Friday, March 02, 2007

Playing Out Front or Right Behind the Song

From Roadside Theatre (Whitesburg, KY) artistic director Dudley Cocke's essay "Art in a Democracy," available on-line at the Community Arts Network website.

"Thirty-odd years ago, a famous folksinger from California came to the coalfields of central Appalachia to perform in a high-school auditorium. A big crowd was on hand as a local string band opened the concert. The local band, rising to the occasion, had the audience’s rapt attention. I’m told that you could hear a pin drop. The famous folksinger followed with some success. Backstage, she made a point to congratulate the local band on their performance, noting that she, too, often sang from the same Appalachian song book. She went on to say how keenly the audience had been listening to their music and wondered what their secret was. "What is that little something extra you seem to have?" she asked repeatedly, each time more emphatically. The local band kindly looked at the floor as she pressed for an answer. Finally the fiddle player spoke up, "Well ma’am, the only difference that I could tell was that you were playing out front of them ol’ songs, and we were right behind ‘em."

Ralph Ellison deftly spins the fiddler’s point:

There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity, and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it.

The Charlie Christian Story ("Shadow and Act," p.234)

Artists from all cultures have asked themselves these timeless questions: What artistic tradition am I working within? What is the history and current condition of this tradition? Where do I fit? Who are my fellow practitioners?

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