Radical Traditionalism: The Passion of the Artistic in a Time of Crisis

Radical Traditionalism: The Passion of the Artistic in a Time of Crisis

All my life I fought that fight,
The one that no man can never win.
And every day it just gets harder,
To live the dream I’m believing in…

Inside I felt like I was carrying
The broken spirits of all the other ones who lost,
When the promise is broken you go on living
But man it takes something from down in your soul.
Like when the truth is spoken, it don’t make no difference
Finally something in your heart turns cold.

Bruce Springsteen, “The Promise” (1977)

And I need
Somehow to believe
In the choice
I made.
Am I better off this way?
I can hear the voice inside my head…

Dixie Chicks, “Voice Inside My Head” (2006)

Modern art and literature remain haunted by the perceived conflict between rhetoric and reality, truth and fiction, good and evil. 

In his seminal essay “Style” published in 1888, the British literary critic Walter Pater famously argued for an aesthetic culture based on the absolute values of the artist and the artistic, but in the essay’s final paragraph seems to completely reverse his high-minded ideals and tell the reader that it is not the style and the aesthetic value of a work that is of ultimate importance, but the work’s moral sense.  Many of Pater’s readers see him copping-out on his belief in the primacy of the artistic temperament.

But why is it that morality and art seem to be in conflict with one another?  And why is it that the values of the commercial marketplace and of the financial commitments that we have as human beings so often worm their smarmy way into a life of the mind and of the spirit?

One of the greatest artists of the 20th century, the filmmaker Orson Welles, was perhaps the most famous casualty of this forced opposition between art and life.  In his first major cinematic achievement, the epochal and epic “Citizen Kane,” (1941) he discovered the trouble that could be created when the techniques of the literary and of the artistic were applied to “real life.”  His indelibly memorable portrait of Charles Foster Kane was a thinly-veiled allegory of the media magnate William Randolph Hearst, a man whose life was the paradigm of an American success story; filled with brutality, genius, maddening ambition and all the rest, Hearst’s biography stood for all that was great – and all that was wrong – with America.

Welles immediately paid the price for his artistic decisions.  Creative control was taken from him on his next film “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942); another epic that sought to tell the complex and layered story of America from a historical perspective that looked to deepen what had been accomplished in “Citizen Kane.”  “Ambersons” was cruelly wrenched out of Welles’ hands and his future was in effect compromised to the point of catastrophe.  His career as a director would never be the same.  Hearst’s power was such that in collusion with the Hollywood film industry he was able to reach in and extinguish the hopes of a young artist whose impact on the world would ultimately be huge even though in the short term it would be quite limited in comparison to his peers.

In his final film, “F for Fake” (1975), after decades of desperately trying to drum up investors for his increasingly visionary but esoteric projects, Welles turned to the theme of image and reality, of truth and lies, to tell a story that was in effect an allegory of his own career as an artist who had failed to break the stranglehold of the rich and powerful over the means of artistic communication available to someone such as himself. 

“F for Fake” was presented as a documentary about lying and forgery.  In the film Welles examines the parallel careers of Clifford Irving and a painter/forger named Elmyr.  Elmyr is a man who has been forging paintings of famous artists for many years.  Irving was the man who wanted to expose Elmyr’s deceit.  What happened during Irving’s investigations into Elmyr was that his own deceit regarding the mogul Howard Hughes was uncovered to become one of the greatest literary hoaxes in the 20th century.

“F for Fake” is a film that shows the ways in which the cinema uses montage, editing and reaction shots to tentatively create a sense of the real.  It shows that context is everything and that truth is continually fabricated in a rhetorical fashion that often makes it impossible to know what the “truth” actually is.  But Welles is determined not only to tell the stories of Irving and Elmyr and the pretentious cult of expertise that grew up in the contemporary Art world which permitted and even encouraged the production and sale of forgeries.  He was equally intent on showing the confluence of a corrupted commercial Art market with a new pack of literary liars and sycophantic hangers’ on.  Welles seeks to recount the many decades of his own travail as an artist in a world of liars and fakes who would hypocritically try to point to Welles as a liar in his own right.

The perennial problem which faces us is how the artist can tell the truth remaining morally focused while understanding the artificial manner in which art and literature are produced. 

As I have argued over many years, the root of this problem lies in the Platonizing Christianity that separates truth from literature, morality from rhetoric.  In this Platonic ideality we are taught to mistrust speech and language while seeking out some vaguely understood truth that exists outside of any context, a form of magical thinking that avoids the prosaic moments of dialogue and communication.

