Saturday, June 18, 2016

The New Acoustic Popular Music (Part 1) - Mumford and the Movie

By Don Robertson

Say Goodbye to hard rock as it writhes in dying pain. Bid Hello to Americana, the new acoustic popular music. Thank God you have finally arrived. 

     It's a breakthrough in the popular music world, a breakaway from the music that directly proceeded it, and an important development because young artists are delving into the roots of American popular music, the music that came before the genre was corrupted by hard-rock bands on hard drugs and greedy corporations after the dollar. It's a new genre of popular music brought to us by young folks under the age of thirty. It represents a change that I had been awaiting since 1970, the year when in my book Kosmon, I described how popular music was beginning its descent into heavy-metal hell.
      This new popular-music tradition might be an anathema for some who grew up on AC-DC, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the other hard rock and heavy-metal catastrophes from those last three decades of the 20th century, but for others it presents a refreshing change. 
      What is this new tradition and when did it begin? It's a return to the roots of popular and folk music, while at the same time it is also innovative and fresh. I peg its birth as the year 2000... the beginning of the 21st century. In my online book Music through the Centuries I explain that at the beginning of every century a new style of music begins unfolding, and I believe that this is what is taking place now. 

O Brother, Hear Art Thou!
     Our story begins with the award-winning film O Brother, Where Art Thou? that was released in the year 2000. This was the film that introduced traditional "white" music of the Southeastern United States to millions of folks who had not been exposed to it before. Some of the greatest artists from the bluegrass and folk traditions, like Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, contributed to the soundtrack of this film, the compact disc of which sold almost eight million copies in America alone.
     I had already discovered these folk and bluegrass traditions for myself beginning in 1994 when I was making exploratory trips into the "South," as we call the Southeastern part of our country, to uncover the roots of America's popular and folk music. During the seven-year period of 1994 to 2000, I concentrated on the great traditions of bluegrass and traditional Appalachian music along with both white and black gospel music, collecting thousands of rare recordings and rare music books and hymnals. 
     The music that I discovered became a part of my life during that period. I met the singers, the bands, and the musicians, and we became friends. My free time was filled with listening to cassettes, rare LPs and 78 records. I was fortunate to ride around the Tennessee countryside with the great bluegrass musician and singer Joe Isaacs in his truck, as he popped Stanley Brothers CDs into his player and related to me his personal experiences and his understanding of bluegrass music, of which I had previously had no experience. In 1998, Joe introduced me to Ralph Stanley himself.
     My time with Joe, learning about bluegrass music, was a great musical experience for me... one that I shall not forget, and one that I share with those young musicians of the 21st century who are now searching for the roots of all the great music traditions.
Mumford and the Sun
      A group of young English musicians were so blown away by the music from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? that they began researching the music traditions that were represented on the soundtrack album - the folk, mountain and bluegrass music of the American "South" - to discover what it was, and where it had come from. In 2007 they formed a band. The leader of that band, Marcus Mumford, was only twenty-years old. The name of the group is Mumford and Sons.
      The quest of Mumford and Sons wasn't the first such an adventure to take place in England. Generations of young English musicians have loved and championed American folk, bluegrass and blues music for decades. The Beatles and the "British invasion" rock bands of the early 1960s evolved out of the huge English skiffle music movement of the 1950s that was based entirely on American folk and country music that at that time was almost completely unknown in mainstream America. 
      Exploring America's folk traditions, the young artists who would call themselves Mumford and Sons soon found the recordings of the Nashville group called Old Crow Medicine Show. It was the influence of their music that set the boys clearly on their way.

Bob Dylan's great song "Wagon Wheel" as performed by "Old Crow Medicine Show." There are over 32,000,000 views for this video at the time of this writing.

