Thursday, June 30, 2005

Copyright, "the Commons", and intellectual property rights

Taking off on a thread over on (Tunes with a life of their own):

There's an uneasy relationship between the modern concepts of copyright--under which rights to traditional music are administered in the modern world--versus the archaic concepts of "the Commons"--under which most traditional tunes were created and consumed.

In the modern world, virtually anything is presumed to be or treated as if for sale. If no "ownership" of an object, idea, or creative art work is established, it is vulnerable under the modern laws of copyright to anyone who wants to come along and legally assert ownership.

In contrast, up until the period of "enclosure" (in Western Europe roughly the middle of the 16th century) any land not legally claimed by a single individual (either royalty or nobility) was deemed to be held "in Common": under joint ownership by all the members of a community, subscribing to a loose and unwritten but real set of shared rules about shared use, and providing grazing, raw materials, forage, hunting, and so on. The idea of a "Town Commons" (very familiar in New England, where I'm from) was of common grazing land to which all had rights and for which all shared responsibility.

This has led to such massive miscarriages of "justice" as pharmaceutical companies copyrighting the molecular formulae of Amazonian plants or the DNA of indigenous peoples. But that is the nature of a modern technological culture obsessed with individualism and individual ownership: because the plants or peoples don't operate on the modern principles, they are vulnerable to having their own "common property" stolen right out from under them. Obviously there is a gulf of understanding between modern ideas of ownership versus historical ideas of the commons.

This gulf is present between understandings of creative ownership, as well. Most of the tunes most Irish musicians play were composed in the period before modern copyright, and no traditional player would have wanted or needed to assert his or her "ownership" of a specific piece of music.

Unfortunately, in the modern world, where the laws of private property hold sway, this means that any tune of previously-unclaimed ownership is vulnerable to a kind of "land grab": anybody who comes along and wants to assert his/her copyright in the absence of any prior right can do that successfully. Certain eminent Irish musicians have figured out this gulf and have, very greedily, attached their own copyrights to tunes written long before they were born.

On the other side of this, there are people (particularly well-represented in the overly-verbose and -opinionated medium of the Internet) who want to deny the rights of individual creators to their own intellectual property. If someone does write a tune, or a book, or record a song, then that person is entitled to say "look, if I hadn't come along, this creative object wouldn't exist. So I get to have some say in how it's used, where it's published, or whether it's OK to file-share it."

Anybody who claims that an artist has no right to specify or limit how/where his/her own creation is used hasn't spent enough time actually creating things to recognize just how hard it is.

There have been some very subtle, well-informed, and closely-argued discussions of this on Irtrad-L and at Anthony McCann's website

By the way, in reference to the discussion thread cited above: Kerri Brown is right.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Technology 01

Some people I respect a lot are very interested in music recorded in the era and/or employing the format of the 78-rpm shellac disc: Rich Remsberg, Robert Crumb, Joe Bussard, Harvey Pekar, and a host of others have spoken about the pre-vinyl period (roughly 1888-mid-1930s) as a kind of "Golden Age" of American vernacular music. These are interesting, sometimes eccentric people, with pretty sophisticated musical tastes, but for a long time I couldn't get a grip on precisely why they preferred the old recordings. Like every other white boy playing the blues in the 1970s, I listened to the obligatory Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson recordings (listen to "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down"). And, of course, in my own world of traditional Irish music and Mississippi Delta blues, the 1920s-30s are when most of the seminal styles got laid down. So I listened in order to learn, and also to be cool. But I didn't understand why someone might prefer to hear the scratchy, crackly originals versus the (sometimes brilliant) modern versions by revivalists like Eric von Schmidt, Martin Grosswendt, or Brian Conway.

What I've come to understand is something that all of the above collectors have commented about, in one way or another: that this relatively brief period represents a crucial boundary in the history of culture: that period when, through new technology, music was transformed from being a local, idiosyncratic, participatory, and live process, to a universal, gradually-standardized, passive, and alienated object.

In the period before sound recording, if you wanted to hear music you either had to make it yourself or go to a place where it was being made live. This meant that the ability to play music was far more ubiquitous in North American culture, and also that all music was "local music"; that is, all music was conceived, played, and heard in a local context. The music from this mountain holler sounded different than the music from the next, the music of that Irish county sounded different than another, and so on.

