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Lifelong Obsession With Music
Mark DeWitt - This book attempts to explain why some people just get obsessed with Cajun and zydeco music.
Author in mid- obsession

For my undergraduate education, I attended an institution where very few of us majored in the humanities. All that study of math, science, and engineering can make one feel more like a tool in a factory than a member of the family, so one day I was hanging out with friends and one of them posed a question: what keeps you human around here? When it came my turn to answer, the questioner (who knew me well) told me, "You can't pick music." I was stumped. I couldn't think of anything else to say to make myself appear more well-rounded.

Almost thirty years later, I'd like to think there a few additional things that keep me human, but the list is still short and music is still near the top, running a close second to marriage. Music is mostly what I write about, and when I read on topics outside of music I usually have an ulterior motive that I'm going to relate what I'm reading to music somehow. Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers? He has all kinds of examples from music in there! Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone? Most people would not come away from Putnam's work on social capital excited about a blueprint for increasing musical participation in our society, but that's what I took from it.

An occupational hazard in writing about music is the concomitant responsibility to read what others have written about it, much of which is painful. For some reason, the subject of music seems to attract more than its share of durable cliches that  otherwise intelligent commentators feel free to use without shame: music hath charms, music is the universal language, musical performance is a profound metaphor for community, music is timeless, and on and on with half-truths and nonsense that leave me slightly nauseous. Especially for those writers who are not similarly obsessed with music but are writing about it for other reasons, these cliches are a convenient placeholder that allow them to say something without really saying anything. On the other hand, those same cliches are the lingua franca with which people communicate their love of music with one another. If you don't use them, people tune out. They expect to hear them. Therefore it's not so easy for me to explain my obsession with music without using them, but I will try. I do not subscribe to the cliched theory that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," a quote I have heard attributed to various celebrities.

 On a personal level, performing music and listening to it is the best way I've found to tap into emotions that I find difficult to express verbally. In the time and place where I grew up (Ohio), the strong expression of emotion was usually discouraged, so music was an outlet. In this I am hardly unusual, and it doesn't really explain my intellectual obsession with music.

It would be handy to be able to talk about my overriding interest in music in terms of how it expresses our humanity, but that doesn't even cover it because I'm not convinced that our species has a monopoly on music. Let's just say I'm fascinated by how music manifests life, and how pervasive it is in cultures worldwide. From my perspective, individual musicians are still important because they are the ones who are making it, but they are not the be-all and end-all. Without the collective, the cultural traditions, the memes and perhaps even the genes, individuals would not be able to create anything. This was not a particularly popular view in the humanities-oriented stream of scholarship, ethnomusicology, when I was in graduate school fifteen years ago ("Determinist!"), but with books like Dan Levitin's This is Your Brain On Music, maybe it is gaining a little credibility now.

 Still, I feel a little isolated with the kind of obsession I have about music, because I am not really interested in narratives of celebrity or genius individuals, nor do I feel called upon to memorize all of the historical details about those kinds of music I take an interest in. I have great respect for encyclopedic experts on particular genres, but I'll never be one. Musical structure and process are much more interesting to me, and how musicians think with their bodies and instruments as well as their minds. Social structure and process both during musical performance (for example, improvisational interaction) and outside of it (social networking, Daniel Ben-Amos' vision of folklore as "artistic communication in small groups") are equally fascinating. To put it another way: I'm the kind of person who is capable of enjoying the tedious process of transcribing music from a recording and analyzing it, but I would not make a good contestant on "Name That Tune."

Musical obsessions are pretty common, so in one sense I have plenty of company, but I haven't found too many birds of my particular feather. However, when I write about music I try to keep an audience in mind, one that does not necessarily share my obsessions at the outset but that I may be able to excite and persuade.

3 Comment count
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Struck a chord. . .

Mark, I'm also from Ohio (Portsmouth on the Ohio River) so I'm wondering where you grew up? And my brother and I, although we lived apart most of the time, used music as our major link. He was a real student of rock history, guitar playing, Texas blues and my personal shopper for CD's. I lost him to cancer this year and think about him everyday in terms of the music we loved and shared. He lived in Houston and I in Austin (for a short time) so we heard some great music in that locale as well as San Francisco.
Thanks for a great piece.

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Re: Struck a chord...

Hi Michele, thanks for writing and condolences on the loss of your brother. I've been remembering my mother frequently in the last few days, due to all the publicity around the new film about Julia Child. My mom loved food and was a big Julia Child fan. Food and music both have a way of holding strong memories, somehow.

I was born in Toledo and lived in that area through elementary school, then spent junior high and high school in Troy, twenty miles north of Dayton. I played classical music as a kid but listened to rock and later to blues a lot before studying ethnomusicology in graduate school.


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"how music manifests life"

I never thought about music as manifesting life but I like that concept very much. Now that I think about it, I guess I must have felt that way somewhat instinctively because my first novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, deals with how two iconic musicians use their gifts and world influence in very different ways, one somewhat diabolically, and the other more in the mode of a healer and prophet. The very fine distinctions you articulate provide a good bit of food for musical thought. Gracias,

author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)