      Old Crow's music led the Mumford kids deeper into the great music of America's "South." From their discoveries and from their love of music, they evolved their own unique style. They went into the recording studio and their first album, the 2009 (2010 in the USA) Sigh No More, will receive six grammy-award nominations and became the third most downloaded album for 2011. That year, they performed live with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers on the grammy award show.
    Because Mumford and Sons is a group that is alive, I enjoy watching them perform in videos. They belong to the "see your music" generation. Like the Grateful Dead, they are not a band that records in a studio with a goal of having their music blending into the compressed background soundtrack of contemporary radio. Their music is participatory. 
    Watch Mumford and Sons perform their song "I Will Wait," which as I write has had almost 77,000,000 views:

"I Will Wait", by Mumford and Sons

    And now, for those of you who understand what I am about to talk about, I will tell you something... this group is pushing out good energy. For those who don't understand this and want an explanation, watch Episodes 1 and 2 of my "Notes with Don Robertson" series, where I talk about "vibes."
     The "I Will Wait" video opens with the group pushing out good energy. When the song begins, first we discover that the band is not poised in the typical "I'm bad and cool" stance of 'nineties rock musicians. Then we notice that these guys are pushing their bodies forward into the outward flow of their music. They are pushing energy. Forty seconds into the song, their pulsing beat suddenly quiets, continuing softly in the background as the group continues the verse and the pre-chorus. When they begin to sing "I will wait, I will wait for you...." the background rhythm stops completely, but it's still there in the silence. Then they sing "I will wait, I will wait for you...." again. There is a tremendous energy build-up in anticipation because we know something is coming. Then the band starts up again with the energy, leaning into the music and pumping out vibes!  
     This reminds me of the song "Question" by the Moody Blues from 1970, a song that had a totally innovative approach. First is a fast section with a constant driving beat followed by a slow section, then a return to the fast section. The Moody Blues were the first band to truly pump out the good vibes like Mumford and Sons are doing. I believe besides the Beatles, the Moody Blues are the most important rock band of the 20th century. Check out "Question":

"Question", by the Moody Blues 1970
Active and Passive Centuries
    As I have explained in other places in my writings, I believe that the style of music of the 20th century was passive, reflecting surrounding social conditions. During the 1920s, the music reflected the "Jazz Age" described by Great Gatsby writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. After the second world war, the popular music of the later 1940s and early 1950s reflected the positive experience of life in white middle-class America, a time of romance where we as children could walk freely and safely anywhere in town, ride buses and streetcars without fear, and leave our houses, bicycles, and vehicles unlocked. This was a time when folks whistled as they strolled along the sides of the road and said "Good mornin'" when they passed you. 
     The popular music of the 1960s reflected the changing social conditions of that decade, the upheaval as well as our unfolding spiritual experience. Then as we entered the 1970s, popular music began its downward plunge, when dark groups such as Bad Company, Coven and Black Sabbath began entering the airwaves of American radio, signaling that the gradual disintegration process of our culture had begun.
     I believe that the music and art of the 21st century will be active instead of passive. There is no longer a need to model art on our surrounding social conditions, especially while there is so much violence, so many disturbing wars, such overarching corruption, and the inexcusable pollution of our food, air and water that has created a dangerous health crisis. Now it the time for the good energy, good "vibes," to rule art, music, and literature. It's a time for love, and a time for healing. This is what the new music is all about. 
     We all now have access to all of the world's great musical traditions, music that was created before the downward plunge in both popular and classical music, and this becomes an aural and visual textbook to inspire the new musicians of tomorrow.
     The term "Americana" describes a new music genre that arose in 1995 when Rob Bleetstein of San Francisco and Nashville's Jon Grimson convinced the Gavin Report (a publication that strongly influences the music content on American radio) to create a place for folk-oriented music that did not conform with the usual radio programming being broadcast by large indifferent media corporations... what have become the lifeless productions and endless flow of formulaic audio-compressed and auto-tuned songs that are beamed in a constant stream across America via radio.  
     With its home base established in Nashville, the Americana genre was then designated as an official music genre. It appears that the new acoustic popular music that I will be describing in this series will most likely be classified as belonging to the Americana genre instead of being recognized as a form of popular music. Why? Because the corpocracy that churns out America's popular music will most likely continue to control much of American radio with its manufactured pop and urban rap-style music for a while longer, until enough people realize that it is probably not adding much benefit to their lives. 
     In the next installment of this "The New Acoustic Popular Music" series, I will be presenting videos that feature artists and bands performing the new acoustic popular music. This is music that must be seen as well as heard. 

© 2016 by Don Robertson