Changing sonics, tribalism and geezerhood: a conversation with myself
Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process. So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us. Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’re publishing some of that work here on the site. Thank you, Ian!
I remember this moment as if it were yesterday: I’m driving home with my dad from a farm in Slate River, outside Thunder Bay, where I had spent the weekend with the Coulson family. The farm was the first place where I had seen acoustic guitars being played around the house, and on Friday night, we went to hear Myrna Lorrie and her band at the Slate River Hall. During that weekend there was lots of talk about two new stars on the scene: Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. On the way home, I was playing with the push button radio in my dad’s new car. However, when I accidentally came across a station playing Elvis’ “Jail House Rock,” my dad went ballistic!
“Take that garbage off the radio. I will not hear that junk!” he shouted and quickly punched the dial to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast. I had never seen my dad so upset about something like that. I spent the rest of the drive in silence, listening to a woman making a sound like a dying bird as I tried to figure things out. What had just happened?
I knew my parents were big band fans during the war, and my mom told me about Sunday picnics where they would drive to various bandstands around southern Ontario attending concerts with Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. My mom had folders of 78s featuring the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and her favourite: Frank Sinatra. But by the time I came along, their tastes had changed, and they were no longer listening to big bands, nor were they listening to the post-war emergence of bee-bop. I grew up listening to Broadway musicals: Brigadoon, The King and I, and South Pacific, a perfect soundtrack to accompany my steady diet of Carnation Instant Breakfast and about as nutritious. To make matters even worse, there was a precocious nit down the street by the name of Paul Schaffer who could play everything from “Moon River” to “Bali Hai” after one listen, and he was a constant irritation for me as he delighted guests at my parents’ parties.
Of course, I didn’t figure anything out on that drive home, nor any time later. I simply came to accept that my parents were on a different sonic wavelength than me. There had been a mysterious generational shift in sonic tastes with occasional overlaps like calypso but little else, and, while my musical tastes were expanding, it seemed that their tastes were shrinking and becoming more conservative. This soon lined up with a lot of other seismic shifts, and it wasn’t long before the terms “generation gap” and “disaffected youth” were popping up in everything from the Village Voice to Time. We were on a different wavelength, and soon that wave which our parents had created would overwhelm them.
The sonic wave that was rock ‘n roll was generational and tribal. It had, as part of its creed, an exclusivity and hipness. That is to say, to be part of the tribe you had to understand both the Watusi and a little deuce coupe in the same way as my parents knew the Hucklebuck or a Flivver. Depending on what tribe you ascribed to, you had to know the lingo and more. You had to know the tribe and sub tribes’ distinguishing features. For example, you had to know that Link Wray got his sound from putting pencil holes through his speakers. Only a Martin D-28 should be used in bluegrass music. Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Clapton all played a Strat. Mods vs. Rockers; Yohawks vs. Squirrels. You get the drift. If you were in car culture in the mid-60s you were listening to the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and Surf instrumentals while talking about headers and four barrels or batting around engine sizes: 289, 310, 318, 327,350, 383, 406, 409, 440. If you did not know what I was just referring to you would not be part of the tribe. All this stuff was as fun, fluid and exciting as the music that accompanied or defined a tribe or sub-tribe. In my day, I probably pretended to be a member of several tribes. I was a folkie – jeans and chambray shirt – but I stayed with Dylan after Newport, I leaned towards the Who and the Kinks more than the Beatles or Stones. A mod more than a rocker, I was definitely not a trad, and while I liked Fairport Convention and Pentangle, the idea of joining a Morris dance troupe was not an option. Apologies to Ian Robb and Friends of Fiddlers Green. Even at that time, I found the tradition of the hobby horse really off-putting. Still do.
All this was fun and easy and part of the energy of the era and part of my enormous appetite for all kinds of music at the time. The first kink in all this started in the mid-70s when I was playing local fern bars, and they had a list of songs I was required to sing. Though I saw myself as a songwriter by this time, I did a lot of covers. But frankly, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “House at Pooh Corner” were definitely not my tribe and definitely not part of my sonic consciousness. Give me Mississippi John Hurt, Nick Drake or Van Morrison. And yet I had to play them. Bleak!
The next test for me as far as sticking with “the street” was in 1978, when it seemed like overnight the tribal cathedral, the record store, changed dramatically. Suddenly there were dozens of punk and new wave bands as well as “salt and pepper” ska bands from England front-racked. I didn’t know any of them. It took a while to adapt to the change, but I did and ultimately embraced this new music. I was less quick to adjust to Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five and the subsequent emergence of rap and hip hop, although I recognized their roots in reggae toasters and street corner beat box. This new sonic territory would belong to my sons, just as punk and new wave were the territory of Gen X. I was, ahem, getting old. I didn’t recognize the shift.
