There’s a Frank Sinatra quote (probably made up, but not by me) that has Ol’ Blues Eyes responding to a pianist’s suggestion on how a song might be changed up a little. Frank looks over at the guy and says, “I don’t need any two-bit piano jockey tellin’ me how to sing my tune.”
Whether Frank ever said that or not is almost beside the point. The quote underscores something about the widespread loathing of having “our music” messed with.
We have very definite ideas about our favorite music. We look for authenticity first. Some novel twist on an old favorite, a distant second. A Russian country-western band? They didn’t last. How about Chinese bluegrass? Cool! Now, get outta my head!
The list of suspect combinations goes on and on. Just a couple highlights:
• Anyone singing in something other than their mother tongue. (Only the Beatles got away with this — see Michelle).
• White boys who in any way, shape or form, want to “Get Down Tonight.” Prime example: K. C. and the Sunshine Band, but also, the early (musical) career of Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg. And the one that still gives me shivers: Vanilla Ice.
There’s something in this that rouses our suspicions, simply because the musical genre and the origin of the artist don’t mesh. It’s like looking at a wine that’s labelled “Chianti” but comes from a vineyard in Oregon. At first glance, we tend to give these artists the hairy eyeball. We question their credentials.
So when Joy Kills Sorrow — a string band hailing from Boston shows up, eyebrows may rise. CP noted: “We love the fact that this rootsy string band is made up of a bunch of hipster-lookin’ Boston kids. But we expect they can hold their own down South, too.” (Turns out, there’s even a Canadian in this group, for heaven’s sake!) And we might have thought, “Nice try.” But that was only before we saw these kids step up to the plate and send one sailing out of the park.
Then there’s the other side of the first-glance expectation coin: Jake Shimabukuro. Comes from Hawaii. Plays the ukelele. He even joked about what a non-coincidence it was that he’d taken up the instrument since, “Everyone in Hawaii plays ukelele.” And he grinned. And we laughed.
And then he played songs on that little four-string that have never before collided with such a pint-sized contender.
Conclusion: We like to be surprised. Just give us a moment or two.