(For Sing Out! magazine)
Alex Ross wrote recently in the New Yorker that “when classical-music fans hear that a new Hollywood production has a scene set at the opera or the symphony, they reflexively prepare to cringe. Typically, such scenes give a klutzy picture of musical life and come loaded with corrosive clichés.”
It’s a statement that could far more easily be applied to folk and old-time music. It’s true that classical music in movies is rarely sympathetic to the art form – “alleged geniuses compose NFL highlights music” writes Ross.
In the folk world, however, schlock never creates any sympathies, misplaced or otherwise. The banjo in Deliverance will be remembered long after the movie is forgotten. People these days see a bumper sticker that says “paddle faster, I hear banjos” and wink, though it’s hard to imagine that all of them have really seen the movie. The joke is so evergreen that the punchline lives in the absence of its antecedent. As wonderful/fun as “A Mighty Wind” is, the joke that folk music fans enjoy is two-dimensional in the eyes of everyone else. None of the schlock creates any sense of reverence. Ever.
At the heart of the matter, though, is the division between rural and urban sensibilities that reinforces those kinds of stereotypes. Classical music, despite Ross’ concerns, is reflexively thought of as enriching, skilled, and worthwhile, much like medicine is. You might not like it, but it’s good for you, the popular thinking goes. Even those who might say they hate classical music tend to consider it as a high form of art – just as rocket science and Einstein connote genius, an appreciation of classical music connotes an appreciation of culture.
Old time music, when used in films at any rate, is used to connote the opposite, and when a filmmaker is feeling extra punchy, it’s coupled with its visual component: traditional dance. George Clooney did it in O Brother Where Art Thou. His character was an amiable dimwit, and the dancing and the fake beard confirmed it. There, and elsewhere in the world of corrosive clichés, I’d venture that traditional dance suffers more than anything. Al Jolson has a better reputation, and we’re reminded that he was a cantor more readily that we are the fact that he made a living of, well, singing in blackface.
For many, traditional dance appears repetitive, disorganized, and hopelessly unsophisticated. Sneering at traditional dance is a great way to you appear urban, thoughtful and informed. After attending a dance in Asheville, NC, Frances Hodgson Burnett described what she saw as “furious and erratic reel-dancing” accompanied by a “fiddler at work sawing industriously at one tune.” Hodgson is the author of The Secret Garden, a book about displacement and healing. But when it came to dance, well, so much for having an open mind – she found in it something unforgivable. Thomas Ashe, in visiting the south in the early 19th century, had much the same response. “I entered the ball-room which was filled with persons at cards, drinking, smoking, dancing … the ‘music’ consisted of two banjies, played by [musicians] nearly in a state of nudity, and a [flute], through which a Chickesaw breathed with much occasional exertion and violent gesticulations.” He concludes, cuttingly, that “the dancing accorded with the harmony of these instruments.”
It doesn’t help that in the 20th century more people experienced parodies of traditional dance forms than the dances themselves, perhaps principally via cartoons of the 1930s where actual chickens dance the chicken reel, and Minnie Mouse kicked up her heals with Clarabelle Cow. “In contrast to the contemporary jazz music and popular swing dances of the time,” writes Phil Jamison in the preface to Hoedowns, Reels and Frolics: Roots and branches of Southern Appalachian Dance, “these rural dances were portrayed simply as old-fashioned, down-home entertainment for ordinary country folk (or animals).”
The thing is, they’re wrong about all of it, which is something that Jamieson deftly, and refreshingly, points out in his book. The approach to rural dance, truly, is about us. It’s about the prejudices that, even today, urban culture projects onto rural life. “Duck Dynasty,” “Farm Kings,” etc., are the contemporary equivalents of Ashe’s commentary, Hee Haw, and Deliverance. Urban audiences, then as now, love to look down on rural life, believing that it’s simple and easily understood.
Rightly, Jamison discusses all that at the front of the book, getting it out of way, as he is more interested in the art form itself than he is the perceptions of it. I say rightly, because it is interesting, more than I suspect anyone knows. Jamison demonstrates how the history of dance is the story of America: immigration, race, trade, culture, identity, fashion, social stratification, and innovation. The closer you look, the more fascinating it all becomes. There are some great tidbits in here – one reason that jigs in 6/8 time aren’t found in the Southern fiddle repertoire, unlike reels in 4/4, is because it’s a difficult time to play on the banjo – though it’s the progress of dance and music, and what it says about us as a culture today, that animates the book. Culture is never static, as much as we might think it is.
In the course of the book, we see that pretty much all the assumptions we might make about traditional dance are wrong, prime among them the idea that it is a vestige of an earlier time, caught in the amber of rural Appalachia. “[To] writers of the late nineteenth century, these rural dances no doubt appeared unfashionable and antiquated but in fact were only a few generations old … not pure survivals of an ancient Anglo-Celtic heritage, locked away in isolation, but a constantly evolving folk tradition.”
And, indeed, that’s just the beginning. This book is about dance, true, but it also provides an analogue for so many other things, reminding us, once again, that few forms of art – perhaps even classical music among them – are ever quite what they seem.