Let Us Now Praise the Carpenter

Let us now praise the carpenter, and the things that he made,
And the way that he lived by the tools of his trade.
I can still hear his hammer singing ten penny time,
Working by the hour till the day he died.

Oh, he was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

Oh he worked his hands in wood from the crib to the coffin,
With a care and a love you don’t see too often.
He built boats out of wood–big boats–working in a shipyard,
Mansions on the hill, and a birdhouse in the backyard.

He was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

He said “Anything that’s worth cuttin’ down a tree for
Is worth doin’ right. Don’t the Lord love a two by four!”
Well they asked him how to do somethin’ he’d say, “Just like Noah built the ark.
You got to hold your mouth right son, and never miss your mark

To be tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
Be was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
Square with the world. You take good care of your tools.”

A life of working hard at a craft and a well-earned reputation for virtue are things to strive for, whatever your profession.

Here’s Guy Clark singing a live version.

This is what good country is about–telling stories or passing on wisdom through sung poetry. And that, I believe, is the very heart of a “folk” music tradition, the kind of music that builds, reinforces, and defines a community. It does not merely entertain, it illustrates and embodies what the community is about.

Taken from that perspective, country music has historically been remarkable for embodying that kind of music in a mass market context. The way we often treat music as pure entertainment with no greater purpose, and as a thing of passing fads, is not conducive to a culture that creates or values songs like this. For country, however, that was a selling point for a long time.

One way to build our communities is to nurture this kind of music, whatever label it falls under. Folk, Americana, some brands of rock, blues, soul, or jazz, all can potentially tell stories and pass on values. Wherever you find yourself musically and regionally, this is something to consider. A strong community is reinforced by a strong musical tradition.

There is something missing in this picture, of course. One reason music of this kind doesn’t survive well in America is because it’s hard to pass on actual songs. They are protected by copyright, because we believe music belongs to the artist first and not to the community. We cannot re-sing, re-write, or modify old songs to suit new singers, because we do not own them. And so we don’t write songs that are meant to be treated that way.

If we want to build strong communities, we should think through this understanding of the artist and what art is meant to be.

 

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Music, Identity, and George Jones

Today George Jones passed away. I have some good friends who don’t listen to country music, so I had to explain who that was and what it meant. It’s always strange, explaining country music. Even eras and sub-genres and artists I don’t listen to can get me pretty impassioned. For some reason, whenever I talk about country music, I feel like I’m talking less about one genre among many, than about an entire culture.

I think there’s something in that. America has a long history of a lot of good music, but when radios and then record players and all their descendants came along, something changed. Music become mass-produced, piped out over the airwaves for miles in every direction, or arriving in stores in every good-sized town.

Think about what that means. People across the whole United States can listen to the same artists singing the same songs in the same way. Music was already a communal event, but now it was one that transcended the local community. You were tied by your love of this or that music to people half a continent away.

And music is not just the enjoyment of an experience. It’s also a carrier of tradition and a marker of our identity and values. “This is what we sing about, these are our songs, and this is how we sing them.” Music, in that era, tied the United States together in one vast musical tapestry.

And this all, of course, was during and after the second World War. This is when American patriotism, in good ways and bad, was at its height. Our identity as Americans, whatever values we held in common, and our national unity were important to the generation who had endured so many horrors to preserve them. And with the rising threat of communism, such values and symbols of unity would continue to be important.

So when a new generation began to question the old value system and the culture shaped around it, it was natural for that generation to express their views and their sentiments in music. The hippies and their ilk had protest songs addressing issues of race, war, poverty, gender, and just life in general from a new point of view. As they stirred up trouble across the country, their music stirred up trouble across the airwaves.

And that’s where I start my history of country music. It existed before that, to be sure. But for various reasons–good ones and not so good ones–country got associated with conservative values. The nation, or at least all the parts I am familiar with, was polarized between cowboys and hippies. And this was reflected in the music of each side.

Since then music has changed. Hippies themselves stopped being a force as such, and carried their causes into more respectable corners of the world and established them there. The same thing happened with their music. Rock, funk, folk, and others were invented or reinvented by that generation.

Country carried on in another way. Though it effected other genres from time to time, and was influenced in turn, it remained itself. It was still country music, and it was still identified with that same conservative culture.

Music can be a powerful statement of identity. Are you an Okie from Muskogee? Are you not a fortunate son? It can communicate values. Maybe “times, they are a-changin’,” but perhaps we should” stop rolling downhill like a snowball that’s headed for hell.” Sometimes a genre is just a style of picking you prefer. And sometimes it’s a stand you take.