The artist is left to languish in a vacuum that vacillates between the market and the truth.  For Plato the idea that artists can succeed in telling their audiences the truth is both a pretense and an illusion.  When the artist produces her work, that work is seen as a frivolous product that cannot ever cross the line of the real, of the true.

So when artists rail against the limitations that are fixed by politics, philosophy, science, and by the machinations of the powerful, they often find themselves caught in a trap that seeks to silence them.  One thing we know about the historical relationship between power and truth is that those who are most determined to tell us what is right are those who control the very rudimentary means of our prosaic lives; those in power seek to inculcate into human beings a sense of powerlessness that would affirm their domination and tyranny over us.

Orson Welles said things in “Citizen Kane” that were specifically about William Randolph Hearst, but exemplified in a larger sense the historical battle between power and powerlessness, the ways in which the artistic voice could interpret and comment upon the perquisites of power and the ways in which power could corrupt and tear down civilization.

In our own day we stand at a similar crossroads for which the tragic figure of Orson Welles could be a model.

After the 1960s American culture turned inward and solipsistic.  After many years of successful activism on behalf of the disenfranchised, the African-Americans, women, gays, and other minorities, America became a more inclusive and tolerant place.  But the backlash against this non-conformity, against an open and pluralistic vision of America, took the form of a moral twilight which emerged out of the country’s exhaustion and disillusionment.  Over the course of time America moved to the Right and new mechanisms of conformity took hold in a way that had not been seen since the pre-Civil Rights era.

In the 1980s, after Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy, the “Me Decade” of the 1970s exploded into a frenzy of brutal selfishness and corrosive anti-humanism that has set the tone for the years that followed. 

In these years, one of the great American voices to emerge as a counter-weight to such solipsism was Bruce Springsteen.  His myths of urban America looked to the working poor and the cultural world that had trapped them into lives of futility and hopelessness and paradoxically provided for them a sense of possibility.  The songs of Bruce Springsteen on his seminal albums “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” uncovered the desperation and the flaming desire that beat in the American heart and that twitched in the American spirit.  Hearkening back to John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie but using a set of symbols culled from cultural icons like James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum, Springsteen set his epics of American longing at the New Jersey shore filling his tableaux with cars, girls, pain, dreams and failure.

Bruce Springsteen became a poet of the American underclass who was set on following his own muse.  In the course of his career he achieved great commercial success and yet remained a restless spirit.  He wrote a kind-of caricature of the mythical world he created in 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” which became his most financially successful work, but which finally led him to turn his back on the myths that he had created.  Increasingly he turned to American Folk music traditions which he had first tapped in his 1982 masterwork “Nebraska.”

Turning his back on what brought him financial security, Springsteen made a series of failed but intriguing records in the late 1980s and early 1990s that showed him yearning to find a new way to express the ideas in his head, a new way of tapping into the American psyche and expressing the thoughts and concerns that he had once so brilliantly expressed in his teenage symphonies to youth and idealism and to the dream of integrity in the American tradition.

The tragic events of 9/11 provided Springsteen with a way back.  Consolidating many of the new ways of seeing and interpreting that he had explored but not quite perfected in the previous decade, in his 2002 recording “The Rising” Springsteen rediscovered an American humanism that was set out in a radically-changed landscape. 

With the release of “Born to Run” in 1975, Springsteen had summed up and clarified the changes that had taken place in America since the 1940s.  He told stories of Americans who had experienced the euphoria of a new set of possibilities and yet were often trapped in a much larger context which exhibited a profound loss of values and spiritual malaise.  In 1975 America had not yet entered the age of conformity that we now live in.  “Born to Run” was universally acclaimed as a cultural masterwork that synthesized not only the rich musical heritage of Rock and Roll and classic American pop, but embedded within its epic grandeur the all-too-human narratives of regular people struggling to survive – to live and to love and to be who they were in a world that often sought to beat them down.  It was a record that expressed the dreams and passions of people trying to fight the powers that were interested in beating them into the ground.

But by 2001 the world had drastically changed.

With “The Rising” Springsteen ostensibly looked at America in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but more intimately examined the malaise and detritus of a world whose bearings had been lost in a welter of corporatism and conformism that suppressed investigation, curiosity and creativity.  It was an epic poem that presented the struggle of America to resist dogmatic certainty in the wake of a national catastrophe of epic proportion; a clarion call to Americans to better understand their place in the world and to learn from the attacks how to be better people and how to better live as Americans.