The advent of the Edison wax cylinder phonograph and then of shellac recording discs was the watershed moment when that all began to change. No longer was it necessary for musicians and listeners to even be in the same room--or even alive at the same time. No longer was it possible (or inevitable) that a musician could develop his/her approach in isolation. Now everything was potentially available, and the local idiosyncrasies began to erode. After Michael Coleman recorded his Sligo-style fiddle records in NYC in the 20s and early-30s, his 78s became one of the most popular gifts for Irish emigrants to send back home. And players in contrasting local styles, intimidated or merely impressed with Coleman's virtuosity, began to abandon their own tunes and their own approaches.

So sound recording--the incredible, millenial capacity to capture sound and play it back absent the players--was simultaneously a boon to those who wanted to preserve, study, or learn a regional or individual music approach, and the technology that would destroy those approaches, and even a listener's ability to hear the local style on its own merits.

Thus listening to a 78 is in a sense to listen through a brief historical portal to the sounds of myriad musical cultures which were already disappearing. How much we lost!

[Various people have gone to the trouble to make various 78s hear-able online. Two fantastic places to start are and the archives of the wonderful radio program (now tragically defunct) The Secret Museum of the Air.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The neo-cons versus the soldiers

It's always been a tragic reality of war that those who decide policy are seldom or never those who have to implement strategy. Usually, the policy-makers want big popular victories at low cost--and the soldiers understand that wars are won by small, fierce, dedicated, and elongated efforts, which are usually costly, in terms of both dollars and human lives.

The problem is particularly flagrant under the current administration. The Bush White House and the would-be architects of the "New World Order" thought they could get a cheap, quick, easy, and popular victory in Iraq, and they cherry-picked the evidence against Saddam and shake-and-baked the results to "justify" the invasion. The Joint Chiefs and the their staffs always said it would be slower, more difficult, more painful, and more costly, but the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz axis didn't want to believe that.

Over 1700 Americans have been killed in Iraq. Their names are here. How can the Bush White House still claim that the insurgency is "in its last throes"? Simple: because truth is not the issue here. The battle is being fought over Americans' domestic perception of whether the war is being won. By any objective criteria, the cost of this war--in dollars and human lives--is massively higher than any of the neo-cons will admit publically, and and despite what Rumsfeld claims, his own generals know it:

"Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander in the Persian Gulf region as head of U.S. Central Command, said the insurgency did not appear to have lost strength."

Hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed in a war that the Bushies initiated because it would "build political capital." If Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rove had a conscience, it should be torturing them.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Reagan/Bush/Bush Supreme Court champions business yet again

From the NYT:

"The Supreme Court today ruled that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses - even against their will - for private economic development."

Just in case there was any question about the Bushie's desire to "shrink big government"; once again the court sells out in favor of business over private individuals. See the story

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

More Music Houses

  • The Me and Thee Coffeehouse, Marblehead, Massachusetts, mid-1970s. The 1960s "Great Folk Scare" hung on a long time in Cambridge/Boston and the surrounding suburbs. By around 1974, when I became aware of various kinds of folk music even in my upwardly-mobile WASP bedroom community, the me & thee had already been running in the Unitarian Church's Parish Hall for 4 or 5 years. As a disaffected teenager disgusted with the sking-yachting-and-Ivy League pretensions of my contemporaries, I found the place incredibly welcome. You could go in and wash dishes and they'd let you listen to the music for free, and there were usually a bunch of other disaffected types (of all ages) hanging around as well. I didn't listen to the music very much, but the sense of community was very welcome.
  • Saturday Night in Marblehead, Massachusetts, around 1979. Bob Franke and a small cast of volunteers took off from the me & thee template, running a Saturday night coffeehouse in the parish hall of St Andrew's Episcopal Church. The difference was that, with Bob booking shows, there was a much wider diversity of styles represented, and almost everybody who played there was frighteningly brilliant (I say "almost" because our trad/folk band Reynardine played there also, and we weren't brilliant yet): Stan Rogers, Martin Grosswendt, the cream of the Boston/Cambridge folkies, Geoff Bartley, the list goes on and on. The music was almost always astonishingly good.
  • Torpey's, Tulla, Co. Clare. Gone: it's a grocery shop now, I think. But the first good pub session I got to in Ireland, 20 years late (1998): while playing the Galway Early Music Festival with Altramar, we were located a session by fiddler Kathleen Mac Magnuis, who borrowed me a banjo, threw us in her little car, and drove all the way from Athenry over the Slieve Aughty hills to Tulla in east Clare. The pub was about 16 feet square, there were two local farmers playing fiddle, and after we played a while a fellow in the chimney corner introduced himself, having seen me play a session at the Plough & Stars in San Fran. I'll tell the full story another time.
  • An Spailpin Fanach, Cork City. Home pub for Seamus Creagh and Aidan Coffey. Beautiful little snug with a hatch to the bar, enough room for about 5 musicians and that's all. Matthew Allen took us there.

