Music, it seems, is the true connecting thread of our lives, aside from our families and friends. It’s pervasive in our culture in a way that the other arts are not. It’s the one consistent thread that’s always sort of there, at the very least constantly in the background. I’ve always looked enviously at musicians because their art is at least social. You generally do it in front of other people. Yes, you have your monastic moments where you are in solitude as a songwriter, but if you’re in a band, you have that group to work with. The closest thing in painting or drawing circles is a studio, but that can be hit or miss as some artists, though they may share space, don’t have the same schedules, some preferring to work at night, while others during the day.
Where I don’t envy musicians is having to play their songs over and over and over. How much would it suck having to paint the same picture over and over? But then again, some artists do just that.
Some forms of music are what the weave of life are made of. Popular music, rock and roll, World Music, Rap, these, like Illustration, are the true voice of the hearts of the larger population. Classical is incredibly beautiful and certainly in a league by itself, but it usually rides high above most people’s heads. Like “fine art” we don’t really “get” it and are made to feel like we’re missing something becasue we don’t “get” it. We may love it, but one has to sort of go out of one’s way to find it. The other forms are just out there, invading our psyche through their ubiquitousness. I’m sitting in a Starbucks right now (Spring Break!) and I’m being pelted by lots of music. Some I “get” others I don’t want to get. But it’s all “popular”, it’s what’s on the ears of most individuals in our society. That doesn’t make it better, just that it’s probably a better gauge of what’s the true musical temperature out there, not of the intelligentsia but of the common man.
Back to the thread: My own life’s soundtrack is most assuredly Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam and Jethro Tull with a peppering of Nick Drake, John Renbourn, Pierre Bensusan, Donovan, Gomez, and World Music, and a host of many, many others. The songs of Cat Stevens have always been there for me. I find something new in them constantly, and his words speak to me still. His new music is lovely as well and I’m glad he’s writing and recording again after his almost thirty year abstinence.
When I’m working I generally have music on. What I listen to is absolutely dependent on WHAT I’m working on. If I’m writing, I actually can’t have music on at all, not even instrumental. Same goes for when I’m doing ideation or layouts, page breakdowns for sequential work, etc. I have to focus and totally give my mind over to the task at hand. Once that brain work is done I can put anything on and just go. At that point anything goes. While I have some of my favorites listed above, I have a pretty large collection of music (and audio books) that gets shuffled about. Some artists come and go out of favor, while others (Cat, Renbourn, etc.) are always there filling the gaps.
Sometimes I’ll put on something that will enhance the mood of what it is I’m trying to achieve in the work itself. If I’m working on something that’s intended to be heavy and brooding, then music like that will put me totally into that space and allow me to dig a bit deeper for the things that will kick that piece up several notches in the emotive department. Think Barber’s “Requiem”.
Sometimes music can lead me to envision an entire project. When I was immersed in my first graphic novel, “Enemy Ace: War Idyl” I was listening to LOTS of music in the long hours spent at the drawing board. So I was constantly hitting Tower Records for new and inspiring music. One day while perusing the Folk section I happened to hear some of the most melodic guitar I’d ever heard. I had to know who this was! Mississippi John Hurt. I was HOOKED! The stuff blew me away! And the more I listened to that record (Mississippi John Hurt Today!) I became obsessed with doing something about the blues. The result was a trip to Mississippi, where my mother is from, to interview old blues musicians. This led to a 400-page text novel to be illustrated with photographs, illustrations and comics.
Music also soothes my soul in other constructive ways. I play acoustic guitar and, while I don’t pretend to any kind of greatness there, I love to play and find songs in the strings and notes. I have found that the majority of my songwriting comes forth during bouts of depression. It helps to open my head up and get the feelings out and all that. I paint and draw when I’m up, happy, and write songs when I’m down. Writing (stories, etc.), as I’ve mentioned before, is pretty consistent through both extremes.
