Toward a Musicology of Nostalgia, Part I: The Country Blues

james

Lonesome Dan Kase

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia.

Toward the end of my time at North Central University, which is located in downtown Minneapolis, MN, I began to frequent a nearby coffee shop/music venue/art space called E.P. Atelier (this wonderful place closed closed down awhile back).  It was there, that I was introduced to a young blues musician named Lonesome Dan Kase.  It was a Saturday evening, and business was slow for the coffee shop, I was the only customer.  Lonesome Dan began to sing, and stomp, and play his 1938 Gibson guitar.  It was the first time I had heard the country blues, and I was transfixed.  Later, I wrote an article about Lonesome Dan for The Northern Light (the venerable student newspaper of North Central):

The music he plays hasn’t been heard (at least by most) in 70 years.  It is captivating music, full of raw and throaty vocals, and intense finger-picking guitar work.  It’s foot-stompin’, knee-slappin’ music of a bygone era; nostalgic music that takes you back even if you’ve never been there before.  When you hear it, it makes you wish you had a name like Lonesome Dan, or Reverend Gary Davis, or Sleepy John Estes, riding from town to town on a freight train and playing the country blues on your old beat up guitar.

Back in the ’20s and ’30s the country blues was called “race music.”  Back in those days it the popular genre of African America, and you can trace the development of modern rock, blues, R & B, and rap back to those gritty voiced black singers who got their start and their sound during the Great Depression: Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson (Eric Clapton’s muse), Son House (Jack White’s muse), Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the Reverend Gary Davis.  The best word to describe the music of these men, and of Lonesome Dan is genuine.  One man, a guitar, sitting on stool, in a bar or a road house, (back when such places were still filled with the smoke of cheap cigarettes) singing of love and religion, place and tradition, agriculture and crime and racism.  These men lived the life they sang about, and it was not a glamorous life, either.  They did not own mansions, or drive Escalades.  They were many times homeless, and rode freight trains (Lonesome Dan ran away from home and hopped a freight train when he was eighteen…or so the legend goes).  They didn’t lip sync their concerts or use computers to edit out their mistakes and correct their voices.  The country blues is some of the most authentic music every made, and that’s why when you hear it, it makes your heart ache.  It calls you to the open road, it makes you want to pack a knapsack and head for the train yard.  It gives you nostalgia for a way of life you’ve never lived.

– – –

Nostalgia is a yearning for authenticity, for a time when things were simpler, more real; but it is often a paradoxical yearning.  These days, nostalgia has been commercialized, plasticized and outsourced.  We’re flooded with cheap Elvis clocks, and Betty Boop commemorative plates that are supposed to remind us (well, actually our parents) of a better a time, back before suburban sprawl and big box stores, back when Americans actually manufactured things.  So much for authenticity.

It is in this culture so filled with hype, with mind-controlling advertising, with disposable everythings, that the search for authenticity becomes urgent.  My generation wants authenticity so badly–almost as badly as we want the new I-phone.  And ultimately, that’s the problem, our search for authenticity always seems to get sidetracked, co-opted, packaged and sold back to us.  But, good, raw, real music keeps on calling us back to the search, to the road…even if that music gets played through ear-buds.

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9 Comments

  1. I certainly associate early Blues with a sort of authenticity, but when I think nostalgia I think tower PCs, dot-matrix printers, DOS, Oregon Trail, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, plastic cap guns, and Star Wars action figures. In other words, when I think nostalgia, I think cheap and mass-produced.

    Nostalgia makes me want to find an old arcade, watch Godzilla movies on VHS, or download ROMs of my favorite Sega Genesis games, not go on a road trip (although I dearly love road trips.)

    Reply

  2. To engage you further… I think that the charge of “nostalgia” gets thrown around a lot at people like us. But it’s a cheap shot really that amounts to a hidden and clamorous call to accept the ‘modern’ world as it is and even to embrace supposed (and apparently immutable) ‘progress.’ Let me explain:

    Many theologians I read are often accused of ‘nostalgia’ because they repudiate ‘modernist’ epistemological assumptions. Always I hear that Milbank is just searching to renew a ‘pre-modern’ or ‘pre-critical’ era of reflection.

