Originally posted summer 2009.
Prologue: The Fundamental Things Apply
This is not a social history of pop music in America. The hasty and inattentive might mistake it for that, or think that’s what it’s trying to be, but I’m absurdly underqualified to write such a thing, and my interest in it would be limited anyway. I’m the wrong kind of nerd; I like mythology more than sociology.
So what this is, is an extended meditation on America as seen through the prism of one hundred recordings made in the years 1940-1949. These recordings were chosen more or less at random, in the sense that they do not stick to the charts, to music widely acclaimed either at the time or in hindsight as important or valuable. They are the hundred recordings that I wanted to listen to over and over again, then write about. They all, I think, say something about America, if only obliquely. The writing is my attempt to figure out what that is.
But before we get to that, we need to figure out exactly where we are, here in the cold dawn of January 1940. What is the context for all this stuff? Here’s one off-the-cuff surmise, from Head Poptimist Tom Ewing in Pitchfork back on May 1st:
1940s: Pop music [is] an instrument of national identity and social or class cohesion, mostly consumed via broadcast (live or radio).
Tom is looking at the 1940s from the perspective of the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s, as is his inalienable right, and he is of course right: compared to what came after, the pop music of the 1940s was narrowcasted to a specific set of attitudes and conventional perspectives and constrained by technological as well as cultural limitations. However, from our position in January 1940, “an instrument of national identity and social or class cohesion” describes the pop music of the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s (or at least what made it on to cylinders and discs in those years) far better than it does the pop of the coming decade, which will be much more concerned with interiority (explicating and reflecting the listener’s emotions back to her), motility (music is made, above all else, for dancing to), and what, for lack of a better term, may be called the shock of the new. (Though perhaps one has to be thoroughly grounded in the music of the 30s, 20s, and earlier to hear what in the 1940s sounds new and what is appealing to the same nostalgic impulse that keeps the Eagles one of the best-selling acts of the 2000s.) Further, the music of the 1940s will represent a sea change, a giant leap forward in the rising wave of youth-culture-as-musical-expression, of interracial and interclass dialogue, and of growing sophistication in the use of the tools of pop and the instrument of the human voice, as well as unprecedented technological, theoretical, and cultural shifts. Compared to these things, the giant world war eating up the first half of the decade is almost a distraction.
Which isn’t to deny that pop served functions towards national identity and social/class cohesion in the 1940s. It does today, too. (Think for a moment about the matrices of class and social identity tied to country, hip-hop, heavy metal, and indie rock.) But it served other functions that we recognize as pop functions today as well: it introduced elements of danger and exotic otherness into constricted lives, it brought people together in self-forgetting orgies of dance, it glommed onto the latest technology to produce sounds that had never been heard before in the history of humanity. It gave people an emotional context for their relationships, romantic and otherwise, an outlet for their feelings of frustration and bitterness, and a shared language with which to interpret themselves to themselves. As it always has and does and will.
But as I said, this is not a social history of of pop — my vision of American music isn’t even limited to pop, which is why I used the word “recordings” rather than “songs.” This is more freeform, and the generalizations above won’t have much to do with the specifics of song, player, and mythology which I’m going to be discovering/building in the next several weeks.
I will peek under the curtain to this extent: America, in this vision, is half-black. Literally; I just counted, and fifty out of the hundred recordings were made by African-American singers, musicians, and composers. (The number was not deliberate; in fact I was a little worried the percentage might be more.) (And in fact not all the remainder are white.) This would be a thoroughly uncontroversial statement if made about pop in the twenty-first century; but I expect some pushback on the idea as applied to the 1940s only because some people have a lot riding on the idea that pop music was not properly integrated until rock & roll, or even Motown, and have to overstate the whiteness of pre-fifties pop in order to amplify the achievements of the Soul generation. A couple of points in response to this:
1. Societal and legal change does not run on the same track that culture does. African-Americans were creating major cultural works long before they had equality underthe law. It takes nothing away from Dr. King (or from Sam Cooke) to recognize Billy Eckstine and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
2. The recorded pop audience does not make up the entirety of pop. It is true that the pop charts — or the Hit Parade, to use contemporary language — were almost exclusively white, but that was because the industry quarantined “black” music in the race/rhythm & blues chart, distorting the picture of what a population that didn’t always follow such convenient categories was actually listening to and buying. (The same thing is true of the hillbilly/country & western chart.) My grandmother was a teenager in rural Ohio in the 1940s, and she listened to and sang black music, country music, and urban white pop without making those distinctions.
Ultimately, however, pop music is only one of three matrices I’ll be looking at music through. The other two are vernacular music (“roots music” in the convenient language of modern lifestyle marketing) and art music (as loaded and meaningless a term as that is). What distinguishes one from the other, what their relationship to one another is, and what happens when the lines start to blur, will be a secondary theme of this travelogue; any honest discussion of American music, or music period, has to wrestle with these categories.
No categorical distinctions are entirely satisfactory; still, I’ll be using “pop music” in a broad sense to mean music written by professional songwriters and performed by professional musicians aimed at selling lots of records and maybe even more sheet music (not an insignificant market). I’ll be using “vernacular music” to mean music indigenous to a culture or subculture; in America, such music divorced from a pop or commercial framework has always been as much theoretical as actual (a point Harry Smith made when his 1952 Anthology Of American Folk Music consisted entirely of commercially-released records), but it generally includes such features as unattributed authorship, tunings, timbres, and instrumentation that owe more to tradition than to commercial norms, and performers who may or may not be professionals — in the “make a living” sense, not the “competent” sense — or have had any formal training. Finally, I’ll be using “art music” to mean music composed by people with extensive formal training, people who see themselves as working in, or responding to, the tradition of Beethoven, Debussy, and Schoenburg, where specific recordings are less important than either the composition itself or the performance of it. One of the stories of the 1940s (spoiler alert) is the migration of jazz from the pop world to the art world, and what filled the void.
So expect a lot of rodomontade about all that, as well as about whatever I think about America in any given week. Also, before we turn the page, some housekeeping.
Although this is an installment in my increasingly annoying 100 Great Songs of N, where N is a decade of the twentieth century, it’s not ranked; it’s a playlist, or a series of them, interspersed with a bunch of text. It’s in rough chronological order, but very rough. The more important sequence is narrative.
Along those lines, there’s nothing here I don’t think an honest appraisal wouldn’t call genuinely great by the standards of the twenty-first century. So it’s not even a representative look at the 1940s, where Sturgeon’s Law applies as much as anywhere else.
Finally, I would be less than honest if I failed to acknowledged that a great deal of the imaginative foundation of this project was laid by the title track of the the Blasters’ 1980 debut album American Music. In fact, it wouldn’t a bad idea if you went and listened to it in preparation for reading this thing.
So here it is.
See you on the set.
Act I: Hollywood And Vine
Scene One: The Greatest Cast Of Honest Joes, Thieves, Murderers, And Cutthroats In Radio History
Command Performance “Dick Tracy In B-Flat”
(Meredith Willson, et al.)
Armed Forces Radio Service H-18.162 • 1945
We begin here, very nearly at the midpoint of the decade, at the high water tide of the war (Original Airdate: February 15 1945) with a record that isn’t a record, not by most lights, but we’re feeling expansive. Sixteen inches worth of expansive, which is the diameter of the records this show and thousands like it are transcribed onto, records that can’t be played on regular turntables and are sent out to military stations all over the globe so that the boys in Bali and Bern can hear a show recorded in Los Angeles whenever they want. (Chuckle.)“It’s come to our attention that some of you boys are reading comic books while our shows are on the air.” It’s true, all of it, comics rot the brain and sap the moral fiber, as Dr. Frederic Wertham will demonstrate conclusively in nine years or so, but there is no more American pop form, thoroughly American and thoroughly pop, even more so than jazz which always had the hint of African-American tragedy behind it — elevating it into the sphere of art or at least a species of folk which is just as good in the right circles. But the comics are never tragic, and they’re not even comic in the dramatic sense, they don’t attempt to grapple with the realities of life let alone resolve them, they just give us jokes and violence and pretty girls in varying proportions. The first lesson of the comics is Watch Out, because everyone’s trying to fuck you over, and you have to be a moron like Li’l Abner or a son of a bitch like Popeye in order to get anywhere. The second lesson is Take Nothing Seriously whether dramatic or comic, because a cliffhanger is just a punchline in drag, and it’s not like they’re going to kill the hero and run a blank space the next day. Cartoonists are always secretly nihilists, so it’s no accident that the biggest comic hero of all is a circus strongman predicted by Nietzsche and created by a couple of Jews. (Who promptly got fucked over. The first mistake anyone ever makes is to trust a publisher.) Superman is a philosophical void in blue and red tights, the ultimate pop expression of America’s divided soul, believing with all her might in the truth and righteousness of America, but never actually managing to participate in her. The dude punches and runs and leaps tall buildings for Truth, Justice and So Forth, but then again he’s a put-upon wimp in glasses who never gets laid. Thurber couldn’t have said it better.
But no, it’s not Superman we’re contending with here, he’s too powerful and too self-contained for the project at hand, we need something older and creakier, something that has undergone a sustained decade of tweaking and twitting already. It says Dick Tracy on the tin, but what we actually get is something like Fearless Fosdick with Al Capp’s nasty, Swiftian edges sanded off and the ramshackle anything-for-a-gag pace of the Crosby-Hope Road pictures.
Thus the primal pop form, the one that baptized the American century in Hearst’s yellow ink and Philippine blood, rushes headlong into the brand-spanking newest pop form, the radio show, which by 1945 isn’t actually all that new but is still as relevant as ever because broadcast media is by definition self-renewing, at least until it’s replaced by something else. Dick Tracy has actually had a radio show since 1934, but it’s only fifteen minutes long as well as being borderline illiterate and without Chester Gould’s slashing, violent spot blacks it might as well be Philo Vance or Boston Blackie and probably is, with the names changed. But Command Performance isn’t Lux Radio Theatre or CBS Radio Workshop here, it’s a variety program and the boys won’t sit still for anything less than wall-to-wall entertainment. When in doubt, do as Donald O’Connor will say in 1952, ripping off Cole Porter in 1948 but the sentiment goes back at least to Aristophanes in -424: make ’em laugh.
So the usual suspects are rounded up, whoever they might be — records are sketchy, but the sheer volume of one-liners implies a heavy level of participation from all the guests’ regular stables of gagmen as well as whoever the Armed Forces Radio Service had on retainer to do interstitials and punch-up work — and the thinnest of possible plots is fleshed out with an army of jokes both ancient as the hills (“Methinks Vitamin has drunk too freely of the Four Roses.” “How can you tell?” “His nose has broken out into small bouquets.”) and so up-to-date they’re virtually unintelligible today. (“You’ve been driving in reverse!” “Oh, it’s my own fault. I put Serutan in the gas tank.”) What’s more, this is a show with an all-adult audience, so they can be a bit cheekier than they could for a domestic audience, though still G-rated as all heck. (“I appeal to you on bended knee!” “Kid, you appeal to me in any position.”) You should hear the competition.
The unflappable, eternally tongue-in-cheek Bing Crosby is the natural choice for the parodically virtuous Tracy (“Why aren’t men more like me? I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t gamble.” “Oh, please, please don’t tell me any more of your faults. We’re getting married tonight!”); Dinah Shore’s honeyed Tennessee tones give Tess Trueheart an amount of sex appeal that would give her long-suffering newsprint counterpart a heart attack (“I don’t have to worry about you Tess, because your heart is true.” “My heart will always be true, but if we don’t get married soon, the rest of me may stray a little!”); the ever-willing but glibly incompetent Bob Hope manages to convey the greasy essence of hoodlum Flattop while bollixing up every note he’s given to sing; the Great and Powerful Oz, I mean Frank Morgan, leers and hiccups his way through aging actor Vitamin Flintheart (“The girls are saying nice things about me?” “Oh, yes!” “I must be getting older than I thought.”); and the high-strung racehorse that is Judy Garland yet again plays the actorly equivalent of a My Little Pony, although she at least gets to sing a few bars of Donizetti along the way.
For this is the Official Show-Biz vision of pop: everything, all at once, but nothing too black. Or rural. Or ethnic. But as long as you stay safely within the hall of White, Male (and for preference Dead) composers, you have free reign. The trench-toiling songwriter tapped to lead the AFRS orchestra and score the thing, Major Meredith Willson, contributes an actual honest-to-God ballad in “Whose Dream Are You,” which we hear three times and with a straight face once; but just about everything else is hand-me-downs both recent — Harold Arlen’s “Tess’s Torch Song” and Hugh Martin’s “The Trolley Song,” both 1944 — and hoary with age — Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 “A Wand’ring Minstrel I,” and George M. Cohan’s 1908 “I’m Awfully Strong For You,” not to mention the aforementioned Donizetti (1835, the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor), retrofitted with all-new lyrics, theoretically comic, and delivered with varying degrees of ability and panache.
“The first comic-strip operetta of all time,” smarms announcer Harry von Zell, and if you squint you can see it, but it’s not really the first (John Alden Carpenter’s 1922 ballet Krazy Kat usually gets the award, but there were Mutt & Jeff and Katzenjammer Kids musicals earlier), and it’s not really an operetta either, though its use of repeated themes and giggly choruses at least recalls the golden nineteen-oughts childhood when Victor Herbert was every song-scribbler’s idol till Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern came along. That major with the printer’s error of a surname, however, was surely taking notes, as he did throughout his stints in Hollywood and radio, and when he finally took Broadway captive for five years beginning in 1957 it was with just such a mixture of old, new, borrowed and blue music, garishly patriotic and defiantly antirealistic sentiment, and quick-fire, All-American patter as that team of scrappy seasoned professionals threw together for no pay, as a service to Uncle Sam and as another line on their lists of triumphs in the backs of future autobiographies.
But despite showbiz inertia and the calcification of vaudeville humor, there are in fact two perfect pop moments in the entire hour’s broadcast. (There are some merely great pop moments too, but Dinah Shore availing herself of microtones in a blues song and Frank Sinatra proving that he can make women weak at the knees even when singing “Someday I’ll rub you out, believe me” isn’t exactly news.) The first is a duet between Bob Hope and Judy Garland, which between Garland’s nervous giggles and Hope’s utter lack of rhythm or pitch dissolves into floundering chaos and is the one genuinely funny moment. Peeling back the years on the hazards as well as the joys of live performance, the orchestra struggles to rescue “I’m Awfully Strong For You” from their spontaneous tap routine (“we’re gonna be arrested, you know,” shouts Hope at one point) and the interjection “you’re so repulsive” is indelibly wedded to the song for anyone who’s heard the program. If only there were more opportunities to sing “I’m Awfully Strong For You” in 2009. It is the pop of Sid Vicious’ “My Way,” of incompetence and bravado revealing more than they had meant to, and a genuine human moment sparking across the decades.
The second perfect pop moment is of a more frequent kind, though it is fittingly the last number before curtain: character actress and comedienne Cass Daley, playing a grotesque namd Gravel Gertie, sings a travesty of “The Trolley Song” in which she confesses a passion for Dick Tracy and catalogues his physical abuse. The lyrics are only of partial interest: what makes the number redound through the memory is the abandon with which Daley attacks it, utterly fearless and without a bare scrap of the cool, wary reserve that huge stars like Crosby, Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, and even in his self-deprecatory way Jimmy Durante have kept up. Daley screams and hollers like Bessie Smith — or Janis Joplin — or Poly Styrene; and though she’s played for laughs she has let time itself slip, as occasionally happens with comedians at the margin of history. Vaudevillian Cliff Edwards’ “trick voice” prefigured Louis Armstrong’s scat song; Emmett Miller’s minstrel whine became Hank Williams’ high lonesome yodel; and Cass Daley, whose only other real pop claim to fame is a 1950 comic duet with Hoagy Carmichael, invents gravel-voiced rock & roll singing ten years before Howlin’ Wolf.
Nevertheless. It gets no more whitebread, no more overclass and paternalist and Official History than this. This is, in some interpretations, the pop of the 1940s, the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, where Jerry Colonna’s Italiante Police Chief fails to prevent a robbery/mass murder, and which in real life marked the nexus of radio, Hollywood, and Capitol Records.
Black music only exists as a reference (Count Basie is namechecked merely as a rhyme for Tracy) or as a hazy image glimpsed through a white interpreter singing a song by another white composer. Country music appears not at all, unless Cass Daley and her unheard mandolin are it. Avatars of youth and cool are played by the forty-two-year-old Bing Crosby, who is busted on for baggy trousers, big ears, baldness, and a knack for producing male progeny, and the thirty-year-old Frank Sinatra, who is subjected to endess cracks about being a skinny punk kid. The twenty-three-year-old Judy Garland is still playing Andy Hardy’s girlfriend or younger, and not yet interpreting the world through the tragic lens that made her a gay icon. And without blacks, hicks, youths, or gays, pop as we understand it is nothing. Is this really all the 1940s has to offer?
Let’s look around. What else we got?
Scene Two: Gone With The Draft
Well, it’s sitting here, sprawled out over the first half and change of the decade, demanding recognition, the Supreme Fact of the 1940s way beyond popular culture or music or even America herself — its cold, brutal reality turning everything in the cultural sphere into so many seltzer bubbles, fizzing briefly into nothingness. I suppose we ought to talk about it.
Even at a distance of seventy years, World War II remains the organizing principle of the twentieth century, a deep gash across history compared to which the Great War is a flesh wound and the much-ballyhooed Sixties a mere pink scar. From beginning to end, it turns on the great questions of modernity: what are the rights of one people versus another? what does it even mean to be human? what are the virtues and the limits of self-determination? what does it mean that we have made machines that can destroy the human race? Beginning with the noble lie that a nation sharing a common culture and heritage deserves to be united, and ending with the specter of total destruction of the species, these agonizing five (American), seven (European), or nine (East Asian) years are their own profound reality against which thought itself trembles and falls away, shying into either banal generalities or self-serving sloganeering.
So it is not only counterintuitive but actively dishonest and even immoral for this list to deal with the war in so slight and tangential a way; these three songs are about all. Adorno’s famous crack about poetry rings unpleasantly true in the wake of Bergen-Belsen and Hiroshima; how much less then can pop matter after we have stared annihilation in the face and turned to annihilation ourselves?
The only answer, the only refuge, is in the unmistakable but equally unremarkable fact of humanity. People — honest to God flesh and blood human beings, eternal souls if you believe in that sort of thing and anyway no different from you and me sitting here thinking about them — wrote songs, and other people sometimes sang them, and sometimes meant them, and other people bought them, and sometimes danced to them, and sometimes loved them. It is a terrifying truth that we cannot at the deepest level ever wholly reject something that other people have loved; regard for our common humanity disallows it. The alternative is totalitarianism.
However. We are not here concerned with the precise records people listened to, at least not in any kind of aggregate ranking system. Some of the records on this list were heard by everyone alive in 1942; some of them were heard by maybe a dozen people throughout the course of the decade. They are all part of the ongoing conversation. As are these pages.
First, a word on what is not here. The two most profound musical responses to the war, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, were not recorded until the fifties. (They are nevertheless essential listening for anyone concerned with teasing out the relationship between history and culture.) There is also a vast body of light dance music, much of which has been reissued under titles like Songs That Won The War and Chart-Toppers Of The Forties, and little of which has much to say to us beyond “this is how your grandparents and great-grandparents spent their leisure time” — both as pop and as art, it is a holding pattern, reinforced by the 1942 Musicians’ Strike and a general sense that actual forward motion would have to wait until the boys got back from licking the Fuehrer and Tojo; in the meantime, we dance, and laugh a little and weep a little, but above all we keep going.
(It’s worth noting that despite all the above, the war never terrorized America as it did other Western nations; not a shot was fired nor a bomb dropped on American soil throughout the duration. It’s pointless to compare national sufferings — a lot of Americans were widowed and orphaned and forced to bury their sons — but by any standard we got off easy. This may be one reason there is no “White Cliffs of Dover” resonating in the American imagination as powerfully as it does in the British; we were never seriously under threat of extinction.)
Then, too, much of the music which was understood as directly addressing the war was left over from the previous exercise: the theme music of Command Performance, for example, was George M. Cohan’s truculently square-jawed “Over There,” and one of the era’s defining military songs and biggest theatrical hits was Irving Berlin’s “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning,” both written in 1917. There were dopey novelty tunes like “Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition,” and a whole host of tunes that were only briefly popular which make Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue” sound positively liberal and humane. Captain America punched Hitler out on the cover of his first issue, and caricatures of Japanese soldiers with coke-bottle lenses, buck teeth and skin the color of rotted lemons were omnipresent. The aural equivalent adds nothing to the sum of our understanding or wisdom, even apart from their unpleasantness to modern sensibilities.
Songs that address the actual experience of war are rare at any time — even the much-protested Vietnam War was mostly sung over as a matter of public policy, not as the hell on earth it was — and there are none on this list. The American experience of war was generally limited in popular culture to the home front; or displaced to some place like Casablanca, on the outskirts of the action. The boys went away, across the Atlantic or the Pacific, and when they came back they didn’t talk about it. So the people who didn’t go away had to make things up, had to create narratives which explained the disjuncture, the gash cut across history, to themselves and to each other.
The Almanac Singers “Dear Mr. President”
Dear Mr. President (Keynote Album 111) • 1942
This is maybe the most intellectually honest response to the war to be found in popular music, and it’s packed so full of cliché that there’s a mother-in-law joke. But postmodern ironists (like me) always need reminding that just because something’s a cliché doesn’t mean it can’t be believed whole-heartedly by the right people.
The Almanac Singers were the first self-aware folksingers, the first people (save maybe singers of spirituals, but they generally thought of themselves as making Art) who consciously chose to follow a tradition which they saw as honest and populist and righteous as opposed to commercial pop in inherently corrupt capitalist structures. Previous “folk” musicians — say, everyone in Harry Smith’s Anthology — had had no such ideological persuasions; they in fact weren’t folk musicians with any grandiose ideas about a national heritage, but merely local musicians, eager as could be to cut records, tour, and get paid. Sure, they might have restrictive views on the kind of music they wanted to make, but their only objection to capitalism was that they weren’t on top. Yet.
In a way, then, the Almanac Singers were perfectly positioned as a force for the work of nationalization required by the war effort; they were already in the process of divorcing folk music from its local and indigenous origins, and drawing it into the larger stream of American political and cultural dialogue. They had been recording regularly for two years by this time, pumping out album after album (NB: the “album” in the 1940s was more like a photo album, a large bound volume containing several 78-rpm records with one song on each side, than the single-disc slabs of vinyl or plastic we think of today) of songs advocating for unionism, civil rights, and government aid and attacking capitalists, racists, and anyone the Left saw as insufficiently radical, including President Roosevelt. Ca. 1940 was the high tide of the American Left; the New Deal, the WPA, and Social Security had encouraged the country’s millions of Communists, Socialists, and fellow travelers to push for even more reform and progress. Encouraged as much by the apparent success of the Soviet state as by its progressive stance on all kinds of things from race relations to social welfare, the Left dreamed of non-violent Communist revolution and a worker’s paradise, color-blind and sexually egalitarian.
That all came to a sudden halt on December 7, 1941. War was coming, and the American Left was caught between a theoretical devotion to pacifism and Roosevelt’s skillful interpretation/manipulation of the public mood. Should they support the war and liberate those being oppressed by Fascists (including, as of that summer, the Soviets themselves)? Should they denounce the war as a creation of the munitions industry and International Finance to distract the world from the coming Revolution? American leftists had never been a ruly lot, and there was a strong isolationist streak in them: many remembered the Great War as a confidence trick played on America by Europe, and were afraid that this was just another such swindle to reduce America’s youthful population and keep the Same Old Crew in power forever.
But the Almanac Singers knew where they stood. Their first album after Pearl Harbor was called Dear Mr. President after the Pete Seeger-penned song which he also played and sung, solo, in character as the American Everyman. You could see Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, Tom Joad or George Bailey, writing this letter to Roosevelt. And what he says, as suffused with irony and dry pseudo-Midwestern humor as it is, is unmistakable. “Give me a gun, so we can hurry up and get the job done.” Seeger’s not a pacifist, not in this decade, not in this war. (And even twenty-three years later, the resounding image of Seeger in the popular imagination has him with an axe in his hands.)
Seeger’s banjo picking is in the clawhammer line of a Clarence Ashley or Buell Kazee, and his clear, musical voice is strained into the flat intonations of Woody Guthrie, whose talking blues form he imitates (call it a progenitor of rap if you need to, but his flow is rotten): like many a Greenwich Village bohemian before and after, he’s trying as hard as he can to be authentic, unsophisticated, and of the people. And like his embarrassed-bourgeois peers Frank Capra or John Steinbeck, he gets about as close as possible, but he’s still a New Yorker and the effect is still stage-managed, still theatrical. The quiet disgust in his voice as he catalogues what’s still wrong with America — “you can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro. You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew” — is that of the trained monologist, not the simple backwoods entertainer he aspired to be. He was almost effortlessly literary, theatrical, philosophical, everything but folk.
The Andrews Sisters “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (Of Company B)”
(Hughie Prince, Don Raye)
Decca 3598 • 1941
If Seeger’s narrative about the war was composed of commonplaces about the American character — “I like bein’ free to say what I think; sorta runs in the family,” he grins — then the song which effectively represents World War II for most Americans is a similarly overfamiliar fiction about the average American: he’s irresponsible, irrepressible, shamelessly modern, and the best there is at what he does. And there’s a curious ambiguity as to his race.
Don Raye was a journeymen songwriter who had written a pop song in 1939 incorporating elements of the radically stripped-down jazz form boogie-woogie, essentially as a novelty, for Will Bradley’s orchestra, featuring Freddie Slack on piano and Ray McKinley on drums. “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar” was based on a phrase McKinley would shout out to Slack. All of these men were white, but boogie woogie was widely understood as black, far more so than jazz as a whole.
Odd as it sounds today, the provenance of jazz was a contested topic in the 20s, 30s, and 40s: Paul Whiteman billed himself as the King of Jazz, and members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (first jazz band on record, 1917) insisted self-servingly that it had always been white music. A curious and repellent subgenre of 1940s film consistently and with no apparent malice attributed the invention of ragtime, jazz, and the blues to white singers, piano players, and bandleaders. (See St. Louis Woman, Birth Of The Blues, or any of the musical biopics of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, etc., etc.) The public faces of jazz entering the 1940s were Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. (Yes, that’s problematic even beyond racial politics. We’ll get to that.) A silent agreement seemed to have been struck: White America would dance, love, weep, and kill to jazz, but they didn’t have to recognize Black America if they didn’t want to.
Occasionally those who were in the know and down with the jive let the truth slip. Hoagy Carmichael’s 1943 “The Old Music Master” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) has the titular character, ca. 1830, confronted by a vision from the future: “a little colored boy,” who introduces him to the Now Sounds of swing, boogie-woogie, and jive. It’s basically “Roll Over Beethoven” a generation earlier, by two men who were as close to black as you could get and still be white and pushing forty. But by the time Hoagy recorded it again, pressure had been brought to bear. The little colored boy was now a little hepcat boy, officially deracinated (which meant white) and Modern America took the credit for what Black America had achieved.
(It’s more complex than that, naturally. The pressure was not all from racists; the NAACP were still uncomfortable conflating black achievement with jazz, and “colored,” depending on the year, could be understood as a slur. But this is the story I’m telling.)
This then is the atmosphere into which three brass-voice Minnesotans — one blonde, two brunettes — catch up “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar” and drive it to the top of the Hit Parade. They actually were sisters (for once), and were taking advantage of the late dissolution of the pioneer jazz harmonizing sister act the Boswell Sisters, who being from New Orleans had been closer to the heart of the matter, but this was a new decade and the Depression was over and bigger and brasher was the sound of Now, and the Andrews Sisters were nothing if not big and brash, and their “Beat Me Daddy” swung harder and stronger than even Freddie Slack, for all his actual boogie-woogie credentials, could manage. (He makes up for it later on. Stay tuned.)
The cardinal rule of show business is that when something works, do it again. Don Raye saw quite well on which side his bread was buttered. He produced “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to order; the Sisters sang it in an Abbott & Costello movie in January 1941, a full year before America mobilized for war. Nevertheless, it struck a chord. It gave thousands of radio-listening young men, men who harbored a secret desire to play jazz, to be cool, to enter the limnal space between white and black which pure music offered, a locus for their dreams, as well as a specific context. The army. Now.
The vision of army life which the song conjures up was never wholly debunked, not in this war, not in this decade. Sure, Bill Mauldin expanded the tonal pallette; Milton Caniff cranked up the technical expertise; George Baker added a Murphy’s Law fatalism to the popular imagination. But the army as a kind of extended party remains lodged in the cultural imagination, the kind of indelible image that ten years out from peace will produce Beetle Bailey, the teflon soldier strip which will blithely ignore the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and probably nuclear armaggedon. The first line of Irving Berlin’s 1917 hit from Yip Yip Yaphank, suddenly popular again in 1942, is “A bugler in the Army is the luckiest of men.” America — or at least that portion of America which was not actually in the military — seemed to agree.
The Andrews Sisters would continue to be the biggest-selling harmony act of the war era and of the decade, ultimately second only to Bing Crosby as a signifier of the era. But they were soon domesticated; the way their voices mesh and match the trumpets fanfare for fanfare here, the way Patty growls like she’s got a mute on her throat, the way they take the last chorus all-out as if preparing for takeoff, would grow rarer and rarer and finally cease. The hit of their own which they parody in Dick Tracy In B-Flat, four years later, is “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Time,” a hokey and stolidly uninteresting slab of Midwestern nostalgia. They can still harmonize like anything, but they’re no longer singing boogie-woogie or anything approaching it. They’re as white as a Minnesota winter; jazz, and all it means, has been bleached out.
Dooley Wilson “As Time Goes By”
Decca 40006 • 1943
Jazz never comes within fifty paces of this song. Dooley Wilson was in his late fifties when he recorded it, and he was of the pre-jazz generation, a showman and a warbler who was always metaphysically putting on the cork even when, as here, the white boss wasn’t Massa.
The story of Casablanca is a mirror image of the implied narrative in “Dear Mr. President.” It takes both men a while to get good and mad enough to join the war effort, but Seeger’s open-handed live-and-let-live philosopher and Bogart’s crabbed fuck-you-Jack-I’m-all-right sophist are opposite faces of the coin that is the mythic American male, the Thoreau who is complete within himself, the Whitman who contain multitudes. Bogart has seen the world and gotten bitter about it, and figures that since no one’s looking out for him, he’ll return the favor. (I know, the screenplay says it better.) What changes his mind? Well, Ingrid Bergman, obviously, but since all we know about Ingrid Bergman is a lame Parisian flashback and her perfect porcelain features, it’s up to the musical number she asks for and gets to fill in the blanks.
“As Time Goes By” is not a great pop song; it’s too sentimental, for one thing, and also too backward-looking, too certain of the settled wisdom of age rather than incandescent from the questing folly of youth. But it is the perfect song for its moment, both in the narrative of Casablanca, where its misty truisms of love and loyalty thaw Bogart’s iced-over soul, and in the larger narrative of America herself, straightening the back and stiffening the lip to meet the challenge of producing the materials and manpower to win two wars at the two ends of the earth.
It’s still the same old story, Arthur on Mount Badon, Roland at the Ronceveaux Pass, Custer in South Dakota, Horatius on the Tiber, Leonidas at Thermopylae, Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Wilfrid Owen at Joncourt, and every doomed fight for love and glory stuffed into every McGuffey Reader left in every schoolroom across the nation. Woman needs man, man must have his mate — just like Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Sampson and Delilah, Lancelot and Guenivere, Abelard and Heloise, Darcy and Elizabeth, Prince Edward and Mrs. Simpson, Gable and Lombard, and on and on world without end, amen. No matter what the future brings.
These things are old, these things are true. Or at least so we say and instinctively feel — some of us, anyway — and we treasure the old stories because they tell us something about what it means to live and love and die. And in times of violent disruption we seek out the old things even more, because this, we feel, is bedrock, is unchanging. Let the cars rust on the road, let the skyscrapers crumble into the ocean and all the lands and seas be changed, and we will still be loving and fighting and making each other unhappy for no good reason, because that is what it is to be human. Despite the omnipresence of this song in popular culture, it’s a rare and unusual topic in pop; Johnny Cash’s “Before My Time” in 2000 is the only other song I can think of that tries for the same effect.
It was not something that 1932, hungry and bitter, needed, which is why after Herman Hupfeld wrote it for an unsuccessful musical and Rudy Vallee made an unsuccessful record, “As Time Goes By” was ignored like many a solemnly pretentious song before and after. But it was something that 1942 needed, a submersion of the self into the larger scope of human effort. Thanks to a Musician’s Strike Dooley Wilson couldn’t release a record of it, so Rudy Vallee’s forgotten old disc saddled up and hit the charts again. By 1943, when Wilson finally got his vocal out on shellac, the moment had passed him by, the song had grown bigger than he, and anyway he sang in too fruity and mannered a croon to really match the turbined, overall-clad energy of the 1940s.
The war changed everything; and yet there were so many things that stayed the same. Americans still quarreled over taxes and unions, laws and the future; men and women continued not to understand the other but managed to put up with them nonetheless; blacks — and Asians, and Mexicans, and native Americans — still made do with the shit end of the stick. Grass grew in fields; rain fell on crops; movies cycled in and out of the theaters whether anyone watched them or not. People in the big cities looked out at the rest of America and smiled with a mixture of pity and contempt. And the rest of America looked back.
Scene Three: It Ain’t No Town And It Ain’t No City
The country looms large in the American imagination, even as what “the country” means differs from region to region, from time to time, and from mythology to mythology. Vast stretches of emptiness, rolling farmland, untamed wilderness, mountains, prairies, plains, deserts, forest — people here are rare, unknowable, burning with some impossible strength. There is a reason that Southern became entwined with Gothic in American literature: the relative emptiness of Southern maps correspond perfectly to the blasted heaths and black forests of the Brontës and Goethe, all the more so for being relative emptiness only: as in Europe, society and judgment is never all that far away. Compare and contrast to the literature of the American West, in which society is set not against individual wills, but against Nature, which is generally taken to include Native Americans in violation of all principles of anthropology but in keeping with all the right principles of mythology.
This imaginative gravitational pull has not diminished, even though it’s been a long time since America long was a rural nation. In 1920 the first census was taken in which the majority of Americans were found to live in urban centers — urban being defined as populations over 250 thousand, which isn’t exactly skyscrapers-and-ghetto material, but towns are just as much Not Country as cities; think of Oklahoma!’s musical-comedy town of Claremore versus the solitary, psychotic farm of Jud Fry.
The small town is another locus of American mythology, but less complicated than the country, onto the emptiness of which all fears — of the Other, of solitude, of negation — and dreams — of utopia, of treasure, of self-reliance — can be projected. In contrast, the town is our collective origin story, the prelapsarian Smallvilles in which we were raised to prepare for the iniquitous Metropoleis of adulthood, Smallvilles which curdle and stifle only when we don’t leave, like George Bailey or the protagonist of “Glory Days.” Small towns are the natural setting of civilized forms like satire (Babbitt) and what passes for comedy of manners in American literature (Tom Sawyer) — to achieve the unhinged extravagance of the Gothic, the tragic, or the operatic, the action must move out to less confined spaces.
It’s entirely appropriate, then, that country music is the opera of white America, the repository of extravagant emotionalism, calcified convention, and tiresome streaks of nationalist and even sometimes racist rhetoric (cf. Wagner). Those unconvinced by this thesis might consider the name of country music’s flagship institution, the Grand Ole Opry (originally used in mockery of the longhair classical which preceded it on the radio), and listen to the country music of the southern border, ranchera, where the links to bel canto tradition are even more explicit.
By 1940, country music was already a coherent, living, and thoroughly capitalist tradition — just like opera in its early Venetian heyday — as codified and commercialized a music as anything made in New York City by men with cigars and Jewish surnames. The roots of the country-music industry are usually traced to the 1927 recordings made in Bristol, Tennessee by Ralph Peer, which included (most famously) Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the twin poles of country’s divided impulse to both showmanship and authenticity, cornball glitz and family values, early death and unhappy marriage. (The roots of country music itself are far less admissible to an ex nihilo narrative, an incestuous conurbation of British folk, hymnody parlor song, and minstrelsy, metastasized by poverty, violence, and solitude, stretching back to the revolutionary era and earlier.)
