On Ancient History, Nickel Creek, and the Sometimes Necessary Genrefication of Music

Originally written for No Depression

One of the oldest human possessions ever found is a flute. I’m talking somewhere in the area of 50,000 years ago, someone sat or squatted – presumably on the ground – playing a flute. The fact that these old flutes exist indicates the presence of music is much older. It would have to be in order for people to get good enough at flute-making as to fashion an instrument that would be so durable.

But, think about the implications here. You can’t run from a predator when you’re playing a flute. You can’t even be scared for very long. The instrument requires the employment of both hands; it requires the very careful control of breath. Playing the flute means you’re sitting or standing in one place, vulnerable, on purpose.

Ancient humans may have used these instruments to communicate beyond the reach of the human voice – a way in which we still employ music. Or, they may have simply been entertaining each other. Regardless, this thing we do with both our hands and all of our breath, where we organize our sloppiest, most unweildy emotions into something that feels beautiful to other people, is something we’ve been doing in order to keep our communities intact, calm and collected, for at least tens of thousands of years.

Here in America, there are songs that people have sung for two hundred years. We posture about no clear American culture, but the earliest Americans – voluntary and forced immigrants from Europe and Africa, mostly – created songs that they taught to one person at a time, face to face, for decades, and we now have these songs ingrained in our culture. When we started making recordings for sale and profit, we started calling those old songs “folk music”. Some practitioners started making new songs that used the same musical forms and rhyme schemes, borrowed some melodies and even some lyrics. What those people did was called “folk music” too. And so on, all the way up to today, where “folk music” refers to both of those things, and pretty much everything in between. (Despite what some hard-core traditionalist enthusiasts insist.)

Other styles of music emerged, first organically – people who play instruments got together in a room somewhere and just improvised for shits and giggles. Then they wrote one song in the style of another and so on, until people started craving that certain rhythm or sound, seeking out bands that employ trumpets or saxophones, electric guitars or pedal steel, or hard-hitting drummers. That’s how jazz happened, and rock and roll, country, and metal.

Speaking of which, have you heard the new Nickel Creek album? It’s streaming at NPR this week. It’s a doozy, packed with all the exceptional musicality for which that trio became famous in the first place. There are galloping mandolin arpeggios from Chris Thile – inarguably one of the most talented mandolinists on the planet. There are three-part harmonies – supported by that magical siblings-singing-together quality – that feel like waves just begun in the middle of a vast ocean. The songs follow those waves all the way to shore, where onlookers finally see the full force of what began far away, as it breaks on an eager bed of sand. There are quiet and delicate moments, balanced on the whisper-tinged, deceptive softness of Sara Watkin’s adept voice. And, there are moments when you wonder how hard rock ever got away with leaning on the crutch of electric instruments – clearly that style was meant to be physicaly pounded out, against the forgiving wood of an acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.

What’s more, there are lyrics that hint at everything from bottled-up anger to resignation and hope. For a trio of 30-somethings who have been performing together since they were eight and eleven years old, A Dotted Linerepresents – as its title suggests – a humanly broken but always persistent, ongoing journey in some unspecified direction. It’s life. It’s stirring and profound. And, for the 37 minutes and 48 seconds that this album spins, if I just close my eyes, I could care less into what category it fits. The music is there and I am there, and it’s amazing that complete strangers can have such a deep conversation as this, understanding each other’s crippling fear and uncompromising hope, without even looking into each other’s eyes, just through the magic of modern technology and recorded sound. I know, because of the music, that my heartbreak and hope and uncertainty and mortality are shared by everyone else listening to this same record. I am relieved. I am energized.

There’s a reason for this – a reason I reckon Thile and the Watkins siblings understand.

There have been studies with sound waves and water, how the sound of an instrument or even a human voice, amplified, can literally create waves. It can move the water, make the water dance. An adult human being is more than 50 percent water. It doesn’t take a genius to put those two facts together and determine what music does to us. It moves us, literally.

In that moment, listening to the Nickel Creek record on speakers or headphones, in the moment, as a listener, I don’t care from what tradition this all comes. I’m moved. I don’t care what category it fits into at the record store. I forget that iTunes has it listed as “Country & Western” (really?) and that the band came from bluegrass and dabbled in folk, jazz, and classical; that its members have publicly espoused the absurdity of musical genres altogether, claiming they don’t matter in the least. It’s true that listening to music is often more about hearing and feeling, then moving on, ever-so-slightly changed.

But, in the practice of writing about music, thinking about music, coming to understand who we are as humans and why we need this – the making music and the listening to it – I have to talk about things like categories. Yes, our old friends with the ancient flutes weren’t concerned about categories. But 50,000 years of history have transpired in the meantime, and we humans could stand to learn a thing or two by discussing it when we can.

From where I sit in my living room typing this, the view beyond my computer looks out at a set of woods. A collection of trees. An array of evergreens and flowering woody species. I have no idea what to call any of them, so I don’t. I don’t need to know what they’re called in order to admire the way, at this point in the spring, some have abundant green needles while others are completely bare. One or two have tiny leaf buds. It’s pretty. This view of the woods brings me calm and a quiet head. They say there’s something healing about living among – and walking between – trees. This healing quality happens, also, regardless of whether or not you know what kind of trees you’re walking between.

Yet, in this intentional community where I live, we have people who could tell you the genus and species of each one of those trees, as well as the common names. They can tell you what the vines are called that so beautifully (and, I’m told, life-suckingly) wrap a branch or two. They can identify the scat on the ground and know what the proper balance is between soil, mulch, and brush. Or something. I don’t honestly know enough about the natural world to continue this exhaustive metaphor beyond these two paragraphs. But I know it’s important, I want people who know more than me to spend their knowledge and expertise protecting and preserving it. We all have our passions and skills. I hope those with tree-related skill sets do their thing to ensure this beautiful small woods remains.

We all know that beauty defies definition. It happens whether you know what to call it or not. But, knowing what to call it helps us preserve it and ensure that it thrives. My tree-loving friends know what all those trees are because they’re committed to preserving our natural habitat. They have to know what’s out there in order to know how to pitch in, to maintain nature’s balance after humans came in and affected that balance with their various developments.

The same is true in music.

As much as people who listen to music and many of those who make it (in other words, all of us) would like to believe that style and category don’t matter, the stories of these things are a testament to the creative power of human vulnerability and connection. If we know the name of a category and the story of why we call it what we do, we are giving ourselves power to make better things, more long-lasting things, things that – like those ancient flutes – will raise questions and influence the ideas of people long after we’re gone. Knowledge is power, words are power, and all that jazz. (And, by “jazz,” I do mean jazz.)

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