Needless to say, after the smoke from the World Trade Center towers cleared – figuratively and literally – Springsteen found himself well out of the new consensus that provided George W. Bush with two consecutive terms in the White House.  Springsteen remained at the forefront of those who bravely fought and firmly resisted the predilections of Bush and his hordes. 

As further evidence of his commitment to social activism, Springsteen has just released a record of American Folk songs that serve to reaffirm that “The Rising” was an attempt to restore the American visions of “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”  His new CD “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” rejects the mind-numbing conformity of the new media age, an age of iPods and Internet downloads which chillingly seeks to assert and valorize new zones of apathy and comfort that would serve to reinforce the status quo and to squelch our sense of social responsibility. 

Working against the grain, Springsteen not only takes a bunch of obscure but old, classic but mostly forgotten American songs, but sets them in a highly charged political context that resurrects as his guiding symbol the figure of Pete Seeger, an old pinko commie whose values would seem to be antithetical to the new age of American “values” ushered in by Karl Rove and his amanuensis.

“The Seeger Sessions” is a musical project that does two things: First, it affirms that the American musical tradition, centuries old, is not purely “American” in any nativist/nationalist sense.  The “American” tradition is in fact an amalgamation of Scottish ballads, Irish sea chants, African griot songs, Southern Black Gospel and the New Orleans Delta blues that together create a richly evocative musical mosaic that is highly nuanced and delicately layered.  And then taking its cue from the heuristic achievements of “The Rising” which added new tones and colors to the classic Springsteen palette, “The Seeger Sessions” holds nothing back: Assembling a huge band of expert players, the recording layers, with its overt echoes of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, the vigor of the Black Church and the wild abandon of Irish drinking songs, brass instruments, banjos, fiddles, washboards, acoustic guitars and upright bass not simply to antiseptically recreate old sounds, but to, as Springsteen states in his comments on the DVD documentary which accompanies the CD, “recontextualize” this music in order to provide new ways of hearing it and appreciating the vigor and vitality – and the arcane power – of it. 

Folk traditions understood as counter-narratives, as Springsteen also notes, often preserve the integrity of what has been bequeathed to us.  Rather than conforming to hierarchies of power, Folk music resists and battles back against the mundane restraints that frequently serve to hold humanity back. 

So many of the songs on “The Seeger Sessions,” as Dave Marsh notes in his liner comments, were a crucial part of the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s and can yet serve a new generation of activists and artists as a model of social relevance.  The songs on the CD tell the stories of human beings struggling to assert their humanity in the face of the titanic struggle that is often presented to us in our lives and our loves and our hopes and our desires.  Though we are responsible to find a way to pay bills and to meet our commitments, we are equally responsible to ensure that the world that we live in is free of corruption and wrongdoing.  Rather than separating fact from rhetoric, we must be constantly on guard to remember that morality and expression are both one and the same thing.

This brings to mind a lyric from a song called “I Hope” that comes at the very end of the new CD by the Dixie Chicks called “Taking the Long Way”: “There must be a way/To change what’s going on/No I don’t have all the answers/But I hope for more love, more joy and laughter.”  What lies behind this lyric is a great deal of pain, confusion and exhilaration over the things that have happened since Natalie Maines, the Chicks’ lead vocalist, excoriated Bush 43 from a London concert stage a few days prior to the invasion of Iraq.  Up until that point, the Dixie Chicks, like Bruce Springsteen, were beloved and iconic American performers.  Their records had sold in the tens of millions and they were reputed to be the most commercially successful female pop music group in the history of American music.

Maines’ comments made the same titanic impact that John Lennon’s words had decades earlier when he made the offhanded statement that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus Christ.”  Lennon found himself in the middle of a media frenzy that he never quite recovered from.  All his life John Lennon was viewed by many as the Anti-Christ and as an agent of secular modernity intent on destroying the moral values of Americans.

In the case of the Dixie Chicks, there was an even more complicated reality that was affected by the comments which disparaged Bush: The Dixie Chicks were a central part of a Country music world which fiercely held to nativist American chauvinism to a much greater degree than other sectors of American popular culture.  In spite of the fact that from the moment of their first classic recording “Wide Open Spaces” in 1998 and reaffirmed by the glorious “Fly” in 1999, it was quite clear that the Chicks did not in any way hold by the Confederate values of a reactionary South. 