But Rodgers, the Carters, and their whole tradition sounded creakily ancient by 1940, products of an Appalachia without electricity or money, both of which had been brought (sort of) by Roosevelt and the TVA in the 1930s. And country music was no longer (not that it ever really was) merely an Appalachian phenomenon. Folks from the Mississippi Delta, the Ozark mountains, the Texas prairie, the Montana hills, the Arizona desert, and even the temperate California coast and frozen Canadian wastes were donning cowboy hats and picking up guitars and trying their shot at hillbilly glory. And with all these sources of input, the music changed, updated, and evolved. Bob Wills out of Texas (native) and Oklahoma (adopted) added swing instrumentation to the string-band format and made country jump and boogie; cowboys both real and Hollywood tossed a cantering rhythm under parlor songs and called it western; a core of Appalachian purists clung to their traditional stringed instruments and developed a virtuoso style Bill Monroe would name — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The boys who went to war in 1942 weren’t all tuned in to the official showbiz narrative at Hollywood and Vine; many, maybe even most of them, were just as familiar with Seventh and Union in Nashville, where the Opry was broadcast to the millions who identified, no matter where they lived, as country folk. Of course, Nashville is a city . . . .
Jimmie Davis “You Are My Sunshine”
(Jimmie Davis, Charles Mitchell)
Decca 5813 • 1940
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys “New San Antonio Rose”
Okeh 6894 • 1940
Truman Capote, no one’s idea of a hillbilly, once called “You Are My Sunshine” his favorite country song, and it is exactly the kind of country song that a gay New Yorker deeply ambivalent about his Southern childhood could embrace: all things to all people, the kind of song a politician would write. Capote was born in Louisiana, a state which Jimmie Davis would twice govern; and Davis’ recording of the song is much less Appalachia than New Orleans, bringing second-line swing and a Dixieland clarinet into a plaintive two-step melody, goosing the song into something approaching (but not touching) jazz.
This was not some kind of innovation on Davis’s part, but rather a somewhat leaden attempt to jump aboard the western swing bandwagon. Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys had been setting dancehall attendance records for a half-decade with a hopped-up blend of small-combo swing, traditional fiddle country, and border-town tejano, all masterminded and punctuated by Will’s high-pitched vocal interjections, rescuing the tunes from the baritone blandness of singer Tommy Duncan and setting virtuoso instrumentalists free to light up the dance floor just as they did at Harlem’s Cotton Club or Chicago’s Friar’s Inn. “New San Antonio Rose” was the Playboys’ first national hit, breaking them out of the Southwestern circuit to the big-time country audience, and eventually instigating a showdown at the Opry itself, where drums were verboten until Wills refused to perform without them.
Western swing would grow and mutate even beyond the benign dictatorial powers of Bob Wills; but for now it’s enough to call it the music of the rising class of urban hillbilly, the country folk who moved to the city and wanted to dance to the city’s new and pulsing beat, but didn’t want to abandon the familiarity of the sawdust-floored dance hall.
Ted Daffan’s Texans “Born To Lose”
Okeh 6706 • 1942
The bounce of western swing can be heard underneath this deep country lament, but it’s muted and obscured by the pealing teardrop notes of the steel guitar and Daffan’s own sentimental Louisiana croon.
Country music has become so frequently misidentified with the American right that it’s sometimes difficult to hear how profoundly subversive it usually is, which is to say, how much it identifies with the poor and outcast rather than the rich and powerful. This song commits the unforgivable sin against the first law of conservatism’s bootstrap mythology — that Americans always win — simply in the title, and goes on to associate romantic loss with the loss of power, manhood, and even identity. It’s a portrait of such extreme psychological devastation that any voice less confidently smooth than Daffan’s would expose the rawness at its heart — as Ray Charles did in his 1962 version, and as Johnny Thunders did in his SoHo junkie’s update “Born Too Loose” in 1977.
The accordion solo which divides the song in half is similarly pitched halfway between the Cajun hotstep of eastern Louisiana and the tejano mournfulness of central Texas. Daffan was born in western Louisiana and spent his youth in eastern Texas, a region steeped in Gothic excess and musical innovation steeped in the musk of the swamp.
Ernest Tubb “Walking The Floor Over You”
Decca 46006 • 1941
Hank Penny & His Radio Cowboys “Oh Yes? Take Another Guess”
(Alfred Newman, Murray Mencher, Al Sherman)
Okeh 5844 • 1940
The urban beat of country music pulses hard through these two songs, particularly in the brand-new sound of the instrument punctuating their very different reveries: the amplified electric guitar, its sharp edges unsanded by the conventions of jazz sophistication or Hawaiian dreaminess.
Bob Wills, as in so much else, had been the pioneer here, introducing an electric guitar to his band in 1938, and it spread like wildfire throughout the country community, propelling fellow Texan Ernest Tubb to fame and a massive pre-chart hit with “Walking The Floor Over You” (the country chart was not established until 1944). Like “Born To Lose,” Tubb’s lament is about romantic loss, but he’s less devastated by it; rather than the moaning, keening accordion, he has the sharp-elbowed, speaker-blowing guitar on his side, as well as a pack of buddies to back him up. “Aw, pick it out, Smitty,” he calls to Fay Smith’s first solo, and then “do it purty, son” to the second. Despite the fact that his vocals are more conventionally heartbroken than Daffan’s, with the carefully-placed chokes and glissandi associated with honky tonk, the song is more upbeat, even turning in the final verse to a smug payback scenario: the now-spurning lover will be walking the floor one day too. It’s all part of the game, the kind of setback which makes eventual triumph more fun; there’s no hint whatever that Tubb is born to lose.
There’s even less with Hank Penny. “Take Another Guess” was first recorded in 1936 by Ella Fitzgerald with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and its jaunty Tin Pan Alley swing is recreated faithfully by the Radio Cowboys as Penny sarcastically ticks off all the ways in which he will not be devastated by his lady’s fickleness. Western swing turns ever so slightly to western boogie here, with a gleefully garbled guitar solo, and the stripped-down nature of the combo presages rockabilly, surf and garage to come. (Naturally, it wasn’t a hit.) We have left the strictures of Southern Gothic altogether, and are on the way to Los Angeles, where Penny will have a short-lived radio show, and to Las Vegas, where he will mentor the folks behind Hee Haw in the decades to come. Country was beginning to yearn towards showbiz; and the 1940s saw showbiz return the favor.
Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra ft. Kay Starr “Share Croppin’ Blues”
(Willard Robison, Ray Mayer)
Decca 24264 • 1944
Kay Starr was born in Oklahoma, ground zero for western swing, and at her earliest professional gigs she sang western swing — country songs at a pop tempo, pop songs with country instrumentation — for a Memphis radio station. Gigging jazz bands heard her on the radio, and she spent her teens singing for names like Joe Venuti, Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother), and Glenn Miller, with a midnight curfew imposed by cautious parents.
After high school, she lit out for California, where she hooked up with saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Barnet, whose integrated band was perfect for a singer who slid between genres with the kind of facility which would later give her the ability to sing “The Rock & Roll Waltz” with a straight face. They first played “Share Croppin’ Blues,” by Missouri-born composer Willard Robison and journeyman showbizzer Ray Mayer, on a V-Disc recording. V-Discs were 12-inch records produced especially for the overseas military. Unrestricted by pop airplay standards, the recordings tended to be longer than average, and allowed jazz combos to stretch and try out experiments that their labels were hesitant about. Barnet clearly thought the song worked well enough to try in the more focused three-minute format of a regular release, and Starr responded with a nuanced performance, finding the space between Billie Holiday’s impassioned vibrato and honky-tonk’s weepy extravagance, even calling up a Bessie Smith snarl on an ad-libbed “I mean I’m a-hungry.” It’s notionally a comic song, an over-the-top parody of Steinbeckian tragedy, but Starr reads it straight, with a deeper feeling for Robison’s blues-inflected melody than for Mayer’s vaudevillian lyrics.
The effect is of a recorded version of Ford’s Grapes Of Wrath (the reference to Grandpa Joad is probably an attempt to piggyback on the movie’s success), a rare example of Hollywood insight into rural suffering that neither sentimentalizes nor trivializes the still-fresh Depression. It didn’t set the charts ablaze, and Starr would leave Barnet’s band in a year due to an overworked voice aggravated by pneumonia. When she returned, it was as a straight pop singer; bigger stars than she were bringing the country to the urban masses.
Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters “Don’t Fence Me In”
(Cole Porter, Bob Fletcher)
Decca 23364 • 1944
Phil Harris & His Orchestra “That’s What I Like About The South”
RCA 20-2089 • 1945
Nobody but nobody was a bigger star than Bing Crosby in the 1940s; and it’s characteristic of his lie-down cool that one of his biggest hits of the decade was produced in half an hour, a song he hadn’t even heard before entering the studio. Without trying hard or caring much about it, he sold the American West in musical form to the pop audience.
Western music as a category of commercial music (rather than what cowboys actually sang around the campfire: mostly half-remembered parlor songs) was largely a Hollywood invention, something for the handsome heroes to sing in the downtime between shootouts in the B- and C-movies. Roy Rogers had sung “Don’t Fence Me In” (a ten-year-old song composed by a wealthy gay bon vivant who was crippled by a horse and loathed the tune) in Hollywood Canteen, where its obvious, cantering rhythm and expansive Thoreavian lyrics brought it to the attention of pop producers always looking to hustle their wares to new markets. Bing and the Andrews Sisters were just the billing needed to make a record that everybody in the country would buy, rich or poor, rural or urban, white or — well, white. Just to make sure, they lifted Freddie Slack’s rolling piano hook from Ella Mae Morse’s 1942 crossover hit “Cow Cow Boogie” (in which a New Mexico cowboy calls his herd like he’s in a Harlem nightclub), and let Bing throw in a little hepcat patter in his most velvet tones. It worked: number one for eight weeks, one of the biggest-selling records of the decade, and associated with the careers of both Crosby and the Andrews until the end of memory.
Phil Harris wasn’t a star on the level of Crosby or the Andrews Sisters, but he was arguably heard in just as many homes as either of them, in his role as the affably loutish bandleader on Jack Benny’s radio program between 1936 and 1952, with an intermission for wartime service. (Today he’s probably more recognizable as the voice of Baloo, Little John, and O’Malley The Alley Cat in a string of Disney movies in the 70s.) Raised in Tennessee, he identified as a Southerner; hooked by jazz in youth, he identified as a hepcat, what Norman Mailer would later sneer at as a “White Negro” — a white man who was allowed (more by his white peers than by black originators) to appropriate black slang and moves. His band was hot and powerful, an eternal raucous contrast to the goopy ethnic and religious songs sung by tenor Dennis Day on Benny’s show; and like the man himself, his signature song existed in a liminal state between white and black, minstrel and jazz, showbiz and authentic.
“That’s What I Like About The South” was written by Andy Razaf, a black songwriter as known for his collaborations with Fats Waller as for his surprisingly forthright memories of the early jazz era. A notable case of giving the people what they want, it’s practically a catalogue of minstrel tropes — but deracinated, with the primary emphasis on the one shared experience of black and white Southerners: food. It was popularized by western swing bands, Bob Wills’s most prominent among them; and when Harris’s orchestra recorded it in 1937 it became a source for endless jokes on Benny’s show about its meaninglessness and noisiness. This is an even harder-swinging recording from 1945, when Harris sang it in a little-seen movie; the band squeals and roars as Harris glides his husky patter with total confidence over the silly, strange, and somehow affecting lyrics.
One of the Jack Benny Show’s running jokes was Benny’s perplexity over the little place called Doo Wah Diddy — he can’t find it anywhere on the Rand McNally map! Razaf was probably amused: he most likely lifted the nonsense phrase from a 1930 record by ragtime bluesman Blind Blake, who “wisht someone’d tell me what diddie wah diddie means.” Bo Diddley and Willie Dixon lifted it again in 1950; and that, along with the Benny gag, was probably the source for the Greenwich/Barry novelty “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” made omnipresent by Manfred Mann at their most condescending. Then Captain Beefheart covered the Diddley song for his debut single; few phrases have reached into as many corners of the pop landscape.
The split between urban and rural in America’s divided consciousness is heavily modified, and sometimes even eliminated, by the other great division, that between white and black. White America and black America were, despite incremental forward motion, still segregated not only physically, but psychically, a state of affairs only complicated by the intense desire on both sides to engage with the other not as an Other but as a peer; a desire that begins to be shadowed, and slowly to be brought forth in the music they made, constantly glancing back and forth between their own audience and the dividing line between the races; and always, in the forefront of consciousness, overriding all other concerns, the ultimate desire of a musician: getting paid.
Scene Four: Just Me And My Radio
Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers “On The Atchison, Topeka, And The Santa Fe”
(Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer)
Capitol 195 • 1945
Los Angeles California, 1942. The ink is not yet dry on the papers of incorporation before the greatest lyricist in the pop music business starts booking studio time for his new record label, which will become the greatest label in American history, the first label ever created explicitly to make and sell and market pop music, rather than going on sonorously about the value and tradition of Beethoven and Strauss and Wagner while making its real money under the table from dance tunes and race records and hillbilly moonshine. Our man has been around, and knows how the games operate back in New York City, and he’s prepared to work the same hustle out here where the sun shines and the breezes blow, but the crucial difference is he’s not going to lie about it. He’s going to sign black acts as well as country acts as well as torch singers and jazz cats and people who blur the lines; he’s going to get the best that money can buy and let them make the best records they can and give them material that will sell regardless of how the old maidens of both sexes mutter about the end of civilization.
He’s a Southern boy, this lyricist, a son of Savannah Georgia who spent his youth sneaking in to black joints and listening to country radio for the same reason: to soak up the music and even more so to soak up the words. He’s drenched in American language, the swift and brutal argot of the New York streets as well as the humid circumlocution of the South, the laconic twang of the Midwest and the fast-talking patter of the man who has no home, just hangs his hat on the nearest peg and opens his briefcase: you’ve never seen samples like this, brother, let me tell you. He’s been hanging out around Broadway and Hollywood for a good decade, writing lyrics for anyone who’d have him and frequently burnishing up substandard tunes with the right phrase, the peculiar sentiment that strikes the public as just the way they’d have said it if only they’d thought of it at the time. He’s best known for collaborations with Harold Arlen, the white composer most fully invested in the blues, and Hoagy Carmichael, the Midwestern composer who has of all the great white song composers most fully processed and incorporated the lessons of jazz into his own wry, understated idiom. With Mercer lyrics pitched not as black or white, but straight down the middle, in American Vernacular, their songs take wing.
Johnny Mercer is a shrewd and successful businessman in large part because he’s a sentimentalist; the very thought of America, in all her variety and heartbreak, chokes him up. Trains haunt his dreams, the eternal symbol of Elsewhere tantalizingly close at hand, a dream America shares. To ride the rails, whether you’ve paid for your ticket or not, to light out, as Huck Finn does, for the territories!
There are no more territories, of course; but the journey West remains a potent symbol, the Joad caravan following the same track as the Ingalls family, as the ’49ers dreaming of gold, as Lewis and Clark in one of the most potent American origin stories there is — and as the Broadway diaspora fleeing to Hollywood in the early 30s as box offices plummeted and talkies roared.
Harry Warren was one of those who decamped early for the palm trees, swimming pools, and money laying around in truckloads, and he was one of the most played and sung composers of his age, even if nobody knew his name because he worked in the salt mines of Sunset Boulevard. This song was writ for a movie too, The Harvey Girls, where it was sung by Judy Garland and chorus aboard a train bound west. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway line was the premier route to Los Angeles from Chicago for fifty years; both Warren and Mercer had taken it on the way over, and if the music chugs closer to the steam engines of the The Harvey Girls’ 1913 rather than the shining diesel-electric Super Chief in place by 1936, it’s still imbued with the romance and the jargon of rail travel — and even more so in this lyric, which is almost entirely different from Garland’s bright-eyed ingenue version.
Rather than focus on the personality and story of the singer, as Garland’s lyric does, Mercer’s version focuses almost entirely on the journey itself, from several vantage points: the small-town station men watching the smoke and chatting about the passenger list, the engineers, conductors, porters, and stokers who make it all possible, and the passengers watching Laramie and Albuquerque flit by, yearning for Californ-I-A, the Earthly Paradise, the medieval Garden of Delight come to life and walking about. About which more later; for now, just remember how much in motion everybody is.
Freddie Slack & His Rhythm ft. Ella Mae Morse “The House Of Blue Lights”
(Freddie Slack, Don Raye)
Capitol 251 • 1946
One of the first sides cut for the newly-incorporated Capitol Records was the aforementioned “Cow Cow Boogie,” recorded by Freddie Slack’s band. We’ve met Mr. Slack before, as one of the white popularizers of boogie woogie, the stripped-down, increasingly funky version of jazz piano which is one of the prototypical rock & rolls. (Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, for example, only sped it up and hit it harder.) He had recently acquired a seventeen-year-old Texan with a deep, elastic voice, equally at home in swing, blues, and country, and brimming with the youthful confidence which is more or less a precondition for superb pop recordings.
And that is precisely what this is, just as much as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “I Feel Love” or “Cry Me A River,” a summation of all the churning, striving pop of the past and an assured leap into an unknown future — as well as an act of cultural appropriation which may be politically problematic but is indisputably breathtaking.
Language has historically been one of the most contested elements of human existence. The eradication of an underclass culture is performed by means of the eradication of their language; just ask the Basques, the Welsh, or any Native American tribe. When an underclass language, rather than being contested, is instead adopted by members of the overclass, then, to quote a song we will visit later on down the line, there’s something cockeyed somewhere. To be American — to be fully American, to hold two polarly opposed ideas in your head at once and accept them both as true — is to live in a cockeyed universe, to call up down and black white and a graying ex-vaudevillian “homie” and “daddy-o.” Authenticity doesn’t enter into it; the record tells its own story, as every great pop record does.
Jive, far more than overclass tongues, is a language deeply in flux — the fellows from Airplane! would have been as incomprehensible to Don Raye as Snoop Dogg would have been to them. Raye is the one chatting up Ella Mae Morse’s burbling alto in the pre-song patter — she turns him down because she’s got a date with Slack, who is coded more as pimp than boyfriend, but whatever, black people were being way more explicit long before this — and while it’s a showbiz approximation of jive (namedropping the works of Clarence Day was never hip), note the complex internal rhymes and the way their voices saunter to the beat. It’s not exactly rapping — more like advanced placement talking — but it’s a hipper sound than any white people have yet made on record. Western boogier Merrill Moore is taking notes, as is a young lad spending 1946 in Algoa Reformatory outside of Jefferson City, name of Charles E. Berry.
Freddie Slack’s piano, too, is not the lumbering instrument on which Beethoven composed his thick-browed epics or the trundling sidecar of ragtime: limberer and brighter than any previous pop chart has ever sounded (on this mp3 it sounds like a tack piano, but that could just be an overly-scrubbed master), it’s clusters in riffs and shimmers like a Hollywood memory of saloon playing, with the left hand rocking as hard as a left hand ever has in supplying the fundamental boogie rhythm. The lyrics are jump blues standard about the usual secret shack where the eye of authority is lifted and people can really get down: men, women, black, white, hip and square. “Fall in there, and we’ll see some sights,” Ella grins slyly, and the cats who know chuckle at each other. It’s Storyville, Cab Calloway’s Chinatown, Erskine Hawkins’ Tuxedo Junction, Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry, the B-52’s’ Love Shack, 50 Cent’s Da Club, the House of the Rising Sun from the point of view of the clientele rather than the labor.
People call it the first rhythm & blues record by white performers. It’s more than that; it’s one of the first records recognizable as pop by the standards of — well, not today, but anyway by standards that people alive today are accustomed to thinking of pop in. It exists in the same universe as Elvis Presley; which is something that not even most black artists could pull off in 1946.
Fats Waller & His Rhythm “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
(Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks)
HMV C.3737 • 1942
Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers “The Honeydripper”
Exclusive 207 • 1945
Fats Waller was dead in December of 1943, a mere six months after he had appeared in Stormy Weather playing and singing a souped-up version of his earliest hit, which had been written for a 1929 revue (they didn’t even have revues anymore in the 1940s, that’s how old it is) called Hot Chocolates. He’d released a contemporaneous version, but it was instrumental, and Waller’s puckish personality could only be half expressed through his fingers. Besides, it hadn’t had this arrangement.
This performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was edited down for Stormy Weather, and the scene is available on YouTube (the young Lena Horne and the elderly Bill Robinson get in the way now and then, acting in the foreground). This record is a British pressing, apparently from the studio tapes, released in 1945. Both documents preserve the essential moment of the song, the transition from Fats in a reflective mood, singing and playing alone, to the point where the full band comes in. Along the way is a solid minute’s worth of drum solo — if not quite the first such in the history of jazz recording (Benny Goodman’s famous Carnegie Hall performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” dates from 1937), then certainly the most effectively narrative drum solo yet found in popular music. The tension Zutty Singleton derives from the pounding kickdrum and Afro-Cuban percussion before the rest of the band soars in with a Dixieland wail is as thrilling a moment as pop has yet produced, looking forward to Ringo’s clinically desperate holding off of “The End” as well as throwing out hints to the arrogant young turks who will stretch jazz out in bop and cool that the old men could keep up too, when they wanted.
And that this was all for a Hollywood movie! — the irony is not lost on the usually dapper Fats, dressed as ersatz-shabbily as he is (it is the image which will stick with him in his long posthumous career), and it’s not even irony, necessarily. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was familiar, even soothing, to the mass audience Fox was aiming at, and the Dixieland arrangement pretended to ignore twenty years of jazz innovation. But great pop minds often smuggle forward motion into the officially retrograde (just ask Nick Lowe), and if there’s one thing Hollywood knows it’s the thrust of a narrative; the drum solo is in the movie, intact.
In its own way, “The Honeydripper” is just as retrograde as “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’43.” Maybe even more so, since it’s not a song at all in the compositional, Tin Pan Alley sense of themes and development and harmonic structures (the sense that Bach devotee Waller was steeped in), but merely a riff, repeated — nay, chanted — over and over again, and then a slightly different riff, but still with the same rhythmic “Shortenin’ Bread” piano figure rocking back and forth underneath it all, until the tension overpowers sax player James Jackson, Jr. and he simply has to blow. And blow he does, not in the patient, thoughtful Lester Young mode or even in the fiery, blazing Illinois Jacquet mode, but low and honking, like he’s sweating out some nasty, nasty thoughts and has to blow or die. (The sexual metaphor is obvious and, given the title of the song, fully intentional.)
This is rhythm & blues at its leanest and most basic, barely more than a field holler dressed up and gone to town, which of course makes it futuristic. The primitivism of rock & roll is on the horizon from this vantage point, although it will be some time before white society even has any idea how to hear it. Part of the story of the next ten years is how simple-minded folk educators conspired very unwittingly with jacked-up hillbillies and technology-obsessed bluesmen to create an audience for an American vernacular music without the egghead complexity of jazz or the bourgeois sophistication of Capitol-style pop. But that’s the 1950s, another age altogether, and one we can barely see from here.
Big Joe Turner “Old Piney Brown Is Gone”
(Pete Johnson, Joe Turner)
Swing Time 154 • 1949
Dinah Washington & Lucky Thompson’s All-Stars “Pacific Coast Blues”
Apollo 396 • 1945
Both Big Joe Turner and Dinah Washington will come into their own in the 1950s; Joe as one of the first to connect the dots and make rock-&-indisputable-roll, and Dinah as a jazz songstress fuller than most of earthy sexuality and kittenish charm. But for now they’re still making blues, more or less straight, although these are not the blues as understood by the Boomers and children of Boomers for whom Slowhand, The Chess Box, and Robert Johnson’s Complete Recordings mark the boundaries of the genre.
These are urban blues, boogie woogie originator Pete Johnson’s fingers rippling in dazzling, cascading Debussy webs behind Turner, and Lucky Thompson and Milt Jackson doing their best Pres and Hamp impressions (the ne plus ultra of jazz sophistication ca. 1945) behind Dinah. These are blues sung not because the singers are trying to go back to a simpler, more honest song form or participate in any kind of essentialist solidarity with the humble and suffering, but because the blues tradition remains a living tradition, the twelve-bar blues is a compositional mode that has not yet been closed off to all but backward-lookers, and — most importantly — the association between the blues and rural Southern poverty has not yet overpowered all other associations.
Both Turner and Washington grew up in major American cities (Kansas City and Chicago, respectively) and shared less life experience with Delta sharecroppers than Kay Starr did with Okie migrants. By the mid-1940s, they were both in California and doing well for themselves; Turner and Johnson owned a club, and Washington dressed well enough that the rumor circulated that she was never not in mink. California was the Promised Land even for Negroes, it seemed.
Well, sort of. Piney Brown, first introduced to Joe Turner’s audience in 1938’s “Piney Brown Blues,” has left Kansas City, and headed out to California, Joe tells us. (The song is almost certainly not about the Piney Brown who died in early 2009, although he did go to California.) No word of how he’s doing, but it’s clear he won’t be back: Joe cries, his amazing voice a massive eighteen-wheeler of sorrow and regret, “he sure was a good friend of mine.”
And Dinah’s surroundings are as immaculately elegant as can be, if the instrumentation is anything to go by, but broken hearts follow you everywhere. “I’m as blue as the Pacific, and I know my eyes are just as wet,” she sighs. It’s a sophisticated blues (an early contribution from Lucky Thompson’s bass player who will before long be nobody’s goddamn bass player, but that’s a later story), but it’s still a blues and the blues ain’t nothing but a good woman feeling bad.
Lil Green & Her Trio “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
Bluebird 8714 • 1941
This is not a blues, or not a twelve-bar blues, though it like half of American song uses blues chords and microtones and was written by a bluesman, Kansas Joe McCoy (also one-half responsible for “When The Levee Breaks” and one of the more fascinating underclass song hustlers of the period). Or adapted, anyway; it was originally a song called “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” until McCoy tweaked it into a more universal lament over men and the rotten things they do and gave it to Lil Green, whose girlish voice hit exactly the right note of innocence betrayed and virtue left forlorn. Why doesn’t he do right, like some other men do (some other men, for Christ’s sake, she can’t even get a plurality on her side), and the song is a tug-of-war between competing impulses: get out of here, but get me some money; I fell for your jive, but then you let other women make a fool of you. It’s kitchen-sink drama, dreary but invested with high moral stakes. The man’s a bum, but where else is she going to go?
Peggy Lee picked the song up a year later and recorded it with Benny Goodman, and Peggy, bless her, never once sounded like an innocent, not when she was ten years old. Her much more famous “Why Don’t You Do Right” — it was her first big hit, and the only version most people know — relies on Lee’s sultry cool to explain exactly why the guy doesn’t do right: it’s a contest of will between equals, and there’s no way this dame’s doing him right. She doesn’t expect him to, she’s singing the song as part of the game, as a bit of leverage, to see if it works. The other men who do right are suckers, she knows that as well as him, and all she’s really in earnest about is the money. The easy, cynical sneer of a Ben Hecht play, the cool and professional romantic calculus of The Lady Eve or Trouble in Paradise, is all Peggy Lee — at this stage, anyway — has to offer.
Still, it says something that the song was compositionally and lyrically sophisticated enough for a major pop hit. Blues songs, even urban blues songs, were generally ignored by the (white) pop audience at this point, but a perfectly memorable title phrase, a vaguely Latin tempo, and a melody closer to George Gershwin blues than Bessie Smith blues could still win them over. Then, too, the minor-key structure and Big Bill Broonzy’s minimal, spidery guitar figures presage the atmospheric pop hits of Julie London, June Christy, and, er, Peggy Lee a decade later. Lil Green is a liminal figure in that way; reaching towards music coded white (even though she never broke out of the black circuit), she drew white performers closer to her nominally black methods, and if you let your eyes unfocus, the line begins to blur. In some respects, it was already gone.
Scene Five: This Romantic Setting
How are we to understand the 1940s ballad as pop? It is pop, obviously, but it’s not pop in the Wikipedia sense of a strong rhythmic element or a focus on youth and extravagant emotions. One way might be to try to imagine ourselves into the period, and not in any factual way based on historical evidence, but with sympathy and imagination.
Imagine, then, that you’ve never heard a synthesizer or a sampler; that electric guitarists never discovered distortion; that the sonic tools of pop are more or less the same as the sonic tools that Beethoven and Tchaikovsky had at their disposal. Imagine further that the pace of life is not quite so frantic as to require numbing repetition to hammer a melody into your head in the form of a hook, that the melodies of pop develop and expand like a sonata or a rhapsody, rather than structuring strophically in verse-chorus-verse like rock & roll or verse-verse-verse like folk music, the blues, and hymnody. And this is normal.
Imagine, that is, a world in which, just barely recoverable on the edge of popular memory, there is a sense that The Way We Do Music Now is better, brighter, and more alive than the old coloratura arias and parlor songs of our parents, but nevertheless we recognize that things like opera and art songs like Debussy’s “Claire de lune” are in a very real sense the unrecoverable predecessors of our own pop moment, the Julie London to our Mary J. Blige. (But even Julie London herself hasn’t been invented yet. That is, she sings on stage and so forth, but no one has thought to put her in a studio and drench her in echo until her most hushed tones give off amber waves of sex.) Jazz only has a very little to do with it, in that some of the people who make this pop also make jazz, or are friendly with people who do; but jazz was a fad thirty years ago, or it’s that noisy stuff the kids dance to all night on weird drugs, or it’s a quiet rumble in the bohemian underground; and this is pop. This is for people like you and me.
People like you and me are, in this reading, assumed to be white. Anyway, urban. And probably pretty comfortable financially, or at least we have connections with people who are. We may come from small towns and have rivers and fields and mountains churning away in the back of our memories, but we work in an office, or in a store, anyhow behind a desk and we take the subway or the train home and we’re a little too old and exhausted to forget ourselves in all-night orgies of dance, we’re a little bit homesick and a little bit lonely, even if we’ve got a lover or a husband right there next to us, and these songs are maybe not all we have, but they’re part of it. We’ve heard them on the radio. Sometimes we used to hear them when we danced, back when we had time for it. We’ve heard them sung and whistled in passing. Maybe we’ve sung them ourselves. We’ve bought records and played them on our phonograph, and dreamed a while of getting out of town, going on vacation up north or maybe sticking around but being someone else, someone infinitely cooler and more romantic, someone with a broken heart or a happy ending, either one, it doesn’t much matter. Broken hearts and happy endings are two sides of the same coin, the same lie that every storyteller tells, songwriters more than any, and we know that real life isn’t that simple and hearts never fully break and nothing ever ends. Unless you’re dead, and we probably remember too many people who are, and we don’t want to think about that, we’ve got work to do.
So as a sort of psychic barrier between ourselves and too much hard reality, we embrace pop that trips lightly across all human emotion, plays with language in that intoxicating way which means that only the mind and never the heart are fully engaged, and includes maybe a few advanced harmonics or poetic touches, because we grew up on poetry even if we haven’t got much time for it now. Didn’t one of those European eggheads say that poetry was dead after Hitler? Something like that. After the bomb, too, we think a touch gloomily. Little shivers down the spine, there. Something huge and empty has entered the world in the past decade, it seems, and in order to deal with it we don’t think about it ——
And maybe once we have enough saved, we haul anchor, we leave the city and don’t look back, we do our part in the Great Suburbanization of America, as a soundtrack to which these songs ring a bit false, and in the coming years will have to be brassed up and given reverb and echo and made not pop but nostalgia. But for now, in these fragile years between peace and prosperity, America retreats into herself and dreams of simpler lives she might have lived.
Maxine Sullivan “Skylark”
(Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer)
International M252 • 1946
If America as she existed between the years 1925 and 1950 were a single human being, the only conceivable person who could score her biopic would be Hoagy Carmichael. Of all the great American composers of popular song in the years between the wars (and there were many), he was the most fully invested in the broad swathe of American humanity. The very titles of his songs — “Memphis In June,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Baltimore Oriole,” “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” — root down deep into the mythic soil of the American mind, and catch the scent of the America which haunts our dreams, a space still wide-open, unpaved and unmapped, close to nature and happy in itself. Carmichael was born and raised in the Midwest, unlike most of his peers, who were New Yorkers born and bred (his only fellow Indianan, Cole Porter, was really a member of the American aristocracy, a Yalie who spent the 1920s on the Riviera), and the clear mornings and open spaces of the American interior inform his compositions almost as much as jazz.
And no one, not even George Gershwin, who usually gets all the credit for it, brought jazz into the vernacular of American music like Hoagy Carmichael. Largely untrained as a composer, he learned at the feet of ragtime masters and his good friend Bix Beiderbecke, the first great white jazz musician, and his songs flow naturally in the way a good jam does. When George Gershwin introduces a blue note into a composition, it’s done theatrically, for the effect; when Carmichael does it, it’s because that’s where the song goes. His compositions have the inevitable feel of great vernacular music.
That’s true even on such a structural marvel as “Skylark.” A high-wire suspension bridge of a song, it soars where most Carmichael songs amble or at best trot, floating above the wheatfields and blue lakes of the heartland in search of the nameless, unfulfilled yearning at the center of the melody. Johnny Mercer is said to have worked for a year on the lyric before he came up with one that would suit Carmichael’s music, and in the end wrote one of the great poems of American music, elegant without fuss and simple without cliché. They are lyrics of longing — in Mercer’s specific case, for Judy Garland (goes the tale), but applicable to just about anyone with a romantic streak and a despairing sense of rootlessness that Americans (not uniquely) know all too well, Mercer in particular among them; with typical bravado, he also wrote “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home.”
In that sense, Mercer is linking up with a vast body of tradition in American popular song: the longing-for-home tradition, “Home Sweet Home” sure enough, but also “Oh Susanna” and “Dixie” and “Swanee River” and any number of songs where Al Jolson gets down on his knees and shouts for Mammy. It is typical if not particularly creditable of American popular culture that most of the longing-for-home songs were put in the mouths of (generally ersatz) black people about the antebellum South; it’s actually kind of revelatory once you dig into it how many classic pop and jazz songs draw from the minstrel well. But Mercer is smarter than that, and is nonspecific, perhaps because he doesn’t long for the South himself (he knows it too well), but also because the song Hoagy wrote is truer and deeper than that. More universal. White or black can sing it, Northerner or Southerner, anyone who can hit the high notes and manage the trickier-than-they-look changes in the bridge.
Maxine Sullivan first achieved fame in the 1930s singing lightly swung versions of old Scottish songs like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Loch Lomond.” She was never a jazz singer in the sense that her voice had power to rival any instrumentalist, but she could sing a song as well and truly as anyone. This isn’t perhaps the definitive reading of “Skylark” — but we are not in a world that requires definitive readings. With the Elkins Trio providing just perhaps a touch too much rhythm behind her, Maxine gives a plaintive but assured performance, and makes the leap across the bridge intact, having not given too much of her heart away.
The Billy Butterfield Orchestra ft. Margaret Whiting “Moonlight In Vermont”
(Karl Suessdorf, John Blackburn)
Capitol 182 • 1944
Margaret Whiting was such an expert at not giving her heart away that in her seventies she married a gay porn star twenty years her junior. The exchange between them when she began the relationship — “But I’m gay!” “Only around the edges, dear” — is so nearly a caricature of classic Hollywood royalty that it sounds like something Bette Davis or Norma Shearer should have done, a deep-seated egotism that ruthlessly destroys all other expressions of self, practically without being aware of it. She came by it natural, being the daughter of a great Hollywood songwriter (Richard Whiting is second only to Harry Warren in number of hit songs and total anonymity outside the industry) and a star performer since her twenties.
Here she is on the cusp of stardom, singing for a band led by a man with a children’s storybook for a name, signed by Daddy’s friend and sometime lyricist to the label he started only a few years ago, a child of privileged Hollywood singing about vacationing in Vermont like a Manhattanite sick of the summer heat. Things don’t come much easier; so it’s no surprise that her performance, while technically brilliant — her glide between notes, the controlled use of her rich alto — is somewhat glib and superficial.
Mercer had to explain the lyrics to her in the studio, which makes her sound dumb, but at second glance, they’re not typical lyrics. Impressionistic, verbless, unrhyming, they offer a Chamber of Commerce brochure on the attractions of New England in the fall. The verses are in haiku, the bridge the only place where discrete images are pulled together to form a complete thought. It’s a small jewel of a song, written by two men whose biographies are defined almost entirely by its popularity, and it’s not even that popular (though apparently the boys overseas loved it, what with its reminder of places where the weather changed). Its America is narrow and focused on a specific geographical location, an aspirational fantasy rather than a reflection of any real life. Which is fine — movies have largely played the same role for generations, and manage to be art along the way.
