It’s Always Sonny in Philadelphia

Prepare thy minds for the con-fusion of the coincidental . . . I sat down to glance at the Times’ Weekend Arts section today, and just as I happily discovered a story about an exhibit dedicated to Sun Ra, Out To Lunch started on WKCR, with today’s feature of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Between those bookends is an entire library’s worth of ideas and experiences.

Both men are easily, and correctly, cast as avant-garde musicians – Sun Ra emphasizing improvisatory freedom and non-musical ritual, while Kirk rummages through different aspects of eccentricity. At least that’s the way it looks from the common perspective of a middle-class, middle-brow white perspective. But change that perspective a bit, and things seem different by orders of magnitude. Sun Ra and Kirk are, to my mind, deep-rooted traditionalists in the tradition of the other, weird America which I always think is the true and fundamental heart of America. Musically, he spent his career renewing the musical legacy of Fletcher Henderson and black popular music. That he did so donned, musically and literally, in the robes of a shaman claiming extra-terrestrial origin, is perfectly logical to me. If you were born in a country that your ancestors were fundamental in creating, in a culture whose richness was indebted to your ancestors, and yet you were treated with ignorance and hostility because those same ancestors were actually forced into their labors, wouldn’t you feel like an alien? Sun Ra merely took the mildly imaginative leap to say he was form another planet, not another country. Since it seems there is no other country immune from American xenophobia, it makes sense to me.

Kirk made a slightly different choice out of exactly the same problem; for him, it was the guise of the eccentric street musician, literally the one-man-band. His personal tradition had slightly different antecedents, going back to the cultural complexity of minstrelsy, the worthwhile to carve a niche in a racist society by entertaining and doing so with both charm and an uncompromising dignity. His ability to play more than one woodwind instrument at the same time was more than just showmanship, it had musical meaning; he could accompany himself and also create his own counterpoint, a feat more of the mind than the body and an astonishing one.

Neither man was truly, originally weird, it’s America that made them that way. If you’ve read ‘Invisible Man,’ you know what I mean. And at the core of their music is something truly non-weird, a basic expression of the blues and an embrace of life that is a great joy. You can hear it in the 2 CD set of Sun Ra’s singles . . . yes, his 45 rpm singles. This is essential for an understanding of the real roots of American culture. The music is deeply strange and deeply normal at the same time, straightforward R&B performed by musicians who recognize that they are outsiders in their own country and are unselfconscious about that. You can also hear it in Kirk’s interpolations of Dvorak, Hava Nagila and his extraordinary collage “Water For Robeson and Williams,” which is a piece of conceptual music just one step further along the path that Charles Ives laid out. In fact, like Ives and Ralph Ellison, they are merely dressing values that aesthetically are fundamentally conservative in drag, they are profoundly normal, humane and moral artist trying to pass in a world that mainly hates them, while daily that same world unthinkingly consumes the fruits of their (forced) labors.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

2 thoughts on “It’s Always Sonny in Philadelphia”

  1. One of the reasons I married you, Cutie — 3 weeks after we first met — is that you have the profoundest understanding of Weird of any person I had met. This very beautiful piece reminded me why I made that choice, one which was not at all weird, because you’re you.

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