I can “hear” music, but I can’t read music. Wish I could. I’ve tried to sit down and actually learn it, but I’ve never stuck it out. But I can “hear” the stuff and find it on the guitar. Songs will present themselves to me and if I sit with them and mess with them I can get them down and resolve most of the problems they might have. I then record them just to have them, but I can’t write them down (except for the lyrics, of course). If I hear the recordings (and I generally mention the tuning and the chords and placement of a capo etc. on the recording) I can figure it all out again if I’ve forgotten a certain tune. But it’s a nice salve while dashing against the rocks on emotionally troubled waters.
Some of my feelings about the similarities between music and painting or drawing comes from playing an instrument. Playing brought me closer to my understanding between the two. I think everyone feels something with music, is moved by music. That was the impetus for me to learn to play the guitar. Back to Cat. I loved what I was hearing, I loved the way he communicated with words and music and wanted to go to that place. And in playing I found myself tapping into many of the same emotional touchstones that I used when drawing and painting.
There’s the drone strings in a piece of music, which act as the sort of overall mood or what I think of as the “color space” in a painting. Then, dancing within that mix are the high notes, painting’s equivalent highlights and accents. Bass notes are the transparent pools of shadow that lend weight to the piece, sort of holding it down, anchoring it all. Then there is the brushwork, soft and undulating, or short and energetic (staccato) which are the various rhythms within a piece of music. And when it’s all going well, just as in drawing and painting, one can hit “zero time” and sort of fall off the face of the planet for hours and hours — one of the greatest things about any art form.
As Alan Gurganus says in an essay on writing in “Scout, Atticus, and Boo”
“It’s a form of dreaming, an extra form of dreaming; it’s a kind of algebraic balancing act, a kind of working out of equivalencies.”
The beauty of art, whether it be listening or watching (reading, etc.) holds some sense of dreaming for the viewer as it does for the practitioner. We are taken from the mundane and inhabit a place where anything is possible.
And then there are the various genres of music each with their inherent styles. Jazz — the fast sketch or an alla prima painting in plain air, Blues — working with a limited palette but completely emotional … (sorry, still working on this paragraph)
Something that record connoisseurs knew way before anyone else was how cool bootlegs are. In these wonderful time capsules one can hear the artist at work in a raw un-processed state. I remember when I was in art school and finally found my first Cat Stevens bootleg. I was fascinated by the fidelity of the recording, for one thing, but even more so by the simplicity of Cat’s live playing. Playing with basically a three-man band (himself, Alun Davies and a bassist) he created a rich, simple sound that perfectly suited the songs he was singing.
Since then I’ve amassed a pretty good collection of Cat bootlegs and love them all. On the re-release of his two biggest albums, “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat”, he recently added several demo tracks to the disks. One can hear an early incarnation of “Moonshadow” where the song is not complete. In fact whole refrains are missing. But there’s still something innocent and to the point about the tune already. It’s pretty much all there, just not polished. The same goes for “Changes”, “How Can I Tell You” and others. Wonderful to hear the embryonic stages of these beautiful songs.
Someone also has posted many of Cat’s demo tracks online, some for songs never released. After hearing them one wonders why he never released them. They’re perfectly great songs and from his peak period. Yet there was something about them that he found not quite to the same level and held them back. What’s even more interesting about these pieces is one can hear him writing the songs, working them out, trying out different lyrics for what were to become well-known tunes. What I love about this is how closely it resembles sketching for an artist. One can hear snippets of things to come, some false leads, yet all are assured, confident attacks to finding “something” to flesh out. More, the creative process is opened up a bit for the rest of us to glimpse, a nice peek into the creative mind at work. Like being able to peruse an artist’s sketchbook and see them laid bare, showing their ass a bit. It’s work done just for them. And, not surprisingly, it usually is some of their best work.