Their best-known songs, “Wide Open Spaces” and “Goodbye Earl,” the former being a paean to female self-empowerment through self-realization that was heir to the controversies that once swirled around Loretta Lynn in the 1960s, while the latter was a devastating critique of domestic spousal abuse that showed a young married woman poisoning her high school sweetheart abusing husband with a plate of black-eyed peas, were far from the tripe that passed as “legitimate” Country music as Nashville defined it.

The battle between authenticity and fakery was one that had deep roots in the Country genre.  A figure who I refer to constantly is A.P. Carter who scoured the American South and reconstructed its musical heritage.  The hundreds of songs that he unearthed in his peregrinations laid the foundation for a native American musical art that alongside Jazz is at the very core of our American culture.  These songs emerged out of the same Folk traditions that Bruce Springsteen has resurrected for his “Seeger Sessions.”  It was this sense of reclamation and recontextualization that began a new set of musical trends that led to the emergence of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass revolution and the massive achievements of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash which completely transformed the American musical heritage and taught us new ways of artistic expression.

Paradoxically, as is so often the wont of the unfettered commercial marketplace, attempts were made to tone down the radical nature of this music and its sense of integrity and moral urgency.  Limitations and rules are often created to tamp down the anarchy of the artistic and make it far more palatable for mass consumption and easy commercial promotion.

Country music went through a number of stages over the course of its development as an art form and the Dixie Chicks were a crucial part of that transformation in its latest stage.

The roots music of the Dixie Chicks came as a coda to the renewal movement of the 1980s that was known as “The New Traditionalism.”  Spurred on by musicians as diverse as Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett and Alison Krauss, the New Traditionalists demanded purity and integrity over and above the saccharine conformity of the Nashville mavens.  They looked to Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Flatt and Scruggs, the Louvin Brothers and those others who provided a set of recordings that formed the very foundations of the American tradition.  Eschewing the glitz and glamour of the commercial country scene, the New Traditionalists were studious – a bunch of “eggheads” to be honest – to a fault and found their pleasure in their industrious readings of the tradition.

I have called this thing “Radical Traditionalism” which seeks to identify artistic expression as both innovative and conservative at the very same time, radical and protective simultaneously. 

Herein lies the strength and power of the most successful forms of artistic expression: Remaining faithful to the genius of what has been bequeathed to us from our historical past, but never relying solely on that inheritance in the forms in which it has been handed down to us, such an art combines values that many would see as irreducibly conflicted.  But the “Radical Traditionalist,” as Bruce Springsteen so accurately points out, understands that context, the rhetorical aspect of art, is just as important as its thematic originality.  What was once original could quickly become stale and arid – a piece of conformism that would only serve to extinguish the artistic flame as quickly as it once served to inspire through its innovation. 

The Radical Traditionalist thus faces the ire not merely of the Vulgar Traditionalist, but also of the staunch Modernist who would prefer to be completely rid of the past.  Such a dichotomy is the one that so often defines our current political world: The “Red/Blue” split we have today is seen in terms of those who hang on to the past and those who want to get beyond the past.  Each holds on to their respective dogmas with equal tenacity.

In this sense, the morality of the Radical Traditionalist is deeply threatening and can often serve as a tipping point for controversy.

The statements in London made by Natalie Maines exposed the fault lines that had been hidden by the great charm of the music that the Chicks had made, music that resonated because of its traditional authenticity and integrity.  But lurking within the Dixie Chicks’ accomplished traditionalism was a radical tendency, made manifest in “Goodbye Earl” which, like Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” many years before, jolted Nashville out of its moral stupor and forced it to consider the world around it – the very thing that was so much a part of the traditions that A.P. Carter had channeled into Johnny Cash and remained a part of this Country music in spite of the many attempts to tame it.

In the wake of the London comments the Country audience turned against Maines and the Dixie Chicks with a vengeance.  As artists and celebrities acceptance of the Chicks seemed to be predicated upon their acquiescence to a world of Red State values that must be left unquestioned and unexamined.  Those mavericks like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings had long had their hippie/outlaw ethic co-opted by a Nashville that was rapaciously finding ways to market the rebellion in ways that would not upset the status quo.