Monday, June 20, 2005

War as a means of building domestic political capital

Interviews with a former Bush ghost-writer confirm that before 9/11--even before the 2000 political campaign--Bush the younger was seeking any or all justifications for war, believing that only through war could he build domestic political capital and be seen as a "great president."

Of course, that's always been a strategy for US presidents: everybody from Andrew Jackson to Richard Nixon has treated war as a "win-win" political option.

It's contemptible nevertheless. See here, and then hold your Congressional representatives responsible.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The "Trad Police"

Jumping off from a discussion over on

There are disputes within the world of traditional music and tradition-related instruments between adherents to various definitions of same. Most typically, the dispute takes the form of one person wanting to borrow an instrument, style, or approach and subsume it under the "traditional" heading. Those wary of such borrowings tend to be concerned that the borrower may simply be creating a not-very-effective goulash of the two.

There are people who play traditional music very well, and another music (or non-traditional instrument) very well, and thus are able to synthesize both in a very effective fashion. But that's hard work, takes decades to accomplish, and those people are in the minority. More often, people who want to create a "synthesis" don't play traditional music very well--or not as well as they could--yet they want to change the music while still claiming the fashionable label.

A few observations:

  1. What makes a music (or any other art form) "traditional" is not so much its repertoire, its sources, or even its proximity to its original context--though all of these contribute. A music is traditional if it is learned, taught, and/or passed on using traditional processes (demonstration, imitation, correction, apprenticeship, immersion, etc). This is why "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," for example, can be part of the corpus of "traditional" songs if it has been learned, taught, or passed on using these processes--even if it began on Tin Pan Alley.

  2. There are a lot of people playing Irish traditional music who have spent their whole lives working hard at that. One of the things that happens when you spend decades studying one particular music is that you begin to see subtleties, distinctions, and points of great artistry that may not be apparent to a more casual observer or student. Traditional music is thus "limited" only if the observer or would-be student has spent too little time and effort learning it; it's "limited" only if the player him/herself is. Son House played Mississippi Delta blues and sanctified songs for 60 years--and he obviously didn't feel he'd "exhausted their possibilities."

  3. The tradition is always evolving: it is always developing new tunes, new techniques, and/or incorporating new instruments. To accuse traditional music of conservatism is to betray a fundamental lack of understanding of what it is and does. The converse of "traditional" is not "contemporary"; the corrollary of "traditional" is not "conservative." Traditional processes occur slowly--much more slowly than our "grab-n-go" culture has patience for.

    Such traditions, with long lineages and relatively slow processes of assimilation, have thus had the opportunity to winnow out much of the crap. There's a lot of insight, and relatively little crap, in the core teaching of many different vernacular and wisdom traditions, simply because, down through the generations, the tradition itself has had the opportunity to retain what works and to discard what is ephemeral.

  4. Any musician should be allowed to play the music she/he wishes.

  5. However, there are some people who want the cachet, the fashionability, or the "coolness" of the "traditional" label and want to be able to appropriate that label for their own music, without having done the homework to even know how traditional music actually works. The result is that these persons not only want to "be allowed to play the music" they want to play, but also want to be able to claim their synthesis is "traditional." This is a misapplication of the term, as described above, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the traditional process.

  6. Some people--loving the cachet or coolness of traditional music, and/or or reluctant to undertake or unable to comprehend how much work it takes to play it right--expect to be allowed to label their music "traditional," even if it is not. If you want to make a music that synthesizes influences in a "grab-n-go" way, be my guest: but call the style "Fred" or "Wilma" or "my own deepest most soulful expression of my unique individual creative insights as An Artist"--but don't call it "traditional music."

  7. These people, feeling a lack of response from those who trust, respect, and have invested decades in traditional music, sometimes refer to more dedicated, more heavily-immersed, or more "hard-core" people as "the trad police." This is a bullshit accusation, and tends to emanate from those who have insufficient insight into how traditional processes work, to the fact that traditional music does evolve, and to the fact that it can take decades even to learn how to hear, much less play, it right.

  8. To accuse someone of being a member of the "trad police" is analogous to the bullshit accusation that someone is displaying "political correctness." And, similarly, the accusation tends only to come when the accuser has been told that what she/he is doing doesn't work because of insufficient sensitivity or insight.