I won’t make any claims about the culture country music represented in George Jones’s day, or what it means in our day. But I will say that, for better or worse, that culture shaped who I am. And it is strange to see one of its legends pass away.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jones. You will be missed.

Country Love Songs

I have heard several times lately from several different people that they don’t listen to country because it’s all sad songs. That’s the most uninformed, false, and foolish load of hogwash I’ve heard in a great many months, and it’s election season. But I’ll be nice. It’s an old falsehood, and seeing as the folks who spout this nonsense don’t listen to country, they can usually be forgiven the mistake.

The traditional accusation is that country is all breakup songs. So, while at work, watching the register, between small tasks, I took about five minutes and thought of all the good country love songs I could off the top of my head. No Google, didn’t use the radio, didn’t ask for help. I also excluded Johnny Cash (because some think he’s roots rock, which is an interesting discussion) and Taylor Swift (because some people don’t realize she started as a country singer). I also excluded raunchy stuff like Picking Wildflowers, even if they were as legitimate as Daydreams About Night Things. Also nothing by Shania Twain, because she’s Canadian. At least, I’ll pretend that’s why. And story songs about love that lean more towards the story song end of things. And anything where the admiration of the girl in question was in the context of raising a family. And Skin, which is really sweet, but about cancer, so kind of sad. And stuff about some kind of girl in general (ie, Country Girl, Redneck Girl, etc.)

After all that cutting, limited to the top of my head, you would think I couldn’t come up with that many happy country love songs. Especially since I really was just raised on country radio and don’t really go seek stuff out by particular bands or artists. And since I’ve spent most of the last several months delving into other genres (rock from all periods, various Celtic genres, rap, strange Spanish stuff, bluegrass, hipster stuff, and some classical I haven’t heard), and largely ignoring country. But, excepting about the last third which took more time, here is five minute’s distracted thought:

I Swear

This is Austin

Love is a Beautiful Thing

She Said Yes

We Danced

I Just Want to Dance with You

I Like It

Somethin’ Like That

Meet in the Middle

What About Now

Ubelievable

Lay You Down

Grundy County Auction

Love to be Your Last

Little More You

Different Kind of Fine

Where the Green Grass Grows

Be My Baby Tonight

Blue Clear Sky

Would You Go With Me

Like the Rain

Rockin With the Rhythm of the Rain

Wave on Wave

Three Days

Texas on My Mind

Farmer’s Daughter

Rumor Has It

Check Yes or No

Deeper Than the Holler

Just the Way that I Am

She’s Everything

Dust on the Bottle

Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing (I heard this cover before the original)

Beautiful mess

That’s Crazy

Crazy Girl

Swingin’

Waitin’ on a Woman

Why don’t we just Dance

Getting’ You Home

The Chair

Lost in this Moment

The Good Stuff

What God has Joined Together

Call the preacher

God Bless the Broken Road

I Can Love You Like That

She’s In Love With the Boy

Write This Down

I Thought I Was Tough

Fast Cars and Freedom

Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not

You Win My Love

Wouldn’t Be a Man

This Kiss

Honeybee

Heads Carolina

Drunk On You, High On Summertime

A Feelin’ Like That

Must Be Doing Somethin’ Right

Baby I’m In

A Woman Like You

And most of those are far better than the majority of love songs I’ve found in any other genre. Now, this is just five minutes casual scribbling of love songs narrowly defined. You want positive, non-sad songs? I haven’t touched on the songs about God, Jesus, the Bible, Church, family, America, small towns, the backwoods itself, country music, general partying, drinking songs, songs about life, songs about driving and roads, this-is-who-I-am kinda songs, protest songs, other songs of a political nature, story songs, songs about how life is pretty good, and a lot of other love songs.

Taking that into account, the accusation that country music is all sad songs begins to sound pretty hollow. And honestly, I doubt most folks who make the accusation could name five country songs off the top of their head, much less five country singers. (That list by the way, probably doesn’t have more than three from any one singer). Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with not listening to country, you just don’t need to make up stupid excuses, or perpetuate a myth to do so.

Now, it’s not like there are no sad country songs. These days, though, and for most recent decades, there’s not been any more sad songs in this genre than any other. And many genres have more. It is true that way back when, about the fifties, I believe, there were more breakup songs. Probably that’s when country earned the reputation. But it was an exaggerated caricature then, and now both exaggerated and out of date.

I’m going to get on Spotify now. Cheerio.

PS- After entering these into a new Spotify playlist, it turns out I violated my rule a few times. I found a Shania Twain and a raunchy one, and at least one more about family. Also, some of the titles are not quite right. The dangers of not using google, and thinking fast.