Friday, April 20, 2012

The Pages Turn ... and We Have to Move On

"To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high ... "

That line is taken from the famous poem of remembrance, In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian World War I soldier, John McRae.  Given the events of the last two days with respect to figures in the evolution of modern music, I think it's a fitting statement that works well here today.

I started thinking about writing this piece a few weeks ago with the passing of the great Earl Scruggs.  Peter Cooper, a columnist for the Nashville daily The Tennessean, wrote a wonderful article  detailing not only the memorial service for Mr. Scruggs at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium but of the type of person Mr. Scruggs was.  I'll get in to why I haven't been writing much for the past couple of months in another piece, today and now is not the time to get in to that.  Today is about remembrance, celebration and reflection.

The past three weeks have borne witness to the passing of two of the most influential figures in modern music history.  Who would have thought as we began this month that not twenty days in to April, the music world would have lost Earl Scruggs, Dick Clark and Levon Helm.  Three very unique individuals, but their influence on music and the lives of countless people in my mind is immeasurable.  

Earl Scruggs was a master musician.  He was most famously on half of the bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs with longtime partner and fellow musician, Lester Flatt.   Both performers got their start backing up music royalty with the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe.  Flatt and Scruggs would leave Bill Monroe's band and become music royalty themselves.  Reading Mr. Cooper's article allows the reader to not only understand the far reaching influence that Mr. Scruggs had on bluegrass music, but also the type of person he was.  And from what I can gather, Mr. Scruggs was one of the most down-to-earth, genuine people that you could ever meet.  

It could be said with great confidence that no other television personality had as much influence on an artists career than Dick Clark.  With his show American Bandstand, Mr. Clark was able to use television and his show as a platform to showcase the biggest up-and-coming artists of the day, whatever that day was.  His show ran nationally for 25 years, from the early 1960's to the late 1980's.  When word of Mr. Clark's passing became public knowledge yesterday (April 17, 2012), 50's icon Little Richard stated on CNN that night that it didn't matter to Mr. Clark if you were good or not, he was still willing to give you your shot.  And people, in that time there was no greater showcase for your talent, or lack thereof, than American Bandstand.  Feeding in to millions of American homes on a weekly basis, Bandstand was also the first show of its kind to show the power of music.  It allowed people to see with their own eyes that music did not know boundary's, it knew of no genres or "labels", and it did not know race.  American Bandstand was the first show of its kind to broadcast black kids and white kids dancing together.  In certain parts of the United States in the 1960's, that was unheard of on so many levels.  Everyone of every race, color and creed was welcome on American Bandstand, as that show was always about the music.  If Wolfman Jack was the most influential radio personality of that time period, certainly Dick Clark was the most influential television personality.  

Which brings us to today's (April 18, 2012) announcement of the passing of Levon Helm.  Levon was the drummer and, in several cases, the voice of The Band.  Following The Band's dissolution in 1976 (which was the focus of the film "The Last Waltz", directed by Martin Scorsese), Mr. Helm embarked on a solo and film career with perhaps his most memorable performance playing Loretta Lynn's father in "Coal Miner's Daughter."  He would reform The Band in the 1980's without guitarist and vocalist Robbie Robertson.  In the 1990's, it was decided to dissolve The Band permanently, following the deaths of two longtime members Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.  This would ultimately be the beginning of perhaps the most influential part of Mr. Helm's musical career and it would seemingly happen by accident.  No longer held to terms and commitments with The Band, Mr. Helm embarked on a solo career that would ultimately result in the incredibly successful Midnight Ramble concert series.  Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble shows would take place at the barn adjacent to his home in Woodstock, New  York.  The shows themselves were created out of necessity.  When Mr. Helm was first diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990's, the shows were created in part to help cover the costs of treatment.  They ended up covering the costs of treatment, paying the mortgage, and in true pay-it-forward form, provided an outlet for the burgeoning Americana movement allowing newer artists of the day like Elizabeth Cook to grow their following and music legends like Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris to showcase their still relevant music when mainstream radio virtually ignored them.  So influential was Levon Helm to the Americana genre, that the Americana Music Association honored Mr. Helm with a Lifetime Achievement Award for performing in 2003.  If you go back and listen to The Band's music, I believe one can hear the early stages of what is now the Americana genre.

What's significant about the passing of Mr. Scruggs, Mr. Clark and Mr. Helm is that there will never be another like either of these gentlemen.  Mr. Scruggs virtually invented the picking style that is used, or at least attempted to be used, by many banjo and bluegrass musicians today.  The music industry, and society in general, will never allow another individual like Mr. Clark to have such a huge platform to promote music at the grassroots level.  Records labels seemingly little to no interest in promoting artists from the ground up and sticking with them over a period of time to generate a career, as opposed to making a quick buck on a hit single or two.  Television has no interest in promoting a national live music show in the vein that was American Bandstand.  The trend is more toward reality television, which is much cheaper and friendly to the bottom line.  I'm sorry folks, but in my opinion shows like American Idol and The Voice don't count here.  They're completely different shows than American Bandstand.  Day and night.  Finally, there aren't too many more stylists out there like Mr. Helm who was at the top of the rock and roll world in the 1960's and 1970's, and was able to craft and formulate a very unique sound that convinced so many artists to pick up their guitar, take up the drums or write such amazing poetry.  There aren't too many who can parlay all of that talent in their later years in to creating a weekly concert variety show, at his own home no less, that showcases and promotes an explosive newly recognized genre of music that focuses on creativity of the artist and the community of the musicians and fans.  

The world has lost a lot of talent, creativity and history in the last few weeks.  The music will live on of course, but as Peter Cooper pointed out in his article, it's hard not to feel sad because these gentlemen are gone.  It's the end of a great chapter, and as music fans, one which we were all terribly blessed to have witnessed. Let's remember and honor these wonderfully talented gentlemen appropriately by listening and sharing their music, and perhaps discovering old clips of the great American Bandstand shows.  And let the good memories flow.