    I’m sure you’ve heard the same things about Wendell Berry as I have. Berry just needs to understand, they say, that he is looking back to a nostalgic past that can never be again. Industrialized and de-personalized manufacturing of food is the way it is and anything else, any alternative voice, is backwards and just doesn’t get it.

    This list could go on to include indie music and the revival of folk, bluegrass and rock & roll. And other things besides.

    But could it not be that we feel that we’ve caught a glimpse of truths that are being twisted, or repressed, or marketed and sold (and so cheapened and deauthenticized) or which are lost beneath a technologized and individualized culture?

    The problem is that our wealth is the opiate of the people. We catch glimpses of truths in the writings of certain people or in the art of others and we want that truth to be more pronounced and to guide us in more fundamental ways; but our moral will isn’t strong enough so long as our lives are ‘comfortable’ and our desires met.

    It is my feeling that if there were a few charismatic people who were able to focus their will and persuade others to join them in new creative ventures in community and the arts then we could potentially have another “Arts and Crafts” or “Pre-Raphaelite” movement.

    People like Sufjan Stevens are already doing this is music and I see no reason that it couldn’t spread to other cultural and ecclesial sites. As an example I think the “New Monastic” movement is a sign of this kind of thing.

    I’m probably only rambling at this point. Do you get what I’m saying? Are you feeling it?

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  3. Oh, I’m totally feeling it. I think you make an excellent point. To charge someone with engaging in nostalgia is akin to charging them with being an idealist or calling some one naive. When I get accused of being these things I am no longer offended.

    People like Berry and Millbank and the New Monastics, though, are not naive in the least. They know exactly what’s going on in the world, they simply have enough faith and imagination to believe that (to quote the Abbot of the New Monastics) “another world is possible, another world is already here.”

    I think that nostalgia, faith and imagination are all linked, but I’d like to touch on that in another post.

    As to your point concerning wealth being our opiate, I also like the image you conjured in a previous post about original sin being the systems of this world that we are born into and have a very difficult time escaping. Our wealth driven culture is one of those systems of institutional sin that holds us in cycles of personal sin, and keeps us from achieving our full potential as citizens of God’s Kingdom.

    There is so much evil in the world, but there are everywhere and every place little out-breakings of the Kingdom, signs and wonders pointing the glorious future in Christ.

    Reply

  4. The problem is that our wealth is the opiate of the people…

    Aha! That paragraph goes on the refrigerator.

    It is my feeling that if there were a few charismatic people who were able to focus their will and persuade others to join them in new creative ventures in community and the arts then we could potentially have another “Arts and Crafts” or “Pre-Raphaelite” movement.

    But here’s the problem. Will you be persuaded that this has really happened if said charismatic people don’t make a big name for themselves–if this happens not in a large, visible way in Society but in small, hardly-noticed interactions among people who don’t necessarily write for influential blogs?

    Reply

    1. “Will you be persuaded that this has really happened if said charismatic people don’t make a big name for themselves–if this happens not in a large, visible way in Society but in small, hardly-noticed interactions among people who don’t necessarily write for influential blogs?”

      Absolutely. Not everyone is a Shane Claiborne. The overwhelming majority of congregations and communities operate on this level I only mean that it will still take people who have, shall we say colorfully, enough ‘balls’ to take the initiative. I would call this ‘charismatic’ in a Holy Spirit kind of way more so than a magnetic personality kind of way.

      Reply

  5. Nostalgia is a yearning for authenticity, for a time when things were simpler, more real;

    The Japanese have a word “懐かしい” (“natsukashii”) which is said when one experiences something that is reminiscent of a fond past experience. — my definition is better than the one I just linked “missed”, “yearned”. I think that when an experience triggers parts of the brain that bring up echoes and clouds of past experiences, the hallucination gives us a sense of revelry. Good brains forget pain much faster than then forget happiness and thus reveling in these pasts can be inaccurately pleasant.

    Perhaps that is why the accusation of ideal is somewhat on target. But in a Zen way, if one just observes the feelings and does not long, yearn or idealize them, the experience remains natsukashii and does not become nostalgia.

    [thanks for making me think about this – natsukashii!]

    Reply

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