May-June 2012

Reflections on the Age of Download

By Linda Dewar

I was browsing through the results of the Grammy awards when I came across a category that I hadn’t noticed before—“Best Album Notes.” Nice to see they’re still giving an award for that in this, the Age of the Download. Part of the pleasure of getting a new (vinyl) album used to be reading the notes while you listened to the first few tracks, and then having a look at the fine print to see who the backup musicians might be, or who wrote the songs.

Sometimes the notes were written by a fellow musician, sometimes by a famous fan, but the best ones, I think, were written by the artists themselves. I can remember clutching the cardboard sleeve of Tom Paxton’s Ramblin Boy back in 1964 as I listened to that voice and those songs for the very first time. I wanted to know everything about them, and Tom obliged me by telling us all sorts of interesting stories in his own words. Did you know that the first “keeper” he ever wrote was The Marvelous Toy? Or that he wrote it while not paying attention in a typing class? I still remember reading that and thinking that here was a kindred spirit—I frequently indulged in the same pastime during classes back then.

I’ve nothing against downloading music—I do it all the time. But I’d pay a bit more if each download came with a PDF of liner notes, or a link to a web address where they could be found. Think I’m going to start doing that for all my future recordings…hope you other artists who read this will consider doing the same.

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"An ambitious and aggressive mother conned pianist Arthur Rubinstein into listening to her 10-year-old son murder a nocturne by Chopin. At the conclusion of the massacre, Rubinstein announced, 'Madam, that is undoubtedly the worst piano playing I ever heard.' Whereupon the mother nodded happily and told her son, 'You see, stupid? Now will you give up those expensive piano lessons and try out for the Little League baseball team?'" -- Art Buchwald

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This past Christmas I got a CD from a friend who lives in China. It’s a 3-CD set of music played on the Chinese fiddle, called Erhu. You’ve probably heard one if you live near any of California’s ethnic Chinese population. It’s got only two strings and is played with a bow. While I was quite pleased to receive the gift, I did wonder how I was going to manage listening to three full discs. Surprise… this music is lovely, and I’ve listened to the whole set several times. I’m reminded that it’s important to keep not only your eyes and ears, but also your options open when it comes to finding new music to enjoy. If you’d like to hear some different styles of music played on an erhu, click here.

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"I think one of the great moments of my life was when I could write musician on my passport." -- Jon Anderson

"There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C major." --Sergei Prokofiev

"...I don't want you to play me a riff that's going to impress Joe Satriani; give me a riff that makes a kid want to go out and buy a guitar and learn to play."-- Ozzy Osbourne

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I’d already written the beginning of this paragraph. It started with “Traditional music has lost one its most innovative and influential players of the oft-maligned (but secretly loved) banjo.” But now it seems a re-write is required, so change that to read not one, but two.

In the words of my favourite newspaper, The Guardian, “If Bill Monroe was the architect of bluegrass music, the banjo player Earl Scruggs, who has died aged 88, was his chief construction worker.” He was the master, the inspiration for a generation of banjo players who brought the instrument back from minstrel-hall obscurity. No point in me going into detail here, as I’m sure FolkWorks will have a suitable tribute in this issue. Suffice to say that a legend is gone.

And while many of us were still absorbing the news that Earl Scruggs had passed, we received word that Barney McKenna had died. He was the last of the original Dubliners, and it could be said that it was his influence that brought the tenor banjo into Irish traditional music. Barney was only 72. He’d just finished a series of 50th Anniversary concerts with the Dubliners, and was preparing to tour with the group in Denmark.

Fellow Dubliner Eamon Campbell said he was “completely devastated” by McKenna’s death and described him as a like a brother. “I can’t come to terms with the suddenness of it,” he said. "He was unique, there will never be another Barney. “He was very droll man and great company. You’d never know what he’d come out with next. He was just a great guy. My favourite song that he sang was I’m a man you don’t meet every day and that was true about Barney.”

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What musical instrument's sales escalated from 228,000 in 1950 to 2.3 million in 1971?

A: The guitar's.

Who was the first country artist to sell over 10 million copies of an album?

A: Garth Brooks.

What patriotic song was originally titled The Defense of Fort McHenry?

A: The Star Spangled Banner.

How many songs from the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band were released as singles?

A: Zero.

What trumpeter became the oldest person ever to score a chart-topping single, in 1964?

A: Louis Armstrong.

An American now living in Scotland, Linda Dewar is a singer-songwriter and a player of various stringed and wind instruments. Besides being a solo performer, she is half of a duo with Scottish singer Douglas Craik, plays in an occasional ceilidh band, and is a founding member of the revue Simply Burns. Visit her website.

  

All Columns by Linda Dewar