More Than a Record, Less Than Your Soul: On the Preservation of Culture

A good friend of mine owns a 1985 Plymouth Voyager woody. It was one of the first mini-vans ever produced or so he tells me. I don’t know enough about cars to say. Perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments section. It has a nice look; I’ve always liked woodies. But the paneling is very worn. The car is worth about $2000 according to the Kelly Blue Book.

Already in his 60s, he’s grown understandably attached to whatever objects survived their predestined ephemerality; despite meager means he’s looking to restore the Voyager to something resembling its original state so that his 92 year old mother can take one last drive in it before she dies. This will take several times the amount of money the car is worth. The car is a model that’s been lost to time, little remarked upon, not saved in any particular quantities. In a similar vein, when he visits my apartment he seems disappointed that I’ve pulled tear-sheets out of a collection of old McCall’s magazines I bought years ago. He’s afraid that someday, as a species, we will run out of McCall’s back issues.

And in a larger but related vein the study of folk cultures there is a dialectic of the precious; the ephemerality of it all framed in a barely repressed psychosexual dynamic of the damsel in distress, the Victorian maiden so fragile they can’t be let out into the sun. Of course, this is a framing that allows for a performance with another side to it. The concern isn’t any more purely nostalgia at the loss of artifacts and places than the locomotive approaching the tied down displayed and distressed damsel is just a train. The hilariously maudlin nostalgia with which old white men now approach the Delta blues would have confounded a Charley Patton. Early field anthropology was done, intentionally or otherwise, toward an endgame of taxidermy.

Last copies of objects forgotten or otherwise disappear every day; as in the prior reversals that have defined our epoch, the right to be forgotten has replaced the quest to be remembered and our collective cultural memory is determinedly focused backwards. If there is in fact a collective consciousness we now possess the storage capacity to make its life flash before its eyes with time left to display a replay button; the development that now seems questionable is the capacity to cease the ruminating.

“Folk” of course has always been a word used to denote the “primitive” or “noble savage” strain on the domestic front; its self-awareness places the experience of it inescapably in the realm of nostalgia for its own imprecisely dated demise. Folk culture in the age of the internet is logically impossible; no one can obscure their connection to a contribution long enough to pull off the old trick of dying anonymously. The lament that the author of a folk dance or joke or tall tale died without having been acclaimed and the lament that the quaintness of some past age has deserted us reveal the circularity of this vernacular line of thought; man as lamenting machine.

The recording device destroys “folk” culture and we collectively know this even if we’re hesitant to admit it; in any catalog of musical albums the stuff labeled “folk” generally means “played on instruments and styles that predate or evoke the period before the advent of recorded sound.” Musicians hung up on the “realness” of “actual” instruments that has been “lost” in a sea of synthesizers and god knows what, complaints we’ve all been hearing since at least the 1980s, neglect the inverse complaint, the actual perversity of the act of recording a thing defined by how it wasn’t meant to be recorded or was conceived without considering any possibilities other than its own floating transience.

There aren’t regional traditions of music at this point; why should there be? You can learn it off recordings. You’re not stuck with whatever players happened to crawl through town or play the local square dance as the basis for learning how to play or compose. Life goes on. Rock and roll is dead. Rock and roll probably died around 1980. Rock and roll needed to die. The last true rock and roll band were the Rock-afire Explosion. They hit the trick first of being animated dolls that weren’t actually alive. That was the last trick rock had up its sleeve. Many rock acts after have repeated that trick unaware they’re doing it. Some have managed to make Frankensteins that walk convincingly; some may even have, on occasion, risen the dead. But the dead risen are still but the still dead, now walking.

So what is the thing after folk culture and regionalism? After the old authentic?

We’re living in it it. It will be quite some time before anything on it can be said with much of any certainty.

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