Damn the Hype, Praise the Boxer

jack_johnsonIf I was a baseball player you might say I’m in a slump. I feel as though, when I’m up to bat, I swing at air. If a ball speeds toward me, I reach up to catch but it just sails through my glove. I could grow a beard, shave it off, lower my right shoulder, raise my left, shuffle my feet, or tug at my ears. No change. And that’s probably the best analogy I can come up with, as to my current relationship with new music.

This affliction is hardly new, and I’ve been struck by it several times in the past few years. One cure that seems to work has been for me to take a break from the new stuff and get back to the tried and true — simply immerse myself in old favorites. I might spend a month listening to only the Carter Family Border Radio set, or something completely off the wall. Last year, it was 60 days of the complete Elvis Costello discography.

I realize that it can wear a little thin when those of us who have the good fortune of being able to share our discoveries and opinions with readers on a regular basis are constantly dragging out endless stories about the good ol’ days. I have attempted — but perhaps not always succeeded — to strike a balance. After all, No Depression‘s new tagline is “The Journal of Roots Music,” but I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the subject matter and content that dominates this website and others like it is primarily focused on new releases: artists currently on tour, upcoming festival lineups, reviews of recent concerts.

About four months ago, I started to aggregate and post a minimum of three news stories per week on my various social media platforms that related to roots music. Relying on two dozen websites that emphasize folk, blues, jazz, alt-country, bluegrass, old-time, and the ilk, I soon discovered that everybody is (more or less) reporting on the same news, the same artists, and the same albums. While I still budget my “ear share” to listening to a dozen or so new albums each week, I find that very little of it is sticking.

Now, this isn’t a situation where the old curmudgeon doesn’t think there’s great music out there, waiting to be heard. At least I hope it isn’t coming off like that. To the contrary, I think there’s almost too much of the good stuff and too little time to find it. I find myself feeling as though I’m being manipulated by high octane hype that’s beginning to stifle my overall interest. Throw in the weekly Top 40 chart from the Americana Music Association along with dozens of stories about the artist-album-flavor of the week from Sturgill, Hayes, Parker, Margo, or the Jayhawks, and it just makes me want to … what … listen to Bruce Springsteen do “Purple Rain” again?

For now, I’m alternating my listening time between Norman Blake’s Flying Fish output and hundreds of various jazz titles that have been ripped from old 78s, digitized, and sent to me from a friend in Europe.

Meanwhile, Ernie in Kansas City piqued my interest when he sent me a note asking if I knew about the famous boxer Jack Johnson, who went by the nickname of “The Galveston Giant.” He was the first African-American world heavyweight champion, from 1908 through 1915. In the 1920s, after serving time in prison, he recorded a side or two for Ajax Records. He has an amazing life story and Ken Burns produced a film about him you might want to check out.

Recently I found this clip and it’s reminds me of why I love music. Both old and new.

This was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column on the No Depression website.

Photo by Otto Sarony/1908 CC 2.0