This is Elizabeth Cotten. When she was a teenager, she bought herself a guitar. It was a right-handed guitar, but she was left-handed, so she taught herself how to play it. Not restrung. Upside down. She invented a style of fingerpicking, now known as “Cotten picking” (and played by people who use rightside-up guitars), and then, on the counsel of her church, gave up guitar.
Many years later, Cotten found herself working in a department store, where, one day, she found a lost little girl and returned her to her mother. The little girl’s name was Peggy Seeger. As in the legendary Seeger family. She became the Seegers’ maid.
Eventually, she played guitar for them, they realized her talent, she played shows, and became very accomplished. She won a Grammy in 1985 at age 90. When I was twelve, I watched this clip on a DVD with my dad and cried.
Indie is silly
I don’t like cynicism. I think it’s for turds (misguided turds). But, in the past 100 years, we have seen music mutate from a way to share feelings and be connected together and just have fun and “get things out” into a way to do all of those things and also make money. And then, in the past thirty-or-something years, we’ve seen it be that and the first thing and, sometimes (just sometimes!), a hollow quasi-art with close to no trace of the first definition. I’m not saying music’s doomed, and I’m not saying that making money from music (or in general) is bad. I’m actually very optimistic about music right now, in addition to its future, and I’m definitely a fan of making money.
I am saying that we see a lot less of Elizabeth Cotten these days. There’s so much Ke$ha, there’s hardly any room for this poor, old (metaphorical) woman. And Ke$ha is fine; she entertains people. She makes her fans feel connected through each other. And, in some weird, gross, glittery, drunk-vomit-stained way, I’d bet that she is really expressing herself, underneath that robotic production. But she’s just not simple like Elizabeth Cotten. Pop music (and dubstep and whatever) is music. In my opinion, it’s not as music-y. In my opinion, the first definition—to make noise just for the sake of being a human—is the most music-y. I might even say it’s the most honest.
I try to listen to music that’s as honest as it can be. I’ve been happy to find that I really like listening to music that’s as honest as it can be. So many records that get blasted on “indie” music blogs seem a little bit dishonest. They’re fine—still music—just not close enough to the Cotten caliber. It makes me feel like the snobbiest snob; if I’m a “hipster”, who are already snobs, then I’m a meta-hipster snob-snob, because I’m really snobby about hipster music. Who gives a shit whether you produced it in the least-corporate-big-label way imaginable, or if you refuse to play the Grammys because they wouldn’t let you decide what song to perform? I feel like a lot of these bands care more about their indie identity than making unique records.
When it comes down to it, though, I guess I just like to hear an old black woman sing more than I do a twenty-year-old angst-romanticizer. I just really like Elizabeth Cotten.
I am uncomfortable very often. It’s something that I’ve talked about a lot before. It’s that notorious “creative itch,” that infamous, insatiate hunger that drives people to make beautiful things and some things that are only beautiful to them and sometimes gamble their chance of a conventionally successful lifestyle to pursue the passion that was birthed out of that itch. Believe it or not, I think about it more than I blog about it.
I’ve been thinking about it even more than ever these past weeks because of Steve Job’s death. My mom told me about it as my band finished up practice Wednesday and I surprised myself (and my nonjudgemental, but nonetheless entertained bandmates) by crying. His illness and imminent fate had been on the minds of so many of us for awhile, and I had thought about how I might feel when the inevitable takes him away from us. I never thought I would cry.
But I did and all the photos and quotes and chuckle-worthy-but-borderline-rude one-liners poured into the digital receptacles (that were created in-part by Lil’ Stevie) of millions of people. Pee Wee Herman paid his respects. So did mobs of grief-stricken fans at Apple stores around the world. The instantaneous mourning of his death and the subsequent celebrations of his life, on blogs, Apple.com, tweets, could not be more appropriate for the man which they honor.
The gist of it is of passion, the itch’s more sanely-described, albeit identical twin; “the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
And then, this nugget. On death:
You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
His speech is so reassuringly fatalistic, so raw, and that line has close to epiphanic meaning. But I am still so afraid of not being able to “follow my heart,” to do what I love. I’ve had so many opportunities already at the ripe young age of fifteen to begin doing what I love and I still feel afraid I won’t be able to do it in the future. Sometimes I feel guilty to have those opportunities at the ripe young age of fifteen. I want to do great work so hard and I feel lucky to have found something that I love but it’s not easy to do great work for the thing that I love right now, or ever. I am absolutely terrified of the possibility that what I love to do might not be what I love to do in the future, even if that means doing great work for something else that I would then love to do. Even if what I love to do now is what I love to do in the future, what if that gamble—the gamble on the itch—is a bust?
Don’t you know you’re naked, Spooncer?
There’s a book by Studs Terkel called Working. I’ve never read it, but judging by Mandy Brown’s reading notes at A Working Library, I think it falls in line with this whole mess of livelihood and FOMO. From her marginalia:
I’m always struck by those who claim “creatives” are a different kind of people; as if some of us need creative jobs, while others do not. A bigger pile of bullshit I’m not sure I’ve seen. Being creative is a basic human need.
For me, reading this note was like looking down and realizing for the first time that I have been riding a moderately high horse. What makes us artistically crafty folk so special? Can’t you love to balance checks or save lives or be a janitor? Can’t you do what you believe is great work doing those things? This “creative itch” business is definitely real, but it’s not some sort of exclusive ailment catchable only by those of the making-things or fine arts flavor. If ninth grade health class taught me anything, it’s that every human needs to do great work. If Steve Jobs’ speech affirms anything from Working, it’s that every human needs to do great work. It’s just the “human itch”; some, less stoic, just feel it more outwardly than others. In other words, some, less stoic, just blog about it more than others.
