Category Archives: Vanity Vanity All Is Vanity

Attention Readers

This is just a note to let anyone who still visits this site know that I’ve started another foolhardy trawl through the music of the twentieth century at Just One Song More. I’m only up to 1902 so far, but there’s some good stuff there already.

The following was written quickly and at the desperate edge of exhaustion, like everything I’ve ever written for school. It might nevertheless be of some interest. The bibliography and citations have been excised; they were mostly for show anyway.

 From Atchison to Wonderland:
Popular Music’s Evolution into a Mass Media, 1945-1960


On September 2nd, 1945, when Mamoru Shigemitsu, Japan’s foreign affairs minister, signed a carefully-worded declaration of surrender on board the USS Missouri, bringing World War II to a long-anticipated and well-deserved close, the record at the top of Billboard’s Best Sellers in Stores chart was Johnny Mercer singing “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” accompanied by the Piped Pipers and the Paul Weston Orchestra. Fifteen years later, when Chief Justice Earl Warren swore John Fitzgerald Kennedy in as President of the United States on January 20th, 1961, bringing the Eisenhower Era to a close and beginning, for better or worse, what would come to be known as The Sixties, the record at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 was “Wonderland by Night” as played by Bert Kaempfert and his Orchestra. Not, at first glance, much of a journey; from a song written for a Hollywood movie1 to an instrumental in search of a movie to be the theme to. Both would be found under Easy Listening in a record store today, if they could be found at all. But between them lies a vast gulf in the meaning, modes, and methods of music-making.

One song, of course, is hardly enough to give the general character of an era. (Songs are generally far more about themselves than they are about their time; it is usually only in the aggregate that they can speak to larger concerns.) So it’s worth noting that Les Brown’s “Sentimental Journey” (vocal by a young Doris Day) preceded “Atchison” in the number-one spot, and Perry Como’s “Till The End Of Time” followed it — while “Wonderland” was bookended on the chart by two songs with questions for titles which would be far easier to hear on the radio today, Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Seen (or rather heard) in the aggregate, the historico-cultural shift in popular music becomes clearer: it is from heavily-orchestrated songs about generalized emotions, moods, and even manners shared by the entire audience (even Mercer’s winking celebration of small-town excitement when the train rolls in recalls the collectivist impulse behind New Deal art) to much more simply-orchestrated, if more self-consciously “produced,” songs about specific individual emotions and circumstances, emotions that listeners are of course invited to imagine themselves into — if they can. If the wide democratic sweep of Anyone could take a sentimental journey with Day or pledge undying love with Como, Elvis and the Shirelles speak to the young and floridly emotional, and in particular to audiences far more specific than Anyone: Elvis to country kids, the Shirelles to urban (i.e. black) girls. And the biggest difference is of course sex. 1945 is scrubbed clean; aside perhaps from Day’s faintly bluesy line readings, the earlier triptych is entirely virginal, even prepubescent. But sexuality — not adult sexuality, experienced and aloof, as Cole Porter would have written or Frank Sinatra would have sung, but the youthful, hormonal, terrified, and defiant sexuality of the adolescent — fills every pregnant pause in Elvis’s crooned ballad and is the frankly-admitted context of the Shirelles’ perilous romantic bargaining (orchestrated, if not scripted, by the young Carole King).

How did we get from there to here? It’s a complex story, one which cannot be done justice to in these short pages, but which can be broken down into three general categories of change: demography, technology, and musicology. Of course the larger cultural context was rapidly changing too — the comparative openness about sexuality in early-60s pop, for example, has justly-famous parallels in contemporaneous fiction, theater, and film — but these will do for now.



It has become enough of a commonplace that the teenager was invented in the 1950s that the statement deserves some skepticism. But while teenagerhood itself — the creation, through standardized education and labor laws, of a class of people too old to be children but not yet generally admitted into the workforce — can be traced to the late nineteenth century, it was not until the postwar economic boom that teenagers in the aggregate acquired enough money, leisure, and mobility to be a demographic worth marketing to. Youth, in the relative sense, had always driven popular culture to one degree or another — the rise of jazz in the 1920s was almost never greeted with enthusiasm by anyone over forty — but the unprecedented buying power and autonomy of teenage culture entering the 1950s was something new, a largely untapped market to which entrepreneurs of all stripes flocked, hawking wares from bobby sox and hula hoops to Catcher in the Rye and rock & roll.

