I just got home from a lovely time at nm’s. I had a long talk with her across-the-street neighbor about Abigail Washburn, whose music I have only recently been introduced to, but who is a banjo player with kind of an old-timey feel. And we were talking about a lot of stuff, but the part that stuck with me is the part about how an artist situates herself in context, how, when she’s doing a certain type of music, she shows the people who feel that music is “theirs” that she knows the songs she should know and can play them proficiently.
This is one of the things about music that I find so fascinating, how the performance of a song connects you to the people singing it, and not just singing it at that moment, but, when you know (and, for me, the knowing is what makes it meaningful), singing it in a way with everyone who’s sang it before. In my family, for instance (and I know we’re not alone), we sing “Amazing Grace” at everything that requires a church–weddings, baptisms, funerals. And we sing it still because it’s an opportunity for positive haunting, I think. A chance to lift your voices with the living and the dead.
And, just to tangent, I have never been able to forgive Faith Hill for this as an artist–for taking on “Piece of My Heart” and not knowing Janice Joplin’s version. And for giving interviews in which she seems to find that neither strange nor problematic that she could be an artist performing an iconic song and have no idea, that she gave no indication that she felt cheated by that. And so I have no faith that she’s since gone on to hear Erma Franklin’s older version and I doubt that, should she hear it, she would have sense enough to feel cheated out of that until that moment. And I just can’t trust an artist who doesn’t have sense enough to know that she’s entering the water way down river, that all the sounds she makes are based on other sounds.
But I was thinking about this in terms of writing, too, all the way home. Because, on the one hand, there certainly has been a trend to retell iconic stories. Ulysses is an echo of The Odyssey and we’ve seen lately novels that tell the stories of the father of the girls in Little Women and of Huck Finn’s dad and of Penelope. And on and on and on.
But on the other hand, it’s not quite the same thing. If you write fiction, no one’s going to demand you rewrite a story as faithfully as possible in order to prove your bonefides as a writer.
Or shoot, I guess Campbell would argue the opposite.
I don’t know.
I used to think that I couldn’t be a writer because I am not smart enough to be original. But sometimes I wonder if originality isn’t over-rated.