Whiting would go on to have a wildly successful career up until rock & roll begins to rumble in the distance, a rumbling which she, if not anticipated, at least partly enabled through her duets with country singer Jimmy Wakely around the turn of the decade, uptempo numbers where western boogie backing and her own jazzish phrasing combined to echo forth a new form of pop. But it’s here, at her first hit, where we’ll leave her, in a New England reverie.
Billie Holiday “I Cover The Waterfront”
(Johnny Green, Edward Heyman)
Columbia 37493 • 1947
Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra ft. Jo Stafford “Manhattan Serenade”
(Louis Alter, Harold Adamson)
Victor 27962 • 1942
The setting for “I Cover The Waterfront” was originally San Diego; at least that’s where Max Miller lived and worked and wrote his novel of the same name, which was published in 1933 and an instant bestseller. The song came soon after, in the faintly unseemly way that pop songs have of grabbing a popular catchphrase and riding it to fame and fortune. But Johnny Green was something more than a hack, and generations of jazz singers and players have found enough in the song to keep it as evergreen as a standard not written by somebody famous can get.
“Manhattan Serenade” was even older, starting life as a 1928 dance song with lyrics added later, as an afterthought. (“Stardust” began life the same way.) It’s had somewhat less success in the pop afterlife, perhaps because the lyrics are too obviously an afterthought, but the music, at least, was heard in The Godfather.
But here they represent the twin poles of the urban imagination in the 1940s: in one, a tragic figure stands alone at the edge of the city, staring out from the cold gray docks to the silent, dark ocean, and in the other, an almost indecently contented couple dances in a comfortable, well-lit penthouse and reflects over the untroubled journey that brought them here. “We made it without touching the handlebars,” as if to rub in just how all-fired lucky they are. (It’s just barely possible that this reading may be influenced as much by the vocal personas of Billie Holiday and Jo Stafford as on the actual songs as composed and written; but there is no way to put that genie back in the bottle. Performances trump all, here in the twenty-first century.)
Billie Holiday is the century’s vocalist of choice for tragic loss, heartbreak, and woe; so it’s something of a surprise that she takes “I Cover The Waterfront” so much in stride. Her voice has not yet begun to fail due to abuse both personal and chemical, and while its sweet croak can never be entirely devoid of pain, she is more interested in making a pop record here than in making any kind of autobiographical statement. It is self-consciously a songbook recording, a dip into the great reservoir of popular song from 1920-1947 (and a bit). The coming overdependence on this reservoir, as much as the hyped-up new sounds zipping through the fifties, will be the catalyst of pop’s great transformation, to the degree that highly intelligent and quite perceptive people a half-century hence will look back in puzzlement at the music that preceded Elvis and wonder how anyone could have had any fun to it.
Jo Stafford will be a representative of the Old Generation in that reading; but in 1942, she’s in the vanguard of the pop scene, a member of the era’s premier vocal group the Pied Pipers (which will become another Capitol signing coup within the year), and singing for one of the biggest-selling bandleaders of the decade — the Dorseys are third only to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller in pop clout, and jazz heads mostly respect them too. Her solo performance on “Manhattan Serenade” is an early breakout from the Pipers, and when she strikes out on her own for good in 1944, she will be one of the biggest vocal stars of the day, right up to the snapping-off point when Elvis’s hips invade the charts. She will sing country, both straight (with Frankie Laine, “Hey Good Lookin’”) and in a nasty cornpone parody (with Red Ingle, “Timtayshin”), she will sing traditional folk (her 1950 album American Folk Songs is surprisingly beautiful), she will sing novelty pop and nostalgia pop and comic parodies of tone-deaf nightclub acts; and through it all her technically perfect voice and showbiz up-for-anything spirit will stand her in good stead.
She will, however, only rarely break through the carefully orchestrated and glossy, antiseptic pop productions given her to make something truly memorable. This recording is notable more for being a structural throwback to the dance pop of the 1920s — the Dorsey orchestra plays a whole two choruses of the song before Jo even makes an appearance — than for anything she does. She is demure, and wholesome, and maybe a bit smug, but then it’s a smug lyric, and anything set in Manhattan is pretty much going to be smug; history hasn’t changed that much.
Over the past few weeks, we have sketched the broad parameters of the music of the 1940s; the kinds of music that people were listening to, that made sense to the various pop audiences in America, that tried to unite the country as it pulled together to achieve a (for once) worthy end. The remainder of our story will examine how things began to unravel, in one reading, and move forward, in another. There are many different Americas to come; and even more we won’t glimpse except maybe in passing, a flash of light as the dining car slips through the hills.
Act II: The Gift To Be Simple
Scene One: In A Suffused Light
Pop music is not all music (though all music can be read as pop); and when investigating history it is important to remember what the people of the period understood music to be. What was pop, and what was art. Many of the widespread musical impulses which are today satisfied by indie rock, jazz, or the many varieties of chillout were understood in the 1940s through the prism of “classical” music — which is to say, music proper.Hard as it may be to grasp today, a great many Americans — perhaps even a majority — in the 1940s thought of music as classical first and popular second. (Vernacular was not even on the radar for most.) The fact that Americans were far more familiar with the classical canon than we are today is illustrated by a recurring segment on one of the most popular radio quiz shows of the era, Information Please, in which concert pianist (and jazzbo manqué) Oscar Levant played selections requested by listeners to the panel. The choices were overwhelmingly from the classical repertoire; whenever a listener got squirrelly and threw in a Gershwin song to break up the monotony, moderator Clifton Fadiman would get snarky (and Levant would mumble a defense). Fadiman was the middlebrow intellectual of midcentury America — his great achievement was the Lifetime Reading Plan, a Great Books course for status-anxious suburbanites — and his schoolmarmish attitude reflected a stolid consensus which couldn’t feel the ground shifting under its feet.Because when you wage war against pop for Art, what you inevitably do is wage war for the past against the present. (People who have used the word “rockist” might be familiar with the phenomenon.) And in so doing, you ignore the art of the present; new composers couldn’t get their work played on Arturo Toscanini’s immensely popular and widely-heard NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts to save their lives, and as the classical present — particularly in Europe — pushed hard at the parameters of sonority, tone, and even conceptuality, the classical establishment dug further behind the barricades of Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz. The vacuum — the popular appetite for complex and thoughtful music, not willing or informed enough to embrace the rigors of Boulezian orthodoxy, but wanting more than three-minute bursts of sentiment and rhythm — would be filled; but not by conventional composers.Of course there were exceptions.
Serge Koussevitzky & The Boston Symphony Orchestra “Appalachian Spring”
Victor DM1046 • 1945
Dawn breaks. Light catches and hangs in the golden fields, filling the broad, empty spaces of plain and prairie, and all creation is still, waiting like a stage. The figures which will trod their measure over this land appear slowly, as if embodied forth from the earth and air: a man and a woman, in the plain clothes of the farmer and the farmer’s wife, side by side, also in deep stillness, also waiting. As the sun rises, the light plays over the setting, shifting, the shadows sprawling, a gust of spirit rustling through the grasses. Silence. Waiting.
Then suddenly — yet at the appointed time — with a leap of joy, the farmer thrusts his plow into the earth. He tills the soil, and it is a dance, one in which he pauses for the field to make her steps before tracing his patterns in her skin. In perfect counterpoint, the wife strings her laundry, churns her butter, shucks her corn, while the high glad sun swims overhead. The naked bones of a house, unshingled, grow at the side of the field, each beam and plank hammered true as the farmer works in his field and the wife at her wheel. At last the roof is raised by many hands, and the community joins the farmer and his wife in solemn contemplation of the new home.
The farmer and his wife enter the dwelling as clouds rise up to veil the sun and feed the earth. The homesteaders are tender — intimate.
The scene turns to the community, which has become a congregation. As one, under the direction of a black-clad revivalist, they dance a complex pattern, pairing off and setting to work. Civilization flourishes of a sudden; there are houses, roads, carts, a steeple with bells — and then tall buildings, taller than the eye can see, and monstrous engines roaring down the hardened streets, and overhead, and underground.
And yet it is but a vision. The farmer’s wife dances the civilizing steps in her mind, only more furiously, and the contrast between the imagined (future?) town and the open prairie could not be greater. She has loved, and will love, and because of this she is afraid, afraid of all the things that may not come to be, torn between desire for civilization and desire for her husband and coming child. She weeps. The storm breaks overhead.
But the mood passes. The drying tears echo the return of the sun to the grateful land.
The farmer calls to her; there are shoots in the field. They return to work, full of the knowledge that it will not be in vain. And this too, somehow, is the revivalist dance of civilization; only more sure-footed, more certain. The steps are no longer sudden, but painstaking and measured. Plowing, tending, harvesting, the farmer and his wife build and make secure their home. They bow and curtsey to their neighbors, and go into town in stately array to hear the preaching.
In unison, the townspeople — the farmer and his wife among them — pass along the green avenues of the town, to the beautiful old church which (in a mystery) has always stood there. The revivalist is now a bishop; the land is tamed. Cool breezes dance through the planted trees as purples fill the sky. The doors close on the yellow comfort of Sunday meeting, and the sun sets, well satisfied with the day’s work.
This is American mythmaking at a very deep level, the only essential truth about America which Americans generally don’t mind hearing. However, it is not exactly a description of the Appalachian Spring ballet which was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for Martha Graham’s dance troupe and performed by her in 1944. The ballet is modern dance, which is to say highly symbolic and expressionistic, though you can read much of the above into it. And then again, the orchestral suite which Serge Koussevitzky, conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, premiered in 1945 and recorded later the same year is not precisely the ballet.
Aaron Copland, entering middle age after a youth in thrall to Schoenberg’s serialist theories, had grown into a canny, eye-to-posterity sort of composer, and knew that a suite in broad, recognizable gestures would be more lasting in the American imagination than a piece which was played only as the score to a modernist ballet. So he adapted the ballet to a suite (mostly just dropping Graham’s solo dance), and his populist instincts were proved quite right: Appalachian Spring is one of perhaps five twentieth-century classical pieces that could be recognized by a casual listener (the others are Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, Barber’s Adagio For Strings, and at a pinch Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring), thanks to the pains Copland took to approximate actual country dances and his incorporation of a Shaker hymn into the resolution of the piece.
“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848, in a Maine settlement composed of devout souls, perhaps the most thoroughly American of all religious sects. Melville’s singleminded fanatic Ahab was a Quaker, but even that was too cosmopolitan and broadminded for a group that disbelieved in sexual intercourse yet practiced communism and the equality of women. If America breeds odd religions, she can’t say they haven’t done right by her: Shaker furniture, architecture, agricultural and domestic ingenuity, and music were one of the great wellsprings of American creativity in the nineteenth century. But more fundamentally, the Shaker ideal of simplicity in all things has been a powerful engine to the American imagination for two centuries.
’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free. Americans, even Americans who know better, cling to the vision of a simple, honest, and free America in the 1940s, a nation of farming boys and bobby-soxed girls who looked across the ocean and in righteous indignation at what Hitler was doing rolled up their sleeves and went to war. ’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be. The most astonishing thing is that it worked — we licked Mr. Hitler but good, and came back home somewhat reduced but still smiling. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight. Just right is right — in the Goldilocks sense. The G.I. Bill, the baby boom, and (before long) the national highway system were recreating America as one vast suburb, an advertiser’s Garden of Paradise, leafy and roomy and with new gadgets every month.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed. Well, now, hold on. The Kinsey Report’s coming up soon, but shame is a major part of the fabric of society; it’s what gives noir movies and the gay lifestyle their peculiar kick; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is only one of the most vivid American myths about social pressure. To turn and to turn will be our delight. Now we’re seriously unsettled. Turning and turning? But we’ve had enough of revolution. Surely this is the point of the story where we enter into our well-earned rest. The door closes; the screen superimposes The End on a montage of hearts and flowers; the ivy-covered cottage and the patter of little feet and they all lived happily ever after. What do you mean, keep turning?
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Maybe you have to be religious. Maybe you have to more specifically be the kind of religious that believes in confession and starting over again. (The Shakers had that in common with Catholics.) To turn can be an image of repentance, certainly; but of course it’s also an image of dance. And if there’s a more hopeful and even in its way mystical image of perfection than that of dancing the world to rights, it hasn’t crossed my path. The first time I heard the lyric I had to catch my breath to keep from sobbing. The America of Appalachian Spring may not be the one I live in, but it’s the one I love.
Scene Two: A Dream That’s A Pippin
The Glenn Miller Orchestra ft. Tex Beneke & The Modernaires “Chattanooga Choo Choo”
(Harry Warren, Mack Gordon)
Bluebird 11230 • 1941
Aaron Copland’s working name for the ballet he spent most of 1943 and 1944 composing was “Ballet For Martha.” It was Martha Graham who named it Appalachian Spring, from a line in Hart Crane’s 1930 poem “The Bridge,” which took the Brooklyn Bridge as an occasion for an extended metaphor for the totality of America itself. Crane’s “spring” is a natural well, not a seasonal change, and Copland was amused to the end of his days by people who solemnly informed him that he had captured the spirit of verdant Appalachia in the music he had written in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The ballet itself was set in Pennsylvania in the days when Pennsylvnia was still the western frontier, and its most famous melody was composed a century earlier in Maine.
Manhattan, Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, Maine — and the ballet itself premiered in Washington, DC. On a map of the United States, the triangulation of these points covers a remarkably limited area, at least compared to the vast expanses of the rest of the country. All of New England could fit comfortably inside many a western state; yet the locus of political, literary, financial, academic, and cultural power in America has always rested there. Tin Pan Alley, a street that belongs more to the imagination than to cartography, was nevertheless always in New York; Broadway in the 1940s set box-office records with fantasias set everywhere from Oklahoma to Glocca Morra to Bali Ha’i, and was equally condescending to everything west of the Hudson and east of Long Island; and the myth of American travel was always, as we have seen before, from the East to points either West or South.
It’s no mistake that the Chattanooga Choo Choo departs from New York’s Pennsylvania Station; though it’s named for a city in Tennessee, it’s a pop song aimed at a general audience, and therefore New York is the origin. The narrator is a Southern boy returning home to a vision in satin and lace — but he had to go to New York to make it, for certain limited values of making it. His fare and the trifle to spare he’s blowing on a shoeshine at Penn’s Track 29 aren’t exactly big shot material; if it weren’t for the well-fed cheerfulness of Tex Beneke’s vocal, you might suspect him of returning with his tail between his legs, unable to make it and crawling back to where the pressure’s less intense.
If it were five years later, Tex would be a demobbed soldier heading back to the Girl Who Waited; but it’s 1941, and he’s perching atop the charts as America wakes on December 8 to discover that the fleet at Pearl Harbor has been bombed by Japanese aircraft. Which would be enough to earn him a place in pop history; but his bandleader is Glenn Miller, the best-selling musician of the previous decade (even if jazz snobs turn up their noise at his weak-tea dance pop, barely even worthy of the name of swing), and Glenn Miller, a bright-eyed Midwestern boy to the end, would react to the war with patriotism as predictable as it was laudable, volunteering to lead the Army Air Force Band and making several dangerous runs in order to perform for the troops. His plane went missing over the English Channel in December 1944, on his way to play for soldiers in the newly liberated Paris; his body has never been found.
With him died an era of pop that had its origins in the slightly desperate, movie-drunk dancefloors of the Depression, an era that could believe that Tennessee was well represented by generic Hollywood swing, that a nation united under God, flag and Roosevelt was in thrall to the intersections of Broadway and 42nd Street and Hollywood and Vine, that the various underclasses who had gotten the worst of the Depression and the war both were safely invisible and inaudible, that Glenn Miller was a credible jazzman. An era in which pop was artificial because reality was too horrific, in which the lie agreed upon which covered all pop culture showed no seam in its façade of smiling white people with wary eyes.
After the war, things changed. Slowly, as things do. But between Glenn Miller in 1941 and (shall we say) Elvis Presley in 1956 lies a gap as massive as that between Please Please Me and Germ Free Adolescents. The end of the war did not bring about utopia; but it did allow for a reorganization of principles. Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to note that Bear Family’s magnificent Blowing The Fuse series of rhythm & blues reissues begins in 1945. Of course there was r&b before; but there’s an immediacy here, a newness, a casting-off of the old, the traditional, and the reverend, that marks all great pop movements.
And of course there’s continuity too. To be human is to connect.
The King Cole Trio “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”
Capitol 256 • 1946
“Chattanooga Choo Choo,” like “On The Atchison, Topeka, And Santa Fe” after it, represented one of the great American self-mythologies of the 1940s: the romance and glamour of rail travel. But another mythology was overtaking it, one which would last much longer and in the fullness of time bring the world to the brink of economic and environmental collapse (spoilers, sorry) — that of the automobile.
The great midcentury American romance is, arguably, that between a man and his car; sometimes pared down to a man and his motorcycle, but that’s for outsiders, outlaws, and troubled youths. Cars are suburban, conventional, normal — everything that America was anxious to be, in the wake of a savagely destabilizing world war and with the echo of nuclear armageddon ringing in her ears. A car might mean adventure, but it means safe adventure, with a garage, a lawn, and a picket fence waiting at the end of it. The roads didn’t get you there as fast or as conveniently as the rails, but they got you there under your own power, and a generation of men who had chafed at Army life for five years could appreciate that.
It was a mythology that found an unexpected resonance with a newly purposeful minority. Black Americans were still officially an underclass, cut off by Jim Crow and white supremacy from sharing fully in the rewards of postwar prosperity; but increasingly they refused to see it that way. The mythology of a man and his car cut across race lines in a way that was not superceded by the added meaning auto travel had to the growing black middle class. The coming paeans to Cadillacs, Coup de Villes, Rocket 88s, and more that would give rock & roll its turbo-charged engine were as much aspirational as conventional, a gaudy flaunting of newly-acquired assets as much as any bling or Cristal today. But in 1946, a sly-eyed, honey-voiced, and tricky-fingered black man served notice that just as whites could not keep the mythology of the American highway to themselves, neither would black pop stars be content with a ghettoized audience.
Nat King Cole is better remembered for his later career as a burnished-silk balladeer than for his start as a jive-inflected leader of a small rhythmic trio; his fleet combo, pared to the essentials of piano, bass, and guitar, was a small, sporty coupe compared to the massive, brass-and-wood rail-bound orchestras that overran pop production. His own path had taken him from Chicago to L.A. (more than three thousand miles all the way), and the trio that bore his name was the greatest exponent of west-coast R&B, a sun-dappled, easygoing alternative to the harder-edged, skronky sounds coming out of the East. Their first hit, “Sweet Lorraine,” was a smoothly overhauled slice of 1928 nostalgia; the song that established them on the white charts, “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” was a bit of near-racist foolery saved by Cole’s genial, never-less-than-dignified performance; and the song that defined them in their early years, “Hit That Jive, Jack” was as limber a piece of rhythmic music as had existed up to then, locating the precise intersection of jive, still-nascent bop, and the jump blues which would start hollering about rocking and rolling soon thereafter.
The King Cole Trio, largely on the back of Cole’s immaculately nonthreatening persona, became one of the biggest crossover acts in pop history; they were snapped up by the smart and jazz-loving Johnny Mercer, and Capitol Records’ famous Stack-O’-Wax building, modeled on a jukebox spindle of 45s, on Hollywood and Vine was called “The House That Nat Built.”
The Duke Ellington Orchestra ft. Al Hibbler “I’m Just A Lucky So And So”
(Duke Ellington, Mack David)
RCA 20-1799 • 1945
Buddy Johnson & His Orchestra ft. Ella Johnson “Since I Fell For You”
Decca 48016 • 1945
Black music had been aspirational long before Nat King Cole, of course; Duke Ellington’s omnipresent tuxedo and Louis Armstrong’s long career singing pop hits to adoring international (and interracial) audiences were only the most visible signs of black achievement in the corridors of pop music power. But as America began to look around her, somewhat dazed, at the end of the war, wondering what now and hoping for something good, there was a new sense that the field was somehow open wider, that the walls separating black and white, r&b and pop, and jazz and proper music, were dissolving before us.
Two bandleaders charted the opposite ends of the spectrum that this new era of possibility possibly offered; the indefatigable Ellington continued to pour out a stream of slightly overelegant, long-limbed pop songs interspersed with more technical forays into concert and program music, as he had done since the late 20s and would continue to do until the early 70s, both with and without the genius arranger and frequent co-composer Billy Strayhorn. And Buddy Johnson used an orchestra of similar size (if not prestige) to ramp up the tensions between classy, uptown swing and the stripped-down rhythm & blues emanating from chicken shacks and juke joints across the land and particularly points South, and becomes one of the most popular dance combos in the country into the bargain. The two meet in the middle, with this unequal pair of songs, sung by a most unlikely pair of vocalists.
Al Hibbler gets most name recognition for the thankless job of being the guy who sang “Unchained Melody” before Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers got their hands on it, but he had had a distinguished career as one of the first great jazz singers to predict the more delicate shadings of soul, as well as being the first famous blind black pop singer well in advance of Ray Charles, let alone Stevie Wonder. As one of the few male singers to work with the notoriously demanding Ellington Orchestra, he was able to match Ben Webster and Ray Nance (Ellington’s star saxophonist and trumpeter, respectively) measure for measure with the fine grain and expressive quality of his deceptively unhurried vocal delivery: his performance of “I Guest I’m Just A Lucky So And So” is a master class in rumpled-yet-elegant charm.
Ella Johnson, by comparison, most probably got the job singing for Buddy’s orchestra because she was his sister; she was a perfectly adequate blues and rhythm singer, but could come a cropper on the slow numbers. On “Since I Fell For You,” she sounds thin and uncertain — “pitchy,” in the faux-professional parlance of the modern reality show — but the alchemy of her naïve croon and the betrayed-innocence confession of the lyric is as perfect a marriage of wobbly vocal and heartfelt sentiment as exists outside of the C86 universe. It’s a performance that sticks in your head long after Hibbler’s studied relaxedness fades into a memory of slick professionalism.
It was also the far bigger hit, covered so often as to earn a place as a standard even though the melody’s a fairly simple blues riff, with none of the swooningly elegant gestures that Ellington at the height of his powers could knock out like clockwork. Times and tastes were changing: the simple, the straightfoward, and even the literal was taking precedence over the complex and sophisticated. In both Mack David’s professional-grade lyric and Hibbler’s performance you can hear the air quotes around slang like “lucky so-and-so” — the elegant Ellington never wrote a truly vernacular note in his life — but the unstudied Ella is utterly convincing even with ordinary, even banal lines like “I guess I’ll never see the light/I get the blues ’bout every night.”
Very often, great pop is great not despite, but because of its simplicity — if you like, its stupidity. A great many people can embrace Ella Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You” — or Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” or the Pussycat Dolls’ “I Hate This Part” — because a great many people see no contradiction between a sentiment being a cliché and it nevertheless being true to their experience (or to the experience they think they’re having, which is what pop is generally used for). It would be ridiculous to call “Since I Fell For You” rock & roll, but it’s part of the generation that made rock & roll possible, by simplifying — or dumbing — the music down to appropriately hormonal levels.
Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”
(Louis Jordan, Billy Austin)
Decca 8659 • 1944
The real achievements of Louis Jordan, like those of Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, lie beyond the limits of this survey; as one of the most prominent and influential figures of 1940s muisc, he pioneered the assault on (white) pop charts from (black) R&B musicians, was one of the most popular and busiest figures in the entertainment industry (in every pie of which he had a finger), and more or less invented rock & roll — or at least jump blues, which is on the black side of the family what western boogie is on the white. He’s more or less remembered as a link in a chain which goes roughly Louis Armstrong-Cab Calloway-Louis Jordan-Wynonie Harris-Chuck Berry, but he’s fully the equal of Armstrong or Berry in terms of accomplishment and lasting success. (And hell, Calloway’s no slouch himself either.)
But what is sometimes forgotten in the celebration of Jordan’s hard-riffing jump numbers and his more extravagant comedy or novelty pieces (his 1946 duet with Ella Fitzgerald, the campy cod-calypso “Stone Cold Dead In De Market” must be heard to be believed) is his mastery of what William James might have called if he’d lived long enough the Varieties of Pop Experience. “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” is a slow jam, based assuredly on blues tradition, but with enough urban verve and candor to be divorced from all which forwent it, to stand pure and noble on its own gently-rolling piano-figure feet, a pop song pure and simple. The unknown vocalist who harmonizes with Jordan on the chorus seems almost spookily to echo close-harmony country “brother” acts like the Delmores, the Louvins, or in due time the Everlys (whence virtually all of rock harmony); the trumpeter staggers around like he’s heard what Jyoti Mishra will do to Nat Gonella in 1997 and wants to replicate it; and best of all the vernacular slang of the lyrics, though delivered with a clear wink and a grin (“is you is or is you ain’t” was never a standard interrogative in any dialect), is nonetheless entirely matched by the low-down swing of the music.
This is the sound of black music finding its level: the way forward, through Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and James Brown to points electric and then electronic, is clearly mapped out for those with ears to hear. People like Ellington will continue to fight the fight of their youth — for basic respect and the admission of artistic credibility — a fight which will consume jazz towards the end of the decade. But Jordan’s generation doesn’t care about that. As far as they’re concerned they got all the respect they require when they got royalties on the last jukebox hit; the point now is crank out more, and make each one hotter than the last. To read a list of Louis Jordan’s R&B number ones is to see a juggernaut in motion, crushing all in its path; to listen to them, on the other hand, is as visceral and even joyous a pleasure as pop has yet learned to provide.
Nellie Lutcher & Her Rhythm “Fine Brown Frame”
(Guadalupe Carterio, J. Mayo Williams)
Capitol 1605 • 1947
Harry “The Hipster” Gibson “Stop That Dancin’ Up There”
Musicraft 291 • 1944
As long as we’re considering the impact on the future, we may as well find space for 1967 in the mid-40s. The Black Power movement, quite aside from its radical politics, had two major cultural effects: the “black is beautiful” moment, in which for the first time Eurocentric standards of beauty were explicitly confronted and rejected on a mass level; and the existence of the jive honky, the white guy who desperately wants to be black, i.e. cool. A later generation would popularize the word “wigger,” but the phenomenon is at least as old as Mezz Mezzrow, a white jazz cat active from the 1920s who sneered at any black singer more elegant than Bessie Smith as trying to pass; and of course his contemporary Langston Hughes had no trouble finding black bodies beautiful, even while Aunt Jemima remained the favorite example of black femininity in mass culture.
But in pop terms, “Fine Brown Frame” is, if not quite a giant leap forward, at least pressing hard against the current. Any earlier pop song praising black male beauty has escaped my notice (black female beauty is another story, one in which sexism and the fetish of exoticism no doubt played their roles) — and unlike previous black paeans to male worth, neither the badassery nor the flash of the paramour amount to anything much. He’s not even with it in the standard black sense of having access to a privileged underground language, not hep to that jive like voot and all reet. Nothing, in fact, but his looks recommend him — but those looks are good enough to wrench a scream out of bandleader and pianist Nellie Lutcher, in one of the greatest pop punctuations of the decade. The song was originally recorded by Buddy and Ella Johnson, but Lutcher adds not only a more practised vocal style but a harder-swining, leaner rhythmic punch. She was old enough to remember the era of the blues mama, and while she cuts a determinedly post-swing figure, she’s one of the links between the old rawness and the new energy.
“Fine Brown Frame” marked one of the first uses of the word “square” to mean, well, square, not hep or in the know. It was beat to the punch, however, by “Stop That Dancin’ Up There,” from a figure as little-known as he was seminal, and whose internominal tag “The Hipster” practically demanded that he be recognized as not-square. Harry Gibson grew up near Harlem, and unlike Mezzrow, who totally ignored his white heritage to identify with the jazzy Negro, he saw no contradiction in being a white man who acted as lie-down cool as the flashiest black pimp. His raspy patter, based equally on the high-energy nightclub performer Jimmy Durante and the goofily mocking after-hours Fats Waller (both of whom, incidentally, played superb jazz piano) predicted the Mick Jagger of “Get Off Of My Cloud” — a song with close thematic ties to “Stop That Dancin’ Up There” — as well as the Bob Dylan of every age, who must undoubtedly have studied the song’s cheerful schoolyard paradoxes (cf. “One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night”). And his hard-driving boogie-woogie piano style predicted those of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, though as a Manhattanite through and through he was never as consciously vernacular as either of them.
As black music (and the varied responses to black music) began to shift in a distinctive direction post-war, white music was not exactly scrambling to keep up. But it too was making tentative strides towards the prime pop directive of simplicity, even as increasing sophistication in arrangement and production technology gave it a wider vista than it had ever seen before.
Scene Three: Play Pretty For The People
The treacherous thing about the present is how inevitable it always seems. This unconscious habit of mind makes it difficult to see change when it happens, because the status quo is always understood as the end (i.e. both the terminus and the purpose) of history.
Let’s take an example: the rock band. It is an accident of history that the band as we know it — guitar, bass, drums — took the shape it did. It is neither the most perfect nor the simplest arrangement of instruments (though at one time it was more or less the cheapest), and the reason it’s so popular has far less to do with the inherent musical properties of the rock-band lineup than with the desire of people in rock bands to emulate their heroes, all of whom were in rock bands. When pop changed to the degree that boys with guitars could not produce all the sounds that pop desired, the rock band was left behind, and the mythology of authenticity rose up to prove Boethius right about the consolations of philosophy.
This is a roundabout way of taking up the topic of the most widespread and durable pop format which preceded the rock band: the (jazz?) orchestra with a singer. These have been listed as “X & His Orchestra ft. Y” here, which is a convenient anachronism of the hip-hop era. The actual labels on the platters either attributed the entire recording to the orchestra or added a parenthetical annotation along the lines of “Kay Starr—voc.” The point is clear; it is the bandleader’s show, and the vocalists, like the instrumental soloists, serve at his pleasure. (Almost always his, by the way; there were occasional female bandleaders, but they were generally novelty acts with limited audiences, and form almost no part of our story.)
One of the favorite distinctions that people who analyze this era of musicmaking is to distinguish between the bands that made jazz and the bands that made pop. This is misleading, however; even granting a meaningful distinction between jazz and pop, all but the most advanced jazz bands recorded pop aimed at the charts, and even the whitest bread of pop hitmakers employed jazz players and played by jazz rules. Just as Fleetwod Mac’s Rumours is one of the greatest pop albums of its era while unmistakably saturated in the apparatus of 60s rock, so the pop of the 40s was immersed in the structures and machinery of 20s and 30s jazz, which was fundamentally and above all else a dance music (and therefore unavoidably pop), even while jazz in the 1940s was spreading its wings and testing its way into non-pop arenas.
One of the challenges to those raised on rock in exploring the music of the pre-rock era is trying to make sense of the various personalities of the “and his orchestra” format. What differentiates Stan Kenton from Chick Webb from Benny Goodman from, well, Billy Butterfield? How do we find our way in the maze of releases and personnel changes and combo variety? The answer, of course, is to listen closer. Once upon a time you couldn’t tell the sonic difference between Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Tommy Iommi, and Angus Young, either.
Stan Kenton & His Orchestra ft. June Christy “Shoo Fly Pie And Apple Pan Dowdy”
(Guy Wood, Sammy Gallop)
Capitol 235 • 1946
June Christy is perhaps the best-kept secret of the pre-rock pop era, a singer who had the unenviable job of replacing Anita O’Day as the female voice in the Stan Kenton Orchestra and carved out her own space as an undemonstrative, smoky-voiced, surprisingly witty personality in the decade that followed. Her landmark 10-inch LP Something Cool (released in 1954, before the long player standardized at 12 inches) was the introduction of vocals to the cool-jazz movement, about which more below. She is the Miles Davis, thoughtful and world-weary, to O’Day’s passionate and hard-living Charlie Parker — but in 1946, she’s been with Kenton for all of a year and is only beginning to find her voice.
Stan Kenton will also receive further consideration below; as of 1946, he is one of the most forward-thinking and critically acclaimed white bandleaders, at least among jazz heads. Which are themselves a relatively new phenomenon; Down Beat magazine is gaining in readership in precisely inverse proportion to the number of bands which are breaking up and getting out of the business, unable to compete with the growing record-and-radio hegemony which favors smart and technical maestros like Kenton. Live music has begun to fade; which means that music critics have space to be heard for the first time. Which means that jazz has begun to identify itself as an art form; the history of music criticism has always followed the (sometimes entirely fictitious) fault lines between pop and art, and Kenton, as the most lauded white post-swing bandleader, is interested in pushing the limits of big-band jazz into the cultural and musicological spaces reserved for high art. Within a year, he’ll be talking about “progressive jazz” — but this is 1946, and this is a pop song, even a novelty song.
Shoo fly pie is a molasses pie popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch; apple pan dowdy is a regional New England name for apple cobbler. The irony of a pop song celebrating Northeastern cooking in terms usually reserved for Southern cooking (cf. “That’s What I Like About The South”) and laced with Western slang is only slightly less than that of the self-seriously advanced Kenton Orchestra backing up June Christy in a kittenish, teasing performance: at least one of those “Howdy!”s is a total come-on. Kenton gets his progressive licks in, however: the quiet-loud dynamics, the screaming trumpet lines, the contrapunctal horn riffs, and finally the near-dissonance of the closing full-orchestra bursts point the way forward in a line which will end in Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, and the outer limits of space.
Benny Goodman & His Orchestra “Oh Baby”
Columbia 55039 • 1946
Louis Prima & His Orchestra “Brooklyn Boogie”
(Earl Bostic, Louis Prima)
Majestic 1029 • 1945
A well-informed person, on hearing about a list of one hundred 1940s records, might reasonably assume that a fair proportion of them would fall under the loose category of “swing.” It was the Swing Era, after all, and to swing anything was to make it ultramodern and up-to-date. The most popular dance bands, the most acclaimed singers and instrumentalists, all played swing, or at least called what they did swing, which does just as well for the historical record. So it’s easy to put down to the idiosyncrasy of the compiler the fact that these two songs are about as pure swing as this list gets. Plenty of other songs, particularly in the front half, start from the default pop position of the 1940s (which is swing), but these are the only two which embrace all the techniques and attitudes of swing proper, which is a dance music at the same time that it is an instrumental showcase and uptempo, always uptempo.
But there’s another reason hardcore swing doesn’t dominate more: it’s the reason that you don’t find much pure punk on 90s lists. The entire musical cast of the period has been shaped by it — and every major innovation takes it as a starting point — but it’s more catalyst and attitude than a strictly-defined genre by this point.
Benny Goodman started billing himself the King of Swing in the 1930s, and never had a serious challenger; he is to the genre what James Brown is to funk or Lil Jon to crunk: the alpha and the omega, the man who did more than anyone else to establish swing as something separate from what came before and to define its parameters; though officially open to all kinds of innovations, Goodman privately sneered at bop, calling it “mostly publicity and people figuring angles.” He would have known: the firestorms of publicity around his famous 1935 Palomar gig (often considered ground zero of the Swing Era), the legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, the brief incandescent career of Charlie Christian, and his commission of Béla Bartók’s Contrasts and other classical clarinet pieces never did his career any harm.
By 1946 he had little left to prove: the most popular and respected bandleader of his age, who had taught a generation to dance to the strain of his devising (well, of Fletcher Henderson’s, but Goodman’s perfectionism and showmanship — and, yes, whiteness — made it audible for the masses), he recorded when he felt like it and when he thought he had something interesting to do.
“Oh Baby” was a double-sided 78, a relative rarity for Goodman, who generally recorded within the pop limitations of three-and-change minutes per side, but here he and his band stretch out like they were known to do live, cycling through solo after solo. The song qua song is so unimportant that Goodman himself takes the vocal, and though its wheedling, naïve joyfulness sets perfectly adequate parameters for the explosions of noise and lyricism which will cascade throughout the eight minutes of the song — check the drum solo in particular, and compare with that in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for a thorough demonstration of the difference between narrative and lyric instrumentation — as a singer, he’s a fantastic clarinetist. There’s a spaciousness to the arrangement that echoes Goodman’s Olympian status; like any aristocrat he demands elbow room. It may not swing as hard and hungry as his 30s sides, but it doesn’t need to: contentment and mastery are what America, as personified by Benny Goodman, most requires.
In contrast, Louis Prima is still only partly formed here, and his band of Italian mooks play straight and hot, hyped-up and churning away on all cylinders. Prima’s trademark “gleeby rhythm” underlying the horn charts is taken at full throttle and could be mistaken for continuous fills. It’s basic, ballsy swing, distinguished only by Prima’s murmured Brooklyn travelogue in the intro.
