I thought I understood podcasting. Then I listened to Revivalism: Busk.
The series, from Goat Rodeo DC, a Washington-based audio and podcast network, follows a cross-country road trip that explores a fading but distinctive sliver of American culture: Professional street musicians, also known as “buskers.”
The four episodes released to date cover Asheville (NC), Oxford (MS), and New Orleans (in two parts). Each one features an intimate look at a small number of artists—sometimes a single musician—making a living as a street performer.
It sometimes isn’t pretty. But it is always authentic and powerful.
Several things about Revivalism are remarkable.
As you might guess, music is thoroughly woven into each episode. Often, the music bookends stories told by the artists during interviews, adding implicit meaning to their songs. You can hear the love, the pain, the triumphs, and the struggles in the strain of every note. It overflows from their instruments and voices.
Yet, the most compelling element of Revivalism isn’t the music. It’s the stories. And, more to the point, the magic is in the expert storytelling of the hosts / interviewers / narrators, Ian Enright and Carlisle Sargent.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the Goat Rodeo DC team was able to mine some stunning, potent, gut-wrenching revelations from their subjects, almost always delivered matter-of-factly by the interviewee. Revelations so staggering that they occasionally require a second listen just to make sure there was no confusion about what was said.
Despite its obviously non-fictional nature, in stylistic terms, Revivalism strikes me as a cross-pollination of a terrific novel and, believe it or not, old-time radio theater. Or, at least, radio theater updated for the iPhone generation.
The layering of the production speaks to that, and the structure is fascinating. The storytelling generally takes place on multiple “planes,” for lack of a better word, with the narration functioning as a post hoc framing device, under which the ad hoc interviews and musical performances take place.
Sometimes, an interview is used almost as a sound effect of sorts, as it fades into the background, or is presented as ambient noise in the first place, the narration superimposed over it summarizes what is being said for the sake of both efficiency and further enhancement of the story via commentary flourishes. The painstakingly meticulous audio production is superlative from start to finish.
What’s more, because the overall premise of the series is a road trip involving the hosts and two companions, they all become characters themselves along the way, blurring the line (in a good way) between pure documentarianism and a more gritty, emotional, first-person narrative.
I’ve heard many different kinds of podcasts, from straightforward interview programs to more morning-radio-esque shows to story-based content. Nothing touches Revivalism in terms of telling a story that immerses the listener in such a complete way. People who are totally unknown to the listener at the beginning of the program seem incredibly familiar to us just 20 or 30 minutes later. The description of every setting is so vivid and evocative as to heighten the experience to an almost uncomfortable level. Almost.
But perhaps the strongest bit of praise I can give Revivalism is one that will absolutely not seem like a compliment: I have zero interest in busking.
To be sure, I enjoy listening to the musical interludes in the episodes. What I mean is that I’ve never read a book on the subject, I’ve never done any research on it, and, before Revivalism, I hadn’t even heard the term “busking.” I doubt I’ll ever revisit the subject outside of listening to this series.
But none of that interferes with the absolute enjoyment of Revivalism.
Much like a great documentary, the subject matter becomes almost immaterial in the hands of skilled creators. So it goes with Revivalism. If, like me, you didn’t even know what busking was, you’ll still get a lot out of the experience.
In considering what Goat Rodeo DC and Revivalism mean in a big-picture sense, I think that they represent nothing short of a glimmer hope for online content as a whole.
The founders are a pair of 20-somethings who have resisted the siren song of listicles and clickbait and empty-calorie posts* to produce something meaningful and worthwhile and valuable.
Revivalism is the antithesis of—and the antidote for—that type of content.
In an age when the Internet is bursting at its virtual seams with inane garbage, here comes Goat Rodeo DC to scour every crack and crevice across this nation via Revivalism to show that beauty can be found anywhere, whether in a quiet college town or at a New Orleans rockpile.
Calling Revivalism a “podcast” seems almost vulgar. I suppose it is true, in the same way that Don Quixote and Jose Canseco’s autobiography are both “books.”
Revivalism makes me think maybe we’ve turned a corner. As long as there are people out there who are so deftly talented and willing to create work that is so worthy of my—and your—time, I find my cultural cynicism waning.
But Revivalism is also so profound as to make me re-think my longstanding belief that personal stories don’t have any inherent interest to an audience of strangers. At a minimum, Revivalism adds the crucial proviso that personal stories can absolutely have intrinsic value—if the stories are told well enough.
I now understand what podcasting can be when it rises to the level of art.