the subculture of African American society to create situations for himself and his associates that allowed their musical identities to shine. He preferred that his sidemen learn his music by ear, making up their own parts to play instead of relying on a written part. When he did give them music to read, it might include what he was playing, so instead of a saxophone chart that shows the note to be played by the player, there might be a chord that the player could choose a note from. But the way that Monk prepared his music for performance wasn’t unique among jazz musicians then. There has always been a high degree of aural transmission in jazz music that lent a degree of exoticism to those members of the American Culture Machine that learned their music from written sources, like sheet music and method books. Monk went further, though, and played piano with an unorthodox technique, drawing a strident tone from the piano that those who were once called “legitimate” composers would never consider. This still stands. Few conservatory-trained composers recognize Monk’s sound as part of the piano’s sonic palette, even though Monk’s music is taught in schools with jazz programs. Guthrie was more obvious in his argument, because he used words to convey his belief that the “common” individual was more important to his music than a faceless corporation. His influence on folk singers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan was seminal to the music of the 1960s and early 1970s that I began to describe last week and eventually made it mandatory for schools to offer courses that reflected a broader sense of the socio-economic and ethnic diversity that comprises the American student body.
What made Guthrie and his followers popular was that they spoke about what most Americans understand as problematic in American society. Most Americans during Guthrie’s time knew what poverty meant. The Great Depression (I’m still trying to understand what was so great about it) left a mark on the American psyche that would take three generations to undo. The people who suffered through it and survived didn’t want to see it happen again, even if the institutions and people who made it happen were still at work and waiting for what Gore Vidal calls the “American State of Amnesia” to give them the green light to do it again. Guthrie, Dylan, Seeger, Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie, all present, in a pretty way, a truth about Western Civilization that isn’t pretty. African American music did so also and became extremely popular. Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and—of course—James Brown all described hypocrisy in American society, often suggesting remedial courses of action, and large segments of American society agreed with them enough to buy their music in large quantities. But Guthrie was a handsome white man whose message could be whitewashed enough that his political message might be dispensed with on occasion. While the larger body of his work was marginalized by the American Culture Machine, some works, like “This Land Is Your Land,” became anthems by omitting the not-so-pretty parts, such as verses 5 and 6:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
So what’s my point?
It goes to a question that has been bandied about for quite a while: How do we (re)build an audience for [some genre] music?
Henry Pleasants over-simplified this in The Agony of Modern Music by looking at jazz as the cure for what he mistakenly concluded was an overly-academic approach to the craft of composition. (Serial music wasn’t a result of research in music conservatories, although its “golden age” seems to have taken place in them.) He assumed that it was the novelty of jazz that made it more popular than classical music, not the message of discontent that lay under its surface. Now that jazz is being appropriated by the American Culture Machine as a true American musical art form, what has happened to that message? And why is it that the theme of the 2013 Jazz Educators Network convention is about building new audiences for jazz musicians to play to?
As mentioned before, the descending bass line of Monk’s “Friday the 13th” suggests that the piece can be considered a passacaglia, which has been associated with the notion of death ever since “Dido’s Lament”. So, today I am wondering how it is that new American music, with all of its diversity in socio-economic nuance is being laid out for the American Culture Machine to pick and choose what it can sell to an ever-wary American listening audience, an audience that, as if suggesting a laying of sorts, is turning its back on it more and more.