Monday, September 19, 2011

Whats on YOUR Playlist?

As I have started a new job recently, I've been engaged in more small-talk than I care for with people who, for the most part, are very different than I. Because of that, I have grown to simultaneously love and hate this question:

"What kind of music do you listen to?"
The problem is that I have such varied interests in such eclectic genre's of music, that I cannot provide the simple, two-to-three sentence answer they are looking for. This is perfectly illustrated by the playlist that formed itself on my phone as I was flying to Kansas City this weekend. I tapped "shuffle all", inserted my earbuds, and began flipping through SkyMall. This is what the music gods bestowed on my auricles:

"Kinky Reggae" - Bob Marley & the Wailers
"Blindsided" - Bon Iver
"Cocoon" - The Decemberists
"Allentown" - Billy Joel
"Le Valse du Ballard" - Amede Ardoin
"Dodging the Wind" - Joe Pug
"Talkin' World War III Blues" - Bob Dylan
"Greatest Hustler of All" - Old Crow Medicine Show

I wouldn't know how to explain this lineup to anyone. Most people who I know do not listen to such a hodge-podge of genres, time frames, and perspectives. But for me, each of these has its personal reason for showing up on my list, so its place in the playlist is perfectly justified. Here's what I mean:

Bob Marley & the Wailers

Bob Marley joined my collection after a semester of teaching Speech Communication at Black Hawk College in Kewanee. The class was a three hour marathon every Monday night during the fall semester. For the most part, the students were great. They were engaged, interested, and as alert as you could be at seven o'clock at night.

I gave an assignment about halfway through the semester, directing each student to research a person that they admired, and give a presentation on that person. I don't remember any of the other details of the assignment - it was a speech class, so I was trying to mix it up a bit. One of the students, a scrawny white kid with stringy blonde hair that recalled Kurt Cobain's mop, decided to do his speech on Bob Marley. He came up to me after I assigned the project,

"So, uh, Mr. Walljasper - Check this out...I'm going to give my speech on Bob Marley...and I can probably go first, if you want...I'm already prepared...I know his whole life, did you know that when he was --"

I cut him short, "I appreciate your excitement for the project. How do you know so much about Bob Marley?"

"I been listening to his music since I was like ten. I've read a ton about him."

"Great. You can use those things as sources. You'll need to cite where you got the information from, as we discussed in class."


If I remember correctly, he did a mediocre job of citing his sources, as most did. But his speech was one of the most impassioned displays of admiration for the life and cause that Bob Marley so adamantly preached. I was genuinely inspired and intrigued, so I went out and get a couple of Bob Marley albums. And I love them.

"Blindsided" - Bon Iver

Bon Iver is a project by musician Justin Vernon. I love the story behind this album, which is why I bought it to begin with. That and the fact that I'd heard a couple of the songs, and loved the stripped down, repetitive, haunting melodies he creates.

It is said that one fall, Vernon simultaneously faced the break up of his band, his relationship, and a bout with mono within days of one another. His response was to take off for his parents cabin in northern Wisconsin. While holed up in the woods of the north all winter, he recorded this album.

The romantic setting for this album's creation definitely adds to its joy for me. I love the idea of getting away from every distraction, every annoyance, and simply pouring yourself into your craft for months at a time.

"Cocoon" - The Decemberists

My friend Michael introduced me to The Decemberists in college. I remember playing the song "Crane Wife 3" over and over again, being completely speechless as I listened to the wordplay that Colin Meloy articulated as he recounted this ancient far east tale. It was this band that showed me that modern music can be poetry.

"Allentown" - Billy Joel

Billy Joel was always playing in my childhood. I always saw him as an American institution, beside John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen. I loved dancing around to the upbeat hits like "Only the Good Die Young" and "Moving Out".

Now I love Joel for his cultural relevancy as well. Songs like "Allentown" and "Goodnight Saigon" are indelible markers of a shift in our culture. These reflections on dying towns and dying soldiers offer insight into our country and its journey from "The Greatest Generation" to "Generation X".

"Le Valse du Ballard" - Amede Ardoin

As many know, I own an accordion (two actually). I love to play these unique instruments. So when my friend Brian ran across Amede Ardoin, he knew that had to send it my way.

Ardoin is known as one of the preeminent creole accordion players at the turn of the century. His carefree french vocals and lightning fast accordion are both marvels and joys to listen to. Every time Ardoin come on, I cannot help but smile.

"Dodging the Wind" - Joe Pug

Joe Pug falls into an interesting genre of music that is very difficult to label. In the mid 90's, they  deemed it "Alt-Country", a term that is still thrown around today. Others call it "Americana". If I were to describe it, I would call it Rock-a-billy meets folk meets the alternative music scene of the nineteen ninety's. Add in the strong, silent sensibilities of John Wayne and my grandfathers, and you might be close.

Brian also turned me on to Joe Pug. The thing that I love the most about this artist is that he is also an amazing lyricist. The phrases turned in his songs that make you go back and listen again. He is still a rising musician, but I have a feeling he will be reaching serious acclaim soon.

"Talkin' World War III Blues" - Bob Dylan

"Talkin' World War III Blues" is one of my favorite songs by Bob Dylan. I know it is not his most famous, but it is truly a masterful pastiche of whimsy and peculiarity. I've heard that Dylan denies any political or cultural commentary in his music, but perhaps by writing music about what he saw, Bob Dylan was making a profound statement on the nature of the world. This song is a perfect example of that.

"Greatest hustler of all" - Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show is similar to Joe Pug in their inability to be succinctly labeled. With Old-time Country influences, bluegrass instrumentation and vocals, folk themes, and outlaw country attitudes, there website calls it "American Roots Music". If that sheds light, good. If not, check them out.

I've played dozens of their songs, most of the time while drinking whiskey with good friends. The song "Wagon Wheel" is one of their more famous songs, and one that always brings back fond memories.

As you can see, all the music I listen to is steeped in context and memory. And that is how I feel it should be. Seldom do I listen to music that I have no connection to, unless it is upon the recommendation of a friend, and I am exploring new artists. But listening to the top 40, because it is the top 40, is not a good reason to listen to music.

Maybe the question, rather than "What kind of music do you listen to?", should be "Why do you listen to the music that you do?"

I think that would invoke a more engaging response.

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