I continued to attend the clubs and listen to bands and solo artists, but now I was one of the older crowd. My partner would ask why I was going out to hear this band or another, and my answer and belief was that I was trying to stay “on the street.” But I didn’t realize at the time that you either are “the street” or you are not. You can’t try to be the street. As well, I was midpoint along the arc of my own songwriting path, which was born out of a particular sonic and reference point. I could take into consideration the changing sound of a kit in a mix ( Fleetwood Mac, Police), appreciate the production values of Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois (Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, EmmyLou Harris), but at the heart of it, my chords, my approach, was from a different era. I did produce a couple of punk albums, but I think the acts came to me for what I could bring out in them, definitely not for my tribal knowledge of the post punkers! And so time marches on.
I grow old … I grow old
I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing to each other.
I do not think they will sing for me. – T.S Eliot- Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
Hell, they used to. And so we get to geezerhood, a phrase coined by the late great Joe Hall, and the real heart of this article. In the winter of 2019 I was asked to join a panel at the Folk Alliance International conference in Montreal. The panel was organized by Sonny Ochs, sister of the famous folk singer Phil Ochs. The panel was titled “Wisdom of the Elders,” and the panelists were to impart some experiential tips to the younger members attending the conference. I think Sonny’s idea was well-meaning, but when it came time to deliver, 95 per cent of the room was over 70! There were no GenXers, Ys or millennials to be seen. They were all scrambling for gigs down the hall and honestly could not give at rat’s ass about our pearls. Though somewhat of a dull turnip, I was beginning to get the message. A similar feeling overwhelmed me a few years before when I was playing a workshop on stage with five millennials. In summary, I was basically shunned on stage. It was as if there was a wall of some sort between me and them. It wasn’t that I was playing badly, and I had recently won a songwriting award. It was that, simply and clearly, I was not part of the tribe. I was playing from a very different reference point. The wall between us was a sonic wall, and I was now as removed from the new sensibility as my father and I were that Saturday afternoon so many years ago. Is this the point where I must confess I like some opera?
This spring, I was talking with two students I taught in a songwriting course at Carleton University from 2014-18. They had previously asked me if I knew any hip producers in town, and I recommended one or two and, at this meeting, I asked them how it went.
They said, “not so good. His sound is kind of dated. You know, he’s a millennial. We’re not into that Bon Iver, Iron and Wine shit anymore. We have moved on. We don’t want to sound like the stuff that sounds like an operating room scene from Gray’s Anatomy”.
Ouch. It would seem that no one is impervious to the shifting times. One could say that all this is driven by the capitalist system that thrives on the “next shiny object” – that shiny object being “the top one hundred,” and I think part of that is true. However, I don’t think that the changing sounds with each age are like car model years or the hems on dresses. I think the times change the sounds.
I suppose “geezerhood” and the attendant ageism is a natural part of the process, an inevitability of the changing sonic pallette affected by changing times. And yet there is something nagging me about this conversation that is not complete. For some musicians, it has not been about reflecting the times; it has been about creating a career looking back in time. With the winds of mortality whistling round my ears and the recent passing of Mose Scarlett and Leon Redbone, I have been thinking about their life’s work as musicians. Both Mose and Leon spent their careers researching past musical eras that they revered and thought were in danger of being forgotten. Through their work they kept that music alive, and we got to listen to a sonic pallette of another time, complete with growly voices, mellifluous melodies and syncopated guitars.
In recent years, Bob Dylan has explored the “golden age” of American singer-songwriters of the 30s and 40s. Through recordings like Triplicate, he is saying, “Listen to this. Don’t forget this music. It is the very music that I overturned!” If he is not saying mea culpa, he certainly is owning up to a beautiful lyric age. Once again he escapes definition, he reinvents himself yet again by jumping “out of time.” And although I am still not prepared to join a Morris dancing troupe, I do admire the “old sods’” determination to maintain traditions that have been threatened by changing times. I think that is part of what the folk community means. A recent article in The New Yorker entitled “Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means” contributes to this notion. Rhiannon Giddens is (was) the banjo player and vocalist with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In recent years she has discovered the world of a black musician from the 19th century, Frank Johnson. In his time, Frank Johnson, a freed slave, became a famous musician, composer and a celebrity in the post Civil War period of the southern United States. There is little record of his existence or work, and it is speculated that this was because he was African American. And so Rhiannon Giddens has spent the last few years resurrecting his name and his music from an age long gone, and in this case, almost completely forgotten.
I think the problem of geezerhood may apply to those of us who have followed our generation’s tribal drum, less so to those who brought forth and cherished music from another era. The sonic reference points certainly have changed. It takes continued conversations with my sons to learn and listen to what is currently new and interesting. There is great music to be heard, especially in the new RnB world, but it is distant from me. In the end, the real conversation is with myself. I feel I still have things to say on the artistic road I have travelled down most of my adult life. Yes – the sonic times have moved on, but I suspect I will continue to “rage against the dying of the light. I don’t think I really have a choice. But- will you listen?