Here’s an incredibly incomplete list of some of the music (new and old) that rings my bell. This is just what I happen to have loaded on my laptop at the moment and not a complete list by any means. I hope it encourages you to try some of it out and that you find it as uplifting, inspiring, and beautiful as I do. There’s something incredibly gratifying about all these scattered voices (artists in general, musical, pictorial, written word, etc.) toiling away in the lonely fields because they want to, or don’t want to do anything else but follow their special muse. They enrich our lives, they push us to think twice (or three times or four) about our own lives and the world we live in, how we treat others, or are treated by others. How perception is just that, and it is fickle and can change like the weather if one would just stick a finger into the wind to see which way it’s blowing. They remind us that there is still beauty, and, yes, that there is ugliness that one should not be afraid to stare into the face of, lest it win the day. And, most importantly, that it’s worth doing something for just because.
Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam — Cat created a LOT of great music. And I remember at the time it was sort of considered not cool to like his music. I didn’t care about cool then, or now, and loved it all. His work is full of heart and the new material is no different. He went through a phase when he first came back to music where he was using only his voice a cappella accompanied only by drums and chorus. Incredibly moving stuff. Now he’s back to guitar and he’s still “got it”.
Anyway, the list! This is just an alphabetical list and not broken down by genre in any way. If I get the time I’ll try to make it a little more use friendly, but I’m not promising anything.
Hope you enjoy!
Abdel Wright, Abigail Washburn, Adele, Ahmed Mukhtar, Ali Farka Touré, Alison Krauss, The Allman Brothers, ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra), America, Amy Winehouse, Andy Sewart, The Animals, Argent, Arthur Bliss, Awadagin Pratt, Ayub Ogada, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bad Company, Badfinger, Barenaked Ladies, The Be Good Tanyas, The Beatles, Ben Harper, Beny Moré, Bert Jansch, Beth Orton, Beyonce, Big Mountain, Big Yellow Taxi, Bill Landford, Billie Holiday, Billy Bragg, Bing Crosby, The Black Keys, Blind Faith, Blood, Sweat &Tears, Blue Mink, Blues Image, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bob Seger, Bola Sete, Bin Iver, Bonnie Raitt, Boston, Bread, Broken Social Scene, Brownie McGhee, Bruce Cockburn, Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Buddy Holly, Bukka White, The Bulawayo Church Choir, The Byrds, Canned Heat, Catie Curtis, Cat Stevens, Charlie Daniels, Cheryl Wheeler, Chet Baker, Chicago, The Chieftains, Chris Cornell, Christen Mooney, Christopher Cross, City and Colour, Claire Holley, Clive Gregson & Christine Collister, Cold Play, Colin Hay, Corey Harris, Connie Francis, Count Basie, Country Joe & the Fish, The Cranberries, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cyndi Lauper, Dan Fogelberg, Dar Williams, Dave Loggins, Dave Mason, Dave Matthews, David Bowie, David Crosby & Graham Nash, David Essex, David Gray, David Ruse, Dawud Wharnsby, De Dannan, Delaney & Bonnie, Delta Spirit, Derek & the Domninos, the Derek Trucks Band, Devendra Banhart, Dexter Gordon, Dick Gaughan, Dido, Dionne Warwick, Dire Straits, Dixie Chicks, Django Reinhardt, Doc & Merle Watson, Dolores O’Riordan, Don McLean, Donovan, The Doobie Brothers, Doucette, Dr. John, Duke Ellington, The Eagles, East Village Opera Company, Eddie Lang, Eddie Vedder, Edgar Winter, Eduardo Fernandez, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Edwin