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Harvey Reid's 2001 Newsletter Essay: "A Musician Looks at Sept 11"

I have been asked regularly about whether or not the events of September 11 have inspired me to write new music, and I have heard several interviews of other artists where they were asked the same question. My immediate impulse for a reply has been "Well, no, it's too soon," or "How could a song I write have any bearing on an issue that large?" (It is Nov. 12 as I write this...) A guitar piece or a love song seem like pretty small things when put alongside the enormity of what happened. Like writing a song about World War II. People might be able to write songs like that 30 years from now. If we address the issue at all, we now have to be gentler now, and use allusions and metaphors and oblique references to the darkness, while the wounds are so fresh.
I suspect that people ask me about the relation between the disaster and my art because they are hoping I will have some relief for them. Art can be a powerful escape, and a reminder that humans create beauty as well as destruction. The world can be lovely, and it can be an awful place. If you were to put all the evils and sins of the human race on one side of a scale, what could you could put on the other side to counterbalace the staggering weight? I suggest humankind's works of art. All the poetry, dance, painting, cuisine, music, sculpture, needlepoint, woodworking, pottery and everything else we have created, taken as a group, makes a pretty powerful statement of redemption for the sins of our species. To imagine a world without art and culture is a chilling thought. I recall a quote that said that culture is what makes your country worth defending. Without all of our cultural practices, foods and clothing and languages, we would not be much more than animals squatting in mud huts.
Most of my life I have felt slightly guilty, that as a musician I was "playing" while other people were working. Artists typically do not command the work-ethic respect that other professions do, but in this world as a whole and in the aftermath of tragedies, we musicians and artists in general have important work to do. While the ship is sinking, people need lifeboats and warm clothing, and when there is an earthquake we need fire and rescue and medical people, not music. But once everyone is in the lifeboat, and time begins to pass, the need for art appears quickly. We artists do not usually work in the first wave of recovery as first responders, but once the victims are given first aid, medicine, blankets and food, and life-threatening situations are dealt with, then people quickly start to need human and artistic care. Our society tends to send grief counselors and psychologists to help victims cope, but I suspect that songs and other works of art are as powerful and useful. As an artist I tend to think they are even more useful, though the results cannot be measured or billed by the hour.
I had a gig on Sept 15, and I was worried that it might be difficult. I ended up having a profound experience, and felt very useful in taking people's thoughts away from the tragedy, and reminding them that there is beauty in the world. I found great relief and meaning playing lovely and intricate instrumental pieces, and especially in singing old ballads about soldiers and sailors and their loved ones at home. I was very glad at that time I was not a comedian, and was glad to regain some ground lost to the comedians over the last few years. (They do much shorter shows, don't haul equipment or tune instruments, and make better money than musicians, and have been gaining popularity, especially during the booming economic times.)
So don't expect a 3 minute song any time soon that will encapsulate all our feelings about the Sept. 11 tragedy and its aftermath. Maybe Woody Guthrie could write one if he were still alive. Instead, let us all look deeper into the art and culture of our countries and our people, and look harder at the books and music that was created during difficult times in the past. We songwriters always write songs when our relationships break up; when the well runs dry. And artists throughout history have expressed their feelings and sorrows in all sorts of ways, and now that our American bubble of safety, prosperity and economic growth has burst somewhat and we are experiencing some of what most of humanity has always lived with, we can all find important new meaning and comfort in art. Perhaps a good book or a powerful music performance will soothe us more than a trip to the mall. We are not that different emotionally and physically from even our most distant ancestors, and perhaps we all need to make some cave paintings now to take us away from the harsh reality around us.

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