Where does nakedness fit in there? (Funny, that’s the same question I imagine Rob Delaney asks himself daily/obsessive-compulsively.) Let us look to Brown’s blurb for Working:
Each of us wants to work and work hard, but so much of modern American life thwarts that simple need.
Ah. Thwarting. It’s more than a fun word to say. So much more.
But my particular fear of being thwarted has a particular, somehow more fortunate twist to it, as I’m sure that of many others’ does. I think I’m afraid of thwarting myself. Forget modern American life. I have me to fear. What if I lose faith? In Jobs’ terms, what if I “settle”? The fact that settling is even a conceivable course of action is reason enough in my mind to fear that it will happen. For the sake of mentioning nakedness one more time, and being consistently analogous, the fear of auto-thwarting makes me blind to my birthday suit.
It’s a cliché admission that life can shaft you like no other. As Steve said, so eloquently, in his speech, “sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.” But if you thwart yourself and settle, you’ll get hit in the head with a brick, and you won’t even have the love of your work to nurse your concussed, passionless self back to health. Or maybe you won’t even get the chance to get hit in the head by a brick. And that would be a life unlived. That would be missing out.
Thank you to Liam Finn for the record that helped inspire this post.
Yesterday morning, a fifteen-minute storm of biblical proportions ruthlessly thrashed the city of Chicago. What it lacked in duration was made up for in amplitude; for a good quarter-hour, our poor lil’ town was battered so violently, I couldn’t see past our neighbor’s backyard. When the torrent let up, I learned why people say “the calm after the storm.” The winds dropped from eighty miles-an-hour to zero. The power went out.
(our neighbor’s fence)
I didn’t think it would be out long—normally after a storm, they get it back on relatively fast. I tried to go back to sleep but soon noticed the first and certainly not least effect of no power: no air-conditioning. I feel a little bit obnoxious saying that, because out of all the devices and technologies us privileged Americans (Chicagoans, specifically) weren’t able to use that day, air-conditioning is easily the one I’ve most overlooked as a privilege. It’s one that most people don’t have on any given day. But I still couldn’t sleep.
First year of high school. I’m going to write about it. Sans melodramatic analogy, hopefully. I wrote enough of that in my tweets earlier this week, when I compared this year to both childbirth and war—two things I’m prrretty sure I’ll never experience—because, with the end in sight (then), I felt a hint of anxiety. A hint of anxiety that I felt could just maybe be equated with post-partum depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. Don’t get me wrong; I was/am indescribably pumped to not compromise my constitutional rights on a daily basis. But I couldn’t/can’t help but feel a little bit sad the war is over.
Second thought, yes I can. The relief definitely outweighs any ounce of “misery withdrawal” I might have. I guess it’s just like getting back from vacation: when you’re in Mexico, your purpose is to relax. When you get home from Mexico, you don’t know your purpose. When you go to school, your purpose is to learn, or, depending on how pathetically I want to write this, survive. When it’s over, your purpose is to have fun, but that high is quickly dampened by some natural ennui. So, third thought, no, I can’t help but feel a little bit sad the war is over.
A little while ago I wrote a post about having an itch. Surprise! …that itch was actually a metaphor for creative hunger. The thirst us craftspeople lie slave to. I think anyone who likes to play music or design websites or draw pictures knows exactly what I’m talking about; we need to make to feel good.
As awesome as making is, the older you get, the more frustrating all these itches become (I think). Especially when you go to this thing everyday where you sit in a chair for seven hours and learn knowledge that isn’t and/or won’t be relevant to your life. Or at the very worst, doesn’t interest you. Many of you grownups out there have the same thing, except knowledge is Excel and it is almost always at “the very worst”—uninteresting. Still, all that chair-sitting does not leave too much time for itching.
Time is the least of your problems, though. What’s worse is when you don’t even know where the itch is. Or how to itch it. Then, they multiply, and before you know it, your whole body is just one big itch.
Is this itch thing getting annoying? I think Meagan Fisher summed this up nicely in a post last week called Stumbling, sans itch:
I’ve been stumbling around blindfolded, arms stretched out, looking for this thing. The Right Thing to Do. Happiness. Contentment. I’m not sure what this will feel like when I find it; will it be warm and soft, or cool and smooth? […] Sometimes the blindfold is squeezed so tightly around my head it hurts. I feel dizzy and sick and fed up with all the dark, and all I can do is lie very still for awhile. I don’t care to search anymore. If I lay here long enough, I won’t have to.
But I get back up, and I hope I always will. The search is worth it. And every now and then the blindfold slips away for a second, and a vision of the way forward is briefly clear. This makes me hopeful.
I know that when I feel all clogged up, or, as the Itch Metaphor would have it, full of unknown, unscratchable itches, it feels like blindfold squeezed too tightly. A dirty lens.
This is when I start to lay back on the scratching. It does no good to itch somewhere that isn’t itching; actually, it hurts. Instead, I remind myself: you can’t make something out of nothing. Your own person, the things you grew up with, the memories in your head, what you feel, can only fuel so much. Sometimes, once in awhile, you need to do a little consuming. You need to fill yourself up.