Tuesday, August 2, 2011

800 Words: The Weekend America was Young - Part I

For Part II: Read Here

For Part III: Read Here

For Part IV: Read Here

Historian’s Note: The ability to ably translate this recording took a great deal of research into antique languages, but the insights it gives into the human workings of roughly 6000 Earth years ago makes it an immensely important study into the human civilization of the time. Jacopo Tacomas spoke a fully fluent Argentinian dialect of mid-21st century Spanish. His grandfather (a human term for the paternal reproductive unit of a reproductive unit), Esteban, did not seem fluent at all in any form of Spanish, and used an odd, almost unintelligible mid-21st century patois of Argentinian Spanish, American English, 20th century Hebrew, American Yiddish, and with some occasional words that were Russian and Portuguese in their antecedents. It is truly unlike any dialect yet discovered and should give many linguists pause as to how a person could be understood in a dialect so malleable, even by a family member. Given that this recording is one of the few documents left to us about the workings of the 21st Century, I felt it crucial to translate this artifact into a fluent, fully contemporary Esperanto Binary. However, in cases when the origin of a noun seemed proper, I felt compelled to render it on the page with as phonetical a spelling as Esperanto Binary is capable.

Jacopo Tacomas: Hello Alicia. This is your Papi talking. It is March 8th, 2072. You were born exactly one month and a day ago. The day you were born was an amazing coincidence, because it was one-hundred-twenty-one years to the day after the Greycer-Greycer-Bubbie for whom you were named was born, Alicia Juito Tacomas. It is 8 o’clock in the morning, and we are now sitting in the living room of your home in Buenos Aires. You’re asleep in your crib, and I’m sitting with someone whom we know you will get to know very well one day. This is your Graycer Zaydie, Esteban Tacomas. Tomorrow, he will turn 90 years old.

Esteban Tacomas: I’m as amazed as you are.

Jacopo: Our whole family will be gathering here tonight from countries like New England, Quebec, Pacifica, Chicagoland, New New York, Washingtonia, Deep Southland, Los Estados Caribbeanos de Miami, Costa Rica, Texas, Nuevos Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Portugal, England, France, Italy, Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Uruguay and of course, all around Argentina.

Esteban: Do I get their frequent fliers?

Jacopo: This is the fifth in our videos for Alicia. In the last video, we taked about Graycer Bubbie. It seems that a lot of things about your lives seemed to come back to one particular date. Would it be fair to say that the last weekend of July 2011 was a particularly important date for you both.

Esteban: No more important than it was for everyone.

Jacopo: Why was that?

Esteban: Regardless of what else happened, it was the weekend before America plunged the entire world into The Second Great Depression.

Jacopo: Oh my. I’d forgotten about that piece of history. What were you doing that weekend?

Esteban: I had driven up with some friends to the Newport Folk Festival in a state then called Rhode Island. It’s now it’s just a small province in New England.

Jacopo: What was the Festival like?

Esteban: It’s difficut to say, because in my memory, it will always be a kind of heaven.

Jacopo: You mean because of Bubbie?

Esteban: Well, maybe, but also in a way much larger than that. It was the last weekend America was the greatest civilization on Earth. And there we were, sipping frozen lemonade in its cradle.

Jacopo: What do you mean by cradle?

Esteban: Newport was a place where wealth had concentrated for three and a half centuries. It is a miniscule little town which Benedict Arnold, Commodore Matthew Perry, Cornelius Vanderbuilt, Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Dwight Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy called home. If you walked the streets of Newport, you’d see hardly anything but ancient Victorian mansions. Every port seemed to have hundreds of yachts and thousands of motorboats. And all these super-rich people would ride their yachts to the port of Fort Adams, where the Festival took place, and they’d simply listen to all the music from the Bay. It would have been impossible to believe that in five years, there would be no boats at all and Chinese banks would foreclose on every mansion in the town.

Jacopo: What was it like inside the Festival?

Esteban: Unlike anything I’d ever seen in my life. Most concerts, then as now, are full of people who have no real passion for what they listen to. The music most people listen to is simply a code they broadcast for the lifestyle they lead. But this was a place full of people who came simply because they loved music. And what they especially loved was discovering great music. The older people came to hear their musicians and were entranced by younger bands, and the younger people came to hear their musicians and were entranced by older bands.

Jacopo: What sort of music did they play?