But teenagers were far from the only demographic experiencing sudden prosperity and unprecedented autonomy. Even as civil rights leaders began to draw national attention to the political — not to mention economic — disenfranchisement of the Southern black population, more blacks than ever were leaving the South, displaced by war, by economic opportunity, or by personal choice, settling in cities in the North and West, and participating, if to a markedly lesser degree than middle-class whites, in the burgeoning national prosperity. Historians call this the Second Great Migration; the first Great Migration, 1910-1940, had brought jazz to the national scene, upending long-held assumptions about popular music, dance, and social contact, and the second would be no less transformative.

The rising tide which lifted both teenagers and African-Americans was also transforming the lives of rural whites, who had historically been just as excluded from the national conversation as blacks, especially in terms of popular culture. To compensate, rural Southerners and Westerners had created an entire alternate popular culture, the country-and-western circuit, in which Nashville replaced both Broadway and Hollywood, and the Grand Ole Opry was more significant than the Hit Parade. But urban migration was not limited to African-Americans, and rural whites moving to town in search of jobs and money also took their music with them and saw it transformed by contact with new populations, new technologies, and, as it turned out, old collaborations half-forgotten in the mists of history.

Postwar prosperity was not, of course, an absolute fact covering all of America. Plenty of people, plenty of regions of the country, were left unaffected by it, or saw it draw population, labor, and capital away, setting the stage for economic stagnation and depression in the decades ahead. As cities grew and suburbs multiplied, urban centers fell apart; and the music that people made, and listened to, and bought in 78s, in 45s, and LPs, reflected all of these conditions, from the desperation of outright poverty to the giddy surprise of new-found wealth. And the driving engine of American prosperity, constant technological innovation, would continue to spur, multiply, and transform all of this activity.



The central irony of the now-indissoluble relationship between popular music and technology is that during the years between World War II and the Vietnam War, every advance in musical technology was originally marketed and packaged as a way to make art music, whether classical or contemporary, more accessible to a mass audience. Long-players were developed so that symphonies could be heard unedited for the first time on record; stereo recording was marketed as a way to replicate the spaciousness of concert-hall sound in the home; and studio editing, tape effects such as speeding up or slowing down the sound, and electronic instrumentation were all embraced by the classical avant-garde long before they trickled down into popular songs and radio playlists. Even such modern devices as sampling, synthesized sound, and vocal manipulation were first investigated by experimental composers like Edgard Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer, and Karlheinz Stockhausen during this period.

But technology always trickles down; and the first modern record – in the sense of being entirely a studio creation, impossible to replicate live – was released in 1948 by Les Paul, designer of the hollow-body electric guitar, who recorded dozens if not hundreds of guitar parts onto separate acetates, playing them back at variable speeds in overlapping segments to record an instrumental version of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Lover.” True multi-track recording began here2, and from the early 1950s on, recorded music would no longer be restricted to what performers could play, sing, or do in a single take. Tape mastering quickly became the industry standard, and by 1955 no recording studio was without multi-track, echo, delay, and crossfading capabilities.

The effect of this rapid transformation of recording standards was immediate: thanks to the concurrent development of the long-playing record (as well as an outstanding marketing campaign on the part of the entire industry) an entire subculture of music lovers became obsessed with high fidelity, listening to music with deeper attention and greater awareness of the subtleties of recording than had previously been possible. The lushly orchestrated ballads of the 1940s sounded garish and monotonous on the new equipment; orchestrators and composers experimented with newly subtle variations that could be heard for the first time with unparalleled clarity. June Christy’s 1954 recording “Something Cool” set a new standard for clarity and depth of sound, only to be immediately superseded by the nearly avant-garde intimacy of Julie London’s 1955 “Cry Me a River” – backed by nothing but a heavily-reverbed electric guitar and bass, she sang in hushed tones barely above a whisper, and sold a million copies.

