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Saturday morning quotes 5.17: Truth or spin?

September 12, 2015

The statement of facts…is a speech instructing the audience as to the nature of the case in dispute…Most writers…hold that it should be lucid, brief and plausible…[so that the audience will] remember and believe what we say.

– Quintilian IV, ii

We seem to be living in the age of spin where facts and truth are a matter of interpretation.  Way before the internet and even before radio and television, the idea of the news cycle was simply nonexistent.  News is and always has been tainted by a distinct commercial slant, and facts and so-called truth must somehow be crammed in between commercial announcements.  Then along came death to live entertainment in the form of motion pictures—and mass media advertising disguised as movie reviews.

In 2000, Sony executives decided it would be smart idea to invent a critic who would miraculously always love all of their movies. David Manning, aka thin air, thought that Hollow Man was “One helluva scary ride!” while Rob Schneider’s critically loathed comedy The Animal was “Another winner!”…Around the same time, it was revealed that Sony had also used employees to pose as moviegoers in a TV spot for Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. One of them described the violent drama with implied rape threats as “a perfect date movie”.

– Benjamin Lee, “How my negative review of Legend was spun into movie marketing gold”

Anyone in the entertainment business knows that talent means absolutely nothing as a measure of exposure and success.  Success results from solid inside connections and well-paid PR professionals.

Eventually, it occurred to me to investigate – and the answer was that the PR industry simply wrote its own history. Despite PR professionals regularly telling us they’re storytellers, the only tale they’ve woven is an elaborate farce of empty self-importance that borders on the religious.

– Ed Zitron, “I work in PR – and we’re all terrible people”

Paradoxically, the spin doctors of early music, sell to the public a cast of performing artists, and their recordings and live performances, lavishly presented and characterized as historically-informed, honest and transparent.  But peering behind the curtain reveals that we are treated to a product that is at best unsatisfying and at worst downright dishonest.

To begin, chosen tempos we hear today, frequently from one or two well-publicized renaissance lutenists but mostly in baroque ensemble performances, are not even close to historically accurate.  Every historical writer on the subject tells us that taste and elegance are primary, and that tempo is ultimately based on the beat of the heart.  One can only surmise that some musicians have had heart transplants to the disadvantage of severely inconvenienced chipmunks.  Some orchestras sound like they are falling over themselves in an attempt to make the music seem more exciting, but we hear clipped notes, mangled phrasing and barely managed dynamic contrast—the absolute antithesis of taste and elegance.  Among those of us with experience in theater, it is well known that flash and speed are merely cheap tricks used to cover a lack of depth.

A particularly egregious example was heard last week when I (RA) entered the room to hear a radio broadcast of a certain group playing Vivaldi in what was once a live performance.  I instantly experienced the sensation of eating a perilously dripping ice cream cone on a very hot day as quickly as possible in order to avoid a sticky melting mess.  But when the performance was over, the encore brought on a serious attack of dyspepsia.  This group had the audacity to purloin a down-and-dirty Kentucky fiddle tune that is near and dear to my heart and make a foot-stomping quasi-Celtic arrangement out of it.  I felt the same sensation of dismay when someone stole boxes of our CDs at gunpoint and later blithely sold them on Amazon—and the law said there was no recourse.

As a musician who has (true confession) spent a good deal of his life playing traditional American fiddle music, I felt empathetic toward legends like Gus Cannon, who lived in a cardboard shack in the 1960s while the Rooftop Singers made millions off his song, “Walk right in, sit right down”.  Or Roscoe Holcomb who taught his version of “I am a man of constant sorrow” to Ralph Stanley on that tour bus; a song that was later purloined and t-boned into a popular movie. The upshot is that this collection of paper-trained types really has no business playing real music in front of people until they learn how it goes.

The tune in question is “Glory in the meetinghouse” and the original recording was by one Luther Strong (1892 – 1962).  If you follow the links you’ll learn that the tune falls more neatly into the “Kentucky blues” category than the Sligo-ornamented “Irish reel” category, not to diss our friends who play Irish music.  And further reading will tell you that Luther recorded this tune in 1937 on a borrowed fiddle after spending the night in jail for public drunkedness, having been bailed out by Alan Lomax for the occasion.  No tuxedos were involved.

The Chieftains-type treatment of “Glory in the meetinghouse” is really not in the best of taste for a powerful Kentucky fiddle tune, which is meant to be a fiddle solo.  I was first introduced to Irish fiddle music via the first Chieftains record, and they are truly classics, but everyone knows the Chieftains did for Irish music what Lawrence Welk did for popular dance music of the 1940s.  Yes, it’s true that Luther’s version of “Bonaparte’s retreat” had already been purloined by Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) for the “Hoedown” bit of his Rodeo suite. But if you’re going to do that to his music, perhaps you were thinking you might look up Luther’s family in Hazard, Kentucky and pay them some royalties.  Just click here, scroll to the bottom and read the comments from three of Luther’s relatives.

That’s the facts.  And anything else y’all want to know about real fiddle music before you go messing with it, you just ask.

One Comment
  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    This morning’s “Unquiet Thoughts” were particularly interesting because recently I have been watching (in the company of one who would be upset if I didn’t come along for the ride) T.V. episodes of REIGN. Set in 16th Century France complete with ridiculous costumes, dialogue, action, theme, and rock’n’roll music. Enough to make a man with a grossly inauthentic Manouk Papazian lute cry alligator tears. Here is another instance of Walt Kelly’s Pogo Possum saying “We have seen the enemy, and it is us”. I always have to listen to a Jacob Heringman CD after watching an episode of REIGN.
    Thank you for your fine work.
    Chris

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