Utility to Recreation to History:
Folk to Pop to Art
In Finnegan's Wake the novelist James Joyce said, "Pastimes are past times." Communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan explained, "The dominant technologies of one age become the games and pastimes of a later age."
The observations of Joyce and McLuhan help explain the appeal of competitive sports. A caveman, for instance, got a meal by hitting a flying object, a bird perhaps, with a stick. The technology of food gathering served him well. Today, baseball players entertain large audiences with the same kind of skill, and the importance assigned to the act is measured in millions of dollars, because everyone is metaphorically (artistically) reliving the urgency of the original behavior.
Leaping over a creek or large stone may once have been necessary to escape from an enemy, and, to avoid injury, it was important to stay in the air as long as possible. Today, basketball players delight huge crowds with magnificent leaping skills, and devoted fans talk about their favorite player's "hang time".
All the "useless" skills of the modern Olympic stars – weight lifting, jumping, diving, running, throwing the javelin, and the others – had a function and "real value" at one time. Today they are sports entertainment.
Technology may even change, but the instinct will continue. When horses did the work on the farms, the county fair always included at least one horse-pulling match to see who had the healthiest and strongest team of horses. Today, those same county fairs have tractor pulls to see whose tractor is the "healthiest and strongest".
The same can be said for the arts. The useless skills of modern artists – painters, poets, sculptors, dancers, musicians, and such – all had a function and real value at one time. Cavemen put vivid pictures on the walls of their caves to protect themselves from evil spirits. Wandering tribesmen carried sculptured images of their gods for strength and confidence. Ancient storytellers sang rhymed tales of glorious tribal achievements to delight and inspire the village adolescents.
In opera, the tenor who sings highest notes with the most powerful and beautiful voice gets the attractive woman in the opera, and wins the approval of the audience members who partake of the experience in vicarious joy.
Making noises on taut strings and stretched skins served once to attract desirable game, or perhaps to repel enemy animals. Today classical violinists and jazz drummers offer wonderfully crafted solos – works of art which derive from those earlier utilitarian skills.
ART CATEGORIES AND TERMS
In an effort to draw some sense out of the bewildering development of artistic endeavors, Judeo-Christian art critics created categories of folk art, pop art, and fine art. They also made a distinction, sometimes, between artists and artisans, that is to say, between real artists and highly skilled craftsmen.
Music scholars have coined two terms to describe music: "vernacular music" (folk and pop music) as contrasted with "music in the cultivated tradition" (classical music). The terms help to avoid the negative tone which attaches to "folk and pop". And the terms are certainly a big improvement over previous times when classical music was called "serious music", to separate it from all that other stuff which was, somehow, "not serious".
But the terms still suggest that "cultivated" music is superior to music "in the vernacular", which by definition and long association means "down there with the common folk". The terms really do not get to the heart of the matter, either. Such marvelous tunes, for example, as Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" and Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" are certainly the artistic equivalent of an art song by Franz Schubert.
The whole process of assigning labels to, and, by implication, greater aesthetic value to, some forms of human effort over other forms has led to rather arbitrary opinions. Not too many years ago opera singers were considered "better" than jazz and pop singers. Ballet dancers were considered "better" than Olympic gymnasts and basketball players. Composers of classical music were considered superior to composers of musical comedy who were considered superior to those charlatans who wrote pop tunes. All of this is highly suspect today.
In The Anthropology of Music, a masterful exploration of the entire field of music, Alan Merriam found that "aesthetic value" is a notion peculiar to only certain cultures. Many societies have no such concept as aesthetic value. The natives of Bali, for example, do not even have a word for "art". They do everything as well – skillfully, beautifully, and meaningfully – as possible (Merriam 1964, 259-276).
The flower children of the 1960s challenged the notion that some forms of resourceful activity are a more valuable human experience than others. Since then, great progress has been made in giving all high-quality creative endeavors their just due, by whatever name.
FOLK to POP to ART
History seems to show that all the academic posturing on "art" is just that – academic posturing. The inescapable evidence is that certain human activities, absolutely essential for survival in one age, become the recreational entertainment of a later age, and finally become the high art of a still later age – that is, the behavior moves from folk to pop to art.
There is no such thing as "popular music" among many of the vast millions who live on the planet. In most non-industrial societies there are only two kinds of music: folk music and ritual music. Folk music includes the large body of utilitarian music for planting, harvesting, fishing, hoisting sails, humming babies to sleep, and for all of the other ordinary daily endeavors of life. Ritual music is music for religious and ceremonial occasions. Some of this music got very complex among the Aztecs, Incas, Egyptians, and other ancient societies, with special instruments, costumes, dancing, and a particular musical style.