The electric guitar itself is, of course, a famously potent symbol of the revolution (to be slightly hyperbolic) that took place in popular music in these years. The guitar was first electrified at the end of the 1930s by jazz guitarists trying to compete sonically with their brass-playing colleagues, and soon picked up on by urban blues artists trying to be heard in bars, juke joints and chicken shacks that seemed to grow more raucous by the year. Towards the end of the 1940s, men like Muddy Waters (a Mississippian transplanted to Chicago), John Lee Hooker (a Mississippianansplanted to Detroit), and Lightnin’ Slim (a Texan who got his break in Los Angeles) had developed rough, keening tones on the electric guitar totally unlike the smooth, tasteful licks of big-band jazzmen like Charlie Christian. And in 1951, a band led by Mississippian entrepreneur Ike Turner recorded a song with the guitar fed through an amplifier that had been damaged en route to the Memphis studio3; many years later, “Rocket 88” would be called the first rock & roll record, a title to which it has as good a claim as any other song. The “dirty,” distorted guitar tone produced in that session would become one of the key sounds of a music that was slowly coalescing from disparate elements including Delta blues, hard-swinging urban blues, and the caffeinated country dance music called Western swing.

As rock & roll emerged as one of the major forces in popular music in the latter half of the 1950s, a clear division made itself felt in the demographics of the music-buying and music-listening audience. The “adult” side of the divide bought hi-fi stereo equipment and listened to crooners like Frank Sinatra, orchestral music whether led by Leonard Bernstein or Lawrence Welk, or the cast recording albums which were the biggest album sellers of the era, those of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows first among them. And the “teenage” side of the divide4 bought transistor radios — first introduced to the commercial market by Sony in 1955 — which compressed the sound into a tinny mass, cheap monaural 45s, and lots and lots of jukebox plays. And neither side was buying sheet music, which prior to World War II had accounted for more than half of the music industry’s revenue. Popular music was no longer an exercise centered around the parlor piano: Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956), Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” (1957), and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him” (1958) were above all else performances, unique and unrepeatable outside of the studios where they were born, and unlike the classic compositions of Tin Pan Alley, lacking the melodic strength or lyrical ingenuity that would allow an amateur performer to carry them off.

This series of technological transformations changed not only the consumption of music, but even the role which music could play in the popular imagination; the idea that life could be like a musical, that one could burst into sudden song if passions ran strong enough5, faded away. Piano duets died as a courtship ritual: instead, playing a record on the jukebox, requesting a record from the disc jockey — and a decade or two later, compiling and decorating a mixtape — would make up the musical courtship of the future.

The change was plainly visible to cultural observers at the time, who bemoaned the younger generation’s inability to read music at sight, grumbled about a population in thrall to television and the mass media, and prophesied a cultural wasteland with the disappearance of a participatory musical culture. The masses, and especially the young, were spoon-fed slop from the radio and the depraved rock & roll subculture; how could we hope to see another Beethoven, or even a Gershwin, ever again? Which brings us to the final and most difficult to explain leg of our journey: because thousands, even millions of Americans, young and old, black and white, rural and urban, were rewriting the rules of artistic endeavor so that Gershwin, let alone Beethoven, would be almost entirely irrelevant to the achievements of the future.



When, in 1956, a young black guitarist named Chuck Berry advised Beethoven to roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news, his was only the latest installment in a significant strain of American popular music which had boastingly declared its independence from European and classical norms. In 1943, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer had a minor hit with “The Old Music Master,” in which a long-haired professor of music is shocked by “swing, boogie-woogie and jive,” and when George M. Cohan made a handful of recordings in 1911, it was to praise John Philips Sousa and ragtime at the expense of Wagner and the waltz. Berry’s lyrics were not what put him in the vanguard of a musical revolution, but his sound: a clean, stripped-down version of rhythm-and-blues, with guitar soloing that owed as much to uptempo country records as to the black blues that his label (Chess Records) had made its name on, and a clean vocal style that fooled white stations into playing his records until it was too late and he was an actual hitmaker.

