Since the first cave dwellers plunked a rock against a wall for purely expressive reasons, music has been social—even sometimes political. Like any art form, music offers an individual’s take on the surrounding world, one that is in turn absorbed and cast back into the world by an audience. Every song, no matter the subject, is a statement of sorts.
In Charlottesville, where a wide range of musicians make their home far from the contemporary perils of life in New York City, Jerusalem or Kabul, it’s fitting to wonder what the music of area artists is telling us about our little world and its values.
“Charlottesville is a good place to do anything you like, so it’s easy to be inactive or lazy, and the sad thing is that things then get swept under the rug, like the fact that we have such an extreme racial division,” says singer-songwriter Karmen Buttler, who records as Karmen. “Whether it’s Downtown or Belmont or the University, the communities in Charlottesville are so separated from what is going on with one another that people, artists or no, aren’t thinking about what is happening, myself included.
“And that’s really too bad,” Buttler says, “especially with so much going on here as well as in the world around us.”
But isn’t that just human nature? It’s much easier to turn a blind eye to the problems around us, especially in prosperous times, than to undertake the arduous and messy task of resolving them.
“As people, we have a tendency to gravitate toward the easiest thing to digest, especially when things are good,” Buttler says, pointing to the mass popularity of Britney, Justin and their ilk. “Unfortunately, the picture that is painted is that there aren’t critical, politically conscious people doing anything when times are good, but it’s really that the media isn’t looking at them and showing people that, even though it is going on.”
That might be an overstatement when it comes to Charlottesville, however, where musicians on the Downtown Mall are plentiful, for instance, but soapboxes are scarce regardless of media presence. Besides, when was the last time you went out to a performance by a local musician and were exhorted to get more involved in the community?
Despite its reputation elsewhere around the State as a liberal base camp, Charlottesville is not, many local musicians say, a home to musical activism. The reasons for that are many.
“Write what you know” is the adage guiding successful writers of every stripe. Unsurprisingly then, those musicians writing about issues that resonate strongly within themselves tend to strike the deepest chord with their audiences.
“The greatest songwriters write about what moves them and are able to make you feel what they feel,” says Geoff Sprung of the Small Town Workers. “A songwriter’s first obligation should be to be true to oneself. If that means writing about ‘partying all night’ or about ‘saving the children,’ so be it.”
Maybe it’s more laudable to write about downtrodden kids than all-night raves, but musicians almost universally recognize that music doesn’t succeed if it isn’t honest—whatever the message.
“One thing that I’ve learned as a songwriter and musician is that you just can’t fake it,” says Vandyke Brown’s George Lakis. “Passion and effectiveness are inextricably linked.”
In other words, even music that successfully tackles headier themes and is predictably tagged “important” can fail its audience and fall short as art when it is written out of obligation.
“Music suffers most under the strains of unnaturally forcing something into a work—political activism, false projections of an unfamiliar situation, anything that the artist doesn’t at that time need to write about,” local folk artist Paul Curreri says. In his music, Curreri avoids out-and-out political or social statements, choosing instead to wax personal with the “faith that certain emotions and interests are doubtlessly shared by others.”
The personal, it would seem, is political. Songs woven from personal tales and observations inevitably reflect back on the world from where much of their inspiration is drawn.
Few artists today express this as poignantly as local blues luminary Corey Harris. On his latest album, Downhome Sophisticate, Harris grapples with emotionally and politically charged issues. In “Frankie Doris,” Harris tells the story of a Welfare queen out to get what she considers her due. Harris doesn’t condemn Doris for her actions, nor does he celebrate them, giving the story a greater context and a certain moral ambiguity by levelly exploring the rationale behind her actions. Similarly projective, Harris’ “Money Eye” tells of the undoing of a relationship under cultural and materialistic pressures, while his “Santoro” addresses the simmering hatred and mistrust that underlies relations between African-Americans and police.
“I’m just trying to tell a story, and I realize that whatever story I have to tell is connected to the story of humanity. So, I’m trying to tell a story that is an individual story but at the same time others can relate to,” Harris says. “And I think that’s a part of art: I mean, you want to communicate, whether or not other people are always understanding your language—not everyone will always get everything, but you still want to communicate.”
