HomeBlogsvog's blogMusic in a Time of Want by Barry Carl

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During the oxymoronically named Great Depression, more movie theaters were built in America than at any time either before or since. On first thought, this seems to counter the thinking of the arts-unfriendly legislators that view the arts as fluff, marginal annoyances, mere detours from the nuts and bolts business of putting the country’s economy back on track after eight years of unregulated, disastrous greed. So why, then, did this explosion of supposedly superfluous building take place during a time of financial meltdown? It wasn’t something practical, like low-income housing. It wasn’t sponsored by a government works project. True, it put people to work in construction, but not so many that it changed the bleak economic condition of the nation. There had to be, and indeed there was a different explanation. 

People needed entertainment. They needed escape. They needed a couple of pleasurable, carefree hours in a luxurious, exotic environment, a couple of hours during which they could relax and stop worrying about their next meal, in a place with soft padded seats and air-conditioning. They needed a break from the hard reality of soup kitchens and bread lines, terminal unemployment and tough times. The price of admission was often as little as a nickel, and even if you were poorer than dirt, you could occasionally scrape together five cents. 

From coast to coast, theaters sprouted like mushrooms in the spring, Art Deco palaces with fancy rococo interiors, multicolored neon signs and big marquees that touted comfort and fantasy. Radio City Music Hall, one of the largest and most opulent of the theaters built during the ‘30’s, is the only remaining house of four that were built around the country that were equipped to show the original prints of Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ on a screen that filled the entire proscenium, the images beaming simultaneously from three projectors and the sound chasing the action around the screen in the world’s first version of surround sound. Most of the theaters built during this period are gone now, victims of time, the wrecker’s ball and strip mall developers. A few remain, monuments to our need for pleasure in dire circumstances.

I mention the theater-building boom of the ‘30’s as a handy illustration that underscores our collective need. I think that it’s a clear indication of the importance, the significance of pleasure under duress, and how we, with our current fixation on our wildly flailing economy, allow ourselves to be convinced that other priorities are more pressing. True, it’s hard to enjoy music when your stomach is rumbling louder than the performance, so there are basic needs that need tending to, but assuming that your basic survival needs can be met (and I realize that this is a questionable assumption, with so many sunk in abject poverty), then the next and most important priority is filling our emotional needs. 

We humans already spend a big chunk of our time and energy avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure, and both pleasure and pain are inseparable from the life experience. It is virtually impossible to have one without the other, even though most of us would, if it were possible, live totally pleasurable, painless lives. Some philosophies and theosophies tout this as The Goal, but I have yet to meet anyone who is living a passionate, involved, connected life that doesn’t experience a mixture of pleasure and pain. The ratio of one to the other is a central issue of our existence, and in times when the amount of circumstantial pain increases, our search for pleasure is equally intensified. It is in times such as the one we are living through that our role as purveyors of pleasure, as enhancers of the life experience becomes all the more important.  

I know – I started with movies and somewhere in there I made a clunky segue to music. I would include all the arts here, since I view all of them as having healing potential, and because of my own prejudice I put music at the head of the list. While it is true that some music is an expression of anguish, I would argue that its purpose is meant to elevate and transform human suffering rather than cast the listener into the depths of human bathos. Music, in my little universe, is on a par with the Promethean gift of fire in its potential to change our lives for the better. Any improvement in the human condition is, for lack of a better term, healing. 

I could get all existential about this. I could go into one of my too-clever-by-half analogies, but the kernel of this is that music has the power to at least temporarily alleviate a portion of human suffering. By definition, that would be a healing of some ache, some sorrow, some affliction of the soul. We sing (or play or dance or paint or act or make a pot or write or cook or create some thing) when we’re happy and when we’re sad. It’s a simple, basic reaction to the uncontrollable zigs and zags of life. And it’s also a choice – a choice to contribute to the precipitously shallow pool of collective joy from which we all drink. Ugh. I can’t believe I wrote that.  But I’m going to leave it alone because I believe that it’s true. 

What I’m aiming at here is that music is a healing art, and when times are tough and the collective supply of joy is running low, we are doing a good thing when we make music. We are all healers. Just accept it. It’s a good thing. To choose making music as a priority in your life may cut against the grain of practicality in that it may or may not produce income, but as Dr. Wayne Dyer said, touching someone’s life is worth more than any amount of money. So gig your butts off. Do freebies. Do benefits. If music is your business, think of giving some of it as a tithe to humanity. Sing because you love it, because it’s fun, and because there’s a real need for your voices to be heard in a time of want.



Beautiful and full of truth, Barry. I believe when it really comes down to it, this is the reason we all really do what we do; to make life better for all of us. Sing on!

T Minus 5, http://www.tminus5.com

Thanks for the encouraging

Thanks for the encouraging words to all of us musicians (and actually to anyone who considers themselves outside that category, as well!)! There is a place for the engineer who makes Point A and Point B a little closer. But no matter how short the drive in life, we always need something to help us enjoy it along the way.

-Joseph Livesey | Fermata Nowhere | SoundStage

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