Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fingertips and Steel Strings

I judge how often I play guitar by two details: how long the fingernails on my left hand are, and how callused my left fingertips are. Last night I picked up the black painted body of the steel stringed instrument, running my fingers along the only case decoration: an old name tag. The name tag reads “Fredrick the 3rd” and it’s secured by four pieces of worn duct tape.

I haven’t pulled the guitar from its case in a long time. I've trimmed my fingernails and the skin on the tips of my index, middle, ring finger and pinkie are smooth and soft. No trace of calluses. To which I say, “This shit’s gonna hurt.” Because, you know, digging a bundle of nerve endings into the side of a steel string? No pain, no gain or something like that. I think about learning guitar as a kid. Not only do we get to suffer through shaky chord changes, figuring out which finger goes where, but we have to build up the hand and fingers strength to play anything properly and, well, prettily.

Coming back to the instrument now, I can play all the basic chords, and change between them, with reasonable aptitude. But those first few practice sessions are agony on the fingers. I know what I want to play and I know how it’s supposed to sound. But as the minutes tick by the sharp, stinging pain radiating through my hand and into my arm is difficult to ignore. To compensate, I don’t press as hard for every chord.
Point being, everything sounds like different levels of shit. There’s: “Oh that’s good. Really solid,” as the rarely reached goal. Then: “Eeeh, it’s a bit fuzzy. And what was that buzzing twang? Damn B string, damn you.” Then: “Hnnnng. Fuckfuck OW. Okay, that was a chord, right?” *strums again* “Well, I can hear all the strings I’m NOT pressing on, so that’s good?” Then: “…Well in my head I know what it’s supposed to sound like.” Then: “Fuck, I give up. We’ll do this a cappella.”

So why the sudden break-out-the-guitar inspiration? Funny you should ask. I first learned to play church hymns and folk songs. The latter speaks to a longer, deeper love of folk. Traditional tunes can be such a beautiful vehicle for expression. English, Irish, American, folk music holds a grounded space that I inevitably come home to again and again. Kate Rusby is one of those spaces.

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon her, but I began listening to Kate Rusby’s albums several years ago. Frankly, discovering her at all was a bit of a miracle given my spotty music knowledge and the fact that Kate isn’t that well known in the US (to my knowledge, anyway). She’s a contemporary English folk singer-songwriter armed with a skill on strings and an understated, melancholy voice that effortlessly slips under my skin. A fluid combination of old English songs carried on by her own tunes, folk tunes from the mid to late twentieth century, and her own tunes, her delivery is simple and stripped down. She offers a vehicle easily accessed and easily felt. The first album I listened to, “Little Lights,” was not one I instantly fell in love with. One track caught my interest and for some reason I decided to just buy the whole damn album. That album has been a long, slow love story. Similar to my experience with Patty Griffin’s “Living with Ghosts” album, it took time and patience for me to dig into the subtleties that ultimately became the reasons why I love it so much.

That is art to me. Vehicles of feeling offered by one and accessed by another. There is no greater honor than when something I produce impacts someone else so deeply that they spend their time digging in, exploring, and making their own experience. That’s a sort of soul sharing that can transcend time, distance, even culture. It can be a convoluted plot based film with complicated action shots and intense character development, a brutally honest self-portrait by a painter suffering from crippling old injuries and pain, an old English folk tune, or a new English folk tune.

They all remind us that the stories are the same, repeating in time and across space. Not that the differences don’t matter. My God, they matter so much. Those differences make our version unique; no one can tell our story for us. Those variations enrich us if nothing else. The ability to look into the soul of another and say “I love our sameness and value our differences,” that’s a precious wisdom.

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