Which is in keeping with our occasional theme of geography. Prima was born in New Orleans, part of the Italian dixieland scene which also produced the first jazz on record (the Original Dixieland Jass Band were wise guys to a man), but he’s most strongly associated with the showbiz nowhere of Las Vegas in the 50s and 60s. Vegas was barely a twinkle in Bugsy Siegel’s eye in 1945 (the 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels has our heroes wash up in a Las Vegas played by a diner in a field), and the New York-based Prima was busy selling and mocking his Italian heritage with groaning novelty songs in the 1940s. Small wonder that the band sounds relieved to get out from under “Angelina (The Waitress At The Pizzeria)” and “Felicia No Capicia” and “Buona Sera” with an express to Coney.
Billy Eckstine & His Orchestra “A Cottage For Sale”
(Willard Robison, Larry Conley)
National 9014 • 1945
Lena Horne “I’ve Got A Right To Sing The Blues”
(Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler)
Victor 27817 • 1941
Louis Prima, by virtue of being Italian, fell between the cracks in the racial calculus of 1940s pop America. Sure, wops weren’t negros, but they sure as hell weren’t white, either, so they shared in the traditional privilege of all underclasses to be as noisy and irreverent as they chose.
At least that’s one of the narratives told about jazz and black America and white America and all the ships at sea. Reality is less rigorously ideological.
The aspirational strain in black music has been present virtually since the beginning, a music which neither apologizes for negritude nor is constrained by it, however much the lives of the musicians might have been so constrained. Someone like Billie Holiday wears the constraints of racism on her sleeve — or in her throat — which is why she tends to be revered far above more polished and technically perfect practitioners of the torch songs which were her stock in trade. In a critical matrix in which rough > smooth (because somehow more authentic), the achievements of people who aimed only at making the best damn music they could make, on their own terms as well as on the terms of the larger culture, and were subsequently embraced by mass audiences in a way that put the lie to official claims of unequal talent and eternal antipathy, are ignored. Am I talking about Billy Eckstine and Lena Horne? I’m talking about Billy Eckstine and Lena Horne.
Billy Eckstine’s fame as a big-voiced balladeer came only at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, when he crashed the pop charts with massive slabs of sentiment, showing up Perry Como and Vic Damone and Eddie Fisher and Al Martino (those Italians again) with a voice as rich and expressive as any bel canto belter’s. But he began his career as a bandleader in a forward-looking, bop-inflected mode, a free-and-easy scatter and employer of talent as broadly modernist as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey. Concurrently with the hot, folded-in-on-themselves numbers which pointed towards the future, he recorded songs which could be considered dry runs for his later studio-orchestra ballads. “A Cottage For Sale” is a big-band ballad: future hard-bop sax legends Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons were at the date, but none of them are given much to do. Eckstine and his vibrato are front and center.
Lena Horne’s small, sweet voice is totally unlike Eckstine’s overpowering one, except in one respect: there’s no blues to it at all. Or at least not what we think of as blues today. She can bend notes in the good old theater-blues tradition just as well as Dinah Shore (who she replaced on NBC’s The Chamber Music Society Of Lower Basin Street around the time of this recording), but she’s got none of the gutbucket rasp endemic to the blues post-1960, using the classical technique of vibrato to sell her emotion rather than the blues or gospel technique of roughing up the voice. But despite the revisionism which disdains such classy professionalism (as well as her concurrent career in Hollywood, as though being a mediocre actor was ever a check mark against a pop star), she was the most popular female black singer of her era, and not just among white people who approved of her unthreatening showbizisms.
“A Cottage For Sale” and “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues” (the grammar was regularized for Horne’s classy-as-always release) were both songbook selections dating from the early 1930s; the fact that Eckstine’s and Horne’s versions were among the most popular of each tells you something about the song market in the mid-1940s. Particularly given the fact that Harold Arlen and Willard Robison were still working and watching their old material lap their new.
The Benny Goodman Sextet ft. Peggy Lee “Blues In The Night”
(Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer)
Okeh 6553 • 1941
Well, not always. Harold Arlen was the greatest songwriter of his era to never be called the greatest songwriter of his era. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers (with Hart, not Hammerstein), and his closest peer Hoagy Carmichael are nearly always listed ahead of him in the Great American Songbook sweepstakes, even though it was Arlen’s style of composition — direct, bluesy, soulful — which would influence rock songwriting more deeply than any of the others’ increasingly history-swept sounds. His main conspirator throughout the 30s had been Ted Koehler, whose solid if undistinguished lyrics brought out the blues structures in Arlen’s songs but added nothing. As the decade changed Arlen began working with the greatest poet of the American airwaves, Johnny Mercer.
The story is too good to be elided, so here it is: when Arlen and Mercer finished writing the song in 1941 — for a justly-forgotten movie musical — they called Margaret Whiting so that they could hear someone with a voice sing it. Gee, I’d love to hear your new song, fellows, she told them, but you’ll have to come by another time; I have dinner guests tonight. Who? Oh, the usual crowd — Judy Garland, Mel Tormé, Mickey Rooney, Martha Raye. Mercer and Arlen came right over, got in the back door, and started playing. According to Whiting,
I remember forever the reaction. Mel got up and said, “I can’t believe it.” Martha couldn’t say a word. Mickey Rooney said, “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Judy Garland said, “Play it again.” We had them play it seven times. Judy and I ran to the piano to see who was going to learn it first. It was a lovely night.
The song debuted in the movie of the same name, sung by journeyman Hollywood singer William Gillespie, and was (predictably, if you know the tune) an instant hit, with five versions in the charts within the space of a year. Peggy Lee’s wasn’t one of them, although it was one of the earliest recordings of the song, and one of her earliest recordings, period. She is a relatively unformed vocalist here, at least compared to what she would become (sex on a platter, basically), and her performance doesn’t call attention to itself, although a quick comparison with the vocal versions that did chart — notably Dinah Shore’s — shows that Lee has a deep feeling for the blues understructure of the song, even if it’s taken at slightly too fast a clip without the room to breathe that later readings would give it.
The vocal solo is by Goodman’s trombone player, Lou McGarity. Why he — or Goodman, or Lee, or anyone involved in the recording — thought a mildly unhinged yodel would be better than a trombone solo for this song is anyone’s guess, but it gives it a punch and a swerve that more conventional productions lack, an echo of the “lonesome whistle blowing ’cross the trestle” in the bridge, and a hint that the empty spaces between Natchez (MS) and Mobile (AL) or Memphis (TN) and St. Joe (MO) might contain something wilder and less comfortable than a studio orchestra. There are no such unsettling reminders in the next two songs.
Dinah Shore “They Didn’t Believe Me”
(Jerome Kern, Herbert Reynolds)
Columbia 37263 • 1946
Frank Sinatra “I Fall In Love Too Easily”
(Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn)
Columbia 36830 • 1945
As songs, “They Didn’t Believe Me” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” fall at opposite ends of a tradition, one which “They Didn’t Believe Me” helped to inaugurate when it was introduced in 1914, in the American production of an inconsequential British musical comedy which Jerome Kern had been hired to spruce up with some livelier songs for Yankee audiences. Its 4/4 beat, far more accessible to ragtime-dancing urban Americans than the 3/4 waltz time of European fashion, and the naturalistic, conversational style of the melody — rather than the alternate piping and booming of operetta — represented something new under the sun. It was the first flower of the great springtime of American song, in which a thousand blossoms would bloom for the next thirty years, nourished first by Broadway and then by Hollywood, an era which midwifed the jazz revolution, saw both black and rural performers gain an audience, and produced the first genuine pop star as we understand the term today.
That would be Master Frankie Sinatra, who by 1945 had passed the first blush of his screaming-bobbysoxers youth, and in the aftermath of World War II was casting around for personas to inhabit. The Voice was one of them — it would be the title of his first album, released within the year, and that voice is on display as a magnificent instrument here, controlled, subtle, and fine-grained, with a sympathetic arrangement from Alex Stordahl that presages the magnificent full-orchestra settings which The Voice would receive in the years to come from arrangers like Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, and Stordahl himself. Another persona was the still-wet-behind-the-ears kid in movies like Anchors Aweigh, where he sang this song as a reprimand to himself for falling for Kathryn Grayson, who ends the movie with the more worldly Gene Kelly, but the punk kid from Hoboken who denied himself nothing was rapidly aging out of those roles, and had his sights set on bigger and better things.
Among those bigger and better things would be a turn away from new music and into the evergreen standards of the Golden Age of Popular Song, 1920-1945. Sure, he would still record the occasional massive hit single throughout the decades to come, but he blanketed the earth with “Come Fly With Me” and “Strangers In The Night” and “It Was A Very Good Year” and “My Way” mostly to prove that he could, saving his real talent for the concept albums and songbook series which drew from the old inexhaustible well, turning adult pop into a kind of stasis field of memory and tradition, where nothing ever changed except that the people who sang the songs got gradually older and less able to convey the kinds of fine shades that had made them the greatest singers on earth in the first place.
Many things killed the Golden Age of Song — perhaps most importantly the eternal principle of Things Change, Deal With It — but the backwards glance made by Sinatra and followed by every credible singer of his era spelled the end for the Tin Pan Alley machine of songwriters and composers. Spring was no longer new; it had gone about as fur as it could go.
Dinah Shore’s version of “They Didn’t Believe Me” was in the Kern biopic Till The Clouds Roll By, and her performance is a rare example of Hollywood orchestration not overwhelming but burnishing a sensitive interpretation of an evergreen. But here, too, is the backward glance. Hollywood in the 40s was more or less obsessed with reordering the recent past in order to make sense of it, in order to fit it into the world to come: the brighter, cleaner, antiseptic world of the 50s, with no hair out of place and no crease in any shirt. Sometimes that meant writing blacks out of their own story, as in retellings of the rise of jazz; often it meant denying or ignoring actual rural life for cartoonish hickface or the one-size-fits-all lightly swinging orchestra of Everywhere, U.S.A. But more crucially, it meant not just rewriting the past but ignoring the present. Hundreds of songwriters were still pumping out hundreds of songs a year; but no one was singing them anymore. The canon was being organized. And strange new music was coming up from the underground, from the rhythm & blues charts and the country charts, and seeping into the pristine, eternal pop of this white man’s Neverland.
This will be very nearly our last encounter with the Great American Songbook in the course of this travelogue. It is a noble tradition, if a sad one. Sad because irrecoverable, with little to say to our current moment except in the sense that one human being can always appreciate the beauty that another human being has made. And they can always reject it too. I know which response I prefer to make.
Scene Four: They All Go Native
Hoagy Carmichael “Ole Buttermilk Sky”
(Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Brooks)
Decca 23769 • 1946
We’ve come across Hoagy Carmichael as a composer earlier in these excursions, but as a performer he’s something else again. A recent box set of his material called him “the first of the singer-songwriters,” which is neither true in the broad historical sense (people been singing their own compositions since people been writing songs; David before Saul, and that) nor in the specific sense in which the phrase singer-songwriter was first applied to the sensitive, self-absorbed and facial-haired post-folkies of the dying Sixties. Carmichael was not a Voice in the sense that Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee or Mel Tormé were or would become; he could never send chills down the spine through immaculate phrasing alone, nor (thankfully) did he ever try. But he was an enormously likable singer, one whose reedy Midwestern tenor sounded like the guy next door, or maybe the guy a few streets over, down on his luck but cussing the world with a smile nevertheless. If he’d been born a decade later, he might have been a country singer; but his heart belonged to jazz, and even on songs like this, a rollicking small-town fantasia, his composition is too sophisticated and mannered to fit entirely into the rurality of the lyrics.
Those lyrics, suffused with ersatz nostalgia for a Midwest that never was, were written by an Englishman — the same one who wrote the cod-ethnic drivel of “That’s Amore,” for God’s sake — and its fussy anxiety about the weather is a very English sentiment; but Brooks does light on a superbly American turn of phrase in “buttermilk sky,” for those pale, warm summer evenings where the air itself seems thick with anticipation. It’s a deliberate evocation of rustic innocence, and it inevitably reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon from the 1920s, subtitled “Desire Under The Elms.” But instead of the then-recent Eugene O’Neill psychodrama of that title, it shows a couple of lanky teenage boys sitting on a shady split-rail fence and looking, with guarded expressions of longing, at a pair of demure girls walking by. The satirical point is clear: real life in America is closer to Booth Tarkington than to Sophocles.
This fact in itself was often taken as a tragedy in high-culture circles — most extensively by Sinclair Lewis — but without an extensive culture of tragic high art to live up to, Americans were far more ready than the rest of the world to embrace the innovations of popular culture, to the lasting dismay of high-culture apologists from Henry James to Theodor Adorno. Walt Disney, George Gershwin, Thimble Theatre, Superman, and jazz filled the dreams of ordinary Americans, and went on to colonize the dreams of the rest of the world.
Which is a long ways from Hoagy and his little half-boogie. It did end up being a country song, at least occasionally; not only Willie Nelson (which proves nothing, bless his eclectic heart), but Crystal Gayle and even Bob Wills have produced versions. It’s a straight pop version of country — or anyway, rural — music, which is mostly what country music has become in the decades since. But then it always more or less always was, ever since Jimmie Rodgers dressed down for publicity photos.
Carson Robison “Life Gets Tee-Jus, Don’t It”
(Carson J. Robison)
MGM 5041 • 1948
Red Foley “Tennessee Saturday Night”
Decca 46292 • 1947
Carson Robison was Hoagy Carmichael’s senior by nine years, but rather than going to college and hooking up with Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, he got into the music industry at the tender age of 15 and just kept plugging away. He’d do anything — he co-wrote “Barnacle Bill The Sailor,” which we’ve already heard, at least in travesty form; he backed up Vernon Dalhart, the first “country” star; he formed jug bands, western swing groups, bluegrass combos, and towards the end of his life even recorded a rock & roll novelty single. This, however, was his biggest hit, a Hollywood-style near-hickface routine which he talks through at a leisurely pace. In Robison’s care for rhythmic placement, it’s even closer to rapping than Ella Mae Morse and Don Raye achieved back in 1946, although the beats are anything but phat, a dainty studio-orchestra Baroque figure punctuating the verses like an upperclass audience laughing at the cartoon hillbilly of the lyrics.
That didn’t stop it from being a genuine country hit, of course, any more than Hee Haw was rejected by rural audiences for its sneering hickface. It got Robison on the Grand Ole Opry — but a sniggering vaudevillian cover that telegraphed all the jokes by one Peter Lind Hayes stole his thunder, especially in the international market, where Robison’s actual Kansan accent was replaced by Hayes’ halfhearted showbiz mélange. Robison’s uninflected, coolly conversational tone works against the fussy arrangement in a half-comic, half-plain bizarre juxtaposition; you could almost believe that he’s the dirt-poor one-room shack dweller of the narrative. Hayes, meanwhile, does showbiz shtick over a cod-folk guitar, basically Burl Ives without the wisdom.
The many ways in which country (or “country”) has long intersected with the larger pop sphere is a largely ignored topic in music history, most of which prefers to see country music as an unbroken tradition of pure authenticity until some vilified figure (Bradley Owens, Gram Parsons, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks) sold the music’s soul to pop radio. But Nashville has always been as heartily showbiz as Hollywood, not least in its willingness to play to caricature and bigoted stereotype.
“Tennessee Saturday Night” participates in an old and consistently recurring pop-music trope — that of the after-hours party shack where people stop being nice and start being real — which we’ve seen before (“The House Of Blue Lights”) and will certainly see again, on both sides of the racial divide. It’s a rock & roll song written too early and played without the driving beat (Jerry Lee Lewis covered it to fine effect), both in the menacing verse — “there’s gonna be a funeral if you start a fight” — and in its condescending refrain: “Civilized people live there, all right/But they all go native on a Saturday night.”
The concept of “going native” is, of course, a colonial one, popularized by British bigots to describe white people who participated in non-Western cultures, as though civilization were a veneer under which everyone was a bestial negro or arab or asiatic or red man. The irony, of course, is that there’s no suggestion that the “going native” of “Tennessee Saturday Night” has anything to do with Native Americans, who had mostly been driven out of Tennessee for two hundred years. Instead, it poses the idea that true Tennesseans — true Southerners, in fact — are uncivilized, rowdy, and ready for a fuck or a fight at the drop of a hat. This is so much in line with the life philosophy that rock & roll would espouse that there’s an odd frustration to the song, heard from a post-rock vantage point; its crude cosmology demands a rowdier and more vulgar arrangement than history was yet prepared to deliver. But if you listen beyond that peculiarly modern disappointment, there’s a beauty in the dreamy Hawaiian guitar solo that, while it may not have much to do with rock & roll, Tennessee, going native, or even Saturday night, is pleasurable on its own terms.
The Delmore Brothers “Blues, Stay Away From Me”
(Alton Delmore, Rabon Delmore, Wayne Raney, Henry Glover)
King 803 • 1949
Eddy Arnold “I’ll Hold You In My Heart”
(Eddy Arnold, Thomas Dilbeck, Vaughn Horton)
RCA Victor 20-2332 • 1947
That sense of pleasure on its own terms was, in fact, what country music was in the process of solidifying. The pop music industry based in New York and Los Angeles was no longer the only source of sophisticated arrangements, subtle instrumental touches, or evocative, controlled vocal technique. Eddy Arnold was one of the first great sophisticated country vocalists — a country version of Frank Sinatra or Dick Haymes — and his penchant for the ballad form was a country-radio version of the “standards” format that was overwhelming urban pop: only a more living tradition because more open to new songwriters and songs. (Nashville today is in fact one of the only remnants of the old Tin Pan Alley tradition of songwriters who have little to nothing in common with the people who rocket the songs up the charts.)
The Delmore Brothers came from a slightly older tradition, that of the 1930s country-western vocal group. (The Blue Sky Boys and Roy Rogers’ Sons Of The Pioneers were the other landmark groups here.) They were one of the first to develop the close-harmony sound that would become an essential part of the country landscape, from the Stanleys, the Louvins, and the Everlys on to the Wilsons and the Gibbs in the pop world. “Blues, Stay Away From Me” was a rare downtempo number in a period when the title of nearly every song they cut ended in “Boogie,” and they were playing a proto-rock & roll music that hit harder than western swing and cut down the orchestra to the guitar-bass-drums essentials. With moaning harmonica riffs from Wayne Raney, the Delmores find the space between the rocking (in the rocking-back-and-forth sense) of Hollywood western music and the rock & roll ballad, an insistent electric guitar figure providing the backbone of the song.
“I’ll Hold You In My Heart” has precisely the same rhythmic backbone, with a fuller, more polished band backing Eddy Arnold up. The weepy sound of the steel guitar which opens the track makes the song sound like a lament, until the lyrics reveal it as merely a reverie, a pledge of eternal devotion asking for the same in return — but the music does not lie, and there’s half an expectation of broken promises and broken hearts lingering in Arnold’s performance. He could sound smug on occasion — as who wouldn’t, with that voice? — but this is a perfect country-music sequel to Frank Sinatra’s vulnerability above, Eddy Arnold’s first big hit, and adaptable enough to the coming revolution that it would become one of Elvis Presley’s favorite numbers.
Only George Jones (and possibly Charlie Rich, depending on the year) would ever lap Eddy Arnold in terms of vocal richness and sensitivity in the arena of country music; in the years since Jones’s heyday it’s become practically a requirement for entry into the field, an irony not lost on the thousands of bystanders who sniff that the greatest country performer ever would be turned away from Music Row today on sight….
Hank Williams & His Drifting Cowboys “Lost Highway”
MGM 10506 • 1949
This installment has, to some extent, been all about the ways in which country music became a sophisticated pop product (and ballad form), a true alternative to the dominant Hollywood & Vine narrative of the era, in the mid-to-late 1940s. The man who did more than any other to both accomplish this and to fight against it — at least in the popular-critical imagination — steps onto the stage now.
He was a larger-than-life figure even in life, and billowed out to Brobdingagian proportions after a tawdry, pointless death which was nevertheless romanticized in the way that all early musician deaths are. (Kurt and Tupac, you got anything to say?) Which isn’t to say his reputation isn’t deserved — Hank Williams is to country music what Louis Armstrong is to jazz and the Beatles to pop, and there’s no higher praise to give. More or less because of that overarching completeness, that totalizing ubiquity, he is used by all kinds of narrative-peddlers, country purists and back pages-seeking rockists, those who decry the capitalist commercialization of vernacular music, and those who embrace such commercialization as the first step in the global pop universe that we know today: everyone claims Hank Williams as a central figure in their myth, like Jesus for competing religions or Abraham Lincoln for competing political ideologies.
Such a totalizing figure is impossible to treat properly in survey format; enough to say that Williams is both the last proper old-time country singer and the first rock & roller, both the last rebel holdout against the forces of Yankee commodification and the first brick in the towering edifice of Nashville pop. His nasal whine is a key element in the construction of both Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan; his attention to the details of phrasing inspired vocalists from George Jones to Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger; his songwriting has no peer except perhaps Robert Johnson for synthesizing a vernacular tradition into a coherent pop vision (and the fact that he saw a lot more success than Johnson is only partly attributable to racial factors); and most importantly perhaps for our purposes, he was so massively popular that he more or less forced country songwriting into the mainstream. Jo Stafford and Tony Bennett covered him to pop number ones before his death; everyone covered him afterwards.
So it’s perhaps a bit ironic that his representative here is a song he didn’t write. Leon Payne was second only to Williams as the premier country songwriter in terms of pop coherence, and “Lost Highway” is the kind of song — and the kind of phrase — that exerts a powerful drag on cultural imagination; there’s a reason Jim Jarmusch’s greatest film bears the title. The image, borrowed from fundamentalist theology, of the broad highway which leads to destruction, is given a secular spin here: the highway isn’t infernal, but lost, leading nowhere at all, a more terrifying image for a century which has, for the first time, contemplated the threat of nonexistence, of not only personal but total extinction. (The Bomb, sure, but it’s only a physical expression of ideas implicit in Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.) Even hell, in traditional theology, is a place with existence, where consciousness, even if agonized, has the comforts of memory and identity. On the lost highway, though, there’s no such saving grace, and it’s important to recognize that this, not any rigorous theology, is the nihilism which lies behind the image of the American outcast.
From Captain Ahab to Little Richard, from Huckleberry Finn to the damned man at the center of every noir narrative, a recurrent American figure is the one who rejects Christian — which is to say societal — values and standards in order to build his (yes, always his) own moral universe. Ahab will strike at God; Huck will go to Hell; Little Richard can’t resist the siren call of rock & roll; the noir hero is damned from the moment he steps onto the screen. But in rejecting the established moral order, they are not damned to hell; they are damned to nothingness, without even the meager psychological consolation of judgment and punishment. They are lost souls, traveling down the lost highway forever.
Like every image, it is ultimately a romantic one when stared at long enough. The Jagger of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Sympathy For The Devil” brought the romance into the rock era, and a million metal bands have since fleshed it out. But we have other roads to travel down. In our universe, roads lead somewhere. Next stop, Memphis.
Scene Five: Good-Natured Clownin’
But first, a word about the blues.
The blues are often thought of as an anti-pop musical form, in that they are deeply authentic, while pop is artificial; they are individual and idiosyncratic from player to player and singer to singer, while pop is mass-produced and homogenized for mass consumption; and they are more or less relegated to the dustbin of history, while pop is everfresh and continually self-renewing.
The blues are, of course, as much an artificial construct as any musical form: there’s nothing inherent in the sticky loam of the Mississippi shore that produces twelve-bar structures with flatted fifths. Because the blues were developed away from the spotlight of history, it’s easy to pretend that nobody invented them and they have been with us always, an eternal music of suffering and protest, an essential part of the African (-American) soul. Which is as much bullshit as believing that all black folk inherently got rhythm or can pick up an instrument and play without training. Bullshit in the technical Frankfurtian sense, that is: a statement uninterested in its own truth value. Maybe it’s supposed to point to some incoherent “larger truth” about the essential dignity of oppressed people. Whatever.
The tension about idiosyncracy vs. homogenization is an even falser construct, because everything depends on the context of the individual listener: for every sixty-year-old Okeh collector who can detail the differences between the playing of Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson from the first note and hears only the same undistinguished electronic goop on exposure to Daft Punk and Kanye West and the Black Eyed Peas, there’s a thirty-year-old clubber with strong opinions on Madonna and Britney who thinks everything with the faintest hint of crackle on it sounds like the same ugly pile of dust and ashes. This is what is meant by genre: things sound similar because they are part of the same tradition and are in dialogue with one another. Blues songs are as conventional and as structurally homogenous as Krazy Kat or romance novels; the pleasure is in the tiny differences, the minute details of performance and instrumentation which separate artist from artist, song from song, and recording from recording.
Which brings us to the last complaint: why care about something so old, so past, so dead that white guys in Hawaiian shirts on PBS are the only lingering presence the blues retain in contemporary culture? (Okay, them and Jack White, when he feels like it.) The same question, obviously, applies to this entire exercise: the percentage of the population which even remembers, much less cares about, the 1940s is so quickly dwindling that a study of Sumerian washroom habits would probably be as productive a use of our time in a pop-culture sense. These misgivings clearly cannot be answered to everyone’s satisfaction: for many participants in modern cultural dialogue, historicity itself is a noxious fume which a lifetime is not too long to spend running from. What’s the Internet for, if not building the future?
Except that the digital world doesn’t discriminate against content: on an iPod, everything comes at you at the same speed of sixty seconds per minute, regardless of when it was recorded or by whom. Most of us will ever know how it felt to be alive in 1946, as the world blinked in the first peaceful dawn it had known in six years — but then how many of us know how it feels to be alive now, save for our own little corner of experience? The world is always too big and too immediate to grasp; blink, and you miss it. The backwards glance is the only posture in which analysis is possible.
All recorded music is historical in the sense that it’s not happening now; and recording technology from shellac to YouTube means, if it means anything, the telescoping of history. The past enters the present and lives again — like a zombie, perhaps, if it simply repeats its old motions without recognizing the gulf between itself and now — or like a vampire, if it feeds off the essence of the present to create a new and terrifying awareness, or like a god — unpredictable, unmanageable, all-consuming, taking everything into itself and shewing it forth again in unknown prismatics. Any simile depends on the individual mind and taste at work; for another result of technology is the atomizing of consciousness. One person listening to one song at one moment; there are other modes of consumption, but how insubstantial and unimportant they feel by contrast!
The blues are worth taking note of because they are here, ready to be played, on this page. Which is the only reason anything is worth taking note of: because it is there.
Jimmy Witherspoon “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”
(Porter Grainger, Everett Robbins)
Supreme 1506 • 1949
Memphis Slim “Nobody Loves Me”
Miracle 145 • 1948
Regardless of how Martin Scorcese & His Super-Cool Directors Club™ might wish to represent the facts, the blues have never been a pure, unadulterated musical form unaffected by the vagaries of history, individual personality, and dumb luck. All blues recordings exist on a continuum of activity, with a determinate past and an unambiguous future, subject to the same changes in technology, fashion, and economic activity which drive any pop form.
Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was published in 1920, credited a pair of jobbing black musicians who worked with vaudeville-blues singers like Bessie Smith. It was most likely inspired by “It’s Nobody’s Business But My Own,” a 1919 hit for the biggest black star in the world at the time, Bert Williams, itself written by a pair of jobbing white coon-song writers. Blues belters Sara Martin and Alberta Hunter, among others, recorded the Grainger/Robbins tube in the early twenties; Mississippi John Hurt waxed its most mysterious and quietly chilling version in 1928, stretching and remixing the structure as usual; and Witherspoon resurrected it to his biggest hit at the close of the 1940s, a throwback in form as well as words. The chunka-chunka ryhthm on the guitar specifically recalls many an old hot jazz number of the 1920s, and Jay McShann’s intentionally rinky-tink piano pushes the song almost towards the unedifying corn of nostalgia, saved only by the dreamy, unapologetically Forties horn lines that come in at the end. And there’s Witherspoon’s voice, too, a big-barrelled foghorn of an instrument with a pinch more deftness and grace than, say, Big Joe Turner’s or Jimmy Rushing’s (his nearest equivalents). His pronunciation of “cabaret” alone is worth the price of admission; but it’s the darker undertone of his performance, the relish he takes in “Some of these days I’m goin’ crazy/buy me a shotgun and shoot my baby,” that stick to the ribs.
The fact that the title of the song has been borrowed for Libertarian tracts since basically forever — and thereby fits into a distinctively American ethos of tellin’ bitches to step off — only further deepens the song as an expression of the historico-mythological American. Related perhaps to the nihilist vision of “Lost Highway,” but (because it is a blues song, which means for our purposes a black song), it is aware of the potential oppressiveness of other people — even if it ultimately rejects them! — in a way that all-white mythologies can afford not to be.
On the other hand, the faint echo on Witherspoon’s vocals also reminds us that we’re almost to the 1950s, and studio tweaking and hi-fidelity sonics are going to play a much larger role in the pop to come. But the future will have more of Memphis Slim in in than Jimmy Witherspoon, and not only because his signature song will be blown up to magnificent Technicolor in CinemaScope by Count Basie and Joe Williams in 1956 — under the title “Every Day I Have The Blues,” it will be to “Nobody Loves Me” what Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed And Confused” is to Jake Holmes’s original, even to the orgasmic, yodeling vocal.
But here in 1948 it is still futuristic even with 1956 not yet on the horizon; the descending piano line is a sped-up version of the standard boogie-woogie bass figure, and the horn lines used for punctuation rather than for melody aren’t a million miles away from the New Orleans R&B, and thereby the ska, of a decade hence. Its sentiments are standard blues material — “nobody loves me, nobody seems to care” — but perhaps by virtue of Chatman’s (i.e. Slim’s) masterful compositional skill, it feels more like an ur-blues text rather than a late derivative. Certainly it’s part of the urban blues nexus rather than the more familiar (today) rural blues world — Slim’s piano, rather than the smoky electric guitar, is front and center on the track — but it’s a world apart from Jimmy Witherspoon’s California supperclub blues. Slim was a city man through and through, but he was a Southern city man, who cut his teeth in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri before settling in Chicago, where he was the most notable bluesman in the days before the Delta sharecroppers invaded with their fancy electric gear and Leonard Chess’s bankroll; but that’s a later story, and one whose import is heightened, not lessened, by knowing what came before.
The Five Red Caps “Boogie Woogie On A Saturday Night”
Joe Davis 7133 • 1945
Saturday night is coming to attain a legendary, not to say mythic, quality in these rambles. Louis Jordan’s decade-capping double-sided “Saturday Night Fish Fry” is perhaps the most famous ode to the night in question, but Red Foley’s “Tennessee Saturday Night,” which we examined last time, is nearly as jovially anarchic. This makes for an ironic contrast with the Five Red Caps’ vision. Foley (a Grand Ole Opry fixture whose patriarchal approval would prove necessary for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to be accepted by the hardcore country community thirty years hence) provides a rural, violent, even savage take on weekend partying; the Red Caps, on the other hand, present a smooth, urbane, and entirely non-threatening version of the Eternal American Shindig, further iterations of which can be found in Carl Perkins’ “Dixie Fried,” Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” and roughly 43% of current Top 40 radio. “Good natured clowning” is as far as the Caps are willing to take the possibility of ruckus-raising in Tan Manhattan, and even it merely “makes the world all right (that’s wisdom).”
The Five Red Caps got together in California, one of a host of Ink Spots imitators who picked up on the swing-boogie woogie-jive trinity of Count Basie, Pete Johnson, and Nat King Cole, and paved the way for doo wop and all things harmonic to come, and settled in the more forgiving New York club scene. Popular performers live, they never had much chart success, to the degree that impresario and record producer Joe Davis considered selling only to jukebox firms, bypassing the customer-in-the-shop’s vote entirely. Still, “Boogie Woogie On A Saturday Night,” with its lean, stripped-down arrangement, the synchronized ooh-wop-wops which give it its peculiar rhythmic energy, and Steve Gibson’s urgent, close-miked vocal lead, comes closer than anything else on this list yet has to the forward motion of rock & roll — and looks even beyond rock & roll to the high-energy dance tracks with insistent pulses which will form the backbone of pop starting in the 1970s even unto the present hour.
Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers “Drifting Blues”
Aladdin 112 • 1945
The pleasant jive of the King Cole Trio made uptempo vocal groups like the Five Red Caps possible; it also enabled a flourishing movement known as West Coast Blues, a cool and laid-back sound which owed as little to the rougher sounds of Memphis, Kansas City, and Chicago as possible; even the New York sound of high-class show-biz blues does not predict the lazy, lapping-wave ryhthms of Charles Brown’s brand of electrified small-trio blues.
The record is credited to Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, but it was written and is sung by Charles Brown, the trio’s pianist and vocalist and towering talent. Which is not to dismiss Moore’s guitar work, as smoky and curlicue a set of response lines as blues had ever seen. His muted power chord opens the track, and his end-line figures range in attitude from pow-pow-pow-pow-pow to the elegant little Astaire dance on the final verse. “Drifting Blues” is a new kind of blues under the sun: classy, sultry, elegant, cool in the California tradition of being nearly horizontal, and with absolutely no hint of the low-down mis’ry which blues shouters from Bessie Smith to Jimmy Witherspoon and blues guitarists from Charley Patton to Muddy Waters so effortlessly evoke. Does this make Brown’s a less authentic form of blues? Only if you take the view that white Englishmen get to dictate what’s authentic and what isn’t — on Brown’s side ranges a host of black music from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Marvin Gaye to Michael Jackson. Smoother than silk, supreme masters of form, and (not incidentally) immensely popular among Actual Black People rather than whites in search of vicarious poverty.
That same black audience drove “Drifting Blues” to be a hit on a massive scale, remaining on the r&b chart for six months in an era when turnover was calculated in days, and West Coast players like Ivory Joe Turner, Johnny Ace, and Ray Charles were deeply influenced by its sophisticated, jazzy insouciance. It’s one of the four or five most important and influential songs of the decade, and will be covered by everyone who will ever have pretensions to blues, soul, or r&b credibility; so naturally there’s little to say.
Lightnin’ Hopkins “Lightnin’s Boogie”
Score 402 • 1948
Arthur Crudup “That’s All Right”
RCA 20-2205 • 1946
None of which is to disparage the contributions of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Arthur Crudup to the wheel of history. Two of the ur-blues musicians of man-with-guitar orthodoxy, with steel wire under their fingers and hardscrabble living in their throats, they push the music both backwards and forwards at once, back to the rural Delta bottleneck birth of the music and forward to the sci-fi cities on flame with rock and roll.
Lightnin’ Hopkins’ wiry gutter-riff here would be copped by Keith Richards at least a dozen times, only sometimes through intermediaries; his “mama mama mama” opening line would be borrowed by James Luther Dickinson for his epic journey through Furry Lewis’s “Kassie Jones”; his free-and-easy equation of boogie-woogying with The Deed Itself would become part of pop’s vernacular from John Lee Hooker to Marc Bolan to Madonna. By comparison, Arthur Crudup’s ground-zero status as the man Elvis covered on his first record is almost human-sized.
Almost. Sun 45 209, “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” (mx U-121), July 19 1954, has entered pop mythology as the Big Bang, the Prime Mover, the ex nihilo before which all was null and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. In the kind of symbolist gesture which excites English majors and pop historians (generally the same thing) no end, the B side was a cover of a white country song — actually the first hit in the field by the father of bluegrass — and the A was a cover of a black blues song — actually a modified jugband boogie which had done well locally, if not on a national scale. Crudup’s high whine of a vocal was nothing like the moist baritone with which Presley would capture the world, but he had at least two advantages over the King of Rock & Roll: a slippery, jazzy sense of rhythm — listen to the way he plays off his choppy guitar chords — and an improvisational talent which let him scat over the final verse. If the standard line about musical theater is supposed to be that whenever emotions run too high to be contained in speech, we sing, then the pop-record corollary in the 1940s is that whenever emotions run to0 high to be sung, they are scatted. (Further attestations to the phenomenon will be advanced. Patience.) The emotion here is supreme confidence, mastery over form and function. That — and in the absence of any determinate referent, that must mean everything — is, after all, all right. Any way you do.
Hopkins was never so light and breezy, fitting much better the stereotype of the bluesman as singer of sorrows and teller of oracles, although the way his fingers slide nimbly over the frets and squeeze out rusty sparks would suggest that he has his own ascetic comforts, and a misty line of nerdy, obsessive guitar disciples takes shape in his shadow, white, black, American, British, onward from Elmore James to Steve Cropper to Jimmy Page to Jimi Hendrix to Richard Verlaine to Steve Vai to Jack White and beyond. All roads lead through the boogie.