But the shift in fashions which allowed Chuck Berry to become one of the first rock & roll stars, almost before the concept had been invented, was far from the only, or even the primary, musical transformation of the era. Except for his revved-up electric guitar and the strict backbeat of his rhythm section, he was not far from the hepcat jive of the King Cole Trio (cf. “Hit That Jive, Jack,” 1942) or the giddy jump blues promulgated by Louis Jordan (cf. “Choo-Choo Ch’Boogie,” 1946). The totalizing cultural transformation went much further than the disreputable corner of the popular-music industry that dressed in new suits and called itself rock & roll.

In fact, the commercial success of rock & roll only became possible once a whole host of confluences had prepared a mass audience to understand its language. Under Roosevelt’s New Deal, the WPA had spearheaded an interest in the folk music of America, both white and black; at different times during the 30s and 40s, self-consciously folk artists like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White all recorded for anthropologists like John and Alan Lomax, who received New Deal grants to preserve the musical heritage of America. This “folk revival” hit the mainstream in 1950, when a sanitized recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” by the Weavers (a group whose members had occasionally recorded with Guthrie and White) was one of the longest-running number one hits in the history of the charts. Though the left-leaning Weavers were soon hounded out of existence by anti-Communist sentiment, their populist (and commercial) celebration of folk music set off a wholesale movement, one which took on a sustained new life when the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” bookended the decade by hitting number one in 1958. The blues, and old-time country (or “white man’s blues”), were essential to this college-based, coffeeshop-oriented movement’s understanding of folk; and rock & roll, which also drew directly, if in a far more commercial way6, from both blues and country, would in another decade see the connection made explicit in the music of Bob Dylan and an entire generation of musical adventurers.

But in the meantime, the teenaged audience for rock & roll and the college-aged audience for folk music were far from the only consumers of popular music; the silent majority saw its own music change and develop over the course of the postwar years. The singers who had come out of the big bands in the 1930s and 40s — Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, and many more — were, in the LP age, reaching the peak of their powers, releasing album after album of cool, adult, sensitive, romantic, and sophisticated music. But with rare exceptions — and they grew rarer as time went on and the gray hair showed more, and the voices became less supple — they were no longer singing new songs, but merely cycling through the same two hundred or so old favorites, the evergreens of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway and Hollywood, the music that would come to be called “standards” or “the Great American Songbook,” and as such titles make clear, definitively in the past. More and more, these singers — jazz singers, saloon singers, cabaret singers — were nostalgia acts, and those who followed in their footsteps — Rosemary Clooney, or Tony Bennett, or Nancy Wilson — took on the faintly depressing role of keepers of the flame, rather than being at the vanguard of popular music. The category of music — the radio format, the record-store section, the chart (begun by Billboard on January 9, 1961) — would come to be called Easy Listening, and the phrase itself showed what it had become: a retreat, an oasis, a barricade against the presumably “difficult listening” of Young People’s Music. Even jazz, the music from which these singers had ostensibly emerged, was no longer easy, but harsh and atonal, or dizzying and modal — America’s new classical music, in other words, and leaving the mass audience behind.

And the guitars, the drums, and the dances of rock & roll flooded in to fill the gap. Elvis Presley was, famously, the first shot fired; he would be joined by hundreds of others, men and women, black and white, Northern and Southern and Eastern and Western. Later, people would use names like rockabilly7 and doo-wop8 and soul9 and girl-group10 and swamp-pop11 to distinguish between the many forms of rock & roll, but in the late 50s it seemed like nothing more than a sea change, with loud, clattering rhythms and wild, untamed vocals, and crazed, sputtering guitars and a sense of drama that owed nothing to the theatrical traditions of Tin Pan Alley or the virtuosic traditions of jazz, but was based purely on the push-and-pull dynamics of the three-minute single, one after another after another, all day. Music was all young people wanted, it seemed, and they couldn’t get enough of it. Radio drama and comedy died away, victims of the disc jockey and the unending playlist, of what, as the form matured and exploded and atomized into subgenres and sub-subgenres, would finally be called, with a helpless shrug of the shoulders, Pop. The least descriptive of all genre names, it means only “what is popular at the moment,” and so unites every disparate kind of music possible.

