Music may be the best thing in American daily life. I guess I could try to expand that to the arts generally. But I am not sure that any of the other arts have as wide an appeal or generate such idyllic communal scenes.
Last week I went on a Tuesday night with some friends to the BlueNote in Durham. It was open mic night, with bands of four to six being formed from the people who sign up to play. Mostly the blues, with the music ranging from passable to surprisingly good. About sixty people in the audience, of all ages and races. Lots of dancing, plenty of beer drunk, and enthusiastic cheering for the musicians. Lots of people out having a good time—with good cheer all around.
Then I spent four days at Merlefest, the huge music festival held each year in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. No alcohol allowed, although the festival is just about totally unpoliced. I saw two security personnel on Sunday, the last day, and realized I had not seen any security or police the first three days. Lots of volunteers, in their bright yellow vests, and some announcement of the rules from the stages, but no one, as far as I could see, was stopped from doing anything. We snuck in some alcohol—and I am sure we were not the only ones. But no visible drunkenness that I could see, while everyone is almost sickeningly polite, and (once again) enthusiastic about the music and about the good time we are all having together. Over 10,000 people there on Saturday and good cheer all around, with the unwritten rules about seats and places at the various stages universally respected. And then there are all those 20 something musicians who are bringing back the traditional music even as they are creating new music. Plus an astoundingly knowledgeable core audience—people who also know and love this music and its history and its old standards.
My rose-colored view does need to be qualified. We ended up at the ER on Saturday around noon (a false alarm, luckily) and the staff there told us how they hated Merlefest because they were fated to see lots of drug overdoses and some alcohol poisonings over the weekend. Back at the festival, I tried to see the signs of these problems–but did not.
Also, the crowd was all white, a mixture of white professionals and Trump voters. (So my wife–who wasn’t there–said, “there’s the harmony. Easy for people to behave well among all their own kind.” Please read that statement with the proper sarcastic tone.) The culture gap was revealed dramatically on two occasions. Friday night the headliner was a country singer named Jimmy Johnson (or some such; I had never heard of him), who has a beard down to his navel, and a beer gut that should not adorn a thirty-something body, singing formulaic Nashville songs that sounded like every country record of the past thirty years. After two numbers, my friends and I were done; but as we walked out, we saw that the reserved seats were about half full while the unreserved seats were completely and totally packed. This guy was a big star, a must see, for a large audience that obviously lives in a different universe than I do.
Then on Sunday morning we were treated to a Christian rock star named Paul Thorn. Had never heard of him either, or really known about the world of Christian rock. And again a huge crowd, much larger than any of the crowds for the banjo meisters Bela Fleck or Allison Brown. Exactly the kind of music I most dislike—chord thumping, drum driven, banging as opposed to note picking—was what really drew in the crowds. And the slick, smarmy Christian preacher, with his little homilies in between his Christian rock numbers, had them in the palm of his hand. Looked him up on google, and he just started out as a rock musician wannabe; the Christian stuff came later, which only heightens my prejudicial conviction that he’s a fraud.
One of my friends was offended by my distaste for Paul Thorn. She thought him a sincere Christian, disliked my immediate suspicion that these Christians are inevitably exploiters of the proles. But it is hard for me to feel charitable toward Christians these days, not when their unflagging support for Donald Trump shows them up in all their mean-spirited bigotry.
But I didn’t sit down at the typewriter to bash Christians. I sat down to reflect (yet again) on the conviviality that characterizes American daily life. My son lives in a DC neighborhood that is 85% African-American and was 100% black five years ago. The street vibe is very friendly—in stark contrast to the street vibe in DC when I first lived there in the 1970s. I don’t fully understand it; if I were black, I would be pissed off all the time. When the police (who are usually black) have any dealings with someone on the street in the neighborhood, there are always five to ten people standing around videoing the encounter on their phones. Gentrification is slowly moving up H Street from Union Station toward my son’s house, two miles further east. It will probably reach his block in 3 to 5 years. Yet everyone on the street—and in the local stores—smiles and says Hello and is invariably polite.
I have the same experience in New York City, where I grew up. When I asked an old friend a few years ago “when did everyone in New York become so nice,” she instantly replied, “isn’t it disgusting?” She knew exactly what I was talking about. A certain kind of macho swagger has lost its cool for large swathes of the population.
And yet . . . We have all the sexual harassment (and worse) even as crime rates are going down. And we have the immigrant hatred and black bashing. Just like in 1968, we want to say that’s just the old folks; that kind of stuff is going to die out. But the kids of 1968 are the old folks now. Our politics is worse than ever; our society’s neglect of large swathes of the citizenry and the rhetorical justifications offered for the state’s and the corporation’s cruelty are more bald-faced than ever. The bile pouring out of the TV and over the internet just doesn’t connect up with the conviviality of face-to-face daily life.
I don’t understand this world I now live in, where life on the streets is so much less mean than I expect, while our public discourse is so hateful that I can’t believe people think that way—or would dare to utter such thoughts in public. I want to run and hide in the music, where a good life beckons.