Terry and I have many avocations in common. Music isn’t one of them. When it comes to music, I’m all but hopeless. In third grade I was kicked out of the kiddie choir, which had been billed as all-inclusive. Fourth grade was the year we picked instruments for band lessons. I wanted to play the flute. All of the girls in my school played flute or clarinet, and the flute was in my estimation the prettier of the two instruments, both physically and musically. I remember waiting my turn during the first class meeting for a consultation with the band teacher, who was assigning instruments. I remember announcing my intention to play flute. I remember the teacher presenting me with the mouthpiece of a flute to try out. And I remember his dour pronouncement that my mouth was “wrong” for flute and that, perforce, I would play clarinet.
Is it any wonder that I loathed clarinet and soon gave it up?
Oh, but my musical misadventures don’t end there. It so happens that I have extraordinarily long fingers (straight from my grandmother), so I was pegged early by family and friends as a potential piano whiz. One fine birthday, a piano turned up in the family room, courtesy of generous parents who were always ready to indulge any interest I leaned toward. Alas, I never could find it in me to commit to lessons, and the piano was sold, an all but unplunked white elephant, a couple of years later. (I blame the band teacher.)
Moving on to Exhibit D: At my high school there was a long-standing tradition that the junior girls sang a sentimental tune for the seniors at convocation. This was a tradition not taken lightly, but looked on as an expression of debt and respect, a moment to set aside cattiness and cliquery, a meaningful step in our inheritance of the senior class mantle–not something one did for singing’s sake, but something that was right and good to do. A month’s worth of after-school practices apparently couldn’t help a really hard case; during the actual performance my normally kind friend Robin, standing next to me, whispered could I please mouth the words because my singing, however well-intentioned, was throwing her off tune.
With that checkered history, it’s been a good long time since I ventured again to sing or play music in public. (At home or in the car alone? A different story–much to the cat’s regret, I’m sure.) I dream of being able to carry a tune, though, and the desire has made me almost single-minded about the music I Iisten to: all women singers, all the time. OK, I exaggerate, but only slightly. I’ve been working on my itunes library this weekend, and a quick count reveals that about 60% of the library consists of either solo women artists or bands with female lead vocalists. That’s a sight lower than I would have guessed, but it has to be higher than average. More to the point is that it’s the women’s music that I’m usually listening to, that I thirst for, that hits me where I live: Patsy, Lucinda, Polly Jean, Lauryn, Chan, Aimee, Kim & Kelly (and Tanya!), Luciana, Emmylou, and on and on. These singers can reduce me to a dead swoon in a way no man’s singing ever does, and all I can think to attribute it to is my own futile, sometimes feverish wish to sing well myself.
This base sexism in my musical taste is really anomalous. In the other arts, most of which I actually know something about–painting, fiction, poetry–an artist’s gender doesn’t factor into my preferences or judgments at all. I gravitated toward women writers when I was younger, but that was part and parcel of a typical youthful desire to find my own experiences illuminated in my reading. That understandable urge not only has faded at 30-something, but has been replaced by its opposite, a desire to learn about places, people, and times further and further removed from my life. The more omnivorous my taste becomes, and the shorter life gets, the less I wish to screen my reading by any criteria other than quality.
But music-wise, I’ll take the women just about every time. Lately I’ve been deliriously high on Allison Moorer, about whom you can learn more at her artful website, here. I first found out about Moorer from Terry, natch, who knows my predilection for chanteuses well and has indulged it lavishly over the years. But–and this is where the whole musical-anti-prodigy theme comes into play–sometimes it takes me an absurdly long time to really hear what I listen to. So although I’ve been listening to Moorer for a good two years, and I fell head over heels for her album Miss Fortune when it came out late in 2002, the last couple of weeks have found me listening to this album for perhaps the hundredth time and only now recognizing some of the more unassuming, quietly amazing songs for the little masterpieces they are. Like I said, I’m just kind of hopeless and remedial that way.
OK, this post is awfully long already. So tomorrow I’ll continue with a second part about the particular charms of Miss Fortune, how I happened to come back to it recently, the experience of “discovering” tracks after so long, and how it is they could hide their wonderfulness in plain sight all that time. This last certainly has something to do with my tin ear, but not, I think, everything.