Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Day 50 "In the trenches" (retraining-after-the-coffee-break edition)

Back in the saddle after extended Spring Break: with Patrick's Day on the Monday, and Easter on the Sunday, the first half was frenetic (8 gigs in 6 days) and the second half was stupified (12-13 hours of driving, and then a lot of sitting around and eating, at high altitudes).

No classes meeting today, as I've a community-education gig to do during seminar meeting time, but tomorrow/Wednesday is the litmus test anyway: that's when the freshmen/sophomores get back after anywhere between 12-14 days away. The ones in the basketball bands have been gone longer than that: with Bob Knight (thank God!) retired from the program--just in time to guarantee his son and heir-apparent's assumption of the job, and to depth-charge NCAA tournament chances--I don't have any personal bias against 'em, but having 10 to 15 SOM students gone to play band music at the tournament, just prior to Spring Break's extended hiatus, is an absolute pedagogical disaster. They're good kids and they work hard, but no 18-year-old brass players can spend 4 days in an NCAA hotel, and then 12 more in Galveston or Corpus, and remember their names after that much time away. March Madness visibly erodes our ability to teach these kids: part of the Devil's bargain college teaching makes with the big-ticket receipts of college athletics.


Back from the community-education gig. This is the kind of thing that we have to do constantly here--to the extent that, if some organization or other asks you to come do the Dog & Pony Show (what Dharmonia calls "the Petting Zoo"--in her case, showing off the medieval instrumentarium) you pretty much have to do it. This is because, while there is very high receptivity to music here--great tradition of live music reaching all the way back to Eck Robertson in the 1920s--the range of musics that they know about is very limited. West Texans are very very open people; they are not self-conscious about their perspectives, classism, materialism, conservatism, etc, but they are also not self-conscious about wanting to learn new things.

In this case, it was the local Women's Club, an organization which, if you come from my background, can seem like an anecdote out of an Edith Wharton novel more than a reality. They come out of a period in W Texas history when most ladies of means didn't have to work, and whose husbands would in fact have been embarrassed and insulted to have them working. Exceptions are the schoolteachers, because in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, that was a respectable thing for a woman to want to do, as both income and helping impulse. They're mostly very nice ladies, mostly 65 and above, and they meet in a building whose facade, decor, furnishings, cutlery and china seem like a time capsule. And their conception of "cultural luncheons" feels equally anachronistic: these are people who come from a time when middle- and upper-income ladies actually got bored because there was so little functional role for them. So they do things like (announced at today's luncheon) take day trips to Levelland, TX--whose town name pretty much encapsulates both its topography and its scale of intellectual stimulus. Or have the local Celtoid musicologist (kind of scary looking: wearing all black, with long hair, tattoos, and multiple earrings) to come in a week after Patrick's Day and talk about Irish music.

The key here is not to condescend. It is/would be a very easy thing to do, when you walk in, stand in the receiving line, are introduced to all these dressed-up Big 'Ol Haired ladies, and observe that all the tables have green shamrocks, and green-sparkley billycock hats as decorations. And most of the ladies are wearing green, and buttons that read "Irish for a Day". And there's a lady sight-reading through "Danny Boy" and "Tura Loora Lura" at the piano. And the menu features (green) key-lime pie, and green Jello salads with mayonnaise, and (as my old friend and wedding-band comrade Paul Combs described it) "Chicken Clump with B-flat Sauce." It would be very easy to think, internally, "Oh, Jesus, what the fuck am I doing here? There is no way that anything I do in the world of Irish music is going to seem remotely comprehensible to these ladies."

This is a mistake, for both philosophical and practical/logistical reasons. Practically, it's stupid--when isolated in a place five hours from anything (O Brother: "Well, ain't this place a geographical oddity?!? Two weeks from everywhere!")--to alienate those folks in town who do have money and do have the leisure, and the social stature, to spend that money on cultural activities. Philosophically, it's arrogant to presume that, just because people eat lime Jello with mayonnaise, or wear "Irish for a Day" buttons, or take day trips to Levelland, that they can't, won't, or shouldn't assimilate a somewhat deeper, more nuanced comprehension of a cultural expression.

That W Texas un-selfconsciousness cuts both ways: it's tiresome when they want to brag about their houses, or "vee-hickles," or kids, or expensive and tasteless vacations...but it's damned liberating when/if you've got the energy and initiative to undertake some audience education. These folks are willing to learn about something (music, art, even political viewpoints) new, provided you don't act as if, or make them feel as if, you think they're stupid.

They're not.

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