‘Dirty hippies’ Archive

Music and the Renegade Tradition

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

Welcome to the second installment of my occasional feature, Sam’s Book Corner, where I rise from my sofa and not actually review a book I’ve just finished. I began back in October, with a not-actual-review of Steve Almond’s “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”.  This time, we’re talking about Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United States”, which is worth a read if only for the chapter which describes the Jewish domination of professional basketball in the first half of the 20th century. Yes, indeed, in case you’re not aware of this, we’re naturally gifted athletes – at least that’s what they were saying at the time…

Mr. Russell’s book is something of a provocation – at least, he’s not really intending that we take the thesis at face value. The idea is that what cemented American freedom was not the Founding Fathers, or the pioneers, but rather the parade of scofflaws, indolents and hedonists who challenged the ongoing Puritanism that this great country was founded on.  The drunkards during the Revolution, the gangsters in the 20′s, the drag queens at Stonewall – these are the ingredients, he writes, of American freedom.

Now, this isn’t completely nuts. It’s hard for me, perhaps as a child of the sixties (not really, but close enough for folk music), to appreciate how robust the tradition of moral scold is in American history. The title track to my pal Chris Pahud’s first album, “Morton’s Return”, is about one of the incidents Mr. Russell talks about: how a man named Thomas Morton founded a non-Puritan settlement north of Plymouth which featured intolerable levels of debauchery (read: any enjoyment of anything at all). So the Pilgrims marched up to Quincy, with guns, and shut it down, thereby establishing a long American tradition of legal and extralegal enforcement of the moral virtue of not enjoying things. From the Puritans to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to Prohibition to the Hays Code to Tipper Gore and her explicit warning labels, normative America has always been about hard work, bland food, uninspired sex, and the connection between leisure time and the Apocalypse.

But the thing that really jumps out at me, as a musician, is the extent to which music – allmusic – is part of this “renegade” tradition. It seems to have started with dancing – after all, dancing is a horrible, dirty activity which occasionally involves touching a member of the opposite sex (well, whatever sex you happen to be interested in), which will lead immediately to venereal disease and the collapse of the Republic. It also meant that you weren’t working, and of course our country is built on hard work – never mind the fact that our economy seems to be driven almost entirely by blockbuster movies, snack foods and Internet pornography. The sin of spending money on leisure, especially leisure that would lead to other sorts of enjoyment – and get your mind out of the gutter, there – see, that’s exactly what I mean, there’s nothing wrong with having your mind in the gutter – no, actually, it’s not even the gutter, the problem is thinking that it’s the gutter in the first place – and here we are, in 21st century America, where white people still have no idea what to do with their bodies, pretty much all the time.

It’s hard to imagine how what I do, as a songwriter, is subversive or a challenge to the status quo. But I benefit from years of folks who did exactly that – the slaves who refused to yield to their circumstances of toil; the ragtime composers who made their livings in the lobbies of whorehouses; the jazz musicians who played for gangsters in speakeasies; Elvis Presley, who died as a joke but started out as someone so shocking that he could only be shown on television from the chest up; the anti-war music of the sixties. Not a single one of these people aimed for mainstream America.

And it doesn’t matter whether I think my own material is subversive – there’s probably someone out there who’s thinking it for me. If Mr. Russell’s thesis is right, I don’t have to be a war protester or a free-love advocate; my very existence is a threat to American values.

After all, I haven’t worked full-time in almost thirty years, because I love my music and my peace of mind more than I love the idea of working. And just in this past year, I wrote a song called “I Ain’t In It For The Money”, which not only challenges the employment status quo but also features a grammatical bastard child right there in the title. I’ve written songs that refuse to pass judgment on divorce, sex outside marriage – you name it, I refuse to be a moral scold about it. In fact, now that you mention it, I can feel the fabric of society shredding around me even as I write this.

If there is a moral here – well, I suppose we should call it an “amoral”, given the circumstances, but you know what I mean – it’s that somewhere, somehow, there’s always going to be someone or something out to get you. It may be your own fear, or your own unwillingness to rattle the cage, or your concern about being ostracized or mocked, or even a very real concern about being jailed, or worse. Art isn’t innocent. It requires us to sacrifice a bit of ourselves, to expose our neck to the knife – in ways we may not even be aware of. You may cause an uproar without even knowing it; you may start a revolution without intending to; but it does no good to backtrack after the fact, or to hold yourself back beforehand. We are all artists, after all – enjoying music is as much a skill as creating it, after all, and I’ve known concertgoers that invest far more energy in, and are far more knowledgeable about, what I do than I am. And if Thaddeus Russell is right, art, either making it or enjoying it, is one of the things that challenges American Puritanism – and makes us more free.