As I mentioned yesterday, Brian asked me to blog a bit on music and memory. He was specifically interested in the topic as a reflection of my series on Dale Lawrence’s music and career from last week.

He’s right to ask for a bit on it. It’s an important part of my relationship to Dale’s music. It was part of my underlying goals in writing as I did, from direct personal recollection and without pursuit of factual confirmations.

I also noted that one song in particular, “The Midwest Can Be Allright,” initiated my relationship with Dale’s music, because it presented an idealized, reflective space into which I and my sister could project our complex emotions about being away from our home as adolescents. In a way, the song provided a place for us to play with our own memories of Bloomington.

Similarly, when I became aware of the rest of Dale’s unreleased music, the pursuit of it in combination with its’ inaccessibility and influence on the development of musical styles in my hometown and surrounding region granted it a special status. That status prompted me to listen with great care to the music and to expend a much greater degree of effort in identifying and organizing the original contexts of its creation than I did, or had to, for, say, the Ramones.

In essence, then, the music’s rarity and status as an artifact of a past moment – invulnerable at the time to the possibility of commercial excavation and release – provided a sort of direct musical connection to the past, to a socially-constructed memory.

What I’m saying here is also an expansion of my point about Dale Lawrence and Robert Ray’s songwriting employing a private pool of floating couplets. The maturing songcraft and performance of Dale’s early musical career functioned, for me, exactly as folk music can in a social context. The best example of this is the recorded collection of folk music now known as the Anthology of American Folk Music. This collection has functioned as a provider of this sort of memory-space at three points in its’ long history. I will not provide detailed notes on the history of this set of recordings as many others have already done so with greater depth and clarity than I can.

It first functioned as the product of an organic and commercial context when the individual records were released, recording what part of the culture’s nostalgic, constructed recollections of the past might be commercially valuable. Then it provided the impetus for the folk boom of the fifties and early sixties that birthed Dylan and many other artists of the era. Finally, when the set was re-released in CD in the mid-nineties it exercised a similar hold on the imaginations and memories of many younger musicians and listeners – yours truly among them.

Listening deeply to the material on the Anthology presents another opportunity for the creative memory space I mentioned above to operate – at least partially in identifying the ways in which the material on the Anthology is already familiar to the listener either in quotations or covers, or in refraction. For example, the fragmentary glimpses of American life that Dale’s Vulgar Boatmen songwriting provides also echoes the fragmentary construction of some of the oldest material on the Anthology.

On the Anthology, of course, the fragments represent various organic effects of memory – from elderly persons’ inaccurate and creative recollections of the lyrics of songs learned as children to linguistic drift over time. In Dale’s work, the deliberate use of obscured narrative creates a sense of blackout – of stress-induced memory loss, or of an inability to convey information verbally.

One of the effects of this strategy, in the context of personal narrative, is to engage the listener’s imagination, creating spaces in the narrative to which the listener responds by inserting their own narrative – frequently personal memories. When Dale’s narrator says “It was late – I could hear your father,” the listener provides the details of the setting from whole cloth – the house, the color of the night sky, the make and model of the car in the driveway, the presence or absence of clouds and fireflies in the night air.

The other effect is to render the songs – and narrative – timeless. The songs on Anthology belong sometime before the car. The Boatmen songs, dislocated by careful generalizing, belong to sometime in America, after the advent of the car. However, by employing this fragmenting in the development of the lyrics, the songs also echo constructive techniques seen in songs that have undergone many generations of oral transmission.

I suspect that this is far from a conscious strategy on Dale and Robert’s – or Jake’s – part. I think it comes from the evident depth of thought that has gone into the songs’ development – and in some cases, the nearly lifelong use of the individual songs themselves.

So, in sum, I use my memory to project my consciousness into the narrative space of songs that provide narrative hooks. In comparing songs I hear to one another, I situate them in relation to me and to one another. I often seek stylistic or structural relationships in what I hear. I believe that pop and rock music represents the most recent chapter in an ongoing narrative or organic musical development that began in America even before our European, Asian, and African ancestors arrived on these shores.

In Louie, Louie you can hear the voyageurs canoeing down the St. Lawrence; in Cry Real Tears you can hear the jilted wail of Omie Wise; and since I know Margaret changed her name from Morgan, I’m pretty sure she led at least one knight from the true path. My memory, American memoryAmerican music.

One thought on “Music and (American) Memory

  1. wow. well done.

    This line is one of the better thought out analyses I’ve heard:

    “I use my memory to project my consciousness into the narrative space of songs that provide narrative hooks.”

    I’ll have to digest this for awhile.

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