Sound Judgement

Bridging the generational music gap between father and son, one banjo and fiddle at a time

Last year, I bought my son Murphy an iPod for Christmas. While wrapping it, I imagined the endless hours we would spend together listening to my vinyl records, CDs, and vast catalog of downloaded material as I introduced him to all the music I grew up with. We would then huddle around the computer, cozying up to it as we would a campfire, and comb through the iTunes store, handpicking all the songs I suggested. There would be plenty of high-fiving, maybe some riotous air guitaring, and more than likely a gluttonous romp through the holiday cookie tray.

I wanted Murphy to like all the music that I liked, which was mainly the roaring underground rock of the mid 1980s to early 1990s—in particular, our local Twin Cities sound. At an early age, I was baptized in the shambolic genius of The Replacements and the sonic ground war of Hüsker Dü, two scrappy hometown bands that exemplified the entire indie-rock DIY movement. It was a hootenanny of raw-throated, unpolished, and very sweaty songs.

It was more than just the music, though. The indie movement was a way of life. The music fed our underdog status as both a people and a city, our working-class sensibilities, and it most certainly cranked up our sneers at the establishment. All of this helped me grow my own musical connection to my beloved hometown, and I wanted Murphy to feel that attachment to Minneapolis, too. I wanted him to feel the authenticity, the attitude, and the ringing in the ear that follows having your face melted off at the 7th Street Entry.

But Murphy had other plans. After politely sitting down and listening to some of my favorite songs, he went ahead and torpedoed the whole bonding exercise by ignoring all of my suggestions. He bought and downloaded his own music, which was the biggest pile of manufactured corporate cheese I’d ever heard. For days, control over the music that played on our stereo and computer was a pitched battle for the soul of our family.

“I want to listen to the Black Eyed Peas,” he’d chirp. “I want The ’Mats,” I’d answer. “I want ‘I’m Sexy and I know It’ by LMFAO,” he’d say right back, referring to the spandex-clad sideshow that made gyrating pop hits. “Give me some Bob Mould!” I’d retort.

This high-stakes game of musical bomb-throwing went on for several days. But then one night I went nuclear about what he was listening to (something called Flo Rida) and what he was downloading onto his iPod. Afterward, I realized what I’d done: I had committed a classic gift-giving foul.

Sometimes, we give gifts for ourselves and not for the recipients. In my case, I tried giving my son the gift of an iPod with all of my music and never once considered that he might, you know, want his own songs on his own iPod.

A few weeks after Christmas, when I depressingly felt that my son had succumbed to the dark side of corporate pop music, I caught Murphy jamming to a wild fiddling song from Duluth-based bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles. We stood there together, wrapped in the warm sound of the old-school banjos and mandolins, which in today’s musical landscape—a place where nearly every performer and every sound comes polished to a prepackaged fine sheen—was about the most punk rock, authentic sound I’d heard in years. You could practically feel their uncorporate North Woods, Bunyan-esque beards growing through the speakers. Then, with a muttering of six simple words, my son unknowingly gave me one of the best presents I’ve ever received.

“Hey, dad, I like this song,” he said. 

Todd Smith is a Minneapolis freelance writer and former columnist for Metro magazine.