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The Jefferson Airplane And The Cycles Of History

Spring 2005 | Volume 20 |  Issue 4

JORMA KAUKONEN’S DE lightful tale of his personal conversion from acoustic to electric guitar (“Letters,” Winter 2005) leaves unaddressed some central issues about technological change. Here’s my take on his story.

Jorma and I were friends in college, brought together by our love of folk music, which we both played all over the Bay Area. Many were the times, at late-night sessions, when we, Luddites to the core, would swear fealty to the acoustic guitar and eternal resistance to the electric invaders. But then it happened. One day in late 1964 I answered my phone and a voice bellowed out, “Gale.”

I bellowed back, “Kaukonen.”

“Listen,” he said, and a most distressing sound came from my phone, a fully amplified, unmistakably electric C chord.

“Kaukonen,” I wailed, “you’ve sold out.”

But of course the rest is history. Jorma and his Jefferson Airplane opened to great acclaim the next August at the Matrix in San Francisco. From then on it was gangbusters for them and all the other escapees from the acoustic world. Yet there was clearly a loss. It looked as if the acoustic guitar was finished as a serious instrument in popular culture.

Now dial ahead a generation. In the last few years we have witnessed a dramatic sea change. Even the most cursory look at the contemporary music scene reveals myriad “unplugged” concerts and albums as artists return to the subtlety and humane dimensions of acoustic. Yet it is not a simple return to yesteryear. A close listen to the unplugged music reveals a new and exciting character that wasn’t there in the playing of the sixties. Acoustic virtuosity has changed, and significantly for the better, with the infusion of new ideas, new techniques, and new sensibilities from these artists’ thorough mastery of the electric regime.

Most likely this is an illustration of an inevitable technological dynamic: A good older technology never really goes away. Rather, after a period of triumph of the new, the old reasserts itself, but in an essentially changed, new, innovative way. Perhaps Kaukonen’s personal trajectory embodies a fundamental kind of technological dialectic. The thesis, acoustic-guitar music, is superseded by the antithesis, electric-guitar music. But then, after a sufficient gestation, a synthesis emerges: today’s unplugged music.

Many examples of such a dialectic come to mind. Perhaps the most compelling is in contemporary medicine, the emerging synthesis of traditional forms of healing amalgamated with modern biophysical science. Who would have guessed that herbs, massage, and acupuncture would mix so well with SSRIs, heart transplants, and PET scans? New technologies inevitably mean loss of the old, but the technological dialectic just as surely means that the loss is anything but permanent.

Prof. George Gale

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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