Monday, July 12, 2010

Luddite Music

In an age of runaway consumerism, the patenting and copyrighting of absolutely everything, and a near total dependence on high technology, one might be excused for assuming that the Luddite lifestyle consist of nothing but grueling, oppressive, backbreaking labor. This simply isn’t true, there’s plenty of time for leisure and recreation, and one of my favorite pastimes is homemade music.

I grew up in the age of rock-and-roll, and was especially keen on progressive ‘art-rock’. Most of my rock-and-roll fantasies involved me behind a rack of keyboards and synthesizers. Trying to morph these fantasies into reality, I soon learned, however, that I couldn’t make that kind of music on the meager amount of money I had to spend in pursuit of my dream. About the same time I discovered this, I discovered folk music – in my case, Irish and Scottish folk music, and it was a revelation. Here were people creating complex, listenable music wherever they were, whenever they felt like it, and doing it without truckloads of expensive equipment, and in most cases without even electricity.

There are of course, several traditions of acoustic and traditional music. I have my preferences and if you don’t already, you’ll have yours too. When it comes down to it though, you don’t even have to choose a tradition – there’s plenty of modern and contemporary music available to choose from as well. There are a couple of reasons I like traditional music though:

  • It’s freely available – no copyrights to worry about
  • There’s a lot of it – more than you can imagine, thousands and thousands of songs available, and of every type imaginable.
  • It’s ‘people’ music – it was made by people for people to enjoy, sing, play, eat, grieve, celebrate, live, work and dance to.
  • There’s a kind of synergy between the music and the instruments: The instruments influenced the music and the music influenced the instruments.
  • It’s as simple and easy or as complex and demanding as you want it to be. The level of entry is where ever you are right now – whether you’ve played and instrument or sang your whole life, or whether you’re simply dreaming about it and have never made anything resembling music in your life.

    Now I’m not a great, good, or even competent musician. I can bang a bit on a piano or a guitar, and I can read music. The instrument I find myself playing most often though is the Irish Tin Whistle. What I like about the tin whistle is that it’s rugged, small, easy, and cheap. My current favorite whistle (I have 6 or so) cost me 12 bucks – my first one cost me about 6 bucks. There are dozens of options though, such as the before mentioned piano, guitar, as well as the harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, various percussion instruments, autoharps, dulcimers, accordions, brass, woodwinds, and who knows what else. The key to a Luddite though, is that it be relatively simple, and require minimal inputs (The Luddite Code says that we’re willing to substitute skill for technology, and that the technology we use should work for us rather than us working for it).

    I said above that the level of entry into music was wherever you are right now. This is definitely true, but you need to beware the pitfall of all new musicians. You can start playing music from day one, but it will be a while before you’re playing anything and everything you want to play and playing it as well as you want. Like everything Luddite, there’s some work involved. It’s fun work though, and it’s building a useful skill. The payoff though, is a new kind of independence – being able to create your own music, when, where, and how you want. You’ll make friends and entertain the kids, and for me that’s the best part. It’s a great feeling blowing on my whistle and having the kids dance around, be silly, goofy, and happy as a result of blowing a simple tune.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Luddite Guild

Over at The Archdruid Report John Michael Greer has issued a challenge for followers to become ‘Green Wizards’ – that is masters of appropriate technology. While I don’t disbelieve in magic or even druidery, I am a Christian and more pragmatic – I believe that hard work, properly applied, is more important than magic, so while I am pursuing his course of study (which has nothing to do with magic, necessarily), I’m putting my own stamp on it, borrowing a page from the past, and organizing a guild – The Guild of Luddite Practitioners.

Mr. Greer’s timing is impeccable, and reflects a train of thought I’ve been pursuing recently that was recently brought to relevance by starting to read Slow Food Nation by Carlo Petrini. Where Greer has his Wizards, and I have my Luddites, Mr. Petrini has developed the concept of the ‘gastronome’. Like myself, and presumably Mr. Greer, Mr. Petrini has discovered that any solution to the world’s problems requires going back to our roots, and to extend the metaphor of the tree, the roots are deep, elaborate, and complex, touching every area of human knowledge and wisdom. The tree cannot live without the roots, and understanding the roots is a daunting task. ‘Where do I start?’ is no small question, and like many great questions, it has no single ‘best’ answer.

What I’ve come to realize is that where you start isn’t so important as the fact that you do start, and that you keep some basic tenets in mind. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s even easier to start with a problem that has a known solution and work backwards that it is to start with an unsolved problem and work forward. An example of this that I recently faced was removing rust from old tools. The most immediate solution available was to use Naval Jelly (phosphoric acid), but me being me, I wondered how they used to do it, and how would I do it if couldn’t just run to the store and by a tub of Naval Jelly. I found a plethora of solutions – from sanding and abrasives, to chemicals, to electrolysis. Eventually I settled on electrolysis because it meant that I didn’t have to buy anything at all. (I plan to write a future column on the process).

In the Guild of Luddite Practitioners, most of us are just Apprentices, those some of us might qualify as Journeymen in particular aspects, and true Masters are as rare as hen’s teeth. In normal guild operations, Apprentices must train under Masters, and only a Master is considered worthy of recruiting Apprentices. In these times however, until such time as a new tradition can be restored, we as Apprentices must recruit our fellows and introduce them to the work of the Masters and Journeymen. The barriers against entrance are high – taking up this work means voluntarily forgoing some of the creature comforts that our society believe it is due, it means working hard, often failing and learning lessons the hard way, but the benefits are true freedom and independence and hopefully someday, becoming Masters ourselves, and passing on our knowledge to a future generation.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Luddite Heroes - Dennis Shelly

You won’t find his name in Wikipedia or any reference book. I’m not even sure you’ll find his name in the phone book, but if you ever meet him you won’t forget him, and with only a few minutes of conversation, you’ll realize that he is no ordinary man. I had the honor of working with Dennis for four years before my career took me elsewhere and I truly miss his presence.

Dennis is a man of many talents and true principles – a lover of animals and plants, of old machines, open land and simple solutions. He is a mechanic, an electrician, a carpenter, a plumber, a painter, and who knows what else. If it’s broke, Dennis can fix it. If there’s a problem, Dennis can solve it, and if he has his way, he’ll solve it with a minimum of technology and expense.

I learned many things from Dennis in our time as colleagues. Things like ‘If it’s worth making, it’s worth fixing’ and I was always impressed with his solutions. Although I was his supervisor, I frequently had to admit that his solutions were better than anything I would have come up with.