Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 1: Broadside Ballads and the Birth of American Music



Instant classic of its age...
Some controversy surrounds the question of who was the first American to “produce a Musical Composition.” A guy named Frances Hopkinson claimed the honor, but a music historian of some import named Oscar G. Sonneck unearthed a second candidate in James Lyon. Sonneck went with Hopkinson in the end (composition titled “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free”), but still others noted the year of composition (1759) and argued that American, as a nationality, can’t predate America (touche) and that brings in another work by Hopkinson (“Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano”), written 1788, as the first “American” work. The credit still attaches, just for a different song.

Very few Americans had access to music back then, classical or otherwise. Thomas Jefferson reportedly lamented the challenges of scaring up a band in the wilds of Virginia, and he was a big fan of music (“the favorite passion of [his] soul”). Amateur enthusiasts made do, playing mostly in the home and with whomever came to hand; scaling up was hard and musical education, while possible, cost not just real money, but required the correct address. Almost all the music still came from the Old Country, not the States, and (as noted above) original composition took a century and two-thirds to happen. Even then, it was never the rage.

It was another borrowed form that seems closest to the first truly “popular music” to take hold in the States. Crawford groups them under the name/genre “broadside ballads,” than tales of adventure (and sometimes bastardry) sung over existing, familiar tunes. Different poems often borrowed the same tune, too: for instance, both “The Children in the Woods” and “Chevy Chase” (not a typo) could play over the tune of "Ponder Well," from a production called The Beggar’s Opera. (That's the whole thing, btw; buckle up.)  (Also, The Beggar’s Opera actually comes up a lot, see “Our Polly Is a Sad Slut,” which played over “The Lawyer’s Pedigree”). The themes vary quite a bit – e.g., “Chevy Chase” records a fateful day of "battle" among the Rich and the Spoiled, while “The Children in the Woods” tells a tale of vulnerable children and a treacherous relative. (Another classic, and a charmer, “The Spanish Lady” also shows up in Richard Crawford’s book).

“Broadside ballads” got their name from the way they circulated – via “broadsides,” aka, over-sized pamphlets. Americans made a few of their own, “The Rebels Reward” being the one dissected in Crawford’s work (can't find a clean link to the poem, but here's the alleged tune). It didn't take too long to turn out a broadside ballad, so they sometimes covered current events. “The Rebels Reward,” for instance, came out two short weeks after the incident that inspired it (Battle of Norridgewock; not a high point in military history). I don’t recall Crawford’s book going into any detail as to where these things got performed, but I’d assume it’s anywhere people gathered. He does, however, make clear that the sheets spread far and wide enough that anyone who wanted to know the words could.

The closer events got to the American Revolution, the more topical (that is to say, political) the ballad’s themes became. These were native works in that respect, covering, in Crawford’s words: 
“…the settlement of the North American colonies, Indian wars, dissatisfaction with English rule, crime, love, and religion.”
If the themes changed with the setting, the music was first borrowed, then recycled. The beginnings of truly unique musical forms that are specifically native to the United States grew up within our nation’s infamous “peculiar institution.” Yep, slavery. Again, it’s impossible to talk about American popular music without talking about African Americans. It's because they're all over it.

Crawford gave his his chapter on the black experience in Colonial America the fitting title of, “Maintaining Oral Traditions: African Music in Early America.” Just as white Americans borrowed from Europe, so African Americans borrowed from Africa. When characterizing this African tradition in America, he notes commonalities like the use of “call and response,” a tradition of combining music and dance (go figure), the idea that “African musicians tend to approach singing as well as instrumental playing in a percussive manner,” the use of some instruments original to Africa, drums in particular, etc.

