Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 38 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Sallie Ann edition

Interesting weekend. Got on the return flight from London conference (which same's schedule and selective internet access explains the blog-silence): 9 long hours from London-Heathrow to Houston, but I'll still take that over sprinting through airports to make multiple too-tight connections, made it into Lubbock around 9pm on the Wednesday night. Graded mid-term essay exams 'til around 12:30am, crashed.

Got up Thursday AM: made a committee meeting w/ the Boss 9am-11am; taught 12:30-2pm; by 3:30 was on the road with a student for an Irish music teaching weekend SE of here.

Interesting situations. I've taught at various festivals and summer camps over the years, and been a student at others, but this one is anomalous in a couple of ways--most notably because of the site, and because of the general stance and sociological profile of the organizers and attendees.

Facility incredibly effective: a huge rural retreat center owned, of all things, by the Salvation Army, situated in the rolling hills south of Dallas TX. Barns, corrals, golf-links, multiple chapels, decent dorms, a small music conservatory, a dining commons (with decent food, thank the universe) by an artificial lake. Effective organization, smart scheduling, good promotion and presentation of the music. Top-notch faculty (leaving aside your humble narrator), nice and outgoing folks, attentive students, meticulous yet relaxed staff.

And yet there are a couple of details that feel a little "off"--or at least unfamiliar.

The first is that, because this is a camp owned by (and rented from) the Sallie Anns, there is absolutely no alcohol allowed anywhere on the grounds: this including music session rooms, dining hall--even the dorms and private rooms!

Now, I'm not much of a proponent of the "Irish music and/or musicians automatically require booze in order to function" premise, but the total absence in this case did make me reflect on it. In one way it was nice: generally speaking, at such camps, you're so busy teaching, and then playing tunes, and then going to concerts or playing your own, and then playing tunes, and then playing more tunes, and then sleeping maybe a couple of hours before getting up and doing it all again, that your body is already pretty much pummeled (especially if, like me and I suspect a number of the other teachers who'd come direct from Ireland, your body clock is totally jetlagged); adding the booze to it can ease the pain and fire the crack, but it doesn't do anything good for your metabolism (psyche another question). In this case, it's actually kind of a relief not to have any alcohol in the system: you can concentrate on getting enough H20, and trying to limit the intake the amount of carbs, grease, and salt that are typically present in cafeteria food, and on getting in the walking (and schlepping of instruments) that a campus this size requires. And god knows I've been at some camps where the overgrown nostalgic "here's how much of a party animal I was way back in college" beer consumption--mostly, to be fair, on the part of adult male students overexcited at being off the leash for a couple of weeks--was way out of hand, and actually counterproductive to the learning process that the camp is supposed to be about.

But it's still a little weird. Going without the booze is OK--though I'll admit that, around 6pm after teaching ALL day, or around midnight for a nightcap, it feels like a little bit of a deprivation--but more because of the kind of overarching "we (anonymous all-powerful Sallie Ann "we") are going to dictate a very wide range of conduct while you're here on our grounds" stance it manifests. It feels a little invasive--and DAMNED sure alien to the world of cantankerous individualism that I associate with Irish trad musicians.

A second weird factor, and one definitely related to the first, is that, for the first time, I think I've encountered what's become in the past 10 years or so a sizable portion of the market for avocational Irish music: the home-schoolers, opt-outers, social or religious conservatives who think they're finding in Irish music a haven from a messy, modern, secular, foul-mouthed, booze-drinking, changing world.

Don't get me wrong: they're very nice folks, very appreciative of the teaching, obviously very dedicated to their kids (18 hours a day teaching, feeding, clothing, caring and earning for them: you'd have to be dedicated), and very committed to the idea of a "traditional" music they can share across generations without amplifiers, even after (or if) the Lights Go Out.

I 'magine a few of them are Left-Behinders, or maybe incipient survivalists, or "from my cold dead hands" automatic-weapons freaks who still plan to vote for Palin as Prez in 2012--but my guess is that, rather, they're folks who are concerned about the world in which their kids are going to grow up, who think new technology, the sheer pace of input, is a corrupting influence more than an opportunity, and who think they've found in Irish music a haven of a simpler, purer, cleaner, more moral, safer time. And an all-ages music retreat at a Salvation Army center a good 3 miles from the nearest outside habitation--or booze--must seem like a return to that idealized, safer, earlier age.

Which I don't think was ever there. Yes, I believe the Irish village culture that was the cradle of the music manifested some values that we could damned sure use in the modern world--modesty, restraint, memory, participation, a decent work ethic. I believe that learning, loving, and sharing the music can give us back a hell of a lot that we damned sure have lost.

But I also believe that there was never a Golden Age--there was never a time before the Fall. And, for damned sure, both the contemporary world of the music, and, I believe, the journey of the music through the history of the Irish at home and in the Diaspora, is anything but clean, simple, peaceful, pure, or moral. Irish music--traditional music of all kinds--is and always was about helping people, especially poor people who were materially poor but culturally very rich, get through all of life's hard challenges: birth, marriage, hunger, cold, loss, fear, anger, departure, injustice, war, and the whole messy megillah. For Chrissake, that's why there are so goddamned sad songs! It's about the mourning and the fierce joy that comes from living close to all the hard aspects of life, and a music that helps you cope with all of it.

I don't wanna idealize the music. I don't want to see it as a chance to escape for the weekend to a bubble of a halycon Past before the Fall. I don't need the fictions that I hear being expressed around the music--the actual history is quite sufficiently remarkable. And admirable. And I'm in it for all of it--not just the safer more idealized more sequestered or romanticized bits that seem to live here this weekend.

In fact, between the quiet, manicured grounds, the soberly-dressed moms 'n' dads 'n' home-schooled kids, and the ubiquitous electric golf-carts careening across the grounds to transport instructors schlepping instruments or the large incidence of large people (lot of these folks seem to like their carbs), it's actually a bit reminiscent of the bandbox little village in west Wales where they filmed the McGoohan version of the Prisoner.

But I'm home now. The sequestered, quasi-monastic aspect of the retreat was sort-of refreshing and sort-of peaceful, but I live out here, in the messy, smelly, complicated, contentious, challenging world of Samsara. And prefer to.

To celebrate which, I believe I will go drink a little whiskey.

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