Scene Six: A Great Notion
It’s tempting to write the history of the folk music revival in America as a heroic narrative, in which clear-eyed, open-hearted men such as John and Alan Lomax, Moses Asch, and Harry Smith, dreaming of a world in which all of God’s children black men and white men Jews and Gentiles Protestants and Catholics would be able to join hands &c., bestrode the landscape with their lightweight alunimum disc recorders and fellow-traveler literature, giving to the huddled American underclasses yearning to be free a voice and a name, reaching past the shallow, cloying frippery of popular music into the real, honest American soil, where white laborers sing the blues and black preachers proclaim the brotherhood of man.
It’s also tempting to go the other way, to note that after all the privileged Northern white bosses were the ones who did best out of the deal, that by encouraging (psychologically, financially, and philosophically) the poor, uneducated, and optionless artists under their thumb to remain “authentic” and “uncommercial” while taking advantage of the market created by those paragons of inauthentic commercialism, the Rolling Stones, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Bob Dylan, for old blues and country and jug-band records, in order to boost their own bottom line and set up their essentially colonialist vision of uncomplicated “pure” music as a cultural and commercial juggernaut. Late-period capitalism was really what allowed the Lomaxes, Asch, and Smith to flourish (as Smith, at least, recognized); despite the leftist, anti-commercial posturing of the folk-music community, it was the commercial recording market, not the authentic folk culture of live performance and local popularity, that left folk music with a lasting impact in American culture and allowed a mass audience even unto the present day become aware of the joys of Mississippi John Hurt, Buell Kazee, and Son House, who were just as exploited and pigeon-holed by the folk-music circuit as they could have been by any commercial record producer.
Both temptations are to be resisted, because neither one is entirely accurate. Both set up false dichotomies between folk music and popular music which have more to do with a historico-Marxist sense of the cultural disruptions of the Industrial Revolution than with the listening and performing practices of actual people. The standard Marxist line is that folk culture, arising out of a culturally homogenous population, largely uneducated and unconstrained by the strictures of capitalist hegemonics, is sane and healthy (though vanishing), while popular culture, being the product of inauthentic, urban-industrialist wage-slaves promulgating conventional bourgeois morality, is a cancer in the system. (High culture, the third stream, is good or bad depending on the individual Marxist and the instance of high culture.) But that simplification, in its commitment to abstractions and refusal to engage with the actual texts of either culture, is unaware that folk culture and popular culture are the same thing under different historical conditions. The Marxist definition of folk culture never had any actual existence in American society and is as much a wistful, transparent fantasy as Middle-Earth or Blandings Castle.
None of which is to denigrate the achievements of the artists who were recorded, marketed, packaged and sold as part of an authentic folk tradition — only the rhetoric surrounding them. Moe Asch may have been a political naïf and a bigot about popular, commercial culture, but he provided an invaluable service by recording a host of elegant, idiosyncratic performers, writers, and artists who would otherwise have gone unheard by most listeners. The recordings of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White only add to the breadth and depth of American culture; the only tragedy is that their repertoire wasn’t even more comprehensively documented before the commercial market for folk music made Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, and Joan Baez the standard-bearers of the movement.
Lead Belly “Goodnight Irene”
Asch 343 • 1943
At this point both the mythology and the verifiable fact around Huddie Ledbetter’s life are both so deeply entrenched in the cultural discourse that to talk about the man himself is to talk about a figure composed of words and ideas; it’s impossible, even if it were desirable, to escape the idea that he is less a man born in 1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana than a ghost who stalks American history, singing about love and death and the deep silent mysteries of the natural world. Firmly established in the popular imagination as a Magical Negro on a level with Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile or Morgan Freemen in anything, Ledbetter has been all things to all men for the past sixty years without the inconvenience of actually existing except on old records, and as a credited name on hit recordings by everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival and Ram Jam to Nirvana and Ludacris, a font of words and melodies that has not yet begun to run dry.
Apart from the mythology, it’s those words that matter most. He was a writer, a poet, and a synthesist operating at a
level far above the majority of Tin Pan Alley hacks, a collector of phrases and images who could spin them out into remarkably complete, self-contained songs it would be an insult not to call pop. He was, even more than Woody Guthrie, who worked much more self-consciously in the tradition of hymnody and Childe ballads, the primary forerunner of Bob Dylan in this regard. And in his lack of identification with standard African-American formats — he rarely limited himself to twelve-bar blues — he seemed to recall a time even before the blues, when black and white music was the same thing, the same undifferentiated mass of half-remembered parlor songs, hymns, work chants, minstrel routines, and songs about whatever was going on in town that year. It was easy to imagine Ledbetter as a white voice as much as a black voice, a symbol of the kind of bottom-struck poverty which doesn’t differentiate, where hobos and convicts are all equal in the sight of God.
He first recorded a snatch of “Goodnight, Irene” in 1934, at the Angola Prison Farm, where the Lomaxes were recording musical inmates. He recorded it again in 1943, for Moses Asch, which would not fully incorporate for another five years, and as he became more involved with the Lomaxes (who credited themselves for being instrumental in springing him from prison, though he was up for release on good behavior anyway), he toured the burgeoning coffeehouse circuit of college campuses and bohemian neighborhoods, cutting the song again several times, each time with subtle variations.
In 1949, the year of Ledbetter’s death, Pete Seeger’s new vocal group, the Weavers, which was trying to shed the leftwing associations of the Almanac Singers (whose concerts had been shut down again and again by patriotic sheriffs and city chambers) and just present the American folk tradition as a viable presence in modern culture, picked up the song and started singing it. Their pop recording, shorn of the Lead Belly’s darker humor and suicide references, went straight to the top of the charts in 1950, beginning folk music’s fabled overground run in popular culture which would culminate in the unasked-for anointing of Bob Dylan as the savior/spokesman of his generation, and creating the conditions that would lead to a young woman with a glittery stud in her nose claiming that she sang folk music when she picked out original compositions with a major debt to Sarah MacLachlan and the Indigo Girls in a North Phoenix shopping mall in 2003.
But here in 1943, Lead Belly is cutting the real first pop recording of “Goodnight Irene” — a commercial single, b/w “Ain’t You Glad,” and while it turns out to basically be an indie record, lauded by a small, ideologically uniform, minority and ignored by the larger pop marketplace, it is nevertheless one of the perfect records of the era, as Ledbetter’s enormous voice booms plaintively over a simple waltz-time figure played on the bass strings of the guitar. His phrasing approaches honky-tonk slides on the chorus, but the stacatto way he attacks the verses — “Stop rambling. An’ stop gambling.” — is the declamatory mode of the preacher.
The song would take on a life of its own after his ended, but it’s here, in the cramped quarters of a guitar-and-voice 78, humid with Southern sweat, that his great notion — jumping in the river and drowning, which is to say taking control (however violent and destructive) over one’s own life and body — resonates most deeply. This is the pop impulse at its most basic: to say I Am Here. Whether Kings of Pop or mere subjects in its vast demesne, all subscribe to Ledbetter’s great notion of the self as the arbiter of reality.
Mary Lou Williams & Josh White “Froggy Bottom”
(Mary Lou Williams)
Asch 2001 • 1944
Mary Lou Williams had been a master of several pop worlds for a decade before she began to record for Asch, throwing her lot in with the lazy poets and hardworking con men of Greenwich Village bohemia. She had her first hits as a composer, arranger, and pianist for Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds Of Joy, one of the most important outfits in the transition from the New Orleans-style hot jazz of the 1920s to the Kansas City-originated big-band swing which emerged in the 1930s. “Froggy Bottom” was one of Kirk’s most popular numbers — a moody stroll through Southern swamps, with a vampy trumpet line that would have done Bubber Miley proud. In fact, Williams was one of the few composers in early jazz working anywhere close to Duke Ellington’s league, a fact the Duke himself recognized when he briefly took her on as an arranger in the mid-40s. In this he was only following the smart money: Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and Tommy Dorsey had been going to her for compositions and arrangements for a decade. “Roll ’Em,” one of Goodman’s signature tunes, was one of hers — and she had hits of her own, as a sparkling, fast-paced boogie woogie pianist, the unrecognized distaff saint to boogie-woogie’s Holy Trinity (Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis).
Easily conversant in every style of jazz, Williams resisted being tied down, refusing exclusive contracts when offered — even by Benny Goodman, the biggest name in the business — preferring to follow her own muse wherever it led. So she passed through Ellingtonian jungle music, hard swing, boogie woogie, r&b, and even bop — Dizzy Gillespie’s “In The Land Of Oo-Bla-Dee” was her composition — and recorded a series of reflective, witty records for the seminal American folk label run by a Polish emigré named Moses Asch, and culminating in one of the most ambitious projects yet attempted by a jazz composer, the six-disc opus Zodiac Suite with full orchestra, recorded at Town Hall in Greenwich Village in 1945.
Here, her ambitions are more modest. She revamps her old Andy Kirk stomp, cranking up the left-hand rhythm until it’s practically rocking, and engages in a playful (and indistinct; Asch wasn’t precisely a state-of-the-art outfit) call-and-response with genuine folk-blues singer Josh White, one of the cornerstones of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene that also produced Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and (eventually) Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. But the improvised-sounding lyric about “going down to the river to get” — something — are hardly the point. Listen for Williams’ easy mastery of jazz piano dialects, the solid groove of the boogie woogie bass line underpinning a surprisingly wide range of improvisational flight. And then, just when you think it’s over, she gives a sonic wink and throws in a scrap of “Yankee Doodle.” North and South kiss, jazz takes a mocking bow as the preeminent American form of expression, and the classically-trained Williams gets to have a little fun at the expense of the primitivist, collectivist rhetoric of the folk movement she, however temporarily, found herself in.
She would continue to flourish and expand as a composer, even after embracing Catholicism in the 1950s; her 1963 album Black Christ Of The Andes is a deeply felt fusion of jazz, black spirituals, classical music, and Native American musical traditions, and the greatest expression of jazz spirituality from the generation before John Coltrane — saving perhaps Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” about which more in a moment.
Harry Choates “Jole Blon”
Goldstar 1313 • 1946
Sonny Terry “Whoopin’ The Blues”
(Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee)
Capitol 40003 • 1947
With these two songs, we enter the world of what might be called hardcore vernacular music, the sort of music adored by fetishizers of backwoods primitivism who tend to sincerely believe that pop is inherently corrupt, implacably mercantile machine music made to keep the suburban sheeple in a perpetual numbing haze, unable to truly experience life or connection with a fellow human. To them, Harry Choates’ gleeful “ha-HA!” and Sonny Terry’s ecstatic whooping are the unfiltered expressions of Real Americans, the kind who grew up poor and honest, without any of that deadening, initiative-sapping electricity or running water or literacy. Entirely self-taught, or else immersed solely in the traditions of their local community, uninfected by the homogenizing vapidity of radio or the decadent patrician narcissism instilled by formal training, they make Pure, Authentic music, in which the savage innocent deep in the heart of humanity runs wild through black man and white man alike, hillbilly, field hand, miner, beggar or pimp: all know what they are at bottom and embrace it, and call across the decades to us to throw off the stultifying, commoditizing, plastic chains of civilization and dance naked in the swamp as well.
(At least one world-famous artist and misanthrope has made precisely these claims in sober earnest. Check the letters pages of old Comics Journal back issues.)
What both that analysis and the easy knee-jerk reaction to it — which is to dismiss the whole idea of an authentic roots culture as an essentially false and masturbatory spectacle of bourgeois white-guilters selling vicarious suffering back to themselves — miss is that vernacular music is pop music too.
Pop music, after all, is commercial music aimed at a specific market. The only difference between vernacular music and what we think of today as pop music is the size of the market. For Harry Choates, it was about a five-hundred-mile radius around Port Arthur, Texas, stretching across Louisiana and into southern Arkansas. His particular vernacular, the French-folk-gone-native dance music known as Cajun fiddle, limited his audience further to his fellow Cajuns and the odd curious folklorist — but today it’s known as micro-targeting your demographic. He got a local hit record out of it — and when Moon Mullican picked up “Jolie Blon” and Anglicized it, it was a national hit record — in the country charts, anyway.
Sonny Terry (and his longtime collaborator Brownie McGhee, heard here on guitar) had a more complex relationship to popularity. He was undoubtedly famous, having played Carnegie Hall in 1938 as part of the famous “Spirituals To Swing” concert, and as an occasional participant in the Greenwich Village scene hobnobbed with everyone from Woody Guthrie (famous, but not officially) to the Broadway big-shots who put on Finian’s Rainbow, in which he appeared (the apogee of mainstream fame). Apparently feeling they were not yet exposed enough to the American public, he and McGhee also recorded a series of jump-blues records with a full band, racking up a few jukebox hits and pop cred in urban black circles. Still, it’s this bravura display of technical control — listen to how quickly he switches between harmonica and whooping, and ask yourself how he breathes — and “unhinged” hoedown screaming, as remarkable a vocal performance as any concert vocalist, soul singer, or hard-rock wailer has ever turned in, that cements his place in roots music — fuck that, pop music — fuck that, music plain and simple — history.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe & Marie Knight “Up Above My Head I Hear Music In The Air”
Decca 48089 • 1947
The Fairfield Four “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around”
Dot 1123 • 1947
The history, meaning, and cultural position of gospel music is far too extensive a topic to treat in the small space this list reserves to it; nevertheless, a few key points should be made. The first is that religious music as a whole is easily divisible into the three overarching categories we’ve laid out above. In the sphere of Art, it takes every possible form, from Bach masses and Establishment hymns to Sufi qawwali and Indian raga. In the sphere of Vernacular music, it is Southern gospel both black and white, spirituals and shape-note — as well as a lot more music from around the world that hasn’t been around long enough to have a “classical tradition” pegged to it in Wikipedia. And in the sphere of Pop, it’s Jesus Music, or Contemporary Christian Music, or whatever Creed is.
That’s the easy way. Now let’s complicate it. Because obviously the “vernacular” material of gospel tradition, both white and black, was created, sold, and marketed on records and some of it was more popular than others, and the market, not the instinctive hive mind of poor and ignorant people, dictated what sold well and what fell out of fashion. It was a largely ignored but still highly active pop market, artificially separated from the pop chart but occasionally crashing into the country or rhythm & blues charts. And that’s not even to speak of the ways in which Vernacular, Pop, and Art intersected — as in, say, Aretha Franklin’s gospel records, or the spirituals recordings of Paul Robeson and Marion Anderson.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the biggest stars in the gospel arena of the 30s and 40s, refused to “go pop” in the sense that she never recorded a record which wasn’t about her faith, but in every other possible sense she was a pop artist. A jazzy, bluesy guitarist who picked up on electrified techniques at the same rate as the rest of the pop market, or even a little in advance, she nevertheless projected a curiously solitary figure on record, redolent of the countryside. Decca’s pairing of her with the more full-voiced pianist Marie Knight both filled out her dry sound and gave her a foil to play off of. The result, as seen in the major r&b hit “Up Above My Head,” was both hard-rocking and sanctified, Tharpe’s bone-dry guitar picking given body by Knight’s boogie-woogie piano thumping, and Tharpe’s eerie voice-in-the-wilderness vocal style given a booming echo in Knight’s more conventional gospel (which is to say soul) cadences.
The Fairfield Four, at first glance, have even more roots credibility (in the anti-pop sensibility) than Tharpe — the Coen Brothers used them uncontroversially as a Greek chorus in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is how much pure, uncomplicated integrity they’ve got. As believers, their standards are impeccable — members were fined for drinking or swearing even off the clock — and as vocal groups working in the gospel genre go, they were as purist and staid an outfit as it was possible to find; unlike the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Swan Silvertones, they didn’t indulge in flamboyant showmanship; unlike the Golden Gate Quartet they didn’t use r&b instrumentation; unlike the Soul Stirrers they never expressed heavenly pleasures in earthy tones. But the difficulty with being the Fugazi of 40s gospel was the same as being the Fugazi of 90s alt-rock: no matter how much they tried to divorce themselves from the corrupting influence of commercial heterodoxy, by releasing records and performing concerts they were still inextricably implicated in the system; otherwise it would be impossible to hear them today.
“Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around” is a startling record, a stiff-backed groove interrupted at odd intervals by Samuel McCrary’s astonishing air-raid siren drones — “doooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooon’t you let nobody” — nearly derailing the song every time he takes off. But they snap back into position as easily as Bill and Charlie finding the pocket after a strung-out Keith solo, creating the perfect musical metaphor to reinforce the moral of the lyric: though tempted to turn around by the siren call of the world, the Fairfield Four will keep on marching to Galilee. They get knocked down, but they get up again, in the pugnacious language of evangelicalism (and Chumbawumba).
Mahalia Jackson “Move On Up A Little Higher”
(W. Herbert Brewster)
Apollo 164 • 1948
But the real giant of gospel music of the period is, of course, Mahalia Jackson, whose name is synonymous with midcentury gospel, even if she’s more frequently used as a namecheck (as in “while the young Aretha was initially influenced by gospel legends like Mahalia Jackson, she soon found her own explosively improvisational performing style”) than listened to.
This song, her first major hit as the decade came to a close, is representative both of why she’s a legend and why she’s mostly unheard today. Released as a double-sided 78, its processional pace and repetitive melody strikes the modern ear as so definitively Not Pop that it’s hard to even find a category for it. Jackson’s powerful vocal, superbly expressive but unconcerned with any delicacy of phrasing (Fauvism?) is set against a ghostly organ/piano combination which explicitly evokes the unearthly atmosphere of the song.
For “Move On Up A Little Higher” is about heaven. More precisely, it’s about the transition from earth to heaven, expressed in metaphors as various as going outside, marching up a mountain, and meeting everyone from Biblical figures to family members. (“It will be always howdy, howdy, and never goodbye,” she hollers on the second side.) Unlike Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia makes no concessions to blues and jazz fashion; unlike the Fairfield Four, she’s uninterested in musical gimmicks. She belts out the song in fervent belief, with such intense, elaborated feeling that it takes several listens to distinguish the rhythmic pattern of the song, and backsliders and sinners are not asked to join her. Such flame-like purity is generally repugnant to the modern heterogenous sensibility, but the generousness of her voice, the swoops, scoops, half-starts and sudden bursts with which she delivers her text, rescues the song from didactic exclusivity.
This act of our drama has been about the multitudinous ways in which the 1940s expressed themselves to their listening audience, from rual black blues to urban white country, in sophisticated pop fantasias, in earthy, uninhibited shouts, and in industrial-sized blasts of sound and rhythm. The next act will bring us into the future. The decade — like all decades — was massively unstable, pushing forward into the unknown at the rate of sixty minutes an hour. How people coped with the life-sized changes of time and place, mode and means, the new languages they found to express new emotions, and the new clothes in which they attempted to wrap eternal verities, will take up the rest of this story. We rush on, we rush on, and though we look back we can never quite reach what was.
Act III: Everything But The Jerks
Scene One: Going East, Mister?
Very early on in these transmissions I promised (or warned) that I would be talking a lot about the relationship of Art, Pop, and Vernacular music in the recordings of the 1940s. Here is where I make good on that pledge. Skip ahead if you just want to hear the music.
While talking of Art Music in the 1940s conjures up images of academic composers and the classical establishment who go on putting on the same operas at the Met and the same concerts at Carnegie, year after year as though nothing has changed since 1912 except the faces of the people playing the music — the full American tradition of art music runs wilder and more idiosyncratic than the Edwardian standard which holds on the East Coast, and on highbrow radio. In places it is indistinguishable from the more uncouth ends of vernacular music. In other places it even holds the pop of the future in the palm of its hand, breathing life into yet-unborn lungs.
Let’s be clear here. This is not the American wing of the European avant-garde we’re talking about. The annual Darmstadt recitals in which the high priests of serialism held the keys to the kingdom — Boulez, the early Messiaen, the late Várèse, the up-and-coming Schaeffer and Stockhausen and Penderecki — did not invite Henry Cowells, Harry Partches, Lou Harrisons or Carl Ruggleses to premiere their new works. These composers, rugged individualists to a man, operated under cover of darkness, without even a tiny-circulation avant-garde magazine to trumpet their achievements. They were the indiest indie bands ever.
And they are to American music what Melville and Whitman and Emerson are to American letters: eccentrics to be sure, but more importantly, top-to-bottom reimaginings of what it means to make music, to participate in culture, to be American, to be human. John Cage is usually considered the point at which the American Eccentric enters into the mainstream of avant-garde classical music (though even he was not welcome at Darmstadt for a decade), and he was one of Cowell’s early disciples — not the brow-of-Jove figure that sloppy surveyists like to imagine, but part of an identifiable tradition of reconceptualizing music, of doing to the classical tradition what Duchamp and the Dadaists had done to the plastic arts and literature.
All of which is something analogous to, if not exactly the same thing as, what rock & roll would do to popular music, throwing aside a half-century of accreted tradition in order to blaze its own vision across the terrain of American bodies. Rock’s savage lack of compromise — for some iterations of the word rock, anyway — owes more to the industrially-inspired clamor, the breaking with tradition, and the dedication to particularized visions of the American Eccentric composers than rock usually understands; although the flamboyant and extended act of music criticism that was Bob Dylan’s career in the 1960s drew substantial parallels between rock, the avant-garde, and the folk tradition for those with ears to hear. Acid rock, post-punk, and grunge draw heavily from the alternate tunings and free-form structure pioneered by the Eccentrics; the theatrical wing of indie rock from Tom Waits to Deerhunter is full of those who use sonics and even instruments invented by them; and even hip-hop owes a debt to the just intonation they applied, in fits of self-righteous purism, to their work.
Harry Partch & Company “U. S. Highball: A Musical Account Of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip”
GME Recording • 1945
Among the sporadic and generally unconnected tradition of American Eccentric composers, Harry Partch was both the most eccentric and the most deeply American — if, that is, any singular vision could be said to stand for America. (It can’t; which is why this list is a hundred deep rather than one.) Born in California in an era when it was populated by singular misfits dreaming of utopia rather than shallow image-hounds (and singular misfits dreaming of utopia), he embarked on the usual composer’s career of grant-seeking and constant writing before becoming disenchanted with the limitations of the Western scale, particularly the convention of equal temperament tuning, and burned all his early works. Unhappy with the standardized tunings of musical instruments available to him, he decided to build his own, developing new sonorities and designing them to play in a 43-tone scale of his own devising (by contrast, the standard octave on a piano keyboard has twelve tones). The resulting music sounds uncomfortably dissonant and crabbed to ears accustomed to the standard tunings, but as an accompaniment for human speech it’s a subtle and resonant bed of sound, much like some of Brian Eno’s less glistening ambient experiments.
During the Depression, Partch ran out of grant money and spent twelve years riding the rails, working odd jobs and keeping an obsessive diary about his thoughts, his experiences, and the people he came across, jotting down their words in his own system of musical notation, the practice of which would form the backbone of this, his first major work. (Although its immediate predecessor, “Barstow: Eight Inscriptions From A Highway Railing” is in some ways even closer to the vernacular music which is present only in brief gestures here.)
In the fall of 1941, Partch received a letter from Chicago suggesting that it might be possible to have his music performed there. With perfect composure (and, he later quipped, being well familiar with California depression and looking forward to midwestern depression), he hopped a freight in Oakland with $3.29 in his pockets and arrived in Chicago two weeks later with a dime. The projected concert was not a success. But his obsessive notebook scribblings during the journey formed the basis of “U. S. Highball,” a twenty-odd-minute piece for two voices and small ensemble, which he wrote two years later. That same year, Partch received a Guggenheim fellowship, ending his personal Great Depression and enabling him to compose and build his instruments full-time. “U. S. Highball” became the centerpiece of a concert he gave in 1944 at Carnegie Hall for the League of Composers, cementing his reputation as a brilliant if eccentric composer, and in 1945 he recorded it with a small group of students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin, on a six-disc set which was privately issued by Warren E. Gilson, a U of W professor and the inventor of a device that detected shrapnel in wounded soldiers. There’s a discursively picaresque novel here somewhere; Tom Pynchon, you out there?
The first sound we hear is the most recognizably Partch instrument of the many he developed in his long career: the Kithara, a large, free-standing harp-like instrument which he built out of old railroad ties, and which his compositions use as much percussively as melodically, with rods for glissandi not unlike the bottleneck playing of Delta bluesmen. The other two instruments in the recording are the Chromelodeon, a reed organ, and the Harmonic Canon, a dulcimer-like maze of strings which provides the ghostly, beautiful “Northern Lights” sections, and an adapted guitar, played by Partch himself. William Wendlandt is the classically-trained baritone singing the station names — his booming grandeur undercut by Partch’s whimsical decision to rhyme state names with city names — and Partch’s voice is the one intoning the hobo dialogue, reading signage, and delivering the bored “Chicago-ago” chant towards the end of the piece.
We’ve seen how travel resonates in the American pop unconsciousness, from Johnny Mercer’s Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe and Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo to Nat King Cole’s Route 66 and Hank Williams’ Lost Highway. Here, Harry Partch takes us right into the most basic form of American travel there is in a country still emotionally rooted in the Depression: grabbing hold of one of the giant industrial monsters that roam the landscape and holding on. Anywhere’s got to be better than here; and if the bulls catch us, well. We’re already at the bottom, no further can we go.
Popular music is an inherently bourgeois phenomenon; even the American tradition of vernacular music is rooted in coherent societies and stable communities, however low-income they might be. The travel music we’ve seen before is the travel music of money and comfort: even the exotic Route 66 is sung over in terms of cool and style, and the Lost Highway is a literary metaphor developed indoors. By contrast, Partch’s plain-voiced reportage of danger, boredom, and discomfort among the losing hands speaks truths that pop generally exists to ignore. This is no “King Of The Road”-style romantic valorization of hobo life; Partch’s bums are annoyed by dirt, condescended to by charities, afraid of Denver’s bull school — but are nevertheless survivors. In the most memorable line in the piece, one guy “can stand everything but the jerks” of the freight train braking its way down the eastern slope of the Rockies.
What does such a vision tell us about America? It’s certainly not patriotic, not even the in limited patriotism of local identity. One outburst just outside of North Platte, Nebraskatte, typifies the sentiment: “To hell with Nebraska. Also to hell with Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Nevada and Utah.” America, here, is a shadow without meaning, a tool of oppression, or perhaps a home one used to have, back in an easier life: the most affecting line is the simple quoting of an address in Champaign, Illinois, where a guy can get a meal. But these men are Americans, too, just as much as the glamor girls in the dining cars or the jack flashes in the coupe de villes: in fact, “to hell with everywhere” is as much a default American attitude as any other, and more so than some. Kerouac and Burroughs are here, as is (more ironically and with other things on his mind) Dylan. As, of course, is Tom Waits, Partch’s most obvious successor in eccentricity and modified instrumentation.
But Partch’s vision, like all true American visions, is miscellaneous. His industrial, engine-inspired rhythms are as effective a stomp as Count Basie’s and Benny Goodman’s; or as Chic’s and Devo’s. His whooping and hollers as the train pulls into Chicago evoke country music, blues music, and punk rock. He even approaches Copland’s sweeping, fine-grained melodies in the repeated “may God’s richest blessings be upon you” figure, taken from the letter which lured the Slim of the work’s title to Chicago (a stand-in for Partch, yes, but also a Voltairean naïf; he has to be told not to sleep where the motion of the car will break his neck). Even gospel music is present, in the mocking echo of a Salvation Army stopover in Iowa.
Ultimately, this record is not a pop record by most sane definitions of the word “pop,” which needs something which is not pop to define itself against. But in Partch’s generous, playful, and wild-eyed spirit, it’s possible to find analogues to everything pop would become in the coming decades. Extended rhythmic workouts; layered patterns of repetition and scraps of melody; the landmark situating of vernacular speech in musical content (as sampling, generally attributed to Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain,” 1965); the wide-angle build-and-release ethos shared by avant-garde composition and good dance music. The pop world of 2009, better able to deal with miscellaneity, dissonance, and extended compositions, can embrace it far more easily than the pop world of 1945 could.
With this recording, we have come to a dead end, and turn around. All previous romances of the road we have considered have led west, to California, to the Promised Land. Partch, being a Californian, is readier to examine the rest of the continent. Westward expansion, and its promise of new vistas, unclaimed country, fresh starts, is at an end. We must consider what is to be done with the lives we have, the tools at hand, the limited possibilities open to us.
The rule of city life, of course, is that when you can no longer spread out, you build up.
Scene Two: Oh Well Oh Well
Spike Jones & His City Slickers “Chloe”
(Neil Moret, Gus Kahn)
RCA 20-1654 • 1945
In the ranking of aesthetic genres in which art music is held far above pop, the kind of comic song usually called “novelty” is seen as the lowest form of pop, forgettable bullshit which doesn’t even aspire to the classicism, danceability, or emotional resonance which pop at its best routinely evokes. Even in the scale of values more common to modern sensibilities, in which pop is The Music, and art music a geeky obsession (or overlapping sets of obsessions) over to the side, novelty music is generally treated with the same disdain that the art-music geeks reserve for pop as a whole. The barrel, in other words, must always have a bottom.
So it is a rare and precious thing to encounter the kind of sensibility in which novelty is The Music, and everything else a kind of overreaching, stuffy, and even cruel pomp dedicated taking itself too seriously. Cruel, because the first rule of novelty music is affection; otherwise the whole thing falls apart. Affection for what you’re parodying, obviously — this is the secret weapon of the Allen Shermans and Al Yankovics — but also affection for the audience, a desire to reward their attention with as much entertainment as can possibly be packed into a record.
It is under these conditions that Spike Jones takes his rightful place as the greatest bandleader of the 1940s, the most open-minded and inventive and even in his lowly way avant-garde musician of an era when the sound, meaning, and range of pop tended to be strictly policed. Not by any central authority or board of censors, but by the inexorable hand of the marketplace, rewarding blandness, prettiness, and sentiment above all other considerations. Or so goes the usual tale; as we have seen, actual hits frequently celebrated the individual sound or personality of the artist, or the song. As they do today. Nevertheless, the effect of Spike Jones’ hit records cast everything else into his shadow. Gleefully anarchic, they took the eternal line of the twelve-year-old boy that prettiness and sentiment are for sissies, and what records need to really be interesting is a lot of noise, the more unexpected the better.
It’s that noise — or more precisely, the use of non-musical sounds as musical elements — which makes the classic recordings of Spike Jones bend towards the avant-garde, however innocently. He was never as rigorous as Harry Partch — he couldn’t afford to be, he was a businessman — but for Jones a record without unconventional instrumentation was useless. (That’s the Jones we meet in the City Slickers records, anyway; he also recorded straight music, without much reward.) The leftwing anarcho-pop artists of the sixties — the Bonzo Doo-Dog Band, the Firesign Theatre, the Mothers Of Invention — owed a great deal to Jones’ musical mayhem, as did their immediate predecessors, the Beatles of “Yellow Submarine,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Revolution #9,” which is as much an extended joke on the pop fans who bought the White Album as it is Serious Músique Concrète Composition.
“Chloe” is the nexus where the multitude of influence on Spike — from vaudeville, radio comedy, Tex Avery cartoons, and the first jazz on record, the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Livery Stable Blues,” which was meant to be laughed at, and meant or not certainly was — meets the wide influence he would come to have. The song itself, in its everyday clothes, is a 1927 composition subtitled “Song Of The Swamp” (which translates in 1920s song-publishing jargon as “coon song,” or ersatz African American sentiment). It was a fairly popular swing-era tune, with a melody made for the light croon of the era. Red Ingle’s vocal approach, on the other hand, both solemnizes the song as light opera and then undercuts it with all manner of foolery, some old as the vaudevillian hills — “You don’t say!” “Who was it?” “He didn’t say!” — and some as primitivist and outré as anything from the avant-garde — that balls-out scream “I gotta go!” could be terrifying in the right frame of mind.
The Slim Gaillard Trio “Cement Mixer (Put-Ti-Put-Ti)”
Cadet 201 • 1946
Spike Jones was only the latest, and in some ways the greatest, expression of a spirit that has erupted periodically throughout the history of American culture. The early, funny Mark Twain in the 1860s, the knockabout depredations of the early comic strips, the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in the teens, the stage shows of the Marx Brothers and Jimmy Durante in the 1920s, the frenetic absurdism of Warner Bros. cartoon shorts (and, under Tex Avery, those of MGM), and in our own day the no-holds-barred surrealism of Adult Swim, SNL digital shorts, or most Internet humor, speak to something gleeful, anarchic, violent, and profoundly silly in the American spirit. One of the purest expressions of this spirit — so pure that it in fact makes for a pretty bad movie — is the serenely absurd Hellzapoppin, the shoestring-budget, anything-for-a-gag stage show that captured the American imagination (or anyway the American pocketbook) from 1938 to 1941, and even managed to get a movie made of itself through force of sheer inertia.
Slim Gaillard got his big break in Hellzapoppin, as a duo with bass player Slam Stewart, and although he popped up now and again in the public consciousness through the following four decades he’s bound to the late 30s and early 40s in a way that many of his contemporaries are not. This is entirely due to his chosen style, an eccentric, baroque form of jive he called vout (rhymes with boot), and which includes, in addition to the hepcat slang of deepest Harlem, a form of nonsense vocalizing which occasionally drifts into sense, but rarely for long stretches. Even when he incorporates actual dictionary words into his bip-bop-boolap, they’re chosen because they sound like nonsense words, or because he can stretch and distort them to function as nonsense words.
Vout, particularly by the mid-40s, was Gaillard’s own distinct, private language, one that came out of no particular ethos and fed into no particular stream. Some have tried to draw connections between it and Cab Calloway’s reefer-and-opium jive, Louis Armstrong’s hipster scat, or the ornate bop song form known as vocalese; but aside from maybe doo-wop and the gleeful nonsense of early rock & roll — awopbopaloombopawopbamboom — little in recorded history owes a debt to Slim Gaillard. Which makes his work almost as bad as novelty in the stern, historical-influence documentation of American music that needs to divide all artists into easily-identifiable categories. The more generous vision of pop allows for outliers, freaks, and dead ends; just because nobody followed it up doesn’t mean it’s not great to listen to on its own terms.
The Ravens “Write Me A Letter”
National 9038 • 1947
Helen Humes & The Bill Doggett Octet “Be-Baba-Leba”
Aladdin 106 • 1945
Well, we’ve been approaching the topic for some time, skirting around it with various methods of handwave, using it as a sort of come-on to the future, using it as a shorthand for “immediate” or “awesome” or “raw” or, even worse, for “something vaguely recognizable to modern ears.” It is, of course, rock & roll, and here we run into it full stop.
Or at least we run into some of its concomitants.
Because rock & roll, despite the assumption of some kind of strict, irreducible musical purity that so often attends the tag, is not a single music, but a collection of musics. Even if we assume that the first music to be widely called rock & roll — the canonical 1954-55 singles from Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, the Chords, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Ray Charles — all shares the same basic DNA, there’s still a wide range of secondary characteristics present in performances, instrumentation, song structure, and rhythm. Western boogie, honky tonk, New Orleans r&b, jump blues, doo wop, Chicago blues, and gospel, both in ecstatic solo form and as a controlled group vocal, are all present just in that small listing; and at least as long a list could be made of the remaining musics that went into the miscegenous stew of rock & roll.
In some ways “Write Me A Letter” is more advanced than “Be-Baba-Leba” — it is generally pointed out as the first doo-wop song on record. Which means rather that it occupies a liminal space between the vocal harmony groups of the jazz era — the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots — and the thousands of groups of the rock & roll era. Its subtly insistent rhythm is a product of the energetic postwar r&b boom, not terribly different in kind from the jive-inflected hits that acts like the Delta Rhythm Boys had been pumping out for a good half-decade. It’s the arrangement — specifically, bass singer Jimmy Ricks’ prominence as a solo voice, his honeyed boom gliding over the doodle-do-doos the rest of the group is using to imitate Basie-style horn charts — that thrusts the Ravens into the future. (For further discussion of their impact on the vocal harmony tradition in American music, see below.)
Helen Humes was known as a jazz singer, and had toured with the Basie band in the 1930s, handling pop songs while Jimmy Rushing sang the blues, but on going solo in the mid-40s she hooked up with L.A.-based jump-blues bandleader Bill Doggett — who would become a soul-jazz mainstay in the years after “respectable” jazz lost its ability to dance — and wrote a hip nonsense jive song, one whose pounding beat is the closest we’ve come to rock & roll (in the narrow sense of backbeated rhythm) yet.
“Be Baba Leba” is remarkable as a sequence of releases, breathless twelve-bar-blues verses followed by fluidly sweaty sax solos followed by a swing-style chorus (listen for the Glenn Milleresque up-and-down-the-scale horn lines behind Humes) followed by even more scorching sax solos, and again, each time the drums pounding harder and harder until by the end Humes is baba-leboping like she’s been worked over but good. An upright bass solo is the only pause for breath the band takes — but the ultimate effect of the song, waxing and waning but increasing in intensity every time, is as thrilling and orgasmic as any rock, soul, disco, or house song has ever been.