  9. I don't hear too many knowledgeable and/or expert traditional musicians referring to themselves as "trad police." There are those who know a bunch, realize what they still don't know, and thus respect the tradition, and then there are those who don't know very much, don't realize how much they don't know, and treat the tradition disrespectfully as a result.

In all the time I have played traditional music, I have only ever heard the term "trad police" (or, even more obnoxiously, "trad Nazis") applied by more rudimentary/less-knowledgeable players to more advanced/more-knowledgeable players. As a result, it tends to come across, even in the text-based medium of the Internet, with a marked and childish petulance.

When I hear people make such an accusation, two things tend to happen:
  1. I tend to want to hear them play traditional music well, in person, before I decide whether to pay attention to the opinion;
  2. I presume I'll take them more seriously when I think they've put in the time to hear and play the music right.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Music Houses

In many traditional, local, and vernacular cultures, music is not something that lives in recital halls or on concert stages, but rather in houses that are "friendly to music." That means private or semi-private places where musicians could be sure of a welcome--not just a friendly stage on which to perform, but an audience who understood and appreciated what they did, hosts who might feed them or provide a bed, and a community conducive to music. Amongst the great travelling pipers of 19th century Ireland, many of the musicians would not even play if they felt the environment or the people were unappreciative of the music. And of course that is still the case with Indian classical music, Native American music, and many others.

In the modern world, with the infection of purchase-and-sale models into music making, there are far fewer houses friendly to music. But every now and then you find a private individual, or, if you're lucky, a publican, who understands that the music is about more than selling beer, and that you can build community over time if you simply have a friendly house and a respectful atmosphere.

Here are some of the great ones that I know (or knew):

  • The Idler: SW corner of Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1980s.
    • A basement bar with a front room and a back (always a good recipe for a music bar). No windows, low ceilings, "skull-buster" low-hanging pipes. Almost never anybody in the back room, which meant that almost anybody could play there. You couldn't sit on a high stool to play because your head would be in amongst the ductwork, but the music back there was truly amazing. Favorite shows: any one of the many solo gigs that guitarist Dean Magraw did in the early '80s. As the night got later and later, Dean would sink deeper and deeper into the groove and the music would become more and more magical.
  • The Wild Beet: SE corner of Courthouse Square, Bloomington, Indiana, in the mid-1990s
    • Second location for a very popular restaurant corporation in Bloomington. Small room, brick walls, smoke-free, plate-glass windows behind the stage looking out on the street. Lenny's, the parent corporation, made their own beer, and the Lenny's black porter is still the best American microbrew I've ever tasted. Grey Larsen led a session there for a couple of years. Initially it was a 21-and-over situation, but then the bar made some modifications to get around Indiana's labrythine licensing laws and allow kids in the place, and that made it magical. Set-dancers, some of the great Bloomington champion players coming out, kids running through the crowd, free pizza post-session for the players.
    • But they tried to be both a supper club and a nightclub: two shows a night (5-8 and 10-2), and they started futzing with the menu, and the bar started losing money. And they closed. Rich Remsberg shot the Celtic Backup cover there after they closed but before they were sold.
  • Upstairs at the Crane Bar, Galway, Ireland
    • Favorite session bar in Galway City. It's owned by one of Jr Crehan's nephews and a couple of other musicians and it's a very friendly house to music. Traditional music sessions upstairs 7 nights a week, sometimes even not crowded. Best session I ever heard there was a "lock-in" one Sunday after Mass when tenor David Stattelman and I managed to sneak in on a song session downstairs. Lovely group of old men singing local songs.
  • Spellman’s, Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, Ireland
    • Neal Spellman owns the most popular session bar in Ballaghaderreen, not far from the borders of Sligo and Mayo. The great flute- and fiddle-player Peter Horan still anchors sessions there. Neal's gone out of his way to make his pub friendly to musicians, especially during the Douglas Hyde summer school ever July. Cramped quarters in the snug where the music happens.
  • More, with commentary coming up:
    • The Burren, Davis Square, Somerville Massachusetts
    • Jack’s in Cambridge Mass
    • Saturday Night in Marblehead, Massachusetts
    • The Plough and Stars, San Franscisco, CA
    • Torpey's, Tulla, Co. Clare
    • An Spailpin Fanach, Cork City
    • The Corner House, Cork City
    • Pepper's, Feakle, Co. Clare
    • Dolan's and Nancy Blake's, Limerick City
    • Matt Molloy's, Westport, Co. Roscommon
    • Shoot the Crows, Sligo Town
    • the nameless pub at the top of the village, East Durham, NY, where we played all night and the landlord brought us ham-and-butter sandwiches in the morning
    • Conor Byrnes's and the Irish Emigrant, Seattle, WA

Friday, June 10, 2005

Friday Pub session, O Reilly's 6:30-8:30pm

A session is an informal musical gathering--historically in a home kitchen, since the 1950s often in pubs--in which players of Irish traditional music come together for tunes and sociality. It's neither a private party nor a public performance, but something in between. The musicians are playing for themselves, but often listeners (call them "punters") will come along to hear the music.

