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And My Arms would get tired
September 29, 2008 |
Dear Mr. Keillor:
What do you think of the way people clap along with the Powdermilk Biscuits song and "Be-bop-a-ree-bop Rhubarb Pie?" I thought it was a European or Germanic tradition to clap ON the beat, and an American one to clap OFF the beat. But everyone you perform to each week seems to prefer the ON beat, whether they're Minnesotans or New Yorkers. That's an interesting phenomenon.
It's an interesting phenomenon for us on stage, my dear, especially if the clapping falls behind the beat and we're trying to stay with it, sort of like running in soft sand. I do remember audiences clapping on the off-beat in New York, San Francisco, and I think in L.A. and found it thrilling, but there is a powerful cultural undertow that pulls us into military march time. I would guess that if you dig into cultural anthropology, you'll learn that clapping on the off-beat is not American so much as African-American, and though African-Americans have had an enormous influence on American music, they haven't necessarily changed our rhythmic impulses, which may lie very deep indeed. So you could have a white audience thrilled by rhythm and blues who nonetheless might be culturally tied to the polka and John Philip Sousa. Decades ago in Minnesota we began to see mostly-black high school bands marching in parades and people were wowed by them, the style of them, and the shuffle-time cadence of the drums. It takes time for white folks to pick up that feel. I don't think an audience is going to jump right into it with both feet. I reckon that I could get them to do it by clapping on the off-beat over my head but I don't like to bully the audience. And my arms would get tired.