Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thoughts On Tom House... Get Him While You Can.....

I sit here listening to Tom House's 'til you've seen mine and jesus doesn't live here anymore and my mind is racing and my heart pumping because I know House (his music) and I know Woody Guthrie and Jim Ringer and Ralph Stanley and a whole host of musicians who have and do play music in the styles of yesteryear and I'm wondering why it takes a movie like O Brother, Where Art Thou? to make us pay attention when it is right in front of us. And I'm wondering why all the respect for the blues and not so much for the mountain music (although recent years have been kind to the genre) which is also part of our musical heritage and in fact parallels the blues in so many ways. How can you separate the trials and tribulations from one section of the country from another, whether they be African-American or Backwoods, when both are so closely related in terms of poverty and social caste and isolation from what was once termed “mainstream” America? And I'm wondering why I have not seen this before. Perhaps I was trapped by the electric syndrome (for years, if it wasn't electric, to me it wasn't guitar) or perhaps I was so plugged into my white middle class upbringing that I saw everything through rose-colored glasses because I have to tell you, things could not have been much better for me in spite of the injustice and heartache which must have been there but I ignored. I am talking music here--- specifically music--- because I have always seemed to have seen the world from that perspective, but isn't it strange how my little world of music ran and runs parallel to the real world?

Is there a difference between the jazz and blues which emanated from The South and Chicago and the music which came from the mountains and the prairies? As I age, I hear it less and less and it makes me think that there is something wrong with a world which makes minor distinctions major and ignores that which is held in common. Ha! Listen to me. “Things”. If anyone said that to me about music, I would probably punch them in the nose. To me, music at its worst is a living organism. At its best, it is a miracle.

But back to House. While I'm not at a loss what to type into the computer to find information about him, I wonder why everything has to be so word-oriented. I mean, sure, I could type in “folk” or “mining songs” or “mountain music”, I suppose, though they probably wouldn't help much (although with the addition of his name, they might). Words are okay and in some instances show their worth, but wouldn't it be better if we could search by culture or a string of musical notes or even a feel? I hear so many things on the two albums I am limited to and they are limiting in themselves as well. Thirties and forties--- depression and war. The descent into panic for survival and the panic of war. The rise of the middle class and the rise from poor to middle. Barn dances and barnstorms. Moonshine and liquor and the descent into a hell of denial. The joy of being alive and the accompanying gloom.

Life. That's it. House writes and sings about life. That's what the old songs were mostly about, those that came from the roots. Life and death and everything in between. Or maybe living and dying because life is life and death is death and they are final by definition. Living goes on and dying goes on way too long, sometimes.

House serves up his songs on the two albums I am hearing in the cloak of backwoods and old-timey. He jumps forward and backwards in time like one of those cloggers I used to watch on TV broadcasts of The Grand Ole Opry, this time out of the backwoods of the thirties and the next time out of the fifties folk scene and the next almost current and embedded in the relatively new Americana culture. And occasionally, he breaks out and does something that doesn't fit anywhere, like Down In the Hole, a song ready-made for a string of bands like The New Pornographers or The Raconteurs to drag into their midst. Or maybe rockers like Ireland's Minnows or Riptide Movement or Canada's Redgy Blackout.  Surely, any one of those bands could make something quite impressive out of it.

Do you see what I'm saying? Of course, you don't. I am under a spell here and you're still thinking The Beatles. Or Woody Guthrie. Or Bob Dylan. See, this is what House does. He drags you out of yourself and forces you into another time (and, just maybe, another dimension). I mean, if you're yourself when you listen to Down In the Hole, you just flat out are not listening. And when he deedle-deedles and di-de-di's, he has a reason. I mean, House tells stories, even when the stories don't have a beginning or end.

Down In the Hole... You know what I hear? I hear Kaleidoscope (the American band from the sixties) doing Oh, Death. I hear a deeper-voiced Tim O'Brien reaching deep and singing about troubles and woes. I hear Cumberland River serving up deep-fried mountain music straight out of TV's Justified. I hear backwoods music with more than a touch of the blues. Or I hear it as a modern rock classic: a little acoustic plucking beneath short bursts of electric slide over a bedrock of bass and Hammond organ and beneath-the-beat drums. Any number of groups could do it and do it up right.

Of course, Tom House has already done it up right.

You know what I think is really cool about House? Most people who hear this would say he was born out-of-time, that his music is of a different era. House doesn't care. He is doing what he does and genre-be-damned, and therefore it is not out-of-time. It is perfectly in-time.

But why take my word for it? Here is a link to an old article written by none other than Greil Marcus with whom I only occasionally agree but with whom I agree on this. Take it away, Greil!

Oh, and if you want, you can listen to him here. I recommend that you do.

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