Esteban: This was the Newport Festival, which was one of the most significant places for American Classical Music. In 1956, this was the site where Duke Ellington gave a concert that transformed his reputation from a fine bandleader into the greatest of all American Composers. In 1965, it was the place where Bob Dylan broke the boundaries of folk music and created a new type of music which brought folk, rock, bluegrass, country, soul and R&B music together. This was the form which all the later generations of American Classical Musicians would explore.

Jacopo: It sounds like a lot of great history was there.

Esteban: You had to brush the history from your face. But it didn’t feel like history at the time, because we thought that this kind of music would last forever. You couldn’t walk a hundred feet in the grounds of the festival without bumping into a music legend. The Newport Folk Festival still exists today, and the musicians there are still playing the same songs they played 100 years ago. By the time I arrived, it was probably stale in comparison to what it had been 50 years ago. But I saw Earle Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Ramblin Jack and Mavis Staples perform in the span of three hours. It was an indescribably moving experience, perhaps all the more-so since the four of them had an average age of about 83.

Jacopo: Who else did you see?

Esteban: Oh dear. I think I also saw The Decemberists, Elvis Costello, Wanda Jackson, Amos Lee, Justin Townes Earle (who was Steve Earle’s less talented son), Emmylou Harris, Gogol Bordello, The Head and the Heart and Pokey LaFarge.

Jacopo: What stood out for you?

Esteban: Definitely Mavis Staples. You know, Jacapo, I love that you love American Rhythm and Blues. And I know you know more about Mavis Staples than I ever will. But that performance had something which will never come through a recording. She was seventy-two, but her performing style felt like a ten-thousand-watt bolt of lightening had passed through the crowd. Within twenty seconds she transformed a polite crowd of White yuppies into a Revivalist Tent.

Jacopo: Was there anyone else on that level?

Esteban: Sadly, not quite. Many of them were very good, but for me that was the most extraordinary out of only three extraordinary performances in the whole Festival.

Jacopo: What were the others?

Esteban: The other great find was a singer called Pokey Lafarge. He was an extraordinary musician who seemed to played everything: new and old music on every instrument - a true classicist. As far as I can tell, he was never heard from again. But I’m positive that had he been born even a generation later he might have been hailed as another Mozart. The final extraordinary moment was the act of watching Pete Seeger in the children’s tent. But what made that extraordinary was anything but great music. What made it so wonderful was the fact that we were watching the ninety-two-year-old Godfather of American Classical Music teach music to dozens of children.

Jacopo: I just want to interrupt you right there Zaydie. No matter how many times you tell me, I still have a hard time believing this. Just so Alicia can hear it for herself, just repeat for her. This means that there was a time when American Classical Music was considered music for young people?

Esteban: Oh yes. It was our music. Every one of us. Opinions on what was great about American Classical might have differed with every age group, every social class and ethnic group. But regardless of what we thought of it, we all knew the same music and had opinions on it. There was a time when Public Enemy and George Jones were considered so far apart that nobody who listened to one could possibly like the other. Today, that seems utterly ridiculous because they’re both products of the same era.

Jacopo: So this is the music you grew up with?

Esteban: Well, (ahem) not exactly. I certainly grew up with this music, but not in the way other people did. The music I loved was European Classical Music. It was my way of rebelling.

Jacopo: What did you need to rebel against?

Esteban: I hated the laziness of it. Until I was twenty, I didn’t just ignore American Classical, I despised it. To me, it was everything that was wrong about America.

Jacopo: What was wrong?

Esteban: In the America of my childhood, American Classical Music was rigidly ghettoized, at least among adolescents. There were separate ghettos for the music of every region, and even more ghettos for every social class within those regions. You could never be fully accepted into a group of people unless you fully proclaimed your allegiance to their music over any other.

Jacopo: Were adults more accepting?

Esteban: Somewhat, but there was not much curiosity to find out other music. It was difficult because the music industry was controlled by people who cared far more for bottom line profits than individuality. And so they could charge 18 dollars for a Compact Disc they could manufacture for 3 cents.

Jacopo: It’s difficult to believe that was ever possible since the advent of file-sharing.

Esteban: Well, file-sharing only began when I was fifteen. Until then, there was simply no way during my childhood to experiment with music that was not familiar. People did not want to spend the price of both breakfast and lunch to buy an album by a musician whom they did not know if they liked. So they simply bought what was marketed heavily. The Music Industry of the time would take a malleable singer with no real individuality, tell him or her how to play music, and then tell the public that they should like this singer. Because the public didn’t have opportunity to hear music of which the Industry didn’t approve, they had no way of knowing that music could be better than Madonna or Michael Jackson.

