Old-Time and Open-Source

The other night at a bluegrass jam in Red Hook, a couple of hipsters came in and started singing some old-time songs. They played loud and fast and not terribly well, and didn’t leave much room for others. They played the old tune “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” — the one with lyrics like “I’m going where the weather suits my clothes” — and added some new verses, including one that began, “I ain’t gonna take this shit no more.” I’m not a hardcore traditionalist; music should grow and change, and people should sing things that are relevant to themselves. But that lyric made me roll my eyes.

There’s an old-time song I like to sing called “Lazy John.” For a long time I only knew two verses to it, then I heard someone else play it and he sang a third verse. I liked it and asked him where it came from and he said he’d heard it from another singer. Why did that matter, and why did I never try to write my own verses? The answer is some combination of, “They wouldn’t fit,” “What gives me the right,” and “That takes all the fun out of it.”

In the end, old-time lyrics, like lyrics in most traditional music forms (blues, in particular) are circulated, well-worn, reused many times. They’ve stood the test of time. They’ve amused or captured enough people to survive all these years; they are the memes that survived the evolutionary process.

Meanwhile, I’ve been accumulating various vintage instruments. Not old Martins or Gibsons, nothing to do with playing old-time music. Vintage synthesizers, samplers and sequencers. I have some new ones as well, but even though the old ones are usually heavy and don’t necessarily work perfectly, they sound wonderful and are a completely different experience from flimsily made modern digital equipment.

Again, these are the survivors, the instruments people saved and used and loved, that still have resale value because people still want them. There are user communities, and groups that trade or sell the software upgrades (on 3.5″ floppy disks) and the accessories, and share information on good patches and hacks.

What’s the relation between this and old-time lyrics? Open source. Old-time music is open source. No one owns it. You can reuse it and change it to your heart’s content. You can learn as much as you like about its inner workings and how to create it. And what you do goes out into a community and lives or dies on its own merits, not on your personal attitude. And it’s not yours, in any case. (This is the essential problem with Bob Dylan; he’s the musical equivalent of a commercial software company incorporating GPL’d code into its products.)

The kind of electronic music I’ve been messing with (dance music, lo-fi, hip-hop, etc) doesn’t sound anything like old-time, but it’s similar in many other respects. It’s accessible. You can create it without knowing a lot about music or being able to play an instrument (or play it particularly well — same goes for old-time, which is why so many hipsters are into it). You can share it and remix it and learn from others doing the same. It’s grown through word of mouth, mix tapes, indie releases, community music projects.

It’s open-source music. Free music. And while we should be clear that when talking about information, “free” generally refers to freedom, not lack of cost, you can hear my latest experiments on my 50/90 page. And they are all licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License, which means you can share it, and incorporate bits of it into your own work, but only if your work is also noncommercial, and only if you share your work the same way I’m sharing mine.

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