12 January 2009

Digital republic

Listened to the podcast of an On Point show discussing the history of the song "House of the Rising Sun". It's the subject of a new book by Ted Anthony called "Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song." Origin unknown, but it is maybe 100 years old. Alan Lomax made the first recording for the Library of Congress in 1937 while traveling through Appalachia looking for remnants of Elizabethan songs. He recorded an a cappella performance by 16 year old girl named Georgia Turner in a poor neighborhood of Middlesborough, Kentucky.

When discussing the story told in the song, Ted Anthony invokes a phrase--"invisible republic"--that Greil Marcus used to describe a set of early recordings by Bob Dylan. In Anthony's assessment, the "invisible republic" is an inchoate expression of American myths manifest in Dylan's songs. Archetypal. My assessment: The more structured society of 1700s/1800s England was abandoned to the wilderness of the Americas. The arts that were kept were easily communicable in such an environment (dispersed, agrarian population) and were selected as stories most relevant to that environment (courtship ballades were out, morality tales modified to fit the New World). The unconscious, group process chose and molded the early arts and these incipient myths.

One connection I made on "House of the Rising Sun": spelunking from that article to the one on the English ballad "Matty Groves" brought up a reference to the aubade form: basically a romantic trope where lovers part in the morning (think Romeo and Juliet). I wonder if "House of the Rising Sun" has any relevance as a tragic aubade.

(Although the historical discussion was interesting, the musical discussion was sorely lacking with the author admitting he knows nothing about music. Simple guitar strumming is described as complicated picking; the chord progression is considered to be unique in the history of folk music. Bah. The chords are i bIII iv V i V i and very common w/r/t folk music in the minor key. It would have been nice if Anthony would have worked some with an ethnomusicologist to place it in historical context. Alas.)

I like the idea of being so close in history to the origin of modern myths. 40 years prior, Dylan probably felt he was tapping something primal (artists usually do) when he unearthed those tunes, and decades before him the folk musicians of the 40s and 50s probably felt the same. We're in touch with the origin of what will be the digital myths but, as with most events in history, it's difficult to discern the temporal memes from the eternal. Not every lolcat will survive the sieve of history. But where are the artists who frieze these incipient digital myths into a more permanent form? In the text-dependent environment of the internet, cyberpunk writers seem to have taken the place of folk musicians to write the history of digital society. Still, there's so much more out there that reeks of primordial potential: 4chan/Digg/Reddit, gamer forums, social networking sites, open-source collaborations. Even dead-and-dying groups have a mythic potential: Feed, Suck, BBSs. What different experiences will become digital archetypes?

[ posted by sstrader on 12 January 2009 at 11:33:26 PM in Internet , Music , Science & Technology ]