Jacopo: I love Madonna and Michael Jackson!

Esteban: You’re the only person in the world who still does.

Jacopo: People who love American Classical Music just have a problem with any music that’s fun.

Esteban: That is the problem of all Classical Music. Every generation will have an excess of fine musicians who want to make fun music. It’s just as hard to make fun music as serious music, but the people who only listen to fun music always seem to think that old music won’t be any fun.

Jacopo: Is this why you don’t like MJ and Madonna?

Esteban: I have no problem with the quality of either of them. I think they’re superb virtuosos with amazing techniques. My only problem with them was that there was nothing behind their technique -- just empty mechanics. European Classical Music had composers like that too: Paganini and Franz Liszt being obvious examples. They cast shadows so large that genuine artists who had deeper messages were unable to communicate, because both MJ and Paganini created a whole generation of music lovers only interested in empty music. And the world of Michael Jackson was the world I was born into.

Jacopo: So what then appealed to you about European Classical Music?

Esteban: European Classical Music seemed to demand more of people than American Classical. It was a terrible misnomer, but it seemed true at the time because the bad European Classical Music had long since been forgotten. But as I was growing up, we were surrounded with bad American Classical Music. It was on television and radio constantly, there was no escape from it and no-one of my generation seemed to know that there was a thousand years of great classical music that existed before American Classical.

Jacopo: That seems quite different from today.

Esteban: Yes it is. Since so much of Latin American Popular Music has deep roots in European Classical Music, the world has taken notice of it again.

Jacopo: When and how did this change for you?

Esteban: It wasn’t until I became a college student when it began to dawn on me that just as much great music exists in American Classical as does in European. I was a terrible student, and I wasn’t in much of a situation to socialize with people who had real curiosity until then. Most of my college friends didn’t know any more about European Classical than I knew about American, but we took to each other’s music like fish to water.

Jacopo: Did you try to ignore American Classical Music before then?

Esteban: Hardly. I actually played the fiddle in American Classical long before I became interested in the music itself?

Jacopo: Why did you play music you didn’t like?

Esteban: It was a way to make friends. I probably hoped to make money with it too, but that never really happened.

Jacopo: So how were your college friends able to sort the great American Classical Music from the bad?

Esteban: Simple good taste was the only guiding principle. They had more desire to sit through the bad to find the good than I ever did. American Classical Music back then was not classical at all. It was a living culture from which we all picked what we liked, and it was expected that you had even heard what you didn’t like.

Jacopo: That makes it seem like it was a chore.

Esteban: Perhaps it was, but the good music made it worth our time. It was our music. It would never have occurred to us to call it ‘Classical Music’ because the music was so much a part of us. The culture which produced it was still very much alive. European Classical Music was the real classical music, part of an aristocratic culture that was completely disconnected from everything we were.

Jacopo: What made American Classical Music so different from European?

Esteban: This was the first time in a thousand years when music had to completely reinvent itself from the ground up. Just Chuck Berry’s guitar alone could make a larger, more visceral sound than a 100-piece orchestra from Richard Strauss. Louis Armstrong’s voice was as ugly as Nellie Melba’s was beautiful, but the recording microphone made Louis Armstrong a much more expressive singer.The rules of music had to be completely rewritten. And the result was the least sophisticated-sounding canon of great music created since the era of the Troubadours in the 14th century. The same musicians would be expected to write their music, write their lyrics, produce their shows, and sometimes even handle the recordings themselves. The result was that American Classical Music has a trove of great songs with no more three chords or a thirty-word vocabulary. And yet, the limitations of this music made it that much greater. Since the means were so limited, every moment had to have an extreme visceral immediacy. 19th century European Classical Music was the most complex music ever devised. Composers would divide labor between hundreds of musicians, and each of them would have hundreds of thousands of instructions which they were expected to fulfill to the letter. Compared to that, American Classical Music was simplicity itself.

Jacopo: How do you think that sea change came to pass so quickly?

Esteban: It was the invention of electronic equipment - particularly recordings and amplifiers - that changed everything we thought we knew about music. This was the first art music that was ever truly created for mass consumption. Even in their wildest dreams, Beethoven and Mahler could never have imagined their music performed for more than twenty, thirty thousand people at a time. But James Brown and Bob Dylan could create their music for a a live audience of hundreds of thousands and a recorded audience of tens of millions....you know, I'm getting tired.

Jacopo: Let’s break for lunch. If you're feeling up to it we’ll record video #6 when we get back.

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