the soul of American music, laid out, explained, delineated and personalized, brilliantly
July 28, 2012 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Goddammit it, I wish I'd written this deliciously nail-on-the-head, brilliantly insightful and sweeping overview of American musico-cultural history, seasoned with heavy dollops of personal remembrances and observations that I identify with so much that it's almost scary. But alas, I didn't. Still, I'm really, really grateful that William Hogeland did: Coons! Freaks! Hillwilliams! : 200 Years of Roots-Rock Revival (a Memoir).
posted by flapjax at midnite (20 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I wish I'd written this

Yeah, great essay.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:19 AM on July 28, 2012

all i can say is that in 1970, i preferred the jackson five to bob dylan - i came to roots music AFTER i'd been thoroughly brainwashed by am top 40 radio, tempered by my exposure to my dad's collection of big band 78s - as i was learning about roots music i was listening to european prog bands like elp, yes, gong and amon duul 2 and catching up to the old san francisco bands ...

i'd play the college coffeehouse and freak people out by covering steve miller and the commodores, badly

disco happened - i hated some of it and loved some of it - then punk happened

even as i've learned some of the roots music and incorporated it into what i do, it's just hard for me to identify with the mentality and experience he describes here - the jackson five drove him and his friends up the wall?

hell, i liked the COWSILLS and the MONKEES

i just don't get it, even though i recognize that he's describing something very real, insightfully

i'm glad i listened to the top 40 first
posted by pyramid termite at 9:57 AM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

i just don't get it, even though i recognize that he's describing something very real, insightfully

I think it was more of a tribal thing than something that had any relationship to the quality of the music.

Between about 1972 and 1977, I listened exclusively to r&b and soul music because I felt then (and still do) that european prog rock and it's US equivalents were completely and utterly dire.

That choice put me at odds with pretty well everyone else in my tribe, who tended to feel much like this guy did about the Jackson 5.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:39 AM on July 28, 2012

A very nice article, but I wish American musicologists would stop cutting off the world at the border. Jazz in very large part comes from Cuba (so does a fair bit of rock'n'roll). And "American music" includes a ton of norteño and cumbia and salsa and a hundred other Latin styles, and the places where mestizo Latin re-intersects with African-American is one of the most interesting places of all.

Also, The Cowsills and The Monkees are every bit as authentic and real as The Jackson 5, or Leadbelly, or Woody Guthrie. Really, they were all in exactly the same game. If you are a middle-class white person, middle-class white music IS your soul music. And every kind of music is fake and commercial in its own way; blues, country and folk are urban simulacrums of a remembered rural past, not an authentic extension of them. Simulacrums are the only thing that is real. And a lot of the time, the cheesy pop stuff is what survives, because it's the closest to our real selves.

I love the fact that some of the "folk" tunes Alan Lomax collected were actually Tin Pan Alley songs that he wasn't aware of because he didn't respect commercial pop music -- but the "folk" did.
posted by Fnarf at 11:35 AM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Good stuff. Side note: Foster made almost no money from his work. At 37, he was living almost penniless in NY's Bowery when he fell, hit his head and died. Two weeks after writing Beautiful Dreamer.
(SHOF bio)(PBS Bio)
posted by Twang at 12:03 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed the writing style, but this just wasn't my story. I was a DJ on my high school radio station from 1970-72. I played requests from stay at home moms for the Hawaii 5-0 Theme along with The Carpenters,Townes Van Zandt, Velvet Underground and Freda Payne. Our "tribe" was pretty open- probably the only thing we didn't like was Lawrence Welk. Sorry to act like an oldster, but it was different then. Everyone listened to radio and radio played a real mix of music.
posted by Isadorady at 3:12 PM on July 28, 2012

You really have no acceptable excuses.

Time! And the lack thereof!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:17 PM on July 28, 2012

>Time! And the lack thereof!

@flapjax There's your book title. Now hit it!
posted by SNACKeR at 8:05 PM on July 28, 2012

Is 'Coon' not as offensive as I imagine in the US?

I had no idea Oh Susanna has a lyric “killed five hundred nigger”, but I'm wondering if that's a more famous phrase. I've a song somewhere that uses a sample of a guy speaking that and "we goin' burn down America".

I've always assumed it was some southern preacher, but now I am wondering if it's a more famous (or infamous) speech from the US' Mississipi Burning era.

Unfortunately searching isn't helping (but people still seem sore about the President's election) and I can't remember which song it is.
posted by Mezentian at 8:45 PM on July 28, 2012

Mezentian: "Is 'Coon' not as offensive as I imagine in the US?"

It's just as offensive as you imagine. Only a blithe musicologist would use it that casually, I believe.

This is an interesting article regardless.
posted by koeselitz at 9:37 PM on July 28, 2012

Is 'Coon' not as offensive as I imagine in the US?

Yes, every bit. But the sort of people who blacked up for minstrel shows, or turned out for them in droves, tended not to share that view.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:38 PM on July 28, 2012

Using it in the article wasn't quite so shocking (there's a time and a place and this is arguably one), but I was stunned to see it in the headline.