Star, Elizabeth Cotten, Ella Fitzgerald, Elliot Smith, Elmer Berstein & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Emeline Michel, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Emmylou Harris, Energy Orchard, Enrico Caruso, Enya, Eric Bachmann, Eric Bogle, Eric Clapton, Eric Idle, Erin McKeown, Erykah Badu, Etta Baker, Etta James, Eurythmics, The Family Trio, The Fifth Dimension, Fink, Fleetwood Mac, Flight of the Conchords, Florence + the Machine, Fountains of Wayne, Free, Freeworm, Fruit Bats, G. Love, Gary Rydstrom, Gene Autry, George Harrison, Gerry Rafferty, Girlyman, Glen Campbell, Glenn Miller, Gomez, The Goo Goo Dolls, Graham Anthony Devine, Grand Funk Railroad, Grayson Capps, Green Day, The Guess Who, Cunhard Mattes, Naoki Kitaya, Gurrumul, Gustav Holst, Hans Zimmer, Harry Nilsson, Heart, Heartbreak Hotel, Heartless Bastards, The Hellboys, Herman’s Hermits, Hiro Fujikake, James Galway, Howlin’ Wolf, Hugh Moffatt, Ian Anderson, Ian Ball, Ingrid Michaelson, The Ink Spots, Iron & Wine, Isaac Hayes, Isla St. Clair, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Jack Johnson, Jack Norworth, Jack Owens, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, the Jam, James Gang, James Horner, James McMurtry, James Taylor, Janis Joplin, Jeff Buckley, Jefferson Airplane, Jelly Roll Morton, Jeremy Fisher, Jerry Fielding, Jerry Mungo, Jet Jethro Tull, Jigsaw, Jim Croce, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Cliff, Joan Armatrading, Joe Jackson, Joey Ramone, John Denver, John Fahey, John Hiatt, John Legend, John Lennon, John Martyn, John McCormack, John Mellencamp, John Michael Talbot, John Phillips Sousa, John Renbourn, John Williams, Jonathan Edwards, Johnny Cash, Johnny Clegg & Sipho Mchunu, Johnny Clegg & Juluka, Johnny Clegg & Savuka, Johnny Shines, Johnny Winter, Jolie Holland, Jon Troast, Jonathan Byrd & Dromedary, Joni Mitchell, Jubilee, Judy Collins, Julie Andrews, Juluka, June Carter Cash, June Tabor, The Jungle Band, Kaouding Cissoko, Keith Carter & Book of Days, Keren Ann, Kalid Belrhouzi, Kimya Dawson, King Cole Trio, The King’s Singers, The Kinks, Klaus Voormann & Yusuf Islam, Koffie Olomide & Papa Wemba, Kornog, Kris Drever, KT Tunstall, Lamine Konte, Larry John McNally, Laura Marling, Laurence Juber & Preston Reed, Leadbelly, Led Zeppelin, Lee Michaels, Lemon Pipers, Leona Lewis, Leppard/English Chamber Orchestra, Lia Ices, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Linda Perry, Live Bait, Lizz Wright, Lizzie West, Loggins & Messina, Lonnie Johnson, Loudon Wainwright III, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Macy Gray, Mads Eriksen, The Mamas & The Papas, Mann Penn, Marc Cohn, The Marshall Tucker Band, Martin Simpson, Martin Stephenson and the Daintees, Mary J. Blige, Mason Jennings, Matchbox 20, The Matches, Matt Costa, Matt Nathanson, Matthews Southern Comfort, The Mavericks, Maxi Priest, Michael Hedges, Michael J. Sheehey, Michael Kamen, Mike Oldfield, Miles Davis Quintet, Mills Brothers, Milton Nascimento, Minus the Bear, Mississippi John Hurt, Monarchs, The Monkees, Mott the Hoople, Muddy Waters, Nanci Griffith, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, New Radicals, Newsboys, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Nico Stai, Nina Simone, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Noonday Underground & Paul Weller, Nora Bayes, Norah Jones, Oasis, Officer Roseland, Ollabelle, the Orb, OutKast, Papa Wemba, Patrick Sky, Patrick Street, Patsy Cline, Paul & Linda McCartney, Paul Finley, Paul Geremia, Paul Gross, Paul McCartney, Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg, Pearl Jam, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Pentangle, Percy Sledge, Pernell King, Pete