In Music, Context is Key

A few days ago, I took to my Facebook page to rave about a classic Ray Charles album called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. I thought I knew what the record was going to sound like, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a revelation.

A couple of days later, my friend Ed called me. Apparently I had spurred him into checking out this legendary record. There was only one problem: he didn’t get it.

“What’s so great about this music,” he asked. “It just sounds like a bunch of old, outdated tunes to me. Some of it is kind of corny.” Even I had to admit that the Ray-lettes, Charles’s backup singers, had a sound that might not play very well in this day and age.

Which also spoke to the heart of the problem.

Nobody likes to be told they’re listening to their music incorrectly. But that was the case here, and I had to tell Ed just that. “You’re not listening in the correct context,” I told him gently. “You can’t listen to this like it’s 2020. You have to listen like it’s 1962, when the idea of a Black man covering Country tunes was absolutely unthinkable. It simply was. Not. Done!”

And just like that, the penny dropped, and Ed got it. “Oh, wow! I can see where this would’ve a shock!” I couldn’t help but laugh.

Exploring older music (especially that which is before the listener’s time) requires a sense of context. I can’t stress that enough. Context is everything. You have to be willing and able to hear not only the sounds, but the time the sounds came from.

I reminded Ed that we had a similar conversation years ago when I declared Revolver one of my favorite Beatles albums. All he heard was “decent, but stock Beatles tunes.” I had to remind him that Revolver contained some of the earliest uses of backwards recording, string quartets on pop tunes, unique recording techniques, and unusual arrangements on record. Everyone doing it since was influenced by what the Beatles did. And once again, my album choice made sense.

It drives me absolutely bonkers when I hear some dolt say Jimi Hendrix is overrated as a guitarist. “Well, he’s no Steve Vai or Joe Satriani,” I was once told. I could feel the vein in my head pulsing. “Look,” I said, “Those two cats — and just about anybody else who picked up a guitar after 1967 — will point to Hendrix as one of their prime sources of influence. You have to understand that when Hendrix came on the scene, there was no scene! And that renders your comparison moot.”

Usually, people get it. Sometimes, they don’t. I have to avoid those people. I can’t afford to have an aneurysm.

Electric instruments in jazz are commonplace in this day and age. But in the late 60’s, when Tony Williams and Miles Davis decided to explore the possibilities of electric instruments, it was heresy! Now it’s just fusion. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were the godfathers of metal. Yet compared to today’s metal bands, they don’t seem that heavy at all. But in 1971, those cats were heavy as hell!

It’s all about context.

Even I have to catch myself at times. When I finally got around to buying a copy of Prince’s Controversy a few months back, I smiled at how quaint it sounded against his more recent works. Well of course it did! Controversy was the precursor to the albums I love, like Sign O’ The Times and The Gold Experience. Albums don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything comes from somewhere.

My point is this: music is about more than the notes. Don’t hear just hear what is being played. Hear when it’s being played as well. I guarantee you a new level of depth and appreciation toward what you might not have gotten before.


You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently at work on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.

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