Love and Affection: Ode on a Sunny Day, a Song and Hope

I am not in love,
But I’m open to persuasion

With the launch of Apple’s streaming music platform there has been much talk about the value of music. Many musicians are worried at the rise of streaming culture as it will impact on their earnings and ability to fund making more music. Music is more than commerce and more than a recording. Culture is not just a thing of the present. It is a web that spans time, links people together and defines us through our tastes.

I recently found a video of Joan Armatrading performing Love and Affection at Glastonbury in 2008. The performance is on the Jazz/World Stage on a sunny day, and it has stuck with me. This captured moment from seven years ago has become my version of Keats’ grecian urn.

This four and a half minute video sends me spinning off into a web of thoughts, looking back to 1976 when it was recorded, seeing the contrast between the Joan Armatrading then and the woman performing the song 32 years later, looking at the resonance the song has on the audience in that sunny field in Somerset and seeing them as a visible indicator of the power of the song and the woman.

The Artist and The Song

The first thing that struck me on seeing the video is that Joan was a different woman than the one who wrote and recorded the song all those years ago. She is older (58 as opposed to 26) and this adds hugely to the experience. This performance has more weight to it. Now the foundation of experience is more apparently solid.

Experiences of love are different for the young and the middle-aged. This time the words feel more like advice won from experience rather than a plea for a deeper love. This combined with the fact her voice is even more beautiful now than it was in the ‘70s gives the song huge impact.

The harmonic structure is full of rich add9 and add11 chords that, played on her 12-string, layer shimmering colour on top of her rich alto voice. The song builds slowly and elegantly until the uncertainty of the opening lines are erased and no persuasion is needed. Instead it becomes an exhortation,

Sing me another love song, but this time with a little dedication,
Sing it, sing it! (Sing it, sing it!)
You know that’s what I like, lover, oo-hoo,
… once more with feeling.

The Audience and The Impact

One of the great things about the BBC coverage of the performance is that they cut away to some lovely crowd shots. Normally I just want to see the musicians at work but this time showing the crowd really adds to the story.

It is clear that this woman and this song mean a great deal to this crowd. The variety of reactions are striking. There are some transfixed by Joan on stage and some who are transported off to a past when they discovered the song or shared it with others. People are in tears just to be present at this moment.

It is not just a bunch of old folks in a field remembering when they didn’t have to grunt when they stand up though. There is a lovely shot of what looks like a father and daughter both having a great time watching. The young woman certainly wasn’t born within 10 years of the song being written but it is as much hers as her father’s.

There is even a shot of a young boy singing along. It is not clear how many generations away from the person who tore the cellophane off the Joan Armatrading album. It must be several, but he is there to see what it is that his family have given him being created live on stage.

Joan herself seems to be enjoying the moment too. She smiles as people sing along and particular lines ring out a little louder than others. This is great to see. For some bands the old hits seem to become a burden, they can lose their relevance or the ability to deliver them can fade with age. This isn’t true at all of this performance. The band and the audience are having a great time.

The clearest indication of this is that the sax solo gets a rousing cheer. In an age where instrumental solos have been largely eradicated from popular music this is unusual and brilliant. The solo was an important part of the song and it still is to this audience.

More Than Now

This is just one example of how music is important. It is not about commerce or a recording. This is a narrative that has become particularly important with the passing of time. More and more people have joined the narrative and it has changed their lives. Perhaps not in big ways, though I bet a lot of marriage proposals and conceptions happened with this song on in the background, but it is a link between a group of people. The people standing in front of the Jazz/World stage that day were representatives of a much larger group.

The shared experience of songs and stories is a potent connecting force between us. We carry them with us through our lives like talismans, using them for strength and inspiration both quietly and privately and as shared experiences, singing along together.

Ownership of cultural artefacts is complicated. In the video the song belongs to everyone in that moment. Joan Armatrading created it. She gave the song to all those people but I am not sure if it is only hers anymore. In this sense the song has grown in scope. It is a vast thing with a power to summon deep emotional reactions in many people.

There is a fear that the prevalence of music streaming will hurt musicians and stem the tide of creativity. I hope this is not so. I believe the solution lies in recognising what the music we love really means to us and understanding that the culture that lead to Joan Armatrading picking up a guitar and singing needs nurturing.

We all need to value music, but not get drawn into a debate that sees it primarily as a commodity. It is more important than that.

Study Music History Backwards

Contortionist, posed in studio
Contortionist, posed in studio, by Thiele’s Photographic Rooms, ca. 1880
via, George Eastman House Collection

Music history is a vast topic. Even confining yourself to popular music post 1952 leaves large vistas to navigate. If you include classical music you have 1,500 years of territory to cover and folk music is as old as people or possibly even older.

Standard practice has been to start at the beginning and work forward from there. The problem with this is it seldom works in fostering engagement. Convincing young people that Buddy Holly and The Crickets were challenging and revolutionary is not an easy sell. Convincing them that Orlande de Lassus is something to care about is vanishingly difficult.

Geoffrey Himes, writing for Smithsonian​.com, looks at studying popular music backwards. He traces a path backwards from Sam Smith to Mary J. Blige, and onwards to Aretha Franklin and, ultimately, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Working this way people are gradually acclimatised to increasingly alien music like boiling the proverbial frog. He’s right, and not just regarding popular music. Continue reading Study Music History Backwards

Which Music Industry Are You Fixing?

Even with the enormous changes in the music industry over the past fifteen years or so (pick your favourite year zero) things are not perfect. There is a sense that the music industry is malleable now and this raises questions about how it should be moulded.

Young girls finish running race
Christmas party at works, 18/12/1937 / by Sam Hood, Taken at Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), Ashfield, N.S.W. via Flikr Commons

Voices are being raised about what the industry should be and how we can get there. There are increasing incidences of people positing ideas only for an opposing view to emerge rebutting them from within the community of musicians. Continue reading Which Music Industry Are You Fixing?