A Fragile Message

One last look at old music before it topples forgotten into history

Photo by James BunoanIn 1996, photographer Jake Jacobson drove through the Mississippi Delta and started snapping big fat photos. A musician himself, he wanted to document often archaic, homemade, handcrafted musical instruments and the people who make them, a sort of Walker Evans-style Top of the Pops (or, more correctly, Antiques Roadshow). He did this for two years, eventually moving beyond the Delta in bigger circles, to Pennsylvania guitar shops, Alabama shotgun shacks, acrid trombone factories and ruddy desert mesas, telling his subjects just where to stand and tape-recording their stories.

The photos—collected in the exhibit "Heart and Hands"—is pretty quaint, so quaint it's hard to remember that people used to weep and grin and sigh and dance and fuck to this kind of music. The unspoken argument in "Heart and Hands" hinges on relevance: if Jacobson skirts it with pabulum like "When you play from your heart, you can't be out of tune!" (someone tell Texas ghost-folkie Jandek), his subjects, when given a chance to mention it, seem precisely aware just how close they are to toppling forgotten into history. No one makes a living by stitching bagpipes or casting organ pipes, they'll say, and there are more handcrafted guitars held by collectors than people who can actually play them.

Examine the few actual instruments included in "Heart and Hands" and you'll see how intimate a handmade is, how curious, how ancient and alien.

You can sense Jacobson's intentions—this is one of those exhibits an airline magazine would call "a celebration!" But there's a sort of sadness in "Heart and Hands," the same sort of poignancy you'd hear in scratchy transoceanic shortwave broadcasts or Black Patti 78s.

Whatever fragile message is being sent here isn't going to transmit much longer. Old music is an old man's game—collecting it, playing it, simply remembering it—and Jacobson's artisans skew way old, barring a few obvious different-drummer types born way out of rhythm with their own generation. And they look like they skew either comfortably rich or uncomfortably poor (maybe that's a quick shorthand to split the collectors from the musicians, though?). And most of them also look about as dynamic and vibrant as that couple in Grant Wood's American Gothic—pitchfork, mountain dulcimer, whatever. Here it's all deadwood and rust, anyway.

But maybe the problem isn't with the subjects. Jacobson's photos have a graininess that's baffling, if deliberate—you could print out cleaner morph porn from the Internet. Besides that, they wallow in a tractionless flatness, giving up anything engaging about their subjects almost by accident. They're satellite photographs. Fife-maker Othak Turner grays into his shack (though his watery-eyed close-up brings him back to life), a family of violinists sinks into a stand of ashy trees, a whitebeard with a fiddle smiles like he's on the front of a rustic greeting card.

The exhibit doesn't sing. And admittedly, photographing music is as problematic as listening to paintings, but there are still beautiful ways to do it. Like the old guy says, it's gotta come from the heart. Compare these lifeless images with the fluorescent-pale art punks in Jim Jocoy's We're Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy, SF/LA 1978-1980 and the reedy New York hip-hop kids in Jamel Shabazz's Back in the Days. Those people are and were as outré as Jacobson's groundhog-skin banjo tanners, but their photos still arc out sparks. They're young, yeah, and they know they're on the leading edge of pop history, not sliding back toward the exhaust pipe, but still: at some precise moment in the late 20th century, there must have been exactly as many people who cared about then-nobodies like the Ramones or Kool DJ Herc as cared about carving mountain dulcimers, and the passion must have been the same. But Jacobson was making a museum piece—maybe he figured had to keep the noise down?

"This rock & roll, them people that call it music don't have any more talent than one of them chickens up yonder," grouses Arlin Moon in Alabama. "They can't feel their music." Ah, the benefit of experience.

If Jacobson wants more out of "Heart and Hands" than quaintness, we need that deep emotional connection. We don't get it here except by fluke. Listen to your old people, Jake, because they know what to do: "Sun comes up, sun goes down; breathe in, breathe out," says drummer Robert Frito Seven, spacily discussing the rhythm of life. "My mission is to try and get people back in touch with that basic thing."

That basic thing. It's there sometimes, but not often. John Arnold, the Tennessee lumber supplier (and self-described woodaholic) caught beaming just as a he flicks a plank—you can almost hear it ring. Funny old person? Yeah, a little, but passion—even goofy iconoclastic passion, often the best kind—is contagious. "I'm just really into bamboo!" laughs George Abe. The photo shows a cheerful, friendly, plainly dressed guy, sitting easily in the shadows—could be a bamboo carver, a stamp collector, a ham radio operator, whatever. But thanks to a welcome audio clip—something that, used more often, would shock this exhibit to life—you can hear that eerie bamboo flute breathing in your ear, and you can be really into bamboo, too.

It's simple, if you think about it: "I make people happy," says Nate Tirado, holding a guitar as he sits below an airbrushed Jesus. "You see?"

No, but we listen. Or we would if we could. These handmade instruments and their makers don't have to be so anachronistic. There are easy lines that could have been drawn—as drum-maker Rasheed Ali says he hopes to do—between these generations and ours. "Heart and Hands" could have been a flipside evolution instead of an archaeology.

Harry Partch made his own instruments in the '40s. Sonic Youth makes (modifies, whatever) their own instruments now. The Michael Yonkers Band was the Stooges with guitars from Mars in 1968. The DJs in '70s and '80s New York and Philly physically cut records apart and pieced them back together. It happens a lot, and it's the same impulse, even if it runs on the electric now.

What's important in "Heart and Hands" is not the diddley-bow or the fife or the banjo or the dulcimer. What's important here is the human being whose hands were all over it. And Jacobson's depthless photos make those humans as flat as the sheets of pine they carve. Certainly, this sort of folk-art is historical curiosity now, but it was once and can be again just another vocabulary for the same universal concepts that all music tries to express. These diddley-bows and fifes and banjos could be your punk junk, your hip-hop, your drum 'n' bass, your rock & roll. They were once all that to somebody. And now that somebody is old. But in some of those photos, slapping a twig across a hammer dulcimer, he looks so happy that when you get old, you should remember him. And try to play your songs like that.

"Heart and Hands" at Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545. Call for hours. Through Jan. 18, 2004. $4; students/seniors, $3; kids six-12, $1; kids five and under, free.

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