Many North Americans have a hard time figuring out the exact dynamics of a session--who can play and when or why, whether requests are acceptable or are required to be honored, even whether to applaud. This is probably because, in North American mercantile culture, there are few opportunities to hear music for which someone is not being paid. That is, whether on electronic media (TV, Muzak, radio, internet, iPod) or in person (concert, recital) there is usually an exchange of dollars for services. And, even if no cash is exchanged (say, a student recital or a church service), there is still a sense of "performance"--and that sense of performance is contaminated by late-19th century ideas about the "sanctity" of the music.

If you've ever attended a classical concert and overheard someone unwrapping a throat lozenge, and witnessed the resultant glares & shushing which occurs, you'll recognize this syndrome. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, musicians and critics with a vested interest in enhancing music's "sacredness" set up a whole new set of expected behaviors--quasi-religious ones.

But in the global communities from which most vernacular music originates, the music is usually both a social tool and part of a specific social situation: birth, death, marriage, festival, harvest, worship, war, or celebration. And specific music and musical behaviors are contrasted in contrasting situations.

In the Irish traditional context, music is only one part of the social environment of the pub or kitchen--a cherished part, but not something to be treated with hushed reverence. Over the course of a session or house-party, everyone would be invited and expected to deliver some form of participatory contribution: music, song, dance; a joke, riddle, or story; food, drink, or applause This meant that the boundaries between "performer" and "audience" were much more fluid, and that everyone took responsibility for "passing the time".

Of course, manners counted. It was impolite, obtuse and awkward either to insist upon one's own participation or to sit back and consume the entertainment without contributing.

It takes a while for many North Americans to learn this. They see a music session happening in a public house, and they are enculturated to assume that its public setting must also mean a completely egalitarian democratic free-for-all. In fact, Irish trad music is a meritocracy: those who play better, have played longer, play one of the core instruments (flute, fiddle, or pipes), know more tunes, are chronological elders are perceived as entitled to a degree of authority which novices don't receive.

That is not only socially but also musically appropriate. For a session to really take off musically--for the transcendent kind of session which everyone present feels lucky to hear--it is essential that those who are the best players be able to set the pace. That may mean the top players play more, that novices play less, that the roles of those playing inappropriate or superfluous instruments are minimized, so that the music will be better, for all present.

Is that "fair"? Probably not. But remember the goal in a traditional music session is not democratic inclusivity. Rather, it's to use the music to create a social environment which is available to everyone--provided they display good manners.

Is the music better in a session wherein participants--particularly if they are of different skill levels--recognize and accept the hierarchy? Almost always.

Last Night's Fun hosts a pub session at O'Reilly's Irish pub (1704 Buddy Holly Ave in Lubbock's Depot District) Friday evenings 6:30-9pm (when we're in town). The music is good, the sociality (the "crack") is usually great. Worth the trip. This is real music, played by the musicians for the musicians, and for any punters who would like to come along for the ride.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The latest Orwellian mind-games

The Bush/Rove White House is now bringing pressure to bear which seeks to tilt the Corporation for Public Broadcasting right-wards. CPB (especially NPR) has been knuckling under to right-wingers for years, but this most recent attempt (documented by the NY Times) is especially flagrant mind-control. Read and respond here

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Radical Pedagogy

A term and an idea:

That change in the direction of social justice results from "thinking globally but acting locally"--the Buddhist belief that you are responsible for your own "body, mind, and actions", and that choices you make locally can have significant impact throughout the universe. So pay attention!

Radical pedagogy would believe that social change for the better can be manifested by teachers who not only convey data but also embody Buddhist right conduct. As a teacher, you don't tell people how to behave; instead, you show them, in your own actions, how to integrate progressive political beliefs, scholarly rigor, and community responsibility.

The job of a radical pedagogue is to tell the truth, to manifest professional and personal ethics, and to work hard for students' education not only in terms of data but also in terms of the positive possibilities for right conduct.