Humes is generally overlooked in the roots-of-rock-and-roll surveys which pop up every couple of years like clockwork — her voice is too small and sweet for those looking for the roots of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin — but she’s a clear signpost towards the small-voiced firebrands who would go on to wrap pop in their all-consuming embrace, from Ruth Brown to Diana Ross to Britney Spears. Few of whom would ever sound quite so gleeful in their smash pop rush.
Big Joe Williams “Baby, Please Don’t Go”
Columbia 30099 • 1947
T-Bone Walker & His Guitar “Call It Stormy Monday”
Black & White 122 • 1947
Roy Brown “Good Rocking Tonight”
DeLuxe 1093 • 1947
Speaking of rock & roll.
This survey, in its attempt to take as wide a view of the pop of the 1940s as possible, has had the unfortunate effect of sidelining the blues as a kind of separate institution from the rest of pop. This is due to the limitations inherent in hundred-song lists; a more thorough examination of the blues itsownself would be better able to trace the local and national variations in the formula as relating to developments in overground music both black and white, from boogie woogie and and western swing to bop and Tin Pan Alley pop. The best we can do, in the meantime, is to suggest those connections and urge further, wider, and deeper listening on the part of all interested parties.
Here we pause to glance over three blues songs released in the same year, each typifying a distinct approach to the problem of how to relate the blues — a form a half-century old by 1947, and pop audiences in 1947 were no more interested in traditionalist mimickry than they are today — to the needs and inchoate desires of the pop audience in 1947. It’s worth remembering that the pop audience then was as broad as it is today, if not so well micromanaged by industry demographers; so that Big Joe Williams’ rural blues, T-Bone Walker’s urban blues, and Roy Brown’s jump blues were all valid solutions to the same problem in different contexts. Their different approaches paid out all the dividends their makers required of them — which was first of all to make them money, and secondarily to carry them forward into the future with wings on their heels.
Joe Williams (called Big in order to distinguish him from the great jazz vocalist who sang with Count Basie in the 1950s) was a blues lifer, the sort of man who had played on street corners and in tiny shacks since childhood in the 1920s, wandering through the South with his guitar on his back, heading wherever there was the promise of a paying audience and a meal or a drink or a lay. He fetched up in Missouri in 1935, where he cut his first records — making him an exact contemporary, in recording terms anyway, of Robert Johnson — including the first version of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” one of the all-time great blues songs. Later covers by Muddy Waters, by Van Morrison’s Them, and maybe most famously by the Amboy Dukes — Ted Nugent’s first extended guitar workout, in which he even quotes Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” — enshrined it as a blues-rock standard, but it’s here, at his second waxing of his most famous song, that Big Joe entered the sober historical hall of Folk Blues fame. Cut in 1947 under the enthusiastic but inevitably patronizing auspices of Columbia Records, which under John Hammond had long patted itself on the back for capturing authentic black music, the record is unrepresentative of the music Williams was making on stage, away from the strictly-defined business of folk traditionalism; with his homemade pickups and portable amp, he was the first rural bluesman to embrace the electric guitar. But Columbia insisted on a clean sound, and got Sonny Boy Williamson in for some authentic harmonica, and it’s not like the date was a loss. If nothing else, hearing Williams anticipate the Iggy Pop of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is enough to make this a legend of a record.
T-Bone Walker, in contrast, was the first urban bluesman to embrace the electric guitar; and it’s indicative of the urban-rural divide in the blues that he trumped Williams by a half-dozen years. He was the world’s first guitar hero (or as close as we’ll ever come to nailing it down), a showman through and through who played extended, imaginative solos in which rhythm mattered as much as harmonic development, jumped around, did the splits, played behind his head, whipped his guitar around, and generally gave the folks dancing plenty of value for money. As a swing mainstay, he had hits throughout the decade, but his biggest was “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday’s Just As Bad),” a cool lament which takes the sleek pacing of West Coast blues (see “Drifting Blues” above), but adds a stronger guitar presence and a greater depth of field with a full horn chart. Evocative lines like “the eagle flies on Friday” give Walker a lyrical, even (dare I say) poetic edge that many of his more plainspoken, literal contemporaries lacked. Nevertheless, it is a traditional twelve-bar blues; he skirts the edges of the genre, but stays within its gates.
And then there’s Roy Brown. Listened to one way, “Good Rocking Tonight” is nothing new under the sun. Trumpet lines in frank imitation of Louis Armstrong’s style, a rolling piano figure borrowed from every barroom ivory-tickler in New Orleans (notably a couple of guys called Fess and Fats), and a shuffle-swing rhythm straight out of the Louis Jordan playbook — it’s Crescent City jump blues, pure and simple, served straight up and ready to dance. Listened to another way, it is the beginning of history. “I heard the news, there’s good rocking tonight,” grins Brown in a rubbery tenor, and we’re ready for a yet another in the august line of tall tales about the chicken shack that shakes so hard it rocks back and forth on its foundations; but the next line subverts the populist party rhetoric. “I’m gonna hold my baby tight as I can/Tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty mighty man.” Rocking, in other words, ain’t just something you do with your feet, or in public. Rock and roll — musical fucking — has been born.
Roy Brown wrote the song for a local jump-blues hero, Wynonie Harris, a flamboyant showman who would later accuse a kid named Presley of stealing all his moves. Harris passed; Brown shrugged and recorded it himself. The record started getting play around New Orleans. Harris saw the light and recorded an even harder-rocking cover forthwith. Brown’s original never broke out of New Orleans, and Harris hit #1 on the R&B chart. We’ll run across him later, rocking harder yet.
1947 represents a major turning point in the great river of American music. The accumulated wisdom of a half-century of popular dance music — sold on stage, on sheets, on records, in dance halls, on the airwaves, in movies — has built up a serious head of steam, and needs an outlet. One name for that outlet would be rock & roll; we’ll meet some others on down the line.
The Orioles “Tell Me So”
Jubilee 5005 • 1949
Doo-wop is an anachronistic name; it was first used in the early 60s to talk about a style of music that was no longer being made, as rock shifted from its roots in r&b and country boogie to a more commercialized pop sound. So it’s difficult to pin down an origin for the species; like most every music, it evolved slowly out of disparate influences until one day America woke up to find out that she was drenched in the stuff. Circa 1950, hundreds — thousands — of groups were forming all around the country, standing on street corners harmonizing, listening to each others’ records, coming up with the next nagging vocal phrase that would send their tiny-label record up the local charts and maybe, just maybe, break national.
A lot of these groups — and I mean a lot — were outright imitations of either the Ravens or the Orioles. (Like the Ink Spots before them, both groups had named themselves with a cutesy wink towards their dark skin, a wink that reads as cringeworthy today.) The Ravens were the uptempo, gospel-jive influenced group, who would have as their progeny acts like the Clovers, the Drifters, and the Chords; the Orioles were the ballad-singing, stately-gospel influenced group, the first cause of every doo-wop ballad from the sublime (“Earth Angel”) to the mawkish (“Sixteen Candles”) to the outright bizarre (“The Letter”).
But in any iteration, the seminal doo-wop acts represented something new in American music, the first gesture towards what would flower variously in Motown and Philly Soul and Disco and Conscious Hip-Hop — the professionalization of black pop. Doo-wop groups wore sharp suits and smiled handsomely; they choreographed their moves and sang like harmonizing angels; they were one of the purest expressions of upward mobility in all black music. They were emphatically middle-class, regardless of the actual class origins of the individual members. And they were smoothly, even offhandedly, superior to their white competition.
For oh yes — there were white vocal groups. Glenn Miller’s Modernaires, Decca’s Merry Macs and Capitol’s Pied Pipers, the Mel-Tones, the Four Freshmen, the Ames Brothers. And many hundreds more, all clean-scrubbed and clear-voiced and dull, dull, dull to the last primly-held note. They are largely forgotten and even where they are remembered they are rarely listened to, for precisely the same reason that no one cares about professional basketball before it was integrated in 1950: the black groups were so profoundly transformational that the white dudes who preceded them aren’t even playing the same game.
“Tell Me So” wasn’t the Orioles’ big hit; that was “It’s Too Soon To Know,” which was patterned even more blatantly on the croony Ink Spots hits of the 1930s. But the Orioles were not just a vocal group; their electric guitar-and-bass combination, particularly as they fuzz out complementarily at the opening of the song, was a futuristic, even radical departure from the small-combo backing of their predecessors. Doo-wop would get even more skeletal; but that guitar and bass would show up later and rewrite all of music together. For a while.
Scene Three: Reach Up To Mars
Time shifts again; and we are in the unenviable position of attempting to document a sea change without having really taken stock of the sea first.
Jazz, as has been noted before in these commentaries, is to the first half of the twentieth century what rock is to the second half. Which is a broad enough and meaningless enough statement as to be more or less inarguable. A somewhat more indefensible position is that the explosion of innovative activity in jazz at the end of the 40s and beginning of the 50s is comparable to the shift in rock which took place in The Sixties when it went from being a dance music to being a head music. Bop = prog is just reductive enough to be stupid (and free jazz = punk is even dumber; what, does that mean cool = the Eagles?), but it gets at a pattern which is evident enough to be worth examining; history does rhyme, even if it’s really just assonance. The pattern, put simply, is: the New Thing starts as a party music, is first villified and then embraced by a wide audience, eventually aspires to the condition of art and gets adventuresome; another music takes its place as party music, and the cycle rolls on. (This is hardly limited to music; those who study literature, film, cartooning, the plastic arts, and fashion know the pattern well. There are even implications of similar patterns in politics, religion, and economics.)
So while we have gathered here to praise Shakespeare, it seems unjust to have mentioned Marlowe only in passing. There were significant developments between the springtide of swing, which was when we last looked at jazz, and the rise of bebop; but Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Jay McShann, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Christian, Ben Webster, Lionel Hampton, Machito, Woody Herman, Pee Wee Russell and Eddie Condon have received unforgivably short shrift here, in much the same way that a standard discussion of 1969’s guitar gods would ignore Steve Cropper, Albert King, and Bert Jansch. Handwaves all round, yes; but I feel a bit better for having acknowledged them.
All that obligatory self-justifying guff aside, let’s talk about bebop. Not in musicological terms — I don’t have the arm for that kind of throwing — but in pop terms, using metaphor and symbols and trash-talking.
Charles Mingus once wrote a song titled, “If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats.” The image of the jazz soloist as a drifter packing a six-shooter is one that works deeply on the individualist, heroic loner model of American mythmaking. Like the silent, hired killer of our fears and our fantasies, he wanders from town to town, complete in himself, beholden to no man, and carrying the means of his living, his power, his fame, and his damnation or salvation — depending on the terms of the narrative being told — with him. Charlie Parker roams this mythic landscape like Wild Bill Hickock — or Anton Chigurh — the best there ever was, and cut off from the rest of humanity because of the burden of his terrifying talent (a talent both for What He’s Good At, and for taking abuse on a superhuman scale). But of course he wasn’t alone.
The other mythic context in which to place the sudden rocketing of bebop into the galaxy of jazz history is that of, well, rockets and galaxies. Not the actual space program, which is too collectivist and buzz-cut for the pork-pie hat crowd, but pulp space. There’s a reason so many metaphors for Parker solos have to do with taking off, flight, and dizzying heights. The science fiction of space exploration was reaching maturity at just the same historical moment that bebop was transforming the harmonic, rhythmic, and structural traditions of jazz, becoming both more intellectually rigorous and more imaginatively purposeful, so that the unrealities of sci-fi meant something — grounding the fiction in the classical literary tradition of symbol and meaning — beyond the mere thrill of imagining different worlds. In this reading, swing is a frothy, crowd-pleasing jive like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon; Parker and Gillespie and Monk and Roach were the Futurians, calling into being worlds where evolution accelerated at a rapid pace, or where dozens of sexes competed for mates, or where the dividing line between human and machine was dissolved, or where humanity itself was no longer — except perhaps for a lonely few, roaming the emptiness complete in themselves, and carrying their means of survival and damnation or salvation — depending on the terms of the narrative — with them.
This is our first extended encounter with instrumental music in the course of this survey, which inevitably, surely, means a change in the terms of engagement, from pop to art. This was certainly on the minds of the men who made bebop; they were familiar with the European art-music tradition, and eager to prove that their music could stand the same level of scrutiny as everyone from Mozart to Debussy to Schoenburg — eager even to prove that their music was better (more human, more alive, more in tune with both self and the masses) than the decadent, tiny-audienced academic music of contemporary art. Their fans, too, would sneer at the purveyors of jump blues and Dixieland and swing and west coast jazz as pop shills, people who weren’t really as dedicated to The Music — jazz — as their heroes. In a few years, “mainstream jazz” would be a put-down. (Plus ça change.)
But while “art” is a useful catch-all for Work of Meaning, Significance, and Lasting Power, it’s not terribly helpful as an analytic tool. If you want to know anything about a specific work — composition, recording, performance, structure, history, reception — you have to ask not “is it art?” but “what is it doing and how is it doing it?” Anything worth examining is art; what matters is the framework you examine it in.
Baron Mingus & His Octet “This Subdues My Passion”
4 Star 1108 • 1946
It’s impossible to talk about Charles Mingus without talking about Duke Ellington. Mingus was Ellington’s stylistic and conceptual heir if he was nothing else; and if he represented a shift in the way black musicians approached their audience — Ellington’s classy aloofness vs. Mingus’ aggrieved pugnacity — he also represented a fiercer control of his subject and a certainty that what he was doing was right, however popular. Ellington, for all his virtues (and they are many; he remains the greatest composer in jazz history, something even the egocentric Mingus would acknowledge) never quite unclenched. He was always the son of a prominent Washington butler, smiling and reassuring the white folks, pitching even his most ambitious work square in the great American middlebrow tradition. (Shucking and jiving for Massa, some fools in the 60s would say, unaware that they stood upon his shoulders and breathed the air he had cleared for them.) Ellington remained aloof to the end of his days, an invisible personality behind the pencil moustache and swelling horns. His work, as they say, spoke for him; which is as much to say that he was everybody, for his work (like that similarly elusive figure Shakespeare’s) said everything under the sun.
Mingus, in contrast, was a very definite personality with very definite opinions and very definite ways of expressing them. His music builds on Ellington’s in the sense that it uses many of the same tools to express an idea, but the idea is always his idea; even when he reaches for transcendence, it his own particular take on transcendence. He is the Coleridge to Ellington’s Shakespeare, an achingly sincere individualist documenting every up and down of his temperament, never cloaking himself in irony (sarcasm, sure; it’s a blunt enough instrument) or the double blind of fiction which, in music, means song. He had cause enough to be aggrieved; the bastard son of a bastard son, doubted, misjudged, hated, and blacklisted every step of the way (not that he didn’t bring plenty of it on himself; he was difficult to work with and impossible to live with, and physically abused more than his share of collaborators), Mingus was a ball of rage who could turn out impossibly beautiful music — music that owed nothing to nobody, a fiercely guarded tradition of one — on a dime.
By 1946, he had already been personally fired by Ellington for assaulting a fellow band member on stage, and was a jobbing bassist in the expat jazz community on the West Coast. We’ve seen that he could write unusually sensitive blues numbers for Dinah Washington; he was also composing more ambitious music at a furious rate — he wrote an entire symphony in the late 40s which, typically, he couldn’t get played, and spent the next twenty years scavenging it for some of his most famous 50s and 60s compositions. He had not yet fully become the Mingus of the above two paragraphs; for a couple of years, in a transparent bid for the respect of a Duke Ellington, a King Cole, or a Count Basie, he called himself Baron Mingus, and got a small combo to record a few of his compositions. They were facile and derivative compared to his mature work, but the seeds of the Mingus to be could be heard in a few cuts, such as “This Subdues My Passion,” his greatest early work.
An unembarrassed pastiche of the mature Ellington, “This Subdues My Passion” is slow, dreamy, and achingly romantic, borrowing some of the changes from “I Only Have Eyes For You” and layering the reeds on top of each other in distinctive patterns to produce deep and unusual sonorities. But where Ellington, however subtly, always keeps a syncopated beat tethering even his swooniest music to the dancefloor (his early style wasn’t called “jungle music” for nothing), Mingus does away with drums altogether, and the tenderly flexing chords float up into the aether. There is the barest hint of dissonance in the wide harmonics of the piece, but it is decidedly not bop — Mingus had a quarrelsome relationship with every style or movement in jazz — but neither is it swing; not even Duke Ellington’s uptown, uncreased version of swing.
It’s Mingus. In time, jazz would learn that that is enough.
The Bud Powell Trio “Tempus Fugit”
Mercury 11045 • 1949
Charlie Parker’s Ri Bop Boys “Ko-Ko”
Savoy 597 • 1946
The two things bop prized above all were fluidity and imagination: to be a great bop player you had to not only be a master at your instrument, you had to be so comfortable with it that it was an extension of your own body, so that you played with the speed and mutability of thought itself. And on top of that you had to hear notes that others didn’t, and think in harmonic patterns that weren’t implicit in the song you were playing.
Listening to the great bop records is like watching world-class gymnasts at the peak of their powers, sending their bodies hurtling through space at precisely calibrated angles and timing shaved to the microsecond, performing superhuman feats of agility and strength and speed, creating startling and original sculptures in the air. And just as performing at a world-class level of sport tends to break the body down far earlier than nature would in the ordinary course, so that twenty-year-old female gymnasts are already looking back at their lost youth and degraded muscle tone, too many of the great bop players paid for their feats of dexterity and imaginative triumph in broken minds, collapsed bodies, and nervous systems which gradually became nothing but a conduit for white death. The difference of course, is that bop doesn’t entail self-destruction the way competitive gymnastics entails physical damage; it just works out that way.
Bud Powell was the world’s greatest jazz pianist for all of three years, from his emergence on the scene in 1945 as part of the first wave of bop, to the arrival of Thelonious Monk in 1948. He had largely lost his gift by 1954, and was dead by 1966. Savage beatings administered by police, chronic alcoholism, repeated bouts of electroshock therapy, the near-constant betrayal of friends and close associates, and addiction to the antipsychotic drug Thorazine all contributed to the complete ravaging of his mind and body by the time he was forty. Yet he played — at least in those early years — like a motherfucker. Not dizzyingly — mechanically, some say — fast and full of extravagant ornamentations like Art Tatum (the world’s greatest jazz pianist before Powell), but with the urgent rapidity of someone who is saying something very important and has to get it out or they’ll burst.
“Tempus Fugit” was one of his first compositions in the flurry of activity, 1948-1952, which constituted his creative high water mark. Sometimes titled, whimsically, “Tempus Fugue-It,” it’s a speedy run through the hallways of Powell’s mind, already disturbed but not yet shattered. Like Monk, Mingus, and Glenn Gould after him, he grunts, murmurs and vocalizes wordlessly as he plays, sounding like a frightening foretaste of his later self, shell-shocked and nearly inarticulate, while his hands spin out giddy patterns, both in short, clustered phrases and then in long, rabbit-trailing flights. A fight develops between the stabbing, dark-browed left hand and the dancing, laughing right, with Max Roach’s drums egging them both on and Ray Brown’s bass virtually inaudible. (We have not yet reached the era of master tapes.) It’s a fine, exciting drama, one that ends happily, but it looks forward to his darker, post-electroshock works like “Glass Enclosure” and “Un Poco Loco,” two of the most heartbreaking works about mental illness in all of music.
Charlie Parker was one of Powell’s peers and early supporters, and eventually, one of the people who shook him loose in order to preserve himself; which he didn’t do for long, beating Powell to the grave (in 1955) as he did in every other aspect of their fiercely competitive relationship. (Miles Davis tells how Parker once refused to hire Powell because he was the only man crazier than Parker.)
Too much has been written and thought and dreamed and said about Charlie Parker for these jottings to have any great meaning. Suffice to say that he is to jazz what Bach was to polyphony: the avatar of a new way of understanding music and the supreme exemplar of his chosen method. Also, he has pride of place as the first in the shadowy line which all writers and thinkers about music keep in their heads to deal with the historical patterns. Bach was (obviously) not the first Western European composer, but he’s the first giant in the field, and every subsequent figure of note only measures up to him by the law of perspective. So with Charlie Parker.
He drank and smoked and injected himself to death. He sold his instrument to buy heroin and had to perform with a plastic toy saxophone. He was committed to a mental institution for burning down his hotel room and fleeing naked. He fundamentally transformed the language of jazz to the extent that when people speak of jazz today, they mean not the whole history of the music from Buddy Bolden on down, but music as a form of intellectual inquiry through improvisation, a form which Parker birthed into the world. Through his own work and that of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and thousands more disciples, he created an intellectual tradition, a compositional and harmonic theory, and a fundamentally new role for jazz in the marketplace of ideas. It’s virtually impossible to dance to a Charlie Parker solo, unless the laws of physics have been rescinded — and while jazz would continue to help people dance in various configurations for almost twenty years, its years as a pop music end, definitively, here.
In the beginning was “Ko-Ko.” The head is stated, Dizzy takes a brief solo, then Parker, then the head is stated again, then Parker solos, staggeringly, for 128 measures. Roach takes a half-chorus which is not so much a solo as a blast of noise, Dizzy takes a brief solo, repeat the head once more — and finish before they’re done. It’s not so much a song as a blast of impossible life, a modernist symphony sped up and compressed into the space of a three-minute pop record, and made up on the spot.
Babs’ Three Bips & A Bop “Oop-Pop-A-Da”
Blue Note 534 • 1947
Ella Fitzgerald & The Daydreamers “How High The Moon”
(Morgan Lewis, Nancy Hamilton)
Decca 24387 • 1947
So far we have looked at bop/bebop through the Jazz Writer’s glasses, as a music of profound, electric transformation and purity which shot so far above the heads of the dancing masses that they most of them never knew it existed. This is not the entire story; the heroic narratives of solitary genius never are.
For bop was both an innovative shift into the realm of art music and the new craze the kids were all talking about. As new crazes the kids are all talking about will do, it got mixed up with several other concurrent crazes the kids were all talking about, in much the same way that Elvis Costello, Madness, Dexys Midnight Runners, Talking Heads, and Falco were all once called New Wave. “Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” was an r&b hit for Lionel Hampton in 1945 (Helen Humes’ “Be-Baba-Leba” was cut from the same cloth), and “rebop” was used interchangeably with “vout” and “hep” and “all reet” as hipster jive that cats in the know could confuse the normals with. Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and Ricky Nelson’s “Be-Bop Baby” (both strictly rock & roll songs) are late signifiers of the same trend for cross-genre confusion, which was not really confusion so much as a rising tide of new music, all of which drew from underground culture for inspiration, and which was later dissected into movements and genres for the purposes of categorization and analysis.
So while Babs Gonzales’ Galliardian jive song “Oop-Pop-A-Da” isn’t a million miles away from doo-wop, though with a richer harmonic palette than most, it is also more vernacular and r&b-oriented than the fantastic flights of bop we’ve been hearing. It moves easily between worlds — it became a Dizzy Gillespie standard, it has goofy lyrics about carrying bop to a Lindy hop, it breaks into sudden vocal pyrotechnics as Gonzales harmonizes with Tad Dameron (piano) and Pee Wee Tinney (guitar) for lengthy scat solos that are as much about good-time fun-having as virtuosic prowess. Gonzales was a seminal figure in the vocalsese movement, which consisted of virtuoso jazz singers rewriting bop standards with lyrics both comic and heartfelt, and would flourish in the 50s until rock & roll coöpted all popular song and jazz left lyrics for the most part behind.
Gonzales was as much showman as artist (he called his 1967 autobiography i, paid my dues like any good winking Beat) and though he never made much of a splash chartwise his easy grinning attitude towards jazz — aka Don’t Take It So Serious, We All Gotta Hustle — was shared by a wide swath of people with both greater sales clout and more ahem Artistic Respectability.
Ella Fitzgerald routinely tops lists of Greatest Singers Ever, so it’s a goddamn shame that the music she made before signing to Verve in 1955 goes mostly unheard today, and that her Songbook series is regarded as the pinnacle of her achievement. Even leaving aside the bullshit claims to definitiveness made on their behalf by people who have never ventured much farther than Ella herself in their researches — not to mention the ridiculousness of the very concept of definitiveness as applied to these songs — the Songbooks present a mature, controlled singer dripping in Respectability and being very unsurprised by anything either the arranger or she comes up with. (Which isn’t to say they’re not fun to listen to, God knows.) She still pushed herself at live dates — Ella In Berlin is justly famous, if overpraised by those unaware of how routinely brilliant she was — but like Frank Sinatra in the same period, she had settled down to the serious, grown-up, and faintly pointless business of polishing up the same old songs, leaving the new and vital and thrilling to whippersnappers with only trace amounts of her talent.
Her brilliant run of singles in the 1940s was what gave her the reputation that made the Songbooks possible in the first place. It was a decade when she was game for anything — as a girl who hit the national scene singing a nursery rhyme should be — including cod-calypso with Louis Jordan, Hollywood blues, Western swing, jive, collaborations with the Ink Spots, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Louis Armstrong . . . and, in her downtime, becoming the greatest scat singer in history, the woman who was to the human voice what Charlie Parker was to the saxophone or Dizzy Gillespie to the trumpet.
“How High The Moon” was a cute show tune writ for a pair of young lovers in the cod-elegant style of the early 40s. Ella and her group make it through one roughly normal chorus before the drummer has a fit and they take the tune vertically, Ella spitfiring improvised lyrics before the band comes around, and now, a minute and a half into the song, all pretense is dropped and she takes wing. She scats for nearly two minutes, rarely breaking a sweat, and with a sexy edge in her throat that gives heft and proportion to the wordless narrative. When she climaxes — a rough approximation of one of those moments is “eee, ee-a-ouy-a, eee, ee-a-ouy-a” — it’s like a punch to the gut, or water down the back, or another kind of climax. The closest word I have for it is pop thrill, which is frankly unbelievable to the Pop Began In 1955 cadre, but is nevertheless true. There are more things in pop, Horatio.
Scene Four: Pettin’ Party Or A Poker Game
Even more so than the blues, we have kept country music off to one side in these misbegotten wanderings, bringing it in only when we’ve exhausted every other topic. Which is only partially reflective of the actual division between country and non-country music in the 1940s. Especially under the aspect of “western,” white rural music was immensely influential in the pop of the 1940s, injecting a dollop of liveliness and downhome folksiness into whitebread blandness and laying the groundwork for the coup that rock & roll would stage. A good third of the music we’ve looked at has been influenced at least obliquely by (what could roughly be identified as) country music — including Aaron Copland and Harry Partch — and that’s not even taking into account the ways in which the blues and early country cross-pollinated one another to a degree unimaginable today, and which was beginning to be heretical in the 1940s. (That combination, understood as heresy, was one of the things which gave early rock & roll its kick.)
But country was transforming and shifting and watching the old ways crumble away under its feet just as fast as every other music in the nation. The hegemony represented by the Grand Ole Opry was crumbling, as all hegemonies must sooner or later, and the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers could no longer between them contain all that country music was and meant and did (not that they ever did, not really). As it grew wealthier along with the rest of the nation, fatter and happier, rural America slowly became more and more like urban America, dens of iniquity and all, by means of a million new connections. New York and Los Angeles radio broadcasts were making ever-deeper penetration into the backwards South, movie theaters and the attendant newsreels and loci of national conversations had sprung up even in the tiniest of hamlets — and of course The War had disrupted every American’s life, sending him shuttling from coast to coast and when he got back from overseas maybe he wasn’t going to settle back down in Hootin’ Holler. How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, once they’ve seen gay Paree? as the old World War I song asked. One answer was that they took the farm with them wherever they landed, in the form of records and country radio broadcasts and seeking out the right dives and music halls and jukeboxes to get a bit of home. But they had changed, and they demanded without even knowing it that the music change with them.
There were several responses to this, each tied to the place, tradition, and goal of the individual musicians involved. One group, seeing the massive success that Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys were having, doubled down on western swing, bringing in the harder-charging rhythms of contemporary r&b, and creating western boogie out of the mixture. Another group, having fallen in love with the vision of America revealed by crooning singers like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, glitzed and glossed up the music and founded the Nashville we recognize today. And yet another group, disenchanted with newfangled electric instruments and mistrustful of the citified, miscegenated swagger of western swing, reached deep into an imagined Appalachian past and created a new sound for a new generation of godfearing old-timey coots.
Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
Mercury 6247 • 1949
Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys “I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky”
Columbia 20612 • 1947
There are two misconceptions about bluegrass prevalent in the world at large. The first is that it is the pure and honest sound of America, descended straight from the fiddlin’ folk music of the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled along the Appalachian range two, three hundred years ago. It is not. It was made in the 1940s by a handful of men who knew that they were making something new. But the second misconception is that it was brand-new; that it was, in a highly misleading phrase, the jazz of country music, a step away from tradition and continuity into a fresh bright future. To the extent that bluegrass depends on virtuosic musicianship, it is comparable to jazz; but it is not a necessarily improvisational music and tends toward a fairly narrow harmonic range. The flights and fantasies of bebop, for example, would remain out of the conceptual grasp of bluegrass until the 1960s; and even then, when bluegrass instrumentation is used to jazz ends, everyone just calls it jazz. (Ask Béla Fleck or David Grisman.)
Bill Monroe was the acknowledged father of bluegrass, and acknowledged by no one more than by himself — he named it, he wrote its first songs, he put together its first combos, he defended its purity for decades against the obnoxious sidling of youngsters who wanted to put drums or electric instruments or other sacrileges into its lineup. Bluegrass, as conceived by Bill Monroe and performed even unto this day by anyone who lays any claim to old-time music mastery, is a strictly acoustic, strictly stringed music. Fiddle, banjo, guitar. Maybe mandolin, maybe bass, maybe (if you’re in an exotic mood) dulcimer or dobro. No sound, in other words, that isn’t plucked, strummed, or scraped.
Monroe had been around country music, under the catch-all term of “old-time,” for a while. He’d had at least a semi-hit under the name of the Monroe Brothers (“Nine-Pound Hammer,” later covered by Johnny Cash), and knocked around with one outfit or another for a decade before finding exactly the personnel, the sound, and the purity, he had been looking for all his life. He served notice to the world with a record called “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” — you may have heard of it — on which the banjo player Earl Scruggs played in a fluid new style, not the clawhammer rocking-back-and-forth banjo of old-time music (see virtually all the white tracks on the Anthology Of American Folk Music, or Pete Seeger’s banjo on “Dear Mr. President,” above), which was a simplification of the minstrel style of banjo — the means by which the banjo had become a white, rather than a black, instrument. It had been a black instrument in the nineteenth century and earlier; with the advent of bluegrass, it never would be again.
Scruggs was not the first to play in the new streamlined, syncopated style, but he was the first on record, and that’s what counts to the latter-day compilers of history. It helped that he was one of the most prolific, generous-minded, and long-lived banjoists in recorded history, so that his signature tune, recorded with guitarist Lester Flatt and their new group the Foggy Mountain Boys after splitting from Monroe’s outfit in 1948, became one of the signature sounds of 1968 after featuring in a movie which is only tangentially part of our story. (Bluegrass, let it be said, was never the sound of the poor and desperate; in that respect, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which documents the pre-bluegrass world, is more historically accurate than Bonnie And Clyde.)
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is generally regarded as the most difficult traditional bluegrass composition to master, particularly at the breakneck speed at which Flatt and Scruggs take it; in this at least they were exact peers with the contemporaneous masters of bop. Its manic energy isn’t even danceable — no gaps are left for the body to fill in — which is why it’s so effective as a soundtrack to car chases; its speed is that of machinery.
Bill Monroe’s “I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky” trots along at a less manic clip, though it’s uptempo compared to the aforementioned “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” which he played in crooning waltz time until 1954, after which he played the Presleyed version. If an obsession with the Bluegrass State seems a key feature of Monroe’s music, that’s because it was; on the theory that the most effective national pop is that which is specifically local, he was a runaway success. (It’s a theory that has held up, at least in America; odes to places as specific as the L.A. suburb Compton and the capital of Georgia have been major hits in our own memory.) But “I’m Going Back” is a tale of reunion after a long absence, where “Blue Moon” is more straightforwardly about heartbreak; and again the recurrent 1940s theme of travel, of displacement and of a home which exists only in the mind, pops up. Monroe’s mandolin whine is the most distinctive sound of the song, but Flatt and Scruggs are there in the background with their locomotive chug, driving inevitably into the future.
The Stanley Brothers “Little Maggie”
Rich-R-Tone 423 • 1949
But Monroe was a child playing dress-up compared to the polished flint-and-granite duo who take the stage now. Ralph and Carter Stanley were actual hillbillies, poor boys who grew up in the shadow of Clinch Mountain and whose vocal styles owed more to poverty-stricken nineteenth-century practices — they were raised in the shape-note tradition — than to the theatrical slides, quavers, and whoops of commercial country. If country music, as we have fancifully supposed before, is the American opera, the Stanley Brothers werre Gregorian holdouts in a world of Monteverdis.
They were also veterans, actual soldiers come back from Europe who chose to go into the dangerous, devilish world of music-making rather than settle down on the mountain farm. Carter played guitar and sang lead; Ralph played the banjo and sang high harmony. They patterned their band, the Clinch Mountain boys, after the roaringly popular Blue Grass Boys, and became the first group to threaten Bill Monroe’s monopoly in the field, pissing him off mightily. (Vague intimations of theft and diluted trademarks were floated, but Monroe was ultimately too canny a businessman; in 1951 he just hired Carter, effectively splitting the group up. It didn’t last.) The Stanleys had a large audience in the Appalachians, where they were more popular than the big Nashville acts, though they never really crossed over into the larger national audience the way Monroe had. They were, in many ways, the ur-bluegrass outfit, finding the connection between old-time mountain music (always their preferred way to describe their sound) and the newfangled hotstep based on Earl Scruggs’ banjo wizardry.
Even after 1948, when Ralph adopted Scruggs’ three-fingered mode of banjo picking (he started out playing clawhammer, like every other hillbilly), the Stanleys’ music was notably more solemn, more unyielding, and more — there’s no other word for it — sacred than the usual good-times bluegrass. Their signature recording, “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” 1950, is indicative of the tone of their career — spare, stately, and certain as hellfire. The Louvins, by comparison, are vaudevillian showmen. Ralph’s appearance in O Brother, Where Art Thou? singing the Spartan chant “O Death” a capella was only the capper on a career of grim theologies and hard stone stares.
From its first notes, “Little Maggie” sounds different from the blithe major-key hoedowns that precede it here: it’s a traditional Appalachian folk tune, derived (it is thought) from “Darlin’ Cory,” a murder ballad from the nineteenth century. Unlike the composed songs of Monroe and Scruggs, it’s not in a standard key at all: like much traditional folk, it’s a modal song, in what the Greeks would recognize as myxolydian mode. This gives it (to Western-trained ears) an air of mystery and haunted loss only reinforced by the soft-spoken, give-nothing-away performance by Ralph Carter, in a rare solo turn on vocals. And Art Wooten’s fiddle break calls back not only to the damp-fog Appalachians, but across the wine-dark sea to the dim memories of heath and moor, to the Scots-Irish origin of all American folk.
That road, overgrown with kudzu and cloaked in Spanish moss, will not be travelled again in these pages — and won’t be seriously revisited until the 1960s, when a new generation goes looking for an authentically American sense of mystery to match the psychotropic trips of London and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, there’s always the blues.
Moon Mullican’s Showboys “Lonesome Hearted Blues”
(Moon Mullican, Lou Wayne)
King 565 • 1946
The Maddox Brothers & Rose “Move It On Over”
4 Star 1240 • 1947
If rock & roll is about giving outcasts, individualists, and eccentrics who simply won’t fit into any received mode of doing business a place to have their say (and there’s a pretty good argument to be made that it is; at least, enough people have said so that it’s worth using as a premise), then Moon Mullican and the Maddox family were two of the most rock & roll acts in pre-rock & roll history. The fact that Mullican anticipated Bill Haley by ten years and the Maddoxes anticipated the Sonics by twenty is a mere afterthought.
Aubrey Wilson Mullican (you can see why he changed his name to Moon first chance he got) was a Texas piano-plunker who didn’t care whether he was playing white music or black, straight country or rhythm & blues or any point in between, and who had been knocking around the Lone Star circuit for nearly a decade before he formed his own band. At various times he was the first guy to sing a truck-driving anthem (Ted Daffan’s “Truck Drivin’ Blues,” recorded with Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers), the first country artist to record pop standards like they were any other song (Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”), and the first person to bring Cajun music to a national audience (Harry Choates’s “New Jole Blon”). A barrelhouse pianist from way back, he was seminal in the development of honky-tonk style piano — which is basically boogie woogie over a two-step or a waltz — and kept an r&b saxophone player in his band for the uptempo numbers.
