Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Music Lives On

I am not sure the BBC had any particular message in mind when they went into streets around the world to collect comments on the death of Michael Jackson. Whether it was their intention to show how thin a line separates appreciation from cultism, the remark that made the deepest (and most aggravating) impact on me came from a young American (probably too young to remember the Jackson Five), who declared the day of Jackson's death to be "the day the music stopped." From that point of view, while I cannot personally understand the extent to which this story as blocked out so many others, I am glad to see that the ABC News team came up with a variety of perspectives on how, as has always been the case so many times in the past, the music is showing healthy signs of outliving the musician.

Nevertheless, my initial aggravation was further provoked when I read the "This Week" column in the Sunday Datebook section of today's San Francisco Chronicle. The specific event announcement that piqued me concerned the appearance of Mose Allison and Bob Dorough at Yoshi's; and I knew there would be trouble when I saw that the event was listed under a "Comedy" header. Still, I was not prepared for the text that followed:

Even if you don't recognize the name Mose Allison, you're sure to recognize his music. Van Morrison, John Mayall, the Who, the Clash, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, Elvis Costello and others have covered his songs. The list goes on and one, and so does the beat. Allison has not stopped writing and performing since he moved to the Big Apple in 1949 to immerse himself in the emerging jazz scene.

Coming from a culture (and a campus radio station) that was playing Allison's own recordings before any of the names on that list had become public figures (which probably means back when they were listening to the same recordings), I found this presentation to be narrow-mindedly offensive; but I suspect that Allison is enough of a professional to realize that you have to take what you can get. Still, the culture of performance is rarely one of acknowledging your sources. If neither Eric Clapton nor the Rolling Stones were particularly conscientious about giving credit to Robert Johnson during their concerts, then I have to remind myself that Johann Sebastian Bach was not that better in the matter. If Bach had an impact on the "discovery" of Antonio Vivaldi and Dietrich Buxtehude by the recording industry, then this has served the interests of listeners around the world and is not that different from the influence that Clapton may have had on Columbia's decision to release all of the recordings that Johnson ever made on two compact discs. Nevertheless, Allison is still alive and still at it as both composer and performer; and I find it tragic that he should "live" only by virtue of those of a later generation who covered his material.

I suspect that this is nothing more than a sobering reminder that the history of music is no different than the history of nations. In both cases the past is necessarily viewed through the distorting lens of the present. George Bernard Shaw captured the latter situation with more wit at the end of his play, The Devil's Disciple. He delegated that wit to his characterization of General John Burgoyne, who knows that he will soon be leading his army to defeat at the Battle of Saratoga. When asked by his aide how history will judge both him and the British army, he replied (in Shaw's words):

History will tell lies, as usual.

Kurt Vonnegut would later add his own riff to Shaw's in his reflection on the "historical view" of the fire-bombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five:

So it goes.

In the face of such inevitability of historiography, I wish Allison a good gig at Yoshi's!

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