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.
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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.