The True Heart & Soul of America
Yes, I typically write about education and all things connected to it. In a way this post is still on topic. Please bear with me.
Of the few positive things to have emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic is we Americans have painfully realized how important live music truly is for us. I say this not just as a music educator, but as someone who, before teaching, worked as a touring professional musician for close to ten years. I also say this as a bona fide music fan. In the wake of cancelled tours and festivals, we seem to have grasped the value of live music⏤and music in general.
When the pandemic hit and concerts/tours were cancelled, that really put the enormity of this moment into perspective. What really hit home for me was when our national network of small independent live music clubs shuttered and closed. I know, as someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time in these clubs, how vital they are not just to the business of music, but also the culture and soul of America.
Music is America’s gift to the world. Our unique blend of cultures and influences has allowed us to cultivate various forms, styles and genres that have not only inspired Americans, but people all over the globe. We gave the world Louis Armstrong; Bessie Smith; Robert Johnson; Big Momma Thornton; Wanda Jackson; Elvis Presley; Ella Fitzgerald; Count Basie; Hank Williams; Frank Sinatra; LL Cool J; Bob Dylan; Aretha Franklin; Marvin Gaye; Bad Brains; Stevie Wonder; Tito Puente; James Brown; Otis Redding; Bikini Kill; Patsy Cline; Miles Davis; Tribe Called Quest; Johnny Cash; the Carter Family; Woody Guthrie; The Ramones; Public Enemy; Charlie Parker; Nirvana; and Willie Nelson (just to name a few). Hell, we gave the world Motown! (I actually believe that should be our negotiation tactic with every world power. When we sit down at the table with other countries to negotiate anything, the first thing we should say is “Remember, we gave you Motown…Motown.”)
The common thread between all of those bands/artists is many started out playing small clubs and/or independent venues. Without those places to hone their ideas, try new things, meet other musicians and collaborate, American music as a whole wouldn’t exist. Live music clubs aren’t just essential to American music, I’d say they’re essential to America itself.
I know many things have had to shutter in the midst of this pandemic. I have watched local restaurants struggle, and I’ve had to watch others close for good. It’s been heartbreaking. I’ve also had to watch many of my friends who are still out there playing live music lose their livelihood. Sure, there are home recording studios and technologies that will allow current established artists to continue to do what they do, but what about the underground bands and artists who are developing the next style? The next genre? That’s a huge function of live music clubs and has kept us going almost since the beginning. Again, they are where the magic happens.
A true testament to how a network of live music clubs allows American ideals to prevail is the Chitlin’ Circuit. This was a network of clubs exclusive to African American artists during the Jim Crow era. It is not just a testament to the power of musical expression, but also to independent entrepreneurship in the face of discrimination. This circuit of clubs, and juke joints, not only provided a space where black artists could express themselves, but also created a network of black owned businesses. Artists didn’t just play music in the clubs, but also ate meals and were able to speak freely with other black Americans. In addition to musical ideas, cultural ideas were exchanged, as were political. The Chitlin’ Circuit helped write the blueprints for Black Pride in America and one could say laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement⏤and it did so through music. The Chitlin’ Circuit provided all of this while producing ground breaking artists like James Brown and Little Richard! (If you want to check out a great history of the Chitlin’ Circuit, read the book “The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll” by Preston Lauterbach. You’ll get a great idea as to the enormous roll it played)
One of the things I’m most proud of is that I played in a band that was managed by the late great Hilly Kristal. If you didn’t know, he was the owner/founder of the famed New York City punk rock club CBGB. This was the club that not only gave us the Ramones but also Blondie, and the Talking Heads (just to name a few). This infamous lower east side cavern was not just where punk rock was born, but was where fashion ideas were birthed as well as music and culture magazines.
The thing about CBGB is that it was supposed to be a country western bar. “CBGB” stands for “Country Blue Grass Blues”. Hilly was a huge fan of many musical styles but (for whatever reason) in the 1970’s thought that opening a country themed bar down on the Bowery was a good idea. One day four scrappy guys from Queens in leather jackets and matching bowl haircuts walked in and asked if they could play. Upon hearing them run through a few of their very loud, very fast songs Hilly infamously said “No one’s gonna like you, but I’ll have you back”. Those guys were the Ramones and the rest is history.
Suddenly what was supposed to be a country bar turned into a hangout for New York City downtown punk bands, artists, clothing designers, poets, photographers, painters, and writers. It was not uncommon to walk into CBGB in the late ‘70’s and see Patti Smith hanging out with Robert Mapplethorpe and Lou Reed while the Talking Heads were on stage. CBGB played a huge role in the creation of what is now the Punk Rock aesthetic: the clothes, the attitude, and the sneer. If you get a chance, pick up the book “Please Kill Me” by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCaine. It’s an oral history of what was going on in the downtown NYC punk scene at that point and really sums up not just the role that CBGB played, but also other clubs like Max’s Kansas City.
