Last week I was listening to Van Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue” — the live version, one I absolutely love and have written about before, and I think to myself, This song is life-changingly great, but the one thing that’s missing is the harpsichord that’s in the studio version of this track. And I keep thinking about that for the rest of the song: what if we also had the harpsichord in there? But then another voice barges into my head and tells me, Adam, this is a 45-year-old song about a street in Belfast you’ve never been to. You wouldn’t even have heard of if it weren’t for this singer. How is this relevant to you? Why are you spending so much time on this? What does the presence (or lack thereof) of a harpsichord possibly matter to you, an American teenager whose parents couldn’t even walk when this song was released?
I’m on a kick where I’m listening to tons and tons of singer-songwriters from a very specific era — your Joni Mitchells, your Paul Simons, Van the Man, even a little Bob Dylan — and I keep thinking to myself why is this relevant? I’ve never felt the need to justify what I listen to, but with this brand of music that’s very quiet, very white, seemingly pretty detached from the modern world, I’m really questioning why I can’t stay away from it, why I should be returning again and again to these old songwriters instead of searching for the next big thing.
You see, the answer to the question of relevancy for almost all other kinds of music is obvious. Many years ago, Public Enemy’s Chuck D called hip hop “the CNN of the streets,” and while I don’t think there were any rap songs about missing airplanes last year, the sentiment still stands: hip hop is still where minority experiences are most visible and understandable to many Americans. Hip hop is where a young, oftentimes Black person — someone whose voice is far too often silenced by the mainstream — can step into the spotlight and amplify his or her voice for all to hear. Considering Ferguson, Eric Garner and disproportionate poverty as well as centuries of racial discrimination and cruelty towards minorities, it’s probably America’s most relevant genre (more on this next column, after Kendrick’s new album drops).
But there’s room for other types of music, too. Punk grew out of the disenfranchisement of the British working class, and still today functions as a space where rebellion, anger and protest can run wild and untethered (think Pussy Riot). Jazz, once dominant and controversial, still exists today as a magnet for some of our most talented musicians; hearing them play is as impossibly breathtaking as watching an Olympic gymnast nail every element of her routine. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, meanwhile, have both this past year reinforced what we already knew very well: pop music is the simplest, and possibly the best, way to unite everyone you know. Even rock music, lately the most conservative of genres, has for decades brought together folks of different races, broken down gender norms and served as an inspiration to suburban kids that they, too, can form a band with their friends, write a song and hit it big.
So what is this singer-songwriter stuff good for? It’s old, it doesn’t change the world or bring millions of people together, it doesn’t give a voice to the unheard and, though oftentimes beautiful, the instrumentation typically isn’t particularly virtuosic. What value does it have? What purpose does it serve?
I think a lot about music as a social experience, a force that connects us and allows us to be in each other’s’ company, sharing in the pleasurable sounds we hear. What I and many others don’t think about as much, it seems, is music in isolation, music that we listen to with nobody else around, with no distractions other than our own thoughts.
I’ve been thinking, too, about the times Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Nick Drake were living in — the late ’60s into the ’70s. Back then, when you were alone late at night, you truly were alone. You couldn’t fall down a YouTube rabbit hole of old Steve Yzerman goals, or check Twitter to see what people in other time zones were up to, or even consume any media that you personally didn’t own a physical copy of.
That sounds so different from the world I live in. But then I picture where I’m at and what I’m doing when I listen to these great singer-songwriters. When I was listening to “Cyprus Avenue,” my house was dark, I had finished everything I had needed to do for the day, and was just calming down before going to bed. I listened to all of Joni Mitchell’s Blue the last time I had to shovel snow. Nick Drake and even the more contemporary Elliott Smith are perfect when I’m writing. And even with I’m with people and listening to these types of artists, it’s never more than one or two close friends, and we’re always lost in thought or deep in conversation with each other. Even though I live in a world where I’m constantly plugged into my phone and the Internet, when I find the time to turn all that off, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison and Nick Drake are there to provide perfect music for me. It’s music to explore the mind to.
So why does it matter if Van Morrison is accompanied by a harpsichord or not? I don’t want to take anything away from contemporary artists, and I certainly don’t think I should spend all my energy parsing the past instead of looking to the new, relevant music of the future, but when I hear Bob Dylan’s half-detached sarcasm, Joni Mitchell’s hopeful longing, Nick Drake’s deep sadness, Van Morrison’s ecstatic celebrations of life and I can identify with it and feel what the artists are feeling, try to think what they’re thinking, I’m reassured that music is greater than time, that the most important emotions can be communicated across generations, and that sometimes, one voice is all that matters. When you can express yourself with as much feeling as these artists can, when you can make somebody from an unimaginable future care about your small musical choices and subtle emotions behind the lyrics you sing, even if they don’t always understand why, you’ve done something immeasurably valuable.
Theisen has dusty old people on his mind. Email him yours at firstname.lastname@example.org