Shall We Gather at the Zither

Last week’s post about graduating from pop to more sophisticated forms of music, and how it doesn’t generally happen, elicited a couple of comments that addressed additional dimensions of the subject, as I suspected it might.

Brian mentions the general decline in musical literacy. There’s little doubt that this is a thing that has happened, over both the long term and the short term. In the 19th and early 20th century, a piano was necessary furniture in every middle-class home. In the days before recorded music and other forms of plug-n-play entertainment, you had to make your own fun, and a spinet, parlor organ, zither (or whatever the hell) was how you did it. Educated young people were expected to know how to play.

But my sense of things is that the piano was also a more important part of the home in the late 20th century than it is here in the 21st. When were little kids in the 60s, my brother and I loved to listen to our mother play, and I took lessons myself, just long enough to learn to read music a little so that when I picked up the tenor saxophone in sixth grade, I was a bit ahead of the curve. My brother took guitar lessons before taking up the trombone (and becoming a more serious musician than I ever was). Lots of kids are in music education today, to be sure, but how many of them will still be playing when they’re grown? I have a remarkable number of friends and relatives whose kids are taking violin, which seems to me like the quintessential instrument you’ll give up before too long and never go back. You’re not going to whip out the violin at a party one night in your 30s, but you may sit down at the piano. The piano (and the guitar, too) encourages audience participation in a way the violin definitely does not. Would I have been interested in playing if my mother had been a violinist? Maybe, if she were a good one. She was good enough at the piano to make it seem like fun, and that was all we needed.

(I should point out here that I can still play one-fingered piano, but I rarely have the opportunity to do so, and I haven’t touched a sax in 35 years. I think my brother still has his guitar and his trombone, but I have no idea when he last tried to play either one. So perhaps there are some holes in my theory about the likelihood of continuing to play, which is news on par with the sunrise.)

Mark (whose blog The CD Project should be on your list of regular stops) reminds us that music doesn’t have to be classical to ask more of us, and notes that he wasn’t equipped to appreciate Kraftwerk, Joy Division, or David Bowie’s more challenging stuff as a teenager, but he gets them now. That’s my own experience with certain artists and albums as well. This isn’t because we’re smarter than we used to be; it’s more a function of having been through whatever mill we’ve been through, and the kind of person we’ve become as a result. Baby boomers and succeeding generations live in a world that doesn’t require us to grow up the way pre-boomers did, but we still put away childish things now and then. Maybe we’re more open to new experience; maybe the old experiences don’t get us off like they used to.

Your further thoughts along this line are encouraged over the holiday weekend.

Further Exercises in Self Promotion: Please visit this blog’s companion Tumblr site, which contains plenty of fabulous things I never get around to mentioning here, like this fabulous ad for the Mellotron (with free T-shirt offer), and a link to a magnificent New York Times Magazine piece on the search for Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two legendary figures of vintage Delta blues, which might be the finest combination of journalism, storytelling, and history I’ve ever run across. Also: I am going to be on the air a lot starting today and repeatedly through the holiday weekend. If you enjoy my Green County shitkicker routine at this blog, check it out on the radio. Schedule and streaming links here.

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