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Natalie Merchant and American Radical Traditionalism

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Fidelity to tradition is normally marked by a strict formal reverence. The traditionalist approaches the Archive as something sacrosanct. The Archive is to be approached with caution and fear rather than openness and creativity.

The radical, on the other hand, makes a conscious choice to jettison tradition and pretend as if what they are doing has never been done before. The attitude of the radical to tradition is often one of disdain and contempt.

More interesting are those artists who choose to become radical readers of the Archive. The Radical Traditionalist goes back to the Archive finding new ways of expressing the truths of tradition in order to speak to the times we live in.

The current state of American popular culture is one of a profoundly troubling malaise that marks the way in which the traditional, the expected, is mindlessly repeated as a form of ritual.

What was once revolutionary can soon become prosaic and dull.

American music, from Stephen Foster to George Gershwin, from A.P. Carter to Ray Charles, from The Byrds to the Ramones, from Sly Stone to Public Enemy, from James Brown to Prince, has been notable for its ability to fuse the traditions of the past with a new freshness, an attitude that speaks simultaneously to the present and to the past.

A few years back, during the dog days of the Bush presidency, Bruce Springsteen did something completely unexpected. Rather than compose a new set of politically-charged songs about current events, he returned to the Archive.

This part of the Archive was embodied in the legacy of the great Folk-singer and social activist Pete Seeger. Springsteen's extraordinary 2006 recording "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" used the lexicon of Protest songs that had been set out by Seeger and breathed new life into them.

Drawing from the vast palette of the American musical heritage, Springsteen reworked the songs -- many of which were traditional songs that Seeger had himself adapted for a new time in our history -- in order to express fidelity to the Archive, but also to address a new set of concerns that focused on the difficulties engendered by the political malaise and economic terror engendered by new wars, devastations like Hurricane Katrina, and the ongoing evisceration of the fabric of American life.

The work of the Radical Traditionalist is one that is meant to be deeply unsettling. Rather than follow the standard course of action that is expected of them, such artists throw a wrench into the cultural stew and turn back to the past in order to look forward.

This stance is profoundly counter-intuitive. Rather than affirm the conservative expectations of their audience, such artists reach beyond convention to disturb the cultural peace. It is an anti-marketing move that is often met with perplexity.

In an age of immediate information, this radical return to the Archive is most decidedly low-tech. It involves scholarly due diligence to rediscover what has been forgotten. The artist who has developed a well-known style takes the chance that they might alienate an audience that has become used to their standard routine. These days, with the iPods that are connected to the headphones of so many, we seek to bask in the things that are most familiar, things that we already know and are comfortable with. The revolutionary aspect of returning to the Archive is something that violates the private comfort zone of the consumer.

Just as Bruce Springsteen shocked his loyal audience with "We Shall Overcome," so too has Natalie Merchant boldly emerged with a new project based on the Archive of the Anglo-Atlantic literary tradition called Leave Your Sleep.

Merchant's project began as a means to organize the nursery rhymes and poems that she read at night to her daughter. But the Leave Your Sleep project transcends such apparent simplicity.

More akin to the scholarly obsession with using the past to better understand who we are as human beings, the collection of poems that Merchant has collected reconstructs an Archive that is now being buried by a culture of ignorance and laziness.

The ubiquitous role of new technologies in our lives makes information more accessible than ever. And yet the startling impoverishment of our culture continues apace. Print culture is evaporating and hands-on knowledge is a thing of the past, as many young people who have grown up with technology take for granted the constant availability of knowledge and do not feel the need to carry it with them in the ways of their progenitors.

Leave Your Sleep is a project that started humbly with Merchant's night-time poetry recitations to her daughter, but the recordings contain a vigor and freshness that recapture the magic of the tradition in ways that are completely modern and relevant.

The process of adapting the poems brought Merchant to compose original melodies to make the works altogether new and different. The project comes wrapped in the guise of the scholarly. Merchant not only provides the poems with melodies, turning them into pop songs; she also insists that the historical and biographical context be provided for the listener/reader in printed form.

The Leave Your Sleep double-CD package is presented as a hardcover book (itself covered with images of book spines!) containing the lyrics of the poems as well as notes and capsule biographies of the poets. We are given a history lesson by Merchant that presents the well-known (e.e. cummings, Ogden Nash, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti) as well as the relatively obscure (Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Nathalia Crane). All become part of a much larger tapestry.