But popular music simply did not exist through most of the eons of human history, nor does it exist today in many parts of the world. We may have Euro-American rock on the radios in Ethiopia, and I suppose also among the millions people who live on the island of Borneo, and possibly in the mountains of Mongolia. But very few people in those cultures are probably devoted full time to the business of creating music for financial gain.
"Folk music? Folk music? We're all folk, ain't we? I never heard no horse sing." That line, often attributed to Leadbelly, contains a profound observation. It is, in fact, all folk music. In Europe, that folk music got intellectually formalized for its religious utility in the hands of Pope Gregory's scholars, and later by Guido, Leonin, Perotin, and hundreds of their unknown compatriots, into works for the Roman Catholic Church and the various other Christian religions that were offshoots of it.
Later, the formal religious music became forever separated from its folk roots with the teeming lower classes by Guillaume Dufay, Francesco Landini, and their co-workers. It finally emerged as the high art music of Western Civilization in the hands of Josquin des Prez, Gilles Binchois, Orlande de Lassus, and many others who, in addition to writing for the church, turned out secular music for artistic pleasure – madrigals, chansons, and the like. The secular and religious forms expanded over time to become the concertos of J. S. Bach, the operas of Mozart, and the sweeping symphonies of Beethoven. The overarching term for music of this type is "classical".
It was not until the industrial revolution that a third category began to take shape – pop music (commercial). Although Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were most certainly being paid for their talents, it was only later that true commercialization of musical works began. The first copyright law for published books was established in England in 1710. As new technologies emerged, types of copyrights were created and capitalized on, to the point where, these days, we have multimedia companies who own film, music, performance, and other rights for songs that are seen and heard internationally. Although the background for "how we got here" will be covered, most of what will be discussed in this book will be about popular commercial music for the masses, in all of its wonderfully diverse variations.
These three categories, folk (communal utilitarian), pop (entertainment), and art (classical music of historical significance) occur in economic terms as well as social levels and the progression always seems to go from poverty to middle class to upper class.
POVERTY to MIDDLE CLASS to UPPER CLASS
Why do new music styles always originate in poverty? Fiske, de Certeau, Eco, and other pop culture scholars explain that "change can come from below: the interests of those with power [those above] are best served by maintaining the status quo" (Fiske 1989, 19). Of course. The establishment businessmen and gatekeepers of the arts like the world the way it is. They live above the teeming masses, and want to keep it that way.
Those in poverty, however, have no real clout in the world, and they carry on constant "guerrilla warfare" [de Certeau's term, quoted in Fiske] to sustain their own "opposition within and against the social order dominated by the powerful" (Fiske 1989, 19).
However, once the rebel guerrillas start a fresh war in the form of a new pop music style (with its attendant dress code, dance, and language), the power establishment always moves in to win the war by ingesting the enemy.
Whole books could be written on language, haircuts, clothing styles, music, dances, and social manners that first began in peasant-level and street-level poverty (either real or self-chosen bohemian), then moved into the middle class, and finally became high society behavior.
Case in point – the punk movement in the late 1960s produced its own fashion, directly expressive of its political posture: down with the establishment, down even with the wealthy rock stars. As Anthony Burgess noted, "The punk musicians wear with snarling pride the marks of the downtrodden. Hair is cropped because long hair holds lice. Clothes are not patched, since patching denotes skill and a seedy desire for respectability; their gaping holes are held together with safety pins" (quoted in Szatmary 1987, 188).
A decade later, in the late 1970s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller carried gold safety pins for $100 each, and noted British designer Zandra Rhodes created a collection of gowns for Bloomingdale's that incorporated stylized rips and glitter-studded safety pins, at prices of $345 to $1,150 per gown. Finally, in June 1980, Mademoiselle magazine offered its readers the choice between "punk" or "preppie" in a four-page spread on the "in" styles.
Another case. The favorite event in a fine arts series at any Eastern Ivy League college will probably be a concert by a blues artist, B. B. King, for example. The college kids will be genuinely moved by the emotional authenticity of his songs about prison life, oppression, love affairs gone bad, alcohol, and poverty.
How ironic it is that he sings to children whose fathers and grandfathers built and still own the very giant corporations that kept B. B. King's folks in poverty and oppression to begin with. And the fine arts series is funded by a foundation which one the grandfathers established to avoid taxes on the astronomical profits of his huge corporation.
Thus, the blues went from (1) functional emotional catharsis and collective commiseration in the poverty-level lives of B. B. King, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon, and others, to (2) pop-entertainment financial gain for Count Basie and Jack Teagarden, to (3a) an event in the fine arts series for upper class college kids, on one hand, and on the other hand, (3b) the esoteric high-art work of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor. From folk to pop to art.
