One of my best friends is that guy who you might have seen on the Ivy League Snapchat story a few weeks back, wearing an Army uniform and playing the pedal steel guitar. Before I met him, during the Fall 2016 semester, I had only some vague sense of what the pedal steel guitar is, what it sounds like or what it even looks like. I think I understood that the pedal steel is behind that ambient, stoner wave in the beginning of “Breathe (In The Air)” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This, of course, was news to my friend, who primarily considers the instrument as it appears throughout classic country music, by artists such as George Jones or Buddy Emmons — we often like to joke about the humorous dichotomy between my city-folk tastes and his north country musical preferences.
The entire niche culture around the pedal steel was foreign to me, as was the brand of classic country that he enjoys, but nevertheless, this did not stop us from becoming friends and even playing music together. With him on the pedal steel and me on an acoustic guitar, we managed to find a common ground in playing some rock tunes by artists like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Mumford and Sons. On many occasions we have sat around jamming until the early hours of the morning; these nights certainly stand among my fondest memories from Cornell. Part of it is definitely that joy one derives from making music with others, the sort of cosmic coincidences that occur when certain elements of the sound become uncontrollable and synthesize into something entirely unexpected. The other, more significant portion of my fondness for playing music with my friend, however, is being able to witness someone immerse themselves in a world that they enjoy so profoundly.
Seriously, do not ask him about the pedal steel guitar if you do not have some free time. At any mention of the instrument, either in passing or while listening to music, he will begin a lengthy dialogue on a pedal steel guitarist he was recently listening to or a newly discovered pedal steel track on a song. I find it quite inspiring to see someone so absorbed by an entity which they love, especially when the admired thing is not widely known. Indeed, the pedal steel guitar is not overwhelmingly popular; one does not hear it on the newest popular albums being released, nor can one discern it amongst the noise and music played at frat parties. But all of this certainly does not matter to my friend.
I feel as though it is much too easy to forget how to really love things, particularly in college and even more so at an intensive institution like Cornell. At some point, after all of the campus pre-professionalism, resume obsession and grade-point anxiety, we forget what it means to simply lose ourselves and be passionate about something. Professors and advisors will tell us not to worry about certain things and to focus on entering the standardized, industrial world. Each of the aforementioned stressors contribute to a culture that is entirely characterized by the mainstream. The individuals who exist in this culture continuously morph themselves into versions that are more socially acceptable, that better fit some arbitrary mold. Where the hell did all of the originality go?
I do not mean to chide anyone from some position of loftiness, as I am certainly a victim of this environment. Sometimes I really feel as though I am no longer passionate about the things I once loved. When I arrived at Cornell, I gradually withdrew myself from playing classical piano, an instrument and a music through which I once breathed. I felt an anxiety about existing in this classical world, away from most people. I figured that, since it is not mainstream, it is essentially meaningless.
After a year or so away from playing and taking lessons, however, I realized the sadness of abandoning a passion. Doing so left me devoid of an outlet and at some point it struck me that I did not really feel anything anymore. So, I have begun to step back into a place I once loved. Recently, I started taking harpsichord lessons because it allows me to access this brilliant, historical world. Sometimes I am rather reserved in telling people this fact, in revealing my sojourn out of the mainstream, but perhaps I will one day find a sort of confidence similar to that of my friend.
All of this is not to suggest that Ithaca and Cornell do not have vibrant artistic communities. I am constantly inspired by the endeavors I see on a daily basis. Yet, I want to see more of it! I want everyone to exit the mainstream, to find their pedal steel guitar, if only for a little while, and bask in all the fervor that comes with truly loving something for the way it makes you feel.
Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.