If rock & roll was originally based on blues changes and structure — with instrumentation and sentiments borrowed from country (which on investigation turns out to have precisely the same origins as the blues) — as it morphed into Pop, it became more harmonically and lyrically sophisticated, without losing the essential simplicity that first endeared it to the young and made the mature groan and throw up their hands at the pass to which civilization had come. Sinatra would not admit that rock & roll had produced a singable song until 1969; and nothing in the 60s Pop canon stands up to the extended compositions of Gershwin or Ellington in terms of musical sophistication and narrative possibility. But nobody (Brian Wilson perhaps excepted) was trying to match those earlier achievements, any more than Gershwin or Ellington were trying to write Romantic symphonies: technological, demographic, and musicological change had made the new form its own basis of comparison, so that the cool harmonics of jazz song came by degrees to sound passé, as the energetic bounce of ragtime and the dreamy sweep of Viennese waltz had done in earlier ages.

When Bert Kaempfert, a meticulously-organized German bandleader, had his first American hit with “Wonderland By Night,” it was a slice of Easy Listening, a sop to nostalgia for WWII-era romance, but it was also Pop, carefully arranged in the studio, every instrument given its place in the mix, with echo on the guitar and no sophisticated harmonics. It was hardly the last of its era — the dogged persistence of old music is a perennial dismay to the younger generation — but as it greeted the dawn of Camelot, the Space Age, and all that the 1960s held in store, it might well have sounded not unlike a last gasp, to be overtaken in two weeks by the vivid, high-contrast psychosexual drama of the Shirelles. But no, they in turn would give way to Lawrence Welk, and the generations would continue to fight it out on the charts and everywhere else, for the rest of the decade and the rest of our lives. Some peace treaties are never signed.


1The Harvey Girls (1946), starring Judy Garland; the version sung by Mercer and the Pipers differs substantially from the one sung by Garland and chorus in the film.


2The occasional radio-drama experiment or novelty vocal aside. Cf. Patti Page’s “Confess,” released in December 1947.


3Accounts vary as to how the damage occurred; the jostling of a bumpy road and leaking rainwater are the two preferred stories. Regardless, other amps were available, and the decision to use a distorting one is what matters.


4Ironic quotation marks added because sales figures make it clear that teenagers were also buying old-fashioned music and adults were also buying rock & roll. But generalizations are the soul of cultural history.


5Anecdotal evidence as well as cultural studies show a sharp decline in the amount of casual whistling towards the end of the 1950s, which only makes sense; if life could no longer be a musical, the need to rehearse had likewise vanished.


6That is, it was music made for dancing to. Despite the populist and collectivist rhetoric of the folk movement, it was deeply uncomfortable with music that operated in the oldest and most traditional fashion possible: as dance.


7Southern white rock & roll, amped-up country with electric instruments, best exemplified by the output of Sun Studios, where Elvis first recorded.


8Vocal groups (usually male, usually black), so named because of the nonsense vocalizing many of the groups would use in lieu of instrumentation; the Platters, the Penguins, and the Five Satins were only a few of the hundreds.


9Black singers singing secular songs in a gospel style: Ray Charles, James Brown, and Sam Cooke are usually considered the three fathers of the style.


10The distaff side of the doo-wop phenomenon, lagging slightly behind historically. The Chantels and the Shirelles were the first to have hits; the form reached its apotheosis in the Phil-Spector produced records of the Crystals and the Ronettes.


11A briefly-popular style based in the Acadian region of Louisiana and Texas; Bobby Charles and Dale & Grace are probably its best-known exponents.

In Other News.

I’m joining the digital information revolution of 2007 and opening a Tumblr account, apparently in the belief that I will update it more frequently than this thing.

Rejoice With Me, My Brothers.

Just a quick note to memorialize my old iPod (80G) which died while trying to play a song from Cluster’s 1974 album Zuckerzeit, and to celebrate the arrival of my new iPod (160G), which will probably be too small to hold everything I’ll want it to, but still.

I’ve only loaded a bunch of my favorite playlists, Theoretical Box Sets, and Top 100s on it so far. The Inaugural Shuffle is after the jump.


Read More →

Warning: Adult Content.

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My iPod just died; I didn’t back it up, and I’ve lost some seventy gigs and two years’ worth of library building.

Oh, and in trying to fix it, I broke it irreversibly.

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