I was thinking the other day about the meaning of words. I’m in the middle of reading a rather old tale: the English version of The Count of Monte Cristo published in 1844. Because the book is old, and certain words are preserved in their native French or Italian, I have to look up the definitions of words now and then. I realized that words and their meanings are malleable, inconcrete things.
When you look up a word in the dictionary, a lot of times there is more than one definition listed, and these are listed for you (1, 2, 3…) so you can quickly find the meaning that applies to your situation. So words can have various shades of meaning. Through time and use, the meaning of certain words gets nudged in different directions depending on how people choose to use them. So words change as people change. They are not, as I have often thought of them, inscribed in stone since the beginning of time, with definite definitions. I guess my brain tends to think of them that way because I like categorizing things. I like languages because they adhere to a grammar; because they follow ordered systems that can be learned and memorized. My left brain adores this dependable structure of language, and I’ve always absorbed the definitions of words easily into my memory. Yet words are far from being concrete. Words are nothing more than empty symbols until people prescribe meaning to them, and these meanings can be as nuanced as people’s feelings. Words are our imperfect attempt to describe sensations that defy categorization.
And this brings me to the topic of genres in music. I’m not alone in my love of categorizing things. As people we like to categorize our art into so-called genres, and these genres are really just words we use to refer to an artificial grouping of things. When we talk about rock or jazz music, for example, we are using a simple four-letter word to contain what is really a vast history too complex to fit into such an absurdly small box. When we talk about rock, we’re referring to a roughly century-long tradition in music history that involves, well, a guitar. But a guitar is pretty much the only thing that rock musicians share in common. Every other aspect about their music can be widely different. What we try to do with music genres is take every individual musician that pertains to a particular style, at least to some degree, and shove them in a box and put a one-word label on it. But if we open the box and take a good look at the artists inside, we discover a world of differences between them.
In my last post I reviewed Seth Chapla’s music, which is a kind of instrumental rock. His style reminded me of Steve Vai, and Steve Vai was taught by Joe Satriani. There is a clear connection between the three musicians as you travel backward in time. But the connection is only clear because their style is singular and hasn’t been copied a thousand times by other musicians. And they are all fairly contemporary. One night I went even further down that path of music history. I found that Joe Satriani (born 1956) was influenced by Jeff Beck, the English guitarist who played with The Yardbirds (born 1944), and he in turn cited Les Paul as an influence (born 1915 in America), and from there I landed on Rosetta Tharpe, a black gospel singer from Alabama who played an electric guitar like nobody’s business, and who clearly made an impact on Elvis and probably a whole generation of musicians who picked up an electric guitar in the 50’s and 60’s and created what we now think of when we say “rock music.” I watched a great documentary about Rosetta, and it was great because she has a sensational biography. I highly recommend it. She blew me away because I had never heard of her. And I’m American and listen to a lot of rock music! Check out this great video of her playing “Didn’t It Rain” at a train station.
What’s also interesting is that she was never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How can the curators of rock history not recognize that this rockin’ gal deserves a place in its annals?
Take any of the guitarists I mentioned above, and you will find that all of them play a different style of music. And you’ll find that they were influenced by not one musician, who was also unique in his/her own way, but many. So we can forget about the term “rock.” How can we really come up with a word that sums up a musician’s style when they are expressing themselves from the heart? I endeavored to learn about the history of rock music, but when I dug into it, I found that there was simply music. Genres are not particularly useful except to give a vague gesture toward a trend in music history, but in reality there are just people making music. We can’t create a word for what they create. But we can talk about how we feel when we hear it, and if we talk from the heart, then we are saying words that have meaning.