In that give-and-take between artist and audience lies the real means for efficacy. When the listener has a stake in the interpretive process, in determining what a song or lyric means to him or her personally, the music takes on an internal life of its own.
The personal communication of music is especially good at giving listeners a look at others’ lives. Through a song, you can reflect on certain realities that you otherwise might ignore.
“We all flip flop and get down to the floor/Face down in the ward, ducking strays and afterwards the slaves, crack dealers and whores/ Can you adapt to that?” asks BEETNIX hip-hop frontman Damani Harrison in the song “Brainwash Syndrome.”
“If what a person portrays in their music is from their true self they can perform it anywhere, and those that need a message will get a message,” says Harrison. “Only then will the real meaning behind the music be understood.”
Local musicians like the fact that the personal allegorical tale more easily strikes a nerve with its audience, and for many it is the only way to go. They say that songs given to a specific and obvious end too easily come off as contrived or bogus.
“The seat-of-the-pants topical song, sincere as it may be, can backfire and even turn off a listener if one is not careful,” says folk artist Devon Sproule, who records under her first name only.
In a sense, subtlety and sincerity can effectively work in concert to give music greater resonance with an audience, she says.
Nickeltown’s Browning Porter agrees. “I’ve always thought that [local singer-songwriter] Brady Earnhart’s beautiful love songs from the point of view of gay men are political in an indirect way, and this really makes them much more profound and successful than a song that bluntly preaches tolerance,” Porter says. “And I think if you can identify with someone, then ‘tolerance’ is too pallid a word for what you feel towards them. ‘Solidarity’ is a better one.”
Presumably local musicians listen to tunes from all over the country and world, including songs from the Overtly Political school, such as N.W.A.’s “F*ck the Police” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Both of those groups explicitly courted their audience’s alienation with the sheer force of their respective messages. Even if they’re familiar with the technique, though, musicians in Charlottesville don’t seem intent on shocking an audience into submission or rejection.
Buttler says the subtle approach is more effective “because it’s not about wearing it on your sleeve. It’s about relating to people, and getting people to relate to you, without the subject matter being your sexual orientation or political position or ethnicity,” she says.
“I think music is such a wonderful thing for that, because so many people don’t realize how open they really are to do or think things that otherwise they would avoid if it were labeled.”
Indeed, perhaps a middle-aged, conservative man might really dig a k.d. lang song he hears on the radio. He’ll buy a couple of her albums, only to realize that she is a lesbian. In this scenario, he’s more likely to re-evaluate his beliefs than if lang hollered “Gay pride!” from the mountaintops and over the airwaves, in which case he would have just turned off the radio without giving it a second thought.
Maybe this is starting to sound like an elaborate apology by musicians for not taking a more active role in the advancement and well being of the community. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
For the most part, local musicians are aware of the power they hold to convey social ideas. A photograph, painting or novel can be incredibly moving, but the audience is often only able to know the person behind the piece indirectly. With live music performances, at least, the musician is the art made flesh. As artists, they walk, talk and feel. They are one of us.
“I remember one of my teachers in high school once told me that he cried more when he heard that John Lennon died than at his father’s funeral,” says former Charlottesville musician Ben Arthur, now living in New York. “The possibilities in music—particularly in popular song—for emotional communication are extraordinary and are why, I imagine, a lot of us get into this game.”
It certainly motivates Arthur, whose songs have a pointedly popular feel to them, and who connects with his listeners by means of a quirky, comedic and sometimes surreal take on the commonplace. In his album Gypsy Fingers, Arthur too places a special emphasis on personal tales in songs like “Sestina” or “This Hurts You (More Than it Hurts Me).”
Yet while their powers of influence are self-evident, do musicians have a responsibility to speak out? What about novelists, athletes or movie stars—anyone in the popular public sphere for that matter? Do they have a responsibility to their audiences?
“I feel that as a musician I have as much responsibility to be involved politically and socially in my community as any other person,” says Jessie Fiske of the Hackensaw Boys. “Musicians, however, are in a unique position to submit their ideas to the general public on a larger scale than the average individual.”
