I’ve been thinking lately about how songs and stories emerge from the landscape. How the characteristics of the land, meaning the trees and buildings, the sun and air, the soil and water, the climate, and even the events in people’s lives upon the land, affect how we communicate. These things in our environment resonate in us and find expression through us. The French have the word terroir ("tere –whar”). A terroir is a group of vineyards that share a specific region or appellation. The vineyards share the same weather conditions, soil, water, and exposure to the sun, all of which contribute to give its specific personality to the wine. My suggestion is that songs arise from the earth and take on the characteristics of their surroundings in a similar way.
On our way to Knoxville for our flight out to California we took highway 25/70 west from our home in Marshall. The road follows the French Broad River and crosses over it four times in the space of about 35 miles. We had Trevor and Travis Stuart playing fiddle and banjo on the CD player as we were passing through some steep and craggy hills. I couldn’t help notice how the music sounded exactly as the landscape looked - and why not? The music has been born out of and nurtured for generations in this very appellation. The instruments themselves, fashioned from the wood of the forest, the skin and innards of its mammals, and gourds from the soil.
The pairing of the banjo and fiddle directly reflects the melding of African and European cultures that settled in the south. The melodies and stories that settlers imprinted on the land evolved and found voice to reflect a more contemporary life. Each isolated holler developed its own versions of the same songs and tunes. Lyrics changed and music changed but the root of the tree remained constant. The tree was transplanted, and new branches grew out of its adopted soil.
This theme of music arising from place and becoming of its distinct terroir is consistent to my observation wherever I go. This imprint seems obvious to me applied to indigenous and traditional music, but what about contemporary songs? In fact I hear it all over the place. Take two songwriters from the Boston area for example. I would say Patty Larkin and Jim Infantino personify a Boston sound. Whereas, travel 100 miles to the north in Maine you’re going to get the more maritime sounds of Gordon Bok, or Cindy Kallet. Now go east to the Hudson Valley of New York where there is a bent toward social and political awareness in the songs of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Kim and Reggie Harris. Likewise, songwriters from the Midwest, Southwest, California, and the Pacific Northwest all have their distinct energies, each reflective of their environment. Listen to the voice of Kate Wolf and you will hear the rolling hills and live oak trees of Sonoma County, California. Yet put on Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Guy Clarke, or Townes Van Zandt and you’ll hear Texas pure and simple.
Songwriters are by nature itinerant workers and tend to settle in places they resonate with. We make pilgrimages to Memphis, Nashville and Bristol, Tennessee. We hold places like New Orleans, Austin, Harlem, or Detroit to be special because of the music that is played there. These are places where an intention has been reinforced year after year to the point where the musical energies more naturally flow. We go to a place in order to incorporate its sound, to draw from its terroir, to study, and to jam. We are our landscape. Our music and culture arises from it. All that makes it strong and unique springs forth from the land.
From the perspective of being in San Francisco, walking its streets, enjoying its architecture, the Bay, its eucalyptus and redwood trees, I ask myself, “What about the music here? What music arises from this peninsula?” I think of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller, Country Joe and the Fish, but these bands were of the 60’s mostly. What about now? San Francisco now is one of the most expensive places to live in the world, and I get the feeling that in order to just get by, making money has to be one’s goal. There is simply not the time to make music. Radio support, and a good club scene have a direct impact on how healthy a music climate is. I took a long walk through the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, yet for all its historic connection with the San Francisco music scene, I did not find one music club. It takes individuals who are tapped in (to use a metaphor) and committed to nurturing that thing that feeds our spirit. That’s one of the reasons I like house concerts, and appreciate folks who go out on a limb to spread the word about music traveling through their town. Hats off to you folks! It sure was nice to play in the City.
Thanks for reading this long belated Road Essay. I hope y’all have a Happy New Year and much light and love into 2007!