Last episode I compared late 19th Century cultural hipsters with early 21st Century urban cultural revivalists. Did modern natural-fiber clad, skin-inked and perforated young people study up on William Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement and visit museums to absorb the Pre-Raphaelites? Some perhaps, not all. And the same can be said for what is carried onward from punks, hip-hop kids, hippies, beatniks, and so on. I’m too old, and too little a sociologist to answer this definitively.
I can say that when I tried to discover what kind of music I wanted to make in the 1970s I copied imperfectly many musicians from the previous decades as well as my contemporaries working down the river in New York City. And those NYC contemporaries? They too were looking backward to move forward. What had been overlooked? What had gone out of fashion for no good reason? What had been uncompleted? So, in listening to them, I was listening to their understanding and misunderstandings of the past too.
One of our principles with the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” Part of the above is “my story”—but my musical story is really made up of other people’s stories.
Tracing the path of influence is often hard to do. Today’s episode “Up-Hill” is an example. The words were written by Christina Rossetti, that sister of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Obviously, she’s familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle—but she’s also deeply interested in a Christian religious revival, and that too gets reflected in “Up-Hill.” Would she have known Anna Coghill’s poem that was set as the hymn “Work for the Night is Coming?” That’s unknown to me, but “Up-Hill” and “Work for the Night is Coming” are both poems understood in context as being Christian devotional, while containing not a single specific utterance about a deity, salvation, or an afterlife. With revivals, context changes things.
And here’s another way that influence is hard to trace: it becomes unconscious. As I was writing the music for “Up-Hill” I was mostly interested in varying my customary harmonic cadences while keeping it to just two or three chords, a short number that often works best for performance with the LYL Band. And “Up-Hill” is, after all, a work of beautiful simplicity, saying something profound without pretentious elaboration. I settled on a simple I V IV I progression, and tried it with the band last month, but my vocal wasn’t working. Trying again this month, the unconscious struck.
I didn’t realize until I was working out the rhythm track that I was falling into a Velvet Underground groove, like the one they used in “I’m Waiting for my Man,” a tune that is also understood as devotional in context—though to drugs, not a deity. Both songs feature a journey to a destination (up-hill or up-town), both engage in conversation along the way. Was this subconscious choice a sly comment on Christina’s brother Dante Rossetti’s addictions? A comparison of recovery to salvation, or of addiction to salvation? No, the groove was just working, and it helped me get a better vocal down. If I understood anything about what I was choosing while doing, it was that I was linking sub-cultures and following the near invisible web connecting Other People’s Stories.