One of my favorite moments in music in 2011 was the performance by Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers, and Bob Dylan at the Grammys last February.
Mumford and Sons performs “The Cave,” the Avett Brothers perform “Head Full Of Doubt / Road Full Of Promise,” and Bob Dylan fronts the combined bands as they perform “Maggie’s Farm.”
There are a lot of things I love watching in this performance. It’s pretty clear that the first two bands are thrilled to pieces to be there. I like “The Cave” — that harmonizing cornet line at the end! — and I like “Head Full Of Doubt / Road Full Of Promise,” and while I’m not sure I buy those songs plus “Maggie’s Farm” as a medley, it was entertaining enough that watching the performance the morning after the Grammys made me late for work.
It’s nice seeing a performance on the Grammys that isn’t heavily choreographed, too. Part of what I liked about this performance is the way they dig into what they’re playing with mostly acoustic instruments — that’s not something you see too often in a venue like that. They’re good musicians and it’s fun to watch them do what they do.
It’s also fun to see how thrilled they are at getting to back up Bob Dylan. Speaking of Dylan, he’s working it like RuPaul. Look at the way he steps around that bass and takes his rightful position at the front! Look at the facial expressions on that line behind him! In that performance and in that venue, Bob Dylan is an acknowledged diva, and he is playing that role with enthusiasm.
I’ve been thinking about this performance since February, and over the course of the fall semester I did a little work and a little research into this kind of thing, and friends, it sure does bother me that this kind of music I like a whole lot, this indie alt-country y’allternative singer-songwriter whatever, got physically portrayed on the Grammys as music played by white men only, with the Bob Dylan Stamp Of Approval™.
Here’s a list of all the performers on the 2011 Grammy telecast. This performance was the only one consisting solely of white men. When I watched it the morning I was late for work, even as I was clapping like a seal with delight, there was still that small voice asking, so does this mean that the publicly acknowledged acolytes of, or heirs to, Dylan are only young white men? Because that is one white male backup line.
“Maggie’s Farm” bothers me, too. Wikipedia gives a quick background on dominant readings of the song, but one thing that isn’t there is the inherent inclusion of gender in the title. We don’t hear from Maggie — Maggie is absent — and the speaker’s rejection of the farm always has to do with gender, because it’s not “I ain’t gonna work on this farm no more,” or whatever’s necessary to adjust for scansion. It’s “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Combine that with Dylan’s infamous performance at Newport ’65, where some people took “Maggie’s Farm” as a shot fired across the bow, and the Grammy performance takes on added layers of defiance outside of the lyrics — all of which is context bearing on the Grammy performance that can’t be ignored. The Grammy performance is a party in Bob Dylan’s honor, and the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons are thrilled to be there — but it’s hard to see where anyone who doesn’t look like them gets to fit in.
I mentioned that I did a little work over the course of the fall semester about things like this. One of my final projects was digging more deeply than I did in this post into the influence of the Mississippi Sheiks on Andrew Bird’s “Fake Palindromes,” and I found out a few things that surprised me. I don’t think Bird is responding to the Sheiks and “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,” as I did when I wrote that post. Instead, I think he’s using the music of the Mississippi Sheiks as a springboard for a response aimed far more broadly in the direction of systematic misogyny. Bird isn’t responding to a specific person, but rather a pattern of behavior, and that’s pretty notable. When speaking about popular music and musicians, as a general rule, we place value on influences — who people sound like, who they’ve played with, who they themselves want to emulate. The result is a kind of twist on Great Man theory — and, incidentally, a way to establish credibility with other people based on who you listen to.
The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons look pleased as punch to be up there on that stage on national television with Bob Dylan — and they should be. It’s a nice career boost. But I wonder if it’s not possible to broaden this Great Man narrative of indie alt-country y’allternative singer-songwriter whatever, and instead try popular music from below. Thinking about what that might look like excites me.
So that’s my 2012 music resolution: think differently, get past Dylan, pay attention to context, and write about it — hopefully more here than I’ve done since I moved to Mississippi. Onward and upward, y’all.