To an extent, Harris agrees. “I feel individually that I have a responsibility with my music, but I think it’s just an aspect of being a human and sharing the planet with other people that you have that responsibility, whether or not you play music,” he says. “I don’t know if you have any more responsibility as a musician, but it’s definitely a tool in some way to educate people or to get people excited about certain ideas.”
If our musicians feel no greater responsibility to act than should we, they at least understand their unique position of influence. As such, Harris, for one, today feels a growing sense of urgency in acknowledging and using that power.
“Artists should speak out on things they feel strongly about, because we can still exercise that right and it might not always be like that,” he says. “There is already a constriction of the First Amendment. It’s not as robust as it once was, and a lot of other basic freedoms are being questioned in the name of fighting terrorism.”
Thomas Jefferson once wrote of the American Revolution, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” But in his hometown, revolution, even within the music community, seems a far-off prospect.
“The fact of the matter is that the state of the world has little bearing on the music scene in Charlottesville,” says Eli Simon, of Bottom of the Hudson. “And that’s not because we’re insulated by a thriving community of music supporters. There is no scene. There is no venue to support socially conscious music. There are no promoters to push that kind of music.”
The forum is important, too. “What the Charlottesville scene really needs is more and better venues that are friendly to local music,” says Porter. “I’ve been playing in this town now for 12 years, and my greatest frustration has been with the slow attrition of good places to play.” Porter is hardly the only musician to voice such a complaint. Beyond a scant handful of quality places to play, there is little aside from bar/restaurants offering crusty cover acts that pass for live entertainment.
Even those who remain optimistic see that much is lacking. “I think Charlottesville is a liberal, open-minded town, and fertile ground for the rock-and-roll revolution,” claims Ostinato drummer Matthew Clark, who plays in a number of Tokyo Rose-based side projects, most notably the openly political Frank Zapatistas. “We just need more local support, venues and motivation.”
For some though, fear is an issue. “I think the ‘Ville has an incredible music scene, but most people wouldn’t even know it was there. And some of the best artists and musicians I have met in this town remain underground because they are afraid,” says Harrison. “Face it. We are in a conservative place that is controlled by conservative government. If the true feelings of the people I know and hang out with were made known to the mass public, there would be straight pandemonium.”
And like Buttler says, Charlottesville is an easy place in which to forget your troubles, never mind those of others. Whether it is fear, a lack of motivation or something else entirely behind it, there’s no question that organization and activism are absent on even the most grassroots level. “You can usually gauge a scene by the amount of benefit shows that are coordinated,” Small Town Workers’ Mike Meadows says, pointing to Charlottesville’s relative paucity of such events.
Almost universally, those dissatisfied with the lack of social and political vitality in the Charlottesville music scene, or in the lack of a scene period, argue that the roots of malaise run deep. Music here is what it is because the City itself is a sleepy suburban dream.
“The name of the game here is survival, and if that means two cars, a Federal style house in Afton, horseback riding for little Suzie and hockey downtown for Billy, so be it,” says Simon. “What are we worried about? Not a lot, and that seems to be what we’re singing about.”
Harris thinks the problem is even more deeply entrenched.
“I don’t really think that Charlottesville, bottom line, is a very socially conscious place. It has affluence, and people have leisure time and there are some liberal-like attitudes, but this was a plantation town for a long time, the same town where Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and said we were animals,” he says. “So, I don’t think this is really the place to look for social consciousness. That isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are conscious, but I don’t think there is a tradition of that, and likewise I don’t think too much of the music is socially conscious.”
Harris adds, “There are still such huge inequalities in this town and the greater community, economically as well as racially, that there is a lot yet to be done.”
If there is one constant in life though, it is change. As Charlottesville wrestles with the pains of a rapidly expanding and diversifying community, so too will its community of musicians grapple with the new and unfamiliar.
“The political and social issues of our time will always be addressed as long as there are creative minds making music, and music will continue to evolve with society and culture,” says Darrell Muller of Old School Freight Train. “Music will always reflect what is going on in the society it comes from as well as the world that encapsulates that society.”