It's not often that one would find geographical locations printed neatly next to song titles on most performers set lists. But self-described music enthusiast Ian Picco is not your everyday performer.
His list might read something like: Mysterious Mose (New Orleans), Cocaine Blues (Lynchburg Virginia), etc. For Picco, the origins and the story of the songs are just as important as the performance itself.
"I'm interested in where music is coming from; the time and culture that it originated in," Picco said.
The sole use of the term "set list," however, is misleading. In addition to it, Picco uses a prepared script to perform what he calls his "Grand American Musical Travelogue." The resulting solo show is part concert, part musical exploration, part live-radio performance, part history lesson.
Prior to every song selection, the 25-year-old Picco, backed by his guitar or banjo playing, sets the scene and context of the song. The narrative he created treats the audience as cohort: "Next we travel across the Arkansas border into the Ozarks to hear a traditional tune that dates back to before the civil war," he said in a way of introduction to "Run Johnny Run" during his travelogue.
Picco continues by explaining the song's origins as a field song sung by slaves that gradually morphed from being about a pursued runaway slave to being about a moonshiner being chased by a federal agent.
"Part of the show is learning something. I want people to learn about their history -- America's history," he said.
Picco will be bringing his informative Grand American Musical Travelogue to The Coffee House on Cherry Street, 1502 E 15th St. Sunday, June 13 at 7pm. A screening of "The Sinking of Hunley" by animator Drew Christie and narrated by Picco will be featured that evening as well.
Through the material of the hour-long live show, the listener is taken from Oklahoma before the Great Depression ("Oklahoma Blues"), down to Mexico amidst the Mexican Revolution ("Cancion Mixteca"), onto Louisiana during the birth of jazz ("Mysterious Mose") and over to Appalachia amidst the Depression ("Troubles").
All the while, Picco describes the author or recording artists associated with the song, its cultural and lingual origins, and the societal temperament of the region at the time. The result is a folksy take on public radio-style story-telling and a thorough collection of old jazz, folk and blues songs.
Picco's interest in old time music and the forgotten histories of America began when he started college at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where he studied drama and theater.
Growing up in south Tulsa, Picco was largely exposed to, what he calls, the homogenized consumer culture. He said that if one did not want to participate in that culture, there was not much else for a kid growing up in the area.
His desire to escape the local culture led him to the West Coast where he suffered from an absence of cultural identity. Questions like: "Who am I? Where did I come from? What culture do I belong to?" began to crop up in his mind. He kept returning to the default answer "American," but the answer simply raised more questions: "What does it mean to be American?
What are American values and culture?"
At that time in school, he began listening to old country music and tracing its roots back to the popular music of the early 20th Century that originated in the South. A classmate introduced Picco to his studies of song genealogy where one can trace the origins and evolution of a traditional song through its recordings throughout decades and state lines.
Some of the earliest recordings of old-time music and blues have roots as far back as the 19th Century and have dozens of arrangements, performers and variations.
"I listened to this early music and for the first time I felt like I could identify with something," he said.
During his musical explorations, Picco came across string band music, a combination of mountain music and jug band music. At the time he thought to himself, "This music is strange. I've never heard anything like it," and he was hooked.
Picco also discovered synapses between the popular culture and music of yesteryear and today. Songs about violence, sex, political dissent, drugs and dancing have always existed in American society as well as the accompanying moral outrage against it. Because of the constantly evolving nature of popular culture what was offensive and risqué quickly becomes passé and neutralized replaced by something else.
Anyone that has explored America's folk, country and blues histories knows that the music is only part of the charm. The stories, personalities and unique cultural perspectives that make up the genres are just as appealing.
"I like the stories of the songs," Picco said. "It lets you know what people did for fun back then."
He cited activities such as dancing and gambling, or even something as simple as baking a pie as potential subject matter for the music.
"Music was a loose form of documenting things," he said. "It's history that looks into the leisure time of (everyday) Americans and not the people in history books."
Popular culture and music are like language in a way. As it changes and evolves, words are gradually lost or fall into disuse. Picco lamented the loss of the more traditional aspects of old-time music, folk and blues: The communal aspect of performance, the sharing and passing down of songs, the familial teaching of instruments.
He suggested that technology was to blame, primarily radio and record production. Previously, in terms of rural and poor Americans, if one wanted to hear music one would seek out family, or neighbors or learn an instrument oneself.
"Once you were able to record music, there wasn't a need to teach children to play or pass down songs," he said. Families could simply cuddle up to the radio and hear the Carter Family sing their stories for them.
After college, Picco was bit by the travel bug and toured the United States by motorcycle for two months and pursued experimental and performance art projects in Istanbul, Turkey and New York City before finally landing in Portland, Ore., in early 2009. After a few months back in the Northwest, he was drawn back to Tulsa to plant roots and settle after more than a year of traveling.
Picco knows that his stories are just as important as the songs and his presentation during his travelogue; he's continuing a tradition. When introducing "Oklahoma Blues" early in his show, he hastens to mention that the composition played a role in his return to his home state.
Listening to the lyrics, it is obvious why: "I have traveled o'er the country, I've been a rolling stone/ But I found out it don't pay, so I'm going home/ I got them Oklahoma blues, blue as I can be/ They can call me what they want to, and Okie is Okay with me."
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