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Saturday morning quotes 4.12: Values

August 2, 2014

In the world of historical lute music, we constantly rub elbows with the idea of historical accuracy and run across references to the discredited and outmoded descriptor, authenticity.  Such concepts are a luxury of our times; an era when recreation of the past trumps engaged participation in the culture of the present.

It turns out that a similar level of classification of sources and discernment as applied to authenticity touches another part of our musical lives, the world of old-time songs and traditional fiddle tunes.  For whatever misguided reasons, song and tune collectors of today seem to place great store in the idea of “pure” (oral or aural) sources of their favorite songs and tunes, often ignoring the realities of the transmission of music and the actual living dimensions of the people who originally played it.  The fact is that many favorite fiddle and banjo tunes that seem to have a mystical history were gleaned from written collections published in the 19th century, and many favorite songs and ballads were learned from the towering piles of published sheet music from the same era.

One of my favorite old-time fiddlers from the golden age of recorded music was Lowe Stokes (1898-1983), a versatile and flexible musician who played hillbilly tunes like he meant it, but who was also capable of playing popular songs by Jerome Kern as necessary.  Stokes was the subject of a longish poem by Stephen Vincent Benét (1898–1943), The Mountain Whippoorwill (Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers’ Prize).  Having lost his right hand in a shooting accident, Stokes continued to play the fiddle until his demise after being “rediscovered” in the early 1980s.

Our quote for today concerns Lowe Stokes and is by Tony Russell, probably the most knowledgeable historian of American fiddle tunes on planet Earth.

The old-time enthusiast bent on separating “real” old-time tunes from the regrettable flash company in which they find themselves on the records of Lowe Stokes and others is committed to a musical value-system which those artists would not have shared, approved or even understood.

- Tony Russell, notes to Lowe Stokes In Chronological Order, Volume 1, 1927-1930 (Document Records DOCD 8045)

We share this quote to put into perspective the fact that historical musicians of all eras had more dimension to their lives than we care to consider from the remove of many centuries.  Josquin was a successful musician because he was a businessman in a era when musicians were mere servants.  Dowland played whatever he darned well pleased, including tunes he filched from foreign sources.  Mozart wrote sublime music but was a very crude human being.

The span of many years and the luxury of living in an age of re-created music allows us to view historical figures through a blurred lens, applying our modern and adjusted values to their lives and to the nature of their art.  Reality is more flexible.

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