By Steve Oppenheimer
As I write this in mid-February, the economy remains a mess, a lot of Americans are out of work, and too many are homeless. The U.S. government is determined to wage war on Iraq, al-Qaeda threatens to increase its terrorist attacks, and many of us have the uneasy feeling that we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. Clearly, life is hard for a lot of people and probably will be much harder by the time you read this.
It’s a time for musicians to shine.
In hard times, artists of all types (not just musicians) rise to new heights in an effort to express themselves. Whether debating social change (Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” versus Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” in the ’60s), inspiring patriotic fervor (“Over There” in World War I), admitting to desperation (“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” during the Great Depression), or describing the horrors of war (Picasso’s Guernica in 1937), creative spirits somehow find ways to comment powerfully on the issues of the day.
But even in the most difficult times, the survivors love and lose, work and play, shop (perhaps cautiously), laugh and cry, pray and curse, marry, have children, and hopefully are able to grow old. We seek entertainment of many sorts: music, dance, visual art, reading, sports, theater, and much more. And we create art that is inspired by all of these things, not just about war and social change.
In such times, we need to step back more often and try to catch our breath. We’re all stressed, many of us work too many hours and sleep too few (I speak from experience here), and an increasing number of us must spend many frustrating hours seeking work. It’s easy to lose patience with each other and with ourselves.
Sometimes we just need to get away. Gino Robair’s cover story “Going Wild” shows you ways that recording musicians are applying their skills to record the sounds of the wilderness, which also appears to be experiencing challenging times nowadays. Robair’s story is a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. What the heck, let’s pack a couple of mics and a recorder and go camping! Bears can be dangerous, but at least they don’t throw bombs.
Creative artists of all sorts have a huge advantage in times like these. If we are feeling heavily pressed or depressed, the good news is that our muse probably is beckoning. My brother Larry the O and I have an admittedly tongue-in-cheek saying: “The worse things get, the better it gets because it’s one more thing to sing the blues about.” At least part of the answer for musicians is to put our emotions into music.
The song selection certainly matters if you have something specific to say lyrically. However, the most important goal is to express musically what you feel, not just what you think. Without passion, creative ideas have little power. Letting others hear your music may help them sort out their own feelings and ideas, which is wonderful; but even if you just make the music for yourself, remember that part of the creative artist’s unique gift is the ability to make something good out of something bad. It’s one more thing to sing the blues about.