A final case, a stunning paradox – the magazine called Rolling Stone takes its name from Muddy Waters' classic lamentation which inspired the British rock group to become millionaires by screaming out at the world how bad life is. The magazine clings to its anti-establishment image, of course, with strong articles about graft, greed, corruption, and hypocrisy in the music business, yet stays financially solvent with huge ads bought by those very corporations being attacked on the surrounding pages.
ART IS TIME-PLACE-CULTURE SPECIFIC
The surest evidence that the line from folk to pop to art has completed itself is when government organizations and corporate foundations begin to grant money to preserve that art form. When it's folk music, it's free. When it's entertainment, it pays for itself most handsomely. When it's art, it needs government and foundation funding.
Here's a perfect example. The Smithsonian Institution launched a huge project in the 1990s to research and record all the great Duke Ellington compositions as they might be reconstructed in totality from the various pieces of recorded and written evidence. The message was clear. Ellington is history.
From the late 1920s well into the 1950s, Ellington didn't need any government projects to keep his music alive. His music was a shifting musical metaphor for inner-city black culture in the Roaring Twenties, then the Swing Era of the Great Depression, and then America during World War II, by which time he had made most of his major statement.
In the 1990s, however, the metaphor no longer pertains. The music of Duke Ellington has no current cultural relevance. His music doesn't say anything about the ghetto streets of Los Angeles today as it did about the streets of Harlem in the late 1920s. Wealthy college kids don't go down to Central Avenue in Los Angeles today like they used to go to Harlem in the late 1920s for some exotic, slightly dangerous, and very fashionable night life.
Moreover, the haunting artistic strains of "Mood Indigo" and "Harlem Air Shaft" certainly meant nothing at the time to our Native Americans, Greenland Eskimos, or Chinese peasants in the 1920s and 1930s. Music is no more universal than any other language. However, the urge to create and listen to music is universal.
All art is time-place-culture specific. Paintings, musical compositions, novels, buildings, poems, and such grow out of a very special perception of the reality of the moment by a very special human mind. Artworks become universal if that very special human mind reaches so deep into the specific time-place-culture as to touch the collective, the universal, human condition at any time, in any location, in any culture.
Even then, however, the artistic connection is frightfully tenuous. European opera fans are likely to miss the marvelous nuances of genuine Korean opera, even if they have studied the time, place, and cultural roots of that Korean opera.
Then, too, things are always a matter of degree. I Love Lucy is not all that different from The Marriage of Figaro in dealing with the patterns of class differences. Nor is Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" all that different from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony in expressing an unbearable sense of separation from the rest of humanity. The difference is not in the authenticity or depth of the feeling, but merely in the style of its delivery.
A book on popular music, then, by definition, examines music that is somewhere on its way from folk (utilitarian) to art (historical significance). As it moves through the middle ground of pop (commercial entertainment), it gets so homogenized that it loses some of its original identity, of course. What remains, though, is still sufficient for enormous financial gain in the world of entertainment.
And when it arrives, finally, at the level of historical significance – of "art" – it has lost its cultural currency, but not its cultural authenticity or art value. As art, it reveals strong and abundant evidence of the values, attitudes, and desires of a certain crowd of people, in a specific geographic location, at a given moment in the past.
That's what makes art museums, recorded archives, halls of fame, ancient ruins, and such so important and valuable. We see, hear, and feel – in greater depth and immediacy than possible any other way – the magnitude and beauty of another time, place, and culture that is always remarkably similar to our own at the deepest levels of human experience.
The arts tell us – in symbolic gestures delivered in time, stone, canvas and oil, acoustical sounds, body movements, in the spaces between the printed words, and such – who and what we are. It all happens at such a deep intuitive, psycho-emotional, and non-verbal level that we are often at a loss to even understand it ourselves, much less explain it to anyone else.
Purists don't want to acknowledge it, but pop music is most assuredly among the American art forms. The fact that it is created for financial gain doesn't mean it can't be art. Indeed, it means that pop music must reach, instantly, that deepest level of the pre-conscious aesthetic recognition – with razor-sharp precision. There aren't many second chances on a Broadway opening night.
In Duke Ellington's long career he had a few short dry spells. During one of those times, a well-known music critic said, "Don't worry Duke, future generations will be fond of your music." Ellington smiled and said, "Thank you, but I don't care about future generations, I want the people to like my music now!"
Time now to trace the growth and development of American popular music, that special product created for the unashamed purpose of financial gain – with its creators knowing full well that there will be no financial gain unless they connect with something deep in the collective sensibilities of their market audience.
It's a colorful narrative of talented and ambitious entrepreneurs, and we'll cover the whole story from colonial times to the present day as we travel through the diverse territories of Pop Music, U.S.A.