It is an interesting article. Not my kind of music, but I have been exposed to it and I've sent it around to some people who will love it more than me.
posted by Mezentian at 9:42 PM on July 28, 2012

Seeing it in the headline bothered me. What bothered me more is the declaration which he begins and ends the essay with: "American song is coon song." Having paid attention to the essay, though, I can't possibly believe that he means that utter, nonsensical, offensively stupid bullshit. He doesn't actually mean that Bix Biederbeck scrabbling his way up to learn to play the trumpet as well as his black heroes, whom he truly admired, is exactly the same thing as him aping a negro walk to the Jackson Five in his high school lounge, does he? American song is absolutely not coon song - not least because, if it were, that would mean that the real, live, actual black people making music for two centuries have just been performing in a big grandified minstrel show all along.

And he can't really mean that, can he?

It seems like, no matter how broad or lengthy one's musical experience, generalizing it to cover an entire nation is almost always a pretty bad idea.
posted by koeselitz at 10:02 PM on July 28, 2012

(He discusses the jarring title briefly in the Notes on the Essay, for what it's worth.)
posted by koeselitz at 10:14 PM on July 28, 2012

> Jazz in very large part comes from Cuba

This is nonsense, unless by "in very large part" you mean "in small but significant part," in which case, sure, I agree. Very few American musicologists cut off the world at the border, though they may not give foreign elements the excessive weight some might like.
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is nonsense

African influences were making themselves felt on European music in Cuba before the Pilgrims landed. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the "Spanish tinge" which Jellyroll Morton described as an indispensable part of what separated jazz from not-jazz was a reference to the rhythms of Cuba, which became the rhythms of ragtime. Syncopation itself is a Cuban innovation. The slave gatherings in Congo Square in New Orleans was where American slaves met with exiles from Cuba (and Haiti) and cross-fertilized there with, among other things, the trumpet and snare of Civil War military bands. The great W. C. Handy, inventor of the blues, spent six formative months in Havana in 1900, listening to the Havana Guards Band and assorted street bands, and explicitly incorporating their rhythms -- the contradanza, rumba, the habanera, the tango, in ways that formed the bedrock of jazz back in New Orleans. There's a reason why New Orleans is where jazz arose -- because it was for centuries the northern entrepot of the Caribbean, which always centered on Havana.

If jazz is in large part an African music in the New World, it's important to remember that American slaves always numbered a very small part of the African whole, dwarfed by the numbers in the sugar colonies of the Caribbean.

Later, the central influence of Cuban music on bop through the interest of Dizzy Gillespie is well-known. Much of the rest of that influence is hidden by the curtain that was drawn across Cuba after the Revolution. Generations of influence and knowledge were cut off there.

In other musics, "Louie Louie", perhaps the archetypical rock'n'roll song, was stolen by Richard Berry from a Cuban cha-cha-cha, and Dave Bartholemew nicked the basic 50s bass riff from a Cuban rumba 78 he heard. And I haven't even started on other Latin musics, like the fact that the great Bob Wills played fiddle in a Mexican-American conjunto before he (or anyone else) ever played a note of Western Swing (which is a kind of jazz).
posted by Fnarf at 4:34 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fnarf: “Syncopation itself is a Cuban innovation.”

That seems like a rather striking claim. So they didn't, er, actually do syncopation in Africa? It's solely Cuban?

Moreover, nothing you've said here really justifies the claim that "jazz in very large part comes from Cuba." It might justify the claim that jazz was an amalgam of musics from all over the world, which I would agree with. That it simply and directly comes (in large part) from Cuba? No.

“... the rhythms of Cuba, which became the rhythms of ragtime.”

Another somewhat dubious claim. There was a lot more complexity to it than that – and while I agree that Cuba, along with Africa and a whole lot of other places, played a part, to simply say 'the rhythms of Cuba became the rhythms of ragtime' is sort of skipping over years and years of development.
posted by koeselitz at 6:57 PM on July 29, 2012

More to the point, I don't know any serious musicologist that claims that Jazz is solely or uniquely American, with absolutely no African or Cuban influences. Seriously, have you heard that from anyone anywhere? I don't feel like even this article does that.
posted by koeselitz at 6:58 PM on July 29, 2012

actually do syncopation in Africa? It's solely Cuban?

Whom do you think the Cubans are? Cuban influence IS African influence.

Bear in mind that black slaves in the US and the colonies it sprang from are a tiny portion of the total importation of African slave labor. Cuba took probably twice as many. And Cuba is where the directly African cultural experience was the most alive. Most American slaves were split up out of their regional and language groups not once but several times; most American slaves retained only a small portion of their native culture. Louisiana slaves had for the most part been forcibly marched across the country, probably several times; Louisiana was the end of a several terrible journeys starting from Charleston.

