One of the first times I ever considered music in the context of when it was made was American rock during the Vietnam War. The assimilation of what was happening made for some memorable music, from what Jimi Hendrix was expressing in his interpretation of the national anthem, played famously at Woodstock, to the cool alienation of The Stooges.
The more I learned, the more I understood that what was happening at any given time could have a great effect on the music being made. A classic example would be the haunting song “Strange Fruit,” the Abel Meeropol aka Lewis Allan poem (originally titled “Bitter Fruit”) set to music in 1939 and performed by Billie Holiday. The “strange fruit” mentioned in the lyrics are African-American men who have been hanged. Holiday knew that she was opening herself up to potential harm when she bravely took on the song.
Another, far less extreme example, one of my favorites, is a song introduced to me many years ago, written by Jack Rhodes and put on record in 1956 by Gene Vincent, called “Woman Love.” It’s a nice song about a guy who really wants a gal, but Vincent’s vocal is a study in taking something from the page to a whole different place. If you ever get a chance, listen to how deeply Vincent immerses himself in the song. It is so incredibly sexed-up that there is no doubt what he’s getting at.
Considering the year and where America was at that time, “Woman Love” is completely subversive. The BBC banned it! Another 1956 recording of Vincent’s, the perfect “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” has the same short-of-breath excitement to it, but “Woman Love,” that’ll flat git it, as they say.
Appreciating music through this filter is not only a fascinating way to connect with it via a far less traveled path but also provides the opportunity to consider and evaluate history from a much different vantage point.
Chuck D of Public Enemy, who has one of my favorite minds of all time, talked in an interview once about American blues music and how it was one of the few means of protest allowed during slavery, one of the few safe ways a slave could raise his or her voice. As an idea, that is absolutely huge.
When you listen to the Prison Worksongs album recorded by the legendary musicologist Harry Oster at Louisiana’s Angola prison in 1959, you get a sense of what Chuck was talking about. That record is one of the heaviest listening experiences I have ever had.
When I started touring all over America in the early 1980s, I realized that not only were the sociopolitical aspects of music’s origins relevant but location was just as influential.
I noticed that big cities such as Los Angeles, New York or Seattle had correspondingly large music scenes and, more often than not, a ton of great bands, many of which went on to get worldwide recognition. At the same time, there were amazing bands in small towns in the Southern states I went through, as well as the huge nowheres of the Midwest.
Being relatively cut off from the noise and humanity of a large city, these geographical fringes could potentially contain some really interesting and original music. This proved to be true again and again. I found this not only in America but all over the world.
One of my favorite experiences with finding great music way out there was when I made my first visit to Australia in 1989. I was already a fan of some of the few bands I had heard from there, including The Birthday Party, The Saints and The Scientists. But almost immediately after I arrived, my agent took me to a Beasts of Bourbon show and over the next several days turned me on to amazing bands I had never heard of.
Australia always has great and strange new music happening. It occurred to me after a few visits that, while they could be considered isolated, they also could be thought of as left alone, uncontaminated by the more powerful currents and trends in music. Of course, Australia has its fair share of mainstream material, but the smaller, lesser-known bands are making some of the best records I have heard in years.
Even more cut off from things is the mind-blowing art/drone/noise/psych-folk scene in Finland. The last time I was there was a few years ago. I went into a record store and naturally gravitated to the strange-music section. I start pulling out records that, just by their appearance, made me curious. I brought a stack to the man behind the counter and asked if he could play a little of each. By the third one, I asked if the rest sounded like that and he said yes. I told him I would get all of them and anything else he suggested. This was the start of a multiyear obsession I have had with the way-out music from that country.
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Almost any country or region has music and musicians that exist almost invisibly, yet work and output vigorously. Anywhere I go, I ask if there are any record stores, even if they’re just stalls or sometimes, as in South Sudan, a guy with some cassettes on a small table. Quite often they will play me something they think I want to hear — their local version of radio hits. Asking for strange music has led to some vivid hand gestures and hilarious utterances but also sometimes has led to the acquisition of unique sounds.
Life is strange and humans excel at being weird, so you might as well capitalize on that. Stay freaked.
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