Nitty-Gritty Music Straight From the Heart

Michael Jackson is not just a bad man, as this newspaper editorialized when he and Al Sharpton attacked the recording industry for racism this month. He is also gone. Once Michael Jackson was huge. Now he’s a huge corpse, a fit companion for Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli and the other revenants of the entertainment industry. The difference between bright stars and extinguished stars is that bright ones appear in the supermarket tabloids, while extinguished ones appear only there.

But we should not turn from this story until we have assigned the proper value to the Sony Music Group, Mr. Jackson’s recording company. In the wake of his low and dishonest assault on them, they replied in kind, one of their execs telling the press that the reason Mr. Jackson’s last album did so poorly was that accusations of pedophilia have harmed him with young fans. The Tipper Gore pose ill becomes Mr. Jackson’s estranged employers. Most of the albums that tank do so unassisted by the whiff of pedophilia. By the same token, if Michael Jackson still sold well, Sony Music wouldn’t care if he ate children, much less molested them.

There’s a better home a-waiting

In the sky, Lord, in the sky.

A prophecy for the music industry? Maybe. But these are also the last lines of the chorus of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, a country standard, as well as the title song of a 1972 album of classic country songs and artists. The album was catalyzed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a folk-rock group that intended it as a tribute to the folk, bluegrass and blues ancestors of rock ‘n’ roll. Some of the ancestors seem to have been a bit surprised by the tribute; one of them, Roy Acuff, called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “long-haired West Coast boys.” But he sang on it, as did Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter and a host of others. The album was reissued as a CD early this year, shortly after music from the movies Songcatcher and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Songcatcher told the story of a woman collecting folk music in Appalachia; what she found went into the spin-off CD’s. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was set in Mississippi in the Depression, and its soundtrack offered a pastiche of songs and styles that might have been heard then (the oldest cut was recorded in 1928). Some songs pop up on more than one album: Songcatcher II , the sequel, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? each have versions of “Oh Death,” the chilling dialogue with its subject. O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Will the Circle be Unbroken? both have versions of “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a song which, despite its title, is grim in its own way. Together, the four albums present seven decades of musicians reflecting on more than a century of music. Ry Cooder made a huge hit when he went to Cuba and recorded Buena Vista Social Club ; the producers of these albums journeyed to an even stranger country, America. What did they find?

Most of the artists on these four albums are white, and they sing and play what are thought of as “white” styles (though blue notes do creep in), and it’s also clear that some of the harsh wailing of the blues came from very Anglo hearts. Musicians keep their ears open: If the Anglos had stayed in the British isles, and the Afros had stayed in Africa, the music of both groups would be different, and the world would be poorer by the loss of their interplay.

The songs are striking for their simple emotions, complexly woven. This is different from sophisticated emotions, which can all too easily become blasé and decadent. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” is a jaunty tune about a mother’s funeral: At one point the singer asks the undertaker to drive slow, because the body he’s “hauling” is so dear. The verb hauling , equally appropriate to lumber, rock or garbage, is an awful image of indifference and finality. But the music bounces. Laughing so you will not despair; singing so you will not die.

Many of the songs are about death. Not the tragedy, or bathos, of an untimely death, but the bitch that death happens at all. Afterwards, Jesus or the angels take you to Heaven (if you have prayed; “Wreck on the Highway” describes what happens if you haven’t). The limit of despair in modern country-and-western music, which is famed for its lugubriousness, is defined by adultery. These funkier songs paint on a broader canvas. It’s a solemn thought that few of them could be sung in a public school, at least while the Ninth Circuit is in session.

As striking as the moods and the subjects is the musical structure. The vocal tracks could all be sung without accompaniment; the accompaniment they do have-guitar, fiddle, autoharp, banjo, Dobro-is often breathtaking. But the melodies, simple and solid, are made to be breathed. Like the high wire, musical simplicity requires devotion and skill. Before “The Precious Jewel,” Roy Acuff is heard telling the instrumentalists to give their all in the first take, because repetitions whittle away spirit and energy. Then he bays his lament to a dead lover.

So was this a better era? Our noble past? After hearing Will the Circle Be Unbroken? I was enamored of Roy Acuff, an old Nashville star who showed up for the recording session (the photos on the liner notes reveal) in a white shirt and a short necktie, and stood out-even in this group-for his passionate delivery. So I went to my neighborhood Barnes & Noble and got The Essential Roy Acuff (1936-1949) , and discovered that he got a lot better as he got older. The songs recorded in the 30’s were light and croony-a young man trying to charm. By the late 40’s, when the album ends, the vinegar is beginning to enter his voice. By the time the long-haired West Coast boys sought him out, he had lost the capacity, or the desire, to please and is just singing. That may be the final test of good music: Older men and women can sing it. The test for Britney: Will we listen when your navel is covered?

It is perfectly understandable why masses of new and lousy music are generated. People have to try something different, and people want to make money. (And why not, since audiences have the surplus to give them?) That explains the new music. But most people have no talent, some people have some, and a few have a lot. That explains the lousy music. But in the witless clamor that is the world, there will be a few gems about life and death. Listen; they are for you.