Keeping it real...for whom?
The sound of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies played in my head as I recently read a brief piece in The New Republic about John Fogerty. Where did they come from? I'll explain in minute; first, a little background.
John Fogerty, you will recall, was the lead singer and songwriter for Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of the most successful bands of rock's golden age (i.e., when I was young and really into rock). Creator of such indelible songs as "Proud Mary," "Willy and the Poor Boys" and "Who'll Stop the Rain," Fogerty co-composed the soundtrack for a generation, no mean feat. With lyrics that spoke of rural southern life, sung with an accent as swampy as the Mississippi bayou, backed with a pared-down roots-rock sound, Fogerty and CCR became musical avatars of gritty "authenticity" — even though they haled from the San Francisco area. You got a problem with that? Not too many fans did.
But now Fogerty has gone too far, at least for the author of the New Republic piece, Paul Lukas. You see, Forgerty, who's touring as a solo artist to promote his forthcoming CD, has launched a new commercial venture, a "Fortunate Son" line of clothing, named for one of his best-known and most speaking-for-the-common-man songs. And Lukas is not pleased with the irony:
Of course, there's nothing new about a rock star selling apparel like T-shirts or hoodies (Fogerty sells those too). But a T-shirt with someone's name emblazoned on the front communicates the straightforward message "I like [whomever]," while a flannel shirt communicates all the complex, work-with-your-hands cultural values that flannel shirts have accrued over the years -- values that generally conflict with commercialism and selling out. In fact, the flannel shirt was adopted as a sartorial symbol by Fogerty's generation back in the 1960s (and has periodically found renewed currency with subsequent generations) precisely because it's an inexpensive, unpretentious way to show solidarity with the common man. That solidarity has rarely been better expressed than in the Fogerty-penned Creedence song "Fortunate Son," a devastating takedown of the privileged class. Now, in a perverse twist, Fogerty has used that song title as the name for a flannel shirt he's selling (and for 70 bucks!), as if he alone were the spiritual heir—or maybe even the spiritual wellspring—of flannel's virtues.
Well, not only is there "nothing new about a rock star" commodifying a plain-folks image thusly, it's a practice that goes back centuries before rock and roll. And that's where my bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies come in. When reading this piece, I immediately thought of the French composer and performer Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782, pictured above), whose music we occasionally play on WFCR. An oboist in the orchestra of the Paris Opéra for several years, Chédeville also mastered the musette, the small French bagpipe occasionally employed in opera scores of the day to provide an aural whiff of the French countryside. Actually, he did more than merely play the musette — he made them, he wrote music for them (including a version of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" featuring musette and hurdy-gurdy — give a listen here), and taught them to the French aristocrats who fancied such "folk music" and other trappings of peasant life. Real peasants, one might guess, were not amused, though their opinions no doubt went unsolicited.
So, what do today's honest-to-goodness working stiffs think of John Fogerty's appropriation of their apparel? I doubt whether either Fogerty or author Lukas has asked them. But I bet more such people listen to old CCR records or their equivalent today than read The New Republic. And Chédeville's faux-folksy aristocrats have their equivalent today in audiences for folk clubs and festivals, groups of people whose level of education, political affiliation and cultural preferences probably don't sync that well with those of the actual downtrodden they like to identify with, but who are most likely to turn up their noses when artists depart from the True Path of Authenticity. Who, then, gets to decide whether the music is "real" and "of the folk" or not — the aristocrats or the peasants? As far as I'm concerned, if John Fogerty, like Chédeville before him, wants to make an entrepreneurial venture out of the age-old desire for "real," good for him. Caveat emptor, and Keep On Chooglin'.