The cultural moment that enabled the development of an original American music came when African American communities started integrating European instruments into their public gatherings. More than a few slaves were trained in how to play European instruments – some extensively – and that led to the kinds of things white witnesses put in the historical record, events like election day festivities in Newport, Rhode Island. Here’s most of Crawford’s paragraph on that:
“…singing was accompanied by fiddle, tambourine, banjo, and drum, a combination poorly suited to blending. Yet African musicians are said to prefer a piling up of different-sounding lines to a blending of lines into one homogenous sound. The Newport example, with ‘every voice in its highest key’ singing a babel of African languages mixed with English and accompanied by instruments, also illustrates a third African trait: the tendency to pack a series of musical events as densely as possible into a relatively short time, thus filling all available musical space.”
So, that’s where “wall of sound” came from. (Kidding; just having a Santa Claus Is Coming to Town moment. Also, careful; that's the whole movie.)

Crawford's passages on Louisiana tap into what happens when all those influences come together in a city that tolerates co-mingling more than others. The presence of free blacks and the related openness of the musical culture in particular (in his words, “mixing freely, even intimately, with Europeans, Indians, and mestizos”), created an artistic time/place unlike any other in the world (I stand by that too). Local laws afforded African Americans to opportunity to hold thinly-regulated, big-ass outdoor festivals, even back then, and I imagine that inspired some enthusiasm, and therefore inspiration to take hold. That culture bloomed just a couple decades before revolutions in transportation and communication could broadcast that it across countries, then across borders. What local cultures lost in insularity, they gained knowledge...we're still sorting out the balance on that trade-off, aren't we?

Crawford ends the chapter on black influence on revival meetings during the First and Second Great Awakenings (1730s-1740s, and 1780s-1830, respectively). Crawford notes a theme throughout this chapter, one that I’ve avoided so far (in service of flow) – e.g. the reality that large gatherings of black people doing black things freaked out a lot of white people. In the section on the revival meetings, Crawford uses a stodgy Methodist named John F. Watson as a sort of voice for this discomfort. That wasn't out of character for Watson, who just hated informality. In his mind, the expression of the sacred should come only from the pen of “a first-rate poet, such as can only occur in every ten or twenty million of men." The high-bar lifestyle, etc.

Watson rued the “black influence” on revival meetings, but I'd say the hardass backed the wrong horse with American religiosity as a whole. The African American revivals - often held separately within the larger, mostly white revivals - borrowed from the folk traditions touched on up above. The more ecstatic side of it too, to keep the focus on keeping people agitated. Simple song structures and repetitive lyrics got everyone singing as one sooner rather than later, and that's just fine when you put a premium on enthusiasm and togetherness. Crawford invented the following chorus to illustrate the point:
“Go shouting, go shouting.
Go shouting, go shouting.
Go shouting, go shouting.
Go shouting all your days.”
In the next verses, the prayer leader might switch up the verb, e.g., use “singing,” “praying” or even “rejoicing” (that’s Crawford’s phrasing, btw) to switch things up a little, all while keeping the song going. The goal wasn’t to get people thinking about faith, but to have them experience it, to meet it with in some loosely decorous space of ecstasy. Beats droning grim Teutonic classics out of some arm-breaking hymnal...

All that sounds pretty pleasant, but, again, Crawford gives the impression that, no matter where they encountered it – Connecticut, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, New Orleans – large crowds of black people freaked out white people. It's just what happened. The music was too wild, the accompanying dancing (which was always, always there) indecent, and the earliest iteration of "what about the children?" In between the critiques, though, notes about white people connecting to popular African American forms forms (e.g. an all-night fiddle/dance party in 1690 in the home of Reverend Thomas Teakle, that featured a black fiddler, and that was organized by friends of the right Reverend’s daughter). Fun is fun, people. The smart ones get that.

Crawford ends this chapter with one sentence that summarizes the various processes above, even if it’s specific to the revivals. I’ll close with that:
“The story of the camp-meeting spiritual reflects two complimentary processes from which much of the distinctive quality of American music has flowed: blacks infusing Euro-American practices with African influence, and whites drawing on black adaptations to vitalize their own traditions of music making.”
It’s a beautiful thing when you let it happen…

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