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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

By Nancy Buchan

Throughout time we have learned our survival skills and our histories and how to make art and music from the older folks around us. The village elders. The tribal chiefs, the master craftsmen, the seasoned veterans. The verbal accounts from our forefathers that give us perspective. The musical traditions that have brought us together or have defined us regionally. Musicians have always been guided by the players or writers who came before – we learn from them that it is not the ability to play a flurry of complicated stuff that is important, but it’s the wisdom to play the right stuff. The skills that enable us to play with other musicians doesn’t just happen either, so most musicians end up being teachers to the less experienced players, whether it’s intentional or not. Unless you are reading notated music, like in an orchestra setting, it is necessary to invent your own parts to blend with and compliment the other musicians. It takes time to learn this. And a good dose of humility.

The music school where I teach violin in San Isidro starts back up with their classes this month, and I realize that the parents are hopeful that their kids will learn new skills, become more disciplined and focused and will be proud of their achievements. They also hope that they will pick up some valuable life lessons in the process. A good teacher or mentor can inspire someone for a lifetime and can change lives in profound ways, with the old ripple effect making their teachings even more meaningful.

In the world of modern music there are fewer teachers than are available in the classical genre of music, so we learn from and listen to our elders and those that we respect for their musical contributions and skills. I’m not talking about ‘pop stardom’, which is all about image and youth, but about more long lasting and substantive endeavors. Of course that would make Madonna kind of the reigning village elder of the pop genre. Now there’s a disturbing thought. Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bono, Carlos Santana – all the guys who are now our village elders (or idiots, depending upon how you feel about Keith) listened to the old blues guys – trying to understand why BB King or Muddy Waters would phrase something a certain way. Trying to feel those long notes that BB plays – impossibly stretched out and at moments crashing into some zone that Hendrix might have navigated. Or what was behind and between their words. BB said – “Now I know it can never be perfect. It can never be exactly what it should be, so you got to keep going further, getting better.” The great jazz player Wynton Marsalis studied Louis Armstrong’s approach to music so he could learn the subtleties and nuances behind Pops’ musical choices – not just the technique necessary to play the difficult parts. Armstrong’s phrasing is so delicate and important – you can’t learn this stuff from a book – in fact you can’t learn it at all. You have to feel it.

We don’t hear much about folk singers anymore, or even about songwriters or singers who deal with real-life topics and troubles. Hardly anyone writes about social injustice, or global warming, or pollution, or racial inequality, or women’s issues, or terrorism or 13 year old homeless junkies… The accumulation of money and power are the motivating factors for our political and civic leaders, and sadly the same appetites seem to be fueling our artists and poets and musicians. Of course there’s the occasional ‘anthem’/Pepsi commercial about the world all getting together as ‘one’, sung by stars in $500 T-shirts made in sweatshops somewhere far away…  Jaded? Oops, do I sound jaded? I totally admit that life would be really gloomy if our songwriters only wrote about the sad and depressing crap, but I would welcome a bit of conscience driven lyrics. It doesn’t always have to be profound, but it shouldn’t all be fluff either.

The MusiCares organization just gave Bob Dylan an award, and I watched his 30 minute acceptance speech with great interest. After all, thousands of words have been written about Dylan and his impact on politics and music, and it was fascinating to hear what he had to say about life in general. He is the classic ‘partly truth and partly fiction’ enigmatic musician. He thanked the artists who had recorded his songs – saying they took his little unnoticed songs and turned them into hits and commercials for his ideas far better than he could have. He was a bit peevish about being picked on by critics for his gravelly voice and singing style, but also made the point that traditional and passed down folk music was important, and was what taught him that everything belongs to everyone. “Moonshine gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock and roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science lab or a studio.” Amen, Bob.

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

Dylan’s predecessor and huge influence was Woody Guthrie – an Oklahoma man of the people, who wrote songs about the injustices he saw around him and campaigned ceaselessly for the common man. He died far too young, but sure would have made a great village elder for the rest of us. In his words – “There’s a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have traveled and makes you travel it again. Or it takes you back down the road somebody else has come and you can look out across the world from the hill they are standing on.” He also said that he hates songs that make folks feel that they’re not any good, or that they are just destined to lose. He wanted to sing the songs that make you have pride in yourself and in your work. Another revered elder, Bob Marley, had the same ideas and empathy for his people – just threw in a lot more sex….

Sir Paul McCartney certainly falls into the category of a wise village elder at this point. In an interview I watched with him he spoke of how one great literature teacher in his youth had influenced his writing and given him his love of words. His advice was to soak up everything in preparation for writing, then to constantly write. He too felt honored when others performed his songs, and said that even the lousy versions were tributes that gradually added more arrows to the quiver. He was proud of writing songs that characters crept into – not just boy meets girl love songs – and he attributed that to having always been a reader. All these wise and prolific musicians totally believe that it is necessary to find your own voice and your own passion, but that you must study and learn from the masters first. And then get up every day and practice your craft.

Thanks for getting out and listening to live music! Ben Orton and I play with a full band most Friday nights at the beautiful Roca Verde, just south of Dominical, and often at Hawg and Bill’s or Dos Locos in Quepos. There are a bunch of young players passing through here this time of year with their instruments and their dreams and music in their hearts, so check them out!

“I always wish I’d had more mentors, better mentors, wiser mentors, people who were proper professional working musicians to guide me as I was coming up.” Keith Urban

“The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.” Kurt Cobain

“If our history can challenge the next wave of musicians to keep moving and changing, to keep spiritually hungry and horny, that’s what it’s all about.” Carlos Santana

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