Saturday, 20 June 2009
DESERT ISLAND DISCS, THE WHITE MAN'S PRE-IMPERIAL BLUES.
Some would say Hoagy Carmichael, others Cole Porter; people gripped, still, by the dead hand of the nineteen-sixties might propose Bob Dylan; this trio and many others have sprung from the so-called cultural melting-pot that is American Song and although Dylan, strictly speaking invented, invents his own genre, each can claim to be it’s greatest exponent. With Lenny Bernstein’s swaggering, syncopated, brassy, West Side Story; Aaron Copland’s cowboy studies, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sentimental cinematic oeuvre, the big bands, rock bands and crooners American popular music is, largely, the Song of Empire.
The McGarridle-Wainright axis, itself, spiteful and jaundiced as any “artistic” family, has realised a handful of good tunes, pater Loudon the Third’s deceptive little rants are often deeply poignant and Ma Kate’s exceptional Talk to Me of Mendocino one of half a dozen great songs to her credit; the brat Rupert has enjoyed huge success with whatever bastard motherloding seam of Barbra Streisand, David Bowie and Tiny Tim it is that he mines.
Let alone song, much of twentieth and twenty-first century American culture is the culture of Empire; even now, buggered and broke and shamed, it’s Caesars and Senators brag and strut, in boots loaned them by the Chinks, polished by Tony Blair.
This, though, here, this ensemble, gathered around le Famille McGarrigle harmonies is altogether more humble and respectful, for Hard Times' composer, Stephen Foster is probably America’s first songwriter. An Irish-American, Foster wrote Oh Susannah, I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, Beautul Dreamer, My Old Kentucky Home and countless others all so woven into the American Tradition as to seem timeless, traditional, authorless.
Foster wrote at a time, not so long ago, of frontiers, immigration, patchwork quilts, wagon trains and log cabins, slave plantations and a land swarming with immigrants who had come voluntarily; of a mighty industrial giant birthing itself; a time before soda- pop and ice cream sundaes gave way to acid and Quaaludes. He died in poverty aged 37, in 1864.
In the States, he is honoured, for sure, in a Constitutional sort of a way. Here, Stephen Foster would be rated way below, say, Mr Gordon Sting, Mr Phil Collins, Mr Eric Clapton or any one of the millionaire tunesters who, pampered and self-indulgent, judiciously stoke the flames of Ruin.