“Lonesome Hearted Blues” is the natural evolution of blues in country music begun by Jimmie Rodgers in 1928 (in fact, sardonic lines like “Nashville’s fine, but Houston’s finer/Birmingham I just can’t use” might have been written by Rodgers himself), a boogie woogie blues song with a fluttery pedal steel floating in the back of it. Mullican doesn’t take it at the hard-rocking pace he often used live, but his fingers, dancing nimbly in ragtime patterns over the keys, give a hint as to what the teenaged Jerry Lee Lewis, stuck in rural Louisiana, was listening to with all his might.
Young Rose Maddox and her older brothers Cliff, Cal, Fred, and Don were, if possible, even more catholic in their approach to music, taking anything that might get them a shot at being heard. Alabama-born but settled in California (the Joad archetype raises its head again), the Maddoxes combined the bad taste of both worlds and dressed in outlandish matching outfits designed by Nathan Turk, Hollywood western-wear costumer and the immediate predecessor to Nudie Cohn’s even more outrageous Nudie suits. (Think Gram Parsons on the Gilded Palace Of Sin cover, or Porter Wagoner ever.) Their fashion sense was matched by their no-holds-barred performance style, cranking western swing so far into overdrive that a spring or two breaks, and then cranking some more.
“Move It On Over” was a fairly ordinary Louisiana shuffle by Hank Williams; in the hands of the Maddoxes, it becomes an unhinged howl of aggression, anchored by Rose’s frankly sexual lead vocal and punctuated by Cal’s maniac falsetto laugh — like Bob Wills under the influence of Heath Ledger’s Joker — with overdriven guitar-boogie solos and weird pedal-steel sound effects meant to echo the canine conceit of the lyric. They don’t sound right, in the hillbilly sense of sane, but they clearly don’t care — and, of course, they’d be vindicated by history. Even the sub-par acoustics of 4 Star’s botched mastering job mean that they’re the first low-fi act, returned to time and again not because of the clarity of their sound but because of the urgent, unrepeatable selfhood of their performances.
Merle Travis “Dark As A Dungeon”
Capitol 48001 • 1947
When in 1972 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band invited Merle Travis to record “Dark As A Dungeon” on their triple-LP Will The Circle Be Unbroken, it was the first time he had received any exposure outside of the Grand Ole Opry for nearly two decades, unless duet records with Chet Atkins count. And yet Merle Travis is so deeply central to the story of country music in the twentieth century that a list like this without him on it would be just plain wrong.
Not only did he introduce modern fingerpicking to country guitar — to the degree that hearing this song, here, in this place on the list, after all that has come before, has the effect of suddenly snapping the picture into clear focus; this sounds, as nothing else yet has, like something that you could hear on the radio today, or on TV, or in a coffeeshop, at least until he starts talking in that mixture of jes’ folks aw-shuckery and chuckly showbizness — not only, as I say, did he revolutionize guitar picking, but he drew connecting lines and made explicit, as no one else yet had or would until the generation of Cash, Haggard, and Nelson, the common threads that ran through all of country music, from western swing to bluegrass to old-time to honky tonk to Southern gospel to folk and beyond, to Bakersfield, countrypolitan, and outlaw. That he did all of this while battling alcoholism and depression is normal, if tragic, enough; that he did it while terminally shy and terrified of live audiences is something close to heroic.
He was in the middle of a golden run at Capitol Records recording material that fell halfway between western swing, proto-singer-songwriter folk, and Hollywood cornpone — a representative tune was “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” which stuffed as many radio-sponsorship slogans as he could find into a love song — when Lee Gillette, looking to replicate some of the minor success that folksingers like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Burl Ives had been having, asked him to record an album of folk songs from the old home country of Muhlenberg County, KY. Recording solo, on acoustic guitar instead of his normal electric band, Travis snuck two original compositions in between the “John Henry”s and “I Am A Pilgrim”s. The first, “Sixteen Tons,” contained one of the greatest lyrics in twentieth-century music, but would have to wait for Tennessee Ernie Ford’s booming voice and a clarinet hook to find its ultimate pop expression; the second was this song.
With a melody redolant of the hymns of his churchgoing youth, “Dark As A Dungeon” is a spare, crystalline song of resignation, despair, and fortitude. Without any of the black humor — “a lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died” — or righteous anger — “I owe my soul to the company store” — on display in “Sixteen Tons,” “Dungeon” is pure lament, envisioning no relief from the all-consuming oppressiveness of the mining life even after death, when the singer will “pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.”
Travis’s opening spiel about visiting an old family friend is part of the chatty conceit of the Folk Songs Of The Hills album. It sold poorly, and he would leave Capitol soon afterwards, dropping out to such a degree that his appearance in 1953’s From Here To Eternity could count as a comeback of sorts. But as with The Velvet Underground And Nico, all the right people heard the record and patterned themselves consciously or unconsciously on Travis’s low-key, catholic approach to country music. Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson were only the tip of the iceberg; it’s not too much to say that without Travis, post-Hank Williams country would not exist.
Tex Williams & His Western Caravan “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette”
(Merle Travis, Tex Williams)
Capitol 40001 • 1947
Johnnie Lee Wills & His Boys “Rag Mop”
(Johnnie Lee Wills, Deacon Anderson)
Bullet 696 • 1949
And so we come to the future. A future beyond bluegrass, beyond folk revivalism, beyond even rock & roll. We come, in fact, to hip-hop and techno.
Yes, those are ridiculous claims. Lemme ’splain:
“Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette” has had a second life as a novelty song, the kind of thing that gets dragged out of mothballs with a “gee whiz, weren’t things different Back Then” kind of attitude. Just the sort of infantilizing patronage that obscures how perfectly it answered the needs of its day back in the days when it was a hit record. For it was a hit record, and how: the debut record in Capitol’s brand-new Americana series, it hit the top of the country charts in the summer of 1947 and stayed there long enough to become the biggest-selling country record of the year — and then, as an afterthought, it spent six weeks at the top of the pop chart too. There’s more than just novelty at work in those kinds of numbers.
The record was produced faultlessly, packed with instrumental breaks — and every time a different instrument, from second-line trumpet to bandera accordion to mocking little swoops on the pedal steel — and its opening, a rush of descending upright-bass notes, is one of the most thoroughly modern things we’ve encountered yet. The Western Caravan is spaced and controlled in the same way that dictators like Phil Spector, George Martin, or Brian Wilson would later conduct studio musicians, as elements in a recording, not as players in a song, which is how they would have been live, drowning out Tex Williams’ conversational, pitch-perfect rhythmic talking. Or — let’s say it — rapping. Yes, it’s talking blues, not much different from what Pete Seeger was doing at the beginning of the decade, but Pete Seeger never imagined any rhythm section this tightly wound under him, and besides never had Williams’ sense of timing and rhythm. The two-step rhythmic backing is 1947’s version of the “Amen” break, propulsive without overwhelming Williams’ lazy, good-natured jaw.
Then there’s Merle Travis’s lyrics, a master course on how to construct pop narrative, spiced with vernacular slang and with a nagging hook of a chorus — again, not unlike hip-hop. The record’s novelty hook is that it’s about one of the most underreported aspects of pop life, smoking (and thereby tied in cultural memory to the midcentury peak of American tobacco consumption); but it turns out to really be about a guy who can’t catch a break, which is the most eternal pop theme of all.
In comparison “Rag Mop” (or, as the boys spell it out in the lyrics, “Ragg Mopp”), is just a dance song, and a particularly irritating one at that, with a nonsense lyric and a circular, not to say insular, melody. (Chart-watchers of the last twenty years might be familiar with the phenomenon.) Johnnie Lee was Bob Wills’ younger brother, and by far the less talented of the two, though he worked enough, both with his brother’s patronage and on his own merits, as to have quite a successful local career in Tulsa. The song itself, nearly his only composition of note, was only a moderate local hit; picked up by whitebread vocal group the Ames Brothers as part of a wave of western-inspired pop around the turn of the decade, the cover hit number one on the pop charts in 1950 — the last 78-rpm number one ever, as it happens. It’s a glossy steamroller of a single compared to the handmade goofiness of Wills’ original, the ridiculous square-dance calls turned into a college cheer in hickface.
And here again we butt up against the implacable hand of novelty; specifically, novelty dance numbers. The descendants of “Rag Mop” are legion, and include Chubby Checker, Toni Basil, 2 Unlimited, and Los Del Rio. Which may not seem like high praise; but a world without them would be a duller place. Which is surely the point of pop.
Scene Five: A Hand Me Down Broom
The last time we looked at the official, overground version of 1940s pop for any length of time was back in the first half of this list, when we suggested that Frank Sinatra in 1945 was at the tail end of a tradition of songwriting and interpretation which would be swallowed up bodily by the subsequent waves of vernacular pop on the one hand and prissy nostalgia-mongering on the other. But of course nothing ever really ends; Newton’s first law of thermodynamics doesn’t even apply in physics as much as it does in culture.
Anyone with a sensitive nose in the late 40s could tell that change was in the air; not only were the side streams of country/western and rhythm/blues gaining more and more traction, distorting the pop market by their very exclusion, but new technologies were coming into being, new methods of recording and disseminating the music which the country consumed. The long-playing 33 1/3 record was introduced in 1948; the 45-rpm single was introduced in 1949; within a couple of years, they would render obsolete the 78-rpm records which had formed the backbone of the recording industry for thirty years. Within five years, any recording format but the high-fidelity reel-to-reel would be obsolete, consigning a half-century of musical exploration and consolation to the dustbin of crackly, unforgivably low-frequency history.
The question before the committee was how to respond to the change, how to live up to the continual newness which history demands. We have before us six possibilities; they don’t represent the totality of ways in which the mainstream pop industry responded to shifting times, but they suggest the broad outline of one version of the future, the future of wood-panelled dens in the suburbs, where aging men and women sat after hard days at the office or the market with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and eyes focused vaguely on the middle distance.
The kids can have their rock & roll; but no sympathetic reading of history is complete without understanding just what it was that rock & roll displaced. What did it say to the millions of people who loved it? And can still we hear that today, a lifetime later?
Mary Martin & Chorus “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”
(Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II)
Columbia MM 850 • 1949
South Pacific was the show where Rodgers & Hammerstein stopped being just a pair of showmen who had kicked around the industry for a couple decades before discovering that they worked well together, who had produced one Americana-soaked smash (Oklahoma!) and a couple of well-received curiosities (Carousel and State Fair), but were only part of a larger Broadway tradition that also included fizzy gaieties, sharp-tongued satires, pure vehicles for uniquely skilled performers, and European fantasias. They were now the juggernaut of twentieth-century musical theater, an institution which produced sentimental, vaguely liberal, and humanity-free monstrosities of song, dance and stereotypes which could offend nobody and made them both immensely rich if not particularly happy. They were part of the midcentury middle-class consensus to such a degree that the soundtrack to The Sound Of Music remains the bestselling album of the era of Beatlemania on both sides of the Atlantic; and due to their transformative, totalizing effect, the Broadway stage would become virtually useless as a producer of pop music, producing instead music that strained toward art without commiting to any intellectual depth in either music or lyrics (Stephen Sondheim, as always, being the exception), and ultimately becoming just another subculture in a world packed with them.
All of which is a fiercely unpromising note on which to begin an examination of the silliest song in their silliest major show (except maybe for “Happy Talk,” which at least has the Captain Sensible cover on the pro side of the ledger). But to understand America in the midcentury, we must understand Rodgers & Hammerstein. For them, the empty spaces, the haunted consciences, the spirit that calls out damn and blast to all civilizing influence, Ahab’s desire to punch God in the face, the loner who wanders the night complete in himself and his damnation — much, that is, of what has made up our examination of the American spirit over the past eighty songs — do not exist. Their ideals are the suburbs, and comfort, and disturbances are expressed in domestic terms, and resolutions mean marriage and harmony and the gathering-in of like-minded community. There is no dissonance. Which makes their choice to adapt a book by James Michener, the ne plus ultra of the midcentury middleclass middlebrow, perfectly resonant. Michener was made for reading in wood-paneled dens, his books stocked not by characters but by personality-free carictures of humanity that the tired reader could effortlessly project themselves into. So are the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
So, too, is much great pop, the details left vague so that the widest possible variety of individuals can fill in their own backstory and emotional history. “I’m Gonna Wash That Man” is firmly in that tradition, giving voice to a specific sentiment in the most general terms Hammerstein can manage. It’s also as witty as he can manage, which isn’t very: “rub him out of the roll call” — ’cause, you see, they’re in the Army! get it? — and that, too, is important to the emerging America of the late 40s and 50s. It is the age of HUAC, of aggressive, homogenized normality, and wit, as one of those unpredictable, destabilizing forces in the world at large, is dispensible.
A comparison with the soubrette’s song from the other great musical of 1949 may be useful here. Lisa Kirk’s rendition of “Always True To You In My Fashion,” from Kiss Me, Kate is a typical Cole Porter composition, with subtle Latin ryhthms, a repetitive melody, and a chorus so simplistic as to get stuck in the head for weeks on end. It’s also full of wordplay and innuendo — as well as frank language like “hell” and “sex” — and is a late-period flourishing of the great comic songs of the 20s and 30s, when Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, and a handful of others drew from the pre-war collegiate tradition of light verse with complicated and unexpected rhymes and applied it to the sophisticated New York milieu which also produced such users of the language as Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Damon Runyon. In comparison, Hammerstein at his most high-flown is a lumbering ox, a Babbitt whose poetic ear goes no further than “change”/”range” and “switch/ditch.”
But there’s a more significant difference between the two songs. Lisa Kirk in Kiss Me, Kate played the soubrette, the second-female who ends up with the comic actor in musical theater tradition. Oklahoma! still retained that structure, with Ado Annie as the comic soubrette to Laurey and Curly’s traditional heroine and hero; but Rodgers and Hammerstein had ditched it by the time of South Pacific as an unrealistic holdover from operetta. Which meant that comic songs had no particular outlet and had to be parceled out catch-as-can. And since Mary Martin’s Nellie is the heroine of South Pacific, her comic number also has to make her a strong character. “Always True To You In My Fashion” is a gigolo’s song, in which Kirk spells out her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-esque proclivities, trading sexual flirtation for money and expensive gifts — but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her man, she giggles, flirtatious and unknowable to the end. It is perhaps a vision of femininity that only a curdled gay man could write. Martin, on the other hand, is straightforward and plain-speaking, ruthless but honest: if it’s not working, send him packing. Kirk’s life is dependent on the blindness, lust, and greed of men; Martin stands on her own two feet and is a portrait of competent, emotionally-mature feminism that anyone today should be happy to recognize. So it’s slightly depressing that her song isn’t quite as much fun.
Part of that may have to do with Martin herself, who it’s hard to read as an adult woman; not only does her long tenure as Peter Pan on American television starting in the 1950s militate against her, but her whole affect is prepubescent, reminiscent of Danny Kaye (one of the all-time great man-children) when she’s not playing Hollywood-glamor dress-up. She can’t quite achieve the brassiness required by the song, and sounds at all times like an actress singing a song than a singer conveying meaning through song.
Pearl Bailey “Tired”
(Allan Roberts, Doris Fisher)
Columbia 36837 • 1947
Sarah Vaughan “Black Coffee”
(Sonny Burke, Paul Francis Webster)
Capitol 38462 • 1949
Meanwhile, what of black America? Through patient work and the slow accretion of indisputable greatness, they have become part of America’s official pop story; Nat King Cole regularly tops the pop charts, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie are considered national treasures by at least enough people for the charges to stick, and Billie Holiday is in most critics’ opinion the greatest American singer alive. (Bing Crosby is showing his age; Frank Sinatra is not yet taken seriously. Besides, there aren’t many critics yet.) But rhythm & blues is still a juke-joint, chicken-shack noise to middle-class white America, and won’t make much of an impression until Elvis Presley and the Beatles transmute it. Jazz is an egghead’s preoccupation; even swing has died out, leaving Dixieland for the nostalgists and the effulsions of jive for reefer-smoking dropouts. And the blues? They have mostly disappeared as a living pop form for the imaginary white middle-class listener; folklorists, leftists, and ethnomusicologists have taken them over.
Still there are two ways in which black music can still be heard in the wood-panelled dens. The first is as cabaret, the second as the closest thing to a populist art song which a modern advanced civilization has yet produced, Edith Piaf aside. The lines between them blur and fade now and then; the torch song, for example, inhabits both worlds.
Pearl Bailey’s roots were in vaudeville and vaudeville’s downheel cousin burlesque, and even after becoming a Broadway star she retained a sly, low-rent persona that made her the ideal cabaret performer in the postwar era. She played assured women with fascinating hips, and her songs, both live and on record, tended towards winking and nudging — towards the end of the 1950s, her records came with titles like Pearl Bailey Sings For Adults Only, though she was never Rusty Warren and remained a credible jazz ’n’ blues performer all her life.
“Tired,” her signature song, isn’t in the least suggestive, but it is nevertheless thoroughly adult, evoking the malaise of working-class womanhood past the first blush of youth, feeling trapped by circumstances, by history, by men, and wanting more than anything else, “a lil’ change,” as Pearl puts it in one of the most subtly comic monologues in pop history. (Her lampooning of psychiatrists — “one a them rich people’s doctors” — presages what would become a full-fledged industry in the following decade, as the malaise spread unto the middle class.) It’s classic cabaret, wry self-contained performanced which tell stories and provide, if not laughter, at least recognition at our common human failings. And the downtempo backing tugs the entire production irresistibly into the future; the curlicues of electric guitar evoke the heady adult pop that stars like Julie London, Nancy Wilson, and Peggy Lee will be making in the 1950s.
“Black Coffee” is that adult pop, brought suddenly and magnetically into focus for the first time. It belongs only partly in lineage of the Great American Songbook; a handful of Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke tunes, with their spacious melodies and right-angle turns, are its most obvious predecessors. It belongs, in fact, to a rare and underinvestigated genre of music, made mostly in the 1950s but with echoes in every age, which we may as well call pop noir as anything else. With its tightly-wound orchestrations (the release when the full band suddenly lets out a blast!) and Vaughan’s cool, detatched vocals, the recording spools out like a doomed starkly-lit narrative, an Edward Hopper painting of a song in which emotions are thrown into sharp relief by their very understated nature. It’s a my-man-done-gone song which layers addictive behavior and bitter sexism into a brittle, hard-eyed mess of a protagonist, one who could be played by Barbara Stanwyck or Veronica Lake, no questions asked.
Sarah Vaughan’s turn introducing such a song is her “Strange Fruit” moment, the moment when a respected but not-very-well-known jazz singer (they called her Sassy, same as they called Charlie Parker Bird and Lester Young Pres) suddenly proved herself capable of transcendent art. Like Billie Holiday with her signature song, she could do so much more than this — although even this is difficult enough for most mortals; just try to match her range — and while Ella Fitzgerald generally walks away with the Greatest Singer award in the market of popular opinion, probably most jazzheads will admit that Sarah Vaughan was, on both a technical and an emotional level, better still. She comes at the song from so many angles she could be a German Expressionist; it’s due entirely to her vocal approach that the song, and many like it in the years to come (including many of its predecessors, which would be reanalyzed with her approach), is a harmonically-generous art song. Her microtones and slip-second timing will define the song, and all of pop noir in the years to come.
Peggy Lee will cover “Black Coffee” in 1953; as she did with Lil Green’s “Why Don’t You Do Right” and as she will do again with Little Willie John’s “Fever,” she will imitate a black performer so minutely that the white audience which has never heard the original will consider her a genius. She was a genius, and no mistake — but she doesn’t deserve credit for moves she never busted. Sassy’s original haunted the lower reaches of the chart for a few weeks in 1949; Peggy Lee’s became one of her signature songs, the cornerstone to her album of the same name — one of the first great albums of the LP era — and the only interpretation most people think of when the song comes up. Which is rare enough, now.
Anita O’Day “Hi Ho Trailus Boot Whip”
(Buster Harding, Ram Ramirez, Jack Palmer)
Signature 15162 • 1947
Mel Tormé “County Fair”
(Mel Tormé, Robert Wells)
Musicraft 5009 • 1948
The rarest of all options for official white pop as the decade slid into the 1950s was planned eccentricity, the rejection of pop norms not for the sake of comedy (which would simply be novelty) or for some desire for artistic legitimacy, but because you are forging a new kind of pop, one which ultimately doesn’t catch on; which it’s why it’s eccentric rather than visionary. Most of the rest of the work we’ll be dealing with later on down the list is visionary; these two songs remain firmly eccentric, bound to their time and place without being wholly of either.
Ladies first. Anita O’Day is, in lieu of a longer explanation, the greatest white jazz singer in history. (Partisans of Mark Murphy may dispute this; let them.) Her keen sense of rhythm and intuitive grasp of harmonics made her an ideal messenger of the bop gospel; her self-destructive alcoholism, heroin addiction — for which she served time — and general erratic behavior made her career almost as storied as that of Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, with the difference that as a woman — and a girl singer to boot — she had no respect without sales. So during the late 40s, as she expanded her jazz vocabulary from her already quite-impressive days with Kenton and Krupa, she also aimed for the charts, singing movie themes and pop songs in her own bop-oriented, highly rhythmic fashion. (She claimed that a botched tonsil surgery kept her from sustaining long notes and turning towards the hard-driving stacatto she became famous for, but her great records of the 1950s and 60s don’t quite bear this out. Regardless.)
“Hi Ho Trailus Boot Whip” has been called a novelty pop number — and it was a moderate hit — but if it was a sellout, it’s one of the strangest sellouts ever, along the lines of the Clash’s weird dub-folk record Combat Rock scoring them their biggest American hits. The song was written by a couple of guys in hard-swing, proto-bop trumpeter Roy Eldridge’s band (Eldridge is credited with the composition on O’Day’s label), and it’s hardly more than a bunch of changes and solos, with a lyric steeped in hepcat jive nonsense but weirdly transplanted to the Old West, like some bebop ancestor of Bungalow Bill and Rocky Raccoon. O’Day’s voice is not much more than a croak — she would work her instrument to the edge of laryngitis for much of her career — but she zips up and down the nonsense with such laid-back assurance that she sounds somehow both at rest and in flight. It’s not a particularly polished take — there’s a mistimed false ending, she absent-mindedly hums a snatch of a Louis Jordan song along with the backing horn chart during a sax solo, and the whole thing has the shambolic, barely-together air of a great Faces or Replacements performance, but it’s undoubtedly unique as an example of cool bop intersecting with the comic force of jive. On the pop chart.
In the 1950s and beyond, Mel Tormé was the distaff version of O’Day, a cool jazz singer who could improvise and erupt in startling torrents of rhythmic flourish with the best of them. But in the late 40s, he was still working his way out of the Velvet Fog, the nickname he had been saddled with by DJs in love with the way his sweet-grained voice caressed the accents of the hushed ballads he scored pop hits with, both with the Mel-Tones and solo. He was more than just another pretty voice, as he wanted to make clear. He could write — he famously co-wrote “The Christmas Song” (chestnuts roasting on an open fire, etc.) in order to cool off on a hot L.A. Day — and he wasn’t afraid of rhythmic variety or of goofball sentiment. In fact, his first major attempt to prove himself a pop auteur would be a 1949 album-length suite detailing the extensive charms of California in terms that might sound hyperbolic coming from a chamber of commerce. Concept albums hell, California Suite was one of the first all-star rock operas, even bringing in Peggy Lee on the second side for a meditation on the rough life of a hopeful actress fresh from the Midwest. It didn’t exactly set the world on fire — it was too cornball on the one hand, and too ambitious on the other — but it served notice that Mel Tormé would not settle for being another Dick Haymes or Eddy Howard. He had bigger fish to fry, and would.
But before even that, he had been feeling his way towards an extended version of pop. Called upon to provide a song for a forgettable Disney movie in 1948 — So Dear To My Heart, farmboy hokum featuring an animated lamb — he and his songwriting collaborator Robert Wells came up with “County Fair” for — you’ll never guess — a scene set at a fair. It was sung in the picture by Ken Carson; there was no particular reason why Tormé should record the song himself, except that he could, so he did. The result is a miniature masterpiece of gee-whiz Americana, full of down-home sentiment and taken at a surprising clip, with whiplash tempo and key changes, over which Tormé’s silky croon glides as effortlessly as a lark on wing, with a game orchestra evoking everything from marching-band to carousel to dreamy fugues. It lasts 4:33, a minute and a half longer than the standard pop record — an eternity in DJ terms — and was of course completely ignored.
Eccentricity can only account for so much, however; sooner or later, someone’s going to have to have a hit.
Frankie Laine “That Lucky Old Sun”
(Beasley Smith, Haven Gillespie)
Mercury 5316 • 1949
Planned eccentricity rarely works as a mechanism for pop success; but eccentricity that doesn’t know it’s eccentric, just barrels on through regardless, is far more unpredictable.
On paper, it wouldn’t seem that a guy born Francesco Paolo LoVecchio in Chicago who sang in a big-voiced cod-operatic fashion would be the likeliest candidate to kick off a wave of Western-inspired pop with a song written in frank emulation of “Ol’ Man River,” the greatest fake Negro spiritual this side of “Summertime.” Those three (at least) strains of American music which don’t tend to collaborate much. But that didn’t bother Mitch Miller, the svengali behind the worst trends in the midcentury homogenization of pop, who knew a hit when he heard one.
Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie’s most notable previous effort had been the kitsch standard “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” so it’s a little ironic to see this work noted as (Trad.) on some ignorant-ass websites. Put it down to the sturdy planks of hymnlike melody and vernacular phrasing — Laine’s “mornin’,” “nothin’,” “cryin’,” “linin’,” etc. shouted “folk” to most ears at the time. Within five years, a recent military dischargee from Arkansas would be singing it at his audition for Sun Records, which is some indication of how quickly it had seeped into the popular consciousness, overground or no. Like “Ol’ Man River” and “Summertime” before it — and precious few other songs — it’s become part of the American folk unconscious despite being written in New York for the publishing money by an effete bunch of urbanites.
Which puts Frankie Laine’s original version in the slightly ludicrous position of sounding like it’s slathering unecessary pomp on an old standby while it is in fact just the only way Frankie Laine ever sang a song, and this one happened to become a standby. It is also, production geeks may be interested to note, one of the first recorded uses of echo on a pop song for a non-“spooky” effect; the early, hushed verses have a resonance that Laine’s voice alone couldn’t have provided. We have reached the era of master tapes; from here on out, slowly but inevitably, the studio will become the primary instrument of pop.
But here in 1949, it’s just part of that nascent wave of dramatic Western pop, along with Vaughn Monroe’s “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky” and Laine’s own follow-up, “Mule Train,” which will be the last pop number one of the 1940s and the first of the 1950s. “That Lucky Old Sun” directly preceded it in the charts, the penultimate number one of the decade, a rousing blast of clean-scrubbed, big-voiced workingman’s despair.
Scene Six: Hold Back The Dawn
And breaks the dam, and the deluge comes, sweeping all before its path, the world we knew and the world we thought we knew, together drowned in the same all-consuming torrent of noise, noise noise boiling up from the underground, from the shacks (chicken and shotgun and all-night and love) of the backwoods, the brothels of the cities, the lonely trails in the swamps and on the uplands where men don’t congregate or if they do they don’t talk about it later. Highway 61, where a man can get rid of anything, including his troubles, his thirst, his reason, his virginity, his bloodlust, his immortal soul (or even a cartload of broken telephones and shoestring), driving through the heart of the triangular Delta, the unknowable shape. It’s on the currency; it’s imprinted on the female body; it’s the source of all temptation and the gateway to all satisfactions of the flesh. Here the devil holds the cards and calls the trumps; all we damned are just dancing along for the ride, as long as the music plays. When it stops, the silence howls too loud for sanity, which is why it’s so damn loud in the first place.
Rock and roll. Yes yes. The phrase, neatly Chaucerian in its compact alliteration, has been around forever. The motion of a boat at sea; the motion of uninhibited dance; the motion of sexual congress. Or, equally, of an epileptic fit. When the spirit moves, you don’t ask questions. We are all at sea, each in the lifeboat of our own bodies. What is there to do but dance and fuck and shake? How else do we know we’re alive?
It’s a lie to say that rock & roll comes from New Orleans. It’s also a lie to say it doesn’t. The epicenter of all Delta traffic, the end of every road, the humid jointure between the thighs of the South and the West — if America is a woman, New Orleans is her womb. (Diseased probably, and unwashed certainly; but oh how fertile.) The mythology of New Orleans is the American dream, refracted through the reality of American sin: multiple cities, Anglo, French, Spanish, Creole, Negro, living on top of each other in what passes for harmony in bars and bordellos. You’ll get robbed, cheated, and shot, but by God you’re beholden to no man. Jazz was born here, or at least nursed at the city’s generous bosom. So too ragtime — and boogie woogie — and the blues — always transformed, always made funkier and slipperier by the city’s moist fecundity, its constant carnival of mulatted, octorooned, piebald humanity. And when the raucous sounds coming out of Nashville and Memphis and St. Louis and Kansas City and a hundred other points North and South and East and West went out looking for a place that would take them in, they just followed the fall of water and came home.
Professor Longhair & His Shuffling Hungarians “Mardi Gras In New Orleans”
Star Talent 808 • 1949
John Lee Hooker “Boogie Chillen”
(John Lee Hooker)
Modern 20-627 • 1948
Life’s an everlasting party; life’s a drunk in the gutter; life’s, as many a philosopher has remarked before now, a bitch. But don’t we love her just the same?
What are the sounds that go into Professor Longhair’s stew? There’s the blues, for starters; thence the harmonic boundaries and the strophic structures. There’s ragtime, the pulse of rhythmic variation over a steady beat. There’s second-line jazz, jazz as it was played in those bygone (not bygone) days on the way back from the funeral, everyone playing his own thing but hitting the downbeat together, whompity whomp. There’s boogie woogie, the rangy, clustered piano style that rocks hard in the bass and piles up jump on jump. There’s a country whine, a Cuban rumba, a Cajun half-step; and there are things that derive no man knows whence, which in the unscrupulous argot of the Quarters are called Zulu or Injun or Voudou. New Orleans being a port, not everything comes from upriver. The whole world is free to inseminate her.
Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, street hustler and saloon pianist, was called Professor in the wiseass way that anyone with an unusual skill set or knowledge base was, back in the days when nicknames flowed like wine. And he was called Longhair because, once upon a time, it was true. By the time he was rediscovered in the 1970s, it was so otherwise that one of his signature tunes,“Bald Head,” stopped being about a woman and became autobiography. But he was not yet a New Orleans goddamn institution the way he later became, in the days of rediscovery moved by the grateful and omnivorous nostalgia of the Woodstock generation, when he cut a handful of sides at the end of the decade for a fly-by-night out of Dallas, calling his band for no good reason the Shuffling Hungarians. His songs would have been by-the-book boogie blues numbers, except for the Cuban and other Caribbean rhythms he regularly deployed (heard here with a clave player right out of backwoods rumba), except for the specific localisms he engaged in — even namechecking Rampart and Dumaine, the crossroads where he happened to be recording — which would go a long ways towards making him a New Orleans institution, and except for his cracked, unusual voice, which he deployed in country slides and broke nonchalantly into whistling whenever it suited him.
“Mardi Gras In New Orleans” was the best of those early numbers, and a year later he would record it again for (or it was reissued by; the takes sound extremely similar) a new record company started by a Jew and a Turk. He would record it a third time in 1959, whereupon it would become the official forever ’n’ ever soundtrack to Mardi Gras.
Meanwhile, up the river — all the way up, then over across land and lake to the enormous city-wide factory — in Detroit, a man born in the heart of the Delta had bought himself an electric guitar and picked out snaking one-chord riffs on it, in a fashion that musicologists would later connect with Eastern traditions from Persia and India and call drones. He is the second-greatest bluesman to emerge in this chapter of history (the first is four entries down), and he is singing, though he has been a grown-ass man for a couple decades and has not seen his mother in fifteen years nor ever will again, about sneaking out from under the watchful eye of his strict religious upbringing to go to the Henry Swing Club and boogie woogie. (The father in the song is more sympathetic: “It’s in him, and it got to come out.” Our guy learned to play the guitar from his stepfather, of which his real father the Baptist minister disapproved mightily.) He is singing all this — or talking through it conversationally over the repetitive single chord that sustains the whole song — and his guitar comes alive, sputtering and spurting out little mini-solos that in their concision and restraint are more alive than whole reams of scale-ranging jazz solos. It’s all about context, as any 70s rock fan knows; what would be lunkheaded in a prog band is heroic in a punk one.
Like Professor Longhair, John Lee Hooker will go on to have more success in the years to come and even become an institution, playing the blues and boogie into the years of feathered haircuts, of day-glo skinny ties, and of electronic raves. But unlike ’Fess, he’s having success right now too. “Boogie Chillen,” his debut record, went to number one on the R&B chart in the opening months of 1949, something that would have been unthinkable back when those charts were instituted way back in 1942 to keep the pop charts lily-pure and nothing but croony big-band numbers filled the Harlem Hit Parade, as Billboard condescendingly called it. (Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” even topped it, that first year). The naked Delta blues was not a sound pop was yet prepared to deal with; it never would be, quite. Like all music of reputed authenticity, the blues has its own mythology and its own immortal heroes; that John Lee Hooker managed to pull off the trick of being both an immortal blues hero and (however briefly) a pop star.
Stick McGhee “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”
(Stick McGhee, J. Mayo Williams)
Atlantic 873 • 1948
Lonnie Johnson “Tomorrow Night”
(Sam Coslow, Will Grosz)
King 4201 • 1948
It’s in the water; it’s in the air; it’s in the blood, a new generation rising. Except its first heroes are middle-aged men groping around for a hit, blind in the dark like any of us, latching on to what seemed to work for others, figuring out how they can process it through their own sensibilities and sound, having limited success in one town and slapping it down on record — maybe it’ll strike a chord.
And maybe not. Stick (sometimes written as “Sticks”) McGhee was the brother of Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry’s partner in folk-revival crime, but unlike Brownie he didn’t have a long-lived career; this song and a few more like it are about all he had to show for a decade in music, mostly in the Southern circuit (which naturally included New Orleans and maybe more importantly northern Louisiana, where a skinny blond kid crazed with the sounds of r&b was playing piano in the family church). His big hit was, of course “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” the last four syllables a nonsense substitution for what, it is claimed, was sung in live juke-joint just-us-men-together situations as “motherfucker.” Stick was only thirty years old, but he’d be dead in another decade; after a string of similarly alcoholic hits (and, increasingly, non-hits), he succumbed to lung cancer and was gone, leaving Brownie (who appears here on backup vocal) to carry the McGhee family legacy. But it’s that hit that’s made him, if not immortal, at least hard to forget.
For drinkin’ wine, spo dee o dee or no spo dee o dee, is the necessary requirement for rock & roll. Without alcohol, without the loosening of inhibitions, readiness to engage in destructive (self- or otherwise) behavior, and lowering of standards encouraged by drunken fogs, rock & roll could never have happened. (The same is true of jazz during Prohibition and hip-hop in the golden age of bluntedness.) The postwar years represented the great alcoholizing of America. It was the era of the six-martini lunch, of men who had been through hell in Europe drinking to forget, and of secret nips behind the cupboard door even in suburban fairyland. Of course, in the class strata where rock & roll came from alcohol had been the drug of choice for millennia, ever since the magical properties of hops and fermented grapes had been discovered. And the subject would become a mainstay in the ethos of pop music ever since, from Jerry Lee Lewis’s own amphetamined cover of Stick McGhee’s song through the Mothers’ little helpers, sweet leaves, gin & juices, and bottles of Cristal that would populate pop music ever since. Drinkin’ wine, motherfucker, drinkin’ wine could be a hook today; and if no one would add “bop, bop” at the end of the line that’s only because bop is no longer the most futuristic sound we can think of.
From drunken carousing to teenage wistfulness is the precise degree of the turn that made rock & roll a force in popular culture, rather than just another underground music that got its kicks and awaited the next development. (Viz. jive.) “Tomorrow Night,” in its harmonic structure, in its hushed production, and most importantly in its heart-on-sleeve lyric, presages the rock & roll ballad in all its forms, from “Pledging My Love” to “Teen Angel” to “Surfer Girl.” It’s a tremulous, self-aware lyric, written (as it happens) by a couple of Tin Pan Alley hacks a decade ago, but as flush with adolescent heartbreak and angst as any Goffin-King or Mann-Weill composition a decade hence.