The project informs the listener/reader on a number of different levels:

The poems themselves speak the great themes of our literary history. We experience the chill of death, the exuberance of love, the heartbreak of loss, the whimsy of nonsense -- in other words, the vast landscape of emotions that is contained in the Archive.

We are led into a land of enchantment and myth where we can dream and reconnect to who we truly are as human beings. Words become signposts to the inner depths of our humanity.

More than this, we are reinserted back into our own Anglo-Atlantic history where we learn about the writers who have created our culture. Their words are given new settings that allow us to hear them in a fresh context. We are challenged to make them a part of our lives in ways that transcend the conservative nature of the Archive, where words remain frozen and rigidly set in place.

At the opening night of the American tour to promote Leave Your Sleep at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey, Merchant worked with an expert ensemble to perform the complicated arrangements that on the CDs are played by traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis, the Klezmatics and the Ditty Bops. Instruments like the accordion, cello, double bass, tuba, oboe, and fiddle were united to recreate the otherworldly sounds of the recording.

Amazingly, the concert did not intersperse the "new" material with old favorites; it was wholly devoted to a large chunk of the recording, some 15 songs out of the 26 on the double-CD set. Such a bold move was buttressed by the use of visual aids that reproduced the names of the poems and along with pictures of their writers on a large screen behind the performers. The authors' photos, Merchant explained, allowed them to magically look down on us as we were savoring their works. Merchant introduced each song with a short biography of the authors, by her own admission conducting a classroom session. The old Natalie Merchant material would have to wait for an extended encore that followed the "proper" concert.

I am not quite sure how the majority of the audience felt about the epic nature of the project. There seemed to be a quiet politeness to the whole thing, but I am not sure that people today are ready for the Radical Traditionalism that Merchant -- like Springsteen -- is laying out for them.

In an age of Jay-Zs and Lady Gagas and the triumph of the vulgar and the ephemeral, the idea of performing a cycle of old Anglo-American poems set to new melodies must seem eccentric and off the conventional path. It would not seem to dovetail with the hyperbolically vile culture of the times.

But in defying convention, great artists like Natalie Merchant have reopened the Archive and firmly asserted their strong commitment to maintaining the cultural legacy that we have inherited. It is truly a revolutionary approach that contains a profound moral and philosophical lesson for us: In order to be fully human we must re-enter the Archive and work with it in creative ways. We must not ignore the Archive as the radicals do, but we must also not slavishly revere the Archive to the point of cutting off the flow of oxygen which allows culture to breathe and live.

The concert gave Merchant the opportunity to bring Leave Your Sleep to life and give her audience the chance to hear the songs shimmer and shine. The beauty of the performances was at times emotionally overwhelming. Her magnificent voice has become even more expressive over the years and imbued the songs with both grandeur and pathos.

It was the shock of the new in the guise of the old.

Luxuriating in the vast complexity of its flood of words, ideas, and histories, the performance simultaneously resurrected an increasingly-forgotten literary heritage and gave substance to the ghosts of the authors who produced the texts that Merchant has made into proper songs. It allowed her to show her respect and reverence for the past, but to also inscribe herself in that tradition as an artist of exceedingly great worth.

As in the case of Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions concerts, Merchant took her past and transformed it in ways that would have been previously unimaginable. The rapturous Whirling Dervish-style dancing that was central to her stage persona from the days of her brilliant former group 10,000 Maniacs was now being deployed to a pluralistic soundtrack of Celtic, Yiddish, Ragtime, Mountain music, British Folk, Cajun, Oriental, and Pop traditions that reframed the texts of some very simple poems that a mother recited to her daughter. Her dynamic stage presence lifted the energy of the event to make it something truly wondrous.

The poems are now not all that innocent and naive. The musical reworkings recreate for the astute and sensitive listener an Archive that has been enriched by the love and selfless devotion of an artist whose Radical Traditionalism takes what might have been a bunch of dead letters and has turned them into a profoundly gripping meditation on who we are as human beings today and how we must absorb the profound lessons of those writers whose work has given us such brilliant life lessons.

The Leave Your Sleep US tour began in Montclair, New Jersey on July 12 and ends on September 1 in Greenville, South Carolina. For a complete schedule of tour dates, see the official website: http://www.nataliemerchant.com/calendar.

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