Now the Dixie Chicks were to remain on their own; hated and despised by those who made them rich, they would have something to prove.  Left to their own devices, the Chicks went back into the studio with a bunch of new and original songs that showed that they would not – in grand Country fashion – ever back down.

Their new CD “Taking the Long Way” opens with a battle cry that echoes the sentiments of “Goodbye Earl” –

My friends from high school
Married their high school boyfriends
Moved into houses
In the same ZIP codes where their parents live
But I
I could never follow

Spitting straight in the faces of those who have threatened them with death (sic!) because of the Bush statement, Maines’ voice rises majestically above an amalgamation of pure pop and easy Country harmony to declaim:

Takin’ the long way around
I met the queen of whatever
Drank with the Irish and smoked with the hippies
Moved with the shakers
Wouldn’t kiss all the asses they told me to
No I could never follow

Against those pathetic Country conformists who burned Dixie Chicks CDs to follow the Rove/Bush script as published by the Clear Channel radio conglomerate, the Chicks reaffirm the radical American cultural strain that has always been at the very core of their art.

Rather than change the way that they make music, the Chicks have aggressively deepened their musical art and stretched out their skills.  “Taking the Long Way” is a major advance and a radical transformation in their group sound.  They have added new collaborators, written all of the songs themselves and found a way to take their Country sound and shake it up in a way that will confound their audience – both those who love them after the controversy and those who want to kill them. 

The CD is a triumph of pop genius that is not only the best thing that they have ever done, but is a mature musical masterpiece on a par with the best recordings of the contemporary era; the work of adults (over the past few years each of the Chicks have had a whole bunch of children) who have experienced the realities of life and are not mere puppets in the hands of music business hacks.  It draws from the emotionally harrowing masterpieces of Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell; from the masterful songcraft of Fleetwood Mac; from the ire and orneriness of Neil Young – but it ultimately draws on the spirit of the epic productions of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, not specifically in its sound but in the audacity of its conception and aesthetic vision.  It remains the product of a brilliant group of musicians who are not satisfied with making money and performing their preordained role as “feel-good” role models.

“Taking the Long Road” tells the story of a bunch of American artists who desire and long to tell us what they have been through and what they think about it.  It is a story that is as gripping in its own way as the restoration of the American Folk tradition in Bruce Springsteen’s radically new context.  The collaborations between the Chicks and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks – another bunch of Radical Traditionalists – and Dan Wilson of Semisonic; the guitarist John Mayer; drummer Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who themselves have just released a monumentally epic double-CD called “Stadium Arcadium” which serves to brilliantly assert the manner in which American popular music can continue to innovate and synthesize at the same time; Sheryl Crow; assorted members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and many others, draw on a powerful sense of community that is strongly reflected in the music.  “Taking the Long Road” is in no way a retreat into fear, paralysis or obscurity – as a commercial artifact it is perhaps the most accessible of any CD that the group has ever released.

The recording brings together music of crystalline beauty along with provocative lyrics that resonate with echoes of the harsh and bitter struggles which the Dixie Chicks have had to face in an America that not only demands conformity but enforces it in ways that are morally corrupting, cowardly pathetic and very dangerous.  The great irony is that the very cult of celebrity that now rules our degraded culture, a culture of mindless conformity and anti-intellectual bravado, ensures that the gutsy boldness of the Dixie Chicks will be heard; their genius and their struggles magnified for a tabloid world that cannot live with them or without them.

In the final assessment, Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks have brought to their listeners, as Orson Welles did in his classic films, a discussion of what it means to be an intellectual artist who questions the values of the mainstream.  “Taking the Long Way Home” and “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” are stirring revolts against the status quo and even serve to place the entire commercial well-being of their makers into some precariousness.  And while both Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks have their own financial security pretty much set (and it should also be remembered that early on in both Springsteen and the Chicks’ careers they were involved in some very messy litigation to fight for the monies they insisted were owed them by management and from record deals designed to cheat them when they were less seasoned businessmen), the fact that they have risen up to articulate their voices in such a forceful and courageous manner against those they believe are tearing down who we are as human beings and as a civilized culture is a thing of rare and noble beauty.

Rather than take the easy way out and coast to the end of their careers, these artists have affirmed their visionary restlessness and have seen to it that America will wake up out of its mindless stupor and hear not only the voices of the present, but to channel the voices of the past in a way that ensures that our future is enriched by the confluence of voices and influences which speak to our common humanity in the face of those who have sought to tear it down.