Townshend, Peter Bjorn and John, Peter Dawson, Peter Frampton, Peter Gabriel, Peter Sarstedt, Peter, Paul & Mary, Phllipe Rombi, Phish, Phoebe Snow, Pierce Pettis, Pierre Bensusan, Pink Anderson, Pink Floyd, Po’ Girl, the Polyphonic Spree, Priscilla Ahn, Priscilla Herdman, Queen, Rachel Yamagata, Ram Jam, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Randy Newman, Rare Earth, The Rascals, Ray LaMontagne, Reinald Werrenrath, Richard Bona, Richie Havens, Robert Johnson, Robert Palmer, Roberta Flack, Robinella, Rod Sterwart, Roger Miller, Rogue Wave, Rokia Traoré, The Rolling Stones, The Romanitcs, Rory Black, Rosa Ponselle, Rose Melberg, Rose Royce, Roy Clark, Rufus Wainwright, Rusted Root, Salif Keita, Sally Seltmann, Sam Cooke, Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, The Samples, Sarah Harmer, Sarah McLachlan, Sarah Slean, Sarah Vaughan, Scorpions, Scrapper Blackwell, Seal Seals & Crofts, The Shanghai Restoration Project, Sherban Lupu, Sheryl Crow, The Shins, Silanidé, Silly Wizard, Simon & Garfunkel, Simple MInds, The Six Parts Seven, Skip James, Slim Whitman, Smash Mouth, The Soggy Bottom Boys, Solas, Son House, Sonic Youth, Soweto String Quartet, Spoon, Stealers Wheel, Steeleye Span, Steely Dan, Stephen Stills, Steppenwolf, Stereophonics, Steve Earle, Steve Forbert, Steve Miller Band, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Sugar Ray, Sugarloaf, The Surfaris, Taj Mahal, the Talbot Brothers, Talking Heads, Tanita Tikaram, Ted Hawkins, Ten Years After, Texas, They Might Be Giants, Tinariwen, Tinted Windows, Tiny Tim, Toadsuck Symphony, Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni, Tommy McLain, Toni Childs, Tori Amos, Toto, Traffic, The Tremeloes, Trini Lopez, U2, Ukelele Jim, Van Halen, Van Morrison, Vanity Fare, Vashti Bunyan, The Velvet Underground, Vieux, Farka Touré, Vince Guaraldi, The Vines, Vusi Mahlasela, The Wallflowers, Walter Trout Power Trio, War, Warren Haynes, Weevil, Wet Willie, The White Stripes, The Who, William Fitzsimmons, William Norman Edwards, Willie Nelson, Willy Porter, Woody Guthrie, Wyclef Jean, Xavier Cugat, Xavier Rudd, Yael Naim, The Yardbirds, Yes, Yo-Yo Ma, “Youngblood” Hart, The Youngbloods, Yusuf Islam, Zap Mama, Zee Avi, Zimbabwe Shona Mbira Music, The Zombies, 4 Non Blondes, The 5th Dimension.
Watercolor of Mississippi John Hurt and Photograph of John Hurt Jr. at his father’s grave © 2011 by George Pratt.
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What is the true purpose of art? Or is the question itself at cross-purposes with the artist as opposed to the art? Can art serve multiple purposes, even when originating from one hand? Can there be, or should there be, only one answer to this question?
I think the ultimate purpose of art is multi-faceted. It serves to represent a tangible reflection for those who would otherwise stumble blindly through their lives without stopping to smell the roses. It comforts many by reminding them that there is beauty, hope and rebirth in this world, as well as pain, ugliness and death. It offers differing viewpoints of the world, but doesn’t demand that one see only one perspective. The viewer or beholder can take or leave the message as they see fit.
The more I read about the processes by which our minds engage the world through our various senses, the more I understand that everything is a form of illusion or hallucination. When our minds are working well, we share a very similar hallucination, one in which we are usually in agreement on. But it is a slender thread that connects us all. Artists are willing to see beyond the thread, past it and into it and around it and try to make sense of the things we see, hear, etc.
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