Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Critics: Yes or No? What Do You Think?

My friend Paul Vernon did a bit of a rant on the “Real Blues Forum” that I want to pass on to you, mixing in some thoughts of my own. It comes from an appearance by Jack White on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” when Steven C. quoted without any reference, and as if it were his own, that dodgy old claim I’ve heard for years that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s always seemed to me that the quote is used by people who appear to be defensive of the music they produce and dismissive of those who, quite rightly and fairly, offer opinions about it. In effect, it has always struck me that it is an elitist statement employed by musicians who, essentially translated, says “you have no right to criticize my work; you’re only a commentator, not a creator as I am.”

Irritated enough to carry out a bit of research, Paul found that the oft-repeated quote is often attributed to some jerk in the ‘70s but actually goes back to February, 9, 1918 in The New Republic where it talks about the inherent difficulty of writing about music, talking about how writing about this subject is as difficult as singing about economics (I’m not so sure that’s so difficult either). It goes on to say, “all the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience, A poem, a statue, a painting, or a play is a representation of somebody or something and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.” What struck me immediately is, of course, the date of 1918; within that specific historical context, when the only way most folks had of hearing music was to hear it live (records only reached a small portion of the global population until 1925 and the invention of the moving coil microphone and radio broadcasting was still four years away from finding its earliest voices). The argument might have made some sense, though theater was surely in the same perceived predicament as music at that time but certainly not today, nor at any time since at least the 1930s has this clearly misunderstood mantra had any real relavance. Why? Because music exists not in a vacuum, but in a space between artist and audience, so it has to have feedback, or it will surely wither and die.

The finest way to hear great music is always live, when the adrenalin feedback between stage and seats is flowing like a storm-driven river, but we must remember, of course, to rely on recorded sources of all origins for both historical purposes and continued pleasure. Hence, the clear need for comment and communication tools like the San Diego Troubadour (I sometimes wonder if it should only review quality stuff coming out on CD and maybe refer to a dog or two that folks should avoid. What do you think?). At any rate to not talk about the music (in glowing terms or not) brings us back to the problem of Mr. White, because this is where the immobile and couch-bound ignorati will probably absorb it and begin to bandy it around without thinking too far about what it may actually mean, which in today’s world, is provably less than nothing. An outdated and questionable idea, spread, unexamined, by the manipulating to the unquestioning is a dangerous thing as any dictator will gleefully admit in private.

Editor’s note: The Troubadour is a community newspaper that aims to review CDs, not to critique them per se. Constructive criticism is fine but we know that for the artists, their CDs represent a labor of love, so we don’t want to slam too hard on them. If a CD doesn’t measure up, we simply decline to review.

I had only had Folk Arts Rare Records open a couple of years back in 1969 when I was fortunate enough to meet one of the most interesting blues personalities I’ve ever met. Thomas E. Shaw came into my store looking for guitar strings (I didn’t carry them). He was a short stocky black man that I took to be in his sixties and I asked him what kind of music he played. He answered, “Well, I sort of fool around with the blues; I picked it up when I was a boy in Texas.”

Now that got me intrigued and I asked him who he listened to. The answer just floored me, because he had heard and on many occasions had traded licks with most of the great Texas blues artists, including Williard “Ramblin” Thomas, Texas Alexander, J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith, Little Hat Jones, and, most important, Blind Lemon Jefferson. In fact Lemon had mentored Shaw and taught him guitar licks. I dug out my wife Virginia’s old Gibson and asked him to play a little.

The first licks were like listening to Texas blues, which I had only heard on record on an old Paramount 78 rpm record.

This was as close as I’d gotten ever to that kind of sound and it led to my involvement with a whole group of San Diego old time blues personalities who, to varying degrees, had been there when the blues began back in the 1920s. To see what Thomas Shaw sounded and looked like go to my LOUIS F CURTISS Facebook page. There’s lots of him to hear and some of the other San Diego blues artists as well. I’ve been an old time blues fan for a long time but a San Diego connection to real down home blues began that day in 1969 when Thomas Shaw walked into my store.

Lou Curtiss

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