July-August 2007

Why Do We Write About Music, When Musicians Seldom Play Songs About Writers

by dennis roger reed

I intended to start off this column with the quote "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I was under the impression that famous folk musician Frank Zappa was the quote's author, but research has shown that a myriad of folks are credited with this wisdom, from Martin Mull to Elvis Costello to Igor Stravinsky. Oh well, it's still a good quote. And since I've used it, most likely someone in the future will attribute it to me.

Music is hard to write about, probably because music can evoke some pretty strong emotions. Of course, the argument can be made that music is just mathematics. If you don't understand intervals and some basic math, it will probably be harder to learn an instrument. But there are many great players who simply use "intuitive math" in order to master their music. It would've been nice when I was grumbling about taking math in high school if someone would've sat down with me and my guitar and explained how much math I was using to play my guitar. Or annoy my parents, which was about the same thing.

So why do we write about music? Isn't it just enough to listen and enjoy, or to play and enjoy? For many, yes. But I am one of those folks with a sort of mono-mania with regard to music. Most of the books and periodicals I read are about music. Much of the "retail" shopping I do, whether real world or on-line, has something to do with music or musical instruments.

Some people approach music like "train spotting." They enjoy arguing over who played the Irish flute on that obscure recording by Donovan Smythe-Dylan in March of 1967 on an album on Pye Records that was never released in the US, or why the producer for the Beany Baby Band got his head shaved during their last recording session. Others love to talk about music theory, and dissect songs not too unlike my high school science class frog snipping. Many of today's generation seem to settle solely for the enjoyment of listening without a lot of regard as who the artist is or who wrote the song. Or they may be drawn to music only as a side road from their enjoyment of the non-musical escapades/shenanigans of their favorite rock or pop star.

Most of us who write about music do so out of love. We love music, we love to share our "discoveries" with others. Sometimes we like to share our disappointment, or if we're pushy writers, we may want to "instruct" the artist as to potential improvements needed.  We hope that our musings will lead the reader to seek out the artist we're waxing eloquent about. We assume that someone besides us shares our interest. We hope so.

The potential changes here at FolkWorks have inspired a lot of discussion among the writers about why we write, who we write for and how we should be looking at our future. As a resident of North Boliva, California, I seldom have seen a print copy of FolkWorks, so perhaps my point of reference is a bit skewed. I've written for a few publications, and almost always wrote about music in some form. My writing on other subjects has always paid much better (go figure) but never has been as fulfilling to me. I've also noted how many of my favorite print publications on music have died, such as Musician and Blues Access. I've seen other compelling publications, like Rolling Stone, turn into parodies of their former selves. I won't go as far as to predict the immanent death of the printed word, but if you've read some of your teenager's recent text messages, I may be a little too optimistic.

Although the Internet world is full of music writing that is poorly researched and in need of a second grade editor, one need only pick up a copy of an "entertainment" publication near the check stand of your local super market to find that the printed word does not equal prestige, competence or the ability to understand the basic concepts of grammar.

I know I sometimes lose track of the basic import of music. Writing or reading about music is great, but listening to music is better. Listening to live music is the best. But even better than listening to live music is PLAYING music. If anything you read in FolkWorks stirs the juices to pull out that old dulcimer; buy a new capo for your guitar or finally attend that old time music jam across town, then we've done the best job we can do.

Thanks for reading, see you next time. Go out and see some live music.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on twoCDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.

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