This was not the case in Cuba; in Cuba, the African religion, music, and culture was preserved to a much greater extent, as the slaves there were not marched a thousand miles and had not had their own culture stripped out of them. See, for instance, the cabildos (regional African ethnic associations) not only in Havana but in Santiago. Black people in Cuba still spoke African languages and practiced African religions and played African music in ways that American black people, both before and after emancipation, simply didn't.

A huge amount of this culture was brought to New Orleans from Havana. Realize also that Havana was a much older and much more important part of world trade than New Orleans in the period leading up to the invention of jazz. When freed American black people started to express their native rhythmic heritage, it was actually IN LARGE PART a Cuban creole creation. As I said, white Cubans and mixed-race Cubans were assimilating parts of African rhythm before any British colonist, let alone their slaves, set foot on American soil. Combined with the influx of Cuban culture -- Afro-Cuban culture -- into New Orleans, which for many, many years was not part of the United States but of the Caribbean, and you get a very different picture.

"In large part" doesn't mean "entirely" or even "mostly", mind you. But when the two most important figures in pre-jazz both can be demonstrated to have a large Cuban influence, that's pretty significant. The extent of this influence was indeed ignored or misunderstood by a lot of music writers in past decades. You won't hear Gunther Schuller say much about it; and most people who heard Morton talking about "the Spanish tinge" didn't really understand what he was talking about. But the truth is, understanding the African-American experience cut off from the 95% of the African-slave-trade experience that wasn't American is just wrong. And Cuba was for 400-odd years the undisputed capital of Africans and African influence in the New World.
posted by Fnarf at 7:52 PM on July 29, 2012

Well – a couple of things.

I think we mostly agree here. Generally, jazz owes a massive debt and much of its character to Cuba. I want to say a couple of things, though.

For one thing, I think there are complicating factors (although of course you seem to agree on this, too.) Specifically, more recent scholarship has suggested that the old trope that jazz proceeded directly from Africa to Cuba to New Orleans and thence to the rest of American may be somewhat questionable. Traces of raggy rhythms can be found all over the American south in the time, and even elsewhere; and it's been argued, persuasively I think, that instead this music sprang up in many places at around the same time rather than flowing directly from New Orleans. I can dig up some references for this at some point tomorrow.

Fnarf: “Syncopation itself is a Cuban innovation.”

me: “... actually do syncopation in Africa? It's solely Cuban?”

Fnarf: “Whom do you think the Cubans are? Cuban influence IS African influence.”

Well – not precisely, right? Cuba was not colonized by the Africans; it was a predominantly Spanish colony when Africans started showing up there. So you can understand that, at least on the surface, when you said that syncopation is a Cuban innovation, that sounded to me like you were drawing a distinction between Cuban and African. Which is a question some people have; you mention "Afro-Cuban culture." Interestingly enough, I thought to myself that I was sure Gunther Schuller had talked about this, and sure enough he has, but he seems convinced that any similarities between African culture and Spanish/Cuban culture are purely coincidental; from his Early Jazz: Its Roots and Development:
There is another theory most vigorously championed by Ernest Borneman to the effect that American jazz developed primarily from the Creole music of New Orleans, which in turn was a "Latin American music," spawned out of a mixture of African and Spanish influences in the West Indies and Caribbean islands. The Caribbean was used by slave traders as a stopover between Africa and the American South. Although Borneman's theory leads hi to the untenable position that the only true jazz is Spanish- or Latin American-influenced jazz, there are certain points in his theory that are worth further investication. It is true, of course, that many of the slaves came in contact with Spanish music in their stay of weeks or months or years in the Caribbean. It is also likely tha thte slaves found in the music of "Spanish and Portuguese settlers similarities [to African music] in the handling of rhythm and timbre." But I suspect that these were mostly superficial, concidental similarities, for it is a fairly undisputed fact that African and Arabic-Islamic-Spanish rhythms are two entirely different disciplines, the former polyrhythmic, the latter monorhythmic in essence. Mr Borneman thus seems to hasty when he concludes that "Creole music had a head start over the development of spirituals, blues and other forms of Anglo-African music."
So here, he doesn't argue that jazz is uniquely American and doesn't owe any debts to other nations; however, he does argue something that relates to what we were saying. That is, he argues that polyrhythm – syncopation – is not a Spanish/Cuban but an African innovation. But I think maybe that's what you meant, too.

Anyway, I find all of this very interesting, so I'm mostly just using it as an excuse to think about it at this point. It's intriguing. Oh, and one last thing:

“... and most people who heard Morton talking about ‘the Spanish tinge’ didn't really understand what he was talking about.”

Well, you can't really blame people too much for taking Jelly Roll with a grain of salt when he said stuff like that, given that the next words out of his mouth were usually '... and that's how I single-handedly invented jazz.' A lot of musicians (like Duke, for instance) knew he was the real deal in many ways, but it took a while for the actual musicologists to come around. Again, interestingly, as far as I know Gunther Schuller was one of the first musicologists who actually came out and stated that Jelly Roll really was flatly brilliant and deserving of accolades for inventing whole chunks of jazz, even if it wasn't entirely his idea.
posted by koeselitz at 10:43 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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