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MARCUS: Uptight music for uncertain times

Morton Marcus
April 23, 2011
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Morton Marcus

I was impressed. Tefla and the Teflons were smooth singers and slick musicians, but I felt something missing. They lacked substance, soul and context.

After the set, Tefla came over to my table. A young woman tall enough to play in the WNBA, with long red hair, she sang lead and sported a clarinet.

“You’re the female Benny Goodman,” I joked.

“Benny never sang,” Tefla replied sternly. She downed a lemon-lime drink made on site from real lemons and limes.

“Your music is,” I suggested, “adjusting for the time period and intervening cultural changes, somewhat like his.”

“Not in the least,” Tefla denied, with fire in her voice and eyes.

“I disagree,” I disagreed. “Goodman’s music was decidedly upbeat in a down era—the Depression and World War II. He played music for dancing, swing for swaying, sentiment for sighing.”

“The Teflons’ songbook is totally different,” she protested.

“Yes,” I said, “and no. You sing a different form of escapism, but it is escapist, nonetheless. It is music for lonesome people, disappointed lovers and uncertain dreamers. It is the angst of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when people feel betrayal in the air and crushed aspirations underfoot.”

“You’re a gloomy one,” Tefla declared.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s the simple truth. Goodman, Shaw, Miller and the Dorseys did not play the authentic, gritty songs of their times like ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’ Nor did they play the happy music acknowledging the hard times yet looking ahead to a better future.”

“For example?” she asked.

“The signature song of the ’30s: ‘Happy days are here again; The skies above are clear again; Let us sing a song of cheer again; Happy days are here again.’” I sang and received glares from the other tables. “Wouldn’t it be delightful to hear something like that for our times?”

“Ours is the music for our worrisome age,” Tefla insisted. “Our songs are for the dispirited millions—not the disporting millionaires—employed or unemployed, working or retired, in or out of school. In the ’30s, there was hope that business or unions or government or nature would pull us out of the Depression. You could have a Woody Guthrie praise the hydro-electric power of the Grand Coulee Dam and wax patriotic because, ‘This land is your land, this land is my land.’

“In World War II,” she continued, “everyone had to be upbeat. Sorrow was everywhere in the casualty reports, but we all knew ‘We’ll meet again’ when there were ‘Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.’ That’s not today.

“Now, we have no grand initiatives except to cut spending and cut taxes. No vision guides us, no hope directs us to a proud post-war America. Few of our fellow citizens understand the many problems stemming from unending wars.

“We’ve emerged from a decade of fear and excess optimism and turned inward. Unyielding ideology combines with extremist language to poison the air. Members of the new majority reject their fellow citizens and build their self-respect on suppressing the aspirations of others who experience significant adversity.”

“Those are tough words,” I said.

“That’s why we sing the blues. They resonate with the tough people living tough lives who listen to our songs,” Tefla said on her way back to the bandstand.•

__________

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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