10 August 2007

Homemade hillbilly jam

When I'm not reading Davidson, I am watching films about hillbillies. (But there is, I hope, no special intention involved in that...)

The other day I was entirely enchanted by the documentary Homemade Hillbilly Jam (2005/ Minnich), a film evolving around three families in the Ozark Mountains of Southernwest Missouri. Just like another recent documentary about rural life in the US, Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus (2005/ White), it focuses on music; talking about what music means, playing music. But neither of the films are about music exclusively; in both films, we see people going about their daily chores and routines and in both films, religion is a prominent theme, but often in a quite off-beat, non-spectacular way.

In Homemade Hillbilly Jam, members of three families talk about their relation to music and the role of music in family life. Long scenes are dedicated to family jam sessions. You might think that this sounds boring, but surprisingly, it was not. It was quite refreshing to see how a deep relation between the family members is expressed in the way music is played, in the way band members interact (and also, in the commonplace activities that are displayed).

An important topic in the film was tradition - a rural life style beginning to disappear. The film portrays different ways of perceiving change. Some of the musicians have created a "hillbilly music" package where the "preservation of a life style" comes out as a mix of kitsch, fun and sentimentality (to be honest, I didn't quite understand how I was to take it). Mark Bilyeu, one of the film's main characters, who seemed to relate to music in a very sympathetic and loving way, said on one occasion that he felt that much in his surrounding was not worth holding on to, but that some things were. He believed that fewer and fewer people were familiar with traditional music, and, by making music, he wanted to make a contribution to a tradition.

There is something in this way of emphasizing tradition (traditional ways, traditional life) that I don't feel comfortable with. Of course, it's no mystery that people enjoy making music and find certain types of music expressing something special. But in seeing what one is doing as a part of a project of "preserving a tradition" then, it seems to me, one is focusing on something quite different than the specific activity - e.g. of making music - that one on the other hand often says that one sees as important (what I am saying is that it is unclear what somebody sees as important when they talk about the importance of holding on to a traditional life style).

Perhaps I am am simply too single-mindedly addressing three equally negative images:
(1) 'let's do it as we've always done it' said, for instance, on Christmas eve, planning a family-reunion for the next day when it is apparent that this particular arrangement is thought to make for an occasion where 'everyone is at least satisfied' (from this perspective, it seems out of the question that people would actually enjoy themselves, lacking interest in 'arrangements').
(2) Walking around in art museums and watching tourists who are drearily uninterested in what they are seeing, but who constantly feel the urge to discuss what they see in terms of art history (think about Casaboun in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch).
(3) Idealization of past times - in Finland, if you want to start a career as a writer, you should write about "how people endured life in the old days" (and be sure to throw in something about some of the past wars, and, in addition to this, be sure to describe everything in terms of poverty and misery). 'How society nowadays is so....' 'How we have lost something essential....' - Well, you are probably talking about values - more shallow and self-centered now, in comparison with... (It amazes me how anybody can be said to care about values.)

And perhaps it is a particular way of combining a fondness for tradition with a particular emphasis on 'life styles' that makes me uncomfortable. I didn't think that this was a very common perspective in the documentary itself, even if it popped up every once in a while. On the other hand, it was moving to see how some of the younger characters in the film really appreciated the music that the older family members were dedicated to, and how they were playing together, sharing the love for music and each other. To me, this has nothing to do with 'preservation of a tradition'.

1 comment:

Uut said...

I haven't seen Homemade Hillbilly Jam, but you mention some promising-sounding similarities with Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus. I liked the unusually relaxed and unaffected way of being serious in Searching.... And how naturally the interaction between people talking and performing music worked. - An excellent way to deal with religion.

You talk about some problems in viewing music in terms a "tradition" that should be preserved. This was exactly what I found troublesome with the documentary The Pied Piper of Hützovina which follows the Romani-punk musician Eugene Hütz as he travels through Eastern Europe. Along the way he meets strangers and looks up old friends - and some wonderful moments of music take place, in them there is no sense of solemnity or distance to the music. People, usually elderly, sit outdoors talking, babysitting children or selling something, some have their instruments with them. When Hütz start to talk about music, there is always somebody who picks up an old tune and Hütz and others follow in with instruments, dancing and song.

It sounds almost silly, but it worked because the different feelings of embarassment, joy, annoyance (with the coffee-drinkers who want to talk in peace) were present there.
The film could have worked perfectly fine with Hütz simply meeting people and music would have been the essential part of those meetings.
But Hütz had a mission, he wanted to make some contacts with Romani musicians in Belarus and Russia in order to preserve the Romani musical tradition as well as bringing together "rock influences" and "traditional" Romani music- the specifics of the project was never clear to me.

What was most evident was how artificial everything suddenly felt, when Hütz started talking about his project to the people he met. People became reserved, and didn't understand what it was Hütz wanted or meant - and his project seemed intellectualised, pretensious, and simply foreign. It was quite strange to watch - one moment the music was "alive" and the other the music was a preservation-project.

Got to go. Nice blog-page