But Lonnie Johnson was no teenager; and there’s a tension in the recording between the plaintive innocence of the song, its longing and scared guarding against heartbreak, and Johnson’s plain, unadorned and slightly flat vocal, the voice of a man who is long past the age of fuss and ferment. He had been recording since the mid-1920s, when his plain blues voice was a marker of authenticity, and the fact that his biggest hit is here, on the eve of the 50s, violates all the laws of pop set down by those who equate pop with youth. (It’s not actually unusual, however; think of the careers of Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart in the 90s. Or of Ron Isley in the early 2000s.) Johnson was nearly fifty when he recorded “Tomorrow Night,” and if his voice doesn’t sound as anxious as, say, Elvis Presley’s on his 1954 cover, he reads the “your lips are so tender/your heart is beating fast” with exactly the right amount of gentle dignity; any more lascivious, and he’d be a dirty old man.
The song, as has become customary in this leg of our journey, hit number one on the R&B chart, and was in the top 20 of the pop chart, and by applying blues rules to a pop tune, functions as one of the original rock & roll covers. This way to the Flamingos, the Beatles, and David Bowie.
Fats Domino “The Fat Man”
(Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew)
Imperial 5058 • 1949
Muddy Waters “I Can’t Be Satisfied”
Aristocrat 1305 • 1948
And this way back, again, to New Orleans, the center of gravity in early rock & roll as it was in early jazz and would be again for a bit in the funk era. (The Meters. Allen Toussaint. Etc.) Where a heavyset piano player named Antoine Dominique was playing in a band led by a multitalented arranger, instrumentalist, songwriter, and A&R man named Dave Bartholomew. Antoine had a bright, clean voice (with interesting slides and gasps in it left over from the French Creole that was his first tongue), and a full, rollicking piano style that borrowed as much from classic jazz pianists like Fats Waller and Albert Ammons as from the close-to-home piano professors like Longhair and Champion Jack Dupree.
It was Dupree who wrote — or rather, first recorded and got credit for — the song that was the basis for “The Fat Man.” An ex-boxer (thus the name), Dupree cut “Junker Blues” in 1941; as the title suggests, it was about a heroin addict, and taken at a standard blues pace, wasn’t much different than any number of dope-addict, drinkaholic, and sex-minded blues that had been cut at varying levels of interpretability for three decades. Fats and Bartholomew cleaned up the lyric to turn the song into a jolly anthem of self for Dominique, whose family went by Domino, and who from childhood had been called, with the usual generosity of childhood, Fats. And their band — particularly drummer Earl Palmer — kicked the song into overdrive, adding a heavy backbeat. Fats always declared the song wasn’t any different from the stuff he’d been playing and hearing all his life, but the boffins who study such things say that this is the first record in history with a backbeated rhythm (where the beat falls on the two and four, rather than the one and two, which was the traditional structure of 4/4 rhythm) all the way through. As such, it’s one of the clearest nominees for “first rock & roll record,” though as we have noted too many variables have been present in any music called “rock & roll” for any single musicological, thematic, or even technological shift to be definitive.
Anyway, its primacy wouldn’t matter if it weren’t also a great pop record; and trust Bartholomew for that, it was. Number two on the R&B chart, it sold a million copies and ensured that backbeats would crop up everywhere from now on. And with Fats’s falsetto “wah wah” solos, it even had a memorable, unusual, even weird, hook. This was not your father’s music; this was music you could get dirty to.
It was (yeah I’m using this transition, however forced it may seem) his fondness for getting dirty as a child that gave McKinley Morganfield his nickname “Muddy.” He added the “Waters” himself, possibly after the 1927 Bing Crosby hit “Muddy Water” (pop begetting pop, as it would continue to do for the rest of known history), and picked up the guitar at an early age in frank emulation of the two biggest names in the rural Delta of the mid-1930s, Son House and Robert Johnson. But it wasn’t until Alan Lomax, in his neverending quest to unearth the real and true American music, stopped by his house in Lovall, Mississippi in 1941 and recorded a couple of songs that he realized he could get paid for this kind of thing; that he, too, could make records and be one of those brilliant, faraway people on the radio.
Chicago has always been where Delta musicians looking to make it big went, ever since King Oliver and Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for its bright lights and illegal hooch. And north Muddy Waters went, hooking up with other transplantees from the South like Big Bill Broonzy. Eventually he acquired an electric guitar in order to let his playing be heard as well as his booming, heavy voice was in the noisy Chicago clubs. A couple of Polish kids starting up a nightclub and a record label called, briefly, Aristocrat took a chance on him. His “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” a free adaptation of Broonzy’s number of the same name — so free it didn’t even follow the traditional AAB blue structure, just wandered where it would as Muddy’s fuzzing, squawky electric guitar squeezed out some of the first sparks in the electric revolution — picked up a bit of buzz and became a local hit, especially among all those Southerners who had come to Chicago to make good, building one of the nation’s great neighborhoods along the way.
Those Polish kids would soon rename their record label after their own Americanized name, and Chess would be one of the four or five greatest labels in the history of American music. The electric blues — despite T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and a generation of black men wiring up their own amps — begins here. As do, naturally, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and fifty years of rock & roll. If you’ve ever loved an electric guitar solo, Muddy Waters is the one to blame.
Wynonie Harris “All She Wants To Do Is Rock”
(Wynonie Harris, Teddy McRae)
King 4304 • 1948
This leg has been remarkably short on what one might call the signature sound of the 1940s: the horn section. But rock & roll could never have been developed without it.
Today the standard instrumentation of rock & roll is guitar-drums-bass. But in the 1940s, guitar-drums-bass meant blues — or, possibly, country. But the men who first developed the beat, the themes, and — there’s no real substitute for this word — the attack of rock & roll played in jump blues bands. The electric guitar only took over from trumpet lines and saxophone solos once amplifiers and distortion tubes proved that it had the same sustained, brute force as only massed horn sections could have provided in the days before everything was close-miked and mixed to within an inch of its life. Imagine, for example, the horns in this song being replaced by guitars. They’d have to be some pretty wicked, nasty guitar lines — like nothing that was ever heard in the 40s — to compete. But of course that’s far from the only feat of imagination this song inspires.
For here we have it explicit: all she wants to do is rock. You can, if you have a pure mind and generous nature, believe that “rock” here refers to a kind of dance. And I suppose it does; but it’s a very repetitive one with small, tight gestures, generally performed in a horizontal position. Even the actual dance craze name-checked in the song gives the game away — Paul Williams’ “The Hucklebuck” was popular as much for its rhyming potential as for its qualitative attributes.
Wynonie Harris was one of the biggest names in jump blues by this point, having sung on a string of hits, including Lucky Millinder’s smash “Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?” and his own cover of the aforementioned Roy Brown’s “Good Rocking Tonight,” to which latter song this one was a sequel of sorts. In the fashion of most sequels, it was made even bigger and more explosive than the original. Harris’s opening shout, a canny incorporation the title of a famous book/movie of the decade, calls on time itself to stop; something big is going on here. Female sexuality, indeed, is the biggest deal the lyrics can imagine; but it’s Harris’s own virile swagger that is communicated by his voice, the stomping lurch of the music, and the series of builds and releases represented in the lines “rooooock and roll all night long.” He’s perfectly capable keeping up with her, says the music and his own raunchy vocal, even when the lyric suggests he can’t take it any more and has to settle into the premature decrepitude symbolized by the rocking chair. (cf. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair,” Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather,” etc.)
If you listen closely, you can hear the breath control and overmasculinized growl that would inspired the young Elvis — although Harris believed the young honky also stole his dance moves, making him unemployable (for why would anyone need a black guy when a white guy can do the same thing?) and contributing to the slow unwind of Harris’s own career. The truth is, he was left behind by history, as all but the most fortunate or canny are. For he was ultimately a jump blues artist, and the jump blues were never going to stand still; they had to mutate into something more. It’s their whole point.
Rock and roll, roll and reel, reel and rock. The dominance of that particular strain of pop is something to be decried, now that it’s in its own decrepitude; but the liberating, forward motion it represented to minority populations in the late 40s and early 50s — and then to just about everyone in the late 50s and early 60s — cannot be imagined. It has to be heard. Which is part of the reason this list is structured as it is; without a thorough grounding in the pop status quo, its overthrow is meaningless. Hopefully some glimmer of that narrative has reached through the fog of these rambles; to my ears, it’s present in the music itself.
The sun is setting; what last flashes will show themselves in the strange half-light as the 40s draw to a close? To catch our eye now, they will have to be curious indeed.
Scene Seven: Que Le Arde
The inner dialectic of American history is in stark black and white; Kodachrome has not yet reached our deepest instincts. Especially in the arena of popular music, we think automatically of black music as the earthy, honest alternative to the composed white mainstream. But this is a false representation of history — as all dialectics ultimately are. There have always been colors outside that narrow range. Those who seek to explain America in terms of black and white are doomed to failure (which includes some of the abovegoing), for black and white both are strangers to these shores, and red and brown have watched for centuries in relative silence.
This part of our tale does not deal with Native Americans, who have made dispiritingly small contribution to the story of American music (through, obviously, no fault of their own; even the chattel slavery of Reconstruction allowed space for the blues to develop, while natives in the same period were caged and herded like animals and made to forget their own names). Their voices will not be heard until the 1960s, and even then will largely be shunted aside as irrelevant or uncomfortable.
But there is another America, one which usually goes forgotten and unseen, because it shares a language and a culture with the countries to her south, rather than with those to the north and across the sea. Speakers of Spanish inhabited the West for centuries before English-speaking settlers arrived, and any authentically Californian or Arizonan or Texan music will have more in common with the music of Sonora and Chihuahua and Sinaloa than with anything that boils forth from New Orleans or Kansas City or the far-distant New York. In fact, the first conjunto records were made in Texas by Texans ca. 1935, and the great midcentury stars of Spanish-language screen, radio, and record were as likely to be born in the southwestern United States as in Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, or Spain.
Latin music has always had a submerged but tangible presence in the American stream, for as long as there has been an American tradition to speak of. Not only the “Spanish tinge” which Jelly Roll Morton identified as essential to early jazz (which is an adaptation of the Cuban habanera), but successive dance crazes from Argentina (the tango, 1913), Brazil the maxixe, 1914), Cuba (the rumba, 1931), Brazil again (the samba, 1939), and Cuba again (the mambo, 1943) swept American music, giving it, particularly at the mainstream pop surface, a glittering sheen of motion and tropical accents which fit in well with the jet-setting, playboy image maintained by the icons of overground pop. And with the cha-cha-cha, bossa nova, salsa, and merengue just around the corner of history, those “Spanish tinges” will become so much a part of the mainstream dialect that rock & roll’s black-and-white purism will paper over all such exotic inclusiveness, with the determinedly minor contributions made by Ritchie Valens, Carlos Santana and Los Lobos acting as tokens obscuring a submerged universe of activity.
The contemporary pop discourse has found room in within its borders for reggae, highlife, yé-yé, krautrock, shibuya-kei, bhangra, soca, and trópicalia; yet the many Latin pop streams are generally confined to the ghettos of their own cultural space. I send these missives from that Southwestern world; let them acknowledge, in at least this minor way, what is increasingly obvious to my own ears.
Cuarteto Don Ramón “Pachucho Boogie”
(Don Tosti, Raúl Díaz)
Discos Taxco 108 • 1948
Tito Puente & His Orchestra “Ran Kan Kan”
RCA 20-5829 • 1949
Edmundo Tostada Martínez was born in El Paso, Texas, just across the river from Juárez, Mexico, which in those days was culturally if not officially the same city, before angry white Easterners began moving west and grumbling about all the Mexicans speaking Spanish and working jobs. Calling himself Don Tosti after a promoter ran out of room on a handbill, he was an accomplished jazz and dance bassist, and toured with Jack Teagarden before fetching up in Los Angeles after the war, where he became part of the nascent Spanish-language recording industry.
Ernesto Antonio Puente was born in Harlem to parents who had recently immigrated from Puerto Rico and had been U.S. citizens for six years (ever since the Jones-Shafroth Act granted all Puerto Ricans citizenship — though without representation, which undemocratic circumstance continues to this day). Long known by his nickname Tito (a common abbreviation of Ernesto), he was drafted in 1942, fought in nine naval battles, and upon discharge, went to Juilliard on the G.I. Bill, where he became a fixture in the happening New York Latin music scene.
In 1948, Tosti and his band were kept late at a recording studio after the singer they were supposed to back didn’t turn up. The producer, hoping to recoup the cost of the session, asked Tosti if he had anything they could record. With his drummer, Raúl Díaz, and pianist, Eddie Cano, Tosti came up with a groove and improvised a lyric in the slang-heavy canó dialect of Mexican Spanish spoken by the young zoot-suit-wearing hipsters of the border region. (Modern urban ears may be surprised to recognize the words ese, orale, and tirili, still in usage among the vatos of the Southwest corridor today.) Díaz took a scat solo and sang the chorus: “Boogie/Que le arde el boogie” (“let the boogie burn”) in what manages, between the jump-blues rhythm, the jive language, and the riff-heavy piano playing, to be the first-ever Spanish-language rock & roll record, beating almost every English speaker to the punch.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Puente was making a name for himself as an energetic player of the timbale, the Cuban two-drum-and-cowbell instrument which under his virtuoso sticks was taking an ever more important role in the mambos, modified rumbas, and other Afro-Cuban compositions played at the Palladium dancehall in Manhattan by the great Cuban bandleaders of the era including Desi Arnaz, Machito, Beny Moré, and the legendary Arsenio Rodríguez, many of whom were simply importing the hits which they had had in Cuba to a new audience — both other immigrants and curious Americans. The architects of bop regularly showed up to hear the new Afro-Cuban sounds, and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and even Duke Ellington would incorporate more and more of the Palladium’s music into their own, until in the 1950s “Latin jazz” became a distinct and endlessly fascinating genre of its own.
RCA knew an emerging scene when it saw it, and snapped up the young Tito Puente to record a series of records which they incorrectly called mambos. In fact, what Puente did when he had the chance to strike out on its own had no real predecessor in the New York Latin scene. His heavy emphasis on polyrhythms and fast dance numbers would in time be understood as salsa (a name he detested), and it is an all-American music, made in New York City by Americans who happened to have Latin ancestry. “Ran Kan Kan” was the first hit in this new formulation, and it sounds strikingly modern even today — perhaps the most modern-sounding thing on this list, at least for those who have an ear for Latin pop forms — singer Vicentio Valdés’s call to “suéname los timbales” (“let me hear the timbales”) unleashing a fury of sound that would have no Anglo analogue until the era of cut ’n’ paste electronica.
These are two distinctly different worlds: the pachuco of east L.A. and the Nu Yorican of Harlem would not come together until the mid-1960s, when boogaloo married the riff-heavy R&B that the pachucos loved to the ryhthm-heavy salsa of the Eastern corridor and the politicized Chicano movement was born. Still, you can hear premonitions of Eddie Palmieri in the piano lines of “Pachuco Boogie,” and “Ran Kan Kan” was an international, not a local, hit.
Today Billboard divides its Latin charts into pop, regional (i.e. rural Mexican) and tropical (i.e. Caribbean) genres. This is not unlike what it did in the 1940s with pop, country, and R&B — and rock & roll’s dissolution of those boundaries would have its own echo in the Latin pop being made today by a global, decentralized industry.
Miles Davis & His Orchestra “Venus De Milo”
Capitol 1221 • 1949
In 1947, a trumpeter in Charlie Parker’s quintet decided he wanted to move beyond the industrialized rush of bop. A classically trained musician himself (he too went to Juilliard, though he dropped out disgusted with its Eurocentrism), he envisioned a kind of jazz that spoke as much to eternity as to the moment, a rigorously-formed and developed music which bowed to the demands neither of dance tempos nor of virtuosic flashiness.
In collaboration with a revolving cast of New York-based composers, arrangers and instrumentalists, he developed this sound in a nine-piece format that struck a balance between the big bands of swing and the small combos of bop. With Gil Evans’ lush arranging style as a key element, and composing contributions from baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan, he began rehearsing and playing around town, feeling his way towards a sound which — like everything he ever did — he would later abandon in search of even more concrete and meaningful forms of expression. He is one of the great guiding spirits of twentieth century music. He is Miles Davis, yesterday today and forever.
The nonet recorded three times, each time with varying personnel. In January 1949 they established the format; in March 1950 they expanded the vocabulary. But in the April 1949 session they perfected the sound which would later be known as “cool jazz,” once it had been picked up by the West coast scene and turned into wallpaper music. (Which is immensely unfair to Dave Brubeck, etc. But as we say, by then Miles was already reaching for other stars.) In the 1950s, the West coast scene would be a focus of controversy in the jazz arena, largely because of its racial makeup — white people, the line went, couldn’t make proper jazz. The Davis nonet, of course, was thoroughly integrated; not only were Evans and Mulligan white, but Lee Konitz (alto sax), Bill Barber (tuba) and Sandy Siegelstein (French horn) would become West coast jazz mainstays, while J. J. Johnson (trombone), John Lewis (piano), Nelson Boyd (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums) would explore their African heritage in jazz form for decades.
“Venus De Milo” was one of Mulligan’s contributions to the experiment, its title a play on Davis’s first name and its imaginative harmonic leaps one of the most elegant jazz compositions yet created. The main melody is as adventurous as any bop composition, but the relaxed pace and thoughtful structure of the piece make it the jazz equivalent of a suite by Debussy or Satie; this was music that intelligent adults could lose themselves in, without the aid of amphetamines or hormones or the racial adventurism which had given jazz its low-life kick for two generations. It is also, incidentally, the piece of music in the leg of our journey most likely to get stuck in the head. A count against it in the bop snobbery of the period (as memorable tunes are dismissed by all snobberies, including modern indie), but as any Broadway producer knows, if you don’t have them humming the songs on the way out, you don’t have a show.
Stan Kenton’s Orchestra “Thermopylae”
Capitol 15052 • 1947
The Thelonious Monk Quartet “Epistrophy”
(Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke)
Blue Note 548 • 1948
But cool was far from the only direction jazz was headed in the late 40s; after bebop kicked down the doors of the jazz-as-dance-music orthodoxy, it was free to develop in as many directions as any art music ever has. Like the explosion in classical music following Stravinsky and Schoenburg after the first World War, and similar explosions in the late 60s (art rock, to be reductive), and from the late 70s (various global punk/downtown/free scenes) to our own day, when a vast engine of continually self-renewing avant-garde production burbles away under the skin of every imaginable style of music, jazz in the late 40s was limited in the directions it took only by the imaginations of those who practiced it. Market limitations would come later, as record companies discovered what listeners would and would not tolerate, giving rise to the boutique labels of the 60s and 70s; for the moment, the biggest pop labels in the world were interested in issuing the latest from the most forward-thinking men (nearly always men, sigh) in any movement going.
Pianist and big band leader Stan Kenton, as we’ve seen before, had been interested in calling his music “progressive jazz” since the mid-40s; but it wasn’t until he hooked up with a composer and arranger named Bob Graettinger that he recorded anything worthy of the title. Graettinger was an ambitious young composer hoping to make his name in any format that would have him; he offered Kenton his short composition “Thermopylae” (released under the name “Thermopolae” by an illiterate record company) in 1947, and nothing like it had ever been heard in the world of jazz before.
The song is a Stravinsky symphony — or a full Bernard Hermann score — smooshed into a pop record’s three minutes and change. And not one of the easy Stravinskys like Rite Of Spring, either. A dissonant, electrifying chart makes excellent use of the high, “screaming” range that Kenton so frequently demanded from his trumpet players, while strings scrape in fractured, angular figures underneath. Breaks into woozy, lyrical patches offer some relief from the unaccustomed harshness, but it remains as uncompromising, bracing, and individual a modernist vision as anything from the pen of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, or Arnold Schoenburg would ever be.
It was not, to say the least, received well. Kenton, though, had enough hits under his belt that he could afford to ignore sales at least for a while, and gave Graettinger more work scoring a June Christy ballad, “Everything Happens To Me,” which was released in 1949. But it was 1951’s album suite City Of Glass that was the high water mark of the Kenton-Graettinger collaboration, and its failure both commercially (not enough hummable tunes) and critically (Down Beat couldn’t follow him where Ornette Coleman had not yet lead) sent Kenton back to more conventional swing material, which he maintained until his educational work — he is more or less the founder of academic jazz — put him permanently out of the pop business.
Thelonious Monk found a somewhat happier reception with “Epistrophy,” though his notices were still very much mixed. “He can’t play,” was the usual grumble; and certainly Monk’s technique was as far from the classical ideal as possible, short of just banging on the keyboard with balled-up fists. Self-taught and for the most self-motivated, Thelonious Sphere Monk (his full, actual birth-certificate name) came at jazz composition and performance from an angle that no one had imagined before and precious few could imitate since. He clusters and percusses; repeats himself indefinitely, then shoots off at an abstruse angle to a place where he almost rides off the rails of the rhythm, the entire harmonic structure of the song teetering over one misplaced note, and finds his way home by the least likely path. He’s usually called one of the founding fathers of bop, but he’s in a school of one; nobody except those equally eccentric has ever attempted to follow in his footsteps.
Blue Note Records had been around for nearly a decade by the time they got Monk into the studio, but they had principally been a boogie woogie and traditional jazz label, unable to secure the more advanced artists until big-band saxophonist Ike Quebec joined the label as a talent scout and A&R man. He was the one who angled for Monk, got him, and stuck him in a studio with a bunch of jobbing jazzbos who cut swing, bop, trad — whatever would get them work. We’ve met vibraphonist Milt Jackson before, adding mysterious accents to Dinah Washington’s “Pacific Coast Blues” — here, he’s second only to Monk himself as the primary architect of the recording. The sweet, gauzy sound of the vibes helps to obscure just how radical a composition “Epistrophy” is: a main theme that’s just a stop-start pattern on the keys, chromatic ascents and descents during the solos, a shuffle rhythm that never resolves into a beat. It’s the sound of hard bop coalescing from the fragments around it, and it’s the sound of Thelonious Monk (whose record company issued it as the B-side to the much more palatable Bud Powell tribute “In Walked Bud”) finding himself for the first time.
It also, in its title, contributes to the continuing intellectualization of jazz. Charlie Parker had got there first with “Ornithology” (a riff on his nickname, Bird), but Monk’s blum-ba-dum, blum-ba-dum figure acts as the musical equivalent of the literary epistrophe: a repetition at the end of successive phrases. Louis Armstrong snorted; these kids were getting too big for their britches, throwing around Greek and Latin phrases like they were butter. But forty years later, a bunch of kids in New York anxious to discover some heroic meaning in the tale of black America, latched onto it gladly. “And even epistrophy/And this is real history,” quoth Gang Starr. None realer.
Les Paul “Lover”
(Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart)
Capitol 15037 • 1948
And so to the future.
Capitol 15037, Mx 3207, “Lover” b/w “Brazil,” is the beginning of history. Without it, enormous swathes of pop are simply nonexistent. The Chipmunks, Pet Sounds, “It’s Gonna Rain,” Perrey-Kingsley, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, Frippertronics, DJ Kool Herc, “Strings Of Life,” Loveless, “Xtal,” In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, “Baby One More Time,” Kanye West, Chinese Democracy, all of it — gone. And everything in between. Sure, someone somewhere would eventually have got round to multitrack recording. The intersection of pop and technology does not suffer for want of geniuses. But it was Les Paul who did it; and as though to prove that it wasn’t enough, he threw variable-speed recording into the bargain. Again, the world as we know it, the world that includes “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” same as it includes “Groove Is In The Heart” and “Lollipop,” starts here.
“Lover” is a Rodgers & Hart song from the 1932 movie “Love Me Tonight,” where it’s sung by Jeannette MacDonald in a bit of comedy that involves an unruly horse. By 1948 it had become something of a standard among the hard-swing brigade, though if you want to hear it in what some might call its native habitat, look up Peggy Lee’s 1952 version, Latinized and gorgeous. It is, in other words, a comfortably familiar song, hardly the kind of place we’d look to find avant-gardism rampant.
Musically, Les Paul doesn’t follow anyone’s lead, particularly — there are no paths where he’s going — he just takes it at a swoony, moderate swing, throwing in multitracked, variable-speed accents here and there, and it all sounds very sweet and sparkly and even a bit twee from the other side of the millennium (there’s a spot where he even makes the guitar sound like it’s giggling, ferchrissake), until 1:07, when the guitar says enough of this swooning and spooning, let’s rock, and it does and it’s awesome. The drums (also played by Paul — among a cavalcade of other firsts, this is the first record where one man plays a full band’s worth of instruments; Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and Billy Corgan eat your hearts out) shift into double-time, and the guitar revs into such gear that it no longer sounds like a guitar, it’s a blur of sound (paging Eddie Van Halen), accented by a thick chopping rhythm (paging Pete Townshend) and, even still, a sprinkling of twinkly, feather-light notes on top of it all (paging well, every pop producer ever, from Phil Spector on down).
It’s this back minute-forty that make the song jaw-dropping in more than a theoretical sense: working with handmade acetate disks — the number he recorded and destroyed before he was happy with the finished product is unknown — in a production bunker built by his own two hands even after his right arm was set in a permanent crook following a life-threatening car accident so that he could still cradle and play his guitar, Paul invents, because he can, synthetic music. For the first time, sounds which no instrument can create — sounds which have no vibrational existence before being technologically manipulated into being — are given voice, and turned into a pop song. This is Louis and Bebe Barron in 1950, Wendy Carlos in 1967, Kraftwerk in 1973, Afrikaa Bambaataa in 1982, Timbaland in 1998. This is pop as we know it, and everything that has gone before is prelude and falls away before our ears.
The record did well enough to qualify as a hit, giving Paul even more scope for his technological wizardry. He was among the forerunners in developing magnetic tape as a recording medium — the foundation for multitrack recording for generations until digital recording became cheap enough in the 1980s to become widespread (though it’s still commonly used today) — and had pop hit after pop hit by multitracking his wife Mary Ford, who sang in harmony with herself. (Though the technique had been pioneered by Mitch Miller recording Patti Page in “Confess,” one of the few songs cut from this list for space.)
And oh yeah, he developed an electric guitar which was named after him. The clean, sparkly tones of his handmade guitar are what give “Lover” its particular sheen; only after its success did Gibson agree to begin manufacturing Paul’s solid-body design. But that rather pales in comparison — other people built electric guitars, after all. Nobody else invented eight-track recording before there were eight-track recorders.
And as the 40s crumble to dust and ashes under the weight of technological change, we speed in the gloom towards the waiting 50s, towards Communist witch-hunts and beatnik bikers and Newport festivals and Sun Studios and Technicolor and Panavision and the Kinsey Report and rock and roll and Brown v. Board of Education and television and High Noon and Sputnik and science fiction and everything this decade has been building to, ever since bombs were dropped in a Hawaii harbor and kept dropping until the mushroom cloud appeared over Hiroshima. America is deeply uncertain about her future; there are ugly, angry noises rising from the right, noises which will boil over into HUAC hearings and book burnings and, in a decade even brighter with space-age hope, bullets which strike down charismatic men who dare to say that all men are created equal. The neon splash of pop, the snarling verité of rock, the ecstatic howl of soul, the angry honk of free — these things await.
Dawn comes, as dawn does, and we still do not know where we are. Nothing has changed; except the seas and the lands and the heavens. And somewhere, in all this immense space, lies an America still waiting to be born. As of this writing, it has not yet. But there are signs.
Epilogue: That Ribbon Of Highway
If you have kept faithful count, you know that we have made our way through only ninety-nine recordings. There is one straggler still on the road, journeying with us to the rising sun.
Woody Guthrie “This Land Is Your Land”
Asch, unreleased • 1947
It is the national anthem, and it lies in waiting for the America that will someday sing it with one voice. Arthur only sleeps; he will return when Britain needs him most. So it is with Woody Guthrie and his most beautiful and dangerous song.
But until then we have a lot of national anthems, as befits a nation of such size and variety, and the official one is the worst of them all, which is only fitting for a country that prides itself on its greatness in all things and loathes its government. Apart from its other routinely-mentioned defects — it’s unsingable, it’s about a minor war, and even the story told about its creation, which is the only thing it has going for it, isn’t true — “The Star Spangled Banner” is schlock enshrined as piety. Which should be no surprise — we’re a nation of hustlers and nouveau-riche climbers, and our taste is as suspect as our intentions. We make things and sell them; whether art is involved doesn’t impact the bottom line, and only vaguely interests us. We know what we like.
The first national anthem, “Yankee Doodle,” probably should have been retained, its goofy air of cussedness and the cheerful fuck-you attitude that allowed Americans to adopt it after the British sang it in mockery remaining wonderful evocations of the American spirit that has persisted in all the great pop production that made America the cultural force for good it has been in the world: American music, comics, movies, television, and comedy has always been chasing after the deliriously bizarre image of “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” ever since the meaning of the word changed. But of course it’s not self-serious enough for the other American spirit, the prim and proper spirit, the one that wears the top hat that, in the elemental American gag, gets knocked off by a chance snowball. It’s those people, in every country, who demand real national anthems, ones that can only be sung by choirs in four-part harmony with big brass accompaniment, rather than whistled by a kid walking barefoot down the road.
The other two early nineteenth-century anthems — “America The Beautiful” and “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee” — are far more coherent as tunes and sentiments, but they’re still too sappy, and one of them even borrows the melody off “God Save The King/Queen.” Royalist treason! but of course that too is part of America; few Britons can manage to be quite so Anglophilic as a certain breed of idealistic American, as nineteenth-century lecturers, writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and anyone who ever argued on the internet about Britpop all discovered to their profit (or detriment, depending). And then there are the anthems of the Civil War — “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “Dixie” — both of which have great sentimental value and are calibrated to offend and annoy at least half the population of the country. The self-righteous abolitionist fervor of the “Battle Hymn” would, that end accomplished (and once they been emancipated, fuck ’em), move on to the next moral horror destroying the nation: alcohol consumption. Which obviously turned out well. As for “Dixie,” well, the sovereign irony of the slave-owning South marching to war singing a song written from the perspective of a free black man (even if he does pine for the ol’ plantation) is its own reward.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” combines the best of both worlds, the moral fervor of “Battle Hymn” and the democratic underclass perspective of “Dixie,” but the fact that none but black children are taught it (and not many of those, any more) has to date kept it from being embraced by the widest possible audience. And so into the twentieth century.
The penultimate national anthem is, of course, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the one that still gets sung at seventh-inning stretches not because anyone wants to but because everyone is too afraid of being called unpatriotic to suggest cutting it and just doing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” which was good enough for our grandfathers, who kicked Hitler’s ass, for God’s sake, but I digress. In fact, the obnoxious omnipresence of “God Bless America” is a direct echo of the circumstances surrounding it: Berlin, who famously never wrote a song unless he felt its sentiment keenly himself, wanted to write a patriotic song to lift America’s spirits out of the Depression. The ghetto-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants who despite not being able to read music or play in more than one key became the most popular and beloved songwriter alive in America, he was honestly grateful to the country which had given him the opportunities which he, with a sharp-eyed hustler’s instinct for the main chance, had grabbed onto with both hands. “God Bless America,” especially as sung by the big, blowsy-voiced alto Kate Smith, became the de facto national anthem, especially once we got into the war and pietistic nationalism was the order of the day throughout popular culture.
In New York, a fellow-traveling Okie who loved nothing more than reinventing himself, unless it was sticking it to capitalists, was sick and tired of hearing Kate Smith boom out “God Bless America” every ding-durned day on the radio, practically as regularly as a station identification. In fact the more he thought about it, the more pissed off he got. It was capitalist Republican humbug, and mawkish to boot. It was, in fact, better suited to a sentimental Eastern European parlor than to the grinning, wiry-muscled, cigarette-dangling, and dirty with the dirt of many roads America which he knew, or believed he knew; like most idealistic autodidacts, he believed implicitly in the truth of his wide experience. He’d write one better.
He recorded “This Land Is Your Land” for Asch for the first time in 1944, and played and sang it everywhere he got the chance, encouraging others to do the same. It wasn’t formally published until the 1950s, and even then came with the copyright legend “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” (Woody really was from rural Oklahoma, but he embellished the nonstandardness of his dialect as much as possible out of perversity and a leavening sense of fun.) He snarkily subtitled it “God Blessed America,” accent on the past tense, meaning His work is done, it’s up to us to figure out and implement the best use of what we’ve been handed, rather than waiting on Biggest Brother to sort out our shit for us.
But the real spirit of the song isn’t in its hail-fellow-up-yours rejoinder to Tin Pan Alley, or even in its infamous anti-capitalism verse (a version of which is included in this cut of the song, though not as direct as in some takes). In its broadminded embrace of the vastness and variety of the nation, it’s the first national anthem since “America The Beautiful” to describe patriotism as a love of the country rather than the civilization. It’s about the land, and the people on it, not the government or the military or the moral rectitude or even the culture, popular or otherwise. And Guthrie’s plainspoken directness even avoids the picture-postcard prettiness and sentimentalism of “America The Beautiful.” Instead of amber waves of grain (symbolizing the agricultural wealth of the Midwest), there’s a plain ribbon of highway; instead of fruited plains (which doesn’t even make sense, the plains are barren, that’s what makes them plains) there’s a golden valley. Everything, that is, exists in potential, not categorical, terms for Woody.
And America at its best, at its most honest and fundamental core, is also a nation of potentiality. It’s why we developed film and comics and recorded music into such uniquely immediate narrative forms. To pluck (say) Cary Grant out of history, to capture and preserve him forever in The Philadelphia Story or Arsenic And Old Lace or Bringing Up Baby, is to give the finger to death and decay. The slow decline and sudden shock of nonexistence have no place in movies, except as part of an intelligible, sane moral order. Dorothy Parker’s bon mots can live forever, even as the witty pixie of the 20s becomes the alcoholic bitch of the 50s and 60s; Bing Crosby’s golden, reassuring burble on record can establish a corner of idyllic harmony in which he never abused his kids or fucked anyone over; Krazy and Ignatz can keep hurling bricks and sonnets at each other into infinity even as George Herriman’s ashes blow across the pink mesas. Movies and records and yes printed material too establish miniature universes in which the unresolved tensions and categorical evils of this one need not apply; all art is artificial, and all pop is art.
That potentiality of America is, in the end, what I love about her. It was not actually an obvious choice for me to limit this list to “American recordings” — Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet in France, Lord Invader and Lord Kitchener in Trinidad, Arsenio Rodriguez in Cuba, Lucha Reyes in Mexico, Osvaldo Pugliese in Argentina, Dorival Caymmi in Brazil, Britten and Vaughn-Williams in England, and the sweeping sea change of modernist composition throughout Europe all continually urged me to expand the rubric. But I have come within the last several years to accept the fact that I love my country (the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of a youth spent abroad with a clear view of her cruelty and arrogance needs no further elaboration), and it is the music she has given the world that has reconciled me to her. This, I thought, should be explained. I have attempted to do so.
But I would not be misunderstood. I do not, as this narrow focus on the 40s might suggest, only love America in the sepia-colored tones of the past (although the fatal ease with which it’s possible to ignore the unlovable aspects of the past remains a continual temptation). I no more love what she was than I love what she is; and what she is — a nation of self-satisfied gluttons addicted to shrill nonsense and perfectly willing to destroy the planet in the name of convenience and profit — is of all possible nations the least lovable.
But of course that is not all America is. Nothing is ever all America is. So because I love her potential, I love her infinite variety; every version of America is possible in such space. From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters. From California to the New York island. The sparkling sands of her diamond desert. The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling: either alone is intolerable, smug fatness or apocalyptic despair, but together they sum up the contradictions, the extremes, the combination, in every imaginable ratio, of great evil and great good, which means America. As it means everywhere. To be a true patriot, as G. K. Chesterton noted, is to embrace all the earth in one’s fierce pride of place, because our common humanity is, at last, our only refuge from the darkness which howls within us and without.
This is why I listen to the music of the 40s, and of every era, why like any good history obsessive I rage against the forgetting of anything however trivial; the more opportunities we have to connect, to observe and embrace our common humanity in all its difficulty and squalor and pretension and meaninglessness and fragile beauty across the street or across the ocean or across the ages, the better we’ll be. This is the very opposite of the art snob who thinks that exposure to the Great Works of Humanity makes him a better person; it’s exposure to humanity period that does it, and that humanity is present in everything.
America, fuck yeah. Copulation and affirmation. Ain’t nothin’ more American, ’cause ain’t nothin’ more human. Happy trails, motherfuckers. See you round the bend.