The first time I played CBGB I walked through the front door and was in awe. I looked at Hilly sitting at his desk (he kind of looked like Allen Ginsberg if Ginsberg wore a sleeveless denim jacket and had been in the Hell’s Angels). I glanced up to see the poster still hanging on the wall from when The Police played a gig there. As I made my way towards the stage, I felt like I was passing through history. The place was a certifiable dump but that didn’t matter (I almost tripped over Hilly’s dog, Danielle, who used to roam the club freely during band sound checks). What mattered is that it had a great sound system, and it was a scene. A place where other people like me were hanging out. It allowed, and encouraged, originality. It was where musicians and artists went to become themselves. In “Please Kill Me” the photographer Lee Childers sums up what small independent music clubs are really all about: “So the first time I went to CBGB’s, we ate chili, which tasted horrible…The whole place smelled like a bathroom. And there were literally six people in the audience and then the Ramones went on stage, and I went, ‘Oh…my…god!’ And I knew it, in a minute. The first song. The first song. I knew that I was home and happy and secure…”
These clubs provide space where the arts and artists can flourish. Every city in the United States has at least one. Los Angeles has the Troubadour; Washington DC the 9:30 Club; Minneapolis has First Avenue; and the list goes on. If you look any of these venues up, and scan the photos that accompany them, you get a sense of not just the music but the aesthetic associated with them. Each one can boast a band that “broke out” of their place. A band that would go on to not just make music history, but create a cultural and/or social movement.
We even have major cities whose entire identity is live music: New Orleans; Austin, TX; and Nashville, TN (Memphis, TN as well) — and while people go to these cities primarily to hear live music, consider what has grown out of that. Nashville has reinvented itself entirely not just as Music City USA but also a bona fide tourist destination. Before Covid, the city was the bachelorette party capital of the US. It attracted conventions and corporate retreats. It has become a “foodie” town. It managed to do all of this on the heels of its musical identity.
Austin, Texas and New Orleans are the same. They began as dusty towns where not just musical styles were birthed, but an eventual musical scene took hold. Over time as their clubs grew in size and scope, more bands and artists began playing and arriving. And as anyone knows, when musicians and artists start showing up, the city or town takes on a cool vibe and aesthetic. It becomes a creative hub. Other businesses start arriving that have nothing to do with music but want to be around the creative environment. Funky new restaurants open. Cool clothing stores appear along with art galleries, and independent movie theaters. A scene is born (Austin, TX has actually pinned its entire scene to the arrival of a single artist: Willie Nelson. Willie had actually abandoned Nashville to resettle in his home state).
I know that, at this moment, expressing concern for live music clubs may sound trite. But the thing is, we are going to recover from this and when we do ⏤ as with all moments of crisis humanity has experienced ⏤there will be a moment of clarity. A moment of self-reflection. A moment where we as humans look inside and realize what’s most important. And ⏤as with all past moments like this ⏤ this will be spearheaded by the arts.
As a music educator, I can already see it happening. I have a few private students who have suddenly become songwriters. Students at school now greet me on our live stream summer school session to tell me they’ve written a poem. My summer school classes have, literally, become singalongs with many students staying on past their 30 minute period and many parents coming onscreen to join us (I had a mom belt out “Let it Go” from Frozen last week). Most of us have seen the clips of Italians singing out of their windows in the midst of a national lockdown. The human need to express emotions is powerful and the need to do so through music is the most powerful.
When this ends, and we resume something resembling normalcy, people are going to want to sing together. They’re going to want to dance together, and they’re going to want to be together. Live music clubs will provide this. But perhaps most importantly of all, live music clubs are going to provide a space where people can go and begin creating again.
What unique American musical style will emerge from this moment? Somewhere, right now, there’s a young girl with a guitar sitting in her basement strumming a tune. Her strumming pattern is influenced by the Spanish music her mother listens to and the lyrics she wrote are influenced by the Irish music her father listens to. She’s a fan of punk rock but her best friend likes Justin Timberlake, and her brother listens to Zydeco music. Maybe, when this ends, she’s the one who’s going to walk into a club and start a movement. Maybe this movement will be called the Post-lockdown sound…who knows?
And that’s the point. Our live music clubs give individuals the opportunity to create. It’s this creativity and expression that powers our culture and our aesthetic. It is truly American and this is why we can’t let our small independent music clubs disappear.
What would we be without them?