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Friday, March 18, 2011

Dolly Parton

I discovered this week that I like Dolly Parton. She made a couple of bluegrass cd’s. I have now heard the first one, ”The Grass is Blue” (1999), a couple of times. It is amazing: excellent musicians, great singing (Alison Krauss doing a bit of background harmonizing), and great songs. One by Billy Joel, one by Johnny Cash; and four by Dolly herself.

That opened my eyes. I hardly knew her, apart from the common knowledge we share in Holland about her, consisting mainly of (I’m not proud of it, but here it is:) Jolene and big boobs. So I read Wikipedia and listened to YouTube (the modern equivalent of “watching the radio”) and started to realize who she really is. The most successful female country music star by far. Someone on the same footing as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, with who she made a cd. An enormously productive songwriter. A film star. A shrewd businesswoman. A philanthropist. And a funny woman, reported to have said: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”.

Of course it is not so that this knowledge converted me to like listening to her. It is the music that does the trick. But here is the thing with knowing things about music: it helps you to get rid of the “tacit knowledge” (in many cases, just read “prejudices”) preventing you to even listen to some kinds of music. Prejudices like: “we” don’t like Dolly Parton because she is so vulgar; or: country music is worthless because it is commercial American light-weight right-wing sentimental shit.

So many things standing in the way of just listening. “This music is not meant for me”. Happily things change over a lifetime. There were times I could not bear the wining sound of a steel guitar; the association with – yes, with what? – made it impossible for me to really hear what was being played. I have recovered. Just as I have recovered from hating Neil Young’s voice. Those recoveries always are key experiences for me.

But there is an end to recovery. I guess it is impossible to equally like any music. I am now interviewing people on their listening habits, and even the broadest listeners confess: “I simply can’t stand listening to …” (follows genre X, style Y or singer Z).

When I was a student I have, for some time, made a project of learning to like the Zangeres Zonder Naam (“Singer Without Name”). I thought: it is possible for people to love her music on the deepest emotional level, why can’t I do it? I bought records. I visited concerts. But I didn’t manage to like her music. What I did manage, however, is to like her audience.

And that has been another key experience for me: learning that there is music you can’t understand and others can, and that there are things you can’t learn but just happen to be as they are.

So there I am, with two important discoveries: you may like more music than you thought you might; but you will not like every music in the world. The first experience inspires teaching music, a thing I have done since my 15th, and am still doing. The second experience reminds one that there are boundaries in teaching, and that they are to be respected. A thing I try to keep in mind when teaching.

The second experience also questions many ideas behind our formal music education system. Ideas such as: teaching good music helps people to develop more fully. Because knowing that there are people who are touched on the deepest level by Bach but that others have the same thing with the Zangeres Zonder Naam leaves one with the big question where the “good” in music is.

And to this big question I have a tiny little answer: nowhere. There is no good in music. The good is in the musicking – the thing individuals do with